Lake George resident and regular Almanack reader Enid Mastrianni has offered for Black History Month this enlightening piece on a trip by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Jefferson’s enslaved servant James Hemings, to Lake George and their reactions to Prince Taylor, a free black man living just south of Ticonderoga:
Many a booster of the Adirondacks has cited the famous Thomas Jefferson quote, “Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin… finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves… down to the water-edge: here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony.”
The student of American history knows that Jefferson, along with then congressman and future president, James Madison, toured upstate New York in the spring of 1791 in order for Jefferson to study the Hessian fly, a potential agricultural pest. Rarely mentioned is that the two slave-owning southern politicians traveled with at least one slave: James Hemings. Furthermore, the traveling party met with and visited a free black man who owned a 250 acre farm on the north eastern shore of Lake George.
With the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed’s much acclaimed and award winning work, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, the focus is turned to the men and women who served Jefferson throughout his life, including Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore him at least four children.
James Hemings was Sally’s older brother; both had been with Jefferson earlier in Paris where James had completed professional training to be a chef de cuisine, or head chef for Jefferson. Gordon-Reed writes, “For a month in the late spring of 1791 James Hemings ceased to be chef and took up his old role as personal servant and coachman to Jefferson on his northern tour.” While Jefferson and Madison sailed up the Hudson, “Hemings took Jefferson’s and Madison’s horses and Jefferson’s phaeton from New York to Poughkeepsie…” The accounts of Jefferson and Madison, “…suggest that there were majestic scenes to discover, and Hemings observed them as he drove the two men about upstate New York and New England.”
Gordon-Reed frankly discusses “…the great difficulty in having to view [James] Hemings’s life through the records of the man who enslaved him,” and Jefferson did not record the encounter with the free African American they all met. Madison, however, did:
“He possesses a good farm of about 250 Acres which he cultivates with 6 white hirelings for which he is said to have paid about 2 1/2 dollrs. per Acre and by his industry & good management turns to good account. He is intelligent; reads writes & understands accounts, and is dextrous in his affairs. During the late war he was employed in the Commissary department. He has no wife, and is said to be disinclined to marriage: nor any woman on his farm.”
James Hemings could also read and write, but he too, left no account of meeting Prince Taylor. “The future president [Madison] was clearly fascinated by this man whose existence was a total rebuke to his way of life on almost every level,” Gordon-Reed writes, “Actually, the man was a rebuke to the way of life for New Yorkers as well, for despite the movement toward abolition, slavery still had a firm hold in parts of the state.” She concludes that “Madison was impressed, and Hemings would have been too.”
What do we know of Prince Taylor, the free black man who owned a prosperous farm at northern Lake George? Nicholas Westbrook, the director of Fort Ticonderoga has put together the most complete account of his life, which you can find here as a pdf.
Illustration: Thomas Jefferson ran this ad offering a reward for the return of a slave named “Sandy” in The Virginia Gazette on September 14, 1769.