Camden High School, DEC dig freed slave settlement in Florence

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CAMDEN — Camden High School teachers and students have teamed with workers at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to uncover part of Oneida County’s contributions to racial equality and justice.

Florence Settlement was part of 17,000 acres deeded to Irish and black settlers by Gerritt Smith, a wealthy Madison County businessman who supported abolition, the abolishment of slavery. It was located in Florence Hill State Forest in Florence Township, next to the Town of Camden in northwestern Oneida County.

In 2013 Advanced Placement History teacher Jessica Harney and Library Media Specialist Jeannine Bloomquist, of Camden, began researching land deeds, maps and newspaper clippings from the early 1800s that gave a reasonable estimate of the settlement’s location. They soon teamed with DEC workers including Historic Preservation Officer Charles E. Vandrei and Environmental Analyst Kristy E. Primeau.

They gathered a number of Camden students and began excavating. They found a number of homes and were able to find a rough outline of the settlement.

“It is unusual for the matches between documents and maps and what is actually found to be so accurate,” Vandrei said.

Paradise Lost, and found

Stephen Myers, a former slave who published a newspaper in Albany and who worked with his wife Harriet to advance education and civil rights, bought a 36-acre parcel of land in 1846 to begin Florence Settlement. His goal was to establish a community where black families could live in freedom.

The land had been purchased by Gerrit Smith, a prominent abolitionist who lived in Peterboro in Madison County.

Census data shows that 51 black men who owned property - quarter-acre lots were available for $3 - lived in Florence Settlement in 1850. Black men needed to own property in order to vote.

“They needed $1 to make a down payment. Laborers could work and save up for the land,” Primeau said.

By September of that year the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.

“New York was a very strong abolitionist state, and the judges and sheriffs knew if they caught and returned slaves they wouldn’t be re-elected,” Vandrei said. “But after the federal government got involved the settlers knew they would have to move.”

Vandrei said the fates of the Florence settlers remain under investigation.

“The AP class will continue to research where the settlers went, but we believe the settlers fled to Canada and never returned,” Vandrei said.

New York and Massachusetts were the strongest proponents of abolition before the Civil War.

“Massachusetts never had slaves, and there was a large population of free blacks in New York,” Vandrei said.

“There were slaves in New York, but they were mostly downstate. They were left over from Dutch Colonial times. But in 1790 the New York State constitution allowed every man to vote.”

Work continues

The group will return to the site and continue their work in the spring.

“We plan to go there next season, likely April or May of next year,” Primeau said. “We will use what we call a magnetometer, and we likely will be able to view these remains without actually excavating.”

Primeau cautioned about the importance of respecting state lands.

“Researchers who want to pursue archaeology on state lands must get permission first,” she said. “It is illegal to collect artifacts from state or federal land without the permission of the New York State Museum and the agency that manages the land. Removing artifacts without approvals and research goals destroys our history forever.”

​More information on the DEC’s work preserving the Underground railroad may be found at undergroundrailroadhistory.org.

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