Overseers and Injustices

Some individuals liberated themselves with the intention of disappearing and inventing a new identity, while others must have had reasons for fleeing temporarily. The story of Mary Mott reminds us that in a racist and patriarchal society, white women sometimes found common cause with their black neighbors and acquaintances.

        When William Emott and Peter Maison met on December 5, 1809, two years had passed since Sarah Turner ferried across the Hudson and “went to live in the house of Robert Newkirk,” and moved on to Robert Rutgers’ and Nero Davis’. Once again the Overseers were gathered to consider the testimony of a white woman known to be living in the home of Nero Davis, a black man. The details of Mary Mott’s testimony, however, cast light on a surprising relationship that existed between them, and help us to know more about the household of Nero Davis.

Born around 1782, Mary had married, at the age of sixteen, William B. Mott, a man “of considerable property, but of a jealous disposition” and a fancy chair painter by profession.

They had four children together, but Mary had “left her husband for ill treatment in New York in March” of 1809. She came by sail to Staatsburgh and made her way south to Gay’s Tavern just north of Poughkeepsie in Hyde Park where she stayed for a time before moving on to the home of Robert G. Livingston in the town of Clinton. In the early part of the summer, she came to Poughkeepsie to the home of “Nero Morris, as his wife Dinah had lived with her in New York.”

In the home of her former servant (or tenant), Mary “was confined some time with a sore foot.” She stayed only a week or so with Nero and Dinah, explaining to the Overseers that on “the next Saturday she went to New York with Captain Nelson.” She returned to New York, ostensibly to rejoin her family, as she remained in the city until mid-November when “she came again to Poughkeepsie to Nero Morris’s to fetch her clothes she had left there before.” Whether she planned to return to her abusive husband is not clear, however, as Mary had “been in Dinah’s employ…in sewing” since the middle of November.

As extraordinary as this testimony sounds to modern ears, the Overseers Emott and Maison reacted more or less as they did when Sarah Turner appeared before them; they gave Mary only four days to gather her trunk “at Mrs. Dubois’” and leave Poughkeepsie. Whereas, Mary Mott seems to have left Poughkeepsie, or at least managed to avoid a formal ordered of transportation “from constable to constable” back to New York City, Sarah was transported to Ulster County, but chose to return a few months later. John S. Myers, the constable who had previously transported Sarah, testified that she had “come to inhabit again in the town…, and brought with her an infant child.” As if that act was not damning enough, Myers continued: “It is generally believed that she frequents a house where a child has the small pox in the natural way, and that many of the citizens are seriously apprehensive that she will be the means of spreading the infectious disorder in the part of the county if she be not immediately retransported.”

As a result, the Justices and Overseers issued a further order for her apprehension along with her “infant child supposed to be a bastard child,” and directed “that the constable who shall  apprehend her is hereby ordered and directed in the name of the people of the state of New York to give her ten lashes upon her naked back with a suitable whip for that purpose,” and that she then be delivered into the hands of a constable in the town of Marlborough in Ulster County as before.”

No further record of Sarah Turner is recorded in the Records of the Overseers of the Poor of Poughkeepsie, although they do provide us with more detail about the third man, Robert Newkirk, with whom Sarah stayed during the winter of 1807 to 1808. Newkirk, born some time between 1752 and 1762, was likely the oldest of the three men.

When he came before Overseers Peter Maison and William Emott in late October of 1812, he was “poor and sick” and in need of assistance from the town. “When he was quite young,” he explained, “ he was the slave of William Wynkoop, who sold him to Cornelius Newkirk of Kingston, Ulster County.” After four years or so as Newkirk’s slave, he was sold to Abraham Flagler of the town of Clinton for four and a half years, “after which [he] was to be free.”

In freedom, he worked on his own and “took care of himself,” eventually marrying and starting a family. His wife Dinah had been free, as well, but in 1812 at the time of his testimony, Newkirk was a widower. They had a daughter Betty, who lived in Poughkeepsie with her husband Pompy, and their children Dinah, George, Jenny “and the youngest name he doesn’t know.” Dinah, he recalled, was born about 1797.

Newkirk explained that he came to Poughkeepsie around 1804, and bought “half an acre of land of Charles Hoffman…with a small house on it” in 1808 for £34. He “sold the place to William Davis for sixty dollars” around 1811. He “paid taxes…several times” and had sought assistance from Abraham Flagler, his former owner, but Flagler “brought him back to Poughkeepsie and told him the poor masters of Poughkeepsie must take care of him.”

The Overseers did order that the town “afford such temporary relief as is necessary,” but with the caveat that this aid be given “until the merits of the above case can be ascertained.” Given the Overseers’ tendency to order the removal of individuals born or brought up outside of Poughkeepsie, it is hard to see them continuing to support an old man in Newkirk’s situation without the intervention of a family member or former emplyer or slave owner. His history of land ownership may have been enough to warrant his having been “legally settled” in the town, but because records of the transaction would not necessarily have been saved, the fact of his ownership would have been difficult to establish.

The black households that hosted Sarah Turner in 1808, had more than their general geographic location in common; their members were potential partners and allies in times of trouble. They were also free, even if the conditions of that freedom were constricted by their poverty and their blackness.  The stories of their lives they were made to tell to the Overseers, and the older, richer stories they carried with them from their parents and elders would have been told to one another freely, and to their children, and to their children’s children. But the stories of their lives, and of the unusual encounters they may have had with traveling strangers, outcast white women or former employers and masters may not have been recorded anywhere other than in the pages of the Records of the Overseers of the Poor.

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