Saturday, November 19, 2011

Well Served: Service in Chancellor Livingston's House

This post is part of a new series on servants in Livingston households. What was it like to serve one of the richest families in the country? What kind of life did these people live? It's a big question, and a blog is not the place for a complete investigation, but I am attacking it bit by bit with some of the interesting pieces I've gathered over the years.


"The servants were busy cleaning and sweeping": Serving at Arryl House On August 14th, 1798 Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz climbed the the steep bluff from the Hudson River to Chancellor Livingston's fashionable mansion, letter of introduction in hand. A keen observer with an interest in darn near everything, Niemcewicz wrote about the first people he encountered:


"It was seven in the morning, the whole family was sleeping, the servants were busy cleaning and sweeping the house."



So imagine the scene: It's about an hour after sunrise, the Livingstons are still asleep, and the servants have already begun the work of the day. They has risen from their basement bedrooms, dressed, and possibly eaten and were already to work. Niemcevicz saw "cleaning and sweeping" happening--but that was on the main floor.


Down in the basement kitchen (which may have looked something like the Hope Lodge kitchen at left), the cook had undoubtedly already poked the fire back up and begun breakfast preparations. Dishes were rattling, and her knife was chopping in away rhythm as she began preparations for mid-day dinner as well.

Was the cook a slave? Yes, probably. While we cannot be positive, the Chancellor owned 12 slaves in the year 1800, and the days of importing fancy French-trained chefs were still a few decades in the future. So the cook, probably a black slave woman, probably well trained in her art, spent most of her time living and sleeping in the kitchen, organizing and overseeing not only the preparation, but also the care and storage of the household's food.

According to Niemcevicz, these "servants" were well-treated. "They serve, it seems, rather from enjoyment than from necessity." Well, I would take that with a grain of salt, but it sounds as though the Chancellor ran a convivial household. His servants were well-fed and well-cared for: "They have the same food and practically the same comforts as do their masters." I doubt that the slaves slept in feather beds or dined on strawberry ices, but suffice to say that they were reasonably well-fed and treated with some affection and care, an assertion that was backed up by other travelers as well.

As I've already mentioned, some of these "servants" could have been paid staff, and some were definitely slaves. What was the ratio? The 1800 census records show that the Chancellor owned 12 slaves. Some of these would have worked outside as oposed to inside the mansion, where Niemcevicz would have encountered them. Some of these may have been the four young slave boys described by and English visitor four years ealier. At that point, they were ages five to twelve, and they were general helpmeets around the house.

But the 1790 census also shows one free female between the ages of 10 and 16 who is unaccounted for who could have been either a paid servant or Harriet Livingston (later Harriet Fulton) who is sometimes said to have staid at Clermont. Two free females between the ages of 26 and 45 are also unaccounted for, and there is no obvious answer to who those could be. One free male age 10 to 16 is also unaccounted for, leaving a total of four possible paid servants in the Chancellor's household in 1800.

If it is the case that there were four paid servants in Livingston's staff in addition to the slaves, what kind of working environment would this have lead to? Who did what? And how were the relationships between coworkers? The questions about daily life are endless.

One other paragraph of interest can be found in the Niemcevicz account of Clermont.


Amongst other servants here there was a quite black Mulatress. Having secretly has an affair with a white carpenter she had a daughter...This girl and other black imps, children of the servants, are treated and favored by their master as if they belonged to the family.


First of all, this tells us who else was filling out the household at Clermont: little children. The servants were responsible for watching their children as best they could while they worked, and these children played where they could encounter the Livingstons and their guests. This probably meant that they were not playing in the kitchen (where few guests would consider even setting foot), but more likely outside where they were not underfoot.

This passage also references two intimate relationships between black and white New York residents. The "Mulatress" was a woman of African and European descent, herself the product of an earlier relationship. According to Niemcevicz she had "a secret affair with a white carpenter," though as an inquisitive visitor, I wonder how many details the Livingstons were willing to share with him--or even how many they knew. This brief summation does not explain the complexities of human relationships and interaction. I wonder what the whole story was?

At any rate, Niemcevicz levels little or no judgement on the woman for her relationship outside of marriage; as a slave, legal marriage (had she desired it) was not an option for her, and the burden of care of their daughter fell to her. Now her personal life was on display, a point of interest for travelers from foreign countries.

Other mixed race relationships are known within the Livingston households. Henry Beekman Livingston, the Chancellor's younger brother, is said to have fathered numerous illegitimate children, some of whom with African American mothers. Henry's maladjusted and sometimes violent behavior was scandalous all around however (he was practically disowned by his mother), and he can hardly be used as an example that explains the broader Livingston family.

An additional relationship was uncovered in the 1990s between Philip the Signer's son (Philip, of course) and a Jamaican woman that he kept as a slave.  Their decedents have been kind enough to share their story.

All in all, Niemcevicz's description of Clermont and its "servants" is one of the most colorful available to us, perhaps matched only by William Strickland's visit four years earlier. It paints a somewhat rosie look at the Livingston's relationships with their slaves, omitting stories like that of Robin, a slave in Margaret Beekman Livingston's house who was nearly sold south for his troublesome behavior.

Niemcevicz's description nevertheless includes valuable information about the background life of Clermont, not just the glittering family that owned it, but the men, women, and children who polished it until it shone.

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