Black History is American History, and at Philipse Manor Hall we try to tell as complete a story as possible. To that end, we thought we’d mark Black History Month by highlighting the lives and contributions of some of New York’s earliest Black and African residents.
Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence, including sexual violence, and family separation.
One of the first non-Indigenous people to arrive in New York was Estêvão Gomes. A Portuguese man of African descent, he was an experienced sailor and explorer. He traveled with Ferdinand Magellan and explored the Spice Islands. While working for the Spanish Crown (which is why he is sometimes called Esteban Gomez), he mapped the entire Eastern coastline of South and North America with startling precision. Although no record except his map survives his journey from the Straits of Magellan to Nova Scotia, historians estimate he arrived in New York Harbor sometime in 1526. He named the large river there the San Antonio River. Today, we know it as the Hudson River, named after the Englishman who sailed up it 83 years later. While on this voyage, Gomes captured over 50 Indigenous people as evidence of the possibilities of enslaving them. They were later freed by Charles V of Spain, but not returned to their homeland. Gomes continued to sail the world, but while on expedition in South America was killed by Native people on the Paraguay River. Despite the accuracy of the map that resulted from his travels, Spain and Portugal’s disinterest in most of the North American continent meant his contributions were largely forgotten.
The first non-Indigenous person to reside in what became New York was Juan Rodriguez, who arrived with Dutch fur trader Thjis Mossel in 1613. Born on the Spanish-controlled island of La Espanola (also known as Santo Domingo), Rodriguez was a free man of African descent and likely learned Dutch thanks to Santo Domingo’s 100-year illegal trade with the Netherlands. Although the details are hazy, Rodriguez was left alone in the barely-claimed colony of New Netherland to set up trade relations with the local Munsee Lunaape. Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at Rodriguez’s life and history in New Netherland.
Stevens-Acevedo, Anthony, Tom Weterings, Leonor Alvarez Francés. "Juan Rodriguez and the Beginnings of New York City," CUNY Dominican Studies Institute (2013).
When the colony of New Netherland was officially established in 1624, slavery was technically illegal in the Netherlands. But with local Indigenous groups decimated by disease and Europeans unwilling to do the hardest work of clearing land and building structures in the fledgling colony, it wasn’t long before the residents of New Netherland turned to slavery for additional labor. Portugal and Spain were already actively involved in the slave trade to supply a labor force for the brutal work on sugar plantations and elsewhere in South America and the Caribbean. The Netherlands was in the midst of a decades-long war to free themselves from Spanish (and Catholic)rule. To raise income, the Dutch West India Company engaged in privateering(legal piracy against enemy nations) throughout the Atlantic. In 1626, they captured a Portuguese ship with a cargo of eleven Africans. Captured with the “prize” of the ship, these first eleven were initially indentured to the Dutch West India Company. Gracia D’Angola, Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Little Anthony, and Paolo d’Angola were Angolan. Simon Congo was from the Congo, and Pieter San Tome from present-day São Tomé, an island off the coast of West Africa. Other men’s names indicated their travels – Anthony Portuguese, Manuel de Gerrit DeReus, Jan Francisco, and Jan Fort Orange (more likely from one of the Fort Oranges in Brazil or West Africa than the fort near present-day Albany). In 1644, they petitioned for their freedom. Their “indenture,” which with Europeans generally lasted only 7 years, had lasted two decades and was much closer to slavery than not. They were granted a sort of “half-freedom” for themselves and their wives (conditional upon paying taxes), but their children remained enslaved to the Dutch West India Company. In 20 short years, New Netherland had more fully defined slavery and who was, and wasn’t, free.
By 1630, the Black population in Manhattan had expanded to 60. More people were captured as “prizes” from enemy ships, including those claiming to be free who were nonetheless enslaved by the Company. But the definition of slavery was still not fixed. In 1635, enslaved laborers petitioned for, and were granted, wages by the Dutch West India Company. More free Blacks were arriving in port of their own volition or purchasing their own freedom. During Governor William Kieft’s tenure, frequent conflict with the Indigenous population meant the colony needed more soldiers. It turned to its Black residents, and many were awarded freedom in exchange for military service. In the summer of 1643, to protect White farmers from Native attacks, Kieft awarded farmland north of the wall to free Blacks. Most of the farms were located in modern-day Greenwich Village and around Washington Square Park.
That first year farms were awarded to free widow Catalina Anthony, Domingo Anthony, Manuel Trumpeter, Marycke (widow of Lawrence), and two of the first eleven: Cleyn (Little) Manuel and Manuel Gerrit de Reus. The following year, Gracia D’Angola, Simon Congo, Jan Francisco, Pieter San Tome, Manuel Groot (Big Manuel), Cleyn (Little) Anthony, and Paulo D’Angola joined them. Anthony Portuguese followed in 1645. Each farm was between 6 and 12 acres. Subsequent free Blacks who joined between 1647 and 1662 were awarded smaller farms, just 2-6 acres. In total, 28 farms were awarded, most of them before 1648, when Peter Stuyvesant, who was far more committed to expanding slavery in New Netherland, took office as governor. When the British took over in 1664, Stuyvesant did affirm the freedom of the residents of the Land of the Blacks and their ownership of the farms they had worked to clear and improve. However, British policy placed increasing restrictions on both enslaved and free people of African descent and many of the residents of the Land of the Blacks ultimately left for Bergen County, NJ.
Berlin Ira and Leslie M Harris. Slavery in New York. New York: New Press (2005).
About the same time Frederick Philipse I and Margaret Hardenbroek began constructing what would become Philipse Manor Hall, they sent a ship named the Charles to the coast of West Africa. Their intended cargo? Slaves. The voyage of the Charles was the first recorded instance of the Philipses engaging in the slave trade. The fur trade was waning and their gamble on land and tenant farmers had yet to pay off. Slavery, as Frederick Philipse I would later write, offered his “cheivest proffitt.” Of the 146 people purchased from West Africa, 105 survived the harrowing 12 week journey across the Atlantic to Barbados. All but 23 were sold there, likely to work on sugar plantations, which worked hundreds of thousands of people to death each year. The remaining people were too sick to be sold, so Philipse sent them north to Rye, NY. Only nine survived that voyage. An eight-year-old boy with one eye was sent to Manhattan – likely to work in the Philipse household. The other eight adults were marched from Rye cross-country to the Philipse Manor, where they likely played a major role in the construction of the two manor houses on the Saw Mill and Pocantico Rivers, plus outbuildings. The Charles was certainly not the last ship the Philipses sent to Africa to engage in the slave trade, and they sold many thousands more into bondage in the Caribbean and up to Manhattan and Westchester to labor for the Philipse family.
McDonald, Kevin P. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. University of California Press (2015).
The turn of the 18th century gave rise to a number of slave revolts throughout the Western Hemisphere, which left White enslavers terrified and paranoid. Many of the earliest enslaved Africans had been prisoners of war – captured in battles between African nations. With warrior and leadership skills, many enslaved people made – and executed – plans to escape bondage and punish their enslavers. In 1712, a group of enslaved people in New York did just that. On the night of April 6, 1712, they set fire to an outbuilding on Maiden Lane and killed the White residents who came to putout the fire. Nine White men were killed and seven more were injured. In the aftermath, hundreds of enslaved people were arrested by the militia. Ultimately 47 people were implicated in the conspiracy, including an Akan woman named Amba, who was enslaved by Adolph Philipse. Although Amba and 26 other people were either discharged, not indicted, or received a last-minute reprieve, 20 people were executed. Most were hanged, but several were burned alive, and one man was broken on the wheel. One of the indicted women was pregnant at the time – she was jailed until she gave birth, and then executed. This attempt by enslaved people to free themselves from bondage and overthrow the system that enslaved them so frightened the White European population that it resulted in a crackdown on what few freedoms enslaved people still had, including freedom to gather and freedom of movement. The crackdown also included onerous terms for enslavers who wished to manumit their slaves, including paying a 200 pound security to the government (a fortune at a time when most tenant farmers were paying 10 pounds a year in rent) plus a 27 pound annuity to the freed slave. The new law essentially made it impossible for slaves to be freed by their enslavers.
Hughes, Ben. When I Die, I Shall Return to My Own Land: The New York City Slave Revolt of 1712. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing (2021).
The crackdown on freedom of movement and manumission gave rise to an increase in enslaved people self-emancipating by running away. In October of 1740, a man named of Galloway was listed in a runaway slave ad in the New-York Weekly Journal. 21 years old, he was born in Albany and could speak Dutch. He was enslaved by John Breese, a leather dresser in New York City. The ad indicated he was last seen and challenged at “Coll. Philipse’s Mill” – Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers. Galloway told the person who stopped him that he had been sent in pursuit of a “Cuba Man” who had run away. He was allowed to leave and set off on the road toward New England.
The “Cuba Man” reference is telling, both of Galloway’s savvy and of the time period. Earlier that year a number of “Cuba men,” also known as “Spanish Negroes,” had been captured as prizes with a Spanish ship. England was at war with Spain at the time. But the “Spanish Negroes” claimed that they were in fact free men of color. Many people of African descent were free citizens of both Spain and Portugal, so it is probable that they were freemen, as they claimed. But, despite these claims the colony of New York enslaved them. In 1740, they had sued for their freedom and lost. By claiming he was chasing a “Cuba Man,” Galloway quelled any questions about his unaccompanied status and also lent great urgency to continuing his “hunt.” John Breese the leather dresser advertised a reward of forty shillings, plus “Reasonable Charges” for Galloway’s capture and return.
Galloway was captured and returned to Breese sometime in the next few months. Breese then sold Galloway to Herminus Rutgers sometime before the spring of 1741.
In April of 1741, a series of fires broke out in New York City. In a few short weeks, nearly a dozen suspicious fires had been set, burning down warehouses (including a warehouse owned by Frederick Philipse II), homes, and even the Governor’s mansion in the decrepit Fort George. Unlike the Insurrection of 1712, no White person was killed or murdered. But the similarity between the fires was enough to send the White residents of the city into a panic. Just two years earlier in South Carolina, the largest slave rebellion in the Thirteen Colonies, the Stono Rebellion, had resulted in the deaths of 25 White colonists, adding to the panic in New York. Hundreds of enslaved people were arrested on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government and kill all the white enslavers. Among the suspected ringleaders was an Akan man named Cuffee, who was enslaved by Adolph Philipse, and Galloway.
What ensued was a panic-driven, months-long series of court cases in which dozens of enslaved Africans were accused, questioned, and sentenced to death on circumstantial evidence and/or hearsay. A Massachusetts letter writer from the period compared it to the frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials, only worse. Frederick Philipse II was one of three presiding judges for the hearings and trials. Despite his uncle’s role as Cuffee’s enslaver and his own role as a target of the fires, he did not recuse himself from the trial. Thirty enslaved Black and four White people were executed for conspiracy to kill Whites and overthrow the government, including Cuffee and Galloway. Several men, including Cuffee, were burned alive at the stake. Galloway was hanged on July 18, 1741.
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. Random House (2005).
Stessin-Cohn, Susan and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini. In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831. Black Dome Press (2016).
The Continental Army of the American Revolution was integrated from the first shots fired in 1775. But while most Black troops were distributed among regiments, one regiment stood out from the crowd. When war first broke out, the Continental Army enlisted men for as little as six months. The entire Army was discharged in 1775 and reorganized in 1776, but short terms of enlistment continued. In addition, although the enlistment of enslaved troops was technically against regulations after 1775, many enslavers sent their slaves to serve as their replacements. The need for troops became so great by 1778, that the Continental Congress issued troop quotas to each state. As the smallest state, Rhode Island was having trouble raising the necessary troops. So it decided to issue the order that any enslaved man (including mixed race and Indigenous men) who could pass muster could join the Rhode Island Regiment and be “absolutely free.” Enslavers were compensated fair market value for the loss of their “property.” 88 enslaved men joined in the first four months, after which the order was suspended, due to its extreme unpopularity among White enslavers, who were rapidly losing their labor force. The 1stRhode Island Regiment also included White soldiers and Narragansetts as well as free Black men. All of the officers were White. It was the only regiment in the Army to have segregated companies, and the entire regiment eventually swelled to about 225 men, of whom as many as 140 were Black. Despite the fact that no non-White men were enrolled after June 1778, the entire regiment became known as “The Black Regiment.”
Aside from the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778, the regiment saw little action until it was moved to Westchester County, NY in 1781. The bulk of the Army was at West Point, New Windsor, and Newburgh. During the American Revolution, most of Westchester County became known as the “Neutral Zone,” a no-man’s land between Continental forces in the Hudson Highlands and British Forces in New York City. With Frederick Philipse III safe in New York City, his 52,000 acre manor went unattended. Marauding bands of vigilantes and criminals, known as “cowboys” and “skinners,” preyed on the people who stayed(both patriots and loyalists) to defend their farms and livelihoods. In addition, both British and American troops and militia units would also “forage” for food, livestock, and fodder for their horses, as well as try to spoil such supplies for the enemy and intimidate enemy non-combatants.
The Rhode Island Regiment was tasked with protecting Pine’s Bridge on the Croton River from such bands, especially British General James DeLancey, deemed by Americans “The Outlaw of the Bronx,” and his loyalist militia “DeLancey’s Volunteers,” also known as “DeLancey’s Cowboys” and “DeLancey’s Refugees.” The Croton River was the northernmost dividing line between the American lines in the Hudson Highlands and British lines in lower Westchester and New York City. It was also the northern boundary of the Philipse Manor.
The Rhode Island Regiment was encamped at “Rhode Island Village,” located near Lake Mahopac, probably at the site of Red Mills, a.k.a. “Robinson’s Mills,” which in fact were built by Roger and Mary (Philipse) Morris in the 1750s for their tenant farmers, part of the Philipse Patent, which today forms Putnam County. The mills lay about 8 miles north of Pine’s Bridge – a relatively safe distance, but close enough to monitor activity in the area.
Colonel Christopher Greene, commander of the First Rhode Island Regiment, was stationed at Davenport House, in nearby Yorktown Heights, about 2.5 miles from Pines Bridge. Several small groups of troops had been stationed at Pine’s Bridge and at various ford locations along the Croton River to protect the lines from attacks by General Delancey and to make sure those crossing had official orders to do so.
On May 14, 1781, DeLancey’s militia forded the flooded Croton River at night, avoiding the troop stations, and attacked Davenport House without warning. They killed Major Ebenezer Flagg, Jr. and several soldiers and mortally wounded Colonel Greene.
Of the dead, four men of color were killed in action: privates Cato Bannister, Africa Burk, Jack Minthorn, and Jeremiah Greene. Two more men of color died from their wounds: Nathaniel Weeks (May 18, 1781) and Prince Childs (May 23, 1781). Another man of color, Bristol Arnold, was wounded but survived. Of the twenty-five men taken prisoner, five were men of color: Privates Peter Daley, John George, Ichabod Northup, Priam [Prime] Watson, and Prince Jencks.
Following the disastrous attack by Delancey’s cavalry, George Washington reorganized a portion of the First Rhode Island into a Light Company to better counteract such attacks. The bulk of the Rhode Island Regiment remained near “Rhode Island Village” in New York, serving variously along the Croton River, at West Point, and elsewhere. In July, several Rhode Island troops, including the Light Company, joined George Washington and the French to attack Kingsbridge and New York City (not to be confused with the 1778 Battle of Kingsbridge). The Rhode Island Regiment continued until the end of the war in 1783, and many of its Narragansett and Black soldiers continued their service for the duration.
Albee, Allison. The Nasty Affair at Pines Bridge. Yorktown Heights, NY: Yorktown Historical Society (original text 1958-61, published 2005).
Gilbert, Alan. Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. University of Chicago Press (2012).
Popek, David M. They "...fought bravely, but were unfortunate" : the true story of Rhode Island's "black regiment" and the failure of segregation in Rhode Island's Continental Line, 1777-1783. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse (2016).
On November 17, 1793, the city of Albany was aflame. In one of the worst fire disasters in the city’s history, as much of the downtown business district and 26 residential homes were destroyed, the flames fanned by wind. Although attempts were made to stop the fire, leather buckets, wet blankets, and pulling down buildings as a fire break only went so far. In the end, the fire was put out by rain and sleet. No one was killed or injured, but the property damage was significant.
Such an outbreak could have been termed an accident, but the residents of Albany, where slavery was still in force, quickly blamed the enslaved population. The 1791 Haitian slave rebellion was fresh in peoples’ minds, and the 1741 conspiracy in New York City was still within living memory.
As with previous incidents, the lives of enslaved people were immediately curtailed with a strict curfew and enslaved people were rounded up and interrogated. The investigation revealed that three young enslaved teenagers had been involved in the initial fire, which started in the stable of Leonard Gansevoort. Pompey, a sixteen-year-old who was enslaved by Matthew Visscher, was approached by two white men who wanted revenge on Gansevoort. They promised Pompey a valuable watch in exchange for setting fire to Gansevoort’s house and adjoining shop. In turn, Pompey (who also went by Pomp) persuaded Dinah (or Dean), age 14 or so, enslaved by Volkert Douw, and Bett, aged 12, enslaved by Philip Van Rensselaer, to help him.
At least, that’s what 12-year-old Bett told her interrogators in her confession. She also said they set fire to the stable to give the Gansevoorts time to escape.
Dinah and Bett both pleaded guilty – perhaps hoping for leniency. Pompey plead not-guilty. In January of 1794, all three were convicted sentenced to death. Governor George Clinton ordered stays of execution, but they were only temporary. Dinah and Bett were hanged on March 14, 1794 on Pinkster Hill, the site of Albany’s Pinkster celebrations, where the enslaved population celebrated spring with a festival each year. By executing the two girls on Pinkster Hill, Albany’s White residents clearly meant to send a message to the enslaved population. Pompey was hanged on April 11, 1794 at the Albany courthouse.
The White men who offered to pay Pompey to start the fire were never arrested.
In 1797, Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in Ulster County, NY. She and her family were enslaved by the Hardenbergh family in Swartekill (near present-day Rifton) in the town of Esopus. Upon the death of her enslaver in 1806, she was sold at auction at just 9 years old. She was purchased by John Neely and moved to Port Ewen, NY. Neely was cruel and beat her often, especially since Belle arrived only speaking Dutch, and Neely only spoke English. She was sold several more times, including to an enslaver who raped her repeatedly. Despite this horrific time in her life, Belle was able to meet and fall in love with a man named Robert, who was enslaved by a neighbor. But his enslaver opposed Robert’s relationship with Belle, and after visiting her, he was beaten so badly he later died. She later met another man, Thomas, who she married and had children with. One of her children was the result of her rape by her enslaver. Although her enslaver, a man named Dumont, promised to free her a year before the institution of slavery finally ended in 1827, he reneged on his promise, and Belle self-emancipated with her daughter Sophia. She had to leave her other children behind, because they were not freed by the 1827 law and had to serve as “indentures” until they were in their 20s. When she found out that Dumont had illegally sold her five-year-old son Peter to Alabama, she took action. She sued Peter’s new enslaver in the New York Supreme Court and won. Peter was returned to her in 1828, although he had been much-abused. In 1838 he joined a whaling ship, and although she received several letters from him in 1840 and 1841, when his ship returned in 1842, he was not on board. She never heard from him again.
On Pinkster Sunday, June 1, 1843, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She became an itinerant preacher and after meeting Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and David Ruggles, she took to preaching against slavery. In 1850, she published her memoir, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. In 1851 she gave a speech in Akron, Ohio at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. That speech would later be reprinted in 1863 as “Ain’t I a Woman?” Although she is most famous for that speech, contemporary recordings of it are nothing like the Southern-cadenced version published during the height of the Civil War. Truth spoke Dutch as her first language and retained a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.
Sojourner Truth went on to be a fierce advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a northern slave : emancipated from bodily servitude by the state of New York, in 1828 by Gilbert Olive, 1853.
Pinkster is the Dutch term for Pentecost and in the Netherlands it was a sometimes-raucous spring festival of flowers, dancing, and spring foods. In the Colony of New Netherland, Pinkster took on new meaning. It was a time of year in which enslaved people were allowed to travel to visit relatives, to make money by selling goods, and to celebrate through music, dance, sports, parades, and gatherings. Many enslaved people took advantage to visit family from whom they had been separated by their enslavers, to keep cultural traditions from Africa including language, music, dance, and food, and to earn money. The spring fish runs, the arrival of spring vegetables, and flowers added to the festive atmosphere. By the end of the 18thcentury, Pinkster had solidified into a solidly African holiday, and most of the Pinkster festivals around New York were presided over by an elected King. In Albany, for years than man was King Charles. Born in Africa (often called “Guinea slaves” in the period), Charles was enslaved by Volkert Petrus Douw, one of the wealthiest men in Albany. He reigned over the festival by entering on parade, seated on a white horse, and collected a tax from all the tents on Pinkster Hill – one cent for Black-run tents, two cents for White-run tents. King Charles then presided over sports and dances.
The oldest reference to Pinkster King Charles dates to 1803,although he may have presided several years before, and certainly he did after. Charles died in 1824 – three years shy of the end of legal slavery in New York.
Dewulf, Jeroen. The Pinkster King and the King of Congo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi (2017).
For more information about Black history in Colonial New York, check out our bibliography.