February 11, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

Portrait of a slave trader 

Confronting the real Nathaniel Rochester

"Abolitionist" and "suffragist" are two terms that describe Rochester's early heroes. We can now add a third: slave trader.

            Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, the businessman who made his fortune in grain, nails, rope, and banking in the South before moving to Upstate New York,also made money buying and selling slaves.

            Rochester's involvement in the slave trade is disclosed in a 1790 account book recently purchased by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library. The ledger, which was obtained from descendants of Nathaniel Rochester, clearly shows the purchase and subsequent sale of human beings by Rochester and his two partners.

            It is well known that Rochester, a wealthy businessman who moved to New York State from Hagerstown, Maryland, owned slaves. But biographical accounts tend to paint a positive picture of his involvement with slavery, emphasizing his desire to free his slaves.

            The website of the Genesee Country Museum, for instance, describes his 1810 journey from Maryland to Dansville:

            "On horseback the Colonel led a procession of carriages bearing the women of the household and the younger children, three great Conestoga wagons with household goods and his 10 slaves, and some of his neighbors who came along to help. The Colonel moved North, he said, 'to escape the influence of slavery, to set his slaves free, and to rear his family in a free state.'"

            The first page of the account book, which is now bound for preservation, states that "Thomas Sprigg, Thomas Hart, and Nathaniel Rochester are equally interested in the Transactions which this book contains."

            The words under the heading "Negro Auction" on one left-side page read: "To Cash for 41 Negroes." The amount is 978, but it is not in dollars. In 1790 states were still using variants of the British Pound Sterling. On the top of the right-side pages is the word "Contra."

            According to UR Professor Dr. Stanley Engerman, this was a typical way of separating money out --- what the three partners spent on slaves, from money in --- what they sold them for. There are also entries involving what may be trips to pick up slaves: "To: T. Sprigg for his services going to the Eastern Shore 44 days."

            "This was a very sophisticated business," said Engerman after examining the account book. "They were even adding interest." Engerman, John H. Munro professor of economics and professor of history at the UR, has written and edited 20 books, most of which deal with the economic history of slavery.

            The UR acquired just one account book documenting a single year. It is not known to what extent Rochester participated in the buying and selling of human beings. Adjusted for inflation over 214 years, Engerman says the cost of a slave in today's money would be around $30,000.

            In May of 1790, in a typical transaction, under "Negro Auction" are the words: "To Cash for Sambo, Linus, Natt, and Jack 270." On the "Contra" side: "By Cash Boyd for James, Patience & 5 daughters 190."

            The names alone --- Sambo, Nelly, Nanny, Fanny, and Patience, written in casual ink strokes --- provide a chillingly tangible sense of the selling (and re-naming) of people.

What does this information mean in terms of our knowledge of Colonel Rochester?

            "Dealing in slaves as a way of life is more onerous than just holding slaves," says Dr. Walter Cooper, a retired scientist well-versed in African-American history who lives in Rochester. "They are both inhumane acts on the parts of individuals, but to callously sell and to purchase slaves, knowing very well you're separating families time and time again, is worse."

            Cooper's great grandfather, Wes Henson (1853-1946), was a slave.

            "If you own slaves, it's kind of a constant number and the transient experiences are limited there," Cooper says. "But if you're buying and selling slaves, you're constantly involved in selling off the lives of people, and during that sell-off and purchasing, you're breaking up families."

            Does the knowledge that Rochester was a slave trader raise questions about our city's heritage? Or is this simply a case of looking through 21st-century eyes at Rochester's 18th-century activities?

            "It's a reflection of everyday life, what people were doing at the time," Engerman says. "It was considered to be a normal activity. Probably nobody made a fuss about it."

            Engerman says there would not have been a stigma to dealing in slaves in the 1790s. And Rochester most likely would not have encountered any grief when he moved North to Dansville with his slaves in 1810.

            "He would only have gotten grief if he'd moved next door to Quakers," Engerman says. "New York had by far the largest slave population in the North. New York City had a large concentration of domestics."

            According to the New York State census, in 1800 there were 20,903 slaves and 10,417 free blacks in a total population of 589,000 people.

            Could Rochester have gone against the tide and refrained from this activity earlier?

            They may have been a minority, but there were voices among the white population questioning the morality of slavery. Quakers in Maryland had stopped buying slaves years earlier, and organizations were springing up to protest slavery.

While many would prefer to keep some aspects of history out of sight, the Rare Book Room's mission is to bring it into the open.

            "It is our responsibility as a Special Collections Library to acquire, preserve, and make accessible unique materials for generations to come," says Richard Peek, director of the Rare Book Department. "The ledger provides a wonderful opportunity for a future scholar to fill in missing or little-discussed history."

            History is, at best, a moving target. Conventional wisdom held that Thomas Jefferson was a great, honorable man until historians probed more deeply into the life of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. The fact that he used a slave as a mistress changes our view of him. Even the word "mistress" is probably too kind a euphemism for the manner in which Jefferson treated his slave.

            In the latest such controversy, former South Carolina Senator and leading segregationist (the late) Strom Thurmond was revealed to have fathered a black child out of wedlock. Most of the news reports treated the incident as an affair between a young white man and his teenage black maid instead of a non-consensual relationship between a powerful man and a powerless girl.

            The history of Colonel Rochester began with the sort of hagiography usually bestowed upon a founding father. A heroic portrayal of a former slave owner who turns against slavery is the standard account.

            In a late-18th-century biography (delivered as a talk to the Rochester Historical Society in 1888, published in 1892), Jane Marsh Parker presents an exceedingly positive view of Rochester:

            "Born and bred at the South, an owner of slaves as his fathers had been, he made up his mind that a free state was better than a slave-holding one for his children, and in a free state he was resolved to give them a home, no matter what the sacrifice."

            Parker writes that Rochester made the decision not to free his 10 slaves --- a grandmother and her descendants --- in the South, but to take them North to a free state. "The removal of the blacks to the Genesee country would be troublesome and expensive, but that had little weight with him."

            She stops short of calling Rochester a hero, praising him for not speaking out publicly against slavery:

            "And yet the name of Nathaniel Rochester has rightful place on the list of early protesters against slavery, and it is one of the few, perhaps the only one of note, which does not recall aught pertaining to discord or rupture. Carrying a cross before the gaze of a multitude, even if that multitude jeer and smite, is not so hard for the most of us as carrying a cross with never a spectator. He walked serenely in the path of his duty, thankful that his neighbors might walk at peace in theirs."

            Parker also describes Rochester's trip North:

            "The departure of the Rochester cavalcade from Hagerstown, Maryland, was a memorable event. The colonel and his eldest daughter and his five sons were on horseback --- the youngest son, only four years old, upon his pet pony. Behind them were two family carriages, Mrs. Rochester's driven by a young man of good family, who had asked the privilege, and three heavy wagons loaded with blacks and luggage..."

            Parker at least acknowledges that Rochester had slaves. Former city historian Blake McKelvey's 23-page biographical essay (Rochester History, 1962) doesn't mention the word "slave."

            We can only speculate about whether Colonel Rochester's view of slavery had changed greatly between 1790 and his move to Dansville in 1810; we know the laws of the United States changed during that period (see timeline).

            "Often in history we look back on our founding fathers and we try to give a cosmetic version of their lives especially in relation to the issue of slavery," Cooper says. "In terms of having both blacks and whites in this country come to deal with the reality of the slave experience, that is an issue that still has to be resolved. I think the conundrum for blacks will always persist until they come to grips with the reality of slavery and the post-slavery oppression which we faced."

Two other items in the UR collection shed light on Rochester's relationship with his slaves.

            In January of 1811, according to another original document, Rochester indeed freed two of his slaves. A document of manumission states: "... by those present doth manumit and make free from slavery my Negro Slave named Benjamin about sixteen years old and my Negro Slave Casandra about fourteen years old."

            On the same day in 1811, another document shows that Casandra was made an indentured servant who would learn to read and write and also "the art and mystery of a Cook," "until the said apprentice shall accomplish her full age of eighteen years."

            According to Engerman, it was commonly argued that indentured servitude was necessary to get slaves ready for freedom. The owner would take care of them so they wouldn't starve. But he believes the real reason was to squeeze as much work out of them as possible before they really went free.

            Engerman says freed slaves did very well in cities like New Orleans or Charleston, but often had a difficult time in most places because of the laws stacked against them. They certainly did not have representation in government. In New York they had to have twice as much property as a white to vote. Education was another problem.

            As Cooper points out, when Frederick Douglass came on the scene, his daughters could not go to school in Rochester. (Douglass had escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838.)

Born in Virginia in 1752, Rochester was 11 when his family moved to North Carolina. At 16 he went to work for a merchant in Hillsborough; five years later he was a full partner. After several stints in the military he went into his first business with Hart.

            After moving to Maryland, Rochester and Hart added a gristmill and a nail and rope factory to their holdings. The partners separated in 1792, but Rochester expanded his business interests to include the founding of the Hagerstown Bank in 1807. Rochester's house, Mount Prospect, was, according to McKelvey, the most elegant home in the town of 2,000 people.

            The eight-by-six-and-a-half-inch account book in the UR Rare Books Department may prompt questions about how much of the money for Rochester's business investments came from dealing in slaves. More importantly, how much, in 1803, did his earnings from the slave trade help him purchase the tracts of land along the Genesee River that would eventually become the city of Rochester?

            Ultimately, what does this revelation mean in a city that is 40 percent black?

            "We have to go back and take a closer look at what our true history has been," Cooper says. "All we have done is, we've taken the bad and we've sanitized it. This has always occurred in American history when there is a need to denigrate or to rationalize the treatment of a people."


1768: Quakers in Maryland, Nathaniel Rochester's home state, stop buying and selling slaves.

1783: Maryland prohibits the importation of slaves from Africa.

1789: The Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes and Others Unlawfully Held in Bondage is organized.

1790: Rochester is trading slaves in Maryland.

1794: Congress prohibits slave trade between the US and foreign lands or countries.

1800: Congress forbids US citizens and residents from having any interest in ships carrying slaves.

1808: The United States prohibits the importation of slaves.

Source: "Slavery in America: An Eyewitness History" by Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider, published by Facts On File, Inc., 2000.

Speaking of Nathaniel Rochester, slavetrading

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