Historical Background for Slavery and Free People of Color

Historical Background for Slavery and Free People of Color

By Travis E. Jackson, Ed.D.

The discovery of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan in 1991 stimulated an interest in slavery, as it had existed in New York City during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Until that time, the city’s deep association with slavery was not widely known; most people, including historians, to be primarily a Southern institution, thought slavery and not much attention was given to slavery in areas of the North.

Similarly, the story of slavery and of free people of color has not been given much attention in the history of Rockland County. Local historians had either downplayed or neglected its importance from the earliest settlement until slavery was gradually abolished by 1827. Even without research, one can easily believe that in many ways, what happened in Rockland and in surrounding areas would not differ greatly from what happened in New York City simply because if its proximity; this was especially true in those areas that bordered what we now know as the Hudson.

Four years after Henry Hudson, the Navigator, sailed into the mouth of the river that now bears his name, sailor Jan Rodrigues became the first person of African descent to inhabit the area that became New Netherlands. Eleven years later, in 1624, the Dutch West India Company founded New Amsterdam where the river emptied into the Atlantic. Within the next two years, eleven slaves were brought to the colony. The group included Africans Simon Congo, Jan Francisco, Paulo D’Angola, and Anthony Portuguese. In time, others including three African women from Angola in 1628 would follow the four. These men are four of the twenty-eight on the list of Black Landowners in Manhattan’s “Land of the Blacks” that later received farm grants.

“CLEAR THE LAND” was likely the command heard first and most often by the ‘Company Slaves” – those black workers who were owned by the Dutch West India Company, or simply ‘the Company’ in New Netherlands. As the Dutch planted their settlement along the Hudson, enslaved blacks were hard at work. The orders issued by Company officers in May, 1625 typified the labor assigned to black slaves during the first years: clear the land, lay out farms, and on each, ‘erect a barn for cattle’: clear the shore at a suitable place in which ships, sloops, or barges could be laid down or repaired or caulked’ clear the land and construct a sawmill and a stone counting house. By July, 1625, enough land had been cleared so that a Company boat ‘carrying sheep, hogs, wagons, ploughs and all other implements of husbandry could deposit its cargo on the island of Manhattan. Given the Company’s intense activity during these first years of settlement, slaves – numbering a dozen or more men and probably some women – were busy indeed. By deploying slave labor to build farms, wharves, mills, roads, and fortifications, the Dutch West India Company quickly put in place the infrastructure required for a permanent settlement on the island, which the Dutch named New Netherlands.”

So writes Christopher Moore in “A World of Possibilities: Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam,” the first chapter in Slavery in New York, published by the New York Historical Society in 2005. Chris spent his early years in Rockland County. His mother, Norma Kay DeFreese (from Hillburn) and father Willard (Bill) Moore) from Tuskegee, Alabama met and were married during World War II. Chris writes about this in Fighting For America: Black Soldiers: The Unsung Heroes of World War II published in 2005. Chris has also done extensive research on his roots. In an issue of the South Street Seaport magazine, he writes of his ancestors including Native American people, Africans, and Europeans.

“One African I can identify by name was Manuel D’Angola. It is not known just how he came to New Amsterdam – probably some time in the late 1620s or 1630s. He may have come here as part of a work crew or he may have come in chains, but he lived a good portion of his life as a free man. I believe I can also identify my first European ancestor; a military captain named Jan deVries. He came here in 1644 to fight the Indians. Ironically, he befriended the Native Americans; he also took a liking to slaves and free blacks and befriended them as well. In 1646, when he married a black woman, her name was recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church simply as Swartinne – meaning dark, lovely woman. Their son was Jan deVries II. Captain deVries died in a shipwreck while returning to Holland a few weeks after Jan’s baptism.

Chris knew from his mother’s stories that while many of his ancestors were indigenous to the Ramapo Mountains, some had roots in Manhattan. The African Burial Ground was his “point of initiation.” When his mother asked him if any of their ancestors were buried there, his answer was, “I can’t prove it, but I have reason to believe that some probably were.”

On the other hand, it is extremely likely there are current residents of Rockland who are descendents of Jan deVries II who was one of the sixteen farmers whose name appears on the Tappan Patent. He purchased two shares, one for himself and one for his infant son, Jan deVries III. The Orange County census of 1702 (what is now Rockland was a part of Orange County until 1789 ) lists John De Vries, born 1647, a freed Negro, married to Ariantje Dircks in 1679. They had five children, Maria born 1682, Helena, 1684, Johannes, 1686, Dirck, 1689, and Jacobus, (date unsure). Claus Manuel (Emanuels) also purchased a share. These families came to Rockland as free people. Others of African descent were brought as slaves.

In the census of 1800, slaves and free blacks accounted for 10% of the population of Rockland County and an even higher 20% in the Town of Orangetown. Slaves were bought and sold, manumitted, and passed along in inheritance settlements just as they were in the South. The Tappan Patent families and other people of color migrated to that general area of the Hackensack River Valley. Culturally they were Dutch. Their names were of Dutch origin and they spoke the Dutch language. They built Dutch Colonial homes and worshipped, were married, and had their children baptized in Dutch Reformed Churches. To the De Vries and Manuels were added the names of Van Donk, and DeGroot. Over time, these names became De Freese, Mann, Van Dunk, and De Groat. A few moved to other parts of Rockland and passed into the white world. Others found peace by moving to a more secluded location.

In the early eighteen hundreds, people of color with those names began selling their farms in the Hackensack River Valley and moving to the Ramapo Mountains in the western part of Rockland County bordering New Jersey. David Cohen in his book, The Ramapo Mountain People suggests two possible reasons for the move.

One reason may have been the inferior legal and social status of free blacks. In 1798 the New Jersey legislature had passed a law restricting the rights of free blacks to travel across county or state boundaries. This was particularly troubling to those who lived near the borders and who had relatives on both sides.

A second reason may have been the pattern of inheritance as practiced by this group, which was to divide the land among the offspring rather than to pass it along to the eldest son. Smaller farms could not support the family.

Cohen goes on to say:

When the Mountain People first came to the Ramapo Mountains, the settled in the hollows and on the ridges southwest of the Ramapo Pass. Many of then purchased land and established mountain farms. The first to buy land was James De Groot (De Groat), who on January 18, 1805, bought more than fifteen acres of mountain land.

Philip Mann was listed in the 1810 federal census as living in the Town of Ramapo, near the Ramapo Mountains in New York State. In 1820 he was still living there and his employment was listed as agriculture. A list of employees in John Suffern’s ledger indicates that Philip Man (Mann) worked in Suffern’s ironworks in the Ramapo Pass in 1826.

By 1830 there was already a sizable population of colored Mountain People in the Ramapos. The 1830 federal census, the earliest available to New Jersey and the first census to list race, provides a good overview of the population distribution. Most of the Mountain People lived in what was then Franklin Township in the New Jersey section of the mountains southwest of the Ramapo Pass. Among them were the following free “negro” heads of families (the size of their families in parentheses): Richard Degroot (4), Joseph Degroot (7), William Degroot (5), Ellen Degroot (3), James Degroot (9), Elias Mann (9), Peter Manm (7), Juliana Mann (7), and Peter Debruse (probably DeFries (4).

What is now the Village of Hillburn proper, located in the historic Ramapo Pass, was sparsely settled until August of 1875 when George Coffin, George Church, and W.W. Snow, managers of the Ramapo Wheel and Foundry Company set out to establish a village for the foundry workers. They purchased land from the Suffern Family and laid out a street plan that would later become the central village. The company built some homes and a store and they encouraged the workers to purchase their own land and build their own houses. The need for additional workers caused many families of color to move from the New Jersey village of Mahwah proper and from the mountainous areas across the New York/New Jersey state line and settle in Hillburn. The thirty-year span between 1875 and 1905 saw an increase of both the white and non-white population from 148 to755 whites and from 19 to 123 people of color. Since then there has been a steady increase in the non-white population, which has moved the village to be almost equally divided between white and non-white.

About Author

Give a comment