Philipsburg Manor, Historical Significance


International scale has been a hallmark of New York since the very beginning of its European settlement. The commercial emphasis that drove first the Dutch and then the English colonization of New York led to remarkable cultural diversity and to interaction among, Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans in the province—still a significant characteristic of the state. Slavery underpinned New York’s economy directly through the labor of enslaved Africans in the colony and indirectly through profits reaped by New York merchants from the Caribbean trade, and we live with its legacy today.


Examples of trade goods for hands-on learning.

Ever since 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed up the “North River” (as the Hudson was called) under the auspices of the Dutch government, the Dutch had claimed the territory that would become New York as part of their New Netherland colony. New Netherland stretched from the Delaware River to the Connecticut River and north to Canada. Early seventeenth-century activities of the Dutch West India Company, a merchant corporation chartered by the Dutch government to exploit the economic potential of the colony, revolved around the lucrative fur trade with Native Americans. Europe, with its long depleted wilderness, strongly desired North American beaver, otter, and other pelts from which to make hats and other garments.

By 1750, the provisioning trade had long surpassed fur as New York’s most important commodity. Much of the produce of thousands of acres of Philipse-owned land was shipped down the Hudson and out of New York harbor on ships bound for the Caribbean. Preserved meats, fish, and vegetables, dairy products, timber, and, above all, wheat products such as flour and ship’s biscuit sustained the plantations of the West Indies where planters put the land into luxury cash crops like sugar and chocolate rather than basic food crops.

West Indian products had an eager market in Europe. Philipse family ships transported sugar, rum, molasses, cacao, and tropical dye-woods, along with New York commodities, to Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany. In turn, the colonies demanded European finished goods such as textiles, hardware, glass, ceramics, and tools. Africa welcomed both European and American commodities in trade as well. But alongside the African ivory, gold, and textiles offered in exchange, coastal traders sold men, women, and children to willing buyers who knew they would find profit in the Americas by trafficking in human beings. Firmly in place since the sixteenth century, this vicious trait of the Atlantic trade was so entrenched by the eighteenth century that virtually no aspect of colonial commerce could be disentangled from slavery’s web.

Cultural Diversity

Finding enough labor to exploit New York’s resources for a global market had been a challenge since the early seventeenth century. However, it soon became apparent that lack of a settled population impeded trade, and the directors of the Company began a concerted effort to colonize the region.

A good economy and other favorable conditions in the Netherlands limited emigration’s appeal so in the 1620s the Company directors pragmatically encouraged settlement by people from across northern Europe—Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Norway, France, and the British Isles—and from European colonies in Brazil. These diverse settlers brought with them multiple languages and multiple religious beliefs, primarily different sects of Protestantism as well as Judaism, and the varied ethnic backgrounds of Philipsburg Manor tenants a century later reflect this immigration pattern.

As early as 1625 the directors also brought African captives to New Amsterdam, setting in motion over two hundred long years of slavery in New York. Africans forced to New York were as diverse in origin and culture as the European emigrants. The enslaved population came from West African and West Central African coastal regions as well as from Madagascar, areas where Europeans had already established navigation routes and trade relationships. By 1750, captives born and raised in New York added to the cultural mix in the colony.


Reproduction manacles.

The Philipses profited from slavery both directly and indirectly. They accumulated enormous wealth that placed them among the richest residents of New York through international trading that spanned the Atlantic world and beyond to the Indian Ocean, and included the slave trade itself. Many of the products they traded were the products of slave labor—sugar, rum, molasses, chocolate, rice, tobacco, and indigo. And the Philipses used slave labor in all their endeavors—at the Upper and Lower Mills, on board their ships, and in their New York City homes. The ubiquity of slavery not just in New York but throughout the English colonies is important in understanding the economic success of the region.

New York’s climate and terrain meant that rural captives worked at more varied agricultural labors than their southern and Caribbean counterparts. The city’s bustling port meant that urban captives worked at many different trades, some related to the maritime industry and some related to the many businesses that supported a growing population. The skills and activities engaged in by Philipse family slaves alone suggests the range of work performed by African captives in colonial New York. Marramitta was a cook on board a ship; Nicholas Cartagena was a “linguistor,” or language interpreter, aboard a vessel bound for Madagascar; Jack was a sailor; Diamond was a boatman; Caesar was a miller while others worked as farmers, dairymaids, coopers, domestic servants, couriers, and bakers.

By 1750, New York had grown so dependent on the skills and labor of African people that slaves represented fourteen percent of the colony’s population. The middle class as well as the wealthy participated in slavery, and throughout Philipsburg Manor, many tenant farmers relied on African labor. Adolph Philipse, one of the largest slaveholders in the North, claimed twenty-three women, men, and children as property at the Upper Mills plantation.

Slavery in New York ended in 1827—a mere thirty-eight years before the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, northerners tended to deny or downplay their long involvement in American slavery. Only recently have museums and historic sites throughout both the North and the South started to acknowledge the vast social, cultural, political, and economic significance of race-based slavery in this country.

Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills helps demonstrate the centuries-old African presence in New York, reminding us not only of the notable diversity of New York but also of the longevity and geographic reach of slavery in the Americas. Philipsburg Manor also exemplifies how New York’s wealth, like that of other northern colonies, was undeniably entangled with enslavement.

Philipsburg Manor tells the stories of the individuals and families who formed the Upper Mills community—their challenges and their choices, and their courage to form families despite the odds against staying together. From the history of Philipsburg Manor we learn that individual responses to enslavement varied widely from person to person, ranging from covert resistance, to running away, to open rebellion. And we discover how one means of resistance—the retention of African cultural expression—has had an enormous impact on the unique culture of the United States.

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