Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Slavery at Clermont

The topic of slavery in the northern part of America always seems to arouse curiosity in visitors. Images of Southern slavery have been firmly planted in our minds by popular literature and movies, but Northern slavery often remains a hazy and poorly-illustrated concept.

First of all, let me start by saying yes, the Livingstons owned slaves. Slave ownership was common with the well-to-do in all areas of America dating back to the 17th century, including northern regions. In the 1790 census we find that Margaret Beekman Livingston owned 15 enslaved people and that Chancellor Livingston owned 9. This was a fairly large number for a northern slave holder, where grain agriculture did not necissitate the same kind of large labor force that tobacco, cotton, and rice (souther staples) did.

By 1800, Chancellor Livingston owned 12 slaves and Edward P. Livingston (who with the Chancellor's daughter Betsy had moved into Clermont after Margaret Beekman's death) owned 6. Slaves appear for the last time at Clermont in the census of 1810 (1 at Clermont, and 5 in the Chancellor's household).

By 1810, both neighboring households also list "other free persons" in their residents, which could have been paid servants working at Clermont (occupations are not preserved unfortunately) as the available slave population declined. Beginning on July 4, 1799, all children born to slave mothers would be considered free, thus gradually eliminating those legally eligible for slavery. Some authors have also suggested that one the Gradual Manumission law was passed, Northern slave holders were beginning to sell their slaves to Southern owners to protect their financial investment. In 1827, manumission was completed, and all remaining enslaved peoples were legally free. (Read more about New York slavery here)

So what does this mean for the people who lived as Slaves at Clermont? Finding the details of their lives can be difficult, as it can in many places. Not surprisingly, we have nothing written by a slave or former slave at Clermont so our information comes from papers of the Livingston and travel documents.

The kind of work done by slaves is one of the easier things for us to identify. One passage, written by an English traveler in 1794, described four young slave boys, ages 5-12, who accompanied the Chanceller and his wife everywhere when they were at home. Always at hand to run errands and pass commands on to other servants, these children hovered at doorways or on the perimeter of conversations, awaiting their next task. At least on this occassion, they also served breakfast and carried away the dishes. Another source indicated that "the work of the kitchen, the garden, and the farm was done by slaves..."

Clothing can be found sometimes as well. The four young boys described earlier went barefoot, but were dressed in uniform in the Chancellor's green livery with red revers and trim. One Livingston slave woman in 1750 (not from the Clermont households) was described as wearing a blue petticoat (an 18th century term for a skirt) with a "short blue and white homespun gown," a short blue cloak, and a straw bonnet. This list of clothing items describes the basics worn by many other 18th century poor or enslaved people. Did all of the Clermont household slaves wear uniforms or only those who were commonly in the public spaces?

Sleeping and living arrangements are harder to identify in northern regions, where they were rarely provided with the unattached housing more common in the southern part of the country. Instead, slaves more often shared one or two rooms within the house or were tucked into unobtrusive spaces in the house. These were generally places that the house's owners found less desirable for their own living spaces, often attics or basements. However, no record is currently known that describes where the Livingston's slaves slept at the end of the day.

In 1800, some Clermont slaves acheived their freedom when Margaret Beekman Livingston died. Those who wanted it and were 30 were given their freedom, and Robin, Scipio, Marian, and Nan (who were all too old to support themselves if freed) were given the choice of which of Livingston children they preferred to live with. She also provided an allowance of 12 pounds a year be given to the owner of their new home for their care.

Not all of her slaves were so lucky. One boy was freed after he completed an obligation to Jacob Van Ness, and two slaves Mary and Pete, were given as slaves to daughter Joanna "forever."

The irony of the Livingstons' continued ownership of slaves was that Chancellor Livingston belonged to the New York Manumission Society. The organization's goal was the emancipation of enslaved peoples, and several notable elite members were also slave holders, including John Jay.

Livingston participated vocally in the efforts to pass a manumission law in New York State in 1785, but voted down the proposed law for being inadequate; it did not give voting right to free black men, which he feared would create a second-class citizenry and a white aristrocracy.

The Chancellor also waited until his death to free any of his slaves. "I also direct to manumit all my Slaves that may chose it" who were 30 or would be 30 within two years. As soon as it was "convenient" to his wife, she could let any other go that she wanted. Two men and two women were bequeathed to Mistress Chancellor to be maintained until her death and then sold, with the proffits going to the Livingston daughters.

Emancipation in New York was a process that began in 1785 and was finally legally completed by 1827. The social ramifications on the lives of those who had experienced slavery continued for generations to come.
Like many other families in New York and other northen parts of the new nation, the Livingstons owned human property. They sat in the elgant drawing room at Clermont and New Clermont discussing the problems of slavery and the need for its abolition, while they were served tea by the very people who's fates they were discussing. While Chancellor Livingston worked as part of the group that developed the eventual Gradual Manumission Act in New York State, in the time it took complete its plan, the number of people who grew old and died before they could ever experience ownership over their own lives must also be acknowledged.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pawprints on Clermont

I bumped into a former Clermont educator the other day, and she was suprised that I had never noticed the dog scratches in several of the doors at Clermont. As a pet lover herself, Heidi was very atuned to such things. Her 2004 exhibit on companion animals at Clermont (shown at right) has frequently provided me with research and insite into the Livingston's animal-rich past.

So I had to go and look for myself: yes indeed! There are low doggy scratches on the inside and outside of the doors leading to the kitchen wing. These doors were usually closed to hide servants' work, but the dogs' water and probably food were in the kitchen so they would have had to be let in and out frequently. I imagine it was part of the ceaseless routine of homelife to "rescue" the dog from the wrong side of the door (whichever side was wrong at thet moment)...One door even appeared to have higher, larger scratches that made me think of Rufus the bloodhound's heavy paws.

But the pets left other little mementos of themselves behind in some surprising places.

During our Collections Cleanup Day last month, I speant an hour or so vacuuming an historic Oriental carpet--which was full of what looked to be orange cat hair.

Once this carpet was spread in the middle of the south-facing library windows. A carpet in a sunny spot is often a draw for a cat nap. Was this a favorite haunt of Topaz the cat? (pictured at left with Janet Livingston)

Most of the marks that pets left behind at Clermont were ones that the Livingstons made on behalf of their animals: the dog gate at the top of the stairs or Alice Livingston's sculpted frieze above the study fireplace. To me, it is all the more special to find the marks that these animals made on their own.
In the future when I wander around Clermont or tour historic houses where I know that there were pets (Cherry Hill in Albany, for instance), I will certainly keep a better eye out for the pawprints left by the historic pets of this world.
For an more information about the growth of pet ownership in America, try this article published by Colonial Williamsburg.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Clermont Biking Route on Google Maps

Check out the biking route from Rhinecliff Amtrak Station to Clermont State Historic Site courtesy of Hudson Valley Gardens.

The smell of Spring is in the air. What a perfect time to travel this route.

We hope to see you (and your bikes) soon!

Clermont: Home of the Merino Sheep

As I am designing posters and getting activities for the Sheep & Wool Showcase on April 24th, it occurs to me that some people may not know why Clermont hosts a lot of knitters, sheep, and border collies every spring.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent Chancellor Robert R. Livingston to Paris to negotiate for purchase of the city of New Orleans. Burning for a chance to get back into politics after being sidelined by Washington, the Chancellor eagerly packed up his wife, two daughters and sons-in-law, and enough luggage and supplies to last them for the very long boat ride and six years in Europe.

But politics was not the only the on Bob's mind.:
"The hope of aquiring such useful information in agriculture and the arts as would be useful to my fellow citizens, was not one of my smalledt motive for accepting a foreign mission."
he wrote in 1809. Of course, by this time, he was basking in the self assurance that came from the success and wealth produced by the Fulton/Livingston steamboat, but he was also thinking about the growing success of his agricultural pursuits. He had been one of the few foreigners to get several Merino sheep out of France, and he was now breeding and selling these to Americans with the zeal of a use car salesman.

An Enlightment gentleman, Livingston believed that it was his duty to contribute both politically and scientifically to society (there was no conflict of interests if these pursuits made him rich in the process). After the scandal surrounding the Louisian Purchase, Livingston focused his attention on several scientific projects at Clermont.

Merinos were a closely-guarded commodity in France and their native Spain. They bore a high-volume, high-quality fleece and had a body that made for good eating when they were no longer producing wool. Getting them out of the country took some diplomatic tap dancing, and he hurriedly sent them home to Clermont where he left instructions for his farm manager to propogate the breed. Livingston fully believed that by getting American farmers to switch off their old breeds of sheep and embrace the Merino, he could increase the new county's general wealth.

The thinking went like this: Merino wool makes higher-quality cloth, negating the American dependence on France for luxury goods (several American politicians were worried that France was doing it's best to make America a dependent customer). American farmers who kept Merino flocks would make more money selling this wool, and American consumers would pay less for their nice wool broadcloath.

Of course, with only four breeding stock to start with, the Chancellor's scientific and business acumen had their place to shine (as oposed to his steamboat designs which were failures).
When he arrived home to New York, Livingston found that his farm manager had been selling off 1/2 breed Merinos to the neighbors for cheap. Farmers were concerned that the odd-looking animal would not produce or would not be hardy enough to withstand New York winters so they wouldn't pay luxury prices. "Eh Conrad, that's one foolish looking sheep you bought from Livingston. I bet you two dollars it won't last through January. Bet your kids'll be hungry."

To artificially inflate the market, the Chancellor went around buying back all the Merino stock at unusually high prices. Gossip began. "Livingston must think these sheep are really worth something, eh Conrad?" "Sure thing John, he bought my ram back for the price of three ewes--I wonder if I should have held onto that thing...."

He then began a careful breeding program, breeding his merinos to his American flock to create half-breeds, then back to the Merino flock to create three-quarter breeds, and so on. Once a sheep was 15/16 Merino, he considered it a full breed Merino sheep. At right you can see Clermont, one of the first two full-bred Merino rams to be born at his farm. Ostensibly, this drawing was done by his elder daughter Margaret Maria.

Livingston then began hosting public sheep shearings.

The public were invited to come see for themselves what big soft fleeces these sheep yeilded. Elite friends who could bring some good business his way were invited to stay for dinner, where they got drunk toasting the new breed and singing "Ba ba Black Sheep, Have you any wool?" At right is a print of one of these shearing festivals.

Pretty soon, the sheep caught on. People who had sold their Merinos to Livingston earlier were now making trips back over to Clermont to pay even more money to put them back in their own folds. "Hey Conrad, look at my fancy new Merino half-breeds. Bet you wish you hadn't sold yours last fall!"
As far south as Deleware, special mills were being designed to handle the wool and advertising that they had Livingston Merinos. Another mill in western New York began producing high-quality broadcloath using Merino fleece (check out the guy from Williamsburg at right in his fancy-schmany wool broadcloth suit). Once he'd beat out his less savy competition in Connecticut (who'd gotten some Merinos our just a year or two later), the Merino wool market was his to control.
In 1809, Livingston published "A Treatise on Sheep," which eventually became a classic piece of literature on breeding programs. Way to go Bob!
Did merino sheep change the world? It certainly is a popular wool these days. Check out the tag in some of your softer wool sweaters. There's a good chance it will be made out of Merino wool.
Want to see some handmade wool products? Swing by the Chancellor's Sheep & Wool Showcase this April 24th. There are some amazing artisans!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Archival Treasures: The Patent

Here we have the famous patent, granted to Robert Livingston by Thomas Dongan in appreciation for his services - and perhaps for agreeing not to push his claim on Rensselaer property any farther. I've smoothed out the text, removing the random capitalizations and adding a few pieces of punctuation.

Thomas Dongan Lieutenant Governor and Vice Admiral under his Majesty King James the Second of the Province of New York and its dependencies in America, To all to whom these presents shall come sendeth greeting.
Whereas Robert Livingston by virtue of a Patent under my hand sealed with the seal of the province aforesaid bearing date the fourth day of November Anno Dom one thousand six hundred and eighty four is seized and possessed of a certain tract of land situate and lying on a creek on the east side of the Hudson River commonly called or known by the name of Roeloffe Johnson Kill, it being in three plains called Nekanhook, Kichua, Wicquashaka and two of three other small flats or plains, in all about one hundred Morgan or two hundred acres together with eighteen hundred acres of woodland lying and being between a small creek or kill lying over against Catts Kill called Wachon hafseck(?) and a place by the Indians called Sivashahamuka(?) to the south of Roeloffe Johnson's Kill, that is to say two hundred acres along the rivers side and the rest adjoining to the said two hundred acres and so running back into the woods. And also all woods, underwoods, waters, running streams, ponds, creeks, meadows, marshes, fishing, hawking, hunting and fowling and all other liberties and privileges, hereditaments, appurtenances to the said tract or parcel of land belonging or in any wise appertaining, to have and to hold the said tract of land and premises together with all and singular the appurtenances aforementioned unto the said Robert Livingston, his heirs and assignees to the proper use and [?] of the said Robert Livingston, his heirs and assignees forever.
To be holden of his said Majesty in free and common socage according to the tenure of East Greenwich in the County of Kent in his Majesty's Kingdom of England, Rendering and paying as a quit rent for the same twenty shillings current money of the province yearly and every year at Albany upon the five and twentieth day of March unto his Majesty, his heirs and successors or unto such Officer or Officers as should be appointed to receive the same as by the said patent accorded in the Secretary's office, relation being thereunto had, may more fully and at large appear.
And Whereas the said Robert Livingston by virtue of another patent under my hands and sealed witht the seal of the province bearing date the seven and twentieth day of August last past is seized and possessed of another tract of land called Sachkanick(?) lying and being adjacent unto the aforementioned tract of land, beginning behind Pellhook on a certain creek that runs into the east side of the Hudson River and is known by the name of Roeloffe Johnson's Kill, beginning on the northwest side of the said hill that runs along the flat or plain...

That's enough to give you the idea. Much of this is boilerplate, but of course it contains the ten underlined words that Livingston was able to twist into his 160,000 plus acres. Note that the underline is not mine; it is on the document itself. I cannot tell if the underlining was done by Dongan or by a later editor. The ink is the same shade and appears to be similarly aged, so perhaps it is original to Dongan or Livingston himself.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Closer Look

This detail of a larger 1913 photo gives us a rare look at Ollie, the Livingston's nursemaid. Good pictures of servants can be hard to come by so I have always loved this image.

But some pictures are worth a closer look. Reflected in Ollie's glasses is another unusual glimpse of the Livingston family: Alice in her casual clothes.

If you look carefully, you can just see the dark outline of Alice's sailor collar as she stood in front of Ollie and her children to snap the picture. Sailor-style collars were an important feature on the "middy blouse," an early 20th century staple of casual wear for women.

Sailor collars had become popular on women's clothing at the end of the 19th century, and by the second decade of the 20th, the middy blouse had developed into it's own specific form. At left you can see one from a sewing manual, entitled Garments for Girls from 1910.

The middy blouse was made of rough-and-tumble cotton duck, sewn with a broad sailor collar that fell in a large rectangle across the shoulders, and usually finished off with a scraf that hung down the front. They were patterned after naval uniforms as you can see from the cracker box label at right (several of my images, including this, have been borrowed from, where a nice grouping of middy blouse images has been assembled).

From early on the middy blouse was linked with sports wear, youth, and eventually college girls. One 1926 sewing manual for girls' clothing described it thus, "The middy blouse holds a place of its own in the school and play life of the young girl. It is a garment particularly comfortable and attractive at the same time—a garment no less smart and pretty than it is practical." (emphasis mine). They appear also frequently as sportswear, as in the 1920 camp activity photo at right. College girls co-opted the style early in its history as well, and it became a staple of campuses throughout the US as seen in this 1909 Vassar College postcard.

It's all of these very casual, youthful associations that make it a special find when we see evidence of Alice wearing a middy blouse. While we have many day-to-day images of Janet, Honoria, and even of John Henry, as the photographer, Alice kept her herself behind the camera. When we do see her in front of it, she has dressed up (it reminds me of the fact that I cannot get a driver's liscence photo taken without putting on makeup first). We miss out on her usual appearance.
But for just this once, we get a glimpse into her day-to-day wardrobe, the clothes she chose to wear while playing with her children, working in her garden, or any of the many other less-glamorous tasks of daily life.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Golden Book

This is the first in a series on the Palatine Migration...

In 1709, a rumor began to spread through southwestern Germany, spread by a “golden book.” Few people at the time could read, but many heard the promises that the book seemed to make. By the time that rumor had done its work, almost 15,000 people had left their homes to travel to a far off land.

The “golden book” was titled (when translated) A Complete and Detailed Report of the Renowned District of Carolina Located in English America and was written by a German minister by the name of Joshua Kocherthal.

Kocherthal’s work was a promotional tract written to encourage immigration to Carolina. It was probably created by consulting a number of other promotional tracts, since Kocherthal had not visited Carolina by that point. It was short, straightforward and easy to read aloud to semi-literate audiences. Kocherthal praised Carolina for its fertile soil, its low taxes and its religious freedoms.

All of this must have appealed to his audience in Germany, but the first edition printed in 1706 didn’t immediately get people moving. But in 1708, Kocherthal managed to convince the British Crown to settle him and a group of forty colonists in Carolina by claiming to be refugees from French Catholic oppression. With this experience, Kocherthal was able to add an appendix to later editions of his book.

England’s monarch, Queen Anne, had agreed to support Kocherthal’s group, not only by funding their travels but also by supporting the colonists until they could get established. Kocherthal’s report of this in the third and fourth editions of his book struck a chord with his audience: Queen Anne was colonizing Carolina and was willing to pay the way of refugees looking for a new start.

Perhaps Queen Anne might be willing to support another group from along the Rhine?While Kocherthal made no promises in his book, the possibility was there. In the alchemy of rumor, “possibly” became “definitely,” and word began to spread of this new opportunity for all those willing to head to England.

This rumor found fertile ground in southwestern Germany. The region was as war-torn as any in history, having suffered through the Thirty Years War, the War of the Palatine Succession and the War of the Spanish Succession in the course of a single century. The Thirty Years War alone had cost the region more than 50% of its population. Plague and famine followed war, followed by another war, and so on.

The powers that be had dealt with the problem by settling immigrants from other regions into the battle scarred area. Southwestern Germany became a mix of ethnicities, religions and languages. They were settled on abandoned land and allowed some religious freedom in order that they might settle and start paying taxes.

When residents of the Rhine Valley began to appear in England looking for their free trip across the Atlantic, they were labeled "poor Palatine refugees." In order to understand what happened after that, it's important to see that this was inaccurate. They were not refugees, since they not just running from but also running to: they were headed off to find easy prosperity in Carolina. They were not – at least not all – Palatines, since they came from all over southwestern Germany, and may have been an entirely different nationality just a generation before.

And if they were poor, they didn't necessarily start out that way. Most sold what they couldn't carry in order to finance their trip to England. There they would be taken care of by Queen Anne, just as they were promised. Only, this was a promise that England was not aware it had made.

To find out more about this story, check out Philip Otterness's book Becoming German: The 1709 Migration to New York--we loved it!