Database Sheds New Light on New York’s Historic Ties to Slavery

A new index contains searchable records of slavery from birth registrations to runaway slave advertisements

New York slave market about 1730
New York slave market about 1730 Line photoengraving by Harry Fenn. From "A history of the American people" by Wilson Woodrow (1902-1903) via the New York Public Library

In 1613, a Dutch ship came to Mannahatta, the “island of many hills,” to trade with the native Lenape people. The crew’s translator was a man by the name of Jan Rodrigues (also known as Juan Rodrigues). As it so happens, Rodrigues, who married a local woman and stayed behind when the ship departed, holds the distinction of being the first-known non-native resident of modern-day Manhattan.

Rodrigues, who is of African and possibly Afro-European descent, appears in the newly launched New York Slavery Records Index. He is listed as “FRE” because he “acted as a free man” in Mannahatta, but previously had been forced to work for his captain without compensation. His story, writes John Jay professor Ned Benton, who developed the index alongside fellow professor Judy-Lynee Peters and a team of graduate students, is just one of many that serves to illuminate the long ties of slavery to present-day New York.

With more than 35,000 records input into the publicly available, searchable online database, the index holds many stories that until now have been difficult to access, reports Gabrielle Fonrouge of the New York Post.

Searchers can find records through a variety of ways: by researching the name of the enslaved person, the slave owner, a geographic location, year or other parameters. The records, according to the index’s website, pull from an exhaustive list of sources that include "slave trade transactions, cemetery records, birth certifications, manumissions, ship inventories, newspaper accounts, private narratives, legal documents,” and other historical records, like U.S. census data. Faculty and students also have included essays that explore some of the stories the records illuminate, and searchable tags that point to collections such as the records of enslaved people who escaped to the British during the Revolutionary War.

Other stories included in the index detail information about Sojourner Truth’s family and their slave owners and the 17 people owned by John Jay, a founding father, governor of New York State, and the college’s namesake.

The new index is intended to serve as another resource for people hoping to find traces to enslaved ancestors. However, despite the digitization of census records and growing number of online databases, the historical record is still scant when it comes to this kind of work. In many of the index's entries, for example, enslaved people are referred to by first name only.

Notably, the index is New York's first database of slavery records, reports Anthony Moaton for WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, Connecticut.  “We tend to think of slavery as something that only happened in the South," Ned Benton, co-director of the project, points out in an interview with Moaton. "On the eve of the Revolutionary War, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves in New England. It had 1,464.”

Recognition of New York State's legacy of slavery has come slowly: It was just in 2015 that the city posted a marker commemorating the New York slave market that ran in today's Financial District. Now, the tangible proof contained within the index's records promises to open up a new clear-eyed and detailed connection to mark that past.

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