Tag Archives: abolitionism

Growing Freedom in Adirondack Wilderness

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.

A photograph of John Brown taken in 1859.


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.

Gerrit Smith (Photo Credit – Library of Congress)


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

Resources


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

Do You Know Sojourner Truth?

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.

The statue of Sojourner Truth that is being unveiled at Walkway Across the Hudson State Park.

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.

I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.

I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?

I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it.

Portion of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech to the Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, as reporter on June 21, 1851, by The Anti-Slavery Bugle, of Salem, Ohio. A version published more than a decade later had her speaking in Southern voice.

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.

“I sell the shadow to support the substance.” — Sojourner Truth. Carte de Visite, circa 1864, in the collections of the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97513239/)


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

Sojourner Truth Resources

Web based

The Sojourner Truth Project

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.

Sojourner Truth – Identifying Her Family and Owners

Information about Sojourner Truth’s family and the slave holders associated with them from the New York Slavery Records Index.

This Far by Faith – Sojourner Truth

This PBS series highlights the spiritual lives of historic figures and provides details about Sojourner Truth’s religious beliefs, spiritual life and ministry.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth; a bondswoman of olden time, emancipated by the New York Legislature in the early part of the present century; with a history of her labors and correspondence drawn from her “Book of life.”

This work includes several important texts about Sojourner Truth’s life, including a dictated autobiography and some correspondence. Full text transcript available via PDF.

Selected Books

Grigsby, Darcy G., Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance (2015).

Mabee, Carleton and Mabee, Susan Newhouse, Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (1993).

Mandziuk, Roseann M. and Pullon Fitch, Suzanne Sojourner Truth as Orator: Wit, Story, and Song (1997).

Gilbert, Olive, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850)

Painter, Nell Irvin Sojourner Truth: A Life (1997).

Schmidt, Gary D. (illustrated by Daniel Minter), So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom (2018) [children’s book].

Stetson, Erlene and David, Linda, Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth (1989).

Washington, Margaret, Sojourner Truth’s America (2011)