Austin Steward and Slavery in New York

Pop Quiz:

Question 1: True or False: At the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted (July 4, 1776), the practice of slavery was confined to the southern colonies (i.e., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia)?

Answer: False. Slavery was practiced in all 13 colonies, north and south in 1776, and some northern states still had not eliminated the practice until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

Question 2: What about New York State? How soon after the Revolutionary War did New York abolish slavery? 1781? 1789? 1800? None of the Above?

Answer: None of the above. New York finally abolished slavery throughout the state in 1827.


Former slave, Jack Miller, came north from Dundee, NY


In an earlier blog, we discussed Austin Steward’s experience as the first African American businessman in Rochester. What was his experience of New York slavery like, and how did it differ from his experience in the south?

Steward was born a slave on the Virginia plantation of William Helm (1775-1826). Steward described his master as “generally kind and pleasant but terrible in a passion.” His wife was more short-tempered. When angered, Mrs. Helm would strike younger slaves on the head with a heavy iron key until their heads bled, or else whip them with a cowhide whip that she kept by her side. She would have someone else whip the older slaves.  According to Austin, “No slave could possibly escape being punished – I care not how attentive they might be.”


Steward’s slave narrative was written in 1857.

Due to particularly heavy losses from gambling, Helms resolved to sell his possessions and relocate to the “Genesee Country.” According to Helm “the more slaves a man possessed in that country, the more he would be respected and the higher would be his position in society.”

That quote may surprise many.

However, the first slaves were brought to New Amsterdam (today New York City) in 1626, and the practice continued after England took over the colony in 1664 and changed its name to New York. After the Revolution, a 1799 gradual emancipation law freed children born to slave mothers in the state, but it required slave children to work for the mother’s master as indentured servants; up to age 28 for males, and up to age 25 for females. It did nothing to free slave parents.

Helm sold all his possessions except his slaves and purchased land in New York, first in Sodus Point, then near Bath, NY. When there was no work for his slaves to do, Helm hired them out for paid employment. One of these temporary masters would punish Steward as Mrs. Helm had, by beating him about the head with an iron bar, causing headaches that would plague Steward the rest of his life. But it was because of being hired out that Steward finally achieved his freedom (something that would never have happened in the south).

When he was about 20 years old (ca. 1813), Steward fled to Canandaigua, where he came to the home of Dennis Comstock (head of the New York Manumission Society, an early abolition group). Comstock took him in and introduced him to his brother Otis. Otis Comstock made Austin a part of his family and hired him as a farm hand. Upon receiving his first real wages ever, Austin bought a spelling book. Learning that Austin had never been formally educated, Otis also provided for Steward’s schooling.

In 1814, Steward and Comstock were visited by Helm. The latter informed Comstock that he came to claim Steward as “his boy,” whom he “must have.” Comstock in turn informed Helm that Steward was not “his boy.” Because Helm had hired Steward out for more than seven years, he had surrendered all rights to Steward according to a New York State law passed in 1810. Consequently, Steward was now free. After much protest, Helm left Steward in peace. Thus, when Steward moved to Rochester in 1817, he came as a free man, something he could only dream about as a slave in Virginia.

In 1817, the New York State Legislature passed a bill that became effective July 4, 1817. Under the provisions of the law, all slaves not previously covered by the gradual emancipation law of 1799 (e.g., slave parents) would qualify for gradual emancipation, and all slaves in the state would be free ten years later, on July 4, 1827.
-Christopher Brennan



Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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