Slavery and Abolitionism

Slavery and Abolitionism

Despite popular misconceptions, the institution of slavery thrived in the American North, particularly in areas like Long Island where agriculture was central to the local economy. The fight to end the practice also found many of its most vocal advocates on the island. Explore the stories below to learn more.

Whose Faces Do We Remember?

Power, Privilege, and Slavery in Suffolk County

Commissioned portraits like Samuel Buell’s capture their subjects as they wished to be remembered, with their serene expressions and elegant clothing highlighting their respectability and affluence. Abraham G.D. Tuthill painted Buell in his black robes and preaching bands, depicting him as a religious leader and a pillar of his community. Buell’s public accomplishments support this image. He was a Revolutionary War hero who remained in East Hampton to defend the community. After the war, he helped establish East Hampton’s Clinton Academy, which opened in 1784 as one of the town’s first coeducational schools.

View of Clinton Academy, East Hampton, 1878
Elias Lewis Jr.
Brooklyn Historical Society

When examining portraits like Buell’s, it is important to consider not just what is depicted but also what was omitted. Like his fellow landowning neighbors throughout Suffolk County, Samuel Buell was a slave owner. Early English settlements like East Hampton were established in the mid-1600s. Their agricultural and maritime businesses required laborers, and enslaved labor quickly became the most profitable type. By 1698, nearly 22 percent of Suffolk County’s population was of African American descent and nearly all were enslaved. 

By the late 1700s, most of Suffolk County’s slaveholding households had only one or two enslaved people. It was a rarity for Suffolk County families to own more than two people. The 1755 census shows three enslaved persons in Buell’s household; the 1790 federal census, the first of its kind, documents an increase of that number to five, marking Buell as one of the county’s most prolific slaveholders. 

Federal census entry for Samuel Buell, 1790
United States Census Bureau
National Archives and Records Administration

When he died in 1798, Buell left instructions in his will to manumit—or legally free—three enslaved laborers, Jree, Eber, and Prine. He also stated that the three men would earn their freedom only after serving long mandatory indentures to Buell’s family members. For example, Eber would only become free after he served “Mrs. Buell until eighteen years of age and then to be sold for seven years and that at twenty-five years of age to commence free from servitude if he behaves well if not to serve a year or two longer.” Eber’s was a rocky path to freedom. Like the rest of New York state’s enslaved population, Buell’s enslaved laborers may not have been legally free until 1827, when New York’s gradual emancipation law took effect. 

Enslaved laborers laid the foundation for Samuel Buell’s legacy, but very few references or artifacts documenting their existence survive. As a result, objects like Buell’s portrait and its representations of his wealth must stand in to remind us of enslaved peoples’ contributions to the history of Long Island.

Are All Men Created Equal?

Slavery in Brooklyn Following the Revolutionary War

As one of America’s most recognizable Founding Fathers, portraits of George Washington in full military dress frequently operate as a symbols of the rise of American independence and liberty. BHS’s portrait miniature also represents the opposite: the denial of liberty to Brooklyn’s enslaved people by Nicholas Couwenhoven and other wealthy, landed families. 

The Revolutionary War did not diminish Brooklynites’ reliance upon slavery. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the 1600s and 1700s, the residents of Brooklyn made their living providing foodstuffs to Manhattan’s markets. As a result, enslaved labor was critical to life throughout Kings County. Following the war, Couwenhoven began growing his estate by purchasing land and enslaved people to work it. The 1790 federal census for the village of New Utrecht shows that Couwenhovens had 10 enslaved people within his household that year, making him one of Brooklyn’s largest slaveholders.

Federal census entry for Nicholas Couwenhoven, 1790
United States Census Bureau
National Archives and Records Administration

Very little documentation survives today that preserves information about the lives of enslaved Brooklynites. In most cases there are only the bills of sale that transferred human property legally from one owner to another.

Bill of Sale for Bet, 1792
Nicholas Covenhoven papers (ARC.283)
Brooklyn Historical Society

BHS is committed to bringing attention to the history of racial power structures and inequality that defined life in colonial Brooklyn. Those stories are not rare if you know where and how to look for them. 

For example, while Couwenhoven’s home, called Bensonhurst, was celebrated in the early 1900s as one of the oldest surviving houses in New Utrecht, a place where Washington himself might have once dined, its basement hid a darker truth, one unseen by visitors. Newspaper accounts of the time recorded rumors of a “sort of pen or cell where the refractory slave was put by way of punishment.” This in the same house where BHS’s portrait miniature was proudly displayed.

Bensonhurst house, New Utrecht, circa 1850–1900
Brooklyn Historical Society

“Our land will then take such a rise”

The Growth and Suburbanization of Queens County

Bloodgood Haviland Cutter was the descendant on both sides of his family from some of Queens County’s earliest European settlers, granted land in the region in the 1600s by Dutch governor Willem Kieft. When the English government formally incorporated Queens County in 1683, it was home to five small townships: Newtown, Flushing, Jamaica, Hempstead, and Oyster Bay. Like the rest of Long Island, Queens was sparsely populated and its economy centered on farming and agriculture driven by enslaved workers. In 1790, less than 5,400 people lived in Queens, including 1,095 enslaved people.

Hatchel, 18th century 

Made in Newtown, Queens County, Long Island


Brooklyn Historical Society

Queens remained largely rural well into the 1800s, but the introduction of railroads jump-started its transformation. The first tracks of the Long Island Railroad were laid in 1836 and connected Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens. In the next decades, competing railroad corporations pushed rail lines farther east onto Long Island.

Map of Long Island showing the Long Island Railroad, 1884

Long Island Rail Road American Bank Note Company 


Brooklyn Historical Society

Cutter’s poetic musings provide evidence of his avid interest in railroads. He invested in several, including the Long Island Rail Road Company and the North Shore Railroad Company, the latter organized in 1863 to build tracks east from Flushing towards Great Neck. In his poem “North Side Railroad,” Cutter enthusiastically cried out: 

Come out, my friends, and now subscribe
To build a road on the North Side,
If each will only do his part,
We soon will see the railroad start.

Port Jefferson Rail Road Station, 1878

George B. Brainerd


Brooklyn Historical Society

Improved transportation options in the second half of the 1800s led to a boom in land speculation in Queens and the construction of new communities. Many new residents were attracted to Queens because they were searching for a suburban retreat from the growing congestion of New York City.

Roslyn Highlands Incorporated, New York, after 1892


Brooklyn Historical Society

While Bloodgood Cutter’s quaint “Long Island Farmer Poet” image contradicts his status as a shrewd venture capitalist who increased his wealth by investing strategically. In his poem “North Side Railroad,” Cutter summed up the risk and rewards of investing in Long Island’s railroads. 

Our land will then take such a rise,
‘Twill us agreeably surprise…

Then citizens will out remove,
And then the North Side will improve;
How much better that will pay,
Then raising either corn or hay. 

Then if you wish to sell your land,
Can get the chink right in your hand;
And then if you desire more ease;
Can work or play, just as you please.

“When Mr. Beecher sold slaves in Plymouth pulpit”

Henry Ward Beecher’s Abolitionist Slave Auctions

From his pulpit at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, Henry Ward Beecher became a leading voice against American slavery. Through passionate sermons, popular lectures, and essays, Beecher exposed Northern audiences to the cruelties of the practice that many chose to ignore. Beecher was known for his flair for the dramatic. This pulpit chair was in use at Plymouth Church during Beecher’s most shocking anti-slavery spectacles: his mock slave auctions of the 1850s and early 1860s. 

These events were essentially theatrical fundraisers that coopted the format of the auction block to expose Beecher’s amassed audiences to the cruel spectacle of slavery. Always featuring young, typically light-skinned enslaved women and girls, these events promoted an “acceptable” form of blackness that allowed Beecher to lambast slavery while also raising the money needed to purchase the freedom of the featured women.

“Mr. Beecher selling a beautiful slave girl in his pulpit,” circa 1896

Thure de Thulstrup


Brooklyn Historical Society

Plymouth Church held at least six public “auctions” before the end of the Civil War. The sale of Sally Marie Diggs in 1860 left a lasting impression on Beecher’s congregation. Diggs, an enslaved nine-year-old born just outside Washington D.C., was brought to Beecher’s attention by Virginia Rev. John Falkner Blake as a worthy candidate for Beecher’s next auction. A surviving bill of sale in the BHS collection shows that Blake purchased Diggs from her enslaver, John C. Cook, for $900. The funds that Beecher raised purchased Diggs’ legal freedom from the Reverend Blake.

Sally Marie Diggs bill of sale, 1860

Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC.212)

Brooklyn Historical Society

Beecher’s congregation raised more than $1,000 to purchase Diggs’ freedom. For the young girl, the event was a significant and complex moment in her life. She earned her freedom, but only after her mother and sisters had been sold by their enslaver, separating the family forever. Beecher christened Diggs with a new name, Rose Ward, combining a part of his name with that of one of his parishioners, Rose Terry, who contributed a ring to the collection to purchase Diggs’ freedom.

Although the act of purchase and patronage stripped her of her previous identity, Rose Ward persevered in her new life with her new name. After the auction, she returned to Washington, D.C. with her grandmother, Chloe Diggs, where she worked as a seamstress before attending Howard University, a historically black college. While in college, Ward met her future husband, James Hunt. 

Ward returned to Brooklyn only once, in 1927, for the eightieth anniversary celebration of Beecher’s first sermon at Plymouth Church. A selection of her remarks to the congregation at the celebration were recorded on a wax cylinder—an early form of sound recording—that survives today in the BHS collection. Rose Ward’s intertwined history with those of Beecher and Plymouth Church is a reminder today that Brooklyn was a key battleground in the complex negotiation of slavery and racism in America.

Henry Ward Beecher and ‘Pinky,’ circa 1930-1932

Photograph after the original painting by Harry Roseland 


Brooklyn Historical Society


[F10 tombstone]
Rose Ward Hunt wax cylinder, 1927
Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection (ARC.212)
Brooklyn Historical Society