At the end of the 2019 academic year, the 7,565 students of the State University of New York at New Paltz, located 90 miles north of New York City, received an email announcing that after 19 months of discussion, the names of their dining hall, as well as five residence halls, were about to change. Indeed, in the fall semester of 2019, the names of the six original settlers and founders of the town will be replaced by names of indigenous and geographical origins. The reason? Like most colonists of the time, those people owned slaves.
“I had no idea of who these people were and I was shocked when I learned they were slave owners,” confessed an African-American student living in one of the dorms. However, slavery is not only a New Paltz issue, it is also the portrayal of a broader phenomenon found everywhere in New York, America, and even the world. Actually, most of the white people who settled in the original 13 Colonies legally owned slaves, even in the North, including those who signed the Declaration of Independence. In a conference called “Race and the Evasion of American History,” Dr. Jelani Cobb explained that the Southern states used statues of George Washington as a symbol of slavery before the Civil War.
In fact, most Americans think that slavery was only common in the Old South, where rich colonists would buy slaves to work in cotton fields. Although the people who founded New Paltz were not traders, they owned and exchanged slaves within the community, and this is a good example showing how this practice was actually common in the Northeastern states before the Civil War. This is why the history of this little town is unique, and at the same time, perfectly portrays the history of the United States. It’s fairly common to only think of U.S. history as the story about Pilgrims who fled England and settled in Plymouth in 1629 or the very first settlers in Virginia in 1607. But to plant the seeds of what America is today, it actually took thousands of other Europeans who decided to start a new life in a new world. Twelve of them helped to shape not only a small American town but America as a whole. Today, let’s go back in time to discover the stories of some of the millions of people who crossed the ocean to establish a new nation.
I – The New World
The people who crossed the Atlantic and founded New Paltz were Huguenots. “A Huguenot is the first record of the term refugee,” explains Johnson. Like many Europeans in the 17th century, they were Protestant families. France however, ruled by King Louis XVI, was Catholic. After massacres and various other forms or persecutions, Protestants fled and moved all over the world. Among them, seven families, the Hasbroucks, LeFevres, Deyos, Dubois, Crispells, Beviers and the Freers, all fled to a small asylum in Germany, in a region called Palatinate, or “Patz” in local dialect. However, the place was often ravaged due to invasions led by the French king, which is why, little by little, those men decided to leave for what they would call “the new world.”
The very first one to do so was Antoine Crispell, who in 1660, traveled aboard of The Gilded Otter, and joined the colony of New Netherland, a Dutch Settlement that later became New York. This was only 40 years after the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth. Eventually, he communicated with his relatives back in Germany, who ended up joining him. Although they are often forgotten, most of them traveled with their wives and children.
Later on, twelve men from those Huguenot families, who lived in the Hudson Valley, decided to settle in an empty piece of land next to the Wallkill River, previously owned by Native Americans called Esopus. “They wanted their own little place in order to keep their French language and their French customs, rather than blending with the Dutch,” explained Johnson. Also, the two Esopus wars are good examples of the tensions between Native Americans and the Dutch.
In 1677, they acquired the land of what is now New Paltz, NY, by exchanging of goods such as gunpowder, horses, guns and even blankets with the Esopus Indians.
“When you look at it, the exchange was so little compared to the amount of land that they got!” Johnson said. But she explained that compared to the Dutch in New Amsterdam, the Huguenots got along better with the Natives. However, the need for them to build a fort in 1705, which hosts the visitor center of Historic Huguenot Street today, is still a proof that the relationship between Native Americans and the Huguenots wasn’t always peaceful.
Eleven of those men moved to New Paltz with their families and some other relatives and established their own community, where most people would speak French. Carrie Allmendinger, archivist at Historic Huguenot Street, explained that they built bigger stone houses when they were more established, after a few years. Many of them were preserved and can still be seen today at the National Historic Landmark Historic Huguenot Street, “one of the oldest streets of America with its original houses” said Allmendinger. “We don’t have any proof, but it’s pretty safe to say that some of the houses were built by slaves,” she added.
II – Uncle Huguenot’s Cabin
“I would not say that everyone had slaves, but unfortunately, it was frequent,” said historian and librarian Johnson. “Women had to make their own clothes, sit at the spinning wheel, make dinner… Most of the slaves were bought to help the wives, contrary to down South, where they were picking cotton and growing tobacco.” Some other slaves helped men in the farms, and sometimes, probably helped to build their houses. “They all had different skills, some were very good at building for example. It was often stated in their runaway ads,” explained Historic Huguenot Street’s archivist Allmendinger.
According to a document, there were 28 slave owners in New Paltz in 1755. You can still see those names on roads and buildings in the area, including Bevier, DuBois, LeFevre, Eltinge, Hasbrouck and more. “Solomon Dubois owned seven slaves, Simon DuBois six,” wrote Ralph LeFevre in his book “History of New Paltz And Its Old Families,” first published in 1902. Allmendinger also explained that slave ownership by the Huguenots came pretty early, as Louis Dubois bought slaves at an auction at Kingston in 1674, even before he came to New Paltz.
“I the undersigned Abraham Dubois, laborer, living in New Paltz, certify that I received from Pierre Doyau fifty-five boisseaux of wheat that he owed me for my part of the Negro I inherited from my father-in-law Christian Doyau, for which I consider him cleared of debt to me,” says an old document from 1689, written in French, in the archives of Historic Huguenot Street.
“Their relationships with slaves was different than in the South” explained Johnson. “They were often included in the family pictures, they took the names of their families, and funerals were paid by their owners.” In his book “Black History of New Paltz,” professor William Heidgerd explained that “the constant association of the domestic servants with the master’s family […] led to attachments that survived for generations, even after emancipation.” Yet slavery remains human ownership, and most of these people still lived in inhuman conditions. This is why many of them escaped, and members of the community were used as bounty hunters to bring them back. A document from 1811 written by Jacob J. Hasbrouck and Isaiah Hasbrouck makes clear that anyone who found their runaway slaves should feel free to treat them awfully. The text says they “may sell and dispose of the said negroes” if they find them.
Some of those slaves were branded and had to wear collars so that they could be sent back to their owners if they escaped. One is kept in the archives of Historic Huguenot Street and a replica is visible in one of the houses. “It is the most horrible thing to see,” confessed Johnson.
Slavery actually lasted for a long period of time. A bill of sale between Solomon Bevier to Roelof Eltinge shows the transaction of a young boy named Sam for 5 pounds, in New Paltz in 1789. This was ten years after a state law was passed to gradually abolish slavery. “Male children born to slave women after July 4, 1799, were to become free at age 28, and females at 25,” explained Heidgerg in his book. It was now forbidden to buy new slaves, and the owners had to register all children born to slave from this date, as explained by archivist Allmendinger. The law also authorized the system of “abandonment”, which means that the baby was placed in a poor house until he or she was old enough to work. “They were separated from their mother, slave owners didn’t want to pay to take care of them” added Allmendinger. By 1800 there were 301 slaves in New Paltz, with 90 residents. Slavery was banned 24 years later in the state of New York.
III – The Birth Of A Nation
Soon after came the Civil War, the deadliest war of America, during which, as a northern town, men of New Paltz contributed a lot. The town had already contributed to a war effort during the revolution, when it was “the breadbasket of the country, and grew everything for the army,” according to Johnson. Many descendants of the patentees were involved in that war, the house of Jonathan Hasbrouck in Newburgh, NY, was used as Washington’s headquarters for example, she recalled. As a typical American northern town, New Paltz fought for the Union against the Southern states. On the enrollment list of 1863, many names are not unknown from us, such as Hasbrouck, LeFevre or Dubois. Yet, “fighting for the Union did not necessarily mean you believed in abolitionism and it certainly doesn’t mean you believe in equality. It just depends on your law” reminded Allmendinger. This was, however, the case for some of them.
For example, Johannes Lefevre was a volunteer, and died after the battle of Cedar Creek, in Virginia. “ I am thankful to Almighty God, that I am to day among the living & unharmed. Day before yesterday, we fought one of the most terrible battles of the war, & won a complete victory,” he wrote to his father in 1864, after the third battle of Winchester. He died two months later. “There is also Peter Elting, who grew up in a house with several slaves, the largest amount in New Paltz, and formed a regiment during the civil war to end slavery,” added Johnson. “They were shocked by the things they saw in the South, because slavery was so different than what they knew,” she then explained.
IV – New Generations For A New Heritage
The descendants of the founding families have spread all over the country, and some of them work hard to preserve their heritage. One of them is for example Abraham Bruyn Hasbrouck, the lawyer of Sojourner Truth when she went in court to free her son illegally sold in the South, explained Allmendinger. Another example of an unexpected descendant of the patentees is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a descendant of Antoine Crispell, the very first patentee to come to America. Johnson told the story of that time when he came to Historic Huguenot Street with Princess Martha of Norway and other heads of state. When the person escorting him knocked at the door of the Elting House, he told the owner who he was with. Thinking that it was a joke, she answered: “Oh yes, Stallin and Churchill too I suppose!”
In the 1950s, some descendants of the patentees started to look for information about their heritage, and founded associations with some members of their family. For example, Kenneth E. Hasbrouck Sr. founded the Hasbrouck association in 1957. “We are supporting the Huguenot heritage and maintaining the link between our ancestors. We also cooperate with Historic Huguenot Street in maintaining and showing the stone houses, agreeing how to display them, and figuring what message we want to tell,” explained Robert W. Hasbrouck, President of the Hasbrouck Association.
Another contribution of the descendants is the campus on which thousands of students attend college, in New Paltz. “The descendants of the patentees were not only involved in the University, they were the history of the University!” explained Johnson. Indeed, the board of trustees of the New Paltz Academy, which later became SUNY New Paltz, includes names of descendants such as LeFevres, Hasbroucks or Dubois, whom all gave money to the foundation of the school. “It’s no stretch to say that SUNY New Paltz would not exist without their efforts,” said the President of the university in a communication. The dormitories and dining hall built in 1951 and now known as College and Shango Hall were named after six of the patentees, and the names can still be seen on the original plaques. When they decided to extend the campus in the 1960s, they transferred those names on new dorms and a brand new dining hall, known as the Hasbrouck Complex. Five decades later, the president of the University Donald P. Christian decided it was time to question those names, because of their connotation to slavery. “I am aware that some students, particularly students of color, have expressed their discomfort about living in halls with these names.” Explains the President in a letter. In 2017, he asked the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council to “lead the campus-wide dialogue” about the names of the complex. “Our commitments include remediating past and current inequities while establishing and maintaining practices and values of inclusion of all groups and individuals, particularly those who have been disadvantaged and excluded,” says the council on their report published in May 2018. In March 2019, the change of the names was voted unanimously and will take effect in the Fall Semester. “The founding fathers, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, were all slave owners. Nobody wants to remove their names from anything,” said Robert W. Hasbrouck. “The names should not represent the original Hasbrouck brothers but their descendants, who brought a lot to New Paltz,” he added. In a recent report, Christian wanted to answer to those who thought this change was about to erase history: “I have learned that some are not aware that a significant part of our decision […] is to take concrete steps to tell our local and campus history more fully than we have in the past,” he wrote. Currently, a “park-like contemplative space” is being developed in order to tell the history of New Paltz and the University “more fully and openly,” as well as plaques inside of each dorm, a new campus street called “Huguenot Court.” “Our efforts will include the many positive contributions of the Huguenot patentees and their descendants, including building and sustaining the New Paltz educational institutions that preceded SUNY New Paltz,” wrote Christian.
What has happened in New Paltz for 342 years is not local history. New Paltz is a small northern American town with a unique history, but at the same time mirrors the history of a whole country so well. What you’ve just read is not only the history of New Paltz but a tiny part of the history of America. Whether we try to erase it or remember it, nobody should forget that slavery is unquestionably central to the history of the United States.