Winter 2018: By Dan Ferber.
On an August day in 1810, in a courtroom in Albany, New York, a thirty-seven-year-old mother of three signed a document that changed her life forever. The woman, named Susanah, didn’t actually sign the document; being illiterate, and she could only mark it with an “X.” Susanah had spent her life doing household work to maintain the lifestyles of others, specifically a wealthy Albany civic leader named Abraham Ten Broeck, who had served as a general in the Revolutionary War, and then later as Albany’s mayor, and his wife, the former Elizabeth van Rensselaer, the sister of the largest landowner in the region.
The Ten Broecks lived in a large Federal-style mansion that sat on a hill in the outskirts of Albany, giving them a sweeping view of the schooners and sloops sailing into port on the nearby Hudson River, and an equally sweeping view of Rensselaerwyck, a vast estate that had been in Elizabeth’s family for generations. During this time, when the labor of enslaved African-Americans was fueling the rise of huge cotton and tobacco plantations in the South, slavery also thrived in the North. Throughout the colonial period, wealthy merchants bought and sold slaves openly in the taverns of New York City, and slaves constructed roads and docks and built landmark buildings, including New York City’s first city hall. Slave labor also fueled the rise of agriculture throughout the Hudson Valley, and newspapers like the Albany Evening Gazette ran for-sale ads of girls, boys, men, and women of African descent.
Slavery ended in New York in 1827, and by the mid-1800s, once downtrodden former slaves and their children had formed a remarkable community of middle-class black abolitionists. Historical accounts sketch out a rough narrative of how they fought for equality and whisked hundreds of fugitive slaves to freedom, making Albany a major hub on the Underground Railroad. Nonetheless, little is known about the day-to-day lives of these people as they made their transition from slavery to a free, middle-class life. But archaeological digs at the Ten Broeck mansion and several nearby homes are changing that.
Excerpt, Read More in our Winter 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 2. Browse Contents : Winter 2018.
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