The institution of slavery was legal in New York up until the 1820s, but just where the slaves and their families slept, ate and lived isn’t always so clear.
Walter Wheeler, a senior architectural historian at Hartgen Archeological Associates in Rensselaer, will explore just how slaves were housed in upstate New York in a PowerPoint presentation titled “Constructing Slavery: House Form and Households in New York State, 1620-1827.”
Wheeler’s talk will be held Saturday at the Mabee Farm’s Franchere Center in Rotterdam Junction, where a small outbuilding used by slaves still exists.
“The Mabee Farm still has its summer kitchen, and there are a few other regional sites, like the Van Allen House [in Rensselaer], that had a ‘hired man’s’ room on the second floor that the slaves used,” said Wheeler. “But there’s not that much written about how the slaves were actually accommodated, and there were several different types of arrangements.”
‘Constructing Slavery: House Form and Households in New York State, 1620-1827’
WHAT: A talk and PowerPoint presentation by Walter Wheeler of Hartgen Archeological Associates
WHERE: Franchere Center, Mabee Farm, 1100 Main St., Rotterdam Junction
WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $5 for nonmembers
MORE INFO: 374-0263 or www.schenectadyhistory.net
Buildings as clues
Historic sites that had some kind of outbuilding or summer kitchen usually meant that the homeowner had slaves, according to Wheeler.
“A summer kitchen was a small detached building that contained cooking utensils, and there are only a few still standing that I have documented,” he said.
”But there definitely seems to be a connection between places with summer kitchens and owning slaves, so I am drawing a corollary between the two. There might also be a kitchen in the basement, or a small second-floor sleeping space for the slaves, and it all had to do with keeping the social strata in the household apart.”
Wheeler’s research is part of a book he is writing on slavery in upstate New York.
“This presentation is one of the chapters . . .,” he said. “It’s principally about the architecture of these buildings. It’s a long-term project that I’ve been doing a lot of work on.”
The Mabee Farm is reputed to be the oldest existing house in the Mohawk Valley, having been built sometime around 1705. It is owned and operated by the Schenectady County Historical Society, which last year built the George Franchere Education Center at the site.
There were slaves on the Mabee Farm throughout most of the 18th century, including one named Jack, who evidently had a fairly good relationship with the family.
“He was a trusted enough slave to take a team of horses and a wagonload of store goods on a day’s journey all the way up to Fort Edward just as the kickoff for the French and Indian War was mounting,” said Greenwich’s Cliff Oliver, who portrays Jack for school groups and other special events at the Mabee Farm.
“He had privileges and rights that other slaves didn’t, so I think he was treated pretty well because he had many opportunities to leave. But he did bring money into the household. The Mabees were commercial farmers and Jack would take their goods and sell them as far away as New York City.”
Oliver said most of what historians know about Jack comes from a receipt or bill sent to the Continental Army in 1757 when he delivered a wagonload of goods to the soldiers at Fort Edward as they headed to Crown Point on Lake Champlain. The Mabee Family also had slaves by the name of Sam and Ginnie.
“Two of their children are also mentioned, and the farm probably had as many as 18 slaves, but maybe not all at the same time,” said Oliver. “They didn’t just keep slaves around. If they didn’t have any work for them, they would sell them or lease them out, although Jack seemed to have quite a bit of longevity with the family.”
Wheeler said Jack and any other slaves the Mabee family owned probably slept in the summer kitchen or in the main house in the basement or second floor.
“There is clearly space that could have been used for sleeping on the second floor of the summer kitchen or in the basement of the main house,” he said. “There’s also some space on the second floor of the house, but that isn’t so clear because of the 19th century remodeling. There is a lot of precedent for it, however.”
Only the largest farms in the Hudson Valley would have constructed a separate building to house slaves, according to Wheeler.
“There are only a few of the larger farmsteads in the Hudson Valley that would have had something like a slaves dormitory, and I can’t find any examples of that happening in the Mohawk Valley,” he said. “There’s certainly no evidence that there were any at the Mabee Farm.”