The Black Woods

by Amy Godine | History, October 2023

Pastel and gouache illustration by Takeyce Walter

 

If by chance The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier lands in your bookstore this November and you are bold enough to try to lift it without a small crane, you will be amused to know I first envisioned this production as a pamphlet. Maybe 50 pages max.

That’s how much I didn’t know about how much I didn’t know.

Because a story line as clear as this—how much was there to say? Land baron has a big idea, and it tanks. Adirondack history abounds with these. Morehouse, Gilliland, Macomb, the geniuses who dreamed up Castorland. My land-rich visionary was an antislavery reformer named Gerrit Smith who, in 1846, rolled out a plan to donate 120,000 of his Adirondack acres, in (mostly) Franklin and Essex Counties, to 3,000 Black New Yorkers. His goal: to get poor, landless families out of crowded and unhealthy cities and onto their own land. On 40-acre “gift lots,” Smith’s self-employed “grantees” would build the value of their new subsistence farms to $250. From 1821 to 1870, $250 in real property was how much a Black New Yorker had to own to qualify to vote. No other group—poor landless whites, non-English-speaking immigrants—faced this kind of restriction. This was a voter suppression law as pointed as they got. 

Smith’s scheme offered a land route to the ballot for disenfranchised Black New Yorkers, and a way to beef up New York’s antislavery electorate when suffrage activists still held out hope that slavery could be abolished at the polls. On paper the plan seemed outright brilliant. Scores of Black reformers, Frederick Douglass, and even Horace Greeley, talked it up. But in practice? Only a fraction of the gift land was ever settled. Three thousand deeds were distributed, with the help of 12 activists around the state who served as Smith’s agents for this cause, but the preponderance of grantees declined to make the remote Adirondacks their next home. Antiquarian historians blamed the deedholders—too city-stuck, hard work–averse and unresourceful, a view Smith himself indulged. But the real flaw was Smith’s failure to recognize the depth of Black urban poverty and the necessity of start-up capitalization. A removal to a fresh frontier couldn’t work without it. 

Smith moved on. And subsequent projects he embraced gave much more satisfaction. He organized an upstate antislavery interracial convention against the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. He funded emigrants to Kansas whose votes could beef up the antislavery electorate and keep that territory “Free Soil.” More quietly, and with several other radical abolitionists, he underwrote the raids and sallies of the militant abolitionist John Brown. In 1849, this antislavery farmer had moved his family to Smith’s Adirondack gift land, aiming to help the Black farmers in a new neighborhood called Timbuctoo. But Brown hungered for engagement, and Timbuctoo was far from the antislavery fray. In Kansas, with his hand-picked band of antislavery zealots, he waged his war before the War. Then, in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 1859, Brown and his men seized a federal arsenal with the goal of liberating nearby slaves and forming an antislavery militia. Captured, jailed, charged with treason, Brown was hanged that December. It looked like a defeat, but so stirringly articulated were Brown’s goals, and so well-publicized his effort, his name and mission polarized a riven nation and set the stage for civil war.

As for Brown’s Black neighbors in North Elba, biographers and historians were in general agreement that there was little more to say. Hadn’t all but one Black family abandoned their gift holdings just a few years after touching down? The assumption was they hightailed it to the cities where they came from, leaving the raw, exhausting Adirondack wilderness to the folks who knew what to do with it. Who belonged. Who made the cut.

And there you have it. When Brown and Smith swiveled away from Smith’s grand scheme, history did a pivot too, tracking Brown from one hot foray to the next. But if history abandoned the grantees, archival records were keeping track. And if some Black pioneers did return to cities, others made the Adirondacks home for half a century. Descendants are in the region still. Timbuctoo endures in memory (it was never on a map) thanks to John Brown’s devotion to it, but it was not the only neighborhood. Black people lived in Freeman’s Home, Blacksville, Negro Hill, Negro Brook, and maybe Ray Brook (two Adi­rondack newspapers suggested it was named for the Black land agent Charles Bennett Ray). Black households set up in St. Armand and Averyville. Nor were these segregated enclaves. Integration distinguished North Elba and Franklin from the first. Community-building on an arduous frontier compelled interracial collaboration. Military service forged Black-white alliances. Schools, churches, burial grounds and the Essex County jail and poorhouse were integrated. Work crews, fire crews, and road crews recruited white and Black alike. Black men and women were co-founders of North Elba’s library. Black farmers belonged to Bloomingdale’s first cemetery committee.

That said, if a better prospect beckoned, Black pioneers took note. They’d moved before; they’d move again. Gerrit Smith intended his land gifts for Black residents of New York, but several grantee-settlers found the gift lands after years of bondage in Virginia, Maryland and Louisiana. Diasporic migrations were no new thing. The Adirondack sojourn was one of many. After the Civil War some Black Adi­rondackers relocated to Westport or Malone. A few families tried farming in Vermont. A grantee hauled his family to Iowa and the Dakota Territory. A middle ground between urbanity and wilderness was found in little towns like Saranac Lake, Vergennes or Sag Harbor on Long Island. Black farmers came to the gift land and peeled away with the same confidence in better prospects that emboldened their white neighbors to make for Ohio, Michigan and California. The difference was, when white Adirondackers pursued dis­tant dreams, they were resourceful and ambitious. Black families who left failed. Couldn’t hack it. Lacked conviction, vision, grit.

Bigotry distorted more than Adirondack memory. It burdened the grantees all along. Racist merchants overcharged them for provisions. Guides made “a game” of tricking them into selling deeds for pennies. A Keene man so badly botched their surveys that John Brown would have to do them over. A negrophobic Adirondack pundit prophesied a tidal wave of Black pioneers whose votes would result in “the anomalous spectacle … of an African supervisor occupying a seat in the county legislature.”

But there were locals, too, as I wrote in my book, “who were openhearted and square dealing, who offered shrewd appraisals of the gift land and directed deedholders unhappy with their lots to better land nearby. History has recognized John Brown’s family for its sympathetic dealings with the grantees, but [there were] many more white people than the Browns who were allies and companions of the Black pioneers. White neighbors stood by an elderly grantee a speculator hoped to evict. White neighbors of a Black farmer, once enslaved, scared away a bounty hunter looking to take him back to the South. Black and white North Elbans founded two North Elba churches together, and a library, and a choir. Black and white homesteaders shared town appointments, brought potatoes to the same starch factory, buried their dead in the same cemeteries.

“Mountain hikes, ball games, Christmas feasts, and field work were shared pursuits. When the Union Army needed volunteers, Black Adirondackers stepped up, and after the Civil War, white Adirondackers supported the military pension claims of their Black neighbors. Several white households made room for Black boarders, and this worked the other way too. In the great commons of the unregulated wilderness, Black people and white hunted, fished, and foraged together, and bridled at new laws that deemed them poachers and their culture of subsistence something thieving and pathetic. The shared work of placemaking in a hard new country was no perfect antidote for racism, but racism was challenged and subverted in a hundred unsuspected ways.”

As for voting: census reports or poll lists in North Elba, Franklin and St. Armand show Black residents voting early on, and from what we know of their net worth, nobody was asking them to satisfy the race-based $250 voting requirement. If they cared enough to drop a ballot, a ballot they would have.

These hopeful revelations about the value of Smith’s scheme surfaced in other quarters too. In the Comptroller’s ledgers in the New York archives are the names of scores of Black grantees paying back taxes on land lots not their own in the third quarter of the 19th century. Some were covering for relatives, friends or neighbors, ensuring they retained the land they needed to prove their fitness for the ballot. Some may have hoped to organize these lots into something usable for fugitives. Gerrit Smith’s land agent, the activist-minister Charles Bennett Ray, paid taxes on or redeemed Adirondack properties at least 60 times from the late 1840s through the 1850s. Reverend Jermain Loguen, Dr. James McCune Smith and George T. Downing, the city caterer and restaurateur, all speculated in low-cost Adirondack land.

And Mr. Downing’s purchases revealed something more than his nose for a good deal. Here’s an excerpt from my book about this powerful reformer’s land purchases and their posthumous revelations about suffrage justice and Smith’s plan.

“An old friend of Gerrit Smith, the New York City restaurateur George Downing, never got a gift lot. He didn’t qualify. He had money of his own. But he revered the giveaway, and at a Black political convention in Rochester in 1851, he framed an Adirondack homestead as the alternative to African emigration, asking why Black New Yorkers would choose to move to ‘benighted Africa’ when ‘there are large tracts of land in this country, fertile and beautiful, which the colored man can occupy … already owned by colored men in the State.’ Downing was so enamored of this vision that he started buying gift lots as soon as grantees let them go for back taxes, and he kept at it for some 25 years. He evidently hoped his grown children would enjoy this sylvan bounty after he was gone.

“His papers would reveal that 1870 was his biggest year for buying land, and this was no mere happenstance. That year, Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment. When federal legislation compelled New York to nullify its for-Black-voters-only $250 property requirement, and Black New Yorkers who’d held on to their land deeds for decades no longer needed them to vote, they released them. Downing likely bought some of these deeds from sellers in the city and purchased more at auction when they reverted to the state. Especially well represented was gift acreage in the Raquette Lake region in Hamilton County (a neighborhood where no Black deedholders are known to have settled). And then, it seemed, this busy reformer put his paper duchy out of mind, because his six children learned of this inheritance only after his death in Newport in 1903. A glorious discovery! But what to do about the fact their distracted father had neglected to formally submit his deeds to the county clerk?

“Because his land was never registered, New York was free to claim it for nonpayment of taxes and not give Downing notice of the sale—and sell it did. After the 1880s, his paper kingdom became the rustic playground of Gilded Age tycoons. On Downing’s canceled holdings, Alfred G. Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan and former New York attorney general Timothy Woodruff built or purchased Great Camps both renowned and, in some circles, notorious for their ostentation and social exclusivity.

“George Downing’s heirs had not been raised to dodge a challenge. Born to one of the most prominent Black activist dynasties in New York, they hired the boldest lawyer they could find. The erudite son of a Baptist minister and Africanist scholar, Brooklyn’s Rufus L. Perry Jr. told reporters he planned to argue that New York ought never to have transferred ownership of the land without first informing Downing about this impending tax sale. That the speculator had failed to claim title to his land was, Perry allowed, regrettable, but not a reason to strip Downing’s heirs of their due. Perry guessed this was the best case he’d taken on in his 20-year career.

“By Thanksgiving, headlines from Boston to Seattle were blazoning the lawsuit that aimed to evict some of the richest families in the country from their wilderness estates. ‘Negro’s Heirs Claim Vast Game Preserves,’ offered a front-page story in The New York Times, followed the next day by ‘Tale of Gerrit Smith behind Adirondack Suit.’ The Times alone took pains to fix the “eccentric” Gerrit Smith’s land giveaway of 1846 in the context of voting rights and racial justice—and it is thanks to the Times that we know that Downing was able to buy this land in the first place only because grantees held on to it until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. After 1870, and only after, as many as 400 gift lots reverted to New York. ‘Mr. Smith, after having given away the land, naturally did not want to pay taxes on it,’ Rufus Perry told the Times, whose reporter then observed, “It seems the colored men to whom he gave it did not go to the expense of doing so either after the property qualification had been removed.’

“The italics are my own. So offhandedly, so breezily, did this news come to light that one could miss it in a blink. But here we have it: evidence that Smith’s grantees had used and kept their gift deeds to exercise the franchise, and kept them for a quarter of a century, until the right to vote was theirs. Smith likely never knew it, and if coverage of this high-profile dust-up hadn’t noted this detail, we wouldn’t know it either. At the time, it excited no attention. Democratic papers, indifferent to this backstory, preferred to focus on the prospect of a legal challenge to an insular, undemocratic, mercenary elite. That’s what sizzled in an age of glaring wealth disparity and populist unrest: a courtroom blow against a master class that withheld rights of access and usage, a takedown (sneered an upstate editor) of those ‘millionaires who have invaded the Adirondacks, buying from the State great tracts of wilderness. They have taken possession of the lakes and made camps which are in reality abodes of luxury.’

“If Rufus Perry had pressed his case half a century before, and if his plaintiffs had themselves been Adirondack farmers, their bid for retroactive compensation might have had a fighting chance. Before and maybe a little after the Civil War, while an idealized Adirondack farmscape still held its allure, local and regional authorities were apt to favor tax-delinquent farmers over long-distance buyers, letting settlers redeem land that had been long sold for unpaid taxes. Farmers did God’s work with every ax stroke; it was in the public interest to keep them on the land their sweat and zeal had improved. But by the time Perry took this case in 1904, that narrative was decades out of step. What voters wanted weren’t freeholds in the woods but a healthy watershed that kept the Hudson River in good supply, and a wild park that promised not just recreation but regeneration and escape. Further, Downing’s heirs were bourgeois urbanites who didn’t know this purloined patrimony.

“The rapidity with which this lawsuit dropped from public notice suggests how decisively it was discredited. No resolution or compensation from the codefendants was reported, and all public notice of the pending suit ceased within a month.” But the suit was, of course, the side story. The real revelation was the use of Adirondack land deeds for political empowerment. What Smith once proudly called his “scheme of justice and benevolence” was vindicated. His early exercise in affirmative action, a bold bid for environmental distributive justice and a vote of confidence in the “slow democracy” of frontier life had in this instance quietly panned out.

Not that Gerrit Smith would know. He died well before the Downing lawsuit revealed the fate of 400 gift deeds, and long after he had jettisoned his own high hopes. He gave up.

Not these others.

The suffrage-seeking grantees had put their deeds to work.

 

The Black Woods (Cornell University Press) is available for preorder at www.cornellpress.cornell.edu.

Independent scholar Amy Godine, of Saratoga Springs, has been writing and speaking about ethnic, migratory, and Black Adi­rondack history for more than three decades. She has been an Adirondack Life contributor since 1989; her latest article, “The Hidden Legacies of Slavery,” appeared in our February 2022 issue.

Takeyce Walter is an award-winning contemporary American painter (born in Jamaica), art instructor and media producer living and working in upstate New York. See more of her art at The Adirondack Experience, in Blue Mountain Lake, or at www.takeyceart.com.

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