DIVERSE DOCUMENTS: OUR VARIED HERITAGE by S. Gardner
William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Abolition Ally
William Henry Seward (b. 1801- d. 1872) was born and raised in the Village of Florida, the son of Samuel Sweezey Seward. He became the Governor of New York, and an early advocate of abolition. He worked toward that end in many ways during his lifetime, culminating in his becoming Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State.
- Article on the life of William H. Seward (Wikipedia)
- Autobiography of William H. Seward (scanned book)
There are many works about Seward, but in this guide we are focused on what we can understand about the African Americans whom he knew and who influenced his thought.
An overview of his work for emancipation is found in this document from the American Battlefield Trust (downloadable document link also below):
The Slaves He Knew: Seward's Childhood
Seward in his autobiography describee some of the individual slaves that he knew, or knew of, during his childhood in Florida. He includes some names, and something of their lives, albeit through the lens of a young boy unaware of the true nature of the relationship between the household slaves and his apparently somewhat benign owner, his father Samuel S. Seward.
Extractions from William H. Seward: An Autobiography from 1801 to 1834. NY: Derby and Miller, 1891
Extracted by S. Gardner, 2020
The Slaves He Knew
“There was existing at that time a social anomaly, which I long found a perplexing enigma. Besides my parents, brothers, and sisters, all of whom occupied the parlor and the principal bedrooms, there were in the family two black women, and one black boy, who remained exclusive tenants of the kitchen and the garret over it. The kitchen fireplace stretched nearly across the end of the room. A grown person need hardly stoop to get under the mantel. The supply of wood was profuse, and the jambs at the side of the fireplace were not only the warmest but the coziest place in the whole house. The group that gathered round this fireplace could be enlarged by merely sweeping a new circle. Turkeys, chickens, and sirloin, were roasted; cakes and pies were baked at this noble fire. Moreover, the tenants of the kitchen, though black, had a fund of knowledge about the ways and habits of the devil, of witches, of ghosts, and of men who had been hanged; and, what was more, they were vivacious and loquacious, as well as affectionate, toward me. What wonder that I found their apartment more attractive than the parlor, and their conversation a relief from the severe decorum which prevailed there? I knew they were black, though I did not know why. If my parents never uttered before me a word of disapproval of slavery, it is but just to them to say that they never uttered an expression that could tend to make me think that the negro was inferior to the white person. The few rich families in the neighborhood had as many as or more than we; others had only one. While the two younger of my father’s slaves attended school, and sat at my side if they chose, I noticed that no other black children went there. After a time I found that the large negro family of a neighbor were held in disrepute for laziness, drunkenness, and disorder; and they came under suspicion of having stolen anything that either was lost or was supposed to be. Zeno, a negro boy in the family of another neighbor, was a companion in my play. He told me one day that he had been whipped severely, and the next day he ran away. He was pursued and brought back, and wore an iron yoke around his neck, which exposed him to contempt and ridicule. He found means to break the collar, and fled forever. In the mean time, both of my father’s female servants were seduced and disgraced; and the third, a boy, followed Zeno in his flight. I regarded all this immorality and wickedness just as inexcusable and ungrateful toward their masters as it would have been in me to bring dishonor upon my parents; nor had I any distinct idea of any difference between the relations of children and slaves. A black woman died in the neighborhood at the age, it was said, of one hundred years. She had been imported when young; and she died asserting a full belief that she was then going back to her native Guinea. How could such a superstition be accounted for? How could the ignorance and vice of these black people, living in the midst of a moral and virtuous community, be accounted for? I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong, and the “gradual emancipation laws” of the State, soon after coming into debate, enabled me to solve the mystery, and determined me, at that early age, to be an abolitionist. Shall I not stop now to say that, while the family of which I was a member has increased, until it numbers more than eighty persons, all of whom hold respectable positions in society, and some one or more of whom are to be found in every quarter of the globe--- the descendants of that slave family in my father’s kitchen now number but seven, and these have their only shelter under a roof which I provide for them?”
Seward alluded to the fact that as of the writing of his memoir, (about 1834) he was providing the descendants of the family slaves a home-- presumably as servants or pensioners. In the 1830 U. S. Census, he listed only one "free colored person", a male between the ages of 10 and 24, in the household, so apparently he was providing a separate home for the others..
The only name we can glean from this brief passage is that of the runaway boy, Zeno; but from other documents we can surmise that the older woman was "Dine", and the younger, Chloe Coe.
Seward Family Slaves: Free But Imperiled
Samuel Swezey Seward's family, according to his son, included three slaves when William Henry was young, two women and a boy. Who were they? If we look for evidence in the Slave Births and Manumissions book of the Town of Warwick, we find these names listed, it appears that the two women present when he was young were Dine and Cloe, who both appear to have used the last name "Seward" when he was young. Dine was manumitted in 1820. There were two boys born that were recorded in the Seward household during this time period 1811-1813, Charles Seward and Neal Galigan.
Chloe Coe and her family members are mentioned in several Seward family letters, as scanned and annotated by the Seward Family Papers project.
Frances Miller Seward wrote from Auburn on Dec. 8, 1834 about several (now free) black members of the household, now living independently or as servants, about providing for them and their future, which proves to be fraught with peril in early post-slavery New York State.
"As I have made this so much a letter of business I will go on still further in the same strain. I have been thinking that perhaps it will be best if you go to Orange County for you to take that daughter of Chloe's whom she has always been so desirous that we should have. She is three or four years older than Maria and I suppose would be able to do more work. Maria is not deficient in capacity but requires constant superintendence. My superintendence for she will mind no one else. I do not see how I am to get along with only the same assistance we have now after Clary goesaway. Clary says she will take Maria, this I presume will satisfy Peter, and Grandma is so prejudiced against the child that she is determined to see nothing but evil in her disposition she makes m[ e ] very uncomfortable with constant complaints. It may not remedy the matter to m[ ake ] this exchange but she has a peculiar dislike for every thing belonging to Peter Miller. On his account
I should be unwilling to have Maria go to live with anyone but a member of our family. I presume Chloe has not engaged her girl to any one as Harriet Brown said she was desirous that she should take her.After all you must do as you think best about it perhaps you will think of some better arrangement."
"...I wrote yesterday to George* to see Chloe and make the arrangement for you to take one of Chloe’s girls in the Spring. I am sure that Maria will serve you more usefully this winter than Chloes child can, and as her stay will be limited to the Spring I hope and believe
we can induce for that period a kindlier feeling towards her in the quarter where she is now so unpopular. Dearest it is in my character to be desiring to discharge as fully, as possible the duties of the prominent relation which I happen to hold..."
Biographical information about Chloe Coe from the Seward Project site:
'Chloe was a manumitted slave from SSS's household.
"your letter came just after I had left Orange County when I might have made the arrangement you desire concerning Chloes little girl. I can yet do it perhaps if you still remain of opinion that it is best, but it will be at great inconvenience. The river is closed now as far as Catskill and the steamboat ascends no farther than Redhook. It will not be possible for me to leave ^Albany^ before sometime in January and then the river will be closed as low as New Burgh so that she will have to go up by land in the stage from Goshen. I cannot very conveniently go from Albany to Goshen to take her and the prejudice against colored people is so great that we can hardly hope to find any person willing to take charge of her as a passenger. Under these circumstances I do not readily see how we will be able to get her to Auburn before the spring opens when an arrangement can more easily be made to have her safely brought and delivered to us.”
'We believe that FMS wanted Chloe's daughter, Mary Coe, to come and live with them.'
'According to Town of Warwick Slave Birth and Manumission records, Mary Coe was born in 1819 and would have been 15 at this point.'
'Chloe married William Coe, and together they also had a son, William Jr (11 24 1827-1841) a son named John (???) Elizabeth (1833-?) Sara Coe (1836-?) and Susan Coe (1841-?) Anther girl, Fanny, born in 1851, is sometimes listed as a daughter, sometimes as a granddaughter. She is living with Chloe and William in 1855, (which is also the year Mary died, bringing up the possibility she was Mary's daughter and came to live with them after Mary died, though that is not yet substantiated.)'
(p. 289) "Chloe Coe...was born a slave to Judge Seward, and was one of those who subsequently became free under the State the state law of emancipation. A playmate with her master's children, she always had a special regard for "Master Harry." She is still living in the cottage which he provided for her."
The first edition of the autobiography was published in 1877, so we assume that Frederick was writing the book in 1876, when Chloe was still living.
According to an entry on Findagrave.com by D. DeWitt, Chloe's life dates are: b. Nov. 9, 1799 d. April 20, 1877; place of burial is assumed to be Florida, NY. Her death notice in the Goshen Independent Republican of April 25, 1877 read:
"On April 20, At Florida, Chloe, wife of William Coe, colored, aged 77 years, 5 months, and 16 days. Chloe was born a slave in the family of the late Samuel S. Seward, and manumated under the law of the State in 1824, and was a playmate of his eldest children and the nurse of the younger." (Source: Genealogical History of Black Families of Orange County NY, Volume 3, by Robert W. Brennan, p. 17)
The continuing story of the freed Black Americans in the Seward household would be an interesting study, but we are unaware of compiled research work on this topic.
Genealogical Research on the S. S. Seward household members
In recent years, several researchers have been working on tracing the lines of the slaves and free persons of color who were part of the Seward family's households. Ongoing availability of the scans of the Seward family correspondence archives at the University of Rochester is helping, as are tools like DNA tracing. Items such as the following record from the Presbyerian Church in Florida are providing clues for this ongoing search.
Shown are Chloe and Elizabeth Coe, who were still living when this register was compiled, beginning January 1, 1863:
- Chloe Coe w(ife) of W. C. (William Coe). Col(ored). Admitted May 1832, by profession (of faith).
- Elizabeth Coe (unmarried), Admitted August 7, 1841 by certificate.
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