Philipsburg Manor, A Portrait


Although the process of photography was not invented until the nineteenth century, we nevertheless have a “snapshot” of the Upper Mills in 1750. An inventory of Adolph Philipse’s belongings at the Upper Mills, taken shortly after his death, captures that moment in time. The inventory of the Upper Mills helps historians to reconstruct a portrait of the manor in 1750 and inspires the present-day appearance and story of the historic site.

Mill and Wharf

If New York’s economic success in the seventeenth century rested initially on the fur trade, its growth and development in the eighteenth century rested on the export of agricultural products such as wheat. Though city dwellers themselves, the Philipse family recognized the opportunities that lay in the cultivation of land, and, beginning in the 1670s, bought up large parcels along the Hudson River. By constructing mills on the tributary rivers of their lands, the Philipses not only ensured their own ability to add monetary value to the agricultural products of the land, but also supplied the infrastructure necessary for a prosperous farming community which made their manor lands more attractive to settlers. And, of course, by locating the mill near the mouth of the Pocantico where it met the Hudson, they made it easy to get the produce of the mill onto boats and to the internationally significant port of New York.

(top) The Mill-Dam at “Sleepy Hollow,” Currier & Ives, New York
City, c. 1857-1872, hand-colored lithograph; (bottom) A costumed
guide demonstrates the gristmill.

The gristmill was a major capital investment for the Philipses. Indeed, building, maintaining, and operating the mill was a complex proposition. At the Upper Mills, the master miller was an enslaved African named Caesar. Caesar, the most valuable man in the community by Philipse family standards, is listed first on the inventory of enslaved people at the Upper Mills in 1750. The master miller knew all the mechanics of the mill, had the skill to keep the stones in good order. He needed mathematical skills as well as linguistic ability in order to transact business with the manor’s diverse tenants. Tenants brought their wheat and other grains to be ground at the mill for their own consumption, as payment of rent to the Philipses, and for export. With two sets of stones going at any one time, Caesar could have produced as much as 15 tons of flour each week.

The gristmill was of major importance to the wealth of the Philipse family. Barrels of flour were an important component of nearly every shipping voyage to the Caribbean, where plantation owners and workers, who grew cash crops like sugar, tobacco, and indigo rather than foodstuffs, needed food supplies from New York and other northern colonies. Workers at the Upper Mills processed some of the wheat flour two steps further. They used the mill’s bolting equipment to sift the bran from the flour, and they baked large quantities of durable ship’s biscuit, or hardtack, that provisioned sailing voyages.

Caesar and others brought barrels of flour, biscuit, and other plantation produce from the manor onto the wharf below the mill. In the eighteenth century the docking area in the Pocantico beneath the dam could accommodate sloops with ease along the forty-foot-long wharf.


When Frederick Philipse I died in 1702, he left his son Adolph the plantation at the Upper Mills. Although the gristmill itself was the focal point of the plantation, Adolph maintained several hundred acres of the Upper Mills property as farmland. On this acreage, enslaved Africans tended livestock and cultivated grains, orchard fruits, hay, and vegetables. Tenant families who rented land from Adolph Philipse on outlying parts of the manor followed the same pattern, though with smaller acreage at their disposal.

Today, Philipsburg Manor’s farm represents a microcosm of Hudson Valley agriculture, with its grain field, pasture, orchard trees, garden, and barn. Most farmers in the Hudson Valley cultivated products popular in the coastal trade, in the export trade to the West Indies, and in New York City. Farmers along the Hudson would not have had a market for their produce without nearby Manhattan’s excellent port. Likewise, Manhattan merchants would not have been able to send well-laden ships out from the port without the existence of the agricultural hinterland.

Two farmers were among the enslaved men offered for sale during the public auction at the Upper Mills on April 19, 1750. At the most labor-intensive times of the agricultural cycle such as the grain harvest, other members of the African community at the Upper Mills would have worked in the fields alongside the men. The well-honed agricultural skills of Africans made them valuable to slaveholders.

The apple trees at Philipsburg Manor remind us of the importance apples have had for hundreds of years in the Hudson Valley. Early lease agreements between landowners like the Philipses or the Van Cortlandts and their tenants required that tenants plant and maintain an orchard of at least fifty trees, sometimes more. Farmers used the fruit primarily for fermented cider and for vinegar.

Manor House

Manor House
Exterior of the manor house.

The whitewashed fieldstone manor house stands in close proximity to the mill and would have commanded a view of the harbor where the Pocantico River met the Hudson. During the 1960s, a large-scale restoration project was undertaken to bring the house back to its mid-eighteenth century appearance and focus on that era in the Upper Mills’ history. One of the best sources of information about the house is the 1750 inventory of the property, made in anticipation of the public auction of the Upper Mills property. Each room is listed and the document provides a remarkable description of the house and its contents, and helps us understand the ways that the enslaved community, tenants, and the Philipses used the structure. Over the years the stone building served more as an administrative center for the Philipses’ commercial enterprises in Westchester County than as a dwelling.

The current furnishing of the manor house illustrates the many functions it was called to fill during the colonial period. Furnishings are authentic to the period, but not specific to the family, in the office, upper kitchen, two bedchambers, and the parlor. Very few original Philipse possessions remain because the Philipses’ Loyalist stance during the American Revolution resulted in the confiscation of their land and belongings. The other half of the rooms—the dairy, lower kitchen, two warehouse rooms, and the foreroom— are equipped with reproductions.

The Dairy

Reproduction butter churns in the dairy.

In the seventeenth century, raw materials such as timber and fur pelts formed the bulk of New York’s export goods. The eighteenth century witnessed a shift toward agricultural products as the colony’s primary export. While wheat was king throughout the first half of the century, other agricultural commodities, including dairy products, filled barrels and boats for the provisioning trade out of New York harbor as well. Farm women throughout the mid-Atlantic and New England colonies preserved milk by churning cream into butter and making cheese from milk. Much of the produce from their labors ended up on the tables of city-dwellers, but much of it went to the West Indies to provision the planters’ tables.

Philipsburg Manor’s dairy, furnished today with reproductions, was outfitted in 1750 with the tools of the trade for commercial butter-making. The inventory reveals multiple milk pails and tubs, churns, earthenware and stoneware pots and jars.

The Lower Kitchen

In addition to the dairy and the cellar, the lower level of the house featured a “kitchen below stairs” that was furnished with many iron pots and pans as well as trammels, tongs, andirons, spits, skillets, kettles, and other heavy-duty fireplace equipment. In contrast to the upper kitchen, the lower kitchen was clearly outfitted to handle major cooking tasks such as preparation of plantation produce for export, and the preparation of meals for the enslaved community and, periodically, for the Philipses. The lower kitchen, furnished with reproductions today, represents not only the heavy cooking that occurred here but also living quarters for some of the enslaved community.

Maintaining an identity quite distinct from Euro-American culture was a way in which African people resisted slavery’s oppression. Through storytelling, music, and other forms of cultural expression drawn from diverse African roots and passed down in spaces like Philipsburg Manor’s lower kitchen, enslaved New Yorkers could maintain a strong sense of self in the face of captors who claimed them as “property.”

The Upper Kitchen

Period cooking tools and serving pieces in the upper kitchen.

Although Adolph Philipse dwelled primarily in New York City, his manor house at the Upper Mills was nevertheless equipped with the furnishings necessary for comfortable living. The upper kitchen, with its copious array of imported tools and utensils for food preparation and presentation, supported a lifestyle more luxurious than the kitchen below. The presence of a silver tea pot, a coffee mill, silver pepper box, and china chocolate cups indicates Adolph Philipse and his cohorts consumed all the luxury beverages popular in the eighteenth century.

Huge fortunes in British North America and in Europe were made off the trade in sugar, rum, molasses, and other products of West Indian plantations, directly and indirectly. That slave labor on the provisioning plantations of the North contributed to sustaining the cash crop plantations of the West Indies, themselves run by slave labor, reveals the vicious cycle by which enslavement underpinned the entire economy of the colonial North—a region often imagined to be less tainted by slavery than the South.

Adolph Philipse’s Bedchamber

Adolph Philipse’s bedchamber.

As in the upper kitchen, the furnishings of Adolph Philipse’s room reflect the family’s access to a world of imported goods. They also help illustrate the different dimensions of Adolph Philipse as an individual, businessman, politician, gentleman, and slave-owner. Merchant, land-owner, and heir to one of New York’s wealthiest families, Adolph Philipse was an extraordinarily successful businessman with access to all the goods that would have characterized wealthy merchants’ homes throughout the Atlantic world. Dominating the room is a bedstead completely outfitted with all the mattresses, coverlets, curtains, testers, and valences that bedecked the beds of the wealthy in the eighteenth century.

Adolph Philipse was unmistakably a man of power in his social, economic, and political transactions. He also exerted power over fellow human beings in his role as a slave trader and slaveholder. The manacles listed in his room on the 1750 inventory suggest his position as an authority figure on the manor and remind us of the role of physical force in maintaining the system of enslavement.

Second Bedchamber

Along with the bedsteads, looking glasses, blankets, and featherbeds typically found in sleeping chambers, the inventory included an intriguing miscellany of items scattered throughout the rooms upstairs. The second bedchamber, installed today with artifacts, features some of the unsurprising furnishings inventoried, such as a chest, a small looking glass, and a bedstead with calico curtains. But the bedchamber also features less predictable objects, such as iron hoes, a copper chafing dish, hinges, a funnel, a grater, and some “rubbish”—small miscellaneous items of little or no value. Was the house somewhat disheveled from infrequent use, with rooms pressed into service as comfortable guest bedchambers when visitors came, but otherwise used chiefly for storage? Or was the house simply in disarray in 1750 because of the process of taking inventory, with the appraiser moving objects around for ease of counting?

Philipse’s death certainly caused upheaval in the lives of those held in slavery at his Upper Mills. Just as Mr. Philipse’s linen shirts, old coats, and towels were listed, so were these individuals as part of Philipse’s “property” subject to sale, lease, or inheritance. Frederick Philipse II broke apart families and largely disbanded the Upper Mills community. Those not sold passed from Frederick Philipse II to his son, Frederick Philipse III (1720–1785).

Warehouse Rooms

Adolph Philipse imported not only goods that supported many colonists’ pursuit of a high material standard of living but also basic tools and housewares Americans wanted yet were unavailable in quantity or quality. The warehouse rooms are stocked with a sampling of wares that reflect the flow of foreign goods into New York along with trade goods from Native Americans with whom Adolph Philipse dealt during his lifetime.

Textiles came to the colonies in enormous quantity and variety, usually shipped in canvas bales identified with the merchants’ mark. Shipping records reveal a world of fabrics. Silks and calicos came as exotic luxuries from trade with Asia and brightly colored cottons arrived from Africa. And even though wool and flax produced in New York, local supply could not meet demand. The Netherlands exported linen and England both linen and wool.

Ceramics, like textiles, were made on a limited scale throughout the colonies but not in sufficient quantity. In the warehouse today, delftware plates and porringers from the Netherlands, Buckleyware bowls from Wales, redware pans from England, and stoneware jugs from Germany fill crates and shelves, reflecting the range of ceramics that furnished Hudson Valley houses. Apart from engaging in transatlantic imports, Philipse also acted as a middleman between local Native Americans and consumers looking for sturdy baskets, brooms, and other woodenware.

The Office

The Upper Mills operation fit into the Philipse family’s international trading empire through its production and export of raw and processed materials and its importation and consumption of both raw and manufactured goods. Adolph Philipse probably maintained a global view of his imports, exports, leaseholds, and other financial assets and transactions. However, as he was largely absent from the Upper Mills property, the day-to-day administration of business on the manor fell to enslaved individuals like Caesar, Diamond, and Susan and also to the manor’s overseer. In the years leading up to 1750, a tenant named Elbert Aertse managed the Upper Mills business from a room in the manor house designated “Mr. Aertse’s Room” on the probate inventory.

It probably fell to Aertse to coordinate the production of outgoing “plantation produce,” and incoming merchandise. To coordinate production meant dealing with the produce of hundreds of tenant farmers and also extracting work from people who were not being compensated for their labor. For example, if Aertse wanted the gristmill to run properly at full capacity, he needed to hone his negotiation skills with Caesar because only the master miller had the knowledge and ability to maintain the best flour production. Owners and overseers obviously had a clear advantage in their relationships with the men and women they had enslaved. Yet captives knew, as did overseers like Mr. Aertse, their skills and labor made them extremely valuable. This knowledge gave them power to resist an unjust system and to negotiate for the things they wanted—things like travel passes to visit family members, or a more reasonable work load, or perhaps additional clothing and household goods.


Eighteenth-century furnishings in the parlor.

The eighteenth-century parlor served many purposes. Though certainly used for social entertaining, the colonial-era parlor was also a place for business transactions and sometimes even for sleeping. In the case of the Upper Mills manor house, the inventory indicates the parlor was used for storage as well, holding a “press,” or cupboard, a “bed,” or feather mattress, and a few miscellaneous items such as “1 hand Saw & Stone [stoneware] pott.”

The parlor, outfitted today with antique tables, chairs, glass tumblers, earthenware dishes, salvers, looking glass, clock, and maps, reflects substantial wealth and access to resources, and these furnishings would have made an impression on Adloph Philipse dinner guests. Supporting this impression, enslaved women like Abigail and Sue polished pewter, filled decanters of wine, made sure clay pipes and tobacco were available, cleaned soot from the hearth, and made the looking glass gleam to mirror candlelight.


From looking at the inventory of 1750, it is difficult to tell how the “Fore Room Below” was used, as it was filled with an assortment of seemingly unrelated items: from cooking utensils to guns, bells, and “a parcell Rubbish.” The table, bread chest, rolling pin, and branding irons among the goods listed suggest a possible work area related to the production and shipping of hardtack and bread at the bake house nearby. Most ikely the foreroom was a flexible space used for multiple purposes, as was common in houses of the early eighteenth century.


Vegetables and herbs are grown in the slaves’ garden.

In rural areas of the American North and South, as well as in the Caribbean, it was common practice for enslaved men and women to plant gardens of their own. Philipsburg Manor’s garden is lush with intriguing vegetables and herbs—some common, some quite unfamiliar—for much of the year and represents different aspects of, and reasons for, slaves’ gardens in the eighteenth century. Slave traders and owners needed to provide food for the people they stole, transported, or kept as laborers. That rations were, in most cases, inadequate for either proper nourishment or comfortable satiation is evident in this practice of allocating garden plots to captives so that they could supplement rations by their own labor.

Enslaved people who had little control over many aspects of their daily lives could and did exercise choice in the foods they preferred to eat. Many documents of the period describe growing preferences among African gardeners in the colonies that distinguished them from their Euro-American counterparts. Some of these trends are represented in the garden at Philipsburg Manor where visitors find black-eyed peas, kidney beans, sweet potatoes, yams and okra. These vegetables, along with food fished and hunted, added critical quantity and variety in taste and nutrition to an otherwise narrow diet.

In addition, enslaved women and men could sell surplus produce from their gardens to earn cash if they could get it to market on their own time. Throughout much of Africa, village markets were controlled by women. Many African women retained this practice in the colonies, and the cash from these transactions meant a greater ability to affect one’s own circumstances. A garden was also a useful source of medicinal herbs. Africans practiced medicine based in part on an intimate knowledge of plants and other natural materials.

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