Understanding Slavery in the Hudson Valley

In contrast to an abundance of information on slavery in the American South, there is a dearth of resources about enslavement in the northern colonies. While every middle- and high-school student in the nation receives classroom instruction about colonial history, the topic of slavery is too often relegated to a sidebar.

When students learn about our country’s development during the colonial era, usually overlooked is the fact that our economic strength was erected on the backs of enslaved individuals.

Slavery could be found up and down the Hudson River. At Historic Hudson Valley’s Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills (Sleepy Hollow), students can see its extent and learn about enslaved individuals who lived and worked there.

Students visiting the Manor explore the Upper Mills complex and its interwoven stories of trans-Atlantic trade, colonial-era mercantilism, and 23 enslaved individuals who lived there.

Philipsburg Manor is on the Pocantico River, a tributary of the Hudson; water access meant that products from this provisioning plantation could be shipped easily to New York City and on to the West Indies.

In the 1700s the Manor was the northern part of 90,000-plus acres owned, though not inhabited by, the Philipse family. A community of enslaved individuals lived at the Manor, while tenant farmers rented the outlying lands.

 The Ashanti often use the symbols above in fabrics and pottery.

Special opportunity

Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) has been telling the story of slavery in the colonial north for more than 20 years.

Now, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, HHV offers Slavery in the Colonial North, a summer institute for school teachers, July 9-14 at Philipsburg Manor.

The institute is a unique opportunity for teachers to look deeply into northern colonial enslavement and gain a better understanding of when it developed, how it was institutionalized, where it was contested, what was unique about enslavement in the North, and why it remains relevant.

Participants will examine the legal and economic systems of colonial America and how they justified and relied on slavery. Teachers will understand that slavery was as entrenched in the North as in the South.

Participants also will learn that by including enslavement as part of the colonial American story they can help students see how the past connects to their own lives and how they might consider their futures.

Get details about the institute, including information on applying. There is a limit of 25 participants, and applications are due March 1.


Philipsburg Mill and bridge. 

Student visitors learn about Caesar, the enslaved miller responsible for operating the high-tech commercial mill and for producing literally tons of flour on the Manor every day.

Site staff introduce Dimond an enslaved boat pilot who ferried butter and flour from Philipsburg to NYC. In the dairy, students learn about Dinah and Susan, who churned gallons of milk into butter for NYC markets and for export.

Staff and students often engage in a conversation about the past, asking and debating complex questions, such as, “Why did Caesar work so hard for a product that didn’t benefit him in any way?” and “What kept Dimond from running away when he had the freedom to sail the boat?” Students explore the lives of individuals – and the system that allowed families like the Philipses to prosper from the work of enslaved laborers.

It was the fuel of slave labor in the northern colonies that powered the United States’ great economic transformation, enabling agricultural development and the production of goods that led to the growth of commerce. It facilitated the creation of buildings, roads, and bridges that served as foundational infrastructure of the first colonial cities and towns. Slave labor and the economic growth it fostered inaugurated the norms and logic of our narrative as a nation. The establishment of American ideologies of freedom and prosperity are deeply embedded in our culture and practices, and these are inextricably linked with the bondage of an entire race of people.

The unprecedented wealth of slave owners created a prosperous class of statesmen who eventually led the colonies toward independent rule. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 41 were slave owners. Of those 41, 40 percent were from the north, including all nine signers from New York and New Jersey. Emancipation was a long and gradual process, and enslavement didn’t end in most northern states until the 19th century, with slaves noted on census records into the 1850s. In New York, the institution of slavery continued for over 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

It is this story of enslavement in the northern colonies that continues to be underrepresented in our text books and lesson plans as slavery continues to be taught as a largely southern phenomenon in many classrooms.

Peter Bunten is Historic Hudson Valley’s education manager. Photos courtesy of HHV.


Learn more

Get details about Philipsburg Manor’s school programs here. (Remember, THV’s Explore Awards are matching grants that help with transportation and admissions.)  THV’s online library has numerous lesson plans and activities related to enslavement, colonial life, and Philipsburg Manor including:

Colonial Life in the Hudson Valley, four activities and lessons for grades 4 and 5 by teacher Cindy Slayton.

Diversity and Tolerance in the American Colonies, 15 activities and lessons for grades 7-11 by Laura Dull and Maryann Fallek, secondary social studies program, SUNY New Paltz.

From Barter to Big Business, eight activities and lessons including a visit to Philipsburg, for grade 4 by teacher Gwen Kopeinig and school media specialist Diane Moller.

I See Freedom, nine activities and lessons, adaptable for grades 4-12, tell the story of James F. Brown who bought his freedom and became a renowned farmer and gardener in the Beacon-Newburgh area.  Developed by a group of Beacon ES teachers, educators at Mount Gulian Historic Site, Kayleen Campion, and musician Jeff Haynes.

Philipsburg Manor Place-Based Experience, part of a fifth grade unit developed by teachers Kathy Younger and Tom Blass.