Staten Island Slavery

Bill of Sale of a slave named Toen sold to Staten Island. Courtesy of the Staten Island Museum.

Audio clip: Bill of Sale of a Slave sold to Staten Island read by Cara Dellatte.

Richmond County in the early republic had more than 20 percent of its entire population held in racial bondage and, as such, the county became one of several New York communities with a strong proslavery position. As Ira K. Morris has pointed out, nearly every farm had one or more slaves working it, meaning that the largely agrarian Staten Island economy was based on slavery. (See the Census of 1755 below).


From the very beginning, enslaved people sought freedom by any means at their disposal. Evidence can be found in the countless Runaway Ads (see image below) and the ever increasing activities of the Underground Railroad.


Richmond County delegates tactically voted against the first round of gradual abolition measures, which resulted in the defeat of the earliest earnest emancipation legislation proposed in New York in 1785. Richmond County slaveholders were repeatedly among those who helped develop strategies and policies that ensured the perpetuation of racialized slavery in the newly chartered state. 


At the forefront of the debate was the Staten Island resident and newly elected Vice President, Governor Daniel D. Tompkins. Generally, Tompkins’ policies were empathetic towards enslaved peoples, with one general simplistic view against slavery – that it was “full of cruelty and suffering” and should therefore be abolished. While still governor of New York, Tompkins pressed for legislative action against racial bondage. Tompkins ultimately authored the "Gradual Abolition Act for New York."


An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery reached full maturity on July 4, 1827, finalizing the abolition of slavery in New York. After considerable disagreement and years of developing a statute acceptable to the various parties involved in the slavery argument, New York lawmakers, under this legislation, released from bondage descendants of enslaved Africans living in New York. On the morning of July 4, 1827 in Richmond County, five hundred fifty-two people of color woke up as freedmen.


Explore the 1755 census beyond Staten Island at: https://tinyurl.com/y2ypapk5.


Read a broader history of Slavery in New York City at: https://tinyurl.com/y36qeabz.

Census of slaves, 1755. Staten Island; North Division. Courtesy of archive.org.
Thirty Dollars Reward. The Pennsylvania Gazette, August 20th, 1796. Courtesy of Accessible Archives.