Friday, October 7, 2016
Edwin Watkins of Manchester, NY Part One
My last post included a reference to Edwin Watkins, a man supposedly born into slavery who lived in Manchester, NY in the years after the Civil War. I became curious about Edwin, I knew of no other former slaves living in Manchester. What had brought him here and was he happy and well treated in Manchester? Had he really been a slave and what became of him?
While I haven't been able to answer all those questions, I have learned quite a bit about Edwin and his family. In a weekly column by Carlos Osgood called "The Homestead" that appeared in the local paper there was more information about Edwin. Mr. Osgood speaks of roaming the Manchester woods as a young boy and visiting Edwin, by then quite elderly, calling him a great orator, and goes on to state, "Edwin lived with the Deacon [James Harlan] away back in 1825". Looking at the 1850 census, the first one in which I could find Edwin, he says he was born in 1812. That means he would have been a child of about 13 in 1825. The census also says he was born in New York State. Slavery ended fairly early in New York, but I wasn't sure of the date so I checked the net and found this:
In 1799, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation act that freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but indentured them until they were young adults. In 1817 a new law passed that would free slaves born before 1799 but not until 1827. By the 1830 census there were only 75 slaves in New York.
So Edwin could have been born into slavery and later freed. Deacon Harlan was a well known abolitionist, so it's not surprising he would take Edwin in. In fact, Edwin became one of the family, Mr. Osgood went on, "When the Deacon had company Edwin was invited into the parlor to meet the guests, and when they went to church, which was every Sunday, Edwin sat on the front seat of the big family carriage, and sat with the Deacon and his daughters in the family pew." In other words, the Deacon practiced what he preached.
The 1850 census revealed Edwin, (recorded as Edward), was married and had a family of his own by that time, and Mr. Osgood was enlightening on that topic as well, noting-- "Edwin began smiling on a girl who lived with the Yeomans family at Walworth. In fact she had grown up there. She had been carefully trained in housekeeping and needlework and they thought a great deal of her. Whether she was born a slave is more than I know." He then repeats the story of Edwin's courtship as he heard it from Edwin himself, "One evening Edwin and his girl were sitting in the kitchen when Mr. Yeomans passed through saying 'Isabel, what have you got that damned man hanging around here for?' Then Edwin rose to the occasion saying he could not see why he should be treated in this manner for he owned one of the best farms in Manchester with a big brick house and a good log tenant house. He said he owned six good horses and a lot of cattle. Adding that he was a prominent member of the Baptist church and for several years had sung in the choir."
The Yeomans eventually relented, even sending Isabel off with a generous dowry. So she and Edwin were married that Christmas; moving into the log house since Edwin told his new bride the brick house was currently rented and he couldn't take possession until spring. This went on quite well, until the day Isabel walked over to the brick house and asked the Deacon's daughters when they were going to move out. Edwin must have had some explaining to do at that point!
Next blog--Edwin and Isabell's family...