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Black labor built Cole House

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By LORNA CHEROT LITTLEWAY

Thomas Cole House. Photo contributed

CATSKILL—The Thomas Cole National Historic Site marked Juneteenth with a guided tour and talk, “Black Labor & Legacy at the Historic Property,”

June 16-18. Juneteenth, the most recent federal holiday, commemorates the date, June 19, 1865, when the news of emancipation of enslaved persons was made in Galveston, TX, and spread throughout the U.S. western territories.

The tour interpreter, Beth, led a group of eight through portions of Cole House and shared her research that focused on the period of 1790 to the 1840s.

Landscape painter Thomas Cole was one of America’s foremost artists of the 19th century and is the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, the first major school of art in the U.S. Cole married the niece of Thomas Thomson, who made his fortune through the transatlantic slave trade and the exportation of sugar.

Thomson owned the 110-acre Cedar Grove farm and estate. Enslaved laborers were used to build the federalist style Main House, the current historic site on Spring Street in Catskill. It is believed that generations of the Thomson family enslaved up to 30 people in both Catskill and Demerara (present day Guyana in South America), where Thomson expanded his businesses.

Beth explained the challenge of collecting accurate, personal information about the enslaved population because the U.S. Census, up to 1850, only recorded the head of household and owners regarded the enslaved as personal property. Also, official documents broadly described the enslaved and assigned them ages within a 50-year range. The 1840 census put the Black population in Catskill at 6%, a grave under counting, according to Beth.

What is known about the enslaved at Cedar Grove is based on inventory records, sales receipts, and manumission documents for four people: Chloe, Bill, Cesar and Josephus.

Chloe, dubbed the Unnamed Woman, was born circa 1774. Her name is included on an 1805 inventory list. Five years later Chloe filed her manumission certificate with the Greene County clerk. A condition of manumission was the enslaved had to prove they could live independently and that declaration required affirmation by their enslavers. She is thought to have been between the ages of 31-36 when manumitted.

The tour included a laborer’s basement bedroom, possibly Chloe’s. It is located near a stairwell and sandwiched between the kitchen and dairy room. The bedroom measures approximately 9×12 and contains a cot, small table, two small chairs and a mat covering a slate floor. On the table are two candles, a cup, small mirror and a very worn prayer book. Other items in the room include a broom, iron, dustpan, washbasin and pitcher. The room has the original oval window facing an exterior wall.

It is unclear what became of Chloe post manumission but speculation is she worked as a domestic for the Thomas Cole household, which included five children.

Bill, too, appears on the same 1805 inventory list. His age is given as 20. Bill was enslaved through to 1813 as his name appears on receipts for clothing purchased on his behalf. It is assumed that between 1813 and 1816 Bill was manumitted because a Bill Thompson is listed as an eligible voter in Catskill, a status that would require proof that Bill was a free man.

Cesar was the last to be manumitted in 1820. His age was estimated as early 20s. According to the website, thomascole.org, Cesar went to Demerara with Thomson. Also on that journey was Josephus, whom Beth described as Thomson’s “confidant.” Compared with the others there is much information about Josephus.

The website states that Josephus was acquired at age three by Thomson senior. He served the son from 1797 to 1818. A ship ledger from the Port of Liverpool describes Josephus as being mixed race, 5 feet seven inches with black hair. He stayed in Demerara for 10 years and returned to Catskill with Thomson.

Josephus was the only slave that Thomson personally manumitted. It was on Christmas Day 1818. Thomson’s brother, John Alexander, freed the other three.

Upon manumission Josephus moved to Athens, NY, owned property and established his own household. Josephus lived for several decades in Athens, helped other Blacks establish their own households and was active in abolitionist activities.

While in Demerara, Thomson took Priscilla Mary as his common-law wife. She had been enslaved but at the time of their meeting Priscilla Mary was a shopkeeper. She and Thomson had five children, four boys and a girl. The boys were named after American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. The girl was named Helen.

Thomson abandoned the family in 1815; but did emancipate his children before his death from syphilis in 1821. Twelve years later Priscilla Mary sued the Thomson family. John Alexander settled with her for 3,400 gilders (Dutch currency), which Beth estimated at a current value of $43,000. However the settlement was just 25% of what she requested.

At that time Catskill had a robust Black community engaged in business enterprises and abolitionist activities. Beth cited Martin Croft, a barber with a shop on Main Street, and Robert Jackson. The tour included copies of clippings from the Catskill Messenger, a weekly newspaper.

Beth said that her research did not find any sentiments from Thomas Cole regarding slavery or Abolitionism but that he did “express concerns” about President Andrew Jackson’s policies and actions.

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