|The Fort, at Johnson Hall
One of the most difficult interpretation dilemmas at any historic site concerns servants and
slaves. Often the information available is sketchy. Compounding the difficulty, most visitors to the site assume
that slavery was limited to the South and seem surprised when confronted with its practice in the northern colonies.
At Johnson Hall we are making the first major attempt to tell the story of the domestic staff,
having begun a thorough investigation of the Johnson documents for information on acquisition, names, living conditions
A cobblestone courtyard, long ago the work area for house servants and slaves, has recently been reconstructed at Johnson Hall. The old stonehouse at one end of the courtyard contained a number of objects used for daily labor. It also contained blankets, indicating the building might have sometimes served as sleeping quarters for slaves. At one time, other quarters lined the creek bank along the old road between Johnson Hall and the town. An overseer supervised the slaves and servants and saw to their needs.
William Johnson was brought to America in 1738 to oversee his uncle Peter Warren's plantation at Warrensbush on the Mohawk River. One of the earliest documented letters between them included advice from Peter Warren to young William Johnson on the encouragement of settlers for the land patent, especially the Germans, who were considered good farmers. Warren evidenced some concern about some "Negroes" near his patent who owned land, and he asked Johnson to inquire about their possession of the land. There are later references to a group of "free Negroes" who owned land in the area, possibly the same families. No further letters passed between Johnson and his uncle about the subject of the "negroes" near the Warrensbush Patent.
Johnson had only been working the Warrensbush plantation for a little over two years when his aunt Susan Warren in New York City sent a request from "Mr. Warren" that Johnson prepare one of his "Best negroes" in driving Johnson's wagons "to make him fit for a Coach man for me." Johnson responded that he would instruct "two of the Best of them and the one I find that does best I will Send him down when You think proper." Slaves or servants were generally employed as household servants or specially trained for individual tasks. Aunt Susan Warren's desire for a "negro…for a Coachman" would not have been an unusual request. Others might qualify as blacksmith helpers or stable-boys. By 1742 Johnson had moved onto his own lands while still tending his uncle's estate. The Warrensbush plantation staff included an overseer and wife, a blacksmith, eight laborers, four negroes, tenants, and "three servants." His growing personal staff for his own plantation was somewhat smaller and included Irish servants Patrick Flood, James Rogers, and Jane Watson. Jane Watson later went to New York City where she worked in the household of Governor Clinton.
Staff, servants and slaves continued to increase as lands and houses were added to the Johnson holdings until, by Sir William's death, the total estate included over 700,000 acres of land, the central estate, Johnson Hall, and the supporting system estates managed by Johnson's family--Fort Johnson, Guy Park, and Williamsburg. The history of Johnson's slaves appeared in orders to agents, notices of runaways, recommendations from friends, orders for clothing and supplies, and in the occasional drama or scandal played out in frantic personal letters.
Specific references to slaves on the Johnson estates began in the early 1740s, the first a bill of sale for a "Negroe Man named Quack," who ran messages and supplies to neighbors and clients, such as the Butler family whose lands were in Caughnawaga [now Fonda]. Johnson had given Quack's owner [Wessell VanSchoick of Albany] a slave named Stepney in exchange. Quack, also called Quacko, along with a slave named Kitchener, died when a smallpox epidemic thinned Johnson's "flock." A brief reference in 1745 mentioned a twelve year old "Negroe boy" in the Johnson household [Fort Johnson], and a more lengthy reference involved a request in 1749 for ship captain Ross to purchase "one, or two likely boys about 14 or 16 years of age…also a good clever lad of a white man, if any such to be had there."
Numbers of slaves owned by Johnson are sometimes difficult to determine. St. George's Church in Schenectady recorded 24 baptisms at one time. Names in a 1770s document included: Adam, Christian, Dick, Abraham, Cork, Cato, Jacob, Charley, Sam, Sambo, Peter, Pontiach, Nicholas, Caseider, Quashy, Juba, Diana, Hester, Jemmy, Betty and Peggy. Many of these names, plus other documented names in the Johnson household, were common names from the British Caribbean. Approximately forty names appeared in individual Johnson documents between 1738 and 1774.
As the household staff took shape with the addition of tenants, indentured servants and more slaves, Johnson jotted a memo of directions for his household staff in 1755, a period of frontier unrest in the midst of the French and Indian War. The instructions to Johnson's staff included taking care of bedding, fitting candles for the bedchambers at suppertime, making sure water, a towel, slippers and a "chamber utensil" were placed by each bed. The house itself was to be washed twice a week. Beginning at daylight, staff started with the parlors and proceeded to the bedchambers after the family had arisen for the day. The laundry maid was to take care of all linens, including the guests' linens and towels. A number of letters from visitors indicated extensive hospitality always available at Fort Johnson and praised the degree of care taken of guests.
During this period Johnson began extensive plans for his new house, Johnson Hall. He found himself constantly beset with problems with his often drunken overseer, Irish tenant Thomas Flood, whose drinking problem made him a harsh overseer, and who was caught "flogging slaves" in 1760. Flood left Johnson's employ several times but always returned and, apparently, was always taken back.
Johnson avoided Indian slaves, called "panis," complaining that he could not force them to work. Occasionally he was obliged to accept them as "pledges" against a Six Nations promise, but found an opportunity to pass them on to someone else as quickly as possible.
Agents were the most common source of slaves purchased for Johnson. They knew what Johnson wanted and were familiar with the slave trade coming into New York City. William Darlington began supplying Johnson with slaves in the 1760s and performed other services relating to tenants and servants. Records reveal that, while arranging for the return of a tailor who had run away to escape work, Darlington also delivered supplies and a "negro."
Although nothing in the Johnson documents gives the reader reason to believe Johnson was unusually harsh to his slaves, he was not immune to problems created by a system not yet considered either cruel or inhumane. In 1761 an ad appeared in a New York City newspaper announcing a "Run-away, about 2 weeks since from Sir William Johnson of Fort Johnson, a Negro Man named Joe, 5 feet 7 inches high of a yellow Cast, speaks good English, and is a very active fellow." He was expected to make his escape by sea; the reward offered for his capture was three pounds. In 1765 Stephen Forman from New York City sought payment for a slave who had run away from Johnson, was sold to Forman under Connecticut law and then came again into Johnson's possession. In 1773 an intriguing episode played itself out in letters back and forth between John Blagge in New York City and Sir William, involving "Dick," a runaway slave who ran more than once until he was finally assured he was not going to be sold. The most controversy, however, arose between two servants who represented themselves as "free and single" and had a marriage performed. Extensive care was taken to have the marriage annulled. There were orders at least once for "handcuffs" for slaves and, in the same order, "chains," although chains were not specifically listed for slaves.
Jenny, "the sister of Juba," served Molly Brant as her personal slave during her residency at Johnson Hall and the sisters were listed as companions in Molly's flight to Canada during the early years of the American Revolution. Thomas Flood mentioned two slaves, Harry and Jenny, in 1766. Another overseer, Peter Servis, procured slaves for Johnson in 1767 and purchased eight pair of shoes for them. A 1770s memo included names of slaves and details about the shoes, whether they were new or being resoled and mended. Names included Juba, Diana, Dick, Jobo, Hester, Abram, Cork, Jemmy, Jacob, and Betty. Clothing shipped from London in a lengthy 1770s order included leather breeches for servants, blue baize as a "thick lining for Negroes Cloaths" plus cloth for clothing "for my Negroes," which included blue thick duffel, blue broad baize, white and yellow flannel, green knapped baize and embossed serge.
A long exchange continued through several months in 1768 between Johnson and New York City agent John Wetherhead about "…a Negro Wench who will…Suit you very well." The price was steep-70 pounds. She had a good character, according to the letters, could cook, perform housework, and had two children. Her "master" was selling her because she bred "too fast." Johnson purchased the woman and her two children and paid the "lying in" expenses for the delivery of her third child. Her extraordinary appearance and character were mentioned several times, and Mrs. Wetherhead wrote that she hoped the woman would "turn out a good servant to so worthy a Master." Purchases of striped flannel were made for her clothing.
Johnson purchased a 19-year-old negro boy for 51 pounds in 1769 and, in the same year, two grown men for 90 pounds and bought clothing for them, including 2 great coats, 2 check shirts, 2 pair of shoes, 2 pair of stockings, 2 caps, and 2 buckles, the total bill coming to over 95 pounds. Other slaves purchased from the same source-a ship captain named Peter Remsen-included "Abraham" from St. Croix [24 years old] and "December," also from St. Croix and also listed as 24 years old. Many other references listed additional names, purchase dates, clothing orders, and sometimes training. Two young boys were trained as coachmen for Johnson's aunt, and specific purchases of "livery" were made for two boys. After Sir William's death, slaves and servants were divided among his children and Molly Brant.
When the American Revolution began, the Johnson family sided with the Loyalist cause and fled to Canada. Many of the servants and slaves went with them; some stayed behind and became part of a small settlement in the Johnstown area, which seemed to disappear in the early 20th century.
Slavery existed in the colony of New York under both Dutch and English dominion and later in the state of New York for 200 years. It was ended by legislative act in 1827.
Johnson Hall is an historic site owned and maintained by the New York State Office of Parks,
Recreation and Historic Preservation in the Saratoga-Capital District Region. For more information about state historic
sites, visit our website at www.nysparks.com.