Slave Bible becomes a conduit to understanding O.B. history

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There is a Bible on display in a glass case in Oyster Bay’s Raynham Hall Museum, once the home of Robert Townsend, a spy for Gen. George Washington. The King James Version dates back to 1771, and is part of a permanent exhibit called “Slave Quarters” that opened last February. Its pages contain the names and other information on some of the slaves who might have lived in the Townsend home during the Revolutionary War, and the exhibit offers a glimpse into what life might have been like for them.

In recent years, the Bible has led historians like Claire Bellerjeau to fascinating discoveries. “The slave Bible is important because it began the discussion about the people who were slaves of the Townsend family,” said Bellerjeau, who has studied Oyster Bay’s early history for years. “But there is so much we still don’t know about the enslaved people who lived here.”

Just this month she found miniature pocket diaries at the New York Historical Society. They belonged to Solomon, who was Robert’s older brother. “While reading them I discovered several names of the slaves listed in the Bible at Raynham,’ she said. “With every new discovery, I realize how much more there is to understand about their lives.”

Oyster Bay during the Revolutionary War

During the war, 300 Queen’s Rangers, the most successful Provincial British unit, camped in Oyster Bay. Many moved into residents’ homes, and one of them was Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, who lived in Raynham Hall with seven members of the Townsend family from November 1778 to May 1779.

Though he tolerated the family’s use of slaves, Simcoe was opposed to it. In fact, after the war, he passed the first anti-slavery law in Canada in 1793, after he became the first governor of what was then called Upper Canada. A similar law was passed six years later as a New York state law. 

What the Bible has revealed

The back inside page of a Bible often lists the names of its owner and family members. Traditionally, new names are added after births and marriages. There are 17 names of slaves in the back of the Bible at Raynham, with dates ranging from 1769 to 1795. Bellerjeau said they were not all related, nor does the list include every slave living in the house.

And unlike most listings in a family Bible, she said, “This was all done at once, with one person’s handwriting. We know it had to be written in 1795 or later, after Robert [Townsend] came home to tend to his father’s estate.” Robert’s father, Samuel, had died in 1790.

It can’t be proven, but Bellerjeau said she believes that Robert, who also disapproved of slavery, may have been trying to help free the family’s slaves after his father died. “The names in the slave Bible might have been written to serve as a record — like a birth certificate,” she explained.

“If Robert did write the slaves’ names in the Bible, he might have used handwriting not recognizable as his own,” Bellerjeau continued, adding that as one of the leading spies in Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, he was clever enough to know what information was needed to free slaves. “It makes sense. If he wanted to free Harry or Rachel, there had to be proof when they were born. However, I can’t match them all up with town records of slaves who were freed.”

And there was more involved in freeing a slave than providing proof of age. “A slave’s owner had to go before the Board of Overseers,” Bellerjeau explained, “to prove that a slave also had a way of making a living.”

Records indicate that in the early 1800s, a slave named Harry, who is listed in the Bible, was put on a path toward freedom by Townsend. “Robert sold Harry, but with the condition that he must be freed on his 24th birthday or the owner would owe Robert $1,000, which was quite a bit of money back then,” Bellerjeau said. “I think he might have been sold to someone who could teach him a trade, so when he came of age he could prove that he had a profession.”

So, although Townsend sold Harry and other slaves, documents indicate that he tried to help them become free. “And I think this method he used to try to help several family slaves gain their freedom may have been unique to him,” Bellerjeau said. “I have never seen any others quite like them, with such high amounts of money at stake.”

Slavery in New York

Slavery in New York dates back to 1626. By the mid 1770s, 15 percent of those living in New York were African-American slaves.

“Owning slaves at the Townsend household was not unusual,” Bellerjeau said. “The number of slaves they owned was a sign of their wealth. New York was the biggest slave state north of Maryland during the colonial period.”

Townsend grew up with slaves, but he didn’t own them when, as an adult, he joined the New York Manumission Society, which fought for the abolition of slavery and for slaves’ rights, and built a school for their children. The society was formed in 1785, and members included some of New York’s elite, including John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. “Townsend’s name is included in a list of members from 1785 to 1786,” Bellerjeau said.

“Though it is often said that the Townsends were Quakers, this is actually not true,” she said. “Some members of the Townsend family were Baptists, but we have no indication that Robert had any religious affiliation. But we do know, perhaps because of his anti-slavery beliefs, that in 1783 he chose to have an Irish woman as a housekeeper in his New York City home, instead of a slave.”

“Not everyone listed in the slave Bible lived here in Oyster Bay,” Bellerjeau said. “Several were originally owned here. Then they went to live with Robert’s older brother, Solomon.”

One such slave was named Susan. Born around 1756 and the mother of two young girls, she was sent to work and live in Solomon’s home, far from her children. Years later, in 1812, Susan was freed by Ann Townsend, Solomon’s widow.

Slave Bible provides missing details

Bellerjeau has worked for 13 years to uncover the details of slavery at Raynham Hall. “This Bible led me to find out other information on these enslaved people,” she said. “For instance, the Bible records that Suzannah died of smallpox in 1779. Later I discovered a record from 1795 that shows Solomon paying to have several slaves inoculated against smallpox.”

As valuable as the Bible has been, however, she is uncertain it was a possession of the Townsends’ slaves. “There is no evidence it was given to them, and we don’t know if they could even read,” she explained.

Raynham Hall came to own the slave Bible in 2004, when it was put up for auction in Manhattan by Howard Townsend, M.D., the great grandson of Samuel Townsend. “A very generous anonymous donor helped purchase it for $10,000,” Bellerjeau said. “Though this may seem like a lot of money for a Bible, the knowledge we’ve gained through our understanding of these forgotten occupants of the Townsends’ home is immeasurable. The many hundreds of African-American slaves who lived in our community deserve to be acknowledged, understood and remembered.”