Nearly 400 years ago, in 1626, a ship carrying eleven slaves was unloaded in New Amsterdam by the Dutch West Indies Company. Those eleven men are believed to be among the first African-Americans brought to what is today New York State.
Attempting to pinpoint when the first African-Americans arrived in Sullivan County, NY is considerably more difficult. There are a number of plausible scenarios, and the evidence supporting any one of them is sketchy at best. A stronger case can be made for the first man of African-American descent to own property there. It was almost certainly Phineas Booth of the town of Neversink.
And before the story gets too confusing, it should be pointed out that there are at least three men named Phineas Booth in Neversink history, and each in his own way plays a role in the story.
The first Phineas Booth was the commander of a slave ship that traveled regularly between Africa and America. Sometime in the mid-1700s, Captain Booth landed his ship with a cargo of slaves, all but one of which were sold at auction. The exception was a young boy to whom the Captain had taken a particular fancy. The youngster became the captain’s servant, and as James Eldridge Quinlan writes in his History of Sullivan County, he “in time became a pet of his master,” assuming the captain’s name in the process.
Some years later, Quinlan records, the African-American Phineas Booth became married to a white girl under the most unusual of circumstances.
“In Captain Booth’s neighborhood lived, with her stepfather, a young white woman who was engaged to be married to a sailor,” Quinlan writes. “The day for the ceremony was fixed, the guests were invited, etc., when her stepfather locked her in her room and told her lover she would neither see him nor marry him. This maddened the would-be groom, who forthwith went to sea, without knowing the true state of affairs.
“After his departure, the girl was released, went to Captain Booth, told her story, and rashly declared she would marry the next man who offered himself, even if he was a Negro. The Captain, believing probably that she would not do so, laughingly remarked, ‘I guess Phineas will have you,’ and then went to the latter and told him what she had said.
“The black lad then called on her with his chapeau under his arm, and with many polite bows and scrapes, offered her his heart and his hand. They were accepted by the rash girl. To mortify and vex the relatives who had aberrated the heart of her lover, she married Captain Booth’s slave. She afterwards purchased the freedom of her husband, who had assumed the name of his old master, and they gave the same name to their son.”
In 1795, the son Phineas Booth bought a farm belonging to Eleazer Larrabee on Thunder Hill in the town of Neversink. Larrabee, who had come from Connecticut where he had been an outcast because of his Tory beliefs during the Revolutionary War, went on to become the first white settler in the town of Liberty in Sullivan County.
The younger Phineas Booth subsequently married a woman of mixed African and American Indian blood and, by all accounts, became a solid citizen of the town.
Quinlan writes that “although he loved whiskey and was somewhat profane, he was a prosperous farmer, and a favorite in the neighborhood. (He) was well known to the Grants, Drakes, Reynolds, Gilletts, and other respectable citizens of the Neversink country, who always esteemed him highly.”
Phineas Booth the father, also remained in the area, and lived to an advanced age. Quinlan notes that “after he became a free man by marrying, (he) occasionally assumed the bearing of a crusty old gentleman, when his wife would quietly say, ‘Phineas, I bought you of your master,’ and the demons of anger at once left him.”
The elder Booth met an untimely death, Quinlan writes, “by riding at night against a tree which leaned over a road. The accident occurred on the road leading from Hasbrouck to Thunder Hill.”
There were other early African American landowners in Sullivan County, including James B. Dunn, who lived just below Big Eddy (or Narrowsburg) in the town of Tusten. He was a slave who was brought to the area by William Dunn in 1807. He was freed in 1827, the year in which the phase-out of slavery in New York was complete, but continued to work for his erstwhile master until 1830, when William Dunn was killed in a timber cutting accident. Quinlan described James B. Dunn as “a civil, well-bred fellow,” and noted that he was still a resident of the town of Tusten in 1873.
Photo: An engraving of New York’s Custom House by W. M. Aikman, which shows a slave unloading a cart. It is believed to be one of the first depictions of an African-American in New York. (NY Historical Society).