Slavery in Guilderland: An institution Howell and Tenney describe as ‘mild’ — judge for yourself

— Painting by John R. Williams

 Jacob Van Aernam, Revolutionary war hero, and his barn, still standing on Brandle Road, just outside of Altamont, was painted by John R. Williams of Knox for a Van Aernam descendant. The Van Aernam cemetery is still there, too. Jacob Van Aernam is waving to Sam, an enslaved person whom, family lore has it, saved Van Aernam’s life.

Most New Yorkers know that slavery once existed here, but few are aware that not only the wealthy, but a large number of ordinary New Yorkers benefited from the labor of enslaved men and women.  For two centuries or longer, slaves were toiling on many of Guilderland’s farms or in local taverns, their names and labors long forgotten.

Within a short time after the Dutch established the Colony of New Netherland in the 1600s, Africans were imported, beginning a history of slavery in New York that lasted until 1827. In the colony, and after 1776 the State of New York, slaves were more numerous than in any of the other northern states in the new republic.

In 1771, shortly before the American Revolution, Albany County counted 3,877 Blacks, almost all of whom would have been slaves.

A glimpse of slavery and the contemporary attitudes of Albany’s white citizens were provided by Mrs. Anne Grant in her 1808 “Memoirs of An American Lady.” Having resided in Albany for many years in the last decades of the 18th Century, she had ample opportunity to observe life there, concluding that local slaves were “happy in servitude, being generally hardworking and loyal to their masters.”

According to her portrayal, physical punishments were rare, but for the few who were really wayward slaves, neglecting their duties, stealing, being disloyal or partial to alcohol, the threat of being shipped to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations kept most of them in line, she wrote.

Slave ownership did not seem immoral or to have bothered the consciences of Albany County slave owners. In their view, religious beliefs did not preclude people from slave ownership and, since mention of slavery had appeared in the Bible, slave owners “had not the smallest scruple of conscience with regard to the right by which they held them in subjection,” Mrs. Grant wrote.

Her conclusion that “the slaves were usually faithful and true to their masters and mistresses, as aside from their being bond slaves and chattels, their lot was comparatively happy” was an opinion that would have been typical of most New York slave owners of the time.

By the mid-1700s, early settlers had begun to establish homes in the area of Albany County that eventually became the town of Guilderland. Arthur Gregg, our late town historian wrote, “The old settlers seemed to have easily absorbed the idea of slavery and took pride in the rapidity with which they could afford them.”

Jacob Van Aernam was a colonial settler known to have owned at least one slave at the time of the Revolutionary War. Van Aernam family tradition claimed that, while an enslaved person named Sam — only his first name is given — was working with Jacob Van Aernam in one of his fields, Sam became aware of a rustling sound in the brush and immediately alerted his master. Van Aernam quickly seized the gun he always carried with him in those troubled times and, thanks to Sam’s warning, managed to rout a stealthily approaching band of Tories.

With the ratification of the Constitution, the extent of slavery in Guilderland becomes more carefully documented by the decennial censuses beginning in 1790. With 3,929 enslaved persons and 170 free Blacks, Albany County had more slaves than any other county in the state except New York City.

While at that time Gulderland was still part of the town of Watervliet, familiar Guilderland names stand out among a much longer list of Watervliet’s population. Henry Appel, owner of the Appel Inn, owned one slave; Jacob Van Aernam owned three, and Barent Mynderse owned four.

The 1800 census enumerated 412 enslaved persons living in the town of Watervliet. At this time, Henry Appel, Frederick Crounse, and Jacob Van Aernam each possessed five slaves, while Lucas Veeder and Barent Mynderse each owned four. Many others owned one or two.

Barent Mynderse, like Jacob Van Aernam, had been a local patriot who played an important part in the Revolutionary War. He was born and lived as an adult in the Freeman House, owning a sizable piece of land there.

His son was Nicholas V. Mynderse, who built the tavern that is now called the Mynderse-Frederick House in 1802 and a year later was elected first town supervisor when Guilderland officially became a separate town.

In the 1790 and 1800 censuses, Nicholas Mynderse does not show up in the records, probably because he was still part of his father’s household. Only the names of heads of households were listed in early United States census records; other family members were listed by sex, age, and race. By the time of the 1810 census, he had died. The question of whether his father’s slaves helped to construct or serve in his tavern cannot be answered without further documentation.

The northern antislavery movement became stronger in the years after the Revolutionary War, leading to the other northern states abolishing slavery one by one. In New York after the Revolutionary War, the number of enslaved persons actually increased with 21,000 slaves in servitude in the late 18th Century.

Although some New York citizens were in favor of emancipation, freedom for the slaves came slowly with much opposition especially from rural areas. Manumission — an owner freeing his slaves — became a major divisive political issue of the day.


Gradual emancipation

Finally, in 1799, the New York State Legislature passed an act gradually freeing slaves. The complicated law stated slaves born before July 4, 1799 would remain as lifelong slaves unless freed by their owner. However, a male born after that date remained a slave until his 28th birthday while a female remained a slave until her 25th birthday, both serving their mother’s master.

Included in the 1799 slave legislation was the provision that babies born of slaves after this time must be registered with the state. Also included was a clause allowing masters to collect a stipend if slave babies were freed within a year of their birth.

As a result, these children were paupers, allowing the overseer of the poor to make them bond servants of the masters who were then paid a monthly fee of $3.50 for each. This explains why in our early town records the following notices are quoted in the Howell and Tenney 1886 “History of Albany County, NY”:

“I do hereby give notice that my Negro wench Dianna was, on the 20th day of May, in the year of our Lord 1802, delivered of a male child named Simon, and that I shall abandon the said child agreeable to the act in that case made and provided. Dated this 28th day of April 1803. Frederick Crounse”

Similar notices were given by Peter Veeder, abandoning his slave Susan’s female child named Gin, and John Howard, abandoning his slave Gin’s male child named Yeat. Henry Appel abandoned three babies, all children of his slave Maria, born between 1801 and 1803, two boys named Jan and Joe and a girl named Gin. And James LaGrange abandoned a male child named Jock, son of Phoebe.

This law was so popular with slave owners that by 1804 the state had paid out over $20,000, a huge sum at that time. The legislature quickly revoked that clause of the law.

Slaves continued to be legally bought and sold in the state until the final emancipation law of 1827. In the Guilderland Historical Society Archives may be seen a 1793 sales contract between Casper M. Halenbeek of Coxsackie who was selling a “certain Negro wench named Zann (Fann?) aged twenty two years together with her child named Maria nearly two years old soundly without any ailments or old disorder” to Hendrick Shavier (Henry Shave?) of the Town of Watervliet for 65 pounds (Americans frequently continued to use English denominations in the years shortly after the Revolution).

George Severson operated a tavern at the base of the escarpment on the Old Schoharie Road (now the site of Altamont’s Stewart’s Shop) with the help of slaves. A Severson family member remembered a story told of an enslaved woman named “old Gin,” spinning before the fire in the late 1700s in the basement of the tavern.

When George Severson died in 1814, all of his worldly goods were inventoried in preparation for a public auction. Listed between 6 brooms with an estimated worth of $.75 and 7 feather beds estimated to be worth $70 was “1 Negro wench estimated to be worth $70 and l Negro girl $40.”

A year earlier, Severson had purchased the approximately 37-year-old Nan for $100 from a Schoharie man; the bill of sale and complete inventory are found in Chapter XXVII of Arthur Gregg’s “Old Hellebergh.” At the auction, both Nan and the nameless girl were purchased by one-time town Supervisor Peter Van Patten for $191, higher than the inventory estimate. Being that he paid a higher price than the estimate, it is likely one or more persons also bid against him to own these two women.

Although it was illegal to do so, in the years just before the end of slavery in New York, slaves were often sold South where they were in great demand. It is not known if any slaves in Guilderland suffered this fate.



As chattel or personal property, enslaved people were part of a deceased person’s estate and were very often passed down to heirs. Jacob Van Aernam’s 1812 will left his slave Sam, his protector during the Revolution, to his sons, John and Thomas, and to his single daughter, Nancy, while to his daughter, Lany, “my young female slave named Chris” and to his daughter Nancy “my youngest Negro slave named Gannet.”

When enslaved African Americans died, finally finding rest and peace, their bodies were interred in the individual family burial grounds on their owners’ farms that existed before large cemeteries were established.

Arthur Gregg mentions the Severson family cemetery where “the graves of slaves are marked with simple fieldstones.” As for the Crounses, “south of their own graveyard may be seen that reserved for the Crounse slaves after their toil was over.”

William Brinkman, an earlier Guilderland town historian, wrote that on the Lainhart farm “colored people are buried in the southeast corner of the plot.” Since the 1810 census lists 37 Guilderland residents owning 66 slaves, there were certainly many other family plots where slaves had been laid to rest over the decades that slavery existed in Guilderland.


Finally, freedom

The 1810 census shows that, in addition to the 66 slaves in Guilderland, there were 54 “free Negroes,” the term used to describe Blacks at that time. Many households had a combination of slave and free Blacks.

Matthew Frederick’s household had one slave and two free Negroes while Barent Mynderse had three slaves and one free Negro. A few residents, such as innkeeper William McKown and John Fryer, each had one free Black person in their households.

Slowly, slavery was dying out. In 1820, the number of slaves had dropped to 47 with 25 free Negroes in town.

Political agitation to totally end slavery continued with strong dissention between the Federalist and Republican parties until finally, under pressure from Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, in 1817, the New York State Legislature passed a law freeing all slaves including those born before 1799 on July 4, 1827.

As sort of a postscript to slavery in Guilderland, in May 1894, an announcement of the death of “old aunt Dinah Wilda, colored,” appeared in the Guilderland column of The Altamont Enterprise. It explained she had been born in 1800 and purchased as a 6-year-old by a grandfather of Dr. Abram DeGraff, Guilderland’s well known doctor.

She remained with the family after the abolition of slavery for three generations and, according to the writer, “was much respected by all who knew her and was always treated as one of the family.” She wasn’t living in Guilderland at the time of her death, but her body was returned to her original home, where her funeral took place at Hamilton Presbyterian Church and burial followed in the DeGraff family plot in Prospect Cemetery.

Later in the 19th Century, as descendants of the original slave owners looked back, their attitude would have been much the same as Mrs. Grant’s. Their ancestors’ slaves were treated kindly and were happy with their lot in life, they maintained.

Howell and Tenney described the institution as “mild” in Guilderland. We know better.

Just imagine yourself being in the situation of the enslaved, overworked Sam or Maria or Nan. Imagine the fear for her future of the unnamed young girl who was auctioned off or of that terrified little 6-year-old Dinah purchased by Dr. DeGraff’s grandfather — and judge for yourself.