Where did 2,500 missing African Americans go? Or were they never there in the first place?

In a previous post, I questioned whether there was a large African American migration to Washington County NY in the first decade of the 19th century, or if this was actually some kind of census anomaly. Could over 2,500 free African Americans move into and out of a rural county in one decade and be missed by almost all record keeping save the census? I still don’t have an answer and I want your help to figure it out.

I came across the topic because I’ve been studying the demography of slavery in New York for a forthcoming book on Dutch-speaking New York slavery. In my research, I discovered that the census recorded an increase of over 2,500 free blacks in Washington County between the 1800 and 1810 census. Just as soon as these free blacks appeared in the census of 1810, they appear to have left the county, not to be found in the state census of 1814 nor the federal census of 1820.

Lloyd Stewart, author of a 2013 book The Mysterious Black Migration, discovered this particular census data well before me, and Stewart has argued that the census record for African Americans in Washington county in 1810 was legitimate and a reflection of a very real migration to the county. Stewart argues that free African Americans between 1800 and 1810 migrated en masse to Washington County because of economic opportunity there. In particular, the county was profiting with growing flax and was the leading flax producing county in the state for 1810. But an economic depression of 1807-1814 and the war of 1812 took their toll on the county, Stewart argues, and the free blacks that had arrived there decided to leave.

Outside of the census, however, there appears to be little evidence that corresponds to this thesis. In his book, Stewart often relies on evidence of the existence of African Americans in Washington County as evidence for a great migration into and then out of the county. But his evidence is of the kind one would expect for a small and relatively stable African American population in the county, not a fluctuating one: a handful of manumission records and African American births, a few grave stones, etc. Stewart also has a personal stake in his thesis because he identifies one of his ancestors as a member of this supposed migration. Stewart rightly speaks of a history of discrimination against African Americans, but an unfortunate theme of his argument is that one would have racist motivations if one disagreed with his conclusions. This is a good example of what philosophers call the fallacy of “poisoning the well” : a preemptive ad hominem that dissuades any potential criticisms.

But Stewart should realize that one can be sympathetic to getting the history of African Americans right, while still disagreeing or at least questioning his thesis.

Many readers, at first glance, will assume that Stewart is on the right track. A cover photo, without attribution, shows African Americans loading into a wagon. The image is from a painting titled “After the Sale: Slaves going South” by Eyre Crowe and it is from 1853, and it is based on the painter’s experience at a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia. So, the cover image is misleading: it really has nothing to do with the migration of African Americans in New York, as one might suppose.

Census records provide the main motivation for Stewart’s thinking that there must have been a large, unrecorded African American migration.

In 1800, Washington County had 80 slaves and 119 “other persons not included Indians not-taxed.”  Stewart treats this second category as “free blacks” and relabels it as such for his own charts. That is a reasonable conclusion, and most of the people listed in that category for the 1800 and 1810 censuses were probably free blacks. Yet again, there were no instructions to the census takers and some of them may have interpreted this category in different ways.

But here is where the record gets interesting. The 1810 census for Washington County tallies 315 slaves and an astounding 2,815 “other persons not including Indians not-taxed.” Again, Stewart believes these people all free African Americans. It may well be. But then, in 1814, New York held its own census, apart from the national census which was held on decennial years starting in 1790. And in that year, the census takers counted 138 slaves and 301 “all other free persons” for Washington County.  Some 2,500 free blacks were missing, it seems.

 

 

My initial thought was that some kind of new political lines had been drawn between the two censuses, so that part of an earlier population had been gerrymandered out of the county. Well, in 1813, Warren County split off from Washington County.  But Warren County included only 14 slaves and 190 “all other free persons” in the 1814 census. This means that a major cause of the demographic change among slaves and free blacks in Washington County probably should not be attributed to the carving out of this new county.  What is more, Warren County had only 13 black people in the 1820 census, consistent with the 14 slaves from 1814. Bolton, Luzerne, Hague, Queensbury, Johnsburgh, Thurman, and Caldwell (now called Lake George) townships all became part of Warren County.  Warren County had only 128 “all others non-taxed” in 1820.

Were the census takers making a mistake, something including people other than free African Americans in the category “other free persons”?  Perhaps the census taker for Washington County in 1810 was including immigrant non-citizens? Indentured servants? Unforunately, only the heads of households are listed, so we cannot trace these individuals. We don’t know their names. We don’t really know their race.

Curiously, the total numbers for slaves and “other free persons” for Washington County in the 1810 and 1814 censuses are fairly consistent.

Washington Co NY
Slaves in 1810 Slaves and other free persons 1814
Township
Argyle 15 82
Cambridge 82 85
Easton 92 102
Fort Ann 11 8
Granville 3 26
Greenwich 8 16
Hampton 3 14
Hartford 11 9
Hebron 11 18
Kingsbury 23 36
Putnam 0 0
Salem 36 37
Whitehall 3 6
298 439

 

How likely is it then that some 2,815 free blacks came into and out of the county in probably less than a 10-year period, while having little or no effect on the distribution of black people in the county, leaving them spread out roughly the same as they were prior to the supposed migration? This presents a major problem with Stewart’s thesis.

Now, there are possible solutions to this problem. For example, if the African American migrants came in to the county for work and were unable to settle permanently, they might have left man for man and woman for woman, while the blacks who had previously lived in the county had more permanent role and felt more comfortable in staying. Few of the “other persons not including Indians not taxed” recorded in the 1810 census were living as family units in their own homes. Rather, it tended to be 1 or 2 boarding in the houses of white men.  This is consistent with a migration of workers who needed temporary shelter.

washCoTowns

Total numbers of “Other persons, not taxed” by township in Washington County, New York in 1810

 

 

The distribution of free blacks across the county seems to go against the idea that this was a coordinated migration of free blacks. Why would people migrate together only to settle so far apart from each other?  A further complication is why the migration (if there was one) appears to be so specific to Washington County, and not to neighboring counties that don’t demonstrate any similar demographic patterns?  A more likely (but still unproved) explanation is that free blacks would have come with whites to the county.  It is possible that black servants (formerly slaves) who had moved into the region with their masters were manumitted during this period (and yet temporarily lived with their former white families).  This might explain why the number of free blacks declined so quickly from 1810 to 1820: as slaves gained their freedom, they left the area.

Some more evidence can be marshalled in favor of Stewart’s thesis. The largest number of “other free persons” in the 1810 census for Washington County was in Cambridge township, where there were 612.  Cambridge was, according to a government report from 1863, a  “locality in which the flax crop is very prominent.”  [1]

Flax required a great amount of labor. Rensselaer County seems to have been another location of flax cultivation, and it is possible that free and enslaved African Americans from Rensselaer had some experience with flax. But from 1800 to 1810, Rensselaer County’s slave population dropped only from 890 to 750, hardly enough, even with new births, to have made much of an impact on Washington County.  While the slave population in Rensselaer declined in that decade, the actual combined free and enslaved black population increased in Rensselaer from 1,003 to 1,112. Meanwhile, from 1800 to 1810, Albany’s black population declined from 2,161 to 1,588. Columbia County’s black population also declined from 1,961 to 1,729. But these few population declines were offset by some growth in the black population in Saratoga and Greene. No matter how one runs the numbers, there doesn’t seem to have been enough population decline among blacks in the upper Hudson Valley to account for so much increase in Washington County in that period.

Nor could such a population have come from Vermont, where there were only 557 free non-whites in 1800, or New Hampshire (852 in 1800), Rhode Island (3,304 in 1800) and Massachusetts (6,452 in 1800). In 1810, Vermont’s non-white population had increased to 750 persons, in New Hampshire 970, Rhode Island 3,609, and Massachusetts: 6,737. In essence, all these states saw normal growth rates in their black populations from 1800 to 1810; nothing indicating a large migration out of state.

The enumerator for the 1810 census in Washington County was a man named Christian Saekricle. At least, that is how a modern transcriber rendered his name. This may be the same as a person listed in Kingsbury township, a name the transcriber has rendered as “Christian Su**rider” indicating that his last name is difficult to read. This man was listed as head of household with a total of 3 white males, two white female, and one “not taxed” .   This is certainly Christian Seekrider, whose name appears in Crisfield Johnson’s History of Washington Co, New York.  (page 118).  In 1811, Seekrider was appointed as Justice of the Peace and served as a Major for the Seventh New York Regiment during the war of 1812.[2] This is probably a spelling of the name “Saekrider” or “Sackrider”, a German family that was found also in Dutchess and Schoharie Counties.[3]

Of course you can’t prove a negative.  You can’t prove that a large African American migration to Washington County never happened. Indeed it might have, and it would be very interesting to learn more about it.

I still don’t have an answer here, but I’m leaning toward Seekrider having some kind of misunderstanding about the census categories.ChristianSaek

For those who want to look further and try to shed light on the mystery, unindexed images for Washington County’s census can be found here: (1800) https://archive.org/details/populationsc18000026unit

(1810) https://archive.org/details/populationschedu0030unix

(1820) https://archive.org/details/populationsc18200076unit

[1] (Executive Documents printed by the order of the House of Representatives during the Third Session of The Thirty-Seventh Congress, 1862-1863.  (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1863) 117)

[2] Frederick Bacon Philbrook, ed. The American Historical Register and Monthly Gazette of the Historical, Military, and Patriotic-Hereditary Societies of the United States of America (March 1897), page 23.

[3] The Leading Citizens of Delaware County, New York: (Boston: Biographical Review Publishing Company, 1895), page 124.

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