Mysteries in the Archives: Essay for the Black History Walking Tour

This companion to the Black History of Northport Walking Tour lays out some of the miscellaneous clues to the makeup of Northport's Black community from the 1830s to 1900.

Unidentified group of young girls sitting on the steps of Trinity Episcopal Church circa 1905. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

With some exceptions, slavery in New York was mostly over by the 1830s. Unfortunately, we have a huge dearth of information on the African American community in Northport between 1830 and 1900. Ironically, it was during those years of mid- to late-nineteenth century that Northport started to grow wealthy, and when the need for domestic servants and laborers in shipbuilding, oyster farming, and sand mining started to grow. We know that Northport had about 112 Black residents in 1900, but as of now can't quantify the size of that community before that time.

While we may have a lacuna in Northport-specific information, there is a wealth of knowledge regarding other elements of Black history throughout this period of time. The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated in 1843, and today is the township’s oldest Black church. Samuel Ballton, Greenlawn’s famous Pickle King, came to that town not long after he was discharged from the Union Army in 1865. Many other stories are recorded in the Volumes I-IV of A Compilation of African Americans and Historic Sites in the Town of Huntington published by the Town of Huntington African American Historic Designation Council. And despite the general lack of information, here in Northport Historical Society Archives we have two invaluable snapshots of the experiences of Black residents in Northport and East Northport.

For the first snapshot, we have a mortgage agreement signed in 1837 wherein one James Treadwell, listed as ‘colored’ in the document, purchased a parcel of land for $1,837 from Joel Bryant. Also in the archives is the 1848 ‘satisfaction of mortgage’ document proving that Treadwell paid off his loan in eleven years. Unfortunately, we have very little concrete personal information about Tredwell. He is recorded as living in Northport in the 1840 census. At that time, he was employed to some extent in the ‘navigation of canals, lakes and rivers’; he was between the ages of 24 and 36; and he was listed as having no dependents. There were other James Tredwells on Long Island in subsequent US censuses, but their ages are at least a decade off from the Treadwell who lived in Huntington in 1840. Census data can be incorrect, but there is not currently enough evidence to make a firm claim that one of these later individuals was Northport’s James Tredwell.


Mortgage for land purchased by James Treadwell in 1837. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

Satisfaction of mortgage of James Treadwell in 1848. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

The second snapshot is, if possible, even more tantalizing. We also have some clues into the lives of Black citizens in East Northport, also known as Clay Pitts. The clues are found in a ledger for the Clay Pitts School listing paid student fees and the number of days students attended classes. For a total of three quarters between 1845 and 1846, a child listed only as ‘Jack, colored’ attended the Clay Pitts School for an average of 29 days out of each two-ish month quarter period (for a total of approximately six months). Another young boy whose color was specified, Warren, only attended a total of twenty seven days of classes out of about a four month period (two quarters). We know that East Northport was a primarily agrarian community in the mid-1800s. The current train station on Larkfield Road did not yet exist, nor did the small center of commerce that grew up around it after the 1870s. It is likely that Jack and Warren’s parents were farm or domestic laborers at one of the East Northport farms, and that the children were also laboring when they were not in school. We hope one day to find out more about Jack and Warren, but as school administrators did not give them the courtesy of recording their last names, further research may prove difficult.

Page from Clay Pitts School ledger November 3, 1845. Two children, Jack (no. 32) and Warren (no. 50) are not given last names and are only identified by their skin color. The rest have first and last names listed. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

There are other mysterious pieces to this puzzle found in the unidentified photos of the Society’s collection. These pictures include the barest scraps of context. We have a few pictures of Black domestic servants living in Northport in the late 1800s, but anyone who could have identified these women were long gone by the time the photos got to the Society. It is a testament to how employers dismissed their servants that though they recorded the names of others, they often only wrote their servants first names. In the rare cases when we have both first and last names, it can still be difficult to connect names to people listed in written documents. In many cases, we have no identification at all. These archival silences are haunting, and in some cases may prove completely destructive. But with community assistance and further time for research, there is hope for identifying some of these individuals with details of the lives they lived.

These two women, identified only as "Nanny" (far left) "Aunt Liza, cook" (second from left), worked for the Sammis family on Woodbine Avenue in the 1890s. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

Possibly a group of Sunday School students from the First Presbyterian Church, circa 1900. The young boy standing on the far right is identified as Doug Lewis. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

This formal portrait, taken circa 1890, is identified as "Mrs. Grace Yearwood." No further information has currently been found. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

The Photo Collection

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