Unearthing the forgotten legacies of three Black pioneers
February is Black History Month. What this means in Adirondack classrooms is pretty much what it means everywhere: Students learn about the Middle Passage, Crispus Attucks, the Ku Klux Klan, the civil rights movement and Malcolm X. Videos of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, episodes from public television’s “Eyes on the Prize” and scenes from “Roots” monopolize school TV monitors. Young readers get their first taste of storyteller Zora Neale Hurston and poet Langston Hughes.
These are good ways to spark history to life. The writers are terrific, the images are strong. But something’s missing, something key, when black history is so strictly meshed in students’ minds with stories from the distant South, the Capitol, the urban ghetto, from almost anywhere, it seems, but the overwhelmingly white towns where Adirondack students live and learn. History that comes at us from the outside, history yoked in our minds’ eyes to landscapes alien, worlds unseen, can feel terribly abstract. Marvelous, enthralling, but not, in the end, a local story—not ours, not of this place.
Which of course it wasn’t—if you want to look at history just in terms of demographics, famous people and landmark political events. In these terms the Adirondacks is plain out of the loop. Yes, there are the shadowy, high-stakes escapades of fugitive slaves touching base along Adirondack stations on the Underground Railway, and the heroics of North Elba resident and abolitionist John Brown. But nameless scores of escaped slaves passing through a region are not of a region, and Brown, for all his presumed dealings with the African-American homesteaders at Timbuctoo and his claim to an Adirondack residency, was hardly ever at North Elba, preferring to leave the tedium of farm management to his grimly indefatigable wife. The fact is, this region is not and has never been a nerve center of the African-American experience, not like Harlem or Chicago, not like Little Rock or Watts.
Set aside the demographic analyses however, and browse instead the census or the local histories, the same homely pages where you might figure black history doesn’t stand a chance—and jot by jot, clue by clue, evidence mounts up. Here, and well before the Civil War, are stories of black settlers and artisans, innkeepers and apple growers. The question is, Do the homegrown stories have a value beyond the local? Do they dramatize deeper, troubled themes of the national experience? Do they connect?
Private Amos King connected. Sometime in the 1840s, Columbia County’s King migrated to Caroga in northern Fulton County and with several other African-American families settled in the stony hinterlands of North Bush. The enclave was substantial—at its peak twenty-five souls strong, four of whom joined the army during the Civil War. King pointedly enlisted with the all-black Massachusetts 54th, surviving not only the assault on Fort Wagner, but the siege of Richmond, Honey Hill and the battle of Olustee. Three years later he came home to find his son dead, the victim of an epidemic. His wife left him and he remarried. That wife left him too. He never could wring much more than apples and potatoes out of his few acres. King couldn’t even buy himself a tombstone in the corner of the North Bush community cemetery that was set aside for blacks. That honor fell to Louis Decker, Fulton County historian, who, inspired by the movie Glory, saw to it that the forgotten veteran of the 54th got not only a standard-issue military marble slab in 1996, but a bona fide, stand-up ceremony with speeches, politicians, two church choirs, wreaths, a harmonica solo, a Boy Scout playing taps, and a covered-dish supper to boot.
The point is, the local is never merely local. There’s always a broader hook, the greater context, a way to bridge the gap between the workaday and the heroic. Decker found a local hook, and played that line until he caught himself a whale of a tale that linked up North Bush with one of the most stirring battles of the Civil War.
Deeper into the Adirondacks, in Redford, Clinton County, is another story whose details resonate well beyond a town’s borders. Martin Tankard, born a judge’s slave in Plattsburgh and emancipated in 1827, drifted west with his wife to Redford when that hamlet was in its infancy as the company town of Redford Crown Glass. Tankard became the melt master and got so good at what he did that the company glassmaker entrusted Tankard—and Tankard only—with the secret formula that accounted for Redford glass’s signature sea-green luster and great strength. In fact, so key was his expertise to the factory’s operation that it could not run without him. It would have if it could. When his bosses ordered him to quit smoking near the furnaces, Tankard quit his job. Twice new batches were mixed without him, and twice they turned out bad. Tankard was hastily rehired and, his pipe triumphantly aglow, kept his job for as long as the company made glass.
But if his skill was rare and valued it hardly made his fortune. A ledger from a Redford store reveals Tankard digging graves in exchange for credit. Some of those cemetery jobs must have come harder than others: of the Tankards’ twenty-two children, only five survived infancy.
Tankard died, reported his obituary in an 1877 Plattsburgh Sentinel, “one of the land marks of Redford … commanding the respect of the entire community.” It should command as well our notice for all the themes it brings to light: the rise and fall in one man’s lifetime of a rural American extractive industry; the conflict—embodied in the iconic tale of the pipe-smoking rebel artisan—between the independent craftsman and the industrial manager; and, before anything, a northern version of the odyssey from enslavement to reinvention and renewal.
The point is not to push these hometown sagas of Adirondack pioneers as any kind of substitute for a discussion of, say, plantation slavery or the accomplishments of Dr. King. But when there are good stories right at hand to make the African-American experience a felt reality—to bring it home, literally—to local church, schoolhouse or burial ground, to this fence post or that abandoned orchard, this mossy cellar hole or that slim mark in a county census, then why not vivify the link from the local to the regional, the region’s interest to the nation’s?
Amos King, Martin Tankard and Prince Taylor, whose story follows, weren’t civil-rights pioneers. They were pioneers, plain and simple. Adirondack frontiersmen. Local heroes and valued neighbors in their roughhewn fledgling communities. They left no diaries or letters, and what we know about them isn’t much. Take their stories as a sampling, though, and they can’t help but suggest a more rooted and enduring way to honor upstate black history than an hour or two every February watching Mississippi Burning or Do the Right Thing on the VCR.
The third story begins with a legend from Thomas MacArthur’s hundred-year-old History of Putnam, one of the self-published, dotingly researched local histories in which the Adirondack region is so rich. Long ago, at the northern tip of the knuckled finger of land that points north from the elongated fist of Washington County and separates Lake George from Lake Champlain, dwelt a giant, a figure of “remarkable size and gigantic strength,” the Black Prince. Mohican Indians had abducted the giant’s ancestors from a nameless New England village, seizing at knife and arrow point a family of African-Americans. Thus forced into cruel captivity, the fourteen children and their parents were marched west to the New York frontier.
Here the story takes a sharp turn for the weird. The parents die. The Indians—we don’t know how, why, where or when—murder them. Then the orphans sneak away, wandering (babes in the woods!) for weeks. Where they settle, on a know along Lake George sill called Black Point, they thrive and prosper and somehow (don’t ask) multiply. In this sylvan aerie the Black Prince attains his Herculean height. Then, in an eyeblink, he and his siblings are gone. The disappearance of this “black race,” as final and abrupt as Roanoke, is popularly ascribed to an Indian raid. all that testifies to its presence is the name, Black Point, that even now abides on maps despite the State of New York’s efforts to have all racially inspired place names obliterated.
Now, the story of a sort of Adirondack Island of the Lost Boys has its obvious folkloric uses, but inside county archives, census records, military rolls and the journals of two Presidents of the United States are fragments of a better story still. This is the tale of the other hero of Black Point, the pioneer Prince Taylor.
Like the legend, Taylor’s story features a blind beginning and a foggy end. He was born in 1755 and died at age seventy-three in 1828, but his burial site is nameless, his place of birth uncertain. The name that crops up in Taylor’s pension papers is the little town of Lunenburg in north-central Massachusetts, hard by the New Hampshire border. That’s the town, anyway, that paid his bounty when he joined the Continental army. What makes it all a little sticky is the news that the Lunenburg Prince Taylor of colonial record, a slave of town physician John Taylor, died in 1804. Could this have been Prince Taylor’s father. If so, was his son born a slave as well, and did he earn his freedom as a soldier serving someone else’s stead?
These aren’t the first questions without answers that bedevil Taylor’s biography. His eight years in the military are pocked with unexplained lacunae and missing seasons. The battles and divisions he itemized in his 1808 application for a pension beg for more description, but there’s no room! He could barely squeeze in the bare bones of his postings. Thus while we learn he served in 1776 at White Plains, we can’t say with whom, in what capacity or what he did. He wrote he was a steward on a brig called the Diligence in 1778 under Captain Brown, but not which Diligence or where it sailed. Indeed, the closest match in terms of his description turns out to be the Diligent, a fourteen-gun brig that sailed under Captain Brown to Maine’s British-held Penobscot Harbor in 1779—an engagement that would certainly explain the short life of Taylor’s naval career: the siege of Penobscot was a renowned disgrace.
Taylor followed his time at sea with half a year in the New Hampshire Continental Rangers under Colonel Benjamin Whitcomb, most likely guarding forts and blockhouses in the northern Connecticut Valley. Then came a three-year tour as a cooper with the Sixth Regiment of Massachusetts and two stints with the First Regiment of New Jersey. His discharge papers from West Point in 1783 are signed by the Boston bookseller-turned-patriot, Colonel Henry Knox.
That Taylor’s appeal for a military pension named only some of these engagements is no surprise. The man was being asked to reconstruct his military history almost thirty years after he served. Total recall isn’t easy. Between the vagaries of memory, the fires, flood and losses that consumed so much colonial military material, the great gaps in the early record and its general indifference to the role of African-American soldiers in particular, the full measure of Taylor’s military career may never come to light. At what point, and under whose command, did he gain his first good glimpse of the eastern Adirondacks. Was it as cooper, chef, infantryman or independent scout?
In his recent book Saratoga, historian Richard Ketchum paints a picture of Ticonderoga in June of 1777, the frenzy of preparation, “companies drilling, carpenters sharpening tools,” and in the thick of it all, ” a number of flack freemen drafted from Continental regiments who function as a constant fatigue, independent of daily detail.” Was Taylor in their malleable ranks? Or was it only after the war that the twenty-eight-year-old veteran heard tell of land for sale, packed his kit and tramped north to make a fresh civilian start?
This black Yankee was no stranger to the forested frontier. Growing up in backwoods Worcester County, he knew his way around a broadax and a scythe. Whether he was born a household slave or servant, his boyhood work in a colonial village would have been as diversified as any farmhand’s, and in the mobile ranks of the New Hampshire Rangers his woodcraft could only have grown more keen. His first documented job as a civilian was in the woods. Joseph Laurant, a French-Canadian refugee to whom the State of New York had awarded five hundred acres “lying and adjoining to Lake Champlain” for his service in the war, hired Taylor in 1786 to locate his patent and make a survey of it.
What Laurant wanted was the eighty acres of pristine lakefront. The rest he gave to Taylor as compensation for his work. Two Frenchmen witnessed the informal deal, which was clinched—Laurant was apparently illiterate—with an inky “X.” And doesn’t it speak volumes about the loosey-goosey ways of Adirondack real estate that none of this was formally recorded with the county clerk until 1799?
Taylor’s early work as a surveyor also helps explain his knowledge of Black Point. This was not the acreage he got from Laurant—too far from Lake Champlain—but he might have gained it in a swap. In any case, by 1791 Taylor was on a 250-acre farm on Black Point and doing well enough to take on “six white hirelings” in his fields. And for this neat scrap of intelligence we are indebted to a pair of keen-eyed journal-keeping Virginians on a tour of the northern lakes. Few sights along the Lake George shoreline compelled their interest as urgently as the “House at the North end owned & inhabited by a free Negro.” Did they row to his landing, step up and introduce themselves, or just hear about him from a garrulous ferryman as they drifted by his dock? If they did take a moment to meet the man, their curiosity was surely matched by Prince Taylor’s own surprise. Too diligent a farmer to suffer idle interruptions even the “Black Prince,” as he was sometimes called, might have dropped his hoe to offer the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson a mug of cider and a wedge of cheese.
J. Rober Maguire editor of a recent facsimile edition of Madison and Jefferson’s 1791 Tour to the Northern Lakes, told me he considered their experience at Black Point “one of the high points of their trip. Because at the time it was so unusual—so unimagined! For two slave owners, intellectual powerhouses, to see a demonstration of a black man employing white men in such a profitable, harmonious way…”And indeed, Maguire’s reading of the event is home borne out in the relative length and detail of Madison’s journal entry that same June day. Taylor bought his farm, Madison reports, for “about 2 1/2 dollars per Acre and by his industry & good management turns to good account. He is intelligent; reads, writes & understands accounts, and is dexterous in his affairs. During the late war he was employed in the Commissary Department. He has no wife, and is said to be disinclined to marriage; nor any woman on his farm.”
It’s a pity nothing survives to speak of Taylor’s own impression, especially what must have been—if indeed they met—his take on Jefferson’s slave, James Hemmings, or Madison’s servant, Matthew. And what must the southern slaves have made of this black frontiersman with his hired hands and well-kept farm? The job of imagining that unremarked encounter will have to fall to the playwright and the poet. Taylor himself most likely had no clue he’d made such a hit with the future commanders-in-chief of his country. To his way of thinking, it was they, not he, who were the novelties. He was just another homesteader trying to coax the oats up, and keep the wolves, the blight and the creditors from his door.
This last was no light business. Like many a forward-looking settler, Taylor was weak on cash and strong on credit, and occasionally he got caught short. Records in the court of common pleas show him slow to pay for a house he bought in 1806 and late to make good on another debt as well. Nor great shame in this, one Essex County clerk explains. Chronic indebtedness and legal resolutions were a daily fact of frontier life, as attested by the boxes laden with complaints and please in the Essex County archives.
More impressive to his neighbors than an overdue account was Taylor’s prowess with a surveyor’s chain and transit: only two years after the Town of Putnam was incorporated in 1806, Taylor was appointed as commissioner of highways. This was no prosaic matter of filling potholes or clearing roads—what roads? Newly minted Putnam in 1806 was a loose tangle of bridle paths stringing together the log homes of seventy-some families. Putnam’s determination to get its roads in order signaled its conscious evolution from an inchoate gathering of independent pioneers to a community of townsmen, a civic body inspired by a common good. Roads are public. every other kind of public space that marks an American frontier community—school, commons, town hall, post office—follows in their wake. Taylor’s task was no idle honorarium: He and his co-commissioner, Lodewick Shear, weren’t just laying out, surveying, inventing ten new roads from scratch, they were seaming the contours of a community, making manifest a republican ideal.
Tracking Taylor’s career from one haphazard document to the next is like hopping from one stone to another in a fast-running river. There’s so much going on between the footholds, so much we can’t know. The complicating fact that Taylor’s property straddled two counties and two towns, for instance; that he was an active player in two frontier communities, Putnam and its neighbor to the north, Ticonderoga; that he built roads in one town and was a charter member of two churches in another; that depending on the year, four counties claim an interest in his properties (Saratoga, Washington, Clinton, Essex)—all this makes the game of biographical hopscotch a dizzy, uncertain business.
Still, it seems fair to guess that by 1810, at age fifty-five, with no heirs to work his farm and not company except “two ruptures of long standing,” the old soldier was ready for a change. By then he was getting his military pension. He had purchased one town lot in Ticonderoga, and he was primed to buy another. Within a year he opened Ticonderoga’s first recorded tavern and inn.
Headhunters could not have landed him a job that made better use of his skills and gifts. Consider Taylor’s resumé: trained chef, cooper (handy for repairing those leaky casks of rum), farmer and—according to one record—tap dancer. Best of all, he knew people. He was a churchgoer, a veteran (one of Ticonderoga’s twenty-three), a man equally at home with preachers, farmers and just making the turn from farm hamlet to semi-industrial crossroads with forges and vigorous new mills, was ripe for a “publick house,” and made his place a runaway success. Of course, it didn’t make him rich. Twice Taylor fell far enough behind on taxes that he had to put his tavern up as collateral—but the place put him on the map. Taylor ran a nice joint. No “cockfighting, gaming, or playing with dice or cards,… or billiard table or other gaming table or shuffle board within the Inn or tavern”—this by order of the law.
Thirty years after Taylor died, an Essex County memoirist recalled the reach of his achievement: “Prince left a noble memory behind him as a man of wit, of good parts and withal of sincere piety, and few were the weddings, or parties, or festivals in town, in which his art as cook, waiter and chief director of eatables, was not brought into contribution.”
Then as now, the reputation and charisma of the proprietor could make or break a place. Then as now, people came as much for the pleasure of the owner’s style and hospitality as they did for the drink and fare. The local watering hole was never just a place to hoist a dram. “More than anywhere else in colonial America,” sociologist Ray Oldenburg has written, “taverns offered a democratic forum.” Here homesteader and patrician, elected officer and humble mill hand all met on equal footing to exercise the right of free assembly that Alexis de Tocqueville called “the most natural privilege of man.” Not from the schoolhouse, church or mill but from the tavern was fashioned and exported the reputation of this hamlet for hospitality, that one for deceit. Here inside the dim, low-ceilinged “publick house,” a village put its best face forward—and in frontier Ticonderoga, that face belonged to the tavern keeper Prince Taylor. And it was black.
In 1820 the government tightened its criteria for military pensions. Veterans needing to renew were obliged to demonstrate indigency. Taylor applied; his appeal is the last written news we have of him. A lifelong bachelor, he had “no relations to assist in supporting me nor any family.” Manual labor was out “by means of age and … old injuries.” He was, he wrote, “by trade a taylor.” The farm was nowhere mentioned, the tavern had evidently closed. Listed among his worldly goods were some chairs, a frying pan, a few chests, a rasor, hoe and pitchfork, one cow, a looking glass, two kettles, earthen plates, a pair of iron candlesticks, some splint baskets, his Bible and other religious books worth roughly twenty dollars. Taylor put the value of his whole estate at $69.43. True, he noted, some folks owed him money, but he owed other people more.
The pension was renewed.
When Betty McCaughin was curator of the historical society in Ticonderoga, she looked hard and long for Prince Taylor’s grave, searched cemetery rolls, parsed crumbling headstones—to no avail. She thinks—likes to think—he’s buried up on Black Point. There’s a cozy group of unnamed headstones there; maybe he’s with them.
Some decades before Prince Taylor found his way to Ticonderoga, Sir Philip Skene, the local land baron, staunch Tory and the biggest slave owner in the region, freed a few of his oldest slaves and let them settle in a cabin on a marshy point along Lake Champlain. Hence the long-lived nickname of that remote site: N— Swamp. You don’t see that on the survey map today, or even much of its successor, Negro Marsh. The toponyms, and the historical memory of a black presence they imply, are gone. In 1988 Governor Mario Cuomo issued Executive Order 113 to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation calling for the eradication of all racially offensive place names. For the most part, it worked.
Black Point is still Black Point however, today a popular town beach. Of course, there’s nothing there to explain the name. It could mean anything. It could signify the foreboding look of the lake on a bleak day in December, a local shipwreck or the color of the sand. It could refer to the scruffy army of dark pines standing watch along the shore where two centuries ago some gentlemen from Virginia paused to admire a citizen of the Republic working in his fields.