The Municipal Archives recently received a request for research assistance from Craig LaBan, Restaurant Critic and Drink Columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His story concerned “Hercules,” George Washington’s enslaved master chef. Sold as a teenager to Washington, Hercules became renowned for his culinary skills. He escaped from Mount Vernon in 1797 and was never captured. Following-up on a lead, LaBan asked if we could confirm the death of one Hercules Posey in New York City in 1812. The archivists searched the 1812 death records, and reported to LaBan that they had indeed found Hercules Posey, age 64, a “black,” born in Virginia and residing at Orange Street. He died of consumption on May 15, 1812 and was buried at the Second African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. The information matched known facts about Posey including the name of the slaveowner preceding George Washington: John Posey. An 1812 City Directory provided a more precise address for Hercules Posey—33 Orange Street.
Mr. LaBan then asked if the Archives had records that could help him learn the names of the other residents of 33 Orange Street and further information about the house and neighborhood. And that is when the recently digitized jury census series came to the rescue. Although the earliest jury census dates from 1816, four years after Hercules Posey died, the archivists suggested that the census records might contain information relevant to LaBan’s inquiry.
The jury census collection consists of 21 bound volumes containing tally sheets of returns for the City and County of New York, organized by ward. There are tallies for 1816, 1819, and 1821. The tallies were taken to determine if residents were eligible for jury duty and include varying degrees of descriptive detail. For example, for 1816 and 1819 the returns are given in a double-page tabular format with column headings for the following categories: names of inhabitants, number of houses, name of street, occupation, freeholds of $150, age, reason for exemption from jury, total number of jurors, the number of male and female white inhabitants, aliens, colored inhabitants not slaves, slaves, freeholders of £100 and upwards, freeholds of £20 and under £100, tenants renting $5 per annum, total number of inhabitants, plus a column for remarks. For the 1821 census, the returns, in similar format, include data in these categories: name of the head of each family, number and street of residence, number of male inhabitants of the same family age 21 or upwards in four classifications according to value of freeholds and debts, military service and tax exemption or commutation. Other data includes: number of acres of improved land occupied by each person, as well as tallies of cattle, horses, sheep, and yards of various types of cloth manufactured by each family, and a count of mills, factories, distilleries, asheries (a place where potash is made), and machinery. Each tally is identified with this description: “RETURN, made pursuant to the Act, entitled, ‘An Act to provide for taking a Census, and for other purposes,’ passed March 16, 1821, from the City and County of New-York.”
Using a ward atlas, the archivists determined that 33 Orange Street had been located in the Sixth Ward of the City. [Orange Street was re-named Baxter Street in 1854]. Unfortunately, one of the few ledgers missing from the collection is the Sixth Ward tally for 1816. However, the 1819 ledger survived. With an index by street name on the first page, the archivists quickly located the entry for 33 Orange Street.
According to the 1819 jury census, Jacob Hudson, a laborer, lived at 33 Orange Street along with six other male and five female “coloured inhabitants, not slaves.” Varying numbers of “coloured inhabitants not slaves” also occupied nos. 35, 37, 39, 41, and 43 Orange Street. Their occupations included tobacconist, laborer, waiter and coachman. “Coloured” persons lived on the other side of Orange Street, at nos. 40, 42 and 44 with occupations of sailor, mason, sawyer, laborer, waiter and boot cleaner. Given the specific mention of “boarding house” at no. 40, the implication is that 33 had not been a boarding establishment, but with 11 inhabitants, it was either one very large family or multiple families lived in the house.
Several aspects of the census records make them a valuable research resource. At the very least, they provide a fascinating glimpse of life in New York City in the early 19th century. Of particular demographic interest is the inclusion of women with identification by name, residence, age, and occupation or social status, during a time when women were ineligible to serve as jurors. Other reasons that could exempt a person from jury service included age (over 60), clergy member, alien (i.e. not a citizen), and speaking only the Dutch language.
Another feature of New York City life that quickly becomes apparent in reviewing the census records is the wide variety of occupations. On just one page, in a series of houses along Water Street in the First Ward tally of 1816, the occupation list includes: mariner, teacher, printer, musical instrument maker, boat man, watch maker, auctioneer, grocer, brush maker, merchant, saddler, attorney, shoemaker, book store, tobacconist, and copper smith. Scanning ahead a few more pages reveals a baker, hairdresser, sail maker cartman, auctioneer, and wood sawyer.
The census records also show that slavery was still a fact of life in New York City during the early years of the new republic. Although legislation passed in 1799 called for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the State, it was not until 1827 that slavery was completely abolished. The census of the first ward in 1816 is illustrative: several of the households along lower Broadway, then as now, the center of finance in the City, included one or two enslaved people. Among them was John Delafield, a broker, residing at 10 Broadway, had one male slave in his household.
Journalist LaBan appreciated the assistance provided by the archivists. Thanks to the amazing resources in the Archives, we can say that in the early 19th century, the Orange Street neighborhood was the home to a number African-Americans—quite possibly including George Washington’s master chef “Hercules.”
Researchers are welcome to explore the newly digitized census here: New York County Jury Census