[Blackstudies-l] Legacy of Rochester's Founders Includes Slavery: D&C today

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sun Jul 19 09:04:50 EDT 2020

Sunday, July 19, 2020



Legacy of Rochester's founders includes slavery

Justin Murphy

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle | USA TODAY NETWORK

Two hundred and ten years ago, Nathaniel Rochester left Maryland for New
York. Traveling in his caravan were his wife, his children and 10 Black
people whom he'd held in slavery.

The legacy of the white travelers has long seemed secure, while the Black
people ? some of them possibly emancipated, others certainly not ? have
been forgotten. The most recent round of protests over the treatment of
Black people in America, though, has led communities across the country to
grapple not only with the racial implications of modern practices and
policies, but also with the role of slavery in their past and in the
iconography of their streets, schools, parks and monuments.

Rochester is no different.


Nathaniel Rochester is among the Rochester dignitaries depicted on a mural
along West Main Street under the Inner Loop bridge in Rochester. SHAWN


The land that would become western New York was purchased by slaveowners
from slave-owners and developed in part with slave labor. Without the labor
of enslaved Black people, the Rochester area would not exist as we know it.

The most prominent of these men was Nathaniel Rochester, whose wealth and
position in Hagerstown, Maryland, derived in large part from work done by
the Black people who he bought and sold.

That prestige helped him form a business alliance with other wealthy
Marylanders, who also owned enslaved people, to purchase the land on which
our homes stand today. The recent defacing of Rochester's statue on South
Avenue reflects how his reputation has been tarnished over time.

We speak these people's names every day: Fitzhugh Street. Charles Carroll
Park. Hopkins Park. Williamson. Mount Morris. Pultneyville. Gates.
Henrietta. Rochester.

The city's earliest chroniclers sought to whitewash the founders'
involvement in slavery. For instance, they created the narrative,
contradicted by historical records, that Nathaniel Rochester moved to the
North specifically because "he could not bear the thought of rearing his
family amid its demoralizing influences," as Judge Charles E. Fitch put it
during a speech for the city's semi-centennial in 1884.

In fact, recent research based on original Rochester family documents held
at the University of Rochester establishes that Nathaniel Rochester brought
enslaved Black people with him to New York, both for his own personal
service and to rent out for additional income.

The accomplishments of Nathaniel Rochester and his others ? the foresight
for recognizing High Falls as a prime site for a city, and the business
acumen and energy it took to make the city a reality ? are undiminished.
It's just that the narrative has grown more complicated.

A reckoning seems inevitable, whether formal, such as the formation of a
city commission on racial inequality, or informal, such as the defacing of
the statue.

"The basic problem with everything in non-white history is that it's so
muddled in lies ? in this case, in order to enslave and subject people to
holocaust, you had to decide they weren't humans," local historian Victoria
Schmitt said.

"We've never faced the hypocrisies of our fathers. ... We have to be
honest, we've got to face it and we've got to do some healing."

The speculators

Western New York was deeply implicated in slavery well before Nathaniel
Rochester arrived.

The man who sold the land to Rochester, Carroll and William Fitzhugh was
Charles Williamson, a Scottish noble turned Maryland land speculator. He
persuaded fellow Southern slave owners to move north as a way to "graft the
plantation system onto vast tracts of Genesee Country land," as historian
Kathryn Grover put it.

Williamson himself was acting as an agent of Sir William Pulteney of
Scotland, whose wealth ? he reputedly was the richest man in Great Britain
? derived in large part from slave plantations in the West Indies,
according to University College London's Legacies of British
Slave-ownership project. There have been calls to scrub his name from
buildings and monuments in Bath, England, where he mostly lived.

Pulteney had bought the land from Robert Morris, a Philadelphia financier
who invested in ships bringing kidnapped Africans to America to be sold
into slavery and then helped run the auctions themselves. Morris also owned
a 3,000-acre plantation in Louisiana that persisted on slave labor,
according to historian Frances Kolb.

Justin Behrend, a historian at SUNY Geneseo, said the development of
western New York and other northern communities in many cases was rooted in
wealth gained from enslaved labor.

He pointed as well to the Erie Canal, completed in 1825. Much of the
financing came from New York City, whose financial and manufacturing
sectors were inextricably reliant upon enslaved labor in the South.

"That's the key development that really made western New York, and it's
tangibly linked to the wealth generated by slavery," he said.

The very first land transactions, of course, were with the Iroquois people
who predated European settlement, a separate tale of oppression.

When the land rush was over and it was time for the actual clearing of
forest and draining of swamps, enslaved Black people again were pressed
into service.

Austin Steward, who escaped slavery to become Rochester's first leading
Black resident, recalled his harrowing first year at Sodus Bay, Ontario
County, where he was brought in about 1801 by the Virginian William Helm
along with several dozen other enslaved Black people.

"We became so weak we could not work, and it was difficult to drag
ourselves about, as we were now obliged to do, to gather up all the old
bones we could find, break them up fine and then boil them; which made a
sort of broth sufficient barely to sustain life," Steward wrote in his

Helm was joined in settling the Sodus area by another wealthy slaveowner,
William Fitzhugh's brother Peregrine, according to a 1998 review of slavery
in western New York by historian Anne Schaetzke.

As journalist and historian Arch Merrill wrote in the Democrat and Chronicle
in 1942: "Today if around Sodus Point or Geneseo you hear a darkey speaking
with a soft Maryland drawl, there is more than a possibility that his
ancestors came nearly 150 years ago with the Southern aristocrats from the
banks of the Patuxent to the Genesee."

Rochester and slave-owning

Nathaniel Rochester was born in Virginia in 1752 and was raised mostly in
North Carolina, but it was in Hagerstown, Maryland, that he gained his
fortune, serving as president of the town's first bank.

The 1790 U.S. Census shows Rochester had 11 enslaved people in his
household, both to work on his own property and to lease out elsewhere.
There are also records of his buying and selling enslaved people in

Much of the information on Nathaniel Rochester's slave-owning past is based
on family documents held by the University of Rochester and included in a
2009 article in the journal "Rochester History" by City Historian Christine
Ridarsky, as well as Victoria Schmitt and Marilyn Nolte.

"I believe there's no question slavebuying and selling was an important
source of income for Nathaniel Rochester," Schmitt said. "It's all laid out
in the documents."

Rochester bought his first land in the Genesee Valley in 1800 in the
nascent village of Dansville. Three years later he, Carroll and Fitzhugh
visited and then purchased the land that would become Rochester.

Nathaniel Rochester moved to Dansville in 1810, then to Rochester in 1818.
Family tradition holds that he was motivated in part by the desire to free
his family from slavery's "debasing influence."

In a 1909 letter to Carroll, though, Rochester states his reason plainly:
"The expense of my family in (Maryland) is more than my income." He hoped
in particular that his eldest sons could pursue their own fortunes here.

The family brought 14 Black people north to Dansville, but their legal
status is not clear. Nathaniel Rochester's granddaughter, Fannie Rochester
Rogers, later wrote they had traveled with "a modest enough household to be
sure, for only ten freed slaves were brought north." Another four had gone
ahead the previous year with Rochester's two sons.

The 1810 Census showed Nathaniel Rochester with three enslaved people in
his household; others may have been leased out. He emancipated two of them
soon thereafter, but this was not all that it seemed.

The same day in 1811 that Rochester emancipated a 14-year-old girl named
Casandra, he agreed to take her on for four years as an indentured servant
to "apprentice in the art and (mastery) of a Spinster (and) cook." In other
words, he retained her free services as a household domestic even after
manumitting her. According to the next federal census in 1820, Nathaniel
Rochester then had four enslaved people in his household. Their time in
bondage was nearing its end, as the gradual abolition of slavery in New
York took final effect July 4, 1827.

Yet documents held at UR show that Rochester continued to seek gain from
slave-owning until the last mo-

Continued on next page

A statue of the city's founder, Col. Nathaniel Rochester PHOTOS BY SHAWN

North Fitzhugh Street runs past Rochester City Hall in downtown Rochester.
The street was named for William Fitzhugh, who helped buy the land that
would become the city.

The town of Henrietta was named for William Pulteney's daughter and heir,
Henrietta Laura Pulteney.

Nathaniel Rochester Community School No. 3 is located on Adams Street in

A hall at the Rochester Institute of Technology is named for Rochester.

Mount Morris is named for Robert Morris.

Pultneyville is located on the shore of Lake Ontario in Wayne County.

Hopkins Park in Pittsford was named after Caleb Hopkins.

Charles Carroll School 46 is located on Newcastle Road in Rochester.

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