They were field hands, cooks, musicians and blacksmiths. Some were “well made,” others lame. A few showed ritual tribal scarring from their native Africa, others bore scars inflicted by their masters. All of them — some 600-plus men and women — were black slaves who bolted for freedom in upstate New York in the 1700s and early 1800s.
The details of their escapes are included in a new book by two upstate historians who examine slavery in the Hudson Valley through a century of newspaper notices seeking the return of runaway slaves.
Susan Stessin-Cohn of New Paltz and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini of Salisbury Mills spent years scouring archives for “In Defiance,” recently published by Albany-based Black Dome Press. Their soft-cover book contains reprints and transcriptions of more than 550 newspaper notices published between 1735 and 1831, four years after slavery was abolished in New York state.
Most of the notices were published in papers printed in a 10-county region from Albany to Westchester County. Many contain vivid physical descriptions of the 607 runaways documented in the book, a fraction of the untold number of enslaved blacks in New York who sought freedom through escape. The information offers a unique glimpse into the lives of the Northern slaves who worked the valley's farms and toiled in its homesteads, the authors said.
“There's so few stories about enslaved people [in the North],” said Stessin-Cohn, historian for the town of New Paltz, 75 miles north of New York City. “Each little notice is like a vignette, it's a story on someone's life. It puts a face on this whole human experience.”
While a handful of the larger New York estates had dozens of slaves working on them during the Colonial and antebellum periods, the typical upstate slaveholder owned one to five slaves, Stessin-Cohn said. While that meant Hudson Valley slaves tended to possess a variety of skills, it also left them more isolated from one another compared to blacks forced to work on Southern plantations, she said.
Slavery in the North could be even harsher “because they were so alone and they were under their enslaver's watch constantly,” Stessin-Cohn said.
The runaway notices served as the era's all-points bulletin, a way to get word of escaped slaves to the general population through local publications.
A typical notice started with the words “Run Away” or the amount of the award offered, followed by a description that included a slave's name, age, height and skin complexion, along with any noticeable features such as scars or a peculiar gait. What the slave was wearing and carrying at the time of escape would also be noted, along with their work and other skills, especially musicianship.
A published notice for a slave named Mingo, who ran away from his master in Westchester in 1767, read: “He plays tolerably well upon the Fiddle, and has taken one with him.”
Unlike slave sale notices that tended to tout an individual's attributes, the runaway notices were blunt in their descriptions of a slave's foibles, such as a taste for strong drink or being overly talkative.
“You get a much more honest picture of the people, and there's no other source for that kind information, especially in the North,” Stessin-Cohn said.
Most notices mentioned a runaway's language skills, which for many slaves included speaking English as well as Dutch, an indication of the heavy cultural influence the Dutch had in eastern New York well into the 19th century.
“It's kind of shedding light on situations we knew nothing about before,” Stessin-Cohn said.