My ancestors, Huguenots, left France and settled in New York in 1675. Today we never think of them as slave owners, but recently I discovered a piece of evidence which shatters that naive presumption. We forget that slavery was a nation-wide institution and not restricted only to the Southern colonies and states. Colonists in New York began systematically using black slaves in 1626. Emancipation was not granted to slaves in New York until 1827, but there were loopholes in the law that remained on the books, allowing slavery to continue until 1841, a mere 20 years before the beginning of the Civil War. There were over 200 years of slavery, just in New York, that we rarely hear mention of. All of the other Northeastern states have equal histories.
Below are images of a slave indenture document binding over an eight-year-old girl to my great-great-great-grandfather and New York resident Jacob Duryée in 1825, and witnessed by his son Abram, (signed A. Duryée), my great-great-grandfather, when he was about 10 years old. You can see his childish scrawl on page 2 of the document below. Abram went on to lead the 5th New York Regiment Volunteers, AKA the Duryée Zouaves, in the Civil War. During the war, Abram would fight in many battles including Big Bethel, Cedar Mountain, Bull Run, and also Antietam, still the bloodiest battle in US history with 22,217 men listed as dead, wounded, or missing in one day.
I can't help but wonder what Abram's feelings about slavery were, versus his feelings toward the secessionist South. I think he was morally outraged enough to go to war more by the latter than by the former, but I can never know this for certain. It just seems to me that growing up in a family of slave owners would shade his personal beliefs on the subject. He would go on to become Police Commissioner for the city of New York after the war.
Abram was born into a slaveholding family in New York on April 29, 1815, and died on September 27, 1890, in a nation that was, at least in the letter of the law, free of slavery.
- The indenture document is located at the Brooklyn Historical Society - Call Number 1977-583
- Information on my great-great-grandfather Abram:
- A good source of information on slavery in the northern United States can be found at slavenorth.com.