It is 1901 and the dawn of a new century. The Pan-American Exposition is going on in Buffalo, a world’s fair that was attracting people from all over the world, with many of those visitors taking train excursions to nearby world-famous Niagara Falls.
During the expo, visitation was running between 10,000 to 50,000 people daily at Niagara Falls Reservation State Park. And the attention of these crowds is exactly what Finger Lake native Annie Edson Taylor wanted to grab.
A 63-year-old widow and retired schoolteacher living in Bay City, Michigan, Annie was in financial straights at that point in her life. Sensing an opportunity in Buffalo, she went there with the idea to become rich and famous by doing something no one had ever done – going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
People had been barrel-riding the rapids below the falls to much popular acclaim during a time when there were no rules in place for such dangerous stunts. Today, there are laws in place at the falls making it illegal for anyone attempting such actions, which since the 1950s have been subject to prosecution and substantial fine by both the U.S. and Canadian governments.
Inspired by the daring barrel-riders in the Whirlpool Rapids below the falls, Annie had her own barrel made of white Kentucky oak to her specifications by a local company. Cushions, pillows and a harness were placed inside for protection. The barrel had a tube through a hole so air could be pumped in when the barrel was sealed.
First, the rookie daredevil decided she had to test it. So Annie sent out the barrel with a cat inside for a run over Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls on Oct. 18, 1901. When the barrel washed to shore and was opened, the cat emerged unharmed, boosting Annie’s confidence that she too could survive the 167-foot plunge.
On Oct. 24 – her 63rd birthday – Annie set out with her two assistants, William Holleran and Fred Truesdale, to Port Day on the U.S. side of the river that led to the rapids above Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. She had announced her intentions, and onlookers had gathered.
The daredevil had changed into more comfortable clothes – a lightweight blue skirt and blue blouse for her journey. Her assistants tied the barrel to a rowboat, making sure Annie was secured inside before closing the lid. Some air was pumped inside the barrel using a hose, and the men rowed into the river with the barrel in tow. With the rope cut, the barrel floated off toward the roaring falls.
A few minutes later, several men waiting on shore drag the slightly beat-up barrel to the river’s edge on the Canadian side. They remove the lid to see how she has fared. And Annie is alive!
She gets out stumbling, with only minor injuries, for which she is brought back to the U.S. side and taken for medical treatment. Her stunt has worked, and she has made history as the first person to ever go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.
Now, she must have believed her quest for fame and fortune would be rewarded. Making an appearance at the Pan-Am Expo’s last day on November 1 to sensational newspaper headlines, Annie posed next to a barrel, most likely labelled, “Queen of the Mist.”
After this feat, Annie made her home in Niagara Falls hoping to cash in. While she had some immediate fame, fortune was to elude her. She found little success on the lecture circuit and even lost her barrel after it was stolen by her manager.
Rather than becoming rich, she was able only to eke out a meager living selling postcards and other souvenirs from a stand in front of a store near the falls. She never attempted any other stunt.
Indigent in her old age, Annie ended up becoming a resident of the County Home in Lockport. She became blind and passed away two decades after her famous plunge at age 82.
The people of Niagara Falls raised funds to help provide Annie with a burial plot at the historic Oakwood Cemetery in a section called “Stunters’ Rest” for daredevils who have braved the falls, either successfully or unsuccessfully, according to an entry on the cemetery in the National Register of Historic Places.
Other stunters buried there included Matthew Webb who died in 1883 in an attempt to swim the Niagara rapids and Carlisle Graham, who survived a trip through the rapids in a barrel in 1886.
While riches eluded Annie in life, her legacy from a bygone era of daredevils lives on. Her records as the first and oldest person to survive a trip over the falls remain intact, nearly a century after her death.
While Niagara Falls are essentially the same as they were in Annie’s time, Niagara Falls Reservation State Park, created in 1885 as the oldest state park in the United States, has undergone major improvements as part of the NY Parks 2020 initiative . The park remains open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click through this slideshow to take a look…
Cover Photo – Annie Taylor on the street in Niagara Falls at her souvenir stand. (Photo Credit – Niagara Falls Public Library)
Post by Carol Rogers, Environmental Educator, Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office, NYS Parks
Niagara Falls Public Library History Department, Niagara Falls
While the John Brown Farm State Historic Site is the former Adirondack home of a famed abolitionist, the farm also is part of a larger story about an ambitious, well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful effort in those rugged mountains before the Civil War to help free African Americans gain prosperity and political rights.
Located just outside of Lake Placid, the 270-acre farm occupied by Brown’s family reflects his common belief with prominent New York State abolitionist and social reformer, Gerrit Smith, as well as many others in that movement, that owning and farming land would aid people of African descent move from enslavement to freedom.
Throughout most of human history, the ownership of property in the form of land has been greatly esteemed. During medieval times, property set apart the landed gentry from the serfs, while in colonial-era New York it meant the wielding of political power by the “Lords of the Manor” over their rent-paying tenants.
Political power after the American Revolution was narrowly held, compared to today, as property ownership was directly linked to whether a man of any color could participate in civil engagement. In the 1906 book, A Political History of the State of New York, De Alva S. Alexander noted that “The right of suffrage was so restricted that as late as 1790 only 1,303 of the 13,330 male residents of New York City possessed sufficient property to entitle them to vote for governor.”
In 1790, legal slavery still existed in the new state of New York. There also were quite a number of free men of African descent but like men of other races, they had to own property to be able to cast a ballot.
In New York, men regardless of race had to hold a minimum of $100 worth of property before they could participate in elections. In 1821 New York state ratified its second constitution, which required Black men to have at least $250 worth of property (about $5,700 in today’s dollars) while eliminating any such property requirement for whites. This change almost completely disenfranchised the Black community.
Such discrimination was opposed by Smith, a wealthy, land-rich abolitionist and social reformer in Madison County who also owned 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks across Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties. In 1846, Smith offered a free piece of that land to any Black man willing to stake a claim.
Broken into 40 to 50-acre parcels, deeds for Smith’s land were granted to individuals and families, with the idea that with improvements land values would increase beyond the $250 requirement, giving not only industry and wealth to the family, but also the right to vote to the male head of household.
Throughout the 19th century, farming as a way to both sustain a family and grow financial wealth was pushed as the preferred way for free people of African descent to become valuable members of society.
Since enslaved people of African descent had worked on farms, it was a collective belief by Smith and other abolitionists that farming, husbandry, and related industries were natural bridges to civil advancement. However, he and many others pushing this idea didn’t consider that working a mono-crop plantation in the mild climate of the South was very different from clearing timbered forests in northern New York.
Nor did they think about those who had spent their entire lives in urban environments. Many viewed Smith’s generosity as truly expansive, but few, including Smith himself, took a close look at the land he’d shared or considered the substantial costs involved in getting a productive farm up and running. The maps with their neatly drawn sections looked good on paper but the actual parcels were often filled with thin soil, rocky terrain and ancient trees in a land with poor roads, brutal winters and a shortened growing season.
Unaware of such hurdles, thousands of people from across the mid-Atlantic states applied for the free land. Men from New York City, and many Hudson River and Central New York counties, were among those who traveled north. About 3,000 people accepted land, with initial settlers facing numerous challenges with varying degrees of success. Gerrit’s scheme and arrival of early homesteaders, especially those struggling with limited farming knowledge, caught the attention of the abolitionist John Brown, who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts at the time.
Brown had grown up on a farm and wanted to be of service in Smith’s project, by being a living example of how things were to be done and available to provide direct assistance if needed. Brown wrote to Smith, saying he’d like to support the new farmers by renting acres for himself and his growing family. Smith took Brown up on his offer, and it wasn’t long before the Brown family found themselves with their own bit of Smith’s mountain paradise near what is now Lake Placid.
The close proximity of some of the plots lent to the natural development of colonies or small villages which gave both support and protection to those living there. North Elba saw a long standing African American community as a result.
Other grantees arrived from outside of New York. Articles appeared in Black newspapers bringing people from Philadelphia and other southern cities, many taking up the plough for the first time in their lives. Sometimes plots were granted, but those seeking a new way of life never appeared. None of Smith’s acreage in Hamilton county was ever given out.
This area near Lake Placid also was home to another small colony called Timbuctoo, named for the ancient center of learning in the African nation of Mali, and was mentioned by Brown in several of his surviving letters. The presence of it in his writings gives focus to an exhibit on the historic site, sponsored by the friends group John Brown Lives! titled ‘Dreaming of Timbuctoo.’ (Click on the slideshow below) On-going archeological research keeps the memory of this colony alive, even as it and other sites of these intrepid homesteaders have long ago faded from the area.
Despite the hardships, a few grantees of Smith land prevailed to become established and active residents of the Adirondacks. Lyman Erastus Epps arrived in 1849, with his wife and two of his eight children. Epps left a rich legacy of his life in the area. Not only did he farm, but he also taught music to local residents in North Elba, was a charter member of its first church, was one of the founders and an early trustee of the Lake Placid Public Library. He also became a well-known guide in the High Peaks region of the central Adirondacks.
Brown himself was ever on the move and spent little time at the farm, although his wife and younger children were there. He and his older sons spent time in Kansas and other locations as part of their abolitionist activities, which eventually culminated in his failed raid with three of his sons on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. in 1859.
In addition to being the benefactor of the Adirondack project, Smith was very involved with the Underground Railroad – a network of abolitionists who helped guide escaped enslaved people to freedom – and his estate in the Madison County hamlet of Peterboro was an official stop that abolitionist Harriet Tubman and others used regularly. The remains of his estate are part of New York’s Underground Railroad Heritage Trail and a National Historic Landmark.
Putting historical figures like Brown, Smith and Epps into the full communities in which they lived allows us to see a vast tapestry. No one lives alone in a silo, they are part of a multicultural, multi-linguist world much like what we live in today. Enrich the story, look beyond the obvious tale, and see what was really going on. You’ll discover one of our most treasured secrets, what a wonderful place we live in!
Cover Shot- John Brown Farm State Historic Site, NYS Parks Timbuctoo photographs courtesy of John Brown Lives!, exhibit curator Amy Godine and exhibition designer Karen Davidson Seward.
Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, New York State Parks
Sally E. Svenson, Blacks in the Adirondacks, 2017
Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, African Americans in New York City 1626-1863, 2003
Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, 2014
With Halloween coming up, the setting of an old cemetery might come to mind. Cemeteries are beautiful, poignant, old and sometimes just creepy, but these places are also a powerful reminder of the past and a record of the people who came before.
As part of its mission to preserve the state’s heritage, New York State Parks is responsible for the care of numerous cemeteries – from dozens and dozens of small old homestead cemeteries and large military cemeteries to burial vaults and even pet cemeteries. And cemeteries, just like any other historic item, do require maintenance and repair from time to time.
It is the job of the Historic Site and Parks Services (BHSPS) to preserve these cemeteries and the individual gravestones. That means tackling the challenges posed by time and weather, but also repairing the damage done by vandals, who break or damage stones.
Intact stones can be cleaned and inventoried in place, but fractured stones in need of repair are brought to our historic preservation labs Peebles Island State Park, where conservators perform the needed repairs. That work has been assisted by members of the New York State Excelsior Conservation Corps, who learn how to document, map, clean and reset gravestones.
A visit to a historic cemetery can be a time of contemplation in a quiet natural setting. For example, Grafton Lakes State Park in the forests of the Rensselaer Plateau in the Saratoga/Capital Region, has four historic family cemeteries. The Old Snyder Cemetery is just above the Mill Pond and shadowed by the forest. The small cemetery, dating to the 19th century is surrounded by a decorative iron fence and features obelisks, and marble and bluestone gravestones.
The gravestones tell the story of life in 18th and 19th century New York. Some stones simply feature a name while others feature beautifully carved weeping willows or crosses. The Thomas West, Frances West and Hicks cemeteries are smaller and buried deeper in the Park. The cemeteries are marked by fieldstone walls or split rail fence.
At the other end of the state, the 1812 Cemetery at the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, is the resting place of the fort’s soldiers and their families from the War of 1812 through the 1930s. This cemetery is shaded by mature oaks, pines and maple trees and overlooks the Niagara River. Traditional military tombstones are intermixed with large granite and marble memorials to the Unknown Soldiers who died during the campaigns of Western Expansion, the Revolutionary War and the war of 1812. The Victorian and Gothic gravestones feature finely detailed cannons, urns, flowers, shields and crosses.
The Herkimer Home State Historic Site and Fort Ontario State Historic Site in central New York also feature military and local cemeteries. The Herkimer Home cemetery has large memorials flanked by cannons intermixed with delicate 18th-century marble gravestones and 19th-century zinc memorials, and includes the resting place of Revolutionary War General Nicholas Herkimer, who died of wounds after the Battle of Oriskany.
In Oswego at Fort Ontario, a small cemetery features 77 marble military tombstones of veterans from the French and Indian War to World War II. Inside the fort are fragile and rare gravestone from the 1700s.
Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua has a small pet cemetery under an old oak tree near the 19th century Victorian mansion. The cemetery is surrounded by a low iron fence and features large boulders carved with the names of family pets owned by Frederick and Mary Thompson, the estate’s former owners. A marble statue of a resting dog guards the small resting place.
Its inscription reads: “In memory of Old Fred, who carried Colonel Jay through the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Peeble’s Farm & Appomattox, and who died at Bedford in May 1883, aged 28 years.”
The grave and historical marker for Old Fred, the faithful warhorse of Colonel William Jay II. At bottom, Colonel Jay is shown in uniform with his sister, Eleanor Jay Chapman.
So, a quiet October afternoon could be a perfect time to appreciate the hand carved stonework, and imagine the lives marked by the gravestones, which are another aspect our shared history being protected by New York State Parks.
Cover Shot: Members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps cleaning gravestones at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site. (All photos by NYS Parks)
Post by Erin E. Moroney, architectural conservator, Bureau of Historic Site & Park Services
Such an inflammatory headline would doubtless draw more than a few clicks on social media today. In the 18th century, the Colonial American public got their information from the contemporary version of the internet – newspapers. Colonists might get some news from talking with neighbors or serving on local and state committees, but the major source of information was from the multitude of papers printed across the colonies and imported by ship from Europe.
Imagine then a colonist picking up the February 15, 1777 edition of the respected and reliable Philadelphia-based Durand’s Pennsylvania Packet and seeing the entire front page dominated by harrowing dispatches from London, under the headline “The IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE, or the INFALLIBLE INTELLIGENCER; upon the plan, and after the manner of, the NEW-YORK MERCURY.” Founded in 1771, the Pennsylvania Packet was widely read and by 1784, it became the first successful daily newspaper published in the United States. The Packet was an ancestor of the current Philadelphia Inquirer.
With the Declaration of Independence only about seven months old and blood already shed on battlefields, readers of The Packet were eager for news from the recently estranged Mother county. Imagine the shock when they read on its pages that King George III was ignoring rules of civilized warfare and preparing to send tens of thousands of brutish foreign mercenaries to invade the colony of New York.
These soldiers of fortune didn’t care about liberty, representation, or the rights of Englishmen (or women), they were lured only by gold, plunder, and foreign influence from malevolent despots. King George III, who had never ONCE visited a foreign court (he never even went to Scotland, and that was on the same bloody island…), according to the newspaper, was now entertaining troop offers from around the world in some kind of global outsourcing of villainy.
And the breathless accounts ranged from the reality of German mercenaries who were already fighting in the colonies on behalf of the British to the terrifying spectacles of an amphibious invasion of Japanese samurai on the Pacific Coast and rampaging war elephants being shipped over from an Asian potentate.
The news was shocking – but it was also absolutely fake. The whole thing was a hoax — a hit piece against His Majesty King George III — slipped into a very real colonial newspaper by William Livingston (1723-1790), the son of one of New York’s most powerful families.
Like any good purveyor of “fake news,” Livingston used some kernels of half-truth. German mercenaries were already fighting in America, but the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE reported that thousands more depraved warriors were on their way from India, Japan, Central Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Scandinavia — faraway places full of people who had been deemed “savage” by the racial classifications of 18th century America.
Livingston was the embodiment of the educated, upper-class, white male who dominated colonial America. Governor of New Jersey at this time, he was rich, and by rich, I mean “really rich.” His father, Philip, was, literally, Lord of the Manor as proprietor of a massive estate in modern-day Columbia County.
William was well connected to the elite. His brother, also Philip, was known throughout the Colonies as the “the signer” for signing the Declaration of the Independence; and his sister, Sarah, was married to Lord Stirling, one of George Washington’s most trusted generals. William’s daughter, also Sarah, was one of the most well-known and influential women of the entire Revolution — her marriage to John Jay created a partnership of intellectualism and effectiveness that rivaled John and Abigail Adams.
William was a cousin to another famous and powerful Colonial New Yorker, Robert R. Livingston, who grew up near William at Clermont State Historic Site, and was a high-ranking member of New York State Government and the Committee of Five who wrote the Declaration of Independence. In that document, colonists included a list of grievances against King George III, including the charge he was “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries [the so-called “Hessians” from the state of Hesse in Germany] to complete “the works of death, desolation and tyranny.”
George Washington had achieved a stunning victory over these hated Hessians in his famous crossing of the Delaware River into Trenton, N.J. in late December 1776, but support for the war overall was lagging early on as some Americans questioned whether reconciliation with England might be the best response. Just two months after Trenton, William Livingston used his well-known writing skills to inflame rebel resentment against the King and toward the cause of revolution and liberty.
It was the colonists’ fear of foreign mercenaries (especially the mislabeled and misunderstood German Hessians) that William was amplifying and preying upon in his 1777 IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE hoax.
Livingston was smart. He crafted his hoax in way that was obvious satire and clearly fake, at least to discerning readers, but was also outrageous enough to get people talking about it. His approach allowed him to provoke a laugh at the expense of King George III, all the while stoking primal fears of foreign mercenaries and a frontier war with Native Americans allied with those foreigners.
Livingston began his IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE piece by claiming the Emperor of India had offered King George III “five hundred Elephants out of his own stables” to dispatch against the rebellious Colonials but the King had politely refused because it would cost too much to feed them.
The IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE went on to claim, however, that King George’s advisors, mindful of a potential alliance opportunity with the Indian Emperor, recommended that the king offer his son the Prince of Wales in marriage to the potentate’s eldest daughter. The scheme failed because it was believed the 15-year-old prince could not “close with the overture” (so to speak) with the Indian Princess unless he submitted to circumcision; even that last bit had a racial subtext. Englishmen of that time considered circumcision a dangerous practice, only done by non-Christians — in short, it was 18th century code for barbaric.
In addition to the 500 Indian War Elephants, the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE claimed offers of troops were pouring in from across the globe to form a gathering barbarian horde.
The King of Denmark was sending 4,000 elite warriors in reindeer-drawn sleds to fight Americans in the snow. In Persia (modern-day Iran), the king was sending 3,500 horse archers to join His Majesty’s light cavalry units. From the Hapsburgh monarchy in central Europe, 5,500 Hungarian Hussars, Pandurs, and Croats were being sent to “cut [Americans] down with their sabers” before their victims even saw them.
In perhaps the largest whopper of them all, Japan was going to amphibiously land 12,000 troops on the coast of California (yes, really, California) and march all the way to New York. The reason for the overland march was twofold, William explained to readers. First, it would save the Japanese fleet from a “circuitous voyage” around the southern tip of South America. Second, the Japanese would gather Native Warriors all the way from “the South Sea and the river Ohio” as allies by convincing the Indigenous Americans that “their ancestors having emigrated from Japan,” and so they should fight for the Japanese Emperor.
The humor is somewhat lost on us modern readers of course, but in the 18th century, it was outrageously funny, so much so that it even made George Washington offer up a LOL. Afterward, the general wrote to William (a personal friend of his): “I heartily thank you for the Impartial Chronicle: Fraught with the most poignant Satire, it afforded me real pleasure.” If you’ve ever read anything written by George Washington, you’d know that’s about as high as his praise gets.
Other bits of news from the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE hoax were thankfully less about fear-mongering propaganda, and more about plain old mockery. An ad claimed that a runaway servant named “Common-Sense and Honesty” had left the palace of King George III, and offered a £5,000 reward (a considerable fortune at the time) for anyone who could bring him back:
Perhaps the best bit in the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE was a “correction” which apologized for previously reporting “that the King and Queen were both with child” (the Queen was in fact pregnant at the time). The paper noted the lie apparently had been invented by Americans with “malicious hopes” the King would die in childbirth.
Speaking of the Queen, another salacious story in the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE indicated she had vetoed a plan to offset the losses from the war and repopulate England. As the story went, a foreign Emperor, noting that the *ahem* “common mode of procreation” usually practiced in England was inadequate, offered to send five female concubines to every Member of Parliament and to provide “his Majesty himself with a score…of amiable blooming breeders.” Parliament, it was reported, had “gratefully accepted” but the offer was scuttled because “our most gracious Queen cannot be fully convinced of the necessity of the measure.”
So why did Livingston venture into the realm of fake news? Well, muck-raking and sensationalized journalism were already established New York traditions by 1777.
Robert Livingston, William’s own grandfather, once claimed in a newspaper account decades earlier that former New York Governor Edward Cornbury walked around daily in “womens cloths.” Newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger famously took it a step too far when he had the audacity to publish mean things about Colonial Governor William Crosby that were actually true (Governor Crosby had him arrested for libel, but Zenger was acquitted in one of America’s foundational cases for press freedom from government repression).
Maybe William Livingston did it to insult the King and those loyal to him. Maybe he did to instill a sense of camaraderie among Americans by creating an “Us versus Them” dynamic. Maybe he even did it to convince those on the fence about independence that today it might be Germans sticking bayonets in your belly, but tomorrow it could be War Elephants trampling your wife and children. Or maybe he did it to be funny (well, at least 18th century funny).
Before he was a General and Governor, Livingston was famous for his satirical writings and political commentary. Livingston’s well-known pen and wit weren’t only used against his enemies, either. A few months after his fake news operation, when William learned that the British had burned Kingston in October 1777, he feared for the safety of his brother Philip “the signer.” Philip was serving a term in the New York State Senate, which had relocated to Kingston and had been forced to evacuate just ahead of the British army taking the city.
Upon finally hearing his brother was okay, William sent a letter to Henry Laurens (father of John, from the musical Hamilton fame):
“If my Brother be with you, pray make him my Compliments, and tell him, that considering his size, I was under great apprehensions that he would not have been brisk enough to escape the Firing of Kingston. Sure I am that if any one had done him the kind office that Aeneas did Anchises of bearing him on his Shoulders to avoid the Conflagration, both the bearer & the burden, (or as the Merchants would say, both the Carrier & the freight) would have run the risque [risk] of perishing in the Flames. 5 February 1778.”
In other words, William was calling his little brother fat. A real card, huh?
There are historic figures whose names we sometimes hear but whose story may have grown hazy. Sojourner Truth too often falls into that category.
Her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech of 1851 may still be familiar to a few, but unfortunately, the popular version has her speaking in the voice of the Deep South where she doesn’t belong. In fact, she’s a native New Yorker from the Hudson Valley.
A bronze statue of this famous 19th century African-American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate is being installed this month at the western entrance to the Walkway Over the Hudson State Park in Ulster County, so this is a good opportunity to get to know Sojourner Truth better.
She was born enslaved in 1797 to James Baumfree (alternatively spelled Bomefree) and Elizabeth ‘Mau-Mau Bet’, enslaved parents who were owned by a Dutch family in Esopus, Ulster County. Isabella, as she was named then, grew up speaking Dutch.
Some of the worst treatment she received as an enslaved teen came at the hands of her second owner because she didn’t speak or understand English, and he didn’t speak or understand Dutch. She bore the scars on her lacerated back, the punishment she received as a result of this language barrier, for the rest of her life. Later, she displayed these marks during her talks as a sign of the common mistreatment the enslaved received. Even after becoming fluent in English, contemporaries noted that she spoke with a Dutch accent, not a Southern one as a later popular account of her famous 1851 speech portrays.
Despite her low birth status, Sojourner Truth became one of the leading voices for human rights and universal suffrage in the 19th century. Her life as an itinerant preacher working on behalf of the enslaved, newly freed, and women, especially Black women, left a legacy that has kept her in the public consciousness.
Her birth, two years before New York’s Gradual Emancipation Act took effect on July 4, 1799, would have her remain enslaved well into adulthood. Her owner John Dumont struck a deal with Isabella and agreed to free her in 1826. After receiving a life-threatening injury while working in his fields, she required time to heal. Dumont used the healing time as justification to renege on his promise of freedom. In retaliation, she leaned upon her trust in God, and “…walked away by daylight” to find liberty, taking her youngest daughter Sophia with her.
This map shows where Sojourner Truth began her walk to freedom in Esopus, Ulster County, (pin on the right) westward to Marbletown (pin on the left).
This bold journey by the 29-year-old was the first of several she would make in her life. After walking many miles, she reached a settlement at Marbletown headed by Quakers, who were known anti-slavery abolitionists. A man there directed her to a farm owned by Isaac Van Wagenen, who held no enslaved people and had joined Quakers and Methodists working for the emancipation of all the enslaved. Van Wagenen paid $25 to Dumont for Isabella and her daughter, then freed her, allowing her to work off the cost as a domestic for the household.
While working for the Van Wagenen’s, Isabella faced her second tribulation. The Gradual Manumission laws in New York restricted the sale of enslaved children out of the state, lest they not be freed at the appointed time. Her young son Peter, through a series of twists and turns, was illegally sold and taken to far-off Alabama, from which he might never return. Upon hearing the news, Isabella ran to the wife of her former owner, who had orchestrated the sale, but was firmly rebuked. Isabella reached out to others, all of whom made light of her frantic state over her missing child. Realizing how others perceived her plight, she called upon God and proclaimed calmly that she would have her son back.
Walking the road, she happened upon a man who directed her to some Quakers, assuring her they would help. Not only did they provide lodging for her that night, they provided money to press her complaint in court. In 1828, Isabelle won her son’s return _ marking one of the first legal cases where an African-American woman prevailed in court against a white person.
The judge in the case declared that the “boy be delivered into the hands of the mother—having no other master, no other controller, no other conductor, but his mother.” It was to Isabella’s horror that when alone with her son, she discovered he now bore scars from being physically abused during his distant enslavement.
From Ulster County, Isabelle moved to New York City, where she worked as a domestic for people involved in the anti-slavery movement. It is during this time that she began her training in public speaking. Illiterate throughout her life, during her time in New York City, she increased her knowledge of the Bible, listening intently during Bible study. She believed strongly in the idea of everyone having a direct relationship with God and leaned heavily upon hers. Like many abolitionists she became known for her radical and anti-cleric religious views. More of a spiritualist than a traditional churchgoer, Truth often spoke of being abused by ‘Christians,’ many of whom strongly supported slavery and participated in mob violence against blacks and white members of anti-slavery groups.
During her time in New York City, she worked, saved money and opened a bank account, reunited with a brother and sister who had been sold as children, won a court case for slander, and grew as a preacher, speaking out on the street and at anti-slavery gatherings.
But by 1841, divisions within New York’s abolitionist community, the rise of the pro-slavery Democratic party and her son Peter’s death at sea while working as a sailor, pushed her onward. Heeding inner divine guidance, she changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth in 1843 and headed east out of New York City. She traveled the road to Brooklyn, then out to the Long Island, into Connecticut and ultimately reached Massachusetts, speaking ‘truth’ to hundreds along the way about the inhuman practice of enslavement and human rights. Her speeches were well received and comments about her talks appeared repeatedly in newspapers across the region.
Her strong desire to be treated as an equal manifested itself not just in her teachings on tolerance, but her desire to live what she preached. The early 19th century saw waves of religious and social reform movements sweeping through the northern part of the U.S. Many within the anti-slavery movement believed strongly in equality, prompting Abolitionist and other religious reformers to establish utopian communities that foreshadowed the communes of the 1960s. One of the early examples was the Northampton Association in Northampton, Massachusetts, which Sojourner Truth joined in 1844.
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the story of her life, was dictated to her friend Olive Gilbert during their time together at Northampton. According to Professor Margaret Washington, a noted scholar on Sojourner Truth, and author of Sojourner Truth’s America, “…embedded in Northampton was a commitment to revolutionize civilization.” Frederick Douglass once commented that “The Northampton air was full of “isms…Grahamism, mesmerism, Fourierism, transcendentalism, Communism and Abolitionism. But it was to be commended because of its deep commitment to emancipation.”
The Northhampton community was home to many involved in the anti-slavery movement. A mix of farmers, artisans, clerks, teachers, ministers, intellectuals, and other professionals, it reflected the equality that Sojourner longed to see in America. While in residence Sojourner worked in the laundry, but otherwise spent her time traveling the region preaching and teaching on civil rights, abolition and suffrage. It was her plan that the Narrative, along with photographs of herself, which she had inscribed with the famous words, “I sell the shadow to support the substance,” would provide an income to support her vision that many women didn’t have.
The stirrings of the coming Civil War took her from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C., where during the war she recruited men for the Union Army, and later worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping to feed thousands of newly freed enslaved. Her awareness of their plight, and the endless need for work and sustenance moved her to the realization that without land of their own the freedmen would not prosper. This began her work on petitioning for space within the territory of Kansas. With the end of the war she returned to the road, again focusing on universal suffrage and women’s rights.
But support for all the disenfranchised in the country wasn’t there. It became increasingly clear that a choice had to be made between voting rights for Black men or women, but both would not succeed at once. The ‘race or gender’ struggle created a schism within the suffrage movement that was being led by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who wanted to see white women gain suffrage first. Their public comments and involvement with strong pro-slavery Democrats pushed many long active suffrage supporters like Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass to distance themselves.
Following the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave voting rights to Black men (but not women regardless of race) in 1870, Sojourner moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, and returned to the women’s movement. Leaving behind the animosity of the past, she and Douglass again joined forces with Stanton and Anthony to push for voting rights for women until failing health caused her to retire from public life. On November 26, 1883, the 86-year-old Sojourner Truth died at her home in Michigan. The national adoption of women’s suffrage was still four decades away.
Her popularity as a long standing, dynamic public speaker on human rights and suffrage, someone often quoted or referenced in newspapers and other periodicals of the time, brought hundreds to her funeral. Sojourner Truth’s life reflected her deep and abiding belief that justice for all would someday come. The shadow of her legacy is deep and abiding, and reflects a journey toward equality that she knew would continue.
As she wrote, “I don’t expect I will to live to see it, but when this generation has passed away, there will be a grand change.”
Cover picture of Sojourner Truth: Credit Wikipedia Commons; Wood, Norman B., “White Side of a Black Subject,” (1897)
Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites
Offers critical analysis of Truth’s famous Ain’t I a Woman speech, dispelling the inaccurate use of southern dialect in the later transcription and focusing on the earlier transcription of the speech which was more true to her northern Afro-Dutch roots.