by Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
The portrait of Old Susan will, of necessity, be only a fragment. As in piecing together a few shards of ancient pottery we can only attempt to suggest the whole. It may seem strange to contemplate a subject where the bare facts are exceedingly bare, but Old Susan peers out at us from a distance of over three hundred years and we might take a moment to see if we can bring her into better relief.
Our knowledge of Old Susan’s existence hangs on a slender thread—a passing mention in the will of Frederick Philipse I, signed October 26, 1700. The Philipse will provides us with a few facts and a few possibilities. History gives us other clues which help in sketching some of the vague outlines of her life.
Old Susan was an enslaved African-American who lived and worked at the Philipse Upper Mills in 1702. The Upper Mills was, roughly speaking, what we know today as the Village of Sleepy Hollow. Old Susan was one of a number of enslaved persons who, upon Frederick Philipse’s death in 1702, were conveyed as property to the ownership of his son, Adolph. There were other enslaved persons also mentioned by name in the will: Symond, Charles, Towerhill, Samson, Claes, Billy, Mingo, Hendrick, Bahynne and Hector—these were the men; there was a boy named Peter; and there were other women, Susan the Younger and Mary. There was also a Native American woman named Hannah and her child (who was not named in the will). By what law or practice these Native Americans became enslaved is not clear. All these enslaved persons appear to have lived and worked at Sleepy Hollow.
For some reason, possibly due to her age, it would appear that Philipse singled out Old Susan for at least a kind of special treatment. The language of the clause is strong and clear, “Then I will and order that ye negroe woman, old Susan, shall dwell and continue in plantation at ye upper mills soe long as she lives.” From what we know of Philipse, he was not a sentimentalist; he was an able, hard-boiled businessman who did not miss a wrung on the ladder to commercial success. During his life he acquired enormous wealth and political power. He arrived at New Amsterdam in 1647, at about the age of twenty-one. Early on as a yeoman carpenter and an assessor he found favor under the administration of Peter Stuyvesant, after which he entered the shipping trade. Philipse married a wealthy widow, Margaret DeVries. He also made a seamless political transition after the British took possession of New Netherlands in 1664. By 1675, the year he became a member of the governor’s council, Philipse was said to be the wealthiest man in New York. Later, on the death of his first wife he married an even wealthier widow, Catherine Derval, a daughter of the powerful Van Cortlandt family.
In time Philipse became an energetic shipper of enslaved persons to New York and elsewhere. His large fleet of ships commonly made the run to Madagascar and other points in Africa to take on human beings as cargo. It is unlikely that he would pay a premium for that which he could easily import. He and his son Adolph were also notorious evaders of the customs authorities, unloading his human cargo off-shore and smuggling it into the colony on smaller vessels. Not exactly the portrait of a “benevolent” slave holder.
Recent evidence suggests that Old Susan was brought to America by a Philipse ship, the Charles, perhaps so named as a homage to the British king, Charles II, or possibly named after a Philipse child, Charles. It seems probable that at the time of Frederick Philipse’s death the enslaved woman, Old Susan, had been put to work with the Philipse Family for more than a few years. It appears that she arrived at the Upper Mills (today, Sleepy Hollow) in 1685, five years after Philipse struck a deal on the Pocantico Purchase with leaders of the local Weckquaesgeck Tribe.
New details suggest that Old Susan may have come from the area today known as “Angola” or the neighboring “Congo.” Soyo was apparently the coastal slave trading center for that region, and the Charles dropped anchor there in 1685. (This was also the year stamped on the bell of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, which was cast in Holland.) The Charles, captained by Thomas Singleton, had been owned (and managed) by Philipse’s first wife, Margaret. This ship had been described elsewhere as a “small flute-ship.” The Dutch-designed “fluyt” was a dedicated commercial transport vessel, not designed for potential adaptation as a war ship. It therefore offered roughly twice the cargo space of other vessels. After taking on this “cargo,” the Charles sailed for Barbados, presumably the intended destination for all the Africans it had taken on. But only 105 remained at that island, and for some reason—not entirely clear—nine of them continued on to the colony of New York. Of these nine, eight would in due course arrive at the Upper Mills of Philipseburgh, but not by the route that one would expect.
Rather than unload its cargo at New York or ascend the Hudson as far as the Tappan Zee, the Charles dropped these people on the east shore of Westchester County, somewhere near modern-day Rye. They were then marched about fifteen miles across the greatest breadth of the county to their ultimate destination on the Hudson River shore. In so doing, Philipse and his son Adolph were later accused in a New York court of evading import taxes. It is said that the enslaved Africans were immediately put to the work of constructing the plantation with its church, mill, and milldam, although some sources state that a mill of some sort might have existed on the site before Philipse bought The Pocantico Purchase from the Weckquaesgeck Tribe.
One could imagine that Old Susan was already of at least middle age when she came to the new plantation. If she was indeed old or advanced in years at the time of the will, she might have been about Philipse’s age. The specific provision made for her seems to imply that remaining at the Upper Mills would be perhaps more satisfactory to her, but that is certainly unclear. The idea that she might be sold is not even entertained in the document, although an enslaved woman of average years was valued by New York commerce at approximately 15 pounds—equal to three years’ rent on a typical Philipsburg tenant farm. The will also seems to imply that she had already been situated there for some time and may have viewed the place as a kind of home. It is likely that she participated in and witnessed the construction of the mill, the dam, and the church. It is probable that she observed the funeral of Philipse at the Upper Mills in December, 1702 and possibly had some role in it.
According to early records, Old Susan was one of approximately 150 African enslaved persons living in all of Westchester County in 1700 (which included the Bronx at that time). There is a strong chance that Old Susan died and was buried at the Upper Mills. Where? We do not know. Enslaved persons were not generally memorialized with handsome markers and evocative epitaphs. In fact, no markers at all survive from that period in Sleepy Hollow; the markers installed for members of the local Dutch Reformed congregation were, no doubt, made of wood in the early days. If she was not buried in the Old Dutch Burying Ground (which is highly probable), then perhaps across the post road on the fringes of today’s Philipse Manor, in an area which might have been set aside for the burial of enslaved persons. There is a tradition of such a plot being located on the easternmost block of DeVries Avenue, but there does not appear to be any reliable documentation to support that.
By how many years did Old Susan outlive Philipse? What illness eventually claimed her? Exactly what was she tasked to do as a job at the Upper Mills? We do not even know who had the idea of giving her a special mention in the will—Philipse? Or maybe Mrs. Philipse, Catherine Van Cortlandt, or Adolph Philipse, both of whom survived Frederick Philipse. We do know that Old Susan was one of the first non-Native American inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, a tiny but emerging social, commercial, and religious outpost. Despite her enslavement, she was one of a handful of people who made up the life of that new center. But, like many of the one-line epitaphs in the church burying ground, Old Susan’s one line of recognition in the Philipse will is the only clear story left to us.
[Copyright © 2006 & 2019 Henry John Steiner]