Sojourner Truth

On the Trail of Sojourner Truth
in Ulster County, New York


By
Corinne Nyquist, M.L.S., Ph.D.
Librarian, Sojourner Truth Library

Sojourner Truth was born about 1797 in Ulster County, upstate New York.

Sojourner Truth returns to Washington D.C.


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On April 28, 2009, Michelle Obama unveiled a bust of Sojourner Truth in Emancipation Hall in the United States Capitol. She said that "Forever more, in the halls of one our country's greatest monuments of liberty and equality, justice and freedom, Sojourner Truth's story will be told again and again and again and again." From 1864-1867 Truth worked in Washington DC counseling, teaching, and resettling freed slaves. When a new law in March 1865 forbade street horse cars to exclude anyone on account of color, few blacks dared to ride. But Truth did dare and when a conductor slammed her against a door in a attempt to put her off, she had him arrested, brought him to trial, and won her case, a story widely covered in tne press. This was the third time Truth successfully took a case to court, the first to recover her son, Peter, (See below) the second for slander, while living in New York City.

Sojourner Truth Library

This three story building, on the campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz, built in 1969 and dedicated to Sojourner Truth in 1971, has over half a million volumes and serves as the central library for an eight county area. It is hoped that one day it will have a Sojourner Truth room for researchers who visit. It may seem ironic that a library is named for a woman who could not read or write. It is just as ironic that this great communicator is one of the most famous persons to come from Ulster County. She often said " I can't read books, but I can read the people."

Her Narrative

Though Truth never learned to read or write, she produced a book and sold it to support herself. This Narrative, dictated by her to Olive Gilbert was first published in 1850 and was republished five times during her lifetime. Later editions included selections from her Book of Life, a scrapbook containing newspaper articles, letters, songs etc., that she collected. Today she is well-represented in libraries with new editions of her Narrative as well as biographies, plays, juvenile books, and media. Recent biographies are those in 1993 by Carleton Mabee, State University of New York at New Paltz history professor emeritus, and Pulitzer Prize winner; and in 1996 by Nell Painter, Princeton University Professor of African-American History. In addition there are many reference books that include her, books that contain chapters about her, videos and audiotapes of theatrical presentations, as well as teaching materials and posters.

Sojourner Truth Narrative
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Her Picture

What do we really know about Sojourner Truth? Well, we know that she was born here in Ulster County about 1797. As an adult she was almost six feet tall and spoke English with a Dutch accent. Sojourner Truth first had her picture taken in 1863, while in her sixties. The photographer and date for photograph at the top of this page and to the right are unknown. A larger than life-sized print of the picture at the top hangs near the library entrance. The Carte de Visite, at right, with her picture and the statement " I sell the shadow to support the substance" was one of many she had taken in studios and sold for 25 cents each. At a convention she said that she "used to be sold for other people's benefit, but now she sold herself for her own." We know that she often adopted Quaker dress, choosing not to be portrayed as an object of pity.

Sojourner Truth Narrative
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Boundaries Change

In her Narrative Isabella, as she was known then, says that she "was the daughter of James (called Bomefree) and Betsey (called Mau Mau Bett)

Old Stone House
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Johannes Hardenburgh was a large landower, operated a grist mill, and had seven slaves, according to the 1790 census. He had been a member of the New York colonial assembly and a colonel in the Revolutionary War. His home is pictured at right. While Isabella was an infant,Johannes died and she and her parents became the property of his son, Charles. He ran a hotel and housed all his slaves in a damp basement. That building has not yet been located. Isabella was the next to the youngest of ten or twelve children, most of whom had been sold away.

Isabella is sold

When Isabella was about nine years old, Charles died and she was auctioned off to John Neely, an Englishman, who owned a store near Kingston on the Roundout Creek. Neely beat her severely because she knew only Dutch and did not understand his instructions. She later showed these scars when she lectured about her life under slavery. At right is page five of the Inventory of the Charles Hardenbergh Estate on which Isabella is listed as is her mother, Bett. Her elderly father, James was freed and his wife, Betsey was also freed to care for him. Neither of the other slaves listed, Sam and Peet, were related to Isabella. Slaves carried the last name of their owners, but it is current custom to to use for James and Betsey the surname of Baumfree (tree in Dutch), a nickname, tall and straight-backed James was called as a young man.

Inventory
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Moved by her father

Hudson River View
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Isabella prayed for her father to come and he not only made his way to see her but also helped by arranging a sale to Martinus Schryver, a fisherman and tavern keeper, in what is now Port Ewen. He was crude and she said that she learned to swear there, but he was decent to her. She had time to watch the white-sailed sloops on the Hudson River and roam about. She found a special place on an island where she went to talk to God. Much of Port Ewen was part of Schryver's farm, but a street name was, we thought, all that remained.

Sojourner Truth Park Planned

Hudson River View
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Ulster County will finally have its own statue of Sojourner Truth, which is what a Kingston committee wanted in 1976, when they received a plaque in front of the Court House. The statue will depict Isabella as a young girl. When plans to improve New York Route 9W located Martinus Schryver's name as owner of a plot at the corner of of Salem Street and 9w (aka Broadway) in Port Ewen, community efforts were made to secure the site for a Sojourner Truth Park. The clay sculpture by New Paltz artist, Trina Green, pictured here, was then cast in bronze. Dedication took place in Port Ewen on September 21, 2013. Click here for more information.

Schryver "Jug Tavern" Found

Not satisfied, local residents searched for and found the actual tavern now occupied as a home in the hamlet of Ulster Park. It is close to the Hudson River, convenient for Schryver, who was a fisherman as well as a tavern keeper. Here, as described in her Narrative, Isabella led a "wild, out-of-doors life. She was expected to carry fish, to hoe corn, bring roots and herbs from the woods for beer, go to the strand for molasses ... and browse around. It was a life that suited her well for the time."

Klyne Esopus Dutch Reformed Church
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Church connection

In 1810, at about the age of 13, Isabella was sold to John Dumont. Both Martinus Schryver and John Ignatius Dumont attended the Klyne-Esopus Low Dutch Church in Ulster Park, that met in a stone building on this site beginning in 1797. In 1827 this brick church, now a museum, was built.

Klyne Esopus Dutch Reformed Church
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A hard worker for 16 years

John Dumont, of French Huguenot extraction, operated a farm about ten miles south of Kingston on the banks of the Hudson River with four slaves. Formerly a part of New Paltz, the site is now in West Park in the town of Esopus. This area was called New Paltz landing and there was ferry boat service to Poughkeepsie. The current owner claims the original house stood between the buildings now seen. Isabella worked both on the land and in the house. She fell in love with Robert, who was beaten for visiting her, eventually married Tom and bore 3 daughters--Dinah, Elizabeth, and Sophia, and 2 sons--Peter and James, who died in infancy.

Dumont Farm
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A promise retracted

Isabella and her husband were promised freedom on July 4, 1826, one year before all New York adult slaves would be freed, for faithful service. Master Dumont retracted his promise, apparently because he lost service because of an injury to her hand. After Isabella finished the fall work and spun 100 pounds of wool, she decided, after talking to God, to escape, even though her husband decided to stay. She took only the infant, Sophia, and a cloth with clothes and provisions, but left the 3 other children. She walked away; she did not run away as somehow that would be wrong, she believed. She did not go far. Toll roads level the landscape; but most paved roads in this rural area simply follow earlier gravel roads, that follow earlier dirt roads, that follow earlier walking trails along the lay of the land. Thus it is possible today to climb and descend the same hills that Isabella walked, covering by car or foot the eleven and one half miles.

Huguenot Street
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Map of escape route

Dorothy Dumond, whose husband descended from another Dumont branch, was for many years the Esopus town historian. Fascinated by the story of Sojourner Truth she was instrumental in identifying the inventory document and in tracing the route that we have come to believe Isabella walked that long ago fall day. The route in blue is the most direct, but she may have used the yellow route as this passes the Hardenbergh farm where she lived her early years with her parents on their separate lot of land.


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Popletown

Isabella walked to the home of Levi Rowe, a Quaker living in Poppletown, aka Popletown, who she belived would befriend her. She found him, she says on his "deathbed." He "bade her partake of the hospitalities of his house" and instructed his wife to tell her of "two good places where she might get in." The road sign at right identifies the area, but we have not found the house.


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Levi Rowe

During the years Carleton Mabee researched his book, I organized a series of Symposia to bring together local people interested in local history. After one in which Mabee spoke of our efforts to verify the events in the Narrative, a local man told us where to find the grave of Levi Rowe. The stone at right is dated October 19, 1826 and thereby tells us when Isabella "walked away" and verifies that he was indeed on his deathbed.


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No longer a slave

Van Wagenen House
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Having known her from infancy, the Van Wagenens took Isabella in. Although not Quakers, as verified by their descendents, they did not believe in slavery. Later the same day Master Dumont came there to claim her. Having tasted freedom, she would not go. He threatened jail. The Van Wagenens paid him $20 for Isabella and $5 for Sophia and he left. At the Van Wagenens, she was not treated as a slave. She says she became so comfortable that she almost forgot about God. As the slave holiday of Pinkster (Pentecost) approached, she desired to return to the Dumonts to sing, drink, smoke, and dance with her slave friends. In her Narrative she tells that God then revealed himself to her "with the suddeness of a flash of lightning."

She tried to crawl away but could not hide. In what she came to call her religious conversion, she saw for the first time a vision of Jesus.

Legal action

Courthouse
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The Ulster County Court House in Kingston is another site connected with Sojourner Truth. It is the same building that she entered numerous times in 1827 and 1828 while fighting to recover her son, Peter. Early in 1827, he had been sold and sent to Alabama illegally. On July 4, 1827, all adult blacks in New York State were freed. Children became bonded servants for a period of years, depending upon their ages, but eventually were to be freed. This would not happen if they were sent out of the State.

Rocognizance

Recognizance is an obligation of record entered into before a court or a magistrate in which a person acknowledges that he must pay a certain sum if he does not do some particular act. In the document at right, dated February 21, 1828, it is believed that since it was Solomon Gedney who sold Isabella's son into slavery in Alabama,that that what he is being ordered to do, or pay $500, is bring Peter back and thus is thought to be associated with Isabella's famous court victory.

Sojourner Truth Post Card
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Court House Plaque

Plaque in front of Ulster County Court House
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Truth was awarded custody of her son, but Peter had been beaten badly while in Alabama. Years later she would describe welts the size of her finger when she spoke to groups about it. Master Fowler had been cruel not only to Peter but also to his own wife--he later beat her to death. Truth decided that this punishment resulted from her prayers and she told Him that "I did not mean quite so much, God!" This plaque outside the courthouse commemorates the successful court action.

First Day Cover

Sojourner Truth Post Card
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One of the most exciting events to take place in this library was the dedication of the Sojourner Truth Stamp on February 4, 1986. A poster-sized replica hangs behind the library circulation desk. The twenty-two cent stamp, the ninth in the postal services's Black History Series, was designed by Croton-on-Hudson artist, Jerry Pinkney, who particpated in the festivities. Pictured is a first day cover reproducing a painting by a black college student art major.

Library Mural

This Library mural was dedicated on May 19, 1995. The mural is the work of former SUNY New Paltz Art Education instructor, Rikki Asher, and thirteen of her graduate students. It is a lovely, large work of art, 7 by 16 feet, placed high above a stairway, under a skylight. The students spoke movingly at the dedication of getting to know Sojourner Truth through reading about her in the library. They were moved by her suffering and were inspired by her courage and by her triumphs.

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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Library Sculpture

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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In the spring of 1996, a sculpture entitled Mvet Truth was installed and dedicated in the college library lobby. New York artist and SUNY College faculty member, Terry Adkins says that MVET is onomatpoetic. It refers to the sound made by some West African instruments. It is also symbolic of her love of music and her angelic nature.

Her signature

Sojourner Truth's Signature
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The only known copy of her signature, reproduced on a wall in the College Library by the artist of Mvet Truth, is from an autograph book dated April 23, 1880.

Ascension Church

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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Two of Truth's daughters remained with the Dumonts for many years. The oldest, Dinah was member first of the the Klyne-Esopus Dutch Reformed Church, which the Dumont family attended. Later she was a member of this Ascension Church, built in 1842 for parisheners who previously had to cross by ferry to Poughkeepsie. Located in West Park, it is near the Dumond farm.

Huguenot Street

Huguenot Street in New Paltz is little changed from the 1820's. It was to New Paltz that Truth went to see the mother of Solomon Gedney, who had sold Peter to the relative, who had taken him to Alabama. Truth who said she had never before had a dollar, raised the money from Quaker friends that lawyer, Herman M. Romeyn used to hire someone to bring both Gedney and Peter to court. He and at least two other lawyers in Kingston and New Paltz worked to help her, asking no fees.

Image coming soon.

St. James Methodist Church

On March 27, 1993, the fifth annual Symposium on Sojourner Truth was held here in her church. This was not the same building of rough hewn timber built in the mid 1820's, that she attended, but it was on about the same site. She joined it late in that decade, at the time that she was legally freed from slavery and living in Kingston as a domestic. Methodists welcomed blacks, as shown by their having a Sunday School especially for them. Methodists emphasized direct personal experience with God and they loved to sing. Truth said long afterwards that "she liked the Quakers, but they would not let her sing, so she joined the Methodists.".

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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Her first church service

One of the stained glass windows in the St. James Methodist Church in Kingston lists Ira Ferris as an early pastor. Truth had attended her first Methodist meeting, led by circuit rider Ferris, in a private home in New Paltz. She looked in through an open window as was the custom for blacks and saw him line out the hymn, "There is a holy city, a world of light above." She learned it on the spot and could sing it all her life.

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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Battle Creek connection

Sojourner Truth said that she came to Battle Creek because "old friends of mine from Ulster County, New York, had removed, and wanted me to follow," but she did not say who these friends were. These friends have now been identified as the Cornells of Harmonia, a spiritualist community near Battle Creek. Reynolds Cornell and his wife Dorcas, had grown up in the part of Ulster County where Truth lived as a slave. Dorcas Cornell's parents, the Alexander Youngs, were part of the Quaker community in Poppletown that helped her recover her son.

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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Mabee Papers

Carleton Mabee wrote what is generally accepted as the first adult scholarly biography of Sojourner Truth. In 32 notebooks and 6 boxes is the carefully researched evidence used to produce his book, the result of a six-year search "scouring old records, including manuscripts and local newspapers." Aware that she had become a legend he wrote that "surely, anyone who chose for herself the name of Truth, with, she believed, the help of God, would understand any effort to push the myths aside to discover the truth about her life."

Sculpture: Mvet Truth
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To read more about Sojourner Truth look for the following books in your library.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave [as told to Olive Gilbert] Boston: Printed for the author, 1850. Later editions included her Book of Life.

Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend by Carleton Mabee with Susan Mabee Newhouse. New York: NYU Press, 1993. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor Emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz.

nyquistc@newpaltz.edu

This website was revised during October 2013.