An African American Migration Mystery (part 3)

Continuing now with my third post on the topic of African Americans in Washington County, N.Y.  In the previous posts, I challenged the 1810 census reading of 2,815 “other persons not including Indians not taxed” for Washington County. More specifically, I challenged the idea that these were all free blacks and I suggested that perhaps the census taker, Christian Seekrider (Sackrider), had been confused about this category.

I’m fascinated by the argument of L. Lloyd Stewart that a large migration of free blacks entered Washington County just before 1810 and left by the beginning of the 1814 census. I have found little evidence corresponding to this thesis, but I have yet to rule it out.

I can, however, challenge much of Stewart’s thesis that such a migration of free blacks to Washington County would have been motivated by economic prospects linked to the cultivation of flax (which, as you might know, is where linen and of course flaxseed oil comes from). To remind readers, Stewart argued that Washington County farmers leading up to 1810 were making handsome profits from flax and that they therefore had a high demand for laborers to help with the intense work of flax cultivation. With an economic downturn in 1807-1814 and the trouble of the war of 1812, the demand for flax dropped and African American laborers left the county. So Stewart argues.

Now, information about early Washington County is scant, and short of visiting upstate New York, I might soon run out of potential sources to mine. But I discovered that a county history from 1901 the author identifies 1812 as the start of flax growing, not its end or decline.   In fact, the author could hardly be more clear in this. I quote the full, interesting section:

The war…was a most excellent thing for the financial interests of the county, especially as the demands created by the necessities of the general government changed this stagnation to an unusual business activity. As an example of this, among many others, may be mentioned the culture of flax. That article, not in the slang of the present day speculators in Wall street, received a most decided “boom”  Flax, like wool, had for several years been specially a yield of Washington County, through produced, hitherto, in very small quantities, such, indeed, as could be manufactured by the little flax “spinning wheel and loom,” of each family, every farmer generally sowing a few square rods of that commodity.  In May, 1812, however, when this rise of prices for wool began, a Mr. James Whiteside of Cambridge sowed three acres of flax. Upon this tremendous innovation regarding the usual crop, “all his neighbors” says Johnson[1] “ were astounded and predicated that the labor of raising and dressing the crop, would be so great as to more than use up any which might be obtain for it.” These forebodings were false, for despite all such awful prognostications, the value of the flax constantly continued to rise until the dressed flax was sold at the hitherto unprecedented sum of eighteen and three-fourths centers per pound – thus giving to the raise a handsome profit. As a consequence, the raising of flax very soon became an important industry in Washington County, especially in its southern part, and even when prices after the war, fell, its cultivation was still found profitable – attaining a magnitude of no small importance, by becoming a source of income by no means to the farmers, of insignificance.[2]

In addition to Stone (1901) and Johnson (1878) there is an older and harder to find history of the county by Asa Fitch from 1849.[3]  There comes a time in every historian’s life when he questions why he has just read 20 pages about the cultivation of flax (or some such topic). Well, Fitch has more to say about flax than you would ever care to know.  And the story found above in Stone, taken in part from Johnson, was essentially that which Fitch had told decades prior. At a state-leading 174 pounds of flax yield per acre in Washington Co 1845, it remained a profitable crop for the county. Fitch mentions nothing about African American laborers. He does explain that it takes three men to pull an acre of grown flax in a day, and that the work is “commonly done the latter part of July, and sometimes in the fore part of August. It thus comes in the midst of the most hurrying season of the year.” (page 927)  Perhaps, then, African American field labor came to Washington in the summer of 1810 to help with such a crop, just in time to get caught up in the census enumeration?    This is not impossible, but it seems unlikely because the enumerator for the 1810 census in Washington County, Christian Sackrider, signed off on his work in the winter, specifically on January 5, 1811. In fact, from my general impression of reading through the census, it seems that most enumerators in the region worked in the fall and winter of 1810, not the summer, when they would have been busy with other tasks.

The 1810 census for Washington County is full of strange entries. One example is Ichabod Thurber and Ichabod Thurber Jr., listed separately.  Now, senior is listed with what one should presume is his wife, 5 daughters and 4 sons.  The oldest son, Ichabod Thurber Jr is listed separately, but has “5” other persons not-taxed living with him.   Why would the oldest son be living with or housing these others?  Perhaps the Thurbers had built a second house to accommodate servants?

In his book on African American migration in Washington County, Stewart noted that the census does not provide names for these “other persons not including Indians not taxed” for the 1810 census. Now, this is mostly true, but there are a few occasions when we do have names for some of these “other persons except Indians not taxed.” This occurred when such a person was the head of the house and/or only member of the house.  This included people like Levi Parks, John Noble, Joseph Whitmore, John P. Roosevelt, Amos Camp, Samuel Brown, Rueben Waite, Thomas Mosier, John McDonald, one person listed as Aphus with no last name. It is clear that SOME of those listed in this category were free African Americans, and so for those keeping track at home, we can score a few points for Stewart. The best known example of a free black in the county is Mintrus Northrup, father of THEE Solomon Northup of “Twelve Year’s a Slave” fame. Mintrus Northrup was listed as head of a house of 5.  Others like “Pomp Watrous” with a family of 5 are probably African Americans, although one can’t be too sure.

There is also Caezar (or Caesar) Smith, head of a household with 2 fFree white males under the age of 10, and eight “all other persons except Indians not taxed.”  An odd arrangement if true to consider that two white boys were living with a family of 8 free African Americans. There is also Jack Burnham, with 10 “all other persons” living under one roof, but no one else. And James Schulyer and Hendrick Van Buren each in the same situation , but in each of their cases with 9 “all other persons”.  Of all of these people, I can only find Schuyler and Van Buren in the census of 1820, and, lo and behold, they were also listed as free blacks in that census. More points for Stewart.

What else can I say at this point?  There seems to have been a lot of migration through Washington County, perhaps from elsewhere in New England. Many of the names of slaveholders and heads of households with “other persons…etc.” in 1810 don’t appear in the county in the 1820 census. One idea I had is that the “other persons” might have included boarders, servants, and others in the house who were not part of the family.  This would have included both black and white servants, of course. Also, in 1820, the free blacks seem to be leaving near each other, based on their proximity in the enumeration. They are often listed at the end of the enumerated list for each township. Families of free blacks in the 1810 county census often stayed through 1820, while individuals listed as “other persons” in 1810 cannot be found or identified.

It is also worth noting – something that I forgot to mention before – that the formation of Warren County in 1813 had little apparent effect on the free black population of Washington County, it did effect total population. So, while it appears that Washington County experienced a population decline in the decade 1810-1820, it is the case that the formation of Warren County accounts for the whole of the apparent population loss.

What is now clear is that the economic cause and effect that Stewart argued seems untenable. Yet, the migration of free blacks into and out of Washington County for other reasons remains possible. If only I could find an enumerated list from the 1814 New York Census!

[1] Crisfield Johnson, History of Washington County, NY (Philadelphia, PA, 1878), 71-72.

[2] (William Leete Stone, Washington count, New York: its history to the close of the nineteenth century (New York: New York History Co, 1901). 326)

[3] Asa Fitch, A Historical, Topographical & Agricultural Survey of the County of Washington (1849).


A Free African-American named “Frank” with no last name given. In the 1820 census for Washington County

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