The History and Significance of Slave Ownership within The Dubois Estate and its relevance to the Dubois family

In 2019, the SUNY New Paltz campus had just changed the names of many of the buildings on campus, I remember that my student advisor and many of the upperclassmen made comments on the shift. However, I only heard bits and pieces about the reasoning behind the renaming; I had a vague concept that the renaming was done due to the halls being named after historical figures in the community, figures who in recent times were “discovered” to have been slave owners. I as a student, and as an individual, have almost no knowledge of the identity of the namesakes of these buildings, and as such did not even associate them with the deeper history of the town of New Paltz, let alone slavery. As such, when I learned a little more about the history of the town I was very interested in its key founders and their connection to slavery. 

When I began my transcription of the Estate inventory of Cornelius Debois, I was not surprised that he owned slaves, given the context and time period. It was listed almost casually on a list of his belongings, simply sandwiched between “19 Moldbreakers” and “2 Milk cows”.

This, perhaps was the most unsettling part of the document; the use of slaves was so commonplace they elicited no special treatment, even when compared to mundane objects and farm animals. The slaves listed in the ledger are as follows: “1 young negro man slave named catoe”, “1 young negro woman slave named Susan”, “1 old wench Jine”, and “1 Black Girl about 4 years old named (Nan)”. There is no indicator of age given to the man, woman, or “wench”, however the child, “Nan” was an interesting case. This document was written in April of 1816, given the fact that Nan is around 4 years old, we can assume that she must have been born around 1814. In my research I came across a very interesting document, the “New Paltz Register of Slaves” dated from 1799 to 1825. This 45-page document 

“was kept by the Town Clerk of New Paltz as a requirement of the New York State Manumission Act of 1799. In keeping the slave register, the town clerk recorded the births of children born to slaves owned by the town’s inhabitants. Each entry includes the owner’s name, the slave’s name, sex, and date of birth” (New Paltz Register of Slaves)

This document seems to record the births and release of many slaves within the township of New Paltz, as such I started my search for this “Nan” by looking at all of the records from 1805 onwards. 

After a while of combing through the document I found a potential match, on page 28 of the register: 

1812 March 24 Cornelius Dubois did deliver a Note in Writing the purport of it was that he had a Negro Female Child born of his Wench on the twelfth [sic] of January Last and Called her Name [Nam].

The date seemed to match up, and the document clearly states that the owner was Cornelius Dubois. Despite having found my target of interest, I continued onward with the document, hoping to find any additional information. What I found quite intriguing was that on the next page, the names “J(onathan) Dubois” and “Elish Lister” are listed as the “Overseers of the Poor of the Town of New Paltz”. This is listed again on the next page under a legal statement that is documenting the freeing of a slave named “Ceser”. 

The final section of the document deals with the “abandonment” or freeing of slave children in accordance with an act passed in 1799. Within this section we can see that Cornelius Dubois released a slave by the name of “Betty” on October 19th, 1802, as well as one named “Peg” on July 14th, 1804; Betty’s birth is cataloged on page 6, and Peg’s on page 16.

In hoping to find the origin of 1 slave girl, I was able to trace at least seven births within the slaves that Cornelius Debois owned, of these seven only the two above are listed as “abandoned”. 

Looking closer at this, “New Paltz association of the poor”, I was suggested to take a look at a document titled: “White welfare and Black Strategies: The Dynamics of Race and Poor Relief in Early New York, 1700-1825”; this document discusses some of the charity and relief organizations that existed in the 1700s. The piece documents some of the welfare records from New York, and an interesting part of this involves the “treatment” of beggar slaves. It seems that it was the full responsibility of the owner to prevent any such actions of their slaves and that they would be fined if slaves were found begging. Moving into the 1800s, a more relevant time period, it can be seen that the ratio of black paupers to white paupers decreased significantly, which is “all the more remarkable given the poverty of most blacks” (Cray, 281). The poorhouses and the almshouses were seemingly avoided by many blacks at this time. They instead chose to receive aid from more “black benevolent societies, organizations such as the Wilberforce Philanthropic Society and the New York African society” (Cray, 281). The overall trend seems to show that as blacks were being released from slavery, they had to turn to organizations such as these for help; “free blacks, therefore, rarely became middle-class property holders” (Cray, 283). The document makes mention of the “Overseers of the Poor”, and also of the ledgers that they held, The previously mentioned documents may very well be one of these ledgers. What is interesting to see is the treatment of the impoverished, both black and white:

“While the poor seldom speak in these documents except to petition for charity, the records indicate that blacks and whites were treated similarly, perhaps almost identically, with no evidence to reveal a separate welfare mechanism for blacks… age, injury, or illness rather than race, was the prime concern of potential keepers.” (Cray, 284)

The text also makes mention of a freed man by the name of “Nero” who is actually mentioned in the ledger, giving some credence to this evidence. 

Overall I was intrigued by this deep history of slavery within the context of the Dubois family. It seems that Cornelius Dubois was an active slave owner, but freed the slaves he had held in accordance with the established law. Jonathan Dubois on the other hand seemed to be a member of the New Paltz association of the poor. While it is easy to simply assign a single role to the family as a whole, this history seems to reveal that there is a much more intricate history of the Dubois family and their relation to slavery.

References:

Historic Huguenot street Collection, Historic Huguenot Street. “New Paltz Register of Slaves”.New York Heritage Digital Collections. 1779-1825. https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/hhs/id/393/rec/3

Historic Huguenot street Collection, Historic Huguenot Street. “The New Paltz Register of Slaves (1799-1825) Explanation”.New York Heritage Digital Collections. 1779-1825. 

https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/hhs/id/718/rec/2

Historic Huguenot street Collection, Historic Huguenot Street. “Will of Cornelius DuBois, 1803”.New York Heritage Digital Collections. 1779-1825. 

https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/hhs/id/350/rec/6

Robert E. Cray Jr. “Slavery & abolition.: White welfare and black strategies: The dynamics of race and poor relief in early” New York, 1700–1825

 

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