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As the mystery of Chief Crow recedes…

Stories of Milan’s Early
 African American Community Emerge

A 1935 NY State marker says

“Chief Crow”rests here ~ but the facts tell a different story When we assemble “facts" into historical narratives what do we amplify? What do we leave out? A look at some stories involving race in Dutchess County, NY Bill Jeffway [We] map what we see, marking some features, ignoring others. History is not the past, but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view to be useful to the modern traveler. Henry Glassie, Professor of Folklore , Indiana University
 *In a world that would have included Native Americans, African Americans, Europeans,and combinations of those races, Census nomenclature of the time of “white, black and mulatto" might be considered inadequate to understand the true subtleties of the confluence and relationship of races.




1826 1932 There is no original source evidence of any Chief Crow The German Moravian missionaries’ venture to convert Native Americans to Christianity at Shacomeco in Pine Plains in Dutchess County, NY was very real and is very well documented in diaries, first-hand accounts and other records. Lasting from 1742 to 1746, the group quickly became highly controversial. The colonial Governor by 1744 ordered the group to"desist from further teaching and depart the province.” The eviction order combined with calls for assassinations by locals drove the 44 persons who remained at the mission to relocate to Connecticut and Pennsylvania in 1746, over 100 years earlier than the referenced “last burial.”
 The only documented evidence of “Chief Crow” found to date is the 1938 local newspaper story of a meeting of residents who recounted Indian tales. The host of the meeting is important to note, “Mrs. C.V. Harrison.” For it is she who signed and submitted the paperwork four years earlier to NY State for the erection of the sign we see today, citing “old men of this section tell of their grandparents seeing these [burials] daily.” The article says Chief Crow was given permission to live in his wigwam after he sold land to Europeans (such land was sold by the 1680’s). And yet he was running with a child in his arms in 1840 ~ which shows him living across the late 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries and remaining quite athletic through it all. There was a major county-wide survey of 19,000 graveyard inscriptions in 1924 by Poucher & Reynolds that documented even very small Milan burial grounds of 3. But that survey failed to even mention the existence of this burial ground of 8 stones despite it being in a very visible roadside position. This suggests the Chief Crow story was created sometime between the 1924 survey and the 1934 application.

Evidence comes from prior land ownership Local historian Barbara Thompson in the 1970’s directed her inquiry to the early 19th century owners of the small plot of land, given the common tradition of burying one’s family on the homestead, especially prior to New York State’s 1847 rural cemetery act. There are two such small “homestead” burials near this site, Platner and Shear families. The (Chatam) Courier, June 28, 1934



Prior lot owners Lyle and Bradford were African Americans who moved from New Jersey and Albany

1865 Bradford death notice: “B”= Black

The one acre lot was bought in 1821 by Jacob Lyle from Frederick Bathrick for $50. We know a lot about Jacob through dozens of pages of sworn testimony from his1833 Revolutionary War pension application. Born in New Jersey, he volunteered between 1778 and 1784 as a Master Fifer, an armed guard of ammunition and food stores and a forage master herding cattle. An officer started to call him “York or Yorick” and the name stuck during his service. He came to Milan in 1813 at the age of 50 with his wife Betsey where he worked as a basket-maker until his death sometime after 1844. The 1830 census shows a girl under 14 living with them, indicating all three are “free colored.” In 1831 Bathrick sold an adjoining lot to Nancy Bradford, an African American cook from Albany. Just a few years later in 1834, Lyle borrowed $107 from her using his small lot as collateral, a loan he would ultimately default on in 1844 at the age of 82. Bradford, apparently friendly to Lyle was the highest bidder at auction and she obtained the land, but we find no more reference to the Lyle’s. After having lived in Milan 20 years, Bradford died November 25, 1864. Her death notice in the 1865 NY State Census clearly showing her as “Black.

The Nancy Bradford lot became known as Nancy Crow lot In less than six years after Nancy’s death, official land records related that the small lot was “commonly known or called Nancy Crow lot or place.” First appearing in deeds in 1871, the reference remains through to today’s deed (shown below). What prompted Nancy Bradford’s lot to become known as Nancy Crow lot? The possibilities include: 1) Nancy Bradford married Chief Crow and became Mrs. Nancy Crow, as suggested by the 1938 newspaper account. 2) It could be a crude reference to her “color,” as crows are black. Or 3) “Crow” could emanate from Jim Crow. Thomas Rice had launched the Jim Crow character, inventing “black face” in NY in 1828 in a song-and-dance routine that became an international sensation. From the Jim Crow Museum, “By 1838, the term ‘Jim Crow’ was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as [some, but obviously derisive]. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words ‘Jim Crow’ were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.”

 Read Jacob Lyle’s detailed description of his war service here: Jacob Lyle 1833 War Testimony

Chief Crow story emerges as Milan’s African American community recedes In 1908 Howard Morse wrote in Historic Old Rhinebeck (a town adjacent to Milan) “The colored people of Rhinebeck in the old times [my emphasis] cut something of a figure…most were house servants, some had trades [blacksmith, fish peddler, wash-woman, coachman, stableman, driver] Jennie Pierce was the popular stewardess on the old barge Milan. A portion of the cemetery is set apart for the colored people.” Why the past tense I wondered? The answer is that there had been an enormous exodus in rural Dutchess County, the African American population had disappeared except for five individuals.

1820 population

1930 population

1990 population

Jacob Lyle was a resident of the town of NorthEast when in 1818 he suddenly found himself in the newly-carved-off town of Milan. The new town’s population of 1,846 included 65 (3.5%) who were “colored,” including 18 enslaved and 47 “free colored” persons. “Colored” would have covered any “non-white:” Native American, African American, mixed race. Slavery was abolished in NY State in 1827. By the depression of the 1930’s the population of Milan had shrunk to only 622 people, one third of its prior size, with the African American community consisting of Ferris Jackson and four from the Frazier family (more on the Frazier ancestor below). This depletion of community gave room for stories like “Chief Crow” to evolve. Ironically the 1935 roadside marker stems from the 1925 Regents Program created to recognize the 150th Anniversary of the American Revolution. And yet this marker fails to mention that a Revolutionary War veteran is the most likely person who rests there. SOURCES & SOURCES OF INSPIRATION: Barbara Thompson. Her initial.discovery inspired me and she advised me on this current work. See her book, “Out to Milan,” 2006. The late Lorraine Roberts, Chair of the Black History Committee, Dutchess County Historical Society, who supported my work and helped me appreciate its importance. Emily Majer of Red Hook for detailed research on and analysis of land ownership. Jim Crow Museum, Big Rapids, MI “Understanding Jim Crow: using racist memorabilia to teach tolerance and promote social justice.” David Pilgrim, author “Understanding Jim Crow.” US Census records. Revolutionary War Pension Applications. I

Was this other Milan African American veteran servant to Washington? Milan resident Andrew Frazier testified in his 1833 pension application that during his tour of duty in the Hudson Valley he at one point “saw General Washington” (above) By the 1932 bicentennial of Washington’s birth,the story had grown to his being “Body Servant” toWashington.” War records show that Frazier was first a “waggoner” in the Continental Baggage Waggon Team and then a “waiter” to Col.Morris Graham, who I believe he had known since birth at Morrisania, Westchester. In 1868 Mark Twain parodied what was by then a pervasive, romanticized notion of African Americans’ service to the country’s founding father. In “General Washington’s Negro Body Servant,” Twain recounts the number of times he encountered yet another obituary of said body servant. It reads in part, “I see by the papers that this infamous old fraud has just died again, in Arkansas. This makes six times that he is known to have died, and always in a new place. The death of Washington's body-servant has ceased to be a novelty; it's charm is gone; the people are tired of it; let it cease.” Washington’s actual body servant William (Billy) Lee was purchased at the age of 18 to be a domestic servant. Washington had several very visible instances of slaves escaping to freedom, suggesting not all of his enslaved individuals were living a romantic adventure. One was Harry who escaped Mount Vernon to fight for the British. Another was Oney Judge who escaped the President’s house in Philadelphia for New Hampshire. Lee was the only one of Washington's several hundred slaves freed outright upon his death. First buried on his Milan homestead on Willow Glen Road, Frazier’s remains were removed to the section of the Rhinebeck cemetery known as the “Negro Burial Ground” (mentioned by Howard Morse above). Frazier’s great-grand-daughter Susan Elizabeth Frazier, a much-quoted thought leader on women’s and African American rights and capacity, made history in New York City when she became the first African American to teach integrated classrooms and white children in 1896.

Rhinebeck Gazette1932

Washington and his actual “body servant” Billy Lee

Frazier headstone 1846

Profile for Bill Jeffway

The Receding Mystery of Chief Crow  

Ironically this 1935 New York State roadside marker stems from the State's 1925 Regents Program created to recognize the 150th Anniversary o...

The Receding Mystery of Chief Crow  

Ironically this 1935 New York State roadside marker stems from the State's 1925 Regents Program created to recognize the 150th Anniversary o...

Profile for jeffway

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