Douglas Harper is a Pennsylvania historian and author. His website about slavery in the northern states draws heavily on original source material. While researching northern slavery, Harper writes: “I kept running into people, most of them born and raised in ‘free’ states, who had no idea there ever were slaves in the North.” Much of the information in this story comes from Harper’s work, and from Mac Griswold’s book, The Manor: Three Centuries At a Slave Plantation on Long Island.
Yes, Virginia, northern slavery not only existed but flourished. In fact, slavery still survived in some northern states long after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation called for freeing slaves in the South.
Dutch and English slavers brought Africans to America soon after its discovery. Not to be denied, New England ship captains quickly began sailing to Africa where they purchased slaves from tribal leaders. These Africans were shipped to northern ports and sold to the highest bidder. By 1790, the population of America was four million, 19% of which were slaves, most in northern states.
In “The Hidden History of Slavery in New York,” Adele Oltman, writes: “On display [at the New-York Historical Society] is The Trading Book of the Sloop of Rhode Island, which left the Port of New York in 1748 for West Africa under the direction of Capt. Peter James…Early in the voyage, around Sierra Leone, James distributed two New World commodities that had come through the Port of New York: tobacco and rum…In return he loaded up on cloth, guns and other manufactured goods from Europe. Later, as he sailed along the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), he traded those goods for slaves, a few at a time.
“James’s book registered the deaths of thirty-eight slaves on the journey home. But even with the loss, the trafficking in slaves was profitable. A table provides a graphic illustration of just how lucrative the business was. In 1675 the average selling price of a slave in dollars in Africa was $354.89, and in New York it was $3,792.66 (that's a 969 percent markup, for those econometricians keeping score). A hundred years later the trade was still profitable, although with a more modest return of 159 percent.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin portrayed Southern slave-holders as brutal. But brutality is where you find it, as these true stories show.
After a New York City slave uprising in 1712, Harper writes that “a special court convened by the governor made short work of the rebels. Of the twenty-seven slaves brought to trial for complicity in the plot, twenty-one were convicted and put to death. Since the law authorized any degree of punishment in such cases, some unlucky slaves were executed with all the refinements of calculated barbarity. New Yorkers were treated to a round of grisly spectacles as Negroes were burned alive, racked and broken on the wheel, and gibbeted alive in chains.”
The following example could come straight from the files of ISIS: “As in other Northern colonies, blacks in New York faced special, severe penalties for certain crimes. An example from Poughkeepsie illustrates one of them: A young slave, about twenty years of age...[burned] his master’s barn and outbuildings, and thus destroyed much grain, together with live-stock. He was detected by the smoke issuing from his pocket, (into which he had thrust some combustibles,) imprisoned, tried, and on his confession, condemned to be burned to death. He was fastened to a stake, and when the pile was fired, the dense crowd excluded the air, so that the flames kindled but slowly, and the dreadful screams of the victim were heard at a distance of three miles. His master, who had been fond of him, wept aloud, and called to the Sheriff to put him out of his misery. This officer then drew his sword; but the master, still crying like a child, exclaimed, ‘Oh, don’t run him through!’ The Sheriff then caused the crowd to separate, so as to cause a current of air; and when the flame burst out fiercely he called to the sufferer to ‘swallow the blaze;’ which he did, and immediately he sunk dead.”
In the early-to-mid 1800s, most northern states abolished slavery, but not all.
After Lincoln’s armies invaded the Confederacy, the U. S. president issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Intended for the South, the Proclamation was never intended for the northern states. For example, even though the War Between the States ended in April, 1865, slave-owners in Delaware kept slaves until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December, 1865. That was three full years after the Proclamation.
One thorny question remains: if ending slavery was truly the major motive for the war, why did Northerners continue to own slaves while demanding that the South relinquish theirs?