Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills: Telling the Story

UPPER MILLS: TELLING THE STORY | HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE | THE EARLY YEARS | GROWTH OF THE MANOR TO 1750 | UPPER MILLS: A PORTRAIT


In 1750, Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills was not a small, isolated farm. The manor’s milling, trading, and agricultural activities were part of a vast commercial enterprise with close connections to the port city of New York and to the trade network of the Atlantic world.

Adolph Philipse
Adolph Philipse, artist unknown, probably Manhattan, c. 1695, oil on wood. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Frederick Grosvenor Goodridge.

The Upper Mills complex served as one of two headquarters for the manor, an estate of over 50,000 acres in Westchester County and the present-day Bronx. Its main economic purpose was to supply foodstuffs—especially wheat products—and other rural commodities to New York’s urban population and to plantations in the West Indies. Adolph Philipse (1665–1750) owned the northern portion of the manor, and his nephew, Frederick Philipse II (c. 1698–1751) owned the southern portion.

Adolph Philipse, a wealthy international merchant, was not a farmer and did not live at Philipsburg Manor. Adolph leased his land to tenants from a wide variety of European backgrounds, and by 1750, the tenant population on the manor numbered about 800 people living on about 150 leaseholds.

However, Adolph retained several hundred acres surrounding the Upper Mills where the Pocantico River met the Hudson. The access to the Hudson and the power generated by the Pocantico were too important for Adolph to relinquish to tenant farmers. This highly-developed property included the barn, gristmill, and manor house represented at the historic site today, but also many other features: a bake house, storehouse, lime house, slave quarters, extensive meadowlands, grain fields, and orchards that no longer exist. It is here that Philipse chose to exploit the skills and labor of ethnically diverse African men, women, and children at the Upper and Lower Mills “plantations,” as the Philipses called their commercial farms. By 1750, a community of twenty-three Africans, held in slavery by Adolph Philipse, ran the Upper Mills plantation.

Philipsburg Manor
Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills.

It is the story of this community—Caesar, Susan, Venture, Betty, and the others who lived at the Upper Mills in 1750—that Philipsburg Manor tells today. We explain how this community came into existence as Philipsburg Manor developed over the decades from the 1680s to 1750, and how New York’s commercial orientation was directly related to enslavement and cultural diversity in the province. We look at the labor that gave physical shape to life at the Upper Mills, and at the relationships that gave psychological shape to people’s lives—relationships with each other, with the owner or the overseer, and with the European tenants. We consider the critical role they, like other enslaved people, played in establishing New York’s economic and cultural riches. And we locate the story at the pivotal moment when their community was broken apart by the death of Adolph Philipse in 1750, because that single event brings the human tragedy of slavery into sharp focus.

To reconstruct the story of Philipsburg Manor, historians have drawn on a remarkable array of sources including documents, artifacts, and archaeological evidence specific to Philipsburg Manor. Mined from repositories in the United States, England, and the Netherlands, wills, probate records, land deeds, shipping records, court documents, tax records, newspaper extracts, leases, and political correspondence are some of the documentary sources that inform the story we tell. One key document for the Upper Mills is the detailed inventory taken of the property just after Adolph Philipse died.

That we can know so much about the past from these excellent sources and stand in the very spot where history happened makes Philipsburg Manor, Upper Mills an exceptional place. Of course, “history” is not a series of indisputable facts; it is contested ground on which events are experienced and interpreted divergently by different people.

At Philipsburg Manor, information about the past is organized into three interrelated themes that emerge clearly from the historic source material and have contemporary relevance. The themes concern slavery, commerce, and cultural diversity in colonial New York. For example, Caesar, the enslaved miller at the Upper Mills, would no doubt have described the history of “what happened” at Philipsburg Manor quite differently from Adolph Philipse. The written record has a built-in bias that favors the perspectives of those who write down history, typically those in power. Working carefully to avoid pitfalls in using the historic record, museums make choices from among the many possible stories they could tell. At Philipsburg Manor, the story presented touches on three important subjects: slavery, commerce, and cultural diversity — concepts as relevant today as in the eighteenth century.

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