Slavery In Ulster County and the Towns of Shawangunk and Rochester, New York: A Statistical Summary

Arnold Pickman and Wendy E. Harris

Slavery was part of Ulster County’s history from its earliest settlement in the seventeenth century. Although quantitative data is not available until the end of that century, the presence of slaves is mentioned in earlier historical records. Perhaps the earliest dates to 1663, when an account of an attack by Esopus Indians on the villages of Wildwyck and New Diep (now Kingston and Hurley) states that during the attack Captain Thomas Chambers was wounded, and that amongst those killed was “Thomas Chambers’ negro murdered on the farm” (1).

Growth and Decline of Ulster County Slavery

Beginning in 1698 and prior to the first Federal census in 1790, there were periodic Colonial Period censuses that enable us to trace the growth and eventual decline of the institution of slavery in Ulster County (6). The first two of these censuses, in 1698 and 1703, lump together the data for Ulster and Dutchess Counties. The initial census in 1698 recorded a total of 156 "negroes" (7) in these two counties out of a total population of 1384, constituting some 11.3% of the population.

 In the Colonial censuses taken in 1714 and subsequent years, statistics were reported separately for Ulster County. Figure 1 shows the growth and subsequent decline of slavery in the County in terms of both the total number of slaves and the percentage of slaves in the total population.

Figure 1

The two sets of numbers tell a slightly different story. The number of slaves in the County increased during the course of the eighteenth century, from 333 in 1714 to a peak of 2906 by the time that the first Federal Census was taken in 1790. As white settlers moved into the county in the latter part of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century they required labor to clear and farm the land, build houses and other structures, and to assist in the many domestic chores required. Slaves provided much of the labor necessary to accomplish these tasks, supplementing that available from family members, indentured servants and whatever other paid labor was available. As settlement increased during the period so did the number of slaves, with the greatest increase occurring after the Revolution, when the cessation of hostilites made it safer to settle in the relatively sparsely populated rural areas of Ulster County.

 After the passage of New York State’s gradual manumission laws in 1799 and 1817, the number of slaves in the County fell from its 1790 peak to 1543 in 1820, the last census taken prior to the full implementation of the manumission laws in 1827. This represents a decline of some 47% in the slave population over this 30 year period.

While the number of slaves in Ulster County reached its peak ca. 1790, the percentage of slaves in the total population was at its highest in the early portion of the eighteenth century, reaching a peak level at mid-century, with the 1749 census showing that some 21% of the total population of the County was enslaved. In subsequent years the percentage of slaves dropped fairly steadily until, in 1820, slaves constituted only some 5% of the population

 This decrease in the Ulster County slave percentage after the mid-eighteenth century was due to the additional influx of settlers into Ulster County in the latter portion of the century, resulting in an expanded labor pool and thus a decreased economic advantage from the use of slave labor  (8).

 Slaves are popularly considered to represent “free” labor. On the contrary, by the end of the eighteenth century the acquision and maintanance of slaves represented a considerable cost to slave owners. There are various estimates of the cost of acquiring a slave. In 1909 the Census Bureau (9) estimated that in 1790 the cost of a slave in the United States was approximately $150.  In terms of today’s money this would amount to some $3800 (10). In addition to the acquisition cost, slave owners incurred the expenses required to feed, clothe and house their slaves.

 The Importance of Slavery in Ulster County

Throughout the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century the percentage of slaves in Ulster County, was consistently greater than the same figures for New York State as a whole (11), as shown in Figure 2.   


                                                                                                                                                                                        Figure 2

The importance of slavery to the residents of Ulster County was dramatically illustrated in 1785. In that year the first, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to pass a gradual manumission law was debated in the New York State legislature. The major opposition came from the representatives of  Ulster, Kings and Richmond counties joined by the other ”Dutch counties” of Westchester, Orange and New York, “where there were many slaves and where Dutch slave owners were zealous of their property.” The Ulster County representatives have been reported as John Nicholson, Nathan Smith, and Cornelius Schoonmaker (12) – all were listed as slave owners in the 1790 census. Research (13) indicates that there was an additional Ulster County Assemblyman, John Cantine, who joined with his anti-abolition colleagues on most of the votes on the bill.

 In his memoirs Erastus Root, who served in the legislature noted that “the slaveholders at that time [of the debate over the 1785 manumission bill] were chiefly Dutch. They raved and swore ‘by dunder and blixen’ that we were robbing them of their property.” John Jay, who opposed slavery, was accused of wanting to “rob every dutchman of the property he possesses most dear to his heart, his slaves” (14).

 The opposition to manumission and subsequent sentiments expressed in local newspapers are apparently the reasons that Ulster County has been noted as “a place where slavery died hard” (15).  

 A Closer Look at Slavery – Towns of Shawangunk and Rochester

To further examine slavery in rural Ulster County, we examined census and other data pertaining to the towns of Shawangunk and Rochester.

In 1790 there were a total of 340 slaves in the Town of Shawangunk, representing 16.45% of the Town’s population, and the 281 slaves in Rochester represented 17.26% of its population. This indicates that slavery was a greater factor in the economy of these Towns than in Ulster County as a whole where slaves constitued only 9.89% of the population, or in New York State, where slaves made up only some 6.2 %.

Although slavery was a widely accepted institution in these two towns, however, as well as in Ulster County in general, only a minority of households owned slaves. In Shawangunk, there were 101 slave-owning households, representing 36.3% of the Town’s 278 households The figures for Rochester are similar, with 76 of the Towns 223 households (34.7%) owning slaves. These figures confirm that slavery was more widespread in these towns than in Ulster County as a whole (16), where 26.7% of the 2906 households were slave owners, or in New York State, where 14.2% of the   households owned slaves (17).

 Several authors (18) have noted the generally small size of slaveholdings in the Mid-Hudson valley and in Colonial and early Federal period New York in general. There were few owners with large number of slaves here, unlike in the plantation economy of the South. In 1790, there was only one slave owner in New York State with more than 20 slaves (Philip Livingston) and only three in all of the Northern States (19). The two towns which we studied follow this general pattern of slave ownership. This is illustrated by Figure 3, which indicates a similar distribution of slave-ownership in both of these towns in 1790.

     Figure 3

Slightly more than half of the slave owning households included only one or two enslaved persons (see note 20 for number of households), Additionally, somewhat less than 30% of slave-owning households had between three and five slaves. Seventeen and 13% of slave-owning households held beteen six and 9 slaves, while only some 4% and 8%, respectively, of the slave owning households in Shawangunk and Rochester had more than 10 slaves. In Shawangunk, the largest slave owner, Thomas Jansen, owned 15 slaves in 1790, and the largest slave owner in Rochester, Jacum Schoonmaker, owned 13. In general, the largest farmer/slave owners in Shawangunk and Rochester at the end of the 18th century tended to be members of families whose ancesters settled here in the 17th and/or beginning of the 18th century – families such as the Schoonmakers, Bruyns, Jansens, Beviers and Hardenberghs.  

As shown in Figure 4, the larger slave owning households held a disproportionately large percentage of the total enslaved persons. The approximately 50% of households with only one or two slaves held slightly less than 20% of the slaves in both Towns, with the 4% and 8% of households having 10 or more slaves accounting for 23.4% and 13.6% of the slaves in Shawangunk and Rochester, respectively.


Figure 4

These rural towns had a predominantly agrarian economy. Even smaller households would typically grow crops for domestic consumption, with surplus traded to neighbors and when possible, sold on the market. In these households slaves would perform both domestic chores and work in the fields (21). We can assume that it was the owners of the larger farms, located in the fertile floodplains of the major streams in the area such as the Rondout and Esopus, who required greater numbers of slaves to work the land.

To investigate this assumption we examined the tax records for the Towns of Shawangunk and Rochester for the year 1800 (22). We assumed that the real property assessments would be generally proportional to the size of the farms. We then calculated the average assessment for the land owners for the categories of slave ownership as shown in Figures 3 and 4. As shown in Figure 5, the larger slave owners were on the average assessed for much larger amounts than the those having fewer slaves. In Rochester the 15 owners of six or more slaves were assessed for an average amount of $6475 while the 61 owners of one to five slaves paid an average assessment of $2191.The corresponding assessment figures for Shawangunk are $4663 for the 16 owners of  six slaves or more and $2111 for the 72 owners of one to five slaves (23).

                                                                                                                                                                   Figure 5

Understandably, these large slave owners were also those most anxious about losing their slaves. On
May 21, 1796, some three years before  the passage of the 1799 manumissions act, fifteen residents of the Town of Shawangunk met to organize the Society for the Apprehending of Slaves (24). The members of the Society agreed to band together to persue and capture any runaway slaves belonging to any of the members. One matter of concern to the organizers was that slaves had apparently heard (erroneous) rumors that the legislature had already passed manumission legislation and that they were consequently being held illegally. The language in the Society’s organizing document implies that white abolitionists were the source of such rumors (25).  

According to the 1790 census, two of the fifteen signers of this document were among the residents of Shawangunk with 10 or more slaves, while six had 5 – 9 slaves. Of the remaining seven members of the society, three owned 2 - 4 slaves. One additional signer was listed in the 1790 census with no slaves, but by 1800 had become the owner of four slaves.Three additional signers were not listed in either the 1790 or in the 1800 census records for Ulster County.

Notes and References
1) Martin Kregier,Journal of the Second Esopus War, With an account of the Massacre at Wildwyck, (now Kingston). (1663). Translated from the original Dutch Ms. Available online at War _djvu.txt.  
2) Eric Roth, “The Society of Negroes Unsettled’:A History of Slavery in New Paltz, NY.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 27 (2003), 27-54.
3) Ulster County Clerk Archives. English Translations of Dutch Colonial Records a.k.a. "Kingston Papers" (Deed Books 1,2,&3). Baltus Case online @

4) Kenneth Scott, “Ulster County, New York, Court Records, 1693-1775,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 60 (1972), 278. Also cited by Eric Roth op.cit.

5) Gustave Anjou, Ulster County, N.Y. Probate Records in the Office of the Surrogate, and in the County Clerk’s Office at Kingston, N.Y. Vol. 1 (New York, the Author, 1906), 120-121.

6) Data from these censuses were reported by E.B. O’Callaghan (ed.), Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. 14 Vols. (Albany, Weed, Parsons and Company, Printers 1855) and by Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D Harrington, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 (New York, Columbia University Press 1932). Also see “Slavery in Ulster County, Olde Ulster, VI (1910), 257-268.

7) The colonial census records seldom refer to "slaves," but rather to "Negroes" or "Blacks." We have assumed that all of these were, in fact, slaves since there were relatively few free blacks here during this period.

8) Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North (Syracuse, N.Y., Syracuse University Press, 1973), 175-177.

9) United States, Bureau of the Census, A Century of Population Growth, from the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth, 1790-1900 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1909)

10) Value of the 1790 dollar can be calculated online at

11) Figures for New York State are taken from Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D Harrington. op.cit. Census data shown for 1714 were collected 1712-1714.

12) Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1967), 139-185; also cited by
Vivienne L. Kruger, “Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early New York, 1626-1827” Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 2007 Chapter 13The Gradual Emancipation Program, 1799 To 1848”. Available online at

13) Members of the New York State Assembly available online at; information on various  votes on the abolition bill from “Journal of the Assembly of the State of New York at their 2nd meeting of the eighth session, January 27, 1785,” 54. Evans Digital Edition E-book, Available at the New York Public Library, Research Library.

14) The quote about John Jay is from Henry P. Johnson, ed., The Correspondance and Public Papers of John Jay (New York: 1890‑1893), 3:413n., 413‑15, quoted in Arthur Zilversmit, op. cit.,  165, also cited by Vivienne Kruger, Chapter 13, op.cit. The Erastus Root quote is from Jabez D. Hammond, The History of Political Parties in the State of New York, 4th edit., 2 vols. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Phinney and Co., 1850), 1: General Erastus Root, "Notes," note P, pp. 580‑81. Also cited by Arthur Zilversmit, op. cit., 182 and by Vivienne Kruger, Chapter 13 op. cit.

15) Edward Countryman, “From Revolution to Statehood (1776-1825)” Part III in Milton M. Klein (ed.) The Empire State: A History of New York (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2001), 291.

16) The slavery figures for Ulster County in 1790 include five towns which were later severed from Ulster and attached to neighboring Counties.

17) United States, Bureau of the Census (1909) op. cit.

18) see e.g. Michael E. Groth, “The African American Struggle Against Slavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley, 1785-1827.” Hudson River Valley Review, IX, No. 1 (March 1994); A.J. Williams-Myers, Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century (Trenton, Africa World Press, 1994); Kruger, op. cit. (2007), Chapter 1 “Introduction: Slave Family Historiography”; Chapter 4, "Demography and the Slave Family." 

19) United States, Bureau of the Census (1909) op. cit.                                                

20)                                        # of 1790 households 

38 of the households in Shawangunk (37.6%) and  22  in Rochester (29%) had only one slave.

21) For example, Sojourner Truth recounts having to both work in the fields and perform domestic chores. See Olive Gilbert, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Boston, the Author, 1850).

22) Tax Assessment Rolls of Real and Personal Estates, 1799-1804. Available online at

23) The assessments are of course in 1800 dollars. In 2016 dollars the average assessment figures stated here for the larger and smaller slave owners in Rochester would amount to approximately $118,000 and $40,000, respectively. See

24) The Slave Apprehending Society/The Society for Apprehending of Slaves (Constitution and Minutes),  May 21, 1796, MSS 1115, Manuscripts and Special Collections, New York State Library, Albany.

25) The files of the Huguenot Historical Society record two somewhat later runaway slave hunting agreements dating to 1810 and 1811 among 13 and four New Paltz slave owners, respectively. Available online at and

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