From the Archives: Forty Acres and a Vote
How Gerrit Smith gave Adirondack land and hope to thousands of African-Americans
by Amy Godine
IN 1849 AN ESTEEMED PHYSICIAN from New York City, James McCune Smith, ventured to the Adirondacks. Dr. Smith had land up there, a forty-acre lot that he had never seen, but his main purpose in making the long journey was not to tour his property but to check the progress of some fledgling settlements in the woods. For two years Dr. Smith and several others had labored hard to recruit prospective homesteaders from metropolitan New York for one of the state’s biggest landowners, Gerrit Smith of Peterboro. How were the pioneers making out? If numbers were low, spirits were high, Dr. Smith wrote Gerrit Smith in early 1850, and happily remembered the settlers “making the woods ring with the music of their axe strokes.”
So far, so familiar. A behind-the-scenes land baron, an energetic land agent, a smattering of pioneers dispersed along the roadless edges of the northern New York frontier—it’s Adirondack History 101, the usual stock characters, pretty much par for the course. With a few intriguing differences.
One: In this story, the settlers, to a man, woman and child, were black.
Two: The speculator who provided them with their forty- to sixty-acre Adirondack freeholds sought and got nothing out of this massive distribution—120,000 acres to three thousand black New Yorkers—except the inestimable satisfaction of having followed his own conscience.
Three: The African-American land agents who helped Gerrit Smith identify the black “grantees” from almost every county in the state represented perhaps the most accomplished, politically informed set of real-estate middlemen ever to assist in the peopling of the Adirondack region—which should come as no surprise, considering Gerrit Smith’s connections. His civil-rights work put him at the bull’s-eye of a wide web of radical abolitionists, black and white, from all over New York.
And when Smith needed help, he knew just whom to ask: Men of political influence and spiritual standing like the slave-born orator Reverend Henry Highland Garnet of Troy, who gained acclaim for his early advocacy of a wholesale rebellion to overthrow slavery. Or Reverend Jermain Wesley Loguen of central New York, who helped more than a thousand fugitives find their way to freedom, earning for Syracuse a reputation as “the Canada of the United States.” Or from New York City, not only James McCune Smith—first degree-holding black doctor in New York, physician in residence at the Colored Orphans Asylum, antislavery lecturer and essayist, advocate of children’s and women’s rights—but Princeton alumnus Reverend Theodore S. Wright, first black American graduate of a theological seminary, who blazoned the abolitionist cause at the pulpit of the influential First Colored Presbyterian Church, as well as Elder Charles Bennett Ray, minister, editor (The Colored American) and stationmaster on the Underground Railway. These men went to bat for a rich white philanthropist not for sentimental reasons (though their every letter to Gerrit Smith evinces affection and respect), nor for compensation (there was none), but from their own longstanding agrarian idealism, their weariness with urban life and their conviction that the black vote was more effectively pursued in the country than the city.
And what had a political struggle for equal suffrage to do with staking out a comer of the Adirondack woods? As it happens, almost everything. In 1846 the New York legislature reinstated a twenty-one-year-old law that denied black men the right to vote unless they could prove ownership of $250 in real assets—that is, land or a home. This restriction did not apply to white voters and it all but disenfranchised every black resident of the state. The blow was doubly painful since legions of white immigrants were displacing African-Americans from long-held urban jobs and trades. Out of work, out of a ballot, out of any hope of fighting slavery through legal political means, black New Yorkers were primed for Gerrit Smith’s ingenious plan. Anyway, it seemed ingenious. Not only did it speak to the Jeffersonian belief, as fiercely felt by black reformers as white, that farming represented a direct path to civic entitlement, the best way out of vice-afflicted, slum-ridden cities and a sure route to respectability in white agrarian America, it also—not coincidentally—endowed Smith’s three thousand grantees with, if not the vote itself, at least a way to get it. True, forty untouched Adirondack acres weren’t worth $250 in 1846, but with sweat, luck and a few years’ cultivation they might manage to achieve that value.
When Smith announced his land distribution scheme in the fall of 1846 the news electrified a demoralized black political elite. At a national convention for black men in Troy delegates drafted resolutions swearing to promote Smith’s settlement plan every way they could. Church pulpits, temperance conventions and suffrage meetings all provided forums for spreading the good word. Volunteer land agents like Dr. Smith and Elder Ray held meetings in Brooklyn, Westchester and Manhattan, serving up florid panegyrics to the Adirondack wilds, signing on grantees by the wagon-load and firing off their proud lists to Gerrit Smith’s one-room land office in Peterboro, near Utica. When finding thousands of downstate New Yorkers willing to abide by Smith’s stringent insistence on absolute temperance proved a challenge, the agents fanned out to towns and cities from Buffalo to Kingston. By 1853 the land dispersion was essentially complete.
Working hand in hand with the agents was a smattering of black newspapers, among them The Ram’s Horn from Brooklyn (editor Willis Hodges would lead a party of homesteaders to Franklin County), the Albany Patriot and, most famously, Frederick Douglas’s Rochester newspaper, The North Star. These papers not only flogged the speedy settlement of the “Smith Land,” they also published travelers’ reports, settlers’ testimonials and personal endorsements of Smith’s land from white Adirondackers.
On paper everything looked great. Deeds had only to be claimed, land cleared, settled, savored. So why, out of three thousand grantees, did no more than 150 or so men and their families move to the region? And why did all of these move on?
Almost all, that is. The Eppes family in North Elba remained for a century. From Troy, grantee Lyman Eppes worked a farm to good advantage and taught music to the children of his white abolitionist neighbors John and Mary Brown. Model settler Eppes also launched a church choir, library and singing school, and likely cut the first trail through Indian Pass. Grantee William Carasaw and his wife raised three young sons on his North Elba farm. By 1849, the year of Dr. Smith’s visit, Carasaw was making four hundred pounds of maple sugar a year—as much as any other farmer in the township. His neighbor, shoemaker James Henderson, was first in the neighborhood to hang out a professional shingle.
Henderson would freeze to death. Carasaw, a veteran of the U.S. Colored Troops, left North Elba with his family after the Civil War along with fellow grantee and veteran Josiah Hasbrook. Some grantees’ families in Franklin County—the Hazards, Morehouses and Bradys—remained in the region for generations, working in hotels, building homes and camps, guiding hunters and fishermen. But their experience was anomalous. Looking at the numbers, Gerrit Smith’s grand “scheme of justice and benevolence” was a bust.
IN 1921, ALFRED L. DONALDSON supposed that “the attempt to combine an escaped slave with a so-called Adirondack farm was about as promising as agricultural results as would be the placing of an Italian lizard on a Norwegian iceberg.” Donaldson’s take on the Smith Lands project—Smith was a flake, the black grantees weren’t up to the job and so on—has enjoyed an enduring influence among regional historians since the two-volume History of the Adirondacks was published eighty years ago.
But as North Elba town historian Mary MacKenzie has long said, Donaldson was just dead wrong. Fact: While some grantees were born into slavery, all were free residents of New York State when Gerrit Smith was handing out his land. Fact: Numberless Adirondack settlements were going under at the time that Smith’s agents were rounding up grantees. The fate of the “Smith Land” communities was more typical than not, but because it was black and founded on a principle, not for speculative profit, historians have blamed its demise on the presumed incompatibility of African-Americans with Adirondack farming, a summary as racist as it is blithely uninformed.
The truth is much of the disbursed land was terrible—under water, on rocky mountains or lost in the impenetrable woods of Hamilton County’s Township Three. Smith never said his land was better than it was and, when pressed, he freely swapped bad lots for better. Still, as word filtered south regarding the variable quality of the homesteads, many grantees got cold feet. Just as troubling were rumors of local sharpies all too keen to play “a highhanded game upon our colored brethren,” as land agent Reverend Loguen wrote after a seven-week tour of the Smith acreage in 1847. Brothers, watch your back up there, Loguen cautioned. “There is need that [a grantee] be very careful to whom he entrusts himself, else he may be kept several days and nights traveling in the woods, and at length be shown a very desirable lot, and be charged twelve shillings or two dollars a day for the service of the pilot, . . . never have been near the lot that is really his; or he may be taken to a very undesirable spot—perhaps a mountain peak or an irrecoverable swamp … and be made to think himself happy to get rid of it.
Although Loguen’s letter in The North Star must have made one cold noisy splash, the grantees had problems closer to home than double-dealing guides. Moving to the woods took money. Livestock, tools, seed, wagons—none of these came free. Retaining land, whether or not you settled it, meant keeping up with taxes. Some land barons gave homesteaders allowances to tide them over the first winters. Gerrit Smith probably figured a gift of free land was enough. It might have been for Yankee sodbusters steeped in centuries of New England farming. But urban people—tradesmen, laborers, barbers, engravers, preachers, cobblers—needed guidance. Who would mentor them?
Try me, wrote the white farmer John Brown, and impressed with Brown’s energy and abolitionist zeal, Gerrit Smith gladly entrusted him with the task. But Brown, for all his ambition, not only got to North Elba later than he said he would, he didn’t stick around. This is not to undermine his contribution or challenge the sincerity of his interest in the black settlements—one called Blacksville, the other, closer to his own farm, named for the ancient African kingdom city of Timbuctoo. Brown helped grantees sort out deeds and lot lines, led prayer meetings, lent money and brought provisions. But he was never the abiding, on-site mentor Gerrit Smith and the grantees were hoping for, and his late arrival was a blow.
Then, in 1850, the same year Dr. James McCune Smith reported to his benefactor on the slow progress of the settlements, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. A sop to the powerful pro-slavery Southern lobby, this legislation put every African-American in a non-slave state—whether fugitive or free born—at risk for capture and enslavement. Black New Yorkers fled to Canada; black leaders made the promotion of the Underground Railroad a burning first priority. Inevitably the Smith Land lost its luster as city grantees grew uneasy about moving to a region where African-Americans were so few and every white stranger was a potential bounty hunter. Cities at least provided safety in numbers. The Adirondacks offered no such refuge.
But what a glorious brave dream it was. Yes, it foundered. The timing was off. The gentle vision of an agrarian philanthropist fell victim to poor leadership and insufficient planning. Gerrit Smith’s “scheme of justice and benevolence” still got people thinking about the Adirondacks in a way they never had. It unleashed a stream of rhetoric as radical as it was refreshing, letters, editorials and speeches that saw “an era in the history of the free colored men in this State” in the physical “occupation of these mountains,” as Frederick Douglass wrote in 1848. It brought together white and black civil rights reformers and put white Adirondack abolitionists in touch with black activists from Syracuse, Manhattan, Troy. It gave hope to the civil-rights movement in a particularly dark hour, and, not least, it almost certainly enabled black New Yorkers to pursue the franchise, whether or not they ever chose to settle on their Adirondack lots. Settlement isn’t everything. There are other, subtler ways to gauge success. And the peopling of the Adirondacks has always been one part practice to nine parts theory, dream and wish.