Friday, February 24, 2017

Who Were "The Servants"? Tom and Lewis

By Ian Mumpton

The Schuyler family left a wealth of documentary evidence that can often let us piece together surprisingly intimate details of their lives, despite being separated in time by more than two centuries. This sort of work is much more difficult when it comes to the lives of the enslaved. Often we are left attempting to reconstruct identities, activities, and relationships from a few scattered references in letters and receipts. However this paucity of sources should not, and need not, obstruct us from attempting to glean key details about the lives of these men, women, and children. Even minor details, when looked at in the context of the period, can yield important results. In this edition of “Who Were the Servants”, we will focus on two men about whom very little is known, but whose recorded experiences can tell us a lot about the different types of labor performed by the enslaved for the Schuyler family.

Col. Richard Varick, to whom Schuyler wrote on
October 12th, 1777 painted by Ralph Earl, 1787
On October 12th, 1777, Philip Schuyler dispatched a man named Tom, along with another unnamed “servant”, to the remains of his country seat at Saratoga. The house that had previously been the heart of a sprawling farming estate lay in ashes, burned by British troops under General John Burgoyne following the battles of Saratoga, along with numerous other buildings and military stores. Tom had been enslaved by the Schuyler family for at least two years at this point. The earliest extant mention of his name is from 1775, when Philip paid 3 shillings 6 pence to a Jacob Hendrick for “1 pair of shoes mended for Negro Tom”. On this day, however, Tom and his unnamed companion had been tasked with beginning the process of resurrecting the family estate. As Schuyler wrote to his then-secretary/aide  Richard Varick:
Dear sir,
I send up Tom and another servant to pick up the Iron work of the Buildings which the Enemy have burnt. If you can possibly procure some hands to assist I wish you to do it as Iron and nails are at present very scarce, and I wish that what can be saved should be carried to the mill house at the upper mill… If I am not too much indisposed I propose riding up to morrow or next day. I wish you would direct Tom to see what Forage there is on Guiles farm either Cut or Standing.
Wether there are any turnips or potatoes remaining. –wether the wood work of the ploughs which was left near the turnip patch is still there. Wether there is any feed in the field upon the hill that was intended to be sowed with wheat this fall… I intend immediately to have my mills rebuilt and some house Erected.
     I am Dr Sir Affectionately
                 And Sincerely Your Obed.
                                             f.hl Servant
                                                         Ph Schuyler
A Black soldier of the 1st Rhode Island
 Despite incurring  Philip
Schuyler's disdain, African American
soldiers, both free and enslaved, served with
distinction on both sides of the Revolution.
 Brief as it is, this letter can tell us a good deal. For example, the letter is dated October 12th. While the most recent clash between the British and Separatist forces at Saratoga had taken place on the 7th, skirmishing continued until the 13th when Burgoyne’s British forces were finally surrounded. Philip Schuyler was so eager to rebuild that he sent his servants to begin the process before the final cessation of hostilities in the area. Given the stated scarcity of iron, this is understandable, but it also reinforces a crucial point: the Revolution was not a conflict reserved to the battlefield and soldiers. Civilians of all classes, Separatist or Loyalist, free or enslaved, continued to live their lives in the closest possible proximity to the bloodshed. For the enslaved, the confusion of the war offered little respite from day-to-day labor. It could offer other opportunities in the form of freedom through service, however, for those enslaved by the Schuylers, there was no hope of gaining freedom by assisting the Revolutionary cause; Philip considered the presence of Black troops, “mortifying barely to mention…” and only a few months before had referred to them as a “disgrace [to] our arms.” At the same time, fears that the enslaved population would provide assistance to the British had prompted a law to be passed in Albany in 1775 that any enslaved man found more than a mile from home without his master’s permission could be shot on sight*. For this reason, Tom may have carried a letter signed by Philip which he could present as evidence that he was not attempting to flee to the British.

The Saratoga estate was a long day’s travel from the Schuyler house in Albany. Philip’s letter to Varick reflects a large amount of responsibility and autonomy being put on Tom. Not only is he tasked with collecting the valuable iron remnants of the house, but with ascertaining the condition of various crops elsewhere on the estate. In contrast to the perception that all slave labor was unskilled, menial work (e.g. sifting through ashes) this provides further evidence that many of the enslaved were engaged in specialized and/or skilled services with a surprising amount of autonomy and limited supervision, yet still saw their labor exploited for profit and comfort.

Unfortunately, we know little else about Tom. Records indicate that he was still enslaved by the family in 1789 when he received medical treatment from Dr. Samuel Stringer for an unspecified illness. Assuming that he was at least eighteen years old in 1777 (a reasonable assumption given the amount of responsibility placed on him), that makes him least age thirty at the time of his last mention. It is possible that he recovered from his illness and either remained with the Schuylers or was sold. It is also possible that he died of his illness at that time. In either case, this letter provides a window into a day in his life, one which indicates the variety or work a man in his position could have been expected to perform.

The other subject of this article is even more of a ghost in the documentary record; Lewis is known to history only by a single letter written by Benjamin Franklin to Philip Schuyler in May of 1776:
Dear General:We arrived here [NYC] safe yesterday Evening, in your Post-Chaise driven by Lewis. I was unwilling to give so much trouble, and would have borrowed your sulkey and driven myself, but good Mrs. Schuyler insisted on a full Compliance with your Pleasure…and I was obliged to submit; which I was afterwards very glad of, part of the Road being very stoney and much gullied; where I should probably have overset and broke my own Bones; all the Skill and Dexterity of Lewis being no more than sufficient. Thro’ the Influence of your kind Recommendation to the Innkeepers on the Road, we found a great Readiness to supply us with Change of Horses…    
This letter mentions Lewis twice, both times in the context of his role as Franklin’s driver. The lack of other documentation means that we cannot determine Lewis’ age, health, relationships to others, appearance, or any of the other details we might desire to know about him, and yet this letter is not without its own insights.

Most obviously, this letter tells us that Lewis was a coachman. This is extremely specialized service requiring an ability to handle animals in often difficult conditions while properly reflecting the refinement of the family claiming ownership of your person and labor. Lewis not only knew how to drive a team of horses (which itself also assumes an ability to work with and care for the animals and their equipment), but, to be selected for this task, would also have been trained in the etiquette of refined servility, attending Franklin during the journey. The fact that Lewis would have been viewed as an “object” of display, reflecting on both the Schuylers and Franklin, means that he likely wore better clothing than a man like Tom would have, tending to the Saratoga estate. However Lewis did not have a “cushy” job by any means. Travel in the 18th century was arduous in the extreme; Franklin’s reference to risking broken bones was no hyperbole. Upsets, broken axles, rutted roads, and injuries to the horses themselves were a common feature of overland travel at this time (not to mention the fact that Lewis would have been in 24/7 attendance upon the notoriously irascible Franklin**).
A satirical image of the dangers of travelling by carriage. While the image lampoons the Scots, the roads in NY were often not much better.
The references to these two men that have survived, few as they are, paint a varied picture of the sorts of work performed by the enslaved. Both men are described working in different spheres of the Schuyler’s lives. Tom collected iron while Lewis drove a carriage, and yet interwoven between these apparently different worlds there are recurring themes of autonomy and skill juxtaposed with exploitation and a reminder than just because we may not know all the answers does not mean we should not ask the question, “Who were they?”

*See p. 301.
** For John Adams description of Franklin as a travelling companion, click here.

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