New York State Funeral Directors Association


New York State was a destination for many freed and escaped slaves before and after the Civil War.

But occupants of the Empire State hosted their share of people who were considered property and lived a life of toil and torment.

In the past these people were mostly unnamed, faceless figures pooled into a category: Slaves.

Today, thanks to the work of students, researchers, educators and others, we can at the least give some of them back their names.

And in some cases, their descendants can now find them and pay respects at their burial sites.

A resource online - New York Slavery Records Index – offers clues to help people find out if their ancestors were slaves – and maybe even discover where they are buried.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, has established a website compiling more than 35,000 records of slavery in New York State dating from the early 1500s to the Civil War.

It provides a lot more than you’ll find pouring over the first census of the United States, compiled in the year 1790.

There were five categories of people listed in that first census. Four of them were labeled with the first word “Free,” such as “Free white males of 16 years and upward …” and “free white females including heads of families.”

Then there was the fifth category: “Slaves.”

At that time, America’s estimated population was roughly 3.2 million people – not including slaves. The first census counted 694,280 slaves throughout the entire country.

New York State counted about 75,000 people as residents in 1790. About 4,000 of them were slaves.

It isn’t too late to memorialize some of these people – now their burial sites just have to be identified by their descendants.

Thoughtful memorialization can happen even without names.

In 2016, hundreds of people gathered in and around Albany, NY for events and funeral services for the remains of 14 slaves.

They were discovered by accident during a construction project, and turned out to be slaves of the Colonial-era Schuyler family, wealthy landowners.

The remains were studied, their African origins pinpointed and burial containers were handcrafted for each of them.

They were interred in a prominent place in the historic St. Agnes Cemetery in a ceremony that drew hundreds of people.

None of them had names – there were no headstones and no other records were tied to these individuals: five infants, two children, one man and six women.

SLAVE SEARCH CAPABILITIES

On the New York Slavery Records Index website, people can search by locality, first and last name and several other categories to find specific people.

In some instances, records indicate an individual may not have been a slave – but rather they were registered as being the child of a slave.

This could still be helpful to one searching for their roots.U.S. Slave Housing Images from the 1860s

There are hundreds of names of New York slaves in the database: Prince Maisila, Rachel Lewis, Rachel O’Brien, Rachel Ore, Samuel Charlton, Sarah Peters, Susanna Nessit, Secor Cornell, and Sarah Robbart are but a few names one can find in a simple search.

These people were were all recorded in New York County.

There are many ways to search, most important are the last names – that’s where to start a search for somebody looking for an ancestor who may have been enslaved.

Unfortunately, records for many of the slaves recorded only their first name.

Of potentially-equal importance is a search category for the name of descendants.

You can also search by birth year of the enslaved individual, the address of the owner, and the place where they lived - down to the New York county or borough, among other choices.

These are all helpful clues for someone dedicated to discovering their ancestors.

The records are tagged with important elements, too.

There were numerous New York-born people who were sold to slavery in Louisiana.

There are records of these transactions, as well as identifications of New Yorkers who invested in the slave trade and the ships that brought the greatest number of enslaved people from Africa to the Americas.

For those who don’t have many of the details, there is also a simple way to find out where roughly 12,000 slaves were buried in New York State: use the tag CEM.

There are other resources for burial sites of those who were enslaved. Maybe somebody might be able to find an ancestor using these resources.

Here’s a small list:


 

EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association