The Evils of Slavery Duly Recorded

Town of Canandaigua Highway Minutes, 1791-1846



Official records showing the evils of chattel slavery can be found in the Ontario County Archive and Records Center (RAIMS).  They are usually recorded in the Highway books of the various towns.


In the top document (1797), Moses Atwater, a respected local judge and physician records his purchase of Esther, an "indented servant for life" (slave), from Martin Dudley.  However, he carefully points out that Esther's two-month old child remains the property of Capt. Dudley.  They could be separated at any time, like the offspring of farm animals.


The bottom document (1815) shows John C. Spencer, local attorney, state official and later presidential cabinet member, documenting his legal claim to the life and services of Harriet, the ten-month old daughter of his slave named Phoebe. 


Harriet and her mother were free by state law by 1827.







Town of Gorham Highway Minutes

Sep. 30, 1821


            Manumission papers were given to a slave at the time they were freed.  The paper was signed by the former owner of the slave and certified that the African-American holding the paper was a free man or woman.


            In theory, the manumission paper protected the former slave against capture under the Fugitive Slave laws.  Since African-Americans could not testify in court, and had little legal standing even in the North, the manumission paper testified for them.


            Manumission papers also protected the former owner from certain obligations under the abolition laws of New York.  In New York, former slave owners were required to provide for the continued welfare of their former slaves for a while. 

            Most often, manumission papers were recorded by the Town Clerk in the town where the slave was freed.  That was usually the place where the former owner lived.  Manumission papers were often recorded in unusual places within the Clerk's records.  Many of them are found in the back of the highway books.


            In this document, Robert Buchan, a resident of the Town of Gorham, freed his 70-year old slave, Betsey, in 1821.  In 1827 all slaves born prior to 1799 were freed by law.  Buchan's family had once been slaveholders in Maryland.





Image courtesy of Ontario County Historical Society




A Former Slave in Canandaigua




            The Colbert family was one of the oldest African-American families in Canandaigua.  Daniel Dorsey, who settled around Lyons, brought the Colberts to Ontario County as slaves from Maryland.  Among them was Lloyd Colbert, oldest son of Phoebe Holland and James Colbert.  At the end of his life, Lloyd Colbert lived on Butcher (Granger) Street in the village with his sister, "Neckie" (Nancy).  He eventually married a woman named Chloe, born in New Jersey.







Lloyd Colbert Must Support Himself in 1814

Canandaigua Town Highway Minutes, 1797-1841.  p. 221



          This rather odd public record was very important to Lloyd Colbert's last owner, Judge Nathaniel W. Howell.    Here, the Overseers of the Poor for the Town of Canandaigua state that Lloyd Colbert is capable of supporting himself.  Howell purchased Lloyd Colbert from Daniel Dorsey in 1812.

            In the Nineteenth Century, every town had elected Overseers of the Poor.  It was their duty to identify people who could not support themselves and "drive them to the poorhouse" operated by the county.  They could also get court orders forcing children to work.  In extreme cases, people who might need public assistance could be "warned out" of town or even jailed.  If Lloyd Colbert appeared to be needing public assistance those things could have happened to him, or his family.  The Ontario County Poor House opened in 1826.  Before that, each town had to pay for the care of its own poor.


            In fact, Lloyd Colbert and his family purchased property in Canandaigua in 1843.  Like his half-brother, Richard Valentine, and other former slaves and free Africans, Lloyd Colbert became a productive and contributing member of the Canandaigua community.


            This document was also important to Lloyd Colbert's former owner, Judge Howell.  When New York freed its resident slaves it made former owners responsible for supporting them for awhile if they needed help.  This document makes clear that Judge Howell does not have that responsibility.




From:  Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman.  Facing title page.





            The slave of William Helm in Virginia, Steward was taken to Sodus and Bath, NY, when his master moved.  Hired out by his master, Steward ran away about 1815.  He was advised by the manumission society in Farmington that his hiring out made him free under New York law.  However, his former master tried to kidnap him in Palmyra. For four years he attended school in Farmington and worked on the farm of Otis Comstock.


A one-time resident (1831-1837) and president of the Canadian Wilberforce Colony of free slaves, Steward operated a meat and grocery businesses in Rochester (1817-1831).  He also started a Sabbath school for African children.  Returning to Rochester in 1837, he later moved to Canandaigua.  There Steward played an active role in the 1847 "Emancipation Day" celebration that attracted nearly 10,000 people to the Academy grove on North Main Street.  He died of typhoid fever and is buried in West Avenue Cemetery, Canandaigua.


  In 1857 Steward published his autobiography, Twenty-two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman.   He was so well-respected that Gov. Myron H. Clark wrote Steward and asked be one of the subscribers to his book.





          In addition to Jacob Hodges, other known early African-American burials in Canandaigua Pioneer Cemetery include two daughters of Alfred Haley.







Pioneer Cemetery, City of Canandaigua



            Jacob Hodges came to Canandaigua in 1832.  Converted to Christianity while an inmate at Auburn Prison, Hodges lived an exemplary life in Canandaigua and was a highly esteemed and pious free black man.   Communities with large free black populations were good hiding places for “passengers” on the Underground Railroad.  Hodges died at the home of his employer, Myron H. Clark, an anti-slavery man and early Republican.



Microfilm image of local advertisement courtesy Ontario County Historical Society.





Uncle Tom's Cabin

Advertisement from Ontario Republican Times.

July 1, 1852.  p. 3.



          President Lincoln is supposed to have called Uncle Tom's Cabin, "the book that made the war."  It was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, sister of the noted Brooklyn abolitionist, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. She wrote the book based on interviews and abolitionist tracts. 


            Uncle Tom's Cabin was popular locally and internationally.  It outsold all other 19th Century books.  Canandaigua book stores advertised the book in 1852 when it was first published.  





















The evils of chattel slavery are illustrated in endless newspaper articles, advertisements and public documents available right here in this county.  This notice appeared in the Geneva Gazette, Aug. 1, 1810.  More documents and pictures will be included in upcoming issues of this newsletter.