Although it hasn’t received much public reporting, there were several African-Americans making a living as residents of Seneca County in the years before and shortly after the Civil War.
According to 1850 census data, there were 181 African-Americans living in Seneca County. With February commonly known as Black History Month, it is timely to share the story of some of those who lived in the southern parts of Seneca County.
Probably the very first African-American in what is today Seneca County was the male slave that Silas Halsey brought with him when he came to the present Lodi area in 1793. His name was Prime. (As a note, slaves usually just had first names and then often took on the owner’s last name.) Prime helped Silas Halsey clear the land and build a small log cabin at Cooley’s Point (Lodi Landing). The next year, Halsey brought the rest of his family. Silas and Prime built a three-bay Federal style house, which still stands today at 8375 Route 414. According to Frances H. Barto, one of the Halsey grandchildren, Prime had been a sailor and apparently pined to return as a sailor. Silas Halsey worked out a deal in which Prime ultimately paid $80 for his release and Prime returned to Southampton and resumed work as a seaman.
Henry Bainbridge was one of five enslaved persons brought by Peter and Mahlon Bainbridge in the early 1790s when they moved from South Carolina to Romulus Lot 66. Henry lived with the Mahlon Bainbridge family and worked on their farm as a slave. When Mahlon Bainbridge died in 1814, he gave Henry his freedom but asked him to remain with the family until Mahlon’s youngest son was old enough to work the farm. Henry remained with the Bainbridge family for about 10 years, working the farm for a one-third share of the crops.
In 1825, Henry Bainbridge moved to Middlesex in Yates County, where he bought 100 acres. He lived there until his death on June 11, 1836, and was buried in the Middlesex area. In 1925, members of the Bainbridge family had Henry’s remains brought back to Seneca County and buried in the Bainbridge family plot in the Rising Cemetery in Willard. It is not customary for a family’s former slaves to be buried in the family plot. Even more unusual is that the Bainbridge family had a nice gravestone erected. That gravestone still stands as a testament to the strong bonds between some slave masters and their slaves, especially for the Bainbridge family.
Slave to land owner
Quam Demund is a good example of an African-American born into slavery who became a land owner in the town of Covert. Demund was born into slavery in New Jersey about 1796. He was a veteran of the War of 1812 and at some point was manumitted and married a woman named Lydia (last name unknown). Together, they had six children before she died on July 23, 1842 in Ovid. About two years later Demund married Phebe C. and together they had 10 children.
In May 1852, Demund paid $2,500 for 50 acres of land owned by Sebring and Elizabeth Smalley on Lot 59 in the town of Covert. He died on that property in June 1877. Phebe continued to live on the farm until her death on July 15, 1899. Both are buried in the Grove Cemetery in Trumansburg and several of their descendants continued to live in the area.
On Seneca Street in the village of Ovid lived at least three formerly enslaved African-American families that bought property and continued to live a stable life for themselves and for their descendants. They were: Charlotte Jackson; Richard and Hannah Van Horn; and Moses and Ann Bryant.
Charlotte Jackson was freed from slavery by owner William Godley of New Jersey and lived the rest of her life as a “free person of color” in Ovid, working for many years in the household of Belle Ayres, an anti-slavery family in the town of Varick along Cayuga Lake. She is the only known African-American woman to sign an anti-slavery petition sent to Congress in January 1849 by 86 Seneca County women. Jackson died on Oct. 14, 1885, and is buried in the Ovid Cemetery along with her adopted son James (or Jerome).
Richard Van Horn was born into slavery in 1806 and probably came to Seneca County as a slave of the Van Horn family. At some point he was freed and married Hannah; together they had eight children. In 1847, Van Horn received land in Franklin County from Gerrit Smith (first cousin of Elizabeth Cady Stanton) so he could meet the then New York state requirements for freed black males to be able to vote. In 1850, Richard and Hannah purchased their Seneca Street property in Hannah’s name. In appreciation of Smith, their next son was named Gerrit Smith Van Horn. Gerrit Smith Van Horn died in Ovid in 1937 and at the time was believed to be the oldest active fireman in New York state.
The third African-American family living on Seneca Street was that of Moses and Ann Bryant. Moses Bryant was born into slavery in New Jersey about 1782. Like Richard Van Horn, he received land in Franklin Country from Gerrit Smith in 1847 so that he could vote. By 1850, Bryant and family were living on Seneca Street in Ovid and Bryant was working as a laborer. He died sometime before 1860. His widow was listed in the 1870 census as living with her son, Moses, and that she was 100 years old, with a notation that her father had been born in Africa.
Hopefully this article has provided a better understanding of how African-Americans were living in the southern parts of Seneca County in the years before and shortly after the Civil War. Their stories are evidence that there was at least somewhat of a “welcoming climate” for these African-Americans and they had job opportunities.