“Into the Wilderness”: Part Two

Runaway notice for slaves Fortune and Dean. "Berkshire Chronicle," 7-31-1788, pg. 3.

Runaway notice for slaves Fortune and Dean. “Berkshire Chronicle,” 7-31-1788, pg. 3.

Runaway

On a summer night in 1788, a man and woman made a desperate bid to be free. The man was a forty-year-old slave called Fortune by his master. The woman, called Dean, was “about 28 years old, of a yellow complexion.” These two human beings were the legal chattel of Abraham Van Allen, a Dutch farmer living in Kinderhook, New York. In running for their lives, Fortune and Dean stole two kinds of property that night: themselves, and the two mares on which they fled.

In 1788, slavery was still legal in New York. It had all but ended in neighboring Massachusetts, and Abraham Van Allen must have guessed that his fugitive slaves would head in that direction. In the runaway advertisement he placed for three consecutive weeks in the Berkshire Chronicle, published in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the farmer described his missing humans and horses at equal length, and concluded: “Whoever will take up the said man and woman slaves, and the mares, saddle and bridle, and bring them to me, or secure the slaves in some gaol [jail], so that the owner can have them, shall have THIRTY DOLLARS reward, and for the slaves only, TWENTY DOLLARS” (7-31-1788, pg. 3).

A brief word here about slavery in the northeast: Massachusetts is proud of its history as a so-called “birthplace of American freedom,” but is less vocal about its dubious distinction of being the first colony, in 1641, to formally codify the legality of owning another human being. Many of its earliest slaves were Native Americans taken as prisoners of war during multiple armed conflicts with English settlers. Over time, that demographic shifted so that more and more Africans were held in bondage. The total slave population of New England never exceeded three percent of its overall populace, but a slave census taken in 1765 still showed nearly 6,000 individuals held in Massachusetts in lifelong service against their wills (Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, pgs. 46, 75, 181).

Contrary to what was stated in The History of Lorain County, the adoption of a new constitution in 1780 did not legally end slavery in the commonwealth. Massachusetts could claim that it was almost unique among the colonies in that slaves there had the right to own property, write contracts, sue, petition, and bear witness in a court of law. The fact that they had these “important rights of legal personhood” enabled slaves to begin using the courts to chip away at the edges of slavery for decades prior to the 1780 constitution being ratified. Seventeen slaves sued for their emancipation in just the decade between 1764 and 1774 (Tyrannicide, pg. 18, 34). In the end, it was these “freedom suits” and a series of judicial decisions that gradually eroded slavery in Massachusetts. There is no single piece of legislation to point to, no definitive end date, though the year generally cited is 1783. New York did not free all the slaves still held within its territory until 1827.

Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, who brought one of the most famous of the Massachusetts “freedom suits” against her master, John Ashley. Born into slavery on a Dutch farm in New York, she was given by her Dutch owner to his daughter—John Ashley’s wife, Hannah—in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and successfully sued for her freedom in 1781. Original watercolor on ivory belongs to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mum Bett, who brought one of the most famous of the Massachusetts “freedom suits” against her master, John Ashley. Born into slavery on a Dutch farm in New York, she was given by her Dutch owner to his daughter—John Ashley’s wife, Hannah—in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, and successfully sued for her freedom in 1781. Original 1811 watercolor on ivory belongs to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

Was the woman called Dean who fled bondage in New York in 1788 the same free woman of color who was counted as living in the Howk household in Lee, Massachusetts, two years later, the Dean who emigrated with the Howks to Ohio in 1818? It is impossible to know without discovering further documentary evidence. The female name spelled “Dean” in Dutch (pronounced “deh-AHN”) was not especially rare among those assigned by Dutch slave holders. A 1755 census of New York slaves included the names Dean, Deana, Deen, Diean, Dien, Dijeen, Dijean, and Dyaen. (Documentary History of the State of New York…, pgs. 845-868). Given differences between Dutch and English pronunciations, and the fluidity of all spelling in the eighteenth century, many of these variations could have sounded so similar when spoken that they were used interchangeably in writing. It is equally likely that the authors of the two late-nineteenth-century passages I quoted in Part One were transcribing things in written English that they were told orally, in which case the former slave’s name was probably something like “Dien” (pronounced “DEEN” in Dutch).

Whether the woman Dean who lived with the Howk family in Lee was the same woman who escaped on horseback from Kinderhook, New York, or whether she instead passed through the ownership of the Howk or Van Deusen families (also of Kinderhook, then of Berkshire County, Massachusetts) we can offer some limited speculation about her background. She was likely born into slavery in the United States. In his examination of African Americans living in the mid-Hudson River Valley in this period, historian Michael Groth noted that “the vast majority of slaves and children of slaves in the mid-Hudson Valley in 1800 were almost certainly native born” (“The African American Struggle Against Slavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley, 1785-1827,” pg. 68). It should be stated that Groth was specifically looking at Dutchess County, New York, but Kinderhook was located in the adjacent county of Columbia.

The counties of New York’s Hudson River Valley. From the website HudsonValleyTravels.com.

The counties of New York’s Hudson River Valley. From the website HudsonValleyTravels.com.

Groth further asserted that since most Hudson Valley slaves were raised and labored inside the homes of Dutch masters (as opposed to larger communities of field slaves, often housed separately from owner families in isolated slave quarters), many were “readily proficient in English or Dutch,” and he cited multiple examples of runaway notices that listed the number of languages spoken by missing slaves. It seems likely that Dean would have conformed to this pattern.

The 1790 federal census shows us that Kinderhook, New York, had 4,661 residents, of whom 638 were slaves. A History of Old Kinderhook helpfully informed its readers that this was “a total exceeding that of every other township in the county” that year (pg. 552). Lee, Massachusetts, was starkly different; in 1790, there were only 1,170 inhabitants in the village, of whom just three persons were classified as “other” than white. Despite the fact that slaves seem to have been permitted greater flexibility of movement and even work and living arrangements in Massachusetts than in the southern states, for example, Dean would still have found it difficult to connect to a larger black community living in Lee. We can only imagine how different her life would have been had she been in service in Great Barrington, just a few miles south but home to nearly fifty black inhabitants, almost half of whom were living in independent households. Stockbridge, too, due west of Lee, had nearly identical white population numbers as Great Barrington, but was also home to sixty-four black residents, of whom half were living in independent households. Ironically, Dean’s comparative isolation in Lee may have offered her some preparation for the next chapter in her life.

In Part Three, Dean emigrates to Ohio.

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