Merchant Families

Wealthy merchant families dominated the economy, society, and politics of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New York City. These families also played a central role in the founding, development, and governance of King’s and Columbia College; as the historian Craig S. Wilder has pointed out, King’s College was a “merchant’s college.” Many merchant families associated with Columbia derived their wealth from trading in slaves and goods produced by slaves. In turn, the wealth of these families financed the College. Some members of these prominent merchant families later supported the abolition of the slave trade and gradual emancipation of slaves in New York and elsewhere, but their prominent position in society was made possible by their participation in economic activities based on slavery.

Beekman Family

Nine members of the Beekman Family attended King’s and Columbia College between 1766 and 1889. The Beekmans numbered among the most prominent members of New York’s elite merchant class. They derived their wealth from a variety of commercial endeavors, including the transatlantic slave trade, and many members of the Beekman family owned slaves.

On the same page of the New-York Post-Boy or Weekly Gazette that contained an account of the swearing-in ceremony for the first King’s College governors in March of 1755, an advertisement appeared for the sale of three slave children at a shop opposite Beekman’s Slip. This newspaper page reveals the intertwined history of the founding of King’s College and slavery in New York City.

Detail of NY Gazette 1755

Henry Beekman, a slave owner, was among the founding King’s College governors who took the oath in 1755. Gerard Beekman, who graduated in 1766, owned nine slaves in 1790. A Gerard G. Beekman is recorded as engaging in the slave trade throughout the mid-eighteenth century. Gerard G. Beekman also repossessed two slave children in 1782 to prevent their fleeing the country with the British during the war.

Livingston Family

Catharina Van Brugh Livingston

The Livingston Family acquired their wealth in the seventeenth century, when they received a grant of 160,000 acres of land near the village of Hudson, New York. The family patriarch, Robert Livingston, engaged in several modes of commerce, including many transatlantic trading voyages involving sugar, tobacco, and slaves. After his death in 1728, his six children continued to expand the family’s involvement in the slave trade. His son, Philip Livingston, was one of New York’s most active slave traders, investing in at least fifteen slaving voyages. As of the first U.S. census, taken in 1790, the Livingston family owned a total of 170 slaves.

John Livingston Advertisement, 1749
Robert Livingston - Gilbert Stuart

A total of thirty-eight Livingstons attended King’s or Columbia between the founding of the college and the Civil War. Other Livingstons served as governors and trustees. John Livingston, a King’s governor from 1754 to 1770, imported slaves and slave-produced goods from the West Indies into New York and other colonies, and he placed numerous advertisements in newspapers for their sale. John Henry Livingston and Walter Livingston, Columbia trustees, both owned Jamaican plantations with numerous slaves in addition to slaves in New York.

Robert R. Livingston, who graduated from King’s College in 1765, held more enlightened views towards free black people than many of his peers. He helped to veto a bill in 1785 that called for gradual abolition in New York State, objecting on the grounds that it denied free black people the right to vote or hold office, and therefore violated the constitutional principle of equal liberty. In spite of these ideals, however, Robert R. Livingston was a slave owner until his death in 1813. 

Watts Family

John Watts, Jr.

John Watts was one of the initial donors to King’s College, among the sixty-six “subscribers” who contributed a total of over £5000. Watts was a wealthy New York merchant who imported wine and rum from the West Indies and also made significant investments in slave trading voyages. Watts also served as a New York agent for prominent West Indian merchants, including Gedney Clarke, a major slave trader in Barbados. Watts’s letters to Clarke demonstrate his calculated knowledge of how to maximize the profits from the sale of slaves in the New York market.

John Watts had business connections with other prominent merchant families, including the Crugers and was brother-in-law to Oliver DeLancey. These families were all deeply involved in slave owning and trading. Watts was a Loyalist and fled to England during the Revolution.

Two of John Watts’s sons and several later descendants attended King’s and Columbia. His son, John Jr., who graduated from King’s in 1766, served as the last Recorder for the city of New York under British rule, prior to the outbreak of the Revolution. Later, John Watts, Jr. was elected to the New York State Assembly and the United States Congress. He also served as a trustee of Columbia College.

Cruger Family

John Cruger

John and Henry Cruger were founding governors of King’s College, and John Cruger was among its initial donors. The Crugers were prominent in New York society as leading merchants and also because both John Cruger and his father served as mayors of New York City.

Nicholas Cruger

Henry and John Cruger partnered with John Watts in slave trading ventures. They owned a major mercantile firm that traded goods including flour, sugar, wine, rum, timber, and slaves in ports spanning the Atlantic. Several of John and Henry Cruger’s sons attended King’s College. Henry Cruger, Jr. attended King’s in 1758, but he did not graduate. Instead he moved to Bristol, England, which was a major slave-trading port, and managed his family’s business there. He became very successful, investing heavily in slave voyages traveling from Africa to the Caribbean and New York.

The Cruger family is perhaps best known for its patronage of the young Alexander Hamilton. Nicholas Cruger, a son of Henry Cruger, employed Hamilton as a clerk in his St. Croix shipping house. Hamilton’s connection to the family enabled him to sail to New York and matriculate at King’s.

William Alexander

William Alexander

William Alexander was a wealthy merchant and landowner who served as a major donor fundraiser for the founding of King’s College. He later called himself the “Lord Stirling” and acted as one of the College governors until 1776. His father, James Alexander, bequeathed one hundred dollars in his 1745 will to establish a college in New York.

Sarah Livingston Alexander

Prior to his involvement with the founding and development of King’s, William Alexander invested heavily in the slave trade. He invested in at least two voyages in 1748, and he proceeded to buy two of his own slave ships, which brought 100 slaves to New York City.

William Alexander married the daughter of Philip Livingston, another active slave trader involved with the founding of King’s College. Alexander went on to serve as a Brigadier General under George Washington in the American Revolution.

Verplanck Family

Samuel Verplanck - Copley

The Verplancks were a wealthy New York mercantile family who owned numerous slaves and had connections to the Atlantic slave trade. Many Verplancks attended or were involved with King’s and Columbia. Philip Verplanck was a founding King’s College governor and a wealthy estate-holder on the Hudson River, where he employed enslaved and indentured laborers in his household. When he died in 1771, an inventory of his property listed eight slaves alongside his other belongings. His son Philip owned twelve slaves there in 1790.

Philip’s relatives Gulian and Samuel Verplanck both graduated from King’s College, and Samuel served as governor from 1770 to 1776. They both traveled to Europe to further their mercantile education and went on to hold several public positions in New York and Dutchess County. Slaveholding was a regular feature of their lives. According to federal census records, Gulian owned five slaves in 1790.

Samuel’s son Daniel Verplanck graduated from Columbia College in 1788. Both he and his father made their home at their family estate, Mt. Gulian, in Dutchess County. Daniel purchased the freedom of James F. Brown, an escaped slave, who became the master gardener at Mt. Gulian. Daniel’s son Gulian Crommelin Verplanck also graduated from Columbia and later served as a trustee.

DeLancey Family

The DeLanceys were a powerful mercantile and political family in colonial New York, and members of the family were deeply involved in the founding of King’s College.

Oliver DeLancey was a business partner of his brother-in-law and fellow slave trader John Watts, and he was also among the founding governors of King’s College. Delancey, a Loyalist, owned twenty-three slaves at his farm in upper Manhattan in 1775. After rebels burned his house during the Revolution, he allowed all but three slaves to leave. When British forces evacuated the city at the end of the war in 1783, approximately 3000 slaves who had escaped to British lines accompanied them, including at least one slave owned by DeLancey.

John Delancey Runaway Ad

James Delancey, Jr., a slaveholding lawyer, was also a founding King’s College governor and donor. He was among the college governors who had used the King’s endowment as a personal line of credit to subsidize their mercantile and business interests. These governors were exposed by Augustus Van Horne, who took office as treasurer of King’s College in 1779.

Two other Delanceys, John and Peter, attended Kings College from 1757 to 1761, but they did not graduate. Like their relatives, they were also slave owners. John posted a runaway ad 1775, and his slaves also left with the British at the end of the Revolution.

Philipse Family

Frederick Philipse III

From humble beginnings as a carpenter for the Dutch West India Company, Frederick Philipse I rose to mercantile prominence after marrying a wealthy widow. The family estate, Philipse manor, occupied about one quarter of the land in present-day Westchester County. At its peak, thirty slaves and twenty-six white indentured servants worked at the manor. Frederick Philipse I built the family’s fortune on slave trading. In instructions for a 1698 voyage to Madagascar, Philipse told the ship captain to purchase “two hundred good slaves or as many as the ship can carry” and bring them back to New York City for sale.

Frederick Philipse II, Frederick I’s grandson, rose to prominence as a Justice of the New York Supreme Court. Philipse tried dozens of enslaved New Yorkers in the aftermath of a supposed slave plot in 1741, including Cuffee, a slave owned by his uncle who was accused of setting fire to a family storehouse.

Frederick Philipse III, Frederick II’s son, was a founding King’s College governor donor, as well as the father of another Frederick Philipse, who was a King’s graduate in 1773. Frederick III was the third and last lord of Philipsburg Manor. He sided with the British during the Revolution, and his manor and property, including some slaves, were confiscated and sold in the war’s aftermath. Philipse may have taken some slaves with him when he fled the country with the British, while elderly and infirm were left behind and became public charges. One slave, Betty, was still living at Philipse manor in 1816. New York State reimbursed the overseers of the poor of Yonkers for maintaining Betty at the rate of $1.75 per week.

Havemeyer Family

William F. Havemeyer

The Havemeyer Family made its fortune in the sugar refining business. William Havemeyer arrived in New York City from Germany at the turn of the nineteenth century, followed by his brother Frederick Christian Havemeyer. They came from a family of bakers, and they started a business processing sugar. At this time, in the early nineteenth century, the vast majority of sugar came from islands in the Caribbean, produced by slave labor. After emancipation occurred in the United States in 1865, imports of foreign sugar increased. Much of the Havemeyers’ sugar came from Cuba, where slavery was not abolished until 1886.

William Havemeyer’s son, William F. Havemeyer, was an 1823 graduate of Columbia College. He and his cousin, Frederick Christian Havemeyer, Jr., another Columbia graduate, expanded their fathers’ sugar refining business, establishing a factory on the Brooklyn waterfront. William F. Havemeyer chose to leave the family business, however, and he was elected mayor of New York City twice in the 1840s as a Democrat. As a member of the “Barnburner” wing of the party, Havemeyer opposed the expansion of slavery. He supported Martin Van Buren for president in 1848 as the candidate of the newly formed Free Soil Party.

Columbia’s Havemeyer Hall, the chemistry building, was funded by Frederick Christian Havemeyer, Jr.’s sons, Henry Osborne and Theodore Havemeyer, in honor of their father. Henry Osborne and Theodore renamed the sugar refinery Domino Sugar and attempted to achieve a monopoly of the sugar market in the early twentieth century.

Columbia College, Catalogue of the Governors, Trustees, and Officers, and of the Alumni and Other Graduates, Columbia College (originally King’s College) in the City of New York, from 1754 to 1882, (New York: Printed for the College, 1882).

Leonhard Felix Fuld, Kings College Alumni, (1913).

Edward H. Hall, Philipse Manor Hall at Yonkers, N. Y. (New York, 1912).

David C. Humphrey, From King’s College to Columbia, 1746-1800, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976)

Letter Book of John Watts: Merchant and Councillor of New York, (New York, 1928).

Robert A. McCaughey, Stand Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

James McIntire, “William Alexander, Lord Stirling,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon,

Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy : Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).