I believe one of the points that makes New York State a reasonable place to live is the fact that we bring all sorts of news to the forefront. Here in our State, and more specifically in Buffalo, while there will be people with multiple points of view… there is a lack of social pressure to stay quiet. Instead, we are willing to discuss things that may be painful. With this in mind there is a short-yet-sad point in our collective history that needs recognition, discussion, and hopefully public acknowledgment.
Imagine it is 1810 and you live in a village of one thousand six hundred and nine people. You are standing there amongst them in the village square. Now Imagine, you are the only soul who lacks their freedom of mind and body – you are the only one labeled as a slave. Every single person who you will see during the day will have more freedom and opportunity than you… you are surrounded, alone, and trapped in a sea of free people.
Now we can take a moment to understand that the term “slave” is a legal status applied to a person who would not define themselves by this term. People who were labeled as slaves by others, were themselves “freedom seekers.” This changes the perspective from an outsider looking in, attempting to put oneself in their shoes. I mean, if someone forced you into the legal position of being enslaved, would you not self-define yourself as one willing to fight for your freedom? Freedom to do as one pleases, and possessing the liberty to not have one person’s freedoms infringed upon… isn’t that what America is all about?
The era from 1789 to 1832 could be described as a transition period in Buffalo’s history. This timeframe sees a shift from a hamlet with a saw mill and a rough settlement, dotted with little box-shaped houses set back from the street, to a growing urban town with a post office and military post. It is marked by the arrival of Joe Hodges and Cornelius Winney by 1789 who lived near the local Seneca tribe on the Buffalo river. The forest with old growth trees and the availability of farmland, attracted new settlers in the building and agricultural trades. The port, due to being difficult to enter, had yet to become a powerhouse of the shipping industry. As the hamlet grew into a village, it gained a federal designation as a military post, with legal jurisdiction from a Federal court. Hence, the population shifted from primarily people of indigenous origins to a mix of ethnicities, plus one freedom seeker by 1810.
On page 233 of the 1810 census, it is as if we were walking down a Buffalo street. We see the surnames Bailey and Allen, among numerous other street namesakes. Other readily identifiable names appear, such as Hunt, Hewitt, and Hitchcock. Each with their family data jotted down, with nothing of special interest to anyone other than, maybe, a genealogist. Then a B. Slosson follows. The Slosson household included 1 male, 26 to 45 years old, which is likely B. Slosson. Others in the household include 4 males and 1 female all 16 to 26 years of age. While it is possible that the 1 female age 16 to 26 could have been Slosson’s wife, she and the four males of the same age group were likely his children. Children and wives at this time, did not have a legal identity of their own. This is why they gained their father’s or husband’s surname at birth or marriage. In modern times, adopting a husband’s name upon marriage is a holdover from when females did not have a legal identity. Under the column marked “Slave,” the number ‘1’ is recorded. While wives and children had some details about their identity recorded, the person labeled as being enslaved did not even receive a category for gender or age. While likely to be of African heritage, we can’t even be certain of this.
There is some issue with the original recording. There is a “1” under the column marked “Slave” in the Slosson house. In the population tally at the end of the census, the total number of people who were enslaved is recorded as 1 also, but there is also a faint “X” over the end tally. Was the faint “X” written on purpose, or due to pressing through the following pages? If the latter, the tally of “1” in the Slosson row should have also been X-ed out too, but it wasn’t. A search through the 1820 census – an 1828 resident directory – and online historic books, show the Slossons are no longer in the Village of Buffalo. They may have moved outside of the town’s limits. This makes it more difficult to learn anything about the freedom seeker. It is unknown if this person left Buffalo with the family, was freed or sold. They may not have survived the War of 1812.
At this time, Black Rock and Niagara Falls were their own villages and had their own censuses. The Villages of Black Rock and Niagara Falls had 0 and 3 free people of color respectively, plus no freedom seekers. However, Erie County did not exist at this time, and the entire area was known as Niagara County. The County of Niagara in 1810, had dozens of freedom seekers outside of the towns. One of these households belonged to A. McIntyre who had 1 freedom seeker in 1810, and no freedom seekers in 1820. By 1828, in the Buffalo City Directory, there is listed a Free Person of Color by the name of James M’Intyre. Is this M’Intyre a former freedom seeker of Western New York?
By 1825, Buffalo gained a designated post office district and a lake port, the Erie Canal was opened, and the one freedom seeker grew to ten. This era could be said to end with the incorporation of the “City of Buffalo” in 1832. Or maybe, the end came with the removal of Native Americans in 1842. Needless to say, the government documents that refer to Buffalo with an “e” was a very different place than the more optimistic Buffalo of the 1840s and beyond. Buffalo became a place of hope – a place where fearless and committed people helped freedom seekers to escape slavery.
Reflected in the 1820 census was a growing population. People who were freedom seekers were no longer defined only by their legal standing. The head of house gained a first name, and freedom seekers gained a sub-label by gender and age like free married women and minorities. It is worth noting that of the 10 freedom seekers in 1820, 5 were children without a parent of color in the household. Buffalo had at this time 2,173 people. It is possible that the county probate or court records may have more information, including possible purchase, sales, and freeing records. A wider search is warranted to disclose more about the eleven freedom seekers of Buffalo.
As we all process this information, we should recognize that though these people were enslaved, they were still pioneers. They were the ones putting in the labor so the person holding title to their lives could have a better life, a non-pioneering life. I mean, if a freedom seeker does all the pioneering for another person should we not recognize their contribution? They were pioneers who lacked the freedom and legal standing to reap the rewards of their labor. Dr. James Ponzo, Historical Context Specialist with the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Museum states, “[I] believe that if more Western New Yorkers knew about this history—including the anti-slavery sentiment that existed prior to emancipation—then maybe we would not still be as segregated as we are in this area.”
Chris Bacon, the Interim Director of Education & Development at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center summarizes the changes in laws occurring at this time. “New York slavery laws presented a complicated, gradual abolition of slavery within the state beginning in 1799. Due to carveouts and exceptions, these laws did not eliminate all slavery within the state, but they did represent movement in that direction beginning in 1799. The exact legal status of any given individual would have depended on how they arrived in New York State and their age, among other factors. Niagara Falls, in particular, was home to a growing community of free Black individuals before the Civil War who were able to find paid work in the robust tourism economy. Many of these individuals risked their own safety and security to assist other freedom seekers on their way to Canada.”
By 1830, the Federal census caught up with this change in population – there were 221 free people of color and 0 people still seeking their freedom in the Village of Buffalo.
While most historic recognitions come from a group of citizens from the grassroots level up, the significance of this situation may warrant a top down acknowledgement with the placement of a marker downtown in the former village square. This gesture would speak loudly, considering at least half of these pioneers were children. akin to those that tour City Hall every school year.
You can learn more at www.niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org.
Lead image: Buffalo Harbor in 1825 from NY Heritage Digital Collections