New York State, much like the rest of the country, has a long, complex, and challenging history with the institution of slavery and the movement to abolish it. Evidence of this history can still be seen throughout the state; including along the historic route of the Erie Canal and its adjoining waterways. In many ways this history still impacts us today, including in the Erie Canal Museum’s own fields of tourism and recreation. Too often people of color are still marginalized in spaces like museums and trails. Having the time, money, and luxury to be able to, for instance, take a week long cycling trip along the Empire State Trail is a privilege many people’s whose families were historically enslaved cannot enjoy. Therefore, it is imperative for those who do have the privilege of traveling along the Empire State Trail system to take the many opportunities to engage with this history and further educate themselves. We hope this article can offer some helpful suggestions and provide important context for future opportunities to learn. 

Photograph of African Burial Ground National Monument, 2009, by Carol M. Highsmith (Library of Congress)

The history of slavery in what is today New York dates almost as far back as permanent European settlement in the state. In 1626, only 17 years after Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river that bears his name, 11 enslaved individuals from Angola, the Congo, and Guinea arrived in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, soon to be renamed New York following its capture by the British in 1664. Slavery continued under British rule, with New York City becoming a major hub in the colonial slave trade. By the 1740s approximately 20% of New York City’s population was enslaved, having the second largest enslaved population of any colonial town, behind only Charleston, South Carolina, at the time of the Revolution. In New York City, enslaved people occupied an important role in the town’s growing port economy, loading and unloading ships, building barrels, and more, while also working as domestic servants and agricultural field hands. These last two roles were common throughout the rest of the colony as well, where slavery was also widespread. Like the more infamous plantation slavery of the American South, New York’s slavery was incredibly repressive and draconian, with harsh corporal punishment prescribed for even minor infractions. Near the southern end of the Empire State Trail, in downtown New York City, you can visit a location that is a reminder of the legacy of this institution in New York and learn more about slavery’s history in the state at the African Burial Ground National Monument.

Progress towards the abolition of slavery in New York largely began during the American Revolution, with the state passing an ordinance freeing all enslaved people who served in the Revolutionary cause. Additionally, the rhetoric of the Revolution, which included regular comparisons to slavery and concepts like “all men created equal,” served as a mirror of sorts to American society, revealing the hypocrisy contained in some of that rhetoric. Several sites from the Revolution can be seen throughout the Hudson, Champlain,and Mohawk Valleys, as well as the residences of prominent Revolutionary figures. Not far from the trail in Albany is the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, former home to Revolutionary General Philip Schuyler as well as numerous enslaved people. Schuyler’s son-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, was married in this Mansion. Hamilton was involved in the New York Manumission Society, founded shortly after the Revolution in 1785 in order to address these contradictions by advocating for the gradual abolition of slavery in New York. In part through the advocacy of the Manumission Society, New York passed in 1799 the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” which declared that people born after July 4, 1799 would be legally freed from slavery following a period of indenture lasting 25 years for women and 28 years for men.

The inadequacy of this law and the immorality of slavery was once again put on display in the War of 1812, when Black New Yorkers, both free and enslaved, fought for the American cause in what is sometimes termed the “Second War of Independence.” New York was a prominent front in that war, with some of that history available at the Clinton County Historical Association in Plattsburgh, site of a prominent naval battle. Following the war, New York passed another law in 1817 that addressed people born prior to July 4, 1799, who would be legally freed after July 4, 1827. Through these laws slavery was gradually eliminated in New York, though some people continued to be legally enslaved into the 1840s in the state.

The final gradual abolition of slavery in New York occurred almost simultaneously with the construction of the Erie Canal across the state, which occurred from 1817-1825. Due to the nature of canal contracting it is difficult to ascertain who exactly was involved in the canal’s construction. However, recent research by the Onondaga Historical Association has shown that Isaac Wales, an enslaved man in Syracuse who purchased his freedom, worked on digging the canal in Clinton Square to pay off the loan he had taken out for his freedom. The canal, with its almost direct route to British Canada, also quickly became one route for freedom seekers to use in guiding themselves to freedom. A clear example of this is Thomas James, who was born enslaved in Canajoharie and followed the recently staked out route of the canal, interacting with work crews digging the canal along the way, all the way to Lockport where he diverted from the canal’s future course to head directly to the Niagara River and Canada. After spending a year working to dig Canada’s answer to the Erie, the Welland Canal, James returned to New York, finding a job in a Rochester warehouse on the canal before becoming an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church minister and prominent abolitionist in the Canal Corridor.

Solomon Northup, 1853.

As you can see from James’ life, Black New Yorkers were able to find economic opportunity on the Erie Canal, however, the continued existence of slavery in the United States, and the systemic racism that supported it, made it so all Black Americans, whether legally free or enslaved, were still in danger. An example of this is Solomon Northup. Born free in Minerva, NY, Northup got a job repairing the Champlain Canal near Fort Edward, during which time he lived in what is now the Old Fort House Museum. This job allowed him to save enough money to purchase his own canal boat. He operated this boat for several years carrying primarily lumber down the Champlain Canal to Albany before selling the boat and moving on to a number of different trades. In 1841, Northup was kidnapped while in Washington DC and was sold into slavery, remaining enslaved for the next twelve years. When he finally regained his freedom through the legal system, he returned to New York, where he wrote his memoirs Twelve Years A Slave, which was published in Auburn and became a national best seller. He then traveled throughout North America, including the Canal Corridor, lecturing on his experiences and in favor of abolition.

The later parts of James and Northup’s lives illustrate that as the 19th century progressed there was a burgeoning abolition movement along the New York State Canal System and a receptive audience for abolitionist speakers. However, this abolitionist sentiment was never entirely pervasive throughout the state and the state’s strong abolitionist sentiments as well as its Underground Railroad activity only developed through decades of organizing, as we shall see.

 The Erie Canal’s completion spurred the growth of industry in New York, with factories taking advantage of both the inexpensive transportation offered by the Canal and the water power of both canal locks and nearby natural waterways. One industry that thrived along the canal was manufacturing textiles made of cotton, a raw material produced almost exclusively by enslaved labor. Between 1842 and 1860 approximately 86,334,000 pounds of cotton valued at over $9 million was transported along the Erie Canal, giving many New Yorkers a vested interest in maintaining the institution of slavery in the United States. Evidence of the extensive cotton industry in New York can be seen throughout the state, including right next to the Empire State Trail in Cohoes, where visitors can see the looming Harmony Mills complex, constructed to harness the power of the mighty Cohoes Falls of the Mohawk River. The massive buildings you can see today were built following the Civil War in 1872 but they are a continuation of a thriving cotton industry that had existed in the town since the first mill was built in 1838.

Nonetheless, other New Yorkers along the Canal’s banks did develop ways to resist slavery as well as the powerful people and institutions that supported it. Even before the Canal officially opened in 1825 there is evidence of this resistance, such as when canal laborers in Lockport united to protect Joseph Pickard, a freedom seeker living in the growing village when slave catchers arrived to take him back to Kentucky in 1823. Following the Canal’s opening, communication in Upstate New York became much easier and as a result new ideas quickly spread along the Corridor. The earliest of these ideas were those of the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical Christian movement that was spread along the Canal by fiery preachers like Charles Grandison Finney, whose 1830-31 revival in Rochester has become legendary. Finney and his associates preached a version of Christianity that rejected many of the rigid doctrines of the past and instead embraced a more individualistic system which held that people had moral obligations to improve both themselves and society. Out of this intellectual framework sprang a number of reform movements, most notably those for abolition, women’s rights, and temperance, causes that were often very closely linked prior to the Civil War.

Just off of the Canal in Whitesboro one of Finney’s disciples, Beriah Green, became president of the Oneida Institute in 1833, and brought the school in line with his abolitionist principles, allowing for integrated classes, becoming the first American school of higher education to do so. Attending the school were students who were soon to become some of the leading lights of the next generation of abolitionists, including Jermain Wesley Loguen, Henry Highland Garnet, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Theodore Dwight Weld, and Henry Brewster Stanton.  Several of these students became religious figures in their own rights, with Loguen, a freedom seeker himself, becoming an African Methodist Espicopal Zion Church minister, most notably in Syracuse, while Garnet, a Presbyterian, became the first Black minister to preach to the United States House of Representatives in 1865. Sadly, no buildings from this period in the Institute’s history survive, but Whitesboro is still well worth a quick jog off of the main path of the Empire State Trail.

Nearby, in Utica, Green was involved, along with other notable local abolitionists and reformers like Alvan Stewart and Gerrit Smith in organizing the first ever statewide anti-slavery convention on October 21, 1835. Around 600 abolitionists from throughout New York gathered in the Second Presbyterian Church when a mob of pro-slavery demonstrators, led by noted members of the community Judge Chester Hayden and U.S. Representative Samuel Beardsley, attacked the meeting and drove them from the church. The abolitionists were undeterred though and Gerrit Smith offered to let the group reconvene in his hometown of Peterboro. About 300 delegates then set out for Peterboro, with 104 of them rented out an empty canal lumber boat for passage to Canastota, just to the south of Peterboro. They then made the 9 miles trek up Madison County’s hills to Smith’s estate and the reconvened conference. Now, alongside the Empire State Trail in Canastota you can see a brand new historical marker and interpretive sign commemorating this event, while in Peterboro the Smithfield Community Center, the actual building that housed the 1835 convention, now also contains the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum.

More evidence of New York’s centrality in the political fight against slavery can be found all along the Empire State Trail, including again in Canastota, where a new historic marker commemorates its 1852 national Liberty Party convention, Macedon’s Canal Park, which in 1847 saw a convention by the Liberty League, and the town of Holley, which is named after early canal advocate and an early member of the Liberty Party, America’s first political party to advocate for abolition; Myron Holley. However, New Yorkers, due to the laws, systems, and mindsets that were in place throughout the Canal Corridor, also resisted slavery and supported abolition work through extralegal means via the Underground Railroad. 

The former Wesleyan Methodist Church, on Syracuse, New York’s, Columbus Circle, which opened in 1846. Served as a station on the Underground Railroad, as evidenced by the carved faces in its basement. 2018, by Carol M. Highsmith (Library of Congress)

The Underground Railroad was an informal network of antislavery activists that existed throughout the country, which assisted freedom seekers leaving slavery in attaining their freedom, either by helping them to reach free states in the Northern United States or the British colony of Canada, where slavery was illegal. Due to New York’s geography, the region’s improved transportation network, and the growing abolitionist sentiment of New Yorkers along the Canal, the Canal Corridor soon became a major conduit for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. “Stations,” or safehouses, existed all along this route and many old homes in the region claim to have been stations, though verifying this is an incredibly difficult task that makes differentiating between hard historical fact and urban legend challenging. Still, there are plenty of sites that definitely saw Underground Railroad activity and other abolitionist activity on the Trail. In Fayetteville you can visit the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home and Foundation, which was both an Underground Railroad station and the home of the influential early women’s rights advocate Matilda Joslyn Gage. Now the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation is an innovative cultural center dedicated to continuing Gage’s legacy of social justice. Meanwhile, in Syracuse you can see the former Wesleyan Methodist Church in Columbus Circle, where, during renovations, faces etched by freedom seekers in the church’s basement were discovered and which are now preserved about a block away in the Onondaga Historical Association.

Stations were of course critical to the operations of the Underground Railroads but so too were the organizations and social networks that sustained it physically, financially, and with valuable intelligence. In different localities in New York, vigilance committees were formed with the goal of assisting freedom seekers by providing stations, supplies, transportation ,and information about where to go. One of the earliest and most notable vigilance committees that formed on the banks of the Erie Canal was in Albany. This group, led in part by Stephen and Harriet Myers, assisted thousands on their way to freedom and the Myers’ residence is now the Underground Railroad Education Center in Albany. On the other end of the Canal, in Buffalo, a thriving Black neighborhood arose around Michigan Street, with a major focal point being the Michigan Street Baptist Church, which received most of its initial funding from former canaller Peyton Harris. The Michigan Street Baptist Church and its congregants played a critical role in helping freedom seekers in what was often the final stop in their journey before reaching freedom in Canada as well as in the later fight for broader civil rights. You can still see the church plus several other important Black cultural sites, like the Colored Musicians Club and Jazz Museum, today in the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor

Another important way to spread information about abolition and the Underground Railroad was through newspapers, and many pro abolition newspapers were established throughout the Canal Corridor. Stephen Myers operated several in Albany and Samuel Ringgold Ward published one in Syracuse,  but perhaps the most famous was The North Star, published by Frederick Douglass in the Canal boomtown of Rochester starting in 1847. Douglass was one of the foremost leaders of the abolition movement and indeed he was at many of the events and interacted with most of the figures previously mentioned in this article. Throughout Rochester you can find statues commemorating this illustrious figure from the town’s past. You can also visit his gravesite in Mount Hope Cemetery, along with several other prominent members of the abolition movement including Thomas James, Susan B. Anthony, Myron Holley, and Amy Post. 

As has been previously discussed, New York’s societal opinion of slavery and abolition was not monolithic, however, through the concerted actions and organization of the above mentioned individuals and many more, New York gradually became more open to the opposition of slavery. In 1850 this cause was furthered by the passage of the draconian Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, signed into law by Buffalo’s own Millard Fillmore. This law handed down harsh punishments for alleged freedom seekers as well for those assisting them in their path to freedom. This galvanized many New Yorkers who had been unwilling to take a stand in the past and soon vigilance committees began sprouting up all along the Canal Corridor. The situation became so radicalized that in May of 1851 Secretary of State Daniel Webster was dispatched on a speaking tour in which he supported the administration and its unjust law. Notably, on May 26, Webster delivered what is known as the Syracuse Speech in front of City Hall, saying to those who opposed the Fugitive Slave Act, “It is treason, treason and nothing else! Depend upon it, the law will be executed in its spirit and to the letter. It will be executed in all the great cities- here in Syracuse- in the midst of the next anti-slavery convention if the occasion should arise, then we shall see what becomes of their lives and their sacred honor.” The balcony from which Webster gave this speech is still preserved, one block south of the Erie Canal Museum on Montgomery Street.

Jerry Rescue Monument in Syracuse’s Clinton Square. 2020, by Renée Barry (Erie Canal Museum)

Later that year, Syracuse and the banks of the Erie Canal became the epicenter of one of the most dramatic moments of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, when, on October 1, William “Jerry” Henry, a freedom seeker from Missouri who was living in Syracuse was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. Happening simultaneously in Syracuse was the Liberty Party’s New York State convention and delegates from the convention marched up to Clinton Square and the office of Federal Commissioner Joseph Sabine, where Jerry was being tried. This group caused enough of a commotion that Jerry was able to escape, though he was recaptured and again brought to Clinton Square, this time to the city’s jail. As night fell a crowd of several thousand gathered in the square and attacked the jail, successfully freeing Jerry, who, after spending about a month laying low in Syracuse, was able to make it to Canada and freedom. The Jerry Rescue became national news as it showed the intense resistance to the Act and that many in the North would not stand for its enforcement. Jerry Rescue Day became a prominent celebration in Syracuse for the next decade, with speakers like Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and Solomon Northup among the many notables who attended. Today, the Jerry Rescue is commemorated with a monument in Clinton Square right across Clinton Street from where Jerry was jailed and just south of the historic footprint of the Erie Canal, which is now a reflecting pool.

In the decade after the Jerry Rescue, the debate over slavery grew even more heated, eventually boiling over into the American Civil War. New York did its part in the war, with more soldiers serving the Union cause than any other state, many of whom were canallers. The Canal played an important role in providing supplies to Union forces as well. Additionally, following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, units began forming of Black soldiers. One of the earliest of these was the 54th Massachusetts, formed in Boston; its ranks came from across the country, including New York. In March of 1863 Frederick Douglass and Jermain Wesley Loguen went on a speaking tour of the Canal Corridor, recruiting from the large Black communities that existed throughout. The results of that recruitment drive can clearly be seen in the rolls of the 54th, with many recruits coming from Upstate New York communities and at least 17 individuals having been identified as working on the canal itself or in directly related industries. Today in most towns along the Empire State Trail you can see monuments dedicated to those who served in the Civil War, which ultimately saw the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the United States, with one of the largest located right next to the former Canal in Syracuse, again in Clinton Square. You can also visit the graves of several of the Black soldiers who fought for the Union in Mount Hope Cemetery in the Grand Army of the Republic section.

As the Civil War came to a close, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, while the other two Reconstruction Amendments, the 14th and 15th, gave African Americans citizenship and Black men the right to vote respectively. Of course, while slavery had been eliminated by the Civil War, racism and many of the systems of oppression that had supported slavery remained. New York and the Canal Corridor would remain important locations in the struggle for equal human rights, but that is a story for another article. For more information, we suggest trying to join one of the Erie Canal Museum’s Pathway of Resistance walking tours of Downtown Syracuse, looking specifically at the struggle for abolition along the Erie Canal and the many places in Syracuse where parts of that history occurred. To stay up to date, we suggest subscribing to our e-newsletter here and following us on social media.