Catch Me if You Can!

Printed in the weekly Poughkeepsie Journal on September 5, 1810, this runaway slave notice from one of the most prominent New Paltz families advertises the reward for the return of their slave, Harry. Slavery in the North, though thought to be much less brutal than in the South, was still prominent, and living conditions were detestable enough that slaves were desperate to run away.

Tucked away in the New York State library is a reel of microfilm which feels like acetate to the touch. Upon its surface, each small frame holds a miniscule image of a newspaper page from long ago. One specific frame projects a rectangular announcement nestled amongst “for sale” and “wanted” advertisements. This microfilm clip is a preservation of the September 5th printing of the Poughkeepsie Journal newspaper from 1810. Typed words printed in ebony ink announce a reward for runaway slave Harry from New Paltz, New York. The ad describes Harry’s general physical appearance, the items he took with him, and states the company with whom he ran away. The inked letters are stamped inconsistently in pressure, with some letters having a bolder, darker presence on the page. Some letters are almost illegibly soft and blurred, maybe due to over two hundred years of survival. Although there is no title, the first four words are printed larger than the rest, begging your eyes to keep reading about the reward and Harry. All 158 words are an unformatted, standard text, except for five words located approximately ½ inch from the bottom of the advertisement— “widow of David Hasbrouck deceased.” The original newspaper would have been made from discarded cotton and linen; however, the microfilm preservation takes away this texture and makes the ink appear as though it was printed on wood-pulp paper. The microfilm was made many years after the newspaper was printed, yet the words are very legible for anyone who desires to read a snippet of New Paltz history.

The newspaper containing this slave runaway notice was printed by Nicholas Power and Company and distributed out into Dutchess County, New York. It is unknown how many prints were made; however, newspapers during this time were better equipped to survive than newspapers of a later time period because the paper made from cotton did not deteriorate as quickly as paper made from wood. The specific image above is a microfilm version, and the chain of ownership is unknown for the actual newspaper that it came from. It’s possible that the object itself only exists in one or two hard copies in the United States. In March 1911, the New York State library lost nearly all of its hard-copy newspapers in a fire. The library now only holds this specific newspaper (which ran from 1802-1815) on Microfilm along with many others, and has only hard copy of two of its issues—June 26, 1804, and October 21, 1812.  It is possible that there are no hard copies of the September 5, 1810 issue, as it is not listed in Clarence Brigham's History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 which was published in 1947. Without microfilm, this snippet of New Paltz history would have been lost forever.

Although some slave runaway notices were posted in the paper more than once, this advertisement was only placed in the Poughkeepsie Journal once. Because the newspaper was not a daily newspaper until the Civil War, the notice itself was written sometime within the six days before the 5th of September. Because it is dated September 3rd, we can assume that this is the day that it was written.

Today we view the New Paltz community as open and accepting of all types of people, this was not always the case. It is easy for us to convince ourselves that New Paltz was a community against slavery since it is located in New York, a state in which many abolitionist movements took place. In school we learn how slavery dominated the South and how the North fought for abolition. Many people believe that cruel treatment of slaves only happened in the South. Because so much emphasis is placed on slavery of the Southern United States, many people remain painfully ignorant of the treatment people of African descent received in the North and in our very own community. We learn from slave notices like this one that the North, including New Paltz, was heavily involved in slavery and many people believed that blacks were inferior people.

By 1750—60 years before this slave notice was written—13,000 people of African descent were enslaved against their will in the Northern states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Although the majority of slave owners in the North only owned about one or two slaves, an estate of about 50-60 slaves existed in the Hudson Valley, which is where New Paltz is located. In New Paltz, by 1790, there were 77 slave owners who altogether owned 302 slaves. These 302 slaves equaled roughly 13 percent of the total town population.  Slaves were treated as less than human. In New York, blacks were punished severely and cruelly for crimes. For example, in Poughkeepsie, a slave was tied to a stake and burned alive after damaging his owner’s grain and livestock. His cries could be heard from three miles away as he died a slow and agonizing death. Free blacks in the North could also be thrown into jails if they looked like runaways. The police would then advertise the ruanaway in the paper, and if somebody claimed it was his or her slave, the free black person was given to them without the sheriff looking to see if the family had actually owned the person.  

Harry, while enslaved to Mary Hasbrouck, lived on Butterville Road, with a fantastic view of Paltz Point located to the east of his residence. His owner’s house was a medium sized stone house, measuring 40x35 feet, with eleven windows. Butterville Road is only seven minutes away from the SUNY New Paltz campus, therefore overworked and mistreated slaves were walking down the same streets that we walk on every day. They built homes and worked the land that we New Paltz residents are surrounded by; we are much more closely connected to slavery than many of us think.

Harry was widow Mary Hasbrouck’s only slave in 1810, although she and her husband had owned a few more slaves in previous years. The Hasbroucks were a founding family of New Paltz and signers of the New Paltz patent. They were wealthy enough to hire people to work for them instead of enslaving them, for Mary Hasbrouck’s mother-in-law, Wyntje Deyo, was one of the wealthiest residents of the community and David Hasbrouck (Mary’s deceased husband) had inherited all of his father’s land in Ulster County. However, every prominent household in New Paltz had at least one slave at this time, so it was not seen as unusual or wrong for Mary Hasbrouck to have a slave.

The slave runaway notice itself reveals more of the New Paltz views on slavery in 1810. It refers to Harry as “remarkably” well spoken. The word “remarkably” expresses a certain amount of shock or disbelief, as though it is surprising for someone of color to be able to speak civilly and respectably. Although Harry is a human being just like his owner Mary, the ad dehumanizes him in the way it is written and in its placement in the newspaper among “For Sale” and “Wanted” notices. This ad therefore reinforces to the community that slavery is an acceptable part of society.

The note sheds light on a slave’s living conditions and dress. Harry most likely did not own velvet clothing; therefore, the fancy clothes that he took with him were most likely stolen from his master. This shows that a slave did not have clothing that was fit for travel and he would have stood out as a slave if he had taken his own attire. In these clothes, Harry was less likely to be seen as a slave. This note brings attention to the theft of clothes, and serves almost like a warning to other slave owners in the area: if you relax and don’t keep a close eye on your slaves, they will run away from you and steal your belongings.

This slave notice and the New Paltz Slave Registry are the only documents that prove that Harry even lived. This note was only put into the paper once, which could mean that Harry was found and brought back or he escaped successfully into freedom. There is no information about his life or death besides the few documents that exist to place him in the Hasbrouck household as a slave. This lack of information on his life reflects the views of the white residents of the time—slaves were seen merely as property, not individuals whose lives were worth documenting. A copy of the Slave Registry is available through Hudson River Valley Heritage at http://www.hrvh.org/cdm/ref/collection/hhs/id/372

-Eirinn Norrie


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New Paltz Hasbrouck house

Mary Hasbrouck's home on Butterville Road, New Paltz, NY, the place where Harry lived, worked, and eventually fled.

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