I didn’t know much about my Dutch ancestry when I was growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1960s and ’70s. I thought of myself as Italian. My father was the second son of an immigrant named Pasquale Bruno, who had made his way to New York as a teenager from southern Italy’s impoverished Calabria region. Our holidays were feasts of pasta, meatballs and eggplant Parmesan. The smell of tomato sauce simmering on a Sunday is all I need to feel at home.
But of course, there is also my mother’s side. Her maiden name is Van Valkenburg. All I really knew about her ancestors was that they had helped settle New Netherland, as New York State and the surrounding territory was called in the 1600s. “Think Rip Van Winkle,” I would tell people about that part of my heritage. The Dutch side, I thought, was more white-bread plain. Yet I did wonder about those Dutch, and when the boom in companies like Ancestry turned millions of Americans into amateur genealogists, I joined the trend and started researching. I imagined I’d find a string of farmers and housewives and shopkeepers and laborers, living modest, quiet lives.
Then one day, scrolling through the Ancestry website, I came upon the 1796 last will and testament of one Isaac Collier, born in 1725 in a place called Loonenburg, which is today named Athens. That’s my hometown. And Collier is my grandmother’s maiden name. Isaac was my five-times-great-grandfather.
Isaac was thinking about his legacy. In his will, the 70-year-old carefully divided his land, working out in precise detail where his property lines extended and to which of his five surviving sons each parcel went. Then he got to other items: to his son Joel, “one other Feather Bed, one Negro Boy named Will and my sorrel mare and sorrel stallion, one wagon and harrow.” To his granddaughter Christina Spoor went a “negro wench named Marie.”
“The remains of my negro slaves male and female,” I read, were to be “equally divided” among his remaining sons and one grandson, “share and share alike.”
I sat very still. This will, written in a beautiful, sweeping script, with elegant phrases like “whenever it shall please the Almighty to take me to himself,” hit me with a gut punch. Here was a man blithely imagining his reception into heaven while painstakingly leaving this permanent record of sin.
Here, in the branches of my family tree, was incontrovertible evidence that my Dutch ancestors weren’t just innocent farmers. That I was the descendant of people who enslaved others. How could this be? Growing up in the North, I’d rarely thought about slavery, and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s seemed as distant as the moon landing. But suddenly, slavery was as real as the rolling hills beside the Hudson River that flowed past my parents’ home. Suddenly, my sense of Northern disengagement from our country’s original sin was snapped away.
As a child, I’d learned nothing about New York state’s history of slavery. I didn’t even know that there had been enslaved people in the North. We weren’t like those racist Southerners, or so we thought.
In elementary school, we took the requisite trips to places like the Bronck House in Coxsackie, built in 1663 for one of the region’s first families, from whom the Bronx gets its name. Low beams, enormous fireplaces, historians wearing colonial dress. No one mentioned slavery other than in relation to the Civil War, a war that happened elsewhere and much later in history. Northern slavery wasn’t part of our school lessons. Only since about 2016 has New York state slavery been listed as a small part of the seventh-grade social studies curriculum.
Some scholars believe that Northern slavery was deliberately whitewashed from the history books. Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University and author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863,” says that the idea of a free North that helped end slavery is “one of the most powerful elements of our culture.” Adding in Northern slavery “complicates what is otherwise a simple, heroic story.”
But slavery was not only a powerful institution in New York; it lasted for nearly 200 years there. Not long after colonizing New Netherland in the 1600s, Dutch settlers, needing to fill a labor shortage, began buying enslaved people from traders with the Dutch West India Company. (The Dutch also tried to enslave the Native Americans who lived nearby, but many of them escaped. They also tried using indentured servants imported from Europe, but those people also tended to die very young or run off, according to Historic Hudson Valley, an organization with a website dedicated in part to teaching about slavery in New York. Of course, it was impossible for Africans to blend in and escape in the same way.)
New York was one of the last Northern states to outlaw slavery. But instead of a sudden explosion of freedom, the state passed the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1799, which slow-rolled freedom over nearly 30 years. It was a compromise measure designed to placate the Dutch farmers reluctant to give up their property.
My roots in the mid-Hudson Valley run deep, and now I suspected that if one family in my tree enslaved people, there had to be others. So I dove in. The more I dug, the more enslavers I found in wills and census records: Hallenbeck, Vosburgh, Van Petten, Van Vechten, Conine, Brandow, Houghtaling and, yes, Bronck.
I also realized that I was not alone. Jonathan Palmer, archivist at the Vedder Research Library in Coxsackie, says that anyone with deep-enough Dutch roots in the region will eventually find enslavers. “For them to have that moment when they confront that is special for me as an archivist,” he says, “for them to stare at a mirror and realize this was the side they were on.”
Castle Garden: An Early Gateway to the United States
Since the founding of the United States, millions of people hoping for a brighter future left their home countries and immigrated to the United States. The number of immigrants increased dramatically after the Civil War with nearly 12 million arriving between 1870-1900. More than 70% of all immigrants entered through New York City. Castle Garden opened in 1855 as the primary immigration processing center and operated as such until Ellis Island’s opening in 1892 (though from 1890-1892, the center was moved to the U.S. Barge Office). These are some of the stories behind some of those immigrants’ arrivals.
A. Sisters Arrive at Castle Garden with Names Painted on Boards Attached Like Breastplates, Boston Globe, September 6, 1884: 4 (reprinted from the New York World)
“Maggie and Mary Slinsby, 9 and 10 years old, from Tipperary, Ireland. arrived at Castle Garden yesterday on the steamer Republic. They are going to their parents in Urbana, O. The most noticeable feature about them was an elaborate, heavy cardboard breast-plate on which the name of each child was neatly printed, evidently by a professional painter. The cards were attached to the body by a profusion of green ribbons. Clerk Kilroy. who took charge of the children, declared the cardboard breast-plates to be “the high – tonedest [sic] affairs he had ever seen at the Garden.”
B. Unaccompanied small children arrive at Castle Garden, The Inter Ocean, Chicago, Illinois, April 17, 1887: 6 “Among the passenger of the steamship Britannic, which arrived at Castle Garden to-day, were two children. James and Annie Morris, 9 and 11 year old. Eight years ago their parent left Ireland to seek fortune in his country. They left their children with a grandmother and recently sent for them. There was no one at the Garden to welcome too children after their long and stormy voyage. Their parents live in Cleveland, Ohio. They were at once notified by telegraph. The children will be cared for at Castle garden until their parents send money for their fare to Cleveland.
C. Three children tagged and shipped to Chicago to meet their father after arriving at Castle Garden, New York Times, August 9, 1887: 3.
“Otto Heinzman, Superintendent of the Castle Garden Landing Bureau, placed tags yesterday on Louisa Schmidt, aged 8, and her brothers, who are twins, several years younger than herself, and shipped them to their father, who resides in Chicago. They arrived at Castle Garden Saturday.”
D. A 10-year-old girl arrives at Castle Garden to reunite with her mother, Boston Globe, September 14, 1887: 4
Among the crowd of immigrants who arrived at Castle Garden today were two more remarkable than the rest. One was a woman over 80 years of age; the other a child of 10. The old woman was going to Elmira to die with her only daughter and two sons. The little girl was on her way to her mother. who is living in Webster, Mass. The two are from the same barony in county Clare, Ireland, but are wholly unknown to each other. The old woman. whose name is Margaret Collins, cannot speak a word of English; but the little girl speaks it with a fluency and vivaciousness that interested everybody in the garden. Her name is Mary Whalen. Twenty-three years ago, Mrs. Collins said, her three children, Patrick. John and Jane, left her and their father to try their fortune in America, and settled in Elmira. Herself and the old man, Pat, remained on the old sod, cultivating the little farm they had held ever since they were married, and on which their children had been born. She received a letter, she said, every Michaelmas. Christmas and Lady day from her children, bringing her money to make herself and the old man comfortable, and to pay the landlord the rent of the little patch of land. But on Lady day last year the old man died, and then she had no one in the old land on whom she could rely. Her children learned of their father’s death and insisted on her coming to this country. One of them, Mrs. Jane Costello, wife of Martin Costello, South Main street, Elmira. is herself a grandmother. As soon as the old lady arrived at Castle Garden word was sent to her children at Elmira, and a grave-looking old gentleman presented himself, stating that he wanted his mother. She was given to him, and be took her away to die amid her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The other immigrant was born after her father’s death, and, after being nursed for a little over four years by her mother, was left in the care of the nuns at Kilrush. in the County Clare, in which the child was born. Her mother. with her two eider children, boys, at that time immigrated hither and settled in Webster, Mass. Mrs. Whalen worked as a dressmaker and nut her two boys to the tailoring business, and will now be happy in the possession of her little daughter.”
E. “To Meet Her Lover,” The Oakes Times, Oakes, North Dakota, December 12, 1890: 5.
At 5:30 in the morning a well-dressed young woman arrived in Utica from Castle Garden. He had come all this way from a place in western Russia, and was on her way to meet her lover in Duluth, Minn., who had left her two years before to find a home for both of them in the New World. He went to Duluth and became fairly prosperous. As soon as he was able he wrote to his sweetheart and urged her to come to him, but the age and sickness of her parents kept her in Russia until this year. Both her parents having died, the young man sent her tickets to bring her to America, with what was supposed to be sufficient money for the journey. The young woman began her journey more than a month ago, and when she arrived at Castle Garden thought she must be within a few hours’ journey of her friend. She came on to Utica, as stated, and was taken to the Central depot, whence she was to proceed on her journey by another train. She waited about the depot all day, and at night in broken German told Leonard Pruey, the baggage master, that she had not had anything to eat all day, and had only twenty cents in her purse. When she had recited the whole story, and Mr. Pruey told her that instead of a few hours she would yet have several days of travel, her distress was pitiful. The kind hearted baggageman promised to do all he could for her, and began his ministrations by giving her a square meal. He then interested himself in bettering her financial condition, and told Conductor John Unser, of Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg, about it. Mr. Unser was bound north with his train and made no promises, but early the next morning when he came to Utica again, he gave Mr. Pruey a purse of money which he had collected on his train to help the girl on her way. She finally left Utica, after a delay of about twenty-four hours, with a big bag of provisions and many good wishes.”
F. New immigrants visit bathhouse at Castle Garden, New York Times, August 4, 1855: 1.
“Next, the emigrant is shown to the baths. We join the crowd of males that flock in to the right. Here we find a large room, in the centre of which hang several coarse roller towels, and along the side is a deep trough of running Croton. This is the wash-room. Soap abounds- we hope no motives of niggardly economy will ever make it less plenty. Behind a screen that reaches across the room is the basin for bathing. A dozen or two can be accommodated in it at the same time. Indeed, every facility is granted the new corner, whatever may be his condition on entering it, to leave Castle Garden personally clean. The female bath and wash-room were the counterpart of the male, but as it was in use at the time, we consented to take the statement of our conductor and forego a personal investigation.”
G. “A Pitiful Story, If True,” Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, January 14, 1879: 3
“An old man yesterday morning appealed to Superintendent Jackson of Castle Garden, for assistance to reach, his home in Hungary. His name is Paul Ostrich, 66 years old. He arrived at Castle Garden, he says, on the steamship Pennsylvania last March, with $500 in money, having been told by immigrant agents in Hungary that he would soon become a wealthy man in America. He was a farmer, and finally hired a few acres of ground in Washington Territory, but on account of lack of rain his crops failed, and he lost everything. He then wandered to San Francisco, and, applying to a German society, was furnished with a ticket to Omaha and $3 in money. Letters were given him by railroad agents in San Francisco to those in Omaha, asking them to help him on, but at Omaha all assistance was refused him. Ostrich then started on foot September 17th for New York, inquiring his way as he went along. With the exception of two nights, when he was entertained by German families, he slept either in the fields or barns. He walked the entire distance to New York barefooted and scantily clothed, his food consisting of bread and pork, which he was able to buy with his small pittance, and which lasted him until a few days ago. Sometimes he picked up a few apples. He could not describe the route by which he came, but remembers passing through Chicago. Upon his arrival here, his limbs were swollen and his feet blistered and sore. Dr. Villaniyi gave him food, doctored his wounds and gave him two dollars. The doctor also took him to a clergyman, who gave him a pair of shoes and a supply of clothing, and then directed him to Castle Garden.
H. A Castle Garden Romance, New York Times, October 1, 1878: 8
“A little over five years ago Michael O’Brien left his wife and four children in Tipperary and came to this country to seek his fortune. For a while he corresponded with and sent money to his family. Suddenly both letters and remittances ceased, and they heard nothing more from him until recently, when his wife received information that he had married again. She immediately resolved to seek him out, and on Wednesday last she and the children landed at Castle Garden from the Bothnia. She knew that he had worked at one time in a dyeing factory at Glenwood, NJ, near Fort Lee; so on Friday she took the boat to the latter place in the hope of tracing him. On the boat she met some persons who knew him, and when they heard her story they directed her to the factory where he was still employed. She walked up to where he was working in ignorance which must have been blissful, and quietly tapped him on the back. She says he confessed his fault with many tears and promised reformation, but she is reticent as to whether any arrangement looking towards a happy reunion was arrived at. The Castle-Garden officials are of the opinion that this is so, and that she is trying to shield him from the consequences of his bigamy and the wrath of her rival.”
Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence, Albany: This is an award-winning Greek Revival building built in 1847. Underground Railroad site. It celebrates the anti-slavery activism of Stephen and Harriet Myers and their colleagues, the meetings of the Vigilance Committee, and the Freedom Seekers who stopped here to request assistance. The Residence has seven rooms on three stories with a full basement that housed the kitchen and dining area. It was the home of Stephen and Harriet Myers and their four children in the mid-1850s, when it was also the office and meeting place of the local Vigilance Committee. Over 50 Freedom Seekers were directed there for assistance. Stephen Myers was born enslaved in New York State. He and Harriet were the central figures in Northeastern New York’s Underground Railroad movement (https://undergroundrailroadhistory.org/residence/)
North Star Underground Railroad Museum, Ausable Chasm: The museum shares stories of the Champlain line of the Underground Railroad, which includes the Upper Hudson River, Champlain Canal and Lake Champlain in the Northern section of the Adirondacks. Freedom seekers traveling north navigated these waterways into Canada, making Lake Champlain a gateway to freedom. Exhibits include stories of enslaved individuals and families who traveled through the Champlain Valley to Canada or settled in the area, local safe houses, as well as accounts of the debates over slavery and the divisions it caused. https://northcountryundergroundrailroad.com/museum.php
Harriet Tubman National Historical Site, Auburn: This 26-acre estate in upstate New York includes the former home of Harriet Tubman, a two-story brick home provided by William Seward, the U.S. senator from New York, a welcome center and the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. She helped hundreds of enslaved people and families to freedom on her Underground Railroad over a period of 12 years. In 1857 she moved to Auburn and continued her work as the conductor of the Underground Railroad. https://www.nps.gov/hart/index.htm
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn: Under the cover of night freedom-seekers would come and others would leave the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. The basement of the church was a hiding place. The church started in 1847 and was led by anti-slavery advocate and senior minister Henry Ward Beecher. From its beginnings, the church served as a vital philosophical and geographical link in the Underground Railroad. Famous visitors include President Abraham Lincoln and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The National Register of Historic Places designated the church a National Historic Landmark in 1961. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/ny6.htm
Gerrit Smith Estate National Park, Petersboro: Gerrit Smith was one of the most powerful abolitionists in the United States, using his wealth to assist formerly enslaved people reach freedom, arranging safe passage to Canada, helping families establish their lives locally, gifting land and providing educational opportunities. Among the properties’ treasure are the five original horse stalls that were used in the Underground Railroad. “The Gerrit Smith Estate is a National Historic Landmark. https://www.gerritsmith.org/
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, Niagara Falls: Showcases the stories of Underground Railroad freedom seekers and abolitionists in Niagara Falls. Located inside the former 1863 U.S. Custom House attached to the Niagara Falls Amtrak Station, the One More River to Cross permanent exhibition spotlights the crucial role Niagara Falls played by its location and geography, and the actions of its residents and particularly its African American residents. https://www.niagarafallsundergroundrailroad.org/