An Extraordinary Saturday
January 23, 1808 was the day the Democratic Republicans caucused in the Senate Chamber in Washington City, choosing James Madison of Virginia and George Clinton of New York as their candidates for executive office. On the same day the sitting President, Thomas Jefferson mailed a letter to Rev. Samuel Miller laying out his views on the principle of separation between church and state, and on the rights of the states with regard to religion.
For the free black servant of a middling white farmer living at the edges of Poughkeepsie’s northern commons, January 23rd was a Saturday, and he or she was about to meet Christopher Fletcher, a Swedish Pomeranian who had fought in Bonaparte’s army for three years and sailed for New York from Amsterdam around 1800.
After his arrival in America, Fletcher boarded and trained as a furrier with Francis Wunnenberg in lower Manhattan for a year, and “afterwards lived a year in said city and worked in his room.”
Beginning in 1802, Fletcher served as a member of the U.S. Navy aboard the John Adams and the Hornet, participating in the blockade of Tripoli during the First Barbary War, finally returning to New York aboard the Constitution in December of 1807.
In New York, he and a fellow sailor, “Peter Monkin, purchased a Magic Lantern and other shows, which cost $70, with a view to make a living during the approaching winter. They traveled from New York on the post road till they came to Poughkeepsie town and put up at Jordan Norris’” on Friday, January 22nd. The following day, upon discovering that Monkin had absconded with the means of their livelihood, Fletcher “pursued him on foot and overtook him near Richard Valentine’s” along the Creek Road heading north and east in the direction of the neighboring town of Clinton. After a brief confrontation, Monkin set out again with the lantern, and Fletcher, “in the pursuit, fell down and dislocated his ankle.”
More than two weeks later, John Palmatier, our middling farmer, traveled into town to William Emott’s office, where he told Emott, Teunis Tappen, Peter Maison and Thomas Nelson the story of the “two strangers who call themselves seafaring men” and his discovery, two weeks previous, of the injured Fletcher, who Palmatier “fetched into his house,” where he was cared for as his injuries healed.
Palmatier found these four Justices and Overseers of the Poor assembled on Monday the 8th of February for the purpose of investigating the activities of a twenty-two year old single white woman, Sarah Turner, whose parents lived across the river in Shawangunk.
Turner told the Justices that she had “worked about for a living since she was twelve years of age,” and that her father’s family had been residents of Ulster County “for as long as she can remember.” According to the record of her testimony, she “came across the river some time before Christmas (1807), and went to live in the house of Robert Newkirk, a free black man for some time. And from thence she went to live with Rob Rutgers for a week and from there to Nero’s, a black man, where she has been ever since.”
Of the nature of Sarah Turner’s relationship with the members of these free black households, we cannot be certain, but the Justices, to whom such arrangements were unacceptable, ordered Sarah “to depart from the town of Poughkeepsie by Wednesday next.” At the end of that month, when Sarah had failed to leave on her own, the Justices issued a formal Order of Removal, finding that she had been “permitted to wander unapprehended from the town of Shawangunk to the town of Marlborough in the County of Ulster…into the town of Poughkeepsie,” and directed a constable to:
“convey & transport the said Sarah Turner into the town of Marlbourough aforesaid and deliver her together with this our receipt and order unto one of the constables of the said town of Marlborough…and so from constable to constable until she shall be transported into some city or town within this state where she is legally settled, or out of this state into the place from which she last came into this state…”
Having thus dispensed with Turner, the Justices and Overseers were ready the following week to hear the story of the physically and financially injured Fletcher. In his March 4th testimony before Peter Maison and William Emott, Fletcher recounted the story that had certainly made the rounds among the families living closest to John Palmatier, if not throughout the entire village.
According to Fletcher, after he fell in his pursuit of Monkin, “John Palmatier and others took him on a sleigh to said Palmatier’s house where he remained till this time.” At present, we do not know the identity of the free black servant who lived in the household of John Palmatier according to the 1810 census, nor do we know when that individual began living there. We can, however, look to the 1820 and 1830 census records for some indication of that person’s identity: Palmatier had living with him in 1820 a free black man over 44 years old, and in 1830 a free black man between the ages of 55 and 99.
While there is no guarantee that any of the notations on the census manuscripts represent the same individual, we can speculate about the nature of the connection the traveler and a given servant might have made during the eight weeks Fletcher stayed at the Palmatier farm.
If one of the others Fletcher mentioned was the 35+-year-old free black male servant of the 1820 and 1830 censuses, he would have heard the story firsthand from Fletcher in his anguish over his injury and his lost property. He would have assisted in dragging the injured man home on Palmatier’s sleigh. If the servant was someone else altogether – a free black woman or girl, she would likely have been expected to see to the needs of the traveler, alongside the other women in the house or on her own.
The possibility also remains that the free black servant noted in the 1810 census did not take up residence in the Palmatier household until after this incident, but because no community is comfortable when a thief is at large nearby, news of the crime, and of the travelers with the Magic Lantern would have spread quickly. Palmatier may have attempted to corroborate Fletcher’s story by speaking with Jordan Norris, or any others who had seen Monkin and Fletcher the previous night. The African Americans living among the whites in the neighborhood of the commons may also have been consulted, and would have been eager to hear the details, and to be on the lookout for Monkin and the lantern he had carried away.
The stories of Sarah Turner and Christopher Fletcher are not the focus of this exploration of freedom and slavery in Poughkeepsie, but they demonstrate that the lives of rural northern African Americans intersected with those of whites in ways that are not generally reflected in the larger, and more commonly understood narratives of the national past. They point to the challenges of writing the history of African American life in rural towns in the North during this period, but also to the potential of sources such as the records of the Overseers of the Poor, along with other, more traditional sources including newspaper advertisements, census records, wills, land indentures, court proceedings and others which, taken together, can help us to weave together some historical strands that more accurately reflect the dynamics of American national history as experienced by those who lived it.