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African Americans in colonial era

John Conway
Posted 8/5/22

Nearly 400 years ago, in 1626, a ship carrying eleven slaves was unloaded in New Amsterdam by the Dutch West Indies Company. Those eleven men are believed to be the first African Americans brought to …

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African Americans in colonial era


Nearly 400 years ago, in 1626, a ship carrying eleven slaves was unloaded in New Amsterdam by the Dutch West Indies Company. Those eleven men are believed to be the first African Americans brought to what is today New York State. The first slave auction was held in New Amsterdam in 1655.  

Slavery became more prevalent once the British took control of the region from the Dutch, and some historians estimate that by 1703 more than 42 percent of New York City households held slaves, the second-highest proportion of any city in the colonies after Charleston, South Carolina.   

Largely through the efforts of the New York Manumission Society, which was founded in 1785 with John Jay as its first president, New York State passed a law in 1799 to gradually abolish slavery, with the last slaves in New York gaining their freedom on July 4, 1827.  

Shortly before becoming the country’s first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1789, Jay wrote to Benjamin Rush that he “wish[ed] to see all unjust and unnecessary Discrimination every where abolished; and that the Time may soon come when all our Inhabitants of every Color and Denomination shall be free, and equal partakers of our political Liberty.” 

Although there were more slaves in Connecticut than in any other colony in New England—at least up until the passing of the Gradual Abolition Act in 1784-- there is no mention of slaves being brought to Cushetunk when the group of Connecticut farmers who formed the Delaware Company settled the land along the Delaware River in the 1750s.   

There are few accounts of slaves living anywhere in Sullivan County—or even in the area that would become Sullivan County-- during the years the practice existed in New York, but there are some.  

It has been written that Johannes Masten, a Dutch farmer who helped construct the Sackett Road, the first improved road into the area, brought slaves with him from Connecticut in 1803. It has also been said that when Samuel F. and John P. Jones cleared the land for the Village of Monticello, they did so with the help of slave labor. Their uncle, Jared Jones, kept slaves as far back as 1804. According to James Eldridge Quinlan, in his definitive history of the county, Jared Jones “was a slave-owner and a man of property; but lacked the energy and enterprise of his nephews.”

Typically, Quinlan does not record the names of Masten’s or Jones’ slaves, but he does note that Jared Jones “loved to wander in the woods in search of game, accompanied by his favorite Negro servant. This slave was a large, stout, bold fellow, who could throw the carcass of a deer or bear across his shoulders and tramp with it for miles by his master’s side.”  

Phineas Booth, the son of a slave whose freedom had been purchased by the white woman he had married, owned land on Thunder Hill in the town of Neversink as early as 1795.  

And James B. Dunn, who was born a slave and was freed when New York’s law took effect in 1827, lived for many years near Narrowsburg, first as a slave and then as a free man.  

By 1790, one in three blacks in New York State were free, and upstate New York in particular had become a leader in the abolition movement.  

The story of African Americans in the colonial era is a complicated one, as is the chronicle of service of African Americans in the Revolutionary War, but these are stories that will be told in depth when re-enactor Noah Lewis returns to Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History in Narrowsburg tomorrow (Saturday, August 6) for a 1 p.m. program entitled “African Americans in the Colonial Era.”  

Lewis, in the persona of Revolutionary War hero Ned Hector, an African American who worked as a teamster before joining the fight for independence, is not only a wealth of knowledge on the subject, but exudes a charisma that immediately captures the audience and holds them throughout his presentation.  

“All Blacks were not poor and enslaved,” Lewis says. “Ned Hector was a free black man with the legal rights of any free man during his time. He was one of many free blacks, and there were more free blacks in Pennsylvania than any of the other 13 colonies.” 

He’ll have more to say on the subject tomorrow at Fort Delaware. The Fort is located on the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway at 6615 State Route 97 in Narrowsburg. It is owned by Sullivan County and operated by The Delaware Company.



John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com. 


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