Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Salem’s Forgotten African Americans

By William A. Cormier
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved by the author.

A Research Journey Begins

Little did I suspect that a telephone call in February 2002 from an Albany man, Lloyd Stewart, searching for his ancestors, would result in the larger discovery (for me) of Salem’s near-forgotten African-American presence of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Stewart’s ancestral names, Van Vranken and Burke, were two names that I recognized from my work as town and village historian, and as I searched the historical records for them, I discovered that Van Vrankens, Burkes and other African Americans were buried in the “African Grounds” in Evergreen Cemetery and also in the Revolutionary War Cemetery or “Old Burying Ground.”

The design of Evergreen Cemetery, built in 1859, reflected the attitudes of mainstream American society in the Victorian period. The cemetery committee, with the help of William Blair and Dr. Asa Fitch Jr., among other prominent Salem citizens, engaged the services of J. C. Sidney, of Philadephia, to design the cemetery. Sidney was considered one of the most talented landscape gardeners in the country, and his design resulted in a grand landscape of tree and shrub lined avenues and lily filled ponds.[1] As citizens purchased lots they place ornate mausoleums, gravestones and statues at the grave sites, creating the grandeur of this cemetery that is evident today.

But not all were invited to find eternal rest in the main portion of the cemetery.  The less fortunate of Salem’s society were assigned to lots labeled “Poor Grounds,” “Single or Travelers’ Grounds,” and “African Grounds.”  There are sixteen recorded African American Grounds burials:

Sylvia Boston, d. 1842, disinterred from the Revolutionary War Cemetery in 1861 and buried in Evergreen Cemetery, according to the notes of Dr. Asa Fitch, Jr.

Melisa Ann Hogeboom, b. Moreau, N.Y., p. Alexander and Jane Ann Gansevoort, Husband Henry, d. Salem, Sept. 11, 1867, age 24, consumption

Susan Robertson Freeman, p. [parent] Robertson, d. Salem, widow, April 4,

1867, age 97 [the April 4 date is discrepant with the gravestone inscription of March 4]

Andrew VanVranken, d. Feb. 23, 1870, ae 46m 17, wife Leonora, parent Samuel

Charles VanVranken, d. Feb. 24, 1874, ae. 20 y, son of Samuel and Susanna

[Charles Van Vranken was listed in the cemetery records as having been buried in Section K. This designation had to have been entered in error since Section K did not become a burial ground until 1990. He, therefore, is listed here.]

Eva Gansevoort, aka Elira Eveline, parents Alexander and Jane Gansevourt [sic],  d. March18, 1870, age 1 yr, 9 m, 15 d.

Jane Ann Gansevoort, parents Cuff and Rachel Simmons, born Schaghticoke, Husband Alexander, d. August 11, 1870, age 62

Elizabeth Freeman, b. Hebron, d. Salem, Nov. 2, 1879, age 87, cancer and asthma

Samuel Boston, widower, d. Feb. 17, 1877, age 73

Cato Bogart, wife Susan, d. Feb. 21, 1877, age 74

Alfred Morris, b. Saratoga Springs, p. Charles and Sarah Morris, d.

Saratoga Springs, April 20, 1877, age 3 y, 9 m, 2 d

James Bennett, d. April 26, 1879

James Burke, w. Helen, d. April 18, 1881, a barber by trade

Susan Bogart, husband Cato, d. July 20, 1882

James H. Burke, p. James and Helen, d. Saratoga Springs, single, d. May 19,  1883, age 10

Samuel VanVranken, Schaghticoke, single, son of Francis S and Anna,

Lansingburg, [sic] March 16, 1891, 81 y, 2 m, 4 d [2]

In 1859 assigning separate burial lots for the poor, for strangers, and for Africans was considered a benevolent move, but by today’s standards discriminatory.  (Segregated burials in the African Grounds continued until 1891.[3])Even today, these side lots are not grand.

On a cold, damp and overcast day on February 23, 2002, Lloyd Stewart and this historian walked the avenues of Evergreen Cemetery until we found the African Grounds.  Disappointingly, we found the grounds in complete disarray, obviously ignored for many years.  The site, overgrown with large pine trees, was strewn with dead branches and covered with heavy brush. Checking the African Grounds burial list and the map that we carried with us, we knew that African Americans were buried somewhere on the site, and that some of them were Stewart’s ancestors. (In the early spring of 2003, Cemetery Superintendent Nick Durrin, while cutting the brush, would find two broken stones.)

We had better luck at the Revolutionary War Cemetery where the names of four other individuals, ancestors to Mr. Stewart, were found on existing tombstones.

The only partly-successful expedition set off a train of questions in my mind.  What role did Salem play in the history of slavery and abolition?  What were the circumstances surrounding the African Americans buried in Salem?  Were they all slaves?  Was slavery a big part of Salem’s culture and economy?  How did Salem citizens react to New York laws regarding abolition?   Were African Americans an accepted part of Salem society after abolition?  These questions begged an answer.

Salem’s Slaves

The Town minutes[4]and the historical notes of Dr. Asa Fitch Jr. were revealing. Slavery, legalized by Statute in 1664, was an accepted practice in New York State, and apparently an accepted practice (by some, at least) in Salem.  Fitch reported that when Captain John Barnes and his Rangers went to Skenesboro (today’s Whitehall) on May 9, 1775 to capture the Tory Col. Philip Skene, Barnes returned to Salem with a young girl, “6 or 7 years old,” named Sylvia, described as a “mulatto slave, reputed to be the natural daughter of Col. Skene.”  When Col. Barnes left Salem at the end of the Revolutionary War, he sold Sylvia to Maj. Thomas Armstrong who in turn sold her to Col. John McCleary.[5] 

Sylvia appears to have been Salem’s first documented slave, and although no town records show that she was manumitted under the New York Manumission of Slaves Statute of 1785, Sylvia most certainly became free under the 1827 Emancipation Statute before she died in 1842.  A Salem Press obituary in January of 1877 about Samuel Boston noted that his mother, Sylvia, was the wife of Quack Boston, and it “was believed that she was the daughter of Skene...a light colored mulatto woman—she may have been only a quadroon, and we think before slavery was done away with in this state, was owned by the late Col. John McCleary, of this town.” 

Further proof of her place in Salem society is noted by Fitch who states that she died in 1842 about age 75 and in 1861 was removed from the old burying ground and “reinterred in Evergreen Cemetery.”  Fitch went on to note that “part of the inscription on her monument, which describes her story, reads as follows.—“[Sylvia] was noted as being intellectually superior to any of her race in the town, and won the kind regard and esteem of all who knew her.”[6]  For some unknown reason, Sylvia’s name does not show up on Evergreen’s African Grounds burial list, and any other reference about her gravesite and stone outside of Fitch’s reference, is unknown.

The First Census and Early Memories

Since only the names of the heads of family were recorded in the First Census of the United States 1790, one must assume that Sylvia was among the 21 slaves counted in Salem.  In fact Salem led the way in the old Charlotte County area with its number of slaves. Argyle came second with fourteen, followed by Westfield (today’s Fort Ann) with nine and Hebron, Whitehall and Queensbury with one each.

A letter-to-the-editor in a 1927 issue of The Salem Press[7]shed some light on slave ownership and names of slaves. (The letter appears under the title “First Census Showed Some Slaves in Salem.”

Dear Sir:

“The Churchman,” the foremost Episcopal Church paper, in its issue of last December 31st, contained the following item:

“There was nothing ‘high hat’ about York,” writes E. W. ‘Butterfield in the Contributors’ Column of the Atlantic. In testimony whereof he offered the inscription in the village graveyard at Pittsfield, Vermont:

“In memory of Jack York, who died at Pittsfield, Vermont, August 29, 1874. Aged about 85 years. He was born a slave in Salem, New York. He came to Pittsfield, Vermont, in 1820, where he was always ready to shake hands with all.”

The Negro population of Salem was never large. The writer recalls “Sam” Boston, Cato Bogart, his wife Susan, and son (Alex); James Bennett, who for many years was in the employ of Sylvanus Dickinson, and “Jim” Burke, the barber. The last named was born a slave in the South and came to Salem with the late Abram (Brommie) Lansing, as coachman, I believe. Living with Robert Shaw, north of the village, was an old colored man—Jake. Possible there were others but I cannot recall them. Back in the 1840’s there was a lame colored barber “Dem” here, and in the 1860’s and 1870’s three or four younger colored people were in town for short periods.

The first United States census was taken in 1790; at that time slaves (Negroes) were owned by the heads of families residing in the town of Salem:

General David Thomas, 1
General John Williams, 2
John Patterson, 1
Judge Edward Savage, 1
John Warford, 5
Aaron Martin 1
Moses Martin, 3
Ebenezer Russell, 4
Thomas Armstrong, 2
Colonel Joseph McCracken, 1
Possibly the early records of the “White” and “Brick” churches, if still in existence might give the names of others of the Negro race once residents of Salem.”

Signed C.

Slavery and Gradual Abolition

Fortunately, the minutes of Salem town meetings from 1803 to 1826 were much more detailed regarding slaves and their owners, and the minutes reflect what was required under the law at that time. Four manumissions appear there of a type permitted by an early New York State statute (1785) allowingmanumission for slaves under the age of 50 years old who had a certificated signed by the Town Clerk or the Poor Master showing that he or she had a means of support.  Only one manumission of 1826, the final entry of any kind about slave in the minutes, probably relates to New York State’s later slavery-abolition laws.

In 1799 the state had actively mandated freedom for some.  A stature of this year proclaimed all slaves born after July 4, 1799, free, but also ordered that though the “children of slaves born on or after July 4, 1799, would be free, they were required to serve their mother’s owner as indentured servants.”[8] In other words, based on this law, the children of a slave mother were held to serving her master-males until age 28 and females until age 25.

In 1817 passage of a newer gradual abolition act provided that on July 4, 1827, every black born to an unfree mother before July 4, 1799 would be free as well, yet the 1817 law reaffirmed the indenture periods for the children born after July 4, 1799.[9]  The stipulations of the 1799 and 1817 acts meant that some “blacks could be kept in servitude as late as 1848.  There were not slaves but neither were they free.” [10]No  wonder one modern writer, George Dewan, describing the moment New York State’s emancipation law went into effect on July 4, 1827, states: ‘[when]100,000 slaves were freed without compensation to their owners, a great injustice was done to the children of slaves.”[11]

Salem’s town minutes recorded formal actions taken for African Americans between 1803 and 1826, almost the whole gradual abolition period.[12]In addition to the manumissions already mentioned, the minutes record births of slave children and transfers of ownership (plus simple statements of ownership which perhaps followed sales).These “filings” were required by law, along with all information on all manumitted or “abandoned” slaves.

Using the minutes as well as information about Salem’s slaves found in Johnson’s History of Washington County, New York, 1878, I created the following list:

1803---abandons right to slave child, London, born of slave, Dina. Owner John Williams purchased Dina from George Ashley of Whitehall.

1803—certificate of ownership of child slave, Moses, to Ebenezer Russell.

1805—certificate of birth of Sylvia; mother Rose. Owner Ebenezer Proudfit.

1807---certificate of birth of male, Dick, to slave Violet. Owner Margaret Warford.

1808---certificate of Poor Master that former slave, Flora, is capable of supporting
herself. Owner Rev. John Warford, dec’d.

1808---certificate of mulatto birth, male named Cuff. Owner James Harvey.

1810---certificate of Peter, born to female slave, Beck. Owner Anthony I. Blanchard.

1814---certificate of birth, Kate, daughter of female slave, Amy. Owner Anthony I. Blanchard.
1818---certificate by Poor Master that slave, Lotte, is manumitted by Hon. Edward Savage.

1818---certificate of birth of Cato (probably Cato Boget) [sic] to slave, Amy. Owner Anthony Blanchard.

1818---certificate of birth of slave female, Nan, child of female slave, Chris. Owner John Savage.

1818---certificate of Poor Master that former slave, Flora, can provide for herself

1820---certificate that manumitted slave, Amy, is capable of supporting herself. Owner Anthony Blanchard

1821---certificate claiming slave child, Charles Woods. Owner Nathan Wilson, Esq.

1825---certificate that slave, Jack Becker or John Dean, can support himself. Owner Elijah C. Pearl.
1826---manumitted slave, Charles [Woods]. Owner Nathan Wilson, Esq.

The list reveals that Salem’s most prominent citizens and really only the most prominent citizens-kept slaves at one time.  Brigadier-General [militia title] John Williams, also a physician, was the largest landowner in both town and county as well as a New York State Senator and United States’ Representative at different times.[13]  Ebenezer Russell was an early justice of the peace in Salem and a New York State Senator.[14]Reverend Ebenezer Proudfit of the United Presbyterian Church was a Williams’ son-in-law,[15] as was Anthony Blanchard (also a county judge).[16]Edward Savage was another judge as well as co-founder with Nathan Wilson of the Register newspaper;[17]his son, John Savage, would have an even more illustrious career as a United State’s Representative and later Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court.[18]  Along with his press interest, Nathan Wilson served as a United State Representative, too, and pioneered the introduction of merino sheep into the county.[19]  Margaret Warford was the widow of Reverend John Warford, first “settled” pastor of the First Presbyterian Church;[20] a proof of the couple’s wealth--their fine grandfather clock—stands in today’s Glens Falls National Bank of Salem.  Elija C. Pearl, closer to commercial and industrial ventures than others, operated a factory at Eagleville in Salem (most likely the large woolen mill there).[21]

But despite their records of slave ownership, wealthy owners like General John Williams and the Honorable Edward Savage appear to have adopted the abolition spirit by abandoning rights to a slave (Williams in 1803) and manumitting a slave (Savage in 1818) during this time.  (Though it is possible to read the William and Savage transaction in a different way.  Did Williams free the slave child, London, in 1803?  Or only cede rights over the boy to the mother’s previous owner, “George Ashley of Whitehall”?  Also, while John Savage freed Lotte, in 1818, he took the trouble to register the birth of slave female, Nan” the same year, thereby assuring himself—at least theoretically—of Nan’s labor during her productive years of the next quarter century.)  Yet the complete absence of any mentions of indentured African Americans in the town minutes, post-1826,[22]argues that slavery died earlier rather than later in Salem.

The Role of the Churches

Three protestant denominations flourished in Salem.  The 1764 pioneers of Salem, attended two Presbyterian churches—the New England church (First Presbyterian) and that of the Scotch-Irish immigrants led by Rev. James Clark (United Presbyterian).  In 1770, Philip Embury, organized a Methodist Society in Camden Valley, and by 1790, the Shushan Baptists had also organized.[23]

Early on, the Salem’s New England or “Brick” church welcomed African Americans into their church, albeit with one reservation.  A description of the Brick Church pews, as they existed in 1808 is found in the New England Presbyterian Church history: “Wide galleries surrounded the church on all sides, and [at] each corner of the southern one there was a large square pew, raised higher that the rest, and appropriated exclusively for the use of colored persons.”[24]

By 1838, the United States Presbyterian Church was divided over the slave issue, with presbyteries in the North opposed to slave–holding.  (In 1861, “shortly after the Civil War began, the Southern presbyteries of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America withdrew and organized the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States.”)[25] 

Salem’s other churches followed the lead of the Northern Presbyterians. At its fourth annual convention in 1838, Salem’s Baptist Church, one of sixteen Washington County churches in the Washington Union of Baptist Churches, subscribed to the following resolution:

Whereas this Association have [sic] for the last two years passed resolutions condemning the abstract sin of slavery…[and] therefore, wishing to evince our deep abhorrence of the crime of slaveholding, and bear our testimony against the guilt of slaveholders—the time has come when our churches are called upon to proclaim…that the slaveholder, the man who buys, and sells, and makes merchandise of this fellow beings, who uses his hire without pay, and holds him in bonds of servitude and oppression, should no longer be entitled to our fellowship.

This resolution was a daring proclamation since it “preceded by seven years a schism” in the Baptist Churches of the North who supported abolition and those in the South who did not.[26] 

The Methodist Church, “whose most enthusiastic followers were African Americans,” strongly supported the call for abolition.  Like the Presbyterians and Baptists, American Methodists split into “separate northern and southern denominations in 1844” over the abolition issue.[27]The Fugitive Slave Act, approved on September 18, 1850 by Congress, intensified the need for those in the North to stand by their anti-slavery principals.[28]  In 1855, Methodist minister, Rev. Luther Lee, pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Syracuse, passionately said this about the Fugitive Slave Law:

I never would obey it. I had assisted thirty slaves to escape to Canada during the last month. If the authorities wanted anything of me, my residence was at 39 Onondaga Street. I would admit that and they could take me and lock me up in the Penitentiary on the hill; but if they did such a foolish thing as that I had friends enough on Onondaga County to level it to the ground before the next morning. The slave could no longer take control over what they could never imagine.[29]

The Road to Freedom

Those who found themselves indentured under the 1799 Statute had two choices: serve or run away as did the black slave Isabella Van Wagener, later known as the abolitionist Sojourner Truth.  She had five children indentured under this law.  Preceding the passage of the 1827 emancipation date, Sojourner in the fall of 1826, taking her infant daughter with her, left her owner John Dumont.  Her 5 year old son Peter, left behind, was sold and resold until he was illegally sold to an Alabama planter.  Peter was retrieved by a lawsuit paid for by the Ulster County Quakers and brought home in 1828.[30]

Whether any Salem slaves (or “free” indentured blacks) ever attempted to run away is not know.  But slave-owners did not ignore runaway slaves, and notices of runaway indentured apprentices and servants regularly appeared in the newspapers. One such advertisement in Salem’s Northern Sentinel of April 16, 1799 may (or may not) describe an apprentice of African descent, but shows the master’s desire to hold tight to the full value of an indenture:

Six Cents Reward. Ranaway from the subscriber, on the night of the 24th inst. An indented apprentice by the name of John Forbs, about 19 years of age, nearly 6 feet high, pretty stocky built, has brown hair. Had on when he went away a light coloured coat, checked woolen shirt, and a napped hat. Whoever will take up said boy and return him to the subscriber, shall receive the above reward and no charges paid. All persons are forbid harboring or trusting said boy on my account. Sanford Kinne, Cambridge, March 25th, 1799.

Blacks who ran away had help.  By 1829, abolitionists assisted fugitive slaves through the Underground Railroad, helping slaves achieve sanctuary in Canada. Washington County was a major gateway to freedom. Like the nearby town Greenwich, a major Railroad stop on the road to Canada, Salem assisted in its small way.  Tradition that the 1796 built Walker-Beattie home on Chambers’ Road, leading to Perkins Hollow, was a station.  A description of the interior of the brick house found in the book Doorways to Yesterday[31]states, “below the stairway there was a secret room, found by lifting up a board from the stairs.  It is said that this room afforded a hiding place from Indians, and also for runaway slaves making their way to Canada.”  South of the village line, a second house, built of brick in 1794 by the Hon. Edward Savage, was reputed to be a safe house.  “Tales have been told that this was a station of the ‘underground railroad.’”  Secret hideaways in the basement pantry and over the bookcases on the first floor were found by the Harrington family [later owners] and would seem to confirm this.” 

According to George DeWan, writing for, when the New York State’s emancipation law was passed on July 4, 1827 and “10,000 slaves were freed without compensation to their owners, a great injustice was done to the children of slaves.”  An earlier Statute of 1799 stated that all slaves born after this date were freed, but the Statute also stated that although the “children of slaves born on or after July 4, 1799, would be free, they were required to serve their mother’s owner as indentured servants.  In other words, based on the 1799 Statute, the children of a slave mother were held to serving her master—males until age 28 and women until age 25. Then in 1817, passage of the gradual abolition act provided that on July 4, 1827, every black born in New York before July 4, 1779 would be free, and all black males born after that date would be free at the age of 28 and all females would be free at the age of 25” (“Slavery in America”).  This stipulation meant that “…blacks could be kept in servitude as late as 1848.  They were not slaves, but neither were they free.”

19th Century Census Records

Further study of the U.S. Census figures showed only 8 slaves in all of Washington County in 1830 –a drastic reduction from the 47 counted in the 1790 U.S. Census, and no slaves in Salem.[32]   On the other hand, the 1830 census showed 52 free African Americans living in Salem. The African American population in Salem peaked in 1850 when the census showed 50 African Americans and three mulattoes--by name, for the first time. The very static numbers from 1830 to 1850 seem to confirm what George Dewan writes about this time: namely, that being free to move about did not immediately assure African Americans better or higher-paying jobs, and for years former slaves, paid minimum wages or working for their keep, had to stay in the employ of former owners in order to survive.[33

As mentioned, 1850 was the same year the Federal Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring “Northern Free Soilers” to return runaway slaves to southern slaveholders.  Whether this law was responsible for the departure of any African American from Salem is unknown, but by 1860 the population had diminished significantly. Though unlikely any of the 53 persons of color living in the town in 1850 were fugitive slaves, the case of free black Solomon Northup, born in Fort Edward but living in Saratoga County in 1840 when he was kidnapped and carried south as a supposed “fugitive, showed how precarious any African American’s freedom was anywhere in the United States before the Civil War.  Had some of the 53 headed for Canada to be on the safe side?  But Economic reasons for leaving were strong, too.  Like others with few resources—immigrants and younger sons—Salem’s ex-slaves and their children were surely drawn to job opportunities in the new industrial cities or on the western frontier, the two real growth areas in the Unites States of the 1850’s.

In 1860 the United States Census identified twelve African Americans, two Stockbridge Indians and three mulattoes.  Of this number, the Boston, Burke and Van Vranken extended families accounted for 14, including the 2 Stockbridge Indians and 3 mulattoes.  Ten years after the Civil War, the 1875 state census showed only seven African Americans in Salem: six males and one female.  The federal census of 1880 counted only one African American in Salem: Henry Cornelius, age 25, a barber.  The 1890 federal census information on African Americans in Salem no longer exists: a fire, destroying most of the federal census records for that year. 

At the turn of the century (1900) the federal census showed that six African Americans, five women and one man, lived in Salem. Two sisters, Ida Johnson, age 32, and Jennie Johnson, age 27, gave their occupations as sleeve-sewers at the Salem shirt shop. Two others, Betty Braxton, age 20, and Cora Brown, age 21, were listed as servants.  Bertha Wells, age 17, was listed as a kitchen girl in the employ of Joseph Stone, manager of the Central House.  Bertha’s census data noted that she was “born in slavery” in Virginia.  All were single.  The one male, 76 year old Amasa Alexander, listed his occupation as “Retired.’  The complete absence of young men is interesting.  Does it show only that for the most mobile and most employable better opportunities called elsewhere?  Or is there a darker side to the absence, maybe indicating that a near all-white country town, grown increasingly close-knot as population declined overall from 18756 to 1900, actively drove out black men?

A Closer Look

Kenneth A. Perry’s study of federal and state censuses of 1830 through 1930 for the Town and Village of Salem[34]shows that the most common occupations African Americans held were that of laborer, farm laborer, or servant.  My own closer study of the census information, supplemented by local historical resources, revealed other occupations for African Americans in Salem: farmer, blacksmith, barber, grocer, coachman, laundress, cook, seamstress, cooper, and kitchen girl.  Census records also showed, for the most part, that African Americans were boarders or resided with friends, relatives, or their employers.

Some African Americans were better off than others, and sometimes money came unannounced to the hardworking, often struggling African Americans of early Salem. In one very early instance (before 1830) a John Epps got a bequest.  He was remembered by decedent Mary Williams in her will of 1819.  Epps received $100, a grand sum for the times.[35]  Long time resident, Samuel Boston, managed to earn enough money to purchase a piece of property.  Washington County Deeds hold an “Indenture [of]… WW/39,13 Aug. 1838, betw. Jesse L. Billings of Whitehall, 1st part, & Samuel Boston of Salem, 2ndpart; for $125.00, land in the village of Salem bounded NE & S by Wm. S. Bernard, & W by lands lately of John Gray, dec’d—being the lot on which Boston now resides.” [36] A later County deed dated November 15, 1859, shows that Samuel Boston sold his property, the one half acre tract of land located on the west bank of Beaver Creek on West Broadway, for $100 to Betsey Freeman. Census information of 1860 shows Susan Robertson, Betsey and James Freeman, and Mary Schuyler living with Sam, either as part of his extended family or as boarders. Further proof of Sam Boston’s land ownership is found in the New York State Census of 1855.  A pictorial reference is found on the village of Salem map in the 1866 Atlas of Washington County.[37]

Quack Boston, Samuel’s father, was mentioned in Sam’s obituary: “…Quack, kept a barber’s shop and a little grocery in a small building on West Broadway, which was torn down a few nights after the great fire in 1840…”  One James Burke is mentioned by former Salem resident James Shields in his street by street description of the village of Salem as it looked in 1868.  He noted that James Burke, barber, ran his own business next to the Salem National Bank in the heart of commercial Main Street.[38] 

A Place of Refuge

Not all were lucky enough to have employment or bequests, and in the case of illness or infirmity, moneyless, Salem African Americans—as well as many indigent people of ethnic groups, such as the Irish and the French-Canadians--relied on the Washington County Poorhouse, built in 1827.  (The date of its construction interestingly coincides with the emancipation dates for many slaves.)  Sometimes whole families were registered.  Lucy McGowan, age 42 and her children, Jonathan, age 7, Anne, age 5, Andrew, age 3, and William, age 3-entered August 21, 1828 and were discharged May 14, 1829. No reason was listed for their stay, but a notation reads “colored children.”[39]  Poor House records also show that George Vandenburg, age 28, was received on September 13, 1869 with a diagnosis of lunacy and “absconded” on November 13.  He was later readmitted to the Poor House on September 27, 1880. William Amos, age 23 was received on August 23, 1869 with lung fever and died on September 14, 1869.[40]  

The Poor House was a refuge not only for the unemployed (maybe McGowan’s problem, combined with the loss of a husband or other breadwinner) and for the mentally and physically ill, but also for pregnant girls who found shelter and care there.  Babies were born at the Poor House.  C. M. Robison, age 18, and Amanda Fitch, age 19, were two African-Americans who entered for this reason.  Robison was received on February 18, 1862, and discharged on March 10, 1862.  Fitch was discharged on September 23, 1862, after a four day stay.[41]No notation as to the culmination of their pregnancies was recorded. Correspondingly, the Poor House took in abandoned children, some of whom were bound out to masters in a work farm program. While most people were released after a period of months to drift back into society, some died in the Poor House, and they are buried in the Poor House graveyard. African-American William Amos was one of these, and although his name does not show up on the list of Poor House grave markers, he is most likely buried in an unmarked grave in the Poorhouse Cemetery.[42] 

Finding work that paid more than a subsistence wage was difficult for African Americans. To make matters worst, in 1877, when the period of Reconstruction ended, gross discrimination resurfaced. The passing of “Jim Crow” laws in the South kept a whole society at bay until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, and this negative attitude affected attitudes in the North, too.[43]


After Nick Durrin’s discovery of the two broken gravestones at Evergreen’s African Grounds in early 2003,[44]Mr. Stewart arranged for a sonar search for graves to be done by Subsurface Informational Services, Inc. -in hopes of finding his ancestors’ gravesites, at least.  On April 29, 2003, the sonar search was done, but was unsuccessful in finding any graves.  The most satisfying result of Mr. Stewart’s search had come early, on his first visit to Salem in February of 2002.  As that cold February day ended in the Revolutionary War Cemetery, we found the four gravestones of his ancestors in the northwest corner:

Katherine Burk [e], p. James and M. Mary, d. Aug. 30, 1857, age 4
Mary Matilda Burk [e], husband James. D. April 10, 1861, age 29
Sally Van Vranken, husband Samuel, d. April 22, 1861, age 56
Samuel Burk [e], p. James and Matilda, d. November 2, 1869, age 44

Standing at the graves in February 2002, Mr. Stewart bowed his head in a silent prayer.  When done, he turned to me and said, “Thank you. I’ve been looking for my ancestors for years and here they are. My 94 year old grandmother will be so pleased.”

More than a year later, I was pleased, too.  The overall ancestral search, which extended into 2003, had resulted in the finding of two gravestones in the African Grounds, a complete list of Stewart’s ancestors and of other African Americans buried in Evergreen, and the location of the VanVranken and Burke graves and stones in the Revolutionary War Cemetery.  Furthermore, news of the project was reported in the Salem Press, the Glens Falls The Post Star, and the Albany Times Union. The Evergreen Cemetery Board of Directors also took new interest in restoring the African Grounds.

Forgotten no more are the 19thCentury African Americans who are buried in Salem. They live now in books Mr. Stewart’s published in 2005, A Far Cry From Freedom:  Gradual Abolition, 1799-1827, and in his most recent publication, The Mysterious Black Migration, 1800-1820, dealing partly with his ancestors’ story.[45]  Materials (compiled in part from the old archival records) are available in the Salem Town Historian’s Office.

If anything can be gleaned from the Salem records, it is that African Americans in Salem during the time of slavery, and throughout the 1800’s, contributed to Salem’s religious life and so to the larger culture; and that most white citizens, if not all, were sympathetic to the principal of abolition.  The histories of the Salem churches make this last point very strongly.

Have all the questions about Salem’s place in the history of slavery and its aftermath been answered?  Probably not, since questions often beget more questions.

About the author: William A. Cormier is a retired history teacher and public school administrator.  He has served as Salem, New York town and village historian since 1984, chronicling Salem history in print and in lecture from the Revolutionary War to WW II.

Works Cited


Atlas of Washington County, New York, 1866.  Philadelphia: Stone and Stewart, 1866.
Barnes, J. A. Rev. and Milford E. Barnes, M. D.  A History of John Barns and His Descendents. 1927.
Calarco, Tom. The Underground Railroad in the Adirondacks. Jefferson: McFarland and Co., 2004.
Coulter, Louise M. et. al., eds.  “Walker-Beattie House.” Doorways to Yesterday, Salem Landmarks. Salem Woman’s Club: January, 1976
Coulter, Louise  M. et. al., eds. Gravestone Inscriptions from the Revolutionary War Cemetery, Salem, New York. General John Williams Chapter DAR. Greenwich: Greenwich and Journal Press, 1975.
Eisenstadt, Peter. ed. “Slavery.”  The Encyclopedia of New York State. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005.
Fitch, Asa Jr., Dr.  Personal notes. Dr. Fitch’s Manuscript History of Washington County, 1867-1878, Salem.
Hulslander, Laura. ed. Washington County, New York, Poor House Accounts, El Paso: The Sleeper Co., 1997.
“Jim Crow Laws.” Family Encyclopedia of American History. Pleasantville: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1975.
Johnson, Crisfield. ed. Washington County History.  Philadelphia: Everts and Ensign, 1878.
Perry, Kenneth A. ed. Vols. 1-4. The Fitch Gazetteer, An Annotated Index to the Manuscript History of Washington County, New York.  Bowie: Heritage Books, 1999.
Seaton, C. W. ed. Census of New York for the Year 1875.  Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1877.
Shields, R. J. Some Recollections of Salem Written Expressly for My Good Friend Mr. Tobias A. Wright of Westfield, N.J., Formerly of Salem, New York. New York City: Sept. 30,1932.
Sprague, Edward P.  Historical Sketch, Presbyterian Church, Salem, N.Y Salem: H. D. Morris Book and Job Printer, 1867.
Stewart. Lloyd.  A Far Cry From Freedom: Gradual Abolition (1799-1827). Bloomington: Author House, 2005.
Stewart. Lloyd. The Mysterious Black Migration, 1800-1820, The Van Vrankens. Xlibris Corporation
“Stowe, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher.”  Family Encyclopedia of American HistoryPleasantville: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1975.
Williams, Harriet M. ed. The Salem Book.  Salem: The Salem Review-Press, 1896.
Wilson, Richard M. ed. Deaths at the Washington County Poor House. Fort Edward: The
            Washington County Historian’s Office, 2001.


“First Census Showed Some Slaves in Salem.”  The Salem Press, 1927.
“Obituary.” Salem Press, 1877.
“Six Cents Reward.” Northern Sentinel. 16 April, 1799.


Evergreen Cemetery Records.
New York State Census 1825-1875.
Perry, Kenneth.A.  Notes of the Salem U.S. and State Census between 1830 and 1930. April 12, 2003.
Salem Town Minutes, 1803-1826.
U. S. States Census 1790-1900
Williams, Mary, a Will. Vol. 4/166. Washington County Surrogate’s Office. Oct. 12,


“Amazing Grace.  The Story of John Newton.” 4/21/2008
“Atlantic Slave Trade.” 4/20/2008
Dewan, George. “Freedom: What Then?” 1/18/2005
“Slavery in America, New York Slave Law Summary and Record.”  1/18/2005
“Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.” 4/13/2008
“The Final Abolition of Slavery in Christian Lands.”
“The Fugitive Slave Act.” 4/13/2008.

[1] Harriet M. Williams. ed., The Salem Book(Salem: Salem Review-Press, 1896) p. 247.
[2]Evergreen Cemetery Records (1859-), Evergreen Cemetery Assoc., Salem, NY.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Salem Town Minutes, 1803-1826,“ Salem Archives, Office of the Town Historian.
[5] Dr. Asa Fitch, Jr., “Notes for a History of Washington County, N.Y.,” Unpaged Mss. Of 1847-1878 on microfilm (Washington Co. Clerk, Ft. Edward, NY) Notes 183, 2102b; Rev. J. A. Barnes and Milford E. Barnes, M. D., A History of John Barnes and His Descendants (Salem, 1927).
[6] Kenneth A. Perry, ed., The Fitch Gazetteer, An Annotated index to the Manuscript History of Washington County, New York(Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1999) Vol.1, p. 485.
[7] News clipping, Unmarked Family Scrapbook, Salem Village Archive.
[8] George Dewan, “Freedom: What Then?” 1/18/2005.
[9] “Slavery in America, New York Slave Law Summary and Record,”
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] For an in-depth discourse on gradual abolition, see L. Lloyd Stewart, A Far Cry From Freedom: Gradual Abolition, 1799-1827 (Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2005).
[13] Harriet M. Williams, The Salem Book, op.cit. p.28.
[14]Crisfield Johnson, History of Washington County. N.Y. (Philadelphia: Everts & Ensign, 1878) pp. 111,116.
[15]Williams, p. 85.
[16] Ibid. p. 36.
[17] Ibid. p. 70.
[18] Ibid, p. 71.
[19] Ibid. p. 68.
[20] Ibid. p. 94.
[21] Dr. Asa Fitch, Jr., “Notes for a History of Washington County, N.Y.,” op. cit., Note 2002. (Pearl was also at one time landlord of Lytle’s Tavern in Hebron.)
[22] Salem Town Minutes (1827-) Town Office
[23] Louise M. Coulter et al., eds., “Walker-Beattie House,” Doorways to Yesterday: Salem Landmarks (Salem Woman’s Club, 1976).
[24] Edward P. Sprague, Historical Sketch, Presbyterian Church, Salem, N. Y. (Salem: H. D. Morris Book and Job Printer, 1867), p. 26. Further evidence that African Americans frequented both the New England Brick Church and the Scotch-Irish White Church is found in the aforementioned 1927 Salem Press article about slavery in Salem. (“Possibly the early records of “White” and “Brick” churches, if still in existence, might give the names of others of the Negro race once residents of Salem.”)  The “brick” and “white” descriptions refer to the types of construction of the Presbyterian churches.  The church build by the Scotch-Irish is a wood structure painted white, thus the name.
[25] “The Final Abolition of Slavery in Christian Lands,” 4/30/2008, pp.2-3,
[26] Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in the Adirondacks (Jefferson, NY: McFarland & Co., 2004)
 p. 55.
[27] Graham Russell Hodges, “Slavery,” in Peter Eisendstadt, ed., Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 2005) p. 976.
[28] On the larger scene, the accepted practice of keeping slaves came into disfavor for a variety of reason.  By the late 18thcentury, pro-slavery passages in the Bible were no longer universally accepted within mainstream Christian religions.  Furthermore, anti-slavery sermons were bolstered by religious music and literature.  The popular hymn, “Amazing Grace,” written in 1772 by a former English slave-ship captain, John Newton, was one such inspiring song.  The first stanza contains the words: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound; That sav’d a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.”  Newton saw the immorality of slavery, left the slave trade, and converted to the Anglican Church.  He became an Anglican priest and had a strong influence on church member and Member of Parliament William Wilberforce, supporting Wilberforce in his anti-slavery efforts.  In due time, “Amazing Grace” became the theme song of early abolitionists.

In 1807, the English Parliament, through the efforts of M. P. William Wilberforce, banned the slave trade on English ships. (“The Final Abolition of Slavery in Christian Lands,” 4/20/2008, p. 4, The United States followed in 1808 and banned the importation of slaves.  (“Atlantic Slave Trade,” 4/20/2008, pp. 13-14, The early abolition efforts of the nearby Quakers or Society of Friends, followed by the Baptists, the Methodists and the Presbyterians obviously had a strong impact on the local congregations, of whom many were fugitives from religious persecution.

And perhaps as influential in arousing anti-slavery sympathy, if not more than the sermons and songs, was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s heart-rendering story about slavery.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written in 1851 in serial form for the abolitionist journal, National Era.  Later published in book form and performed as a play, the story of the plight of the Negro slave strengthened the abolition cause and enlightened the general population. (“Stowe, Harriet Elizabeth Beecher,” Family Encyclopedia of American History, Pleasantville: Reader’s Digest Assoc. 1975, p. 1007.)

In 1861 at the peak of the anti-slave movement and early on in the Civil War, Julia W. Howe wrote, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung to the tune of  “John Brown’s Body.” (John Brown was an abolitionist who led an ill fated insurrection against slavery in 1859 at Harper’s Ferry, VA.)  “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was widely sung throughout the Civil War by Union soldiers and anti-slave church congregations.  The words “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free” epitomized the anti-slave sentiment.  Today both songs continue to be sung in many churches and throughout the nation by civil rights groups.

[29]“Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” 4/13/2008, p. 2,
[30] Dewan, op. cit.
[31] Coulter et. al.,  op.cit.
[32] Graham Russell Hodges in Eisenstadt. op.cit., p. 1419.
[33] George Dewan, op.cit.
[34] Kenneth A. Perry, “Notes of the Salem U. S. and State Censuses between 1830 and 1930,” 4/12/2003, Office of the Salem Town Historian.
[35]Washington Co. Surrogate, “Will of Mary Williams,” 10/12/1819, Vol 4, p. 166.
[36]Washington Co. Clerk, Washington Co. Deeds, “Grantors,” Book WW, p. 39.
[37] Atlas of Washington County, New York, 1866(Philadelphia: Stone and Stewart, 1866) p. 61.
[38] R.J. Shields, Some Recollections of Salem Written Expressly for My Good Friend Mr. Tobias A. Wright of Westfield, N. J., Formerly of Salem, New York (New York: Sept. 30, 1932) pp. 8-9.
[39] Laura Hulslander, ed., Washington County, New York Poor House Accounts (El Paso, NM: Sleeper Co., 1997) pp. 34-35.
[40] Ibid., p. 153.
[41] Ibid., pp. 94, 98.
[42] Richard M. Wilson, ed., Deaths at the Washington County Poor House (Fort Edward: Washington County Historian’s Office, 2001) pp. 2, 5.
[43] “Jim Crow Laws,” Family Encyclopedia of American History (Pleasantville: Reader’s Digest Assoc., 1975) p. 578.
[44] The first stone inscription identified “Susan Robertson, Died, Mar. 27, 1867, Ae. 95 yr, 9 mo.” The inscription of the second stone, that of Elizabeth Freeman, read “Betsy Freeman, Died, Nov. 7, 1870, Ae. 87.” No evidence of stones for Mr. Stewart’s relatives was found in Evergreen.
[45] L. Lloyd Stewart, op. cit.