4. Watts, Crugers, and Others

Another major slave owner and slave trader with a close connection to King’s was John Watts, a donor, governor of the college from 1754 to 1776, the father of two King’s students and the grandfather of a third. One of the wealthiest men in the city, Watts imported wine and rum from the West Indies and invested in ships engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. He was the owner, among other vessels, of the Hawk, which sailed from New York to Africa in 1750 and returned with 126 slaves (of an initial cargo of 149). Watts served as the principal agent in New York for a number of West Indian merchants, including Gedney Clarke, a major slave trader operating from Barbados. Watts corresponded with Clarke about the kind of slaves he wished to obtain for sale in New York and other colonies. “For this market,” he wrote Clarke in 1762, “they must be young the younger the better if not quite children… Males are best.” To avoid a glut of slaves and falling prices, he continued, “a great many” would be reshipped to Virginia. To circumvent New York’s tax of four pounds for each imported slave, Watts informed Gedney, they could be smuggled in through New Jersey. Watts also bought and sold slaves for prominent acquaintances. In 1763 he lamented to Major-General James Murray, the new British governor of Quebec, that he was unable to obtain “farming men and women” for him, since it was the custom in New York to allow slaves “of any worth or character” to veto a new owner. Slaves, he added, “look upon [Quebec] as an exile from whence they are never to return.”[i]

John Cruger

Among Watts’s business partners in slave trading were Henry and John Cruger, owners of one of the major mercantile firms in the Atlantic world. Their account book at the New-York Historical Society records voyages to and from such far-flung places as Jamaica, Madeira, Curacao, Virginia, Amsterdam, Antigua, Bristol, London, and New York. They dealt in flour, sugar, wine, rum, timber, and slaves. The Cruger family is perhaps best known today as patrons of the young Alexander Hamilton. But they were extremely prominent in their own right. John Cruger served as mayor of New York City from 1756 to 1765, and he and Henry were founding governors of the college and fathers of King’s students. Telman Cruger, Henry’s son, attended King’s but did not graduate; he subsequently departed for the West Indies to oversee the family’s operations there and married a local heiress. John Harris Cruger, who managed the family business in Jamaica, became a governor of King’s in 1771. Henry Cruger, Jr., who attended King’s in 1758 but did not graduate and later donated money to the college, moved to Bristol, a major slave-trading port, to manage the family fortunes there. He was so successful that he was elected as mayor and to Parliament. Meanwhile he invested in ships that carried slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and New York. One, the Nancy, landed 208 slaves in New York in 1770 (of an initial cargo of 250). Another Henry Cruger, who graduated from Columbia in 1796, owned one slave in 1820 – a year when the Census reported only 518 slaves in New York City.[ii]

William Alexander

Evidence from the records of slaving voyages, runaway ads, wills, and other documents reveals that numerous other King’s officials and donors owned slaves and participated in slave trading. William Alexander, the self-styled Lord Sterling, a wealthy merchant and landowner who married the daughter of Philip Livingston, was a donor, fundraiser, and governor of King’s. For a time, Alexander was “deeply involved” in the slave trade. He invested in two African slave trading voyages in 1748 and then purchased two slave ships of his own, which brought 100 more slaves to the city. But he soon abandoned the slave trade to concentrate on other enterprises. Edward Antill, a donor and governor of King’s and the father of a graduate, inherited slaves from his merchant father. In 1757 he placed an ad in the New York Gazette for the sale of various kind of property, including “Negro men, women, and children, well acquainted with all kinds of husbandry.” In 1757 he donated 800 pounds and a mortgage worth 1,000 to the college to enable talented “children of the poor” to attend King’s, since “the children of the rich were not always of great abilities.” The governors took the money but did not implement Antill’s plan.[iii]

Antill Advertisement

Other King’s figures involved in slave trading and significant slave ownership included Nathaniel Marston, a governor, donor, and father of two students; William Walton, a governor and donor who invested in some 20 slaving voyages between 1716 and 1740; and Adoniah Schuyler, a donor and member of a major landowning merchant family. When Philip Verplanck, a founding King’s governor and the owner of a Hudson River estate, died in 1771, an inventory of his property listed, along with furniture, books, silverware, and livestock, eight slaves. The Codwise family, four members of which attended Columbia, had a connection with slavery in the Danish West Indies and New York City lasting well into the nineteenth century as merchants, planters, overseers, and ship captains.[iv]

Verplanck Inventory

Numerous runaway ads in New York newspapers (at least forty-four ads submitted by twenty-nine individuals between the classes of 1760 and 1805) also testify to slaveownership by people connected with King’s. Lewis, who had recently been brought from Jamaica, ran away in 1753 from Henry Cuyler, a governor of and borrower from King’s and the owner of a large New York sugar refinery. Lewis, the ad stated, “is supposed to be harboured by West-India Negroes of his acquaintance.” Isaac Wilkins, the son of a Jamaica planter and a 1760 King’s graduate, advertised in 1765 for the runaway Mingo. Like other slaves, some owned by King’s figures took advantage of the War of Independence to seize their freedom. Oliver DeLancey, an original King’s College governor and business partner of the slave trader John Watts, who owned twenty-three slaves at his farm in Bloomingdale village (near Columbia’s current location) in 1775, advertised for a runaway slave two years later, when New York City was occupied by the British. When British forces evacuated the city in 1783, some 3,000 slaves who had escaped to British lines accompanied them. They included another slave owned by DeLancey and two by King’s graduate and donor Henry Holland.[v]

Delancey Runaway Ad
Frederick Philipse III

Five of the slaves who left with the British had escaped from Philipse manor, a giant estate owned by Frederick Philipse III, a donor and founding King’s governor and the father of a graduate. He was the grandson of a major slave trader and the third and last lord of the manor, which occupied a quarter of present-day Westchester County and was worked at its peak by 30 slaves and 26 white indentured servants. Philipse sided with the British during the War of Independence; as a result his manor and other property were confiscated and sold, including his slaves. He appears to have taken some slaves with him when he fled the country; others, elderly or infirm, were left behind and became public charges. As late as 1816, New York State was reimbursing the overseers of the poor of Yonkers for maintaining Philipse’s former slave Betty at a cost of $1.75 per week.[vi]

[i]. S. D. Smith, Slavery, Family, and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic: The World of the Lascelles, 1648-1834 (New York, 2006), 91, 108; Letter Book of John Watts: Merchant and Councillor of New York (New York, 1928), 31-32, 45, 97, 126, 134, 154, 236; Liao, “Merchants’ College, 11-13.

[ii]. Waste Book of Henry and John Cruger, New-York Historical Society; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 46; Harrington, New York Merchant, 13, 197.

[iii]. Alan Valentine, Lord Sterling (New York, 1969), 38-39, 44-48; Paul D. Nelson, William Alexander, Lord Sterling (University, Ala., 1987), 9, 52; Humphrey, King’s College, 87; Zimmet, “Murray, Antill,” 13-20.

[iv]. Lydon, “Slave Trade,” 388-90; Subscription List; Inventory of Estate, Philip Verplanck, December 11, 1771, New-York Historical Society; Daniel Echikson, “A Columbia Family: Merchants, Slavers, Americans,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2016.

[v]. Jordan Brewington, “‘Ran-away from the Subscriber’: Resistance Against King’s College and Columbia Slave-owning Students and Affiliates from the Class of 1760 to 1805,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2016, 3-4; Graham R. Hodges and Alan E. Brown, ed., “Pretends to be Free”: Runaway Slave Advertisements from Colonial and Revolutionary New York and New Jersey (New York, 1994), 47-48, 132-33, 203; Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 171; Graham Hodges, ed., The Black Loyalist Directory (New York, 1996), 98, 171, 187.

[vi]. Edward H. Hall, Philipse Manor Hall at Yonkers, N. Y. (New York, 1912), 40, 187-88, 227; Lydon, “Slave Trade,” 376; McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, 46.