Abolitionism, Black Lives, and Staten Island in 1843

A glimpse into my current archival research

Henry David Thoreau looked out to the bay from the east shore of Staten Island in 1843 and watched boats wistfully sailing by, “dancing like sea-fowl on the surf.” He stood at the top of a hill at Madame Grimes’ house and observed “a fleet of sloops bound up the Hudson, which seemed to be going over the edge of the earth.” On some of those sloops were free Black oystermen, journeying to and from Prince’s Bay, selling oysters in the Manhattan markets. These men lived in Staten Island’s Sandy Ground neighborhood, one of the oldest and longest inhabited free Black communities in the United States. Following the 1827 abolition of slavery in the state of New York, several skilled Black laborers settled in Sandy Ground, purchased land, and began to build a life there. The waters surrounding Staten Island were ideal for oystering (before they were polluted by New Jersey mills decades later), and the business offered a remarkable opportunity for Black entrepreneurship. Black oystermen and their families owned their own lands where they farmed (sandy soil is ideal for growing strawberries), managed their own oyster beds, and sold their goods themselves (before Jim Crow campaigns pushed Black business owners out of the markets in the late nineteenth century). If you are able to visit Staten Island, you might visit the Richard Dickenson Collection on the Black Man on Staten Island at Historic Richmond Town.

Staten Island’s influence on Thoreau’s activism is severely understudied. This is hardly the fault of diligent biographers who have pieced together scant scraps of his journals and letters from 1843, and they are not alone in leaving Staten Island largely untouched: the island has been called “the forgotten borough” of New York. It is overshadowed by Manhattan’s towering figures like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, among others. Scholars have not deeply attended to Thoreau on Staten Island, perhaps because they were not looking for the seeds of his abolitionism. The intended purpose of Thoreau’s trip was to meet with editors and try to publish. Yet his time under Judge William Emerson’s roof may have given him something more to think about, such as human rights issues that may have come up in conversation between the two men in response to ongoing trials. Outside Emerson’s house, the Staten Island neighborhoods Thoreau frequented were filled with vibrant abolitionist activity led by George William Curtis, Samuel MacKenzie Elliott, Sidney Howard Gay, and Mary Otis Gay Wilcox, among others. At least one site Thoreau visited, the Quarantine Grounds (a cite mentioned in published fugitive slave narratives by William Grimes and Moses Roper), was the product of plans made by a like-minded surveyor, the free Black Frenchman Joseph-François Mangin.

There is much to uncover, given the island’s population and history, that may surface significant early influences on this particular young writer, and might well garner greater scholarly interest and attention to the island’s rich activist, cultural, and literary history. My current research seeks to explore the connections between life on 1840s Staten Island and Thoreau’s abolitionism, civil disobedience and participation in the Underground Railroad (Staten Island was the site of two stops on the Underground Railroad). More broadly, I hope to suggest the importance of this geographical location in literary history.

Sandy ground, fallen leaves, fence, and trees at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Reserve
Pictures taken at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Reserve

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