The Black Lives Matter Movement has been sweeping the country. Perhaps it is time to consider Clifton Park’s history of slavery.
In this day and age it is inconceivable that one human being could own another. Yet just such a situation existed in our country prior to the Civil War. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Blacks were imported from Africa to Caribbean Islands and the southern United States where they were sold to plantation owners to cultivate and harvest huge rice and cotton plantations. Most of the slaves entered the United States at the port of Charleston, S.C. and were sold at auctions to the highest bidder. Black families were often divided.
Since slavery is customarily associated with southern plantations, we often forget that slavery was also practiced in the North. New Yorkers could purchase slaves at auctions held in New York City, or from other slave holding neighbors. Slaves in the north were household slaves rather than plantation slaves. The kitchen was the domain of the slave, where Black women served as cooks, seamstresses and laundresses. Black men were skilled in caring for livestock, cutting wood, and serving as field hands.
At a young age a slave was given to a white child of similar age and the same sex and then the two were brought up together. Being bred and educated together in such close proximity fostered confidence between master and slave. Although slavery seems foreign to us now, a number of families right here in Clifton Park owned slaves until 1827.
According to the 1790 federal census there were 135 slaves in the Town of Half Moon (Clifton Park was a part of Half Moon until 1828), which was 3.7 percent of its population. Half Moon was the largest slave holding town in Saratoga County. These 135 slaves were divided among 55 families. The largest slaveholder in Half Moon was Janatie Van Vranken (born 1721) who lived on a farm near Vischer Ferry. She was the widow of Nicholas Van Vranken (born 1719) and she owned 7 slaves.
The Van Vrankens were the largest slaveholders in Clifton Park. In 1684, when Ryckert Van Vranken (c. 1642-1713) moved from Albany to his farm along the Mohawk River where the present day Vischer Ferry Historic and Nature Preserve is now located, he brought a number of slaves with him. These slaves made it possible for him to develop his property. After Ryckert died, his Clifton Park farm (the area was then known as Canastigione) and his slaves were divided between his three sons, Gerrit (c.1670-1749), Maus (c.1672-1759), and Everet (c.1681-1748). Janatie’s husband, Nicholas, was Everet’s son.
Since slaves were property, they were sometimes mentioned in wills. One of Ryckert Van Vranken’s sons, Maus (c. 1672-1759), wrote a will in 1759 which gave and bequeathed to his “dear and loving wife Anneka Van Vranken the choice out of all my slaves, the one she chooses shall be at her free disposal.” The rest of his estate he left to his wife until her death, at which time it was to be divided among his children.
One of Maus Van Vranken’s sons was Adam (1717-1793). Adam inherited his father’s Clifton Park farm and probably a number of slaves. Adam Van Vranken’s will of 1793 gave the farm to his eldest son, Maus (1745-1822). He also bequeathed to Maus his “old wench named Dean.” However, it was to be understood that any children produced afterwards by Deane would be owned in common by all his children equally, and that Deane’s living children would also remain in common with all Adam’s children unless bequeathed otherwise. Maus was to divide 25 pounds between his brothers and sister as compensation for “the wench.” Adam also bequeathed Maus “one negro boy named Mink.”
Adam Van Vranken willed slaves to his other children. Jacob was willed a “negro wench named Kate;” Ryckert, a “negro wench named Jarr;” Adam, a “negro boy named Jack;” Gertruy, a “negro wench named Sarrn.”
The Van Vranken’s were not the only slaveholding family in Clifton Park. The 1790 census tells us that Nathan Garnsey who lived in the Rexford area owned one slave, as did Peter Groom of the Groom Corners area. Both Nicholas and Eldert Vischer, both of Vischer Ferry, each owned one slave. Eldert’s home still stands at the end of Ferry Drive. James Pearse of Fort’s Ferry, a neighbor of the Van Vrankens owned four slaves, while his neighbor, Nicholas Fort owned three slaves.
According to the 1800 federal census the slave population of Clifton Park increased between 1790 and 1800. Eldert Vischer is now listed with three slaves, and his brother, Nanning, who lived in the area now occupied by the Stony Creek Reservoir has acquired two slaves since 1790. By far the largest population of slaves in Clifton Park in 1800 was located on the farm lands now encompassed by the Vischer Ferry Historic and Nature Preserve.
Slaveholders in that area included: Nicholas Fort, three slaves; Derick Bradt, three slaves; Jacob Pearse, three slaves; Daniel Fort, two slaves; Maus Van Vranken, five slaves; John Pearse, one slave; Adam Van Vranken, three slaves; Ryckert Van Vranken, one slave; Derick Volwieder, one slave; and Everit Van Vranken, four slaves.
A neighbor of Eldert Vischer of Vischer Ferry in 1800 was Christopher Miller who owned three slaves. An extant bill of sale dated June 24, 1786 indicates that Miller purchased a “negro wench about twenty six years of age named Nann together with a male child about eleven months old named Yap” from Derrickje Van Vranken of Albany for 45 pounds. Derrickje was probably the widow of Abraham Van Vranken (born 1717). They lived in Niskayuna. Perhaps Nann had another child which would account for the than slaves that Miller owned in 1800.
The slave population of Clifton Park decreased rapidly after 1800. In 1799 New York State passed the Emancipation Act which provided that slave children born after that year were to be freed. A second law in 1817 continued the policy of gradual emancipation by ending slavery effective on July 4, 1827.
In 1778, Nicholas Vischer (1705-1778), the founder of Vischer Ferry, willed his “negro wench Dill” and her youngest child to his wife Annetie. Dill’s other children were willed to Nicholas’s sons Nanning (1736-1811) and Eldert (1753-1822). Reflecting the 1799 Emancipation Act and the overall movement for the emancipation of slaves, Nanning Vischer freed his “negro wench Bitt” in his will of 1811.
Likewise, Maus Van Vranken (1745-1822) made provisions for the slaves that he received from his father, Adam, in 1793. In his will of 1822, Maus, who was childless, requests that his “old and faithful servant Dean be comfortably and decently maintained and supported” by his brothers Jacob, Richard and Adam. Dean would “have her choice to reside with which of the three brothers she pleases during her natural life.” Maus granted to his faithful servant Mink one hundred acres of land situated along the line of the Kayadarosseros patent.
Maus Van Vranken’s brother, Adam (1760-1837), owner of the negro boy named Jack (willed to him by his father), and listed as having three slaves in the 1800 census, is the ancestor of many Van Vranken’s living in our town today. His son also named Adam (1798-1880) inherited the family farm east of Vischer Ferry, but he was among the first in the family not to inherit any slaves.
What happened to Clifton Park’s black residents after emancipation? Some of them, like Mink, who were given or acquired farm land, became farmers. Most however moved to urban centers where they could find employment. Some went to Saratoga Springs where they worked in the large hotels. Those who died in slavery are buried in family cemeteries next to their masters, their graves marked by crude stones. As for their descendants, slaves would sometimes take the surnames of their former masters.
The next time you meet a black person named Van Vranken or Vischer you may well consider the circumstances of their ancestors and their little known role in the history of Clifton Park.