Daniel Furr, Austin Steward and Race in Rochesterville

March 21, 2017 will mark 200 years of Rochester as an incorporated village. Most discussions of its earliest days tend to center on white settlers, but the village also had a population of African Americans. What were racial attitudes like in 1817 Rochesterville? Let’s explore that experience through the lives of two of its earliest black residents.

One of these pioneers was Daniel Furr, a black man who moved to Rochesterville and fell in love with a white woman. She reciprocated his affection and they sought to marry, but no one in the village would officiate at their wedding. They resolved to go to Brighton, where the town magistrate there only reluctantly agreed to do so after hours of arguing. Not long after, while drinking with some white men that were supposedly his friends, Furr became violently ill. A doctor was summoned and gave him some concoction, but while he was leaving the doctor was heard to say that he was “as sure to die as though his head had been cut off.” And so it proved; Furr died shortly after. It was commonly believed Furr died of poisoning, although no one was ever charged. His wife and child died shortly thereafter.

A more famous black citizen was Austin Steward (1793?-15 February 1869), Rochester’s first black businessman.

steward-portrait

A circa 1857 portrait of Austin Steward

Born a slave in Virginia, Steward was forcibly relocated to Bath, NY and liberated in Canandaigua through the assistance of local abolitionists. He first visited Rochester in 1816, settled here in 1817, and lived much of his life here.

In Spring 1816, when Steward first came to Rochesterville, he described the village as a “small, forbidding place … with few inhabitants, and surrounded by a dense forest.” While travelling through here, he encountered a white man driving a team of horses. The man maintained that Steward had no right to travel a public highway as did other men. Since he was already on the road, Steward was forced to keep behind him, as the man would not let him pass. Steward was delayed several hours in reaching his destination.

In the spring of 1817, Steward began peddling merchandise from a cart in Rochesterville. As markets were not plentiful at the time, business was profitable. Later that year he decided to settle in Rochester and go into business for himself, renting space to open a meat market and grocery. There were some butchers in the village who resented the competition. Several of them tore down his sign. When it was restored, others painted it black. These annoyances continued until Steward had one of their number arrested, which put an end to the harassment.

Rochester may later have had a reputation as a supportive community for African Americans (slave and free), but the historical record of the town’s earliest days presents a mixed picture of Rochester’s racial attitudes.

-Christopher Brennan

 

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Published in: on February 7, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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