In Sojourner Truth’s Footsteps

May 31st, 2012 · 7 Comments · Beyond Gotham

She never knew most of her 11 brothers and sisters. She hoed corn and lugged bottles of molasses or liquor for one slave owner when she was barely a teen. She endured merciless and unrelenting beatings at the hands of another slaveholder. Long before she changed her name, Sojourner Truth was Isabella, a slave in New York’s Hudson Valley. To understand the remarkable accomplishments of the woman who defied powerful, entrenched interests in fighting slavery and women’s oppression – and called out to the world with her speech, Ain’t I a Woman? – know the young girl who lived, suffered, and walked in these very fields, hills, and woods of Ulster County.

One can see statues of Sojourner Truth or can spot the places named after her and not have a real sense of who she was. But walk on the same ground she did – in places like Port Ewen and Kingston – and match it with experiences she described in her narrative and you may begin to know her. She becomes much less a heroic, saint-like figure at a distance and more a real flesh-and-blood person who as a young girl, through terror and hardship, possessed spunk, bravery, intuitiveness, and a sense of awareness and irony about her place within the evil system into which she was born.

In her experiences as a child in Ulster County lay the roots and even some signals of how Isabella, an uneducated African-American girl, became Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and orator. This exploration in Ulster County, in two parts, is a way to know more about and reflect on her early life.

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery around 1797 in Rifton, Ulster County. She was the daughter of two slaves, James and Elizabeth Baumfree, who were the property of Col. Johannes Hardenbergh. He owned a large tract of land and operated a grist mill, according to the site Sojourner Truth in Ulster County. She became known as Isabella Baumfree.

Several men at various times owned Isabella as a slave until the day, at age 29, that she walked off her slave owner’s property and secured her freedom. When she was a young child, Isabella and her parents became the property of Col. Hardenbergh’s son, Charles, after the father died. When Charles Hardenbergh died, she was sold at an auction to John Neely, who owned a shop near Kingston. (“A slave auction is a terrible affair to its victims,” she later said in her narrative.) She could only speak Dutch while Neely and his wife spoke English, which caused much misunderstanding when they told her to do something. Neely was very cruel to Isabella – he beat her terribly many times. During her lectures later, she showed the scars from these beatings to her audiences.

After a couple of years, Neely sold Isabella for $105 to Martinus Schryver of Port Ewen, a hamlet south of Kingston. After about a year-and-a-half, in 1810, Schryver then sold her to John Dumont, who had a farm on the banks of the Hudson River in what is now West Park. For some 16 years, she toiled here. Dumont pledged to release Isabella in 1826. But when he failed to keep his promise she fled the property one day, taking her infant daughter Sophia, and she walked to the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen for refuge.

Living as a free woman, Isabella wasted no time in challenging convention. After learning that Dumont had sold her son Peter and that the new owner’s son then sent him to an Alabama slaveholder, she sought in court, at the Ulster County Courthouse, to reverse this illegal action and recover her son. She won the case. In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth. By then a devout Christian, she fought for freedom for slaves and for women’s rights. Truth recounted her recollections to her friend Olive Gilbert, which became The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. She crusaded for human rights the rest of her days, dying at the age of 86 in Battle Creek, Mich., where she lived the last portion of her life.

In Ulster County, it’s possible today to walk along and follow in the footsteps of Sojourner Truth to trace where she lived and endured life as a slave; the route along which she escaped; and where she pursued freedom for her son. The focus of Part 1, the Jug Tavern, is a surviving stone house where Isabella, as an adolescent, lived at one time.

The Jug Tavern, Port Ewen

Four-lane Route 9W in Port Ewen curves through a 21st century mix of convenience stores, gas stations, delis, restaurants, homes, and local stores. It would be easy to miss and not even think about the place where young Isabella was a slave in the early 19th century and of her experiences here. On the northeast corner of Route 9W and River Road is a one-and-a-half story stone house, built originally in the Dutch colonial style. Today, it has large green shutters, gables, and eyebrow windows. It was in this place, known as the Jug Tavern, where Isabella lived for a time after Martinus Schryver purchased her from John Neely.

Picture this house, not as one where cars whiz by today, but as a 19th-century stopping point in the midst of some houses and hilly fields, with the Hudson River to the east and mountains to the west. Schryver was a fisherman who kept the tavern in his stone dwelling. In her narrative, she later said that Schryver “kept a tavern for the accommodation of his own class – for his was a rude, uneducated family, exceedingly profane in their language, but, on the whole, an honest, kind, and well-disposed people.” Schryver owned a large farm, but he was much more devoted to fishing – with the Hudson so close by – and to inn-keeping, she recalled. Hence, his farmland was largely uncultivated.

Isabella remembered her time in the Schryver household as a “wild, out-of-door kind of life” – not surprising given the family and its surroundings. She hoed corn in the field, carried fish, and collected roots and herbs from the woods for Schryver’s beer-making. She also journeyed some two miles north to the Strand, the village located on the north side of the Rondout Creek that eventually became part of Kingston, to get gallons of molasses or liquor for Schryver.

Jug Tavern

The former Jug Tavern in Port Ewen, N.Y.

When I stood in front of 1 River Road, the old Jug Tavern, I considered Truth’s early life and her experience here: What would it be like for someone else to own one’s very being and your days? At age 11, to have a master who would order you to hoe in the fields or fetch bottles of liquor? In her narrative, Truth said that instead of learning and improving, she “retrograded” morally while living at Schryver’s house. Through the examples she witnessed, she learned to curse. Yet, she shed a kinder light on Schryver in her narrative. At this house, she no longer faced the terror of daily beatings, as she had suffered under her previous slaveholder, Neely.

Keeping Her History Alive

The collection, transmittal, and honoring of our history isn’t a passive endeavor. It happens because of the acts of people who want to know and who care about that history. Such is the case with the Jug Tavern and other places of note connected to Truth’s life in Ulster County. The people who have collected and restored the history and legacy of Truth in Ulster County include Carleton Mabee, who wrote the first full-length biography of Truth; Corinne Nyquist, librarian at the Sojourner Truth Library at SUNY New Paltz; Anne M. Gordon, the Ulster County historian; residents and officials of the Town of Esopus and other towns who researched and worked for the preservation of various sites relating to Truth’s life here; and many others.

Homeowners and other residents form part of that chain of caring for and tending that history between generations. Kathy Foley, the Port Ewen homeowner who lives now in the stone house known as the Jug Tavern, feels awestruck at the home’s history and its link to Truth. She is hoping to help obtain a listing for the structure on the National Register of Historic Places.

“When I first walked into the house, I felt that it had a warm, inviting feeling like I was supposed to be here,” said Foley, who moved into the house in 2006. Given the efforts of local residents in recent years to locate and identify this tavern owned by Schryver in Port Ewen where Truth lived as a slave, Foley said, “It’s almost like the house was waiting to tell its story.” She shows a visitor the thickness of the 17-inch window sills, where the fireplace was located originally, and the various alterations. The structure is not so far modernized, especially given its rough-cut fieldstone walls and interior openness, that one can’t envision a 19th century tavern and think about what Isabella heard and saw within this place.

Outside, I look at the ground of what was Martinus Schryver’s farm and walk on it. Sometimes you have to get off the sidewalk and feel the land, look at the hills and the river and the ridges in the distance, and let your feet and eyes fell it all. This is where Sojourner Truth walked as a child named Isabella.

Correction: This article first cited Sojourner Truth’s original name as Isabella Baumfree. However, like other slaves, she had no official last name. Isabella took the name of the Van Wagenens for approximately 10 years in the period after she walked to freedom. Ultimately, she changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Thank you to Ulster County historian Anne M. Gordon for this clarification.

The Series

Part 1: In Sojourner Truth’s Footsteps – The Jug Tavern, where Truth lived and worked as a slave

Part 2: Tracing Sojourner Truth’s Escape Route – The Sojourner Truth Memorial in Port Ewen and Truth’s escape route on Ulster County roads

Part 3: Statue To Show Sojourner Truth as a Child – The creation of a statue of Truth as a child and the plans to make it the centerpiece of the Sojourner Truth Memorial in Esopus

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Gretchen

    Susan, you have done Sojourner Truth proud! — And this is only half the story. Your telling of her life and surroundings are absolutely riveting, and I cannot wait for Part Two.

    • Susan DeMark

      Dear Gretchen,

      Thank you! Your comment has made my morning.

      The more I am learning about what Sojourner Truth endured, observed, and overcame of her experiences in Ulster County, the more she inspires me. It makes me want to know even more.

      I’m very happy that the piece touched you in this way. I appreciate this!


  • Shannon M. Allain

    Dear Susan: Once again your keen reporter’s eye and your receptive, sensitive writer’s heart blend seemlessly to bring alive the history in our midst. A beautiful, informative piece about a heroic woman I want to know more about. Looking forward to Part II!

    • Susan DeMark

      Dear Shannon,

      I’m honored by your response, and I’m very happy that you thought the piece was beautiful. Like you, I want to know more about Sojourner Truth, and I feel it was this up-close look at where she has been that has sparked my desire to know more.

      I appreciate such a positive and inspiring response, and it makes me want to trace this journey of Truth’s even more.

      Thank you so much!


  • Carolyn Grimstead

    Great column. Do enjoy historian Nell Painter’s biography of Sojourner Truth titled after its subject. Foley should have no trouble obtaining historic designation. For help, she can check the Web site of the Preservation League of New York State; that’s what they do.

    • Susan DeMark

      Hi, Carolyn,

      Thank you so much! Excellent suggestion about checking out Nell Painter’s biography (Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol). I read, for instance, that she writes about Isabella Van Wagenen, and I would like to know more about her.

      I will check with Ms. Foley to see if she has looked at the Preservation League of New York State info. Again, great suggestion!


      • Kathy Foley

        I will look at that website right now! Thank you fro the wonderful article, and the information.

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