DEAN MILLER AND SLAVERY IN HERKIMER COUNTY
Recently I came across an old newspaper article that featured the photo of a strikingly handsome, older black woman, by the name of Dean Miller. The article stated that the photo was given to the Herkimer Home State Historic Site, and that Mr. William H. Watkins, Historic Site Manager at the Herkimer Home, had researched and written an article about her in the Legacy, Volume V, Issue #3, published by the Herkimer County Historical Society in 1990.
The complete article in the Legacy by Mr. Watkins, "Slavery in Herkimer County," includes not only information on the life of Dean Miller, but also slavery in Herkimer County before 1827, when it was abolished in New York State. Mr. Watkins, and the Herkimer County Historical Society, has graciously given permission to reprint the information on Dean Miller, extracted from the complete article.
*Note: I have since purchased several issues of Legacy and found them to be interesting and informative, as well as containing fascinating stories on people and places in Herkimer County. Well worth their nominal cost.
Town of Frankfort Coordinator
Photograph of Dean Miller courtesy of Herkimer Home State Historic Site
A few years ago a faded, old fashioned carte de visite photograph of a handsome black woman was given to Herkimer Home State Historic Site. An accompanying news clipping, an obituary from the pages of the Little Falls Journal & Courier of 23 October 1876, identified the subject of the photo and, in describing her life, opened a new window on the history of black slavery in the colonial Mohawk Valley.
"In this village, on the 18th inst., Mrs. Dean Miller, aged 76."
"The subject of this notice so familiarly known in this place was born of slave parents at the home of General Nicholas Herkimer, in the Town of Danube. At the time of the General's death the slaves on the farm, then numbering 33, were left with the farm to his brother George. The General's widow soon left the farm taking with her Mrs. Miller's mother, then a child of eight years. The child's grief at being separated from her parents was so great that George Herkimer procured her return to the farm, where she grew up and married. Dean was but a child when the laws of the state set all slaves at Liberty but she remained in George Herkimer's family until after marriage. She had but one child who died when about a year old. Soon after the death of her child she came to this village with her husband, where he subsequently died.
"Mrs. Miller gained the respect and admiration of all with whom she ever came in contact. Naturally of a retiring disposition, she never thrust her presence where she was not welcome. It is needless to remind anyone who has known her in all the years she has resided in Little Falls that her virtues were many, her life blameless, her disposition most amiable and her friends all who came to know her. Her Christian character is best expressed in a letter from one who knew her from childhood. "She was a devoted Christian, and her good works will follow. While her spirit has gone to dwell with her savior, free from toil and pain, washed white in the precious blood that
cleanses all purities."
"Her funeral was attended from her late residence on Sunday afternoon."
That slavery was common in colonial New York and the Mohawk Valley was well known, of course, to those of us who administer General Herkimer's home as a museum house and who interpret its story to the public.
One of the most interesting documents displayed there is the bill of sale for "a negro boy named Sambo," whom the future Revolutionary War hero purchased in
New York City in 1752. And, in his will, General Herkimer left "- to Maria (his wife) the use of one of my wenches -" and, also to her, "...My young negro wench Mya 1 1/2 years old." (Was she Mrs. Miller's mother?) Also mentioned are "Dick, Sam (Sambo) and Mary to be well used in the ages or to be taken away from my said brother George".
In 1778, General Herkimer's widow, about to remarry, quitclaimed much of her interest in General Herkimer's estate, excepting, she said "One young wench named Bett to remain to me." Was she Mrs. Miller's mother?
George Herkimer, General Herkimer's brother & principal heir, left an estate that in 1790, included:
In the 1790 census, Alida Schuyler Herkimer, George's widow, is listed as the owner of nine slaves (those listed above), making her the single largest slaveholder in Montgomery County. In her will, dated 1826, she provided for the support of her..." old black man Brom." Brom (or Bram as he is called in the inventory), however, died the following year before Alida, who died in 1829. Brom's remarkable obituary appeared in the Little Falls Peoples Friend, on March 7, 1827:
"Died, Abraham Cerda-Curro-Sofi, on the 28th of February, age 63, known as "Old Brom" was born at Ft. Herkimer and remembered many incidents of the Revolution. His mother was a slave, property of Joseph (Johan Jost) Herkimer, father of the General. Brom could trace his own parentage to the royal line, claiming for his grandsire the King of Angola, an African province."
Another obituary, from the Mohawk Courier of Dec 23, 1843, is also of
"Also on the 19th inst. Mrs. Mary Jackson, a pious and respected colored woman, born in the mansion of General Nicholas Herkimer (then Tyron County, now Danube), and always resident till lately with his descendants, near 70 years of age. " [Is she "the negro wench Marry" listed in 1790? Is Mary the Mya mentioned in General Herkimer's will? Could she be Dean Miller's mother?]
For Dean Miller's later life, we turn again to the newspapers and an undated clipping, probably from the 1890's [with an article] written by the wife of the editor of The Fort Plain Register, Mrs. Horace Green, a descendant of George Herkimer. Her subject matter was the discovery, in an attic, of a handwritten "Record of Slave Births in the Town of Minden, Montgomery County" (from which Danube, Herkimer County was set off in 1817). It contained the following entries.
"Born to my wench "Mary," a negro boy named Tom, on the 29th day of November
1799. Alida Herkimer Registered this 13th day of December 1799 Coonrad
Waldron, T. Clerk
"Born to my wench (not named!) on this 18th day of April 1802, a female named
Dean. Alida Herkimer Registered this 8th day of November 1802 Chrsm. Monk. T.
Mrs. Green wrote: "The child Dean, born a slave, was a familiar figure in later years upon the streets of Little Falls, where she lived. In appearance she was tall and spare, in manner gentle and ladylike as to the manor born. After her freedom and in her maturer years, she was for a long time employed in the Lansing family of Little Falls and at the death of her employer she was given the use of a cottage on his grounds during her life. This humble home was surrounded by the residences of the very four hundred of that infantile city, but within their doors she was always a welcome visitor.
"She had a store of reminiscences of her childhood days and surroundings which, told in her quaint way, were a fascination to listen to. When she died in 1876, three descendants of the Alida Herkimer who owned her in childhood erected a monument to her memory. Dean did not know her exact age and upon the stone it was recorded as 75 years... Had the existence of this old record been known, Dean and her friends might have known her birthday, and I am sure it would have often been remembered by them."
Indeed, in a section of the Little Falls Cemetery, identified in the records only, is her tombstone "... erected, it says, by Mrs. Johnson, Gilbert and Green, members of the Herkimer family, to mark the resting place of their friend and to commemorate her lovely Christian character."