The Colonial Old Town Ledgers Digitization Project

The New York City Municipal Archives recently applied for funding to digitize colonial-era ledgers selected from the “Old Town” records collection. These unique administrative and legal records, dating from 1645 through the early 1800s, document the Dutch and English colonial settlements in New York City, western Long Island, and the lower Hudson Valley. The project is part of a larger Archives plan to describe and provide online access to all records in the Municipal Archives from the Dutch and English colonial era through early statehood.

The Archives has already successfully completed digitization and provided on-line access to the Dutch records of New Amsterdam and the proposed project will expand this effort to include the earliest records of communities throughout the metropolitan New York City region.

“The Court Book and nothing else to be found therein, 1751.” Newtown, Book 1, Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The ledgers chosen for digitization are the earliest records in the Old Town records collection. These records were created by European colonists in communities throughout the New York City region. Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company, Henry Hudson led the expedition to what is now New York City in 1609. In 1614, the area between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers was designated the colony of New Netherlands. Ten years later the States General of the Netherlands created the Dutch West India Company awarding them a monopoly on trade over a vast domain from West Africa to Newfoundland.

The first colonists in New Netherlands arrived in 1624 at Fort Orange (near Albany). In 1626 other settlers came to Manhattan Island and named their community New Amsterdam. As more colonists arrived they established new settlements resulting in an archipelago of Dutch communities throughout what is now Brooklyn, Queens, Richmond (Staten Island), and Westchester.

Dutch conflict with England over boundaries and trade led Charles II of England to grant the colony to his brother James, Duke of York, in March 1664. New Amsterdam surrendered to the English on September 8, 1664, and was renamed New York. Though in 1673, the Dutch briefly reclaimed the colony, the Treaty of Westminster returned it to English control in 1674.

Bushwick Deeds from 1660 and 1661 issued by Petrus Stuyvesant. Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The provenance of the Old Town records collection dates from consolidation of the modern City of New York on January 1, 1898. Previously, the towns, villages and cities within the counties of Kings, Queens (parts of which are now in Nassau County), Richmond and Westchester (parts of which are now in Bronx County) maintained their own local governments that each created records—legislative, judicial, property, voter, health, school, etc. These local governments were dissolved during the latter part of the nineteenth century, at first by annexation to the old City of New York (Manhattan), or the City of Brooklyn, and finally through the unified City consisting of the five Boroughs in 1898.

The Comptroller of the newly consolidated city recognized the importance of the records of the formerly independent villages and towns and ordered transfer of the Queens, Richmond and Bronx/Westchester ledgers to the central office in Manhattan. In August 1942, fearing that New York City would be a prime target for enemy invasion, the Comptroller packed the ledger collection into crates and shipped them to New Hampton, N.Y. for the duration of the war. The Archives received the records from the Comptroller in several accessions from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The bulk of the Kings County town and village records were acquired by the Kings County Clerk via annexation during the latter part of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1940s, James A. Kelly, then Deputy County Clerk of Kings County arranged that the “historical” records of the county be turned over to St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, “on permanent loan.” They were housed in the James A. Kelly Institute for Historical Studies at the College. While in the custody of the Institute the ledgers were microfilmed. In 1988, due to financial considerations, the College closed the Institute and the records were transferred to the Municipal Archives.

Of particular note are the records of the Gravesend settlement in Kings County. Granted to Lady Deborah Moody in 1645, it became the only English town in the Dutch-dominated western area of Long Island. Based on the frequency in which her name appears in the Gravesend Town records, it is clear that Lady Moody, a religious dissenter who fled England and later Massachusetts, took an active and intense interest all aspects of her community.

Patent for the town of Gravesend, given to Lady Deborah Moody and her followers, 1645. Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Old Town records consist of hand-written manuscripts bound in a variety of styles (single-section pamphlets, spring-back account-book, and case-bound ledgers, among others). They include town and village governing board and legislative body proceedings and minutes, criminal and civil court docket books, deeds and property conveyances, records of estate administration, and coroners' records.

The earliest records are written in mid-17the century Dutch which differs from modern Dutch. The records from the English colonial period are written in a combination of old Dutch and English. The materials also include non-contemporary (19th Century) manuscript translations and/or transliterations of the Dutch records.

Several unique characteristics of the New Netherlands/New York colony make its records important for understanding the origins of the American democratic system. From its earliest years, the colony was notable for its diversity. Unlike New England and Pennsylvania where religion played the dominant role, the New Netherland colony was founded as a commercial enterprise. The official religious denomination of the colony was the Calvinism of the Reformed Church, but the Dutch West India Company urged tolerance toward non-Calvinists to encourage trade and immigration. Among the religious groups in New Netherlands (and more or less tolerated) were Lutherans, Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics and Jews. The colony actively recruited immigrants from Germany, England, Scandinavia, and France, and was the home of the largest number of enslaved Africans north of Maryland.

“Register of the children born of slaves after the 2nd day of July 1799, within the town of Flatlands in Kings County in the State of New York…” Old Town Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

One recent example of the type of research that will be facilitated by the digitization work is the New York Slavery Records Index project underway at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York). Impetus from the project came from the realization that the college’s namesake, John Jay, and his family, were prominent slave-holders. The index project will result in a searchable compilation of records that identify individual enslaved persons and the slaveholders, beginning as early as 1619, and ending during the Civil War. The John Jay researchers have started examining the Municipal Archives collection of manumissions and legal records.

The Municipal Archives has already described and digitized the New Amsterdam records, including the original manuscripts and their English translations documenting proceedings, resolutions, minutes, accounts, petitions, and correspondence of the colonial government. When the Old Town records phase is completed, historians will be able to explore how colonial New York legal institutions and practices served as a foundation for the judicial system and guaranteed freedoms of the new Republic and answer important questions about a formative time period in the nation’s history.

Future blog posts will describe project progress and highlight unique “finds” in this rare collection.

Jury Census Records Digitized

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.

Cover of the 6th Ward Jury Census from 1819. NYC Municipal Archives.

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.

Spread from the 6th Ward Census showing residents on Orange Street in 1819. New York County Jury Census, NYC Municipal Archives.

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.

The 1st Ward Census of 1816 shows downtown households with slaves. New York County Jury Census, NYC Municipal Archives.

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