John Wigram was a master. Wigram, who served several terms as Woodstock’s supervisor in the early 1800s, was a rent collector for Robert Livingston and was responsible for Woodstock’s first post office. He farmed his extensive holdings along what is now Rock City Road with three slaves by his side.
Andrew Riselar was a master and on January 16, 1800 a child named Pine was born to one of his slaves. As required by a 1799 state law Riselar registered the child’s birth with the Town of Woodstock
Wilhemus Rowe, one-time Woodstock judge, supervisor and landowner in Zena was also a master. Among the “possessions” listed in his will at the time of his death in 1803 were two slaves — Pompey, valued at 80 pounds and Elizabeth, “a Negro wench,” valued at 40 pounds.
If you had wandered into an American History class back in the 1960s or 70s, chances are your professor would have assigned you to read a book by Kenneth Stampp titled The Peculiar Institution. Assuming for the moment that you actually read it (we understand how things were back then), you would have discovered, for its time, one of the more honest studies revealing southern slavery for what it actually was. Gone were depictions of benevolent masters and the “idyllic” life of the plantation. Here, in Stampp’s words, was slavery with reality attached, from auction blocks to the work in the fields, from flogging and punishment to the separation of mother and child. With the self-assured knowledge that we in the north were the “good guys,” even a casual read of Stampp’s grim descriptions bolstered our sense of righteousness and pride in the fact that Lincoln and the Union army had brought that whole sorry business to an end. There was just one problem — no one ever mentioned the slaves that were held in the north. Hidden behind our outrage over the inhumanity of the south — and hidden from our early histories as well — was the north’s little secret. A secret even a small town like Woodstock willingly kept.
In 1790, three years after Woodstock became a town, New York State counted 21,324 slaves among its total population of 340,120. In that same year, 10 percent (2,906) of Ulster County’s population could be found in the census column marked “slaves.” Within that same census, the first in the new nation’s history, the slave column for Woodstock tallied 15 slaves within our township. In 1800, that number rose to 26. In 1810, it was 19.
While the concept of slaves once tilling soil on a farm just a stone’s throw from Woodstock’s Village Green may be difficult to grasp in a town whose very name is associated with the expression of individual freedom, the fact remains that well-off Woodstockers of the late 18th and early 19th century were not unlike their counterparts in the rest of the Hudson Valley. And, while it might be possible to alleviate a certain amount of collective guilt with evidence that slave life in the shadow of Overlook was not the institutionalized monster it was in the Deep South, the very real fact remains that Pompey, Elizabeth, Pine and the others were slaves. Slaves owned by Woodstockers. They were possessions that represented value. A value, as one Ulster County slave master put it, that was equal to “the price of a first-class horse.”