The Hidden Legacies of Slavery

by | February 2022, History

Illustration by Gwen Jamison Vogel

In 1778, Alexander Henry “the Elder,” a rich merchant in Montreal, found himself inconvenienced by a non-paying debtor. So, he found a way to pay himself. The man who owed him money was the American land baron William Gilliland, builder of an outsized woodland empire he was piecing together on the Adirondack flank of Lake Champlain. In 1771, one of Gilliland’s enslaved Black laborers had made a break for Canada. The outraged Gilliland flagged “my man Ireland’s” escape in northern papers, but in Montreal, Ireland would know his freedom for seven years. Then Henry learned Ireland was living in his city. He tracked him down, had him put under arrest. Got a court order that backed his own legal claim on Gilliland’s errant property, and won permission from the Quebec governor to sell his newly seized asset to high-paying bidders from Western Quebec. And that’s where the trail cools, on the cusp of another sale, and Ireland’s likely re-enslavement.*

It was Ireland’s fourth enslavement. The first one was his kidnapping in Guinea, followed by months of lightless, rank, immobilized captivity belowdecks, at roiling sea. After this would be a spell of hard labor on a plantation in the West Indies, where captured Africans were “seasoned” for new lives as human chattel. Gilliland, Ireland’s third enslaver, likely bought the man at auction and gave him his new name. Ireland, of course, already had a name, and a culture, language, history and home, but all of that was scrubbed. Ireland’s fourth owners were probably Canadians. Other buyers may have followed.

Ireland’s saga is a reminder.

In Adirondack historical accounts he is a bit player in the biography of a swashbuckling pioneer—the slave who got away from Gilliland along with everything else this land baron eventually lost: the favor he hoped to curry with the new government, his fortune and, eventually, his mind. In these tellings, Ireland serves the interest of the white man’s saga; in memory, he still belongs to his enslaver. Ireland himself might have framed his story differently, centering not Gilliland, one enslaver among several, but slavery itself, that unrelenting engine that drove or hauled him over continents and oceans. Slavery made the world its canvas, and liked its brushes big. 

Some notice has been taken of Black people and their enslavers in the Adirondack region: Ireland and Gilliland. A man,* never identified, in Harkness, near Peru, who broke for freedom and got as far as Essex before his enslaver, John Haff, caught up with him, lashed him to his saddle with a rope, and in this fashion dragged him “home.” In Skenesboro, Moriah, Chester, Thurman, Kingsboro, Plattsburgh and elsewhere in the North Country, human beings were chattelized. Not in the numbers or percentages that distinguished other regions in the rural North—not like, say, the steeped-in-slavery Hudson River Valley towns like Rhinebeck or Poughkeepsie, where one in four to five households included slaves in 1790, or Bergen County, New Jersey, where, in 1820, 3,000 Africans were enslaved. In all of late-settled, sparsely populated northern New York, the numbers of enslaved people were never greater than 300, and in the Adirondack region, that number dives again. The fact was, in Adirondack country, slavery was never a widely experienced, face-to-face feature of daily life.

But the reach of slavery, its methodical, unflagging interest: this found the Adirondacks every day, found every home and hamlet as implacably as it laid claim to Ireland in Montreal. Ireland thought he was safe. So did free-born Adirondacker Solomon Northup in Saratoga Springs. Enslavers (or their enablers) claimed them both. Even in a place like the Adirondacks, where slavery was not the custom, where Black faces were so few, the slave power made its need and influence felt. In the extractive industries that birthed towns and communities, in country stores, taverns, homes, place names, public entertainment, news­papers, Great Camps, schools and churches, historic sites and cherished festivals, on maps and in schoolbooks, the imprint of the slave power and its loyal remnant, apologist and heir, white supremacy, pressed deep.

That said, this claim was subtle. A slow grip, not a slap. Not an imprint that revealed itself at first glimpse, like, say, an auction block near the city market, or a river landing where shipments of enslaved arrivals huddled close. The traceries inside the Blue Line were quieter, more coded.

A venerable old piano in an Essex County grange hall. A set of fine-toothed combs on a dresser in the brick home of a judge. The gleaming billiards in a Great Camp’s birch-bark-clad casino. These modest artifacts do not announce their link to the slave trade, or remind us that for every hundred-pound ivory tusk (good for 45 keyboards), five enslaved humans died. The origins of the homely, pleasant artifacts of Adirondack daily life in the carnage of the slave trade were tacit, unremarked.

Nothing, for example, about an 1840 advertisement in a Plattsburgh newspaper asks us to recall that the grocer G. F. Buck’s molasses, tea, coffee, mace, cloves, cinnamon, cocoa, rice, pepper sauce and sugar (brown or loaf), were, in each case, cultivated, harvested, packaged, or dispatched by people held in bondage in the American South, Brazil and elsewhere.

That the pipe, plug and chewing tobacco on sale in this and a hundred other Adirondack stores were indebted to a gang work system that ravaged Black families for centuries.

That Mr. Buck’s sacks of rice from the infamously malarial, snake-infested paddies of the Carolina Low Country were harvested and loaded by a workforce a third of whom died annually. Nothing on those bags or packages declared: More than sun, seed, soil and water made this rice grow. Men, women, children worked for it, and 10 child workers in a hundred died for Carolina rice before their 16th year.

Down the block from Mr. Buck’s grocery was Mr. Prescott’s bookstore. Here schoolteachers found their lesson books and primers, and good citizens their “stationery of the first quality.” Among the latter may have been members of the anti-slavery Liberty Party, who used their stationery for the cause. Yet their paper, milled from cotton rags, was a slave-dependent product. Slaves cultivated and picked the cotton, baled and dispatched it to the mills that made the cloth that would eventually be recycled and revived as paper. Cotton—soft, light, workable, affordable—the commodity whose production, notes Henry Louis Gates, “most dramatically turned millions of Black human beings in the United States themselves into commodities,” brightened the shelves of backwoods dry-goods stores, garbed the Adirondack sailboat, softened the baby’s homemade doll, checkerboarded the patchwork quilt, shielded the farm wife’s skin with the wide rim of her sunbonnet.

Slavery, that “peculiar institution,” built the wealth of New England’s hundreds of small mill towns and mill cities. True, the heyday of the Adirondack textile industry was long after slavery’s abolition. But legal Emancipation signaled no confident, clean break between slavery days and what came after. Black cotton workers after the war were mired in a system of debt peonage, convict leasing and tenancy that functioned as a kind of slavery in its own right. Even after slaves were freed, cotton-reliant mills and workshops in Corinth, Thurman, Warrensburgh and Ticonderoga still wove Adirondack workers, owners and buyers into the fabric of the slave economy.

Slavery’s role in Adirondack iron- mining and iron-making was noted from the first. Enslaved people were the first to dig for ore in the region; Sir Philip Skene dispatched his bondsmen to dig up bog ore beds from Skenesboro to Moriah. But the much wider interest of the slave power in Adirondack iron was expressed from a remove. Until the Civil War, the white South would look to northern and foreign sources for iron, and innovative, market-ready Troy was a popular supplier, sourcing much of its best ore from the eastern Adirondacks. And iron did not care to what use it was put. Adirondack iron supplied the Union with horseshoe nails, ironclad fighting ships, and rail lines that got Union troops and munitions to battle, but it also furnished the Rebellion with the lengths of rail that got cotton bales to river landings and city ports. Slaves laid this rail and loaded up the cars with the cotton whose capacity for profit would rationalize their chatteldom. Slaves fixed iron rims to the wheels of the high-sided wagons that bore their wives and children to auction. Slaves wielded the iron axes—Adirondack-mined, Troy-forged—that opened up the South to cotton fields as far west as Texas. And if enslaved people tried to flee, it’s no stretch to guess the chains that found and bound them, just like rail, wagon rims, and ax blades, were forged from iron out of the Adirondack hills.    

We know iron for its imprint on the landscape: the hundred hamlets and small towns it planted in the region, the dramatic, proud native industry that furnished not just miners and iron manufacturers with a living, but Adirondack farmers whose meat and produce nourished miners and their world. Iron needed agriculture, farmers needed the mines—and, wittingly or not, everybody on the iron magnate’s payroll profited from the interest of slave-owning clients for Adirondack iron in the South.

They looked to us, and we looked to them. Turpentine, a staple in many Adirondack homes and shops, kept moths away. Clobbered lice, and good for snake bites, too. In the Adirondacks, it was a varnish mixed with linseed oil for wooden boats in need of sprucing up. Most small-town dry-goods stores or druggists carried turpentine. Good thing to have around.

Enslaved men and boys who collected sap in the coastal pinelands of North Carolina understood it differently. Here, where pine plantations might run to 20,000 acres, the turpentiners who cut the pine and caught the dripping resin suffered skin burns, scorched lungs, asthma, and brain and liver damage. Risk for risk, tapping toxic “turp” was one of the most dangerous assignments in the woods.

The general brutality of slavery is recognized. Less so the risks and hardships specific to each kind of coerced work. Malaria for enslaved rice farmers. Knife cuts, burns, crushed limbs and rat bites for sugar cane workers, bent low over their billhooks, feeding canes into the rollers, or minding vats of boiling sugar. This industry, which on big plantations might run around the clock, six days a week, was so hard on enslaved workers that planters replenished their depleted ranks with kidnapped Africans each year. At such a long remove from the world that filled their casks, how easy for Adirondack tavern keepers to disavow complicity.

Mahogany was another slave-harvested product whose origins in misery and mortal risk were easily obscured. In the study or the parlor of the Adirondack county judge’s Georgian home, a slant-top desk or grandfather clock dressed in mahogany veneer spoke of wealth and class. Side and card tables, bookcases, wall shelves—nothing caught the flicker of the hearth as warmly as the sheen of this rich wood. But mahogany brought more than its high-status look into Adirondack homes. In the rain forests of the West Indies and Central America, it was harvested by slaves, Black or indigenous, who wielded their axes on rough platforms several stories above ground, hacking steadily—no safety net, no harness—at trees as wide around as silos. Just as risky was the work of hauling the felled trees to landings, then hand-paddling the great logs to waiting ships in water murderous with sharks.

Philip Rhinelander Jr., of New York City, had a keen eye for mahogany. Sometime after 1815, this land baron enlisted teams of oxen and a party of enslaved laborers to haul pieces of a gleaming mahogany staircase 30-plus miles from Amsterdam to Speculator, and then on to his 500-acre fiefdom on Elm Lake. Rhinelander’s prized centerpiece spanned the length of his great home—a fit emblem for the reach of slavery itself, which stretched from an Adirondack mansion to a slave-worked logging site a continent to the south.

Abolitionists understood this. Noting the steep price in human suffering of slavery-derived products like mahogany, molasses and cotton, they called for alternatives. Maple syrup instead of cane sugar. Woolen clothes instead of cotton. But cane sugar was so versatile, and cotton so workable and mercifully cool. And even if mahogany, as Charles Dickens wrote in 1857, reflected “in the depth of its grain, and through all its polish, the hue of the wretched slaves,” how many people cared to notice? How many do now?

It takes a heap of imaginative effort to discern the backstory of enslavement in the daily artifacts of Adirondack life. How can you see what you don’t know? Regional historians have not unpacked it for us. Museum labels don’t make the links, and we’re not used to making them ourselves. It’s heavy lifting, straining muscles little used, when we choose to see our material culture through a lens this dark and judging. The gorgeous coffee mill that furnished guests of the Blue Mountain House with their morning cup on the veranda in the 1870s and after—it’s a hard, uneasy leap to vault from this congenial picture to a Brazilian coffee farm notorious for work conditions so punishing that enslaved laborers could expect to live no more than seven years, on average, after starting work.

But at least the coffee mill suggests a place to start the inquiry—a thing to look at, a relatable clue. How much harder to trace the impact of the culture of enslavement and white supremacy with no artifact at all? “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity,” Emerson reminds us. But complicity can be hard to parse, especially when it is embedded in the bloodless paper of a bank note, a stock purchase, an insurance claim.

No enslaved laborers or servants worked at J. P. Morgan’s Uncas; he bought his wilderness estate in 1897, more than three decades after slavery’s abolition. The railroad giant Collis P. Huntington bought Camp Pine Knot from the impecunious William West Durant in 1895. Adolph Lewisohn’s camp on Upper Saranac Lake wasn’t built until 1904. But could these magnates have established their seigneuries without fortunes that depended—not wholly, but always meaningfully—on the unpaid labor of enslaved people?

Before the Civil War, slaveholders looking to expand their operations and chattelize more bodies got loans from banks that designated their enslaved workers as collateral. When these banks were absorbed by bigger outfits like J. P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America, and Lehman Brothers after the Civil War, the companies that took them over profited from slavery’s earlier expansion. The Gilded Age tycoons who were enriched by the success of these great firms, and who bought or built the Great Camps of the Adirondacks, were similarly indebted to pro-slavery practices that secured their wealth. Distantly, but indisputably, the fortunes they inherited, stewarded and masterfully expanded, relied on or derived from the forced labor of Black bodies.

Even after slavery, and even among the staunch Unionists and social progressives of this elite class, the hard-sunk habits of white supremacy ground inexorably on. Camp Pine Knot’s Huntington, the visionary founding partner of the Pacific section of the Transcontinental Railroad, was a staunch supporter of the Hampton Institute and a benefactor of Booker Washington’s Tuskegee. When the Civil War ended and he undertook the extension of the Covington & Ohio Railroad in West Virginia, he urged his superintendents to hire freedmen whenever possible—and hired they were, by the thousands. But fair pay, decent housing, and safe work conditions would not be their portion. Before the war, enslaved track hands got the worst, most dangerous assignments, and Emancipation worked no change in this convention. For the same work and the same hours, they made less than their white coworkers, and could expect no advancement. Their loss was Huntington’s offhand, if likely unintended, gain.

Railroad magnate William Seward Webb disavowed any direct responsibility for the well-documented hardships faced by the Black work gangs from the South who labored on his Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad. Not even his contractors were held to blame; only their subcontractors and labor agents, who had misrepresented not only the location of the railroad to Black track workers, but the Adirondack climate, transportation fees, food costs, and housing. Webb himself, always at a lordly, cool remove from the scene of these injustices, remained untouchable, yet practices hard-rooted in slavery and a racialized work culture plainly benefited him and his investors, as they would benefit New York Central when this larger line absorbed Webb’s Adirondack Railroad in 1913. 

Exploring the lasting legacies of slavery and white supremacy in the Adirondacks is like mapping a thickly grassed-over minefield. It’s slow-going and unpredictable. Land mines age in different ways. A few, like the numberless Adirondack place names that included a racist epithet, all changed or modified by federal and state law half a century ago, have been effectively defused. Some, less obvious, retain the old explosive power. Others, not so much. Learning that fully eight counties in or part of the Adirondack Park were named for slave-owners did not amaze me. Nor was I surprised to discover several slave-owners among the names of the High Peaks. But learning that one High Peak, Seymour Mountain, honored a New York governor with no very meaningful ties to this region, who made his presidential campaign motto “This is a White Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule,” derided Ulysses Grant as “The N—–’s Candidate,” and welcomed the murderous draft riots in New York City in 1863*—this was unexpected. Consider the legacies of slavery expressed in toponymy of this kind. There is Horatio Seymour’s own very public racism. There is the taking-it-for-granted among the long-gone namers of this peak. Then there are our own excuses. We didn’t know.… It’s just a name.… It’s what we’re used to.… Can’t change what happened way back when.

Can’t change it, certainly, but are we obliged to honor it? To casually defend an old convention because it’s there, without asking why and how it got there? In this era of a roused concern with racial justice, might not dignifying a High Peak with the surname of an avowed white supremacist occasion some distress?

Systemic racism is no buzzword. But it risks being dismissed as such when it doesn’t carry with it, always, a respect for its long history, and how it worked and made itself a fact of daily life for centuries before the phrase was coined. My examples only prod. It will take much harder scrutiny to give this concept the legs it needs to walk us out of the deep wood of old assumptions. Hot talk of cancel culture and erasure can’t substitute for historical awareness. A perspective on Adirondack history that honors a concern with racial justice is no glib game of gotcha. It’s the opposite.  It amplifies, enriches. It cracks apart a worn-out notion of what Adirondack history should include, and lets in a view long obscured by unexamined privilege. A big view, fresh, unflinchingly inclusive, uncomfortable, and needed. This last above all.   

*Changes have been made to the version that appeared in print to correct and clarify the circumstances surrounding the arrest and sale of Ireland, who had escaped slavery in the Champlain Valley. The age of an unidentified person who ran from his Harkness enslaver and the year of the New York City draft riots were also corrected.


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