Buying & Selling Humans in the Catskills: Ebenezer Foote
by Diane Galusha, Historian
Slavery was not just a Southern institution. Nor, in the North, was it confined to cities.
Among the 76 property owners who are known to have enslaved African Americans in rural Delaware County between 1800 and 1820 was one Ebenezer Foote. A Connecticut native, Foote served in the Colonial Army during the Revolution, was at Bunker Hill, and was for a time assigned to George Washington’s staff. After the war he had a store in Newburgh and was elected to the State Assembly where he was influential in the creation of Delaware County in 1797. The Governor appointed him its first County Clerk and he wasted no time in coming to Delhi to claim land that was awarded him for his war service. There he built a beautiful home overlooking the West Branch of the Delaware River. He was later appointed County Judge and ever after was referred to as Judge Foote.
Despite being in the Delaware County wilderness, Judge Foote and his wife Jerusha Purdy remained connected with the movers and shakers, hosting visits from the big names of the era – Stephen VanRensselaer, whose vast estate made him the tenth richest American of all time; Morgan Lewis who was Governor of New York from 1804 to 1807 and who, with wife Margaret, owned thousands of acres of the Hardenburgh Patent in Delaware County; DeWitt Clinton, who was Mayor of NYC and the 6th Governor of the state; and the notorious Aaron Burr, to name a few.
Helping in the house, called Arbor Hill, and on the farm were enslaved men and women. In a collection of letters and documents compiled in 1927 by the Footes’ great-granddaughter, Katherine Adelia Foote, we get a sense of just how callously enslaved people were bought, sold and traded. Catherine Livingston (we’re not sure which member of the wealthy landowning family this was) wrote to Ebenezer Foote in the spring of 1800 “on the subject of accommodating you with a negro woman which (I’m told) you are in need of. . . ”
It does not sound like the child was part of the transaction.
The following year, Foote purchased a ‘wench’ who may have been the same woman he advertised for sale in The Ulster County Plebian newspaper in 1814: “I wish to dispose of a female Negro Slave. She is about 27 years old, she understands and is capable of performing every kind of housework well. Her faults are an aversion to living in this country, where there are very few black people with whom she can associate. . .
I will sell her for a reasonable price but would prefer exchanging her for a female age 12 to 14 years of age who had a time to serve, as I think a young one would be more content to live where there are no black people in the neighborhood.” Ebenezer Foote, Arbor Hill, Delhi, Sept. 24, 1814. Note: 1810 census shows Foote held two enslaved people; in 1820 none.
There is an ironic twist here. Judge Foote was the brother of Eli Foote whose daughter Roxana married Rev. Lyman Beecher and was the mother of abolitionists Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the anti-slavery novel credited with fueling the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. Further, an unproven story relates that Judge Foote’s own home was later part of the Underground Railroad that sheltered southern slaves on their way to freedom in Canada.
Ebenezer Foote died in 1829, two years after slavery was abolished in New York State. His monument in the overgrown burial ground next to his cherished Arbor Hill home proclaims him to have been a man of ‘spotless integrity’ and ‘moral worth.’ It is not known whether any of the enslaved people who worked for him are buried in this cemetery. Indeed, we do not even know their names.
US Federal Census 1800, 1810, 1820
1895 Biographical Review, The Leading Citizens of Delaware County, NY
In Defiance, Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley 1735-1831, Susan Stessin-Cohn and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagnini, Black Dome Pres, 2016
Ebenezer Foote, The Founder, Being an Epistolary Light on His Time as Shed by Letters from His Files Selected by His Great-granddaughter Katherine Adelia Foote, Delaware Express Co., Delhi, NY 1927