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JOEL Joel's Blog



[348]W. H. Hill . - Two Hundred Dollar Reward- a young fellow belonging to me, named John, sometimes called Johnson, and at times calling himself John Hill, went off from this place last spring .. . . He served his time with a cabinetmaker and understands the business of the windsor chairmaker; he is very ingenious, and well acquainted with the use of joiners tools...
I will give the above reward to any person who will deliver John to me, if he is taking out-of-state; or if taken in the state, I will give twenty-five dollars on his being delivered to me. Wilmington, (N. C.) W. H. Hill.
The above award will be paid by Mars [hall]. R. Wilkings. No. 42 Greenwich St. -New York Evening Post, July 21, 1803

I have a few odd books in my library and one of the weirdest is a two volume set of newspaper clippings and advertisements called "The Arts and Crafts In New York 1777-1799 and 1800-1804.” The books, compiled by Rita Susswein Gottesman, appealed to me because of my interest in social history. The contents of the book date from the early days of newspapers before advertising was a high art. Most of the ads are straightforward. Take this one:

[371] FRANCIS TILLOU. - Fancy Chairs, Made as usual in the neatest style of elegance, by Francis Tillou, No 22, Stone-Street - Weekly Visitor, or, Ladies' Miscellany, October 23, 1802 [Advertised to 1804.]

But other advertisements, such as the one starting this post, have entirely different implications. In a nutshell: in 1803 a slave in North Carolina ran away. His owner thought it worthwhile to offer a two hundred dollar reward for his return, less (much less) if he were found local to North Carolina. During the American revolution, the British, who occupied New York City, promised freedom for any African slave who arrived. Consequently there was a sizable African American population in New York City at the time, along with a fair number of slaves. New York State was one of the last Northern states to abolish slavery, but even in free states, slave owners had the Federal right to recapture and return any escaped slave they found, or anyone African American who they could pretend was an escaped slave. Consequently, Mr. Hill didn't need to actually come to New York to look around: he could hire, and did hire in this case, Mr. R. Wilkings, No. 42 Greenwich St, to do his bounty hunting for him.

Just because New York City didn't have plantations didn't mean that there was no slavery in the city. Mr. Johnson was skilled, trained labor, and in the days before factory machines, all a factory or workshop owner had was a few tools and skilled labor. There were really only four ways to keep a workshop staff going. 1 - pay well enough, so unless someone had a burning desire to be self-employed, it made no sense to leave. 2 - find a staff of people who liked making things but weren't keen on selling things. 3 - exploit the labor of slaves or indentured servants. 4 - train apprentices, typically for specific operations, and have replacements readily available when the apprentices left (which they did, at the first opportunity).

I don't know how many skilled slaves worked in NYC at the time of the ad. Twenty plus years ago I set up the virtual Museum of Woodworking Tools, which now admittedly looks like a website from 1999 preserved in amber, and one of the museum’s exhibits was “The Planes of Cesar Chelor (c. 1729 - 1784): Planemaker, African Slave, Freeman.” Chelor was a slave who was owned by Francis Nicholson, the famous planemaker. Nicholson’s death and provisions of his will gave Chelor his freedom and a workshop with tools, which allowed Chelor to become the earliest documented African American toolmaker in North America. Some of the responses to the exhibit indicated surprise that slaves could be highly skilled workers -- but of course slaves were skilled in many different industries.

Certainly there was enough of a free African community in New York so that it was possible for a runaway to disappear. But the real eye opener for me in this ad is the sheer value of a slave. Two hundred dollars in 1803 was an ocean of money -- and the $200 doesn’t even include expenses like transportation costs and the bounty hunter's commissions.

Better informed and smarter people than I have written a lot about the African-American communities in early New York. As the subject is outside my ken, I don't feel comfortable writing about the role of African-Americans in the craft industries in New York. “Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson,” Howard Block's 1979 study of New York City craftspeople in the first two decades of the 19th century, offers a lot of insights on this front. Block noted that at least some free African-Americans were established, successful craftsman and their vote was courted by politicians as any ethnic group would be courted today.

“In reaching voters, newspapers and handbills devoted a great deal of space to specific voting blocs. Germans were solicited in German language leaflets; Republicans courted Catholic voters with Federalist-attributed anti-Catholic statements; Quakers and Blacks were enticed with words addressed to their particular concerns.”

Elsewhere in the book Block mentions the salaries of different trades. Journeyman cabinetmakers of this time averaged a dollar a day in pay. Listed prices in the price book of 1796 states that a Pembroke table, for example, cost $3.40 in labor to make and retailed for $14.00. While Mr. Johnson was more experienced than a freshly minted journeyman, pretty much everyone who didn't own a shop and was a "master" probably made journeyman wages. Longworth's New York Directory of 1805-06, the period of the advertisement, lists 75 cabinetmakers, 15 carvers and Gilders, 23 upholsterers. (I believe this is the number of businesses, not the number of actual masters, journeymen, and apprentice cabinetmakers.) It does not include 500 - 1000 businesses in construction and shipbuilding that also worked wood. While Rock doesn’t discuss race much - and I am not sure even how much is known today - he does list a trial. mentioned in the "City Hall Recorder," of two "colored men," carpenters William Hamilton and James Cathaw, who operated a shop in an old wooden building on Stone Street. The neighborhood was improving and the fashionable neighbors prosecuted the men for a "nuisance" -- the generation of lots of sawdust that coupled with the wood all around, escalated the risk of fire, which terrified early New Yorkers. While this story of gentrification is worth a blog entry in its own right, suffice to say that the men were found "not guilty." The implication is that these men were masters of their own shop, but not so successful that moving or cleaning up was an obvious choice. There were also other furniture makers on Stone Street, so this could also have been discrimination. We don’t have this information.

Was Mr. Johnson ever caught? I don't know. I do know that he wasn’t safe from being kidnapped and forcibly returned to slavery in North Carolina until the Emancipation Proclamation, enacted in 1863, long after New York State banned slavery (1817 - 1827). I would guess that his situation wasn't that uncommon. I hope he found happiness and a good job, and was able to stay North for the rest of his life. But "free" is a relative term. Mr. Johnson would be very vulnerable to any employer, white or black, who wanted to pay him less than normal wages because of his vulnerable status.

Join the conversation
08/12/2020 Jim Dillon
Thanks for this! This subject is too often ignored by people interested in the crafts of woodworking and their history. Enslaved people made, or participated in making, much of the American period furniture we admire. And the overall impact of the use of slave labor on prices, and on the development of the systems that got raw materials to market, is another important factor in talking about the history of furniture we like that wasn't directly made by slave labor.
08/12/2020 Scott
Excellent article! Thank you.
08/12/2020 Kevin Brennan
A slave who could turn out quality chairs all day for the owner to use or sell would be valuable indeed. Mike Dunbar told me once that the number of chairs a person owned in that time period was a sign of relative wealth as more guests could be seated for garden parties and the like. I wonder if fleeing to Canada was an option in those times for escaped slaves.
08/13/2020 Christopher Murray
Joel, as usual, your topic, and your writing are provocative. Thank you.
08/14/2020 Jim Carter
Timely and insightful article. Thank You.
Excellent post as always, great historical context to a subject that is unfortunately not simply of historical interest, but relevant in today's world. Thanks for connecting some additional dots.
08/16/2020 Mike Z.
I have read parts of Mr. Chelor's story in the past, especially in conjunction with the start of American plane making in the colonies. This reminds me of the various stories of Thomas Jefferson owning skilled slaves, especially one who was a top notch carpenter (forgive me, his name escapes my tired brain at this moment). The contributions of slaves, indentured servants and plain old everyday working people who built this country will never be entirely known. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, worth tuning in for as usual.
08/18/2020 John S
Thank you, Joel, for this insightful relevant post. I have been thinking much lately about early American woodworkers and wondering about the roles Americans of African descent who were brought to this land as slaves. I know they played a significant role in the construction of the White House, capitol building and other American treasures. I have always been under the ill-informed view that American woodworking emanated from European masters from Britain, France, Germanic lands and Scandinavia. Particularly in the American South, I expect that most of the craftsmanship admired and revered by many here is the toil of skilled, unmentioned enslaved humans. Their work deserves recognition and respect. Your piece helps to give these Americans the credit and respect that they earned. Thank you for bringing their memory to the fore.
08/20/2020 Jeff
Thanks for this, Joel—fascinating reading.
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