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Upper Nyack Salutes Peter Williamson Who Helped Build the Old Stone Meeting House While Enslaved

In the heart of Upper Nyack lies a poignant tale of resilience and endurance, encapsulated in the life of Peter Williamson—the final living individual to have experienced the shackles of slavery in Rockland County. His narrative intertwines with the very foundations of the community, etched into the construction of the Old Stone Meeting House on North Broadway, a structure built, in part, by hands in bondage.

A postcard showing an unadorned Old Stone Meeting House in part built by Peter Williamson when he was 13 or 14 years old and enslaved.

Recently, the Village of Upper Nyack honored Williamson’s legacy with the installation of an interpretive sign symbolizing the significance of his family’s history. Mayor Karen Tarapata expressed, “Recognizing the contributions of individuals like Peter Williamson is crucial. Through this sign, our village aims to illuminate the early chapters of our community’s history, shedding light on the often-overlooked Black residents who played pivotal roles in its emergence and evolution.”

Born in Bondage: Peter’s Early Years on the Williamson Farm

Peter’s journey began on the expansive Williamson farm, where he bore the surname of his owner. His early life unfolded amidst the shadows of a tumultuous era, and his labor as a young boy contributed to the construction of the Old Stone Meeting House. This historic edifice, standing as both a testament to architectural prowess and a symbol of the region’s complicity in slavery, became a cornerstone in Peter’s story.

1776 Map of Upper Nyack showing the Wiliamson farm. Courtesy of Win Perry, Jr.

New York’s Struggle with Slavery: A Historical Context

Peter’s life unfolded against the backdrop of New York State’s struggle with the institution of slavery. From its inception in 1626, slavery persisted, gradually loosening its grip only in 1781 with the emancipation of African American Revolutionary War veterans. Legislative maneuvers, such as the Act for Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1799, disguised the persistence of servitude under different guises until full emancipation in 1827.

Rockland County’s Overlooked History

Despite being overlooked, Rockland’s early history is enmeshed with slavery. Nyack’s first Dutch settlers, the Kuyper and Tallman families, owned enslaved people to help work their farms. According to census records from 1800, some 40%+ of Orangetown households housed enslaved people. As a whole, Rockland County harbored a significant population of enslaved individuals, constituting 8.7% of its residents during the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act.

The 1800 census shows that the Williamson brothers owned a total of six enslaved people as shown by the column on the right

Local historians like Frank Green writing in 1886 chose, while abhorring slavery, to romanticize slave owners, neglecting the harsh realities faced by those in bondage. He stated, despite the evidence that, “slaves were never numerous, and the custom was never popular among our people.” Even more preposterously, he goes on to say that the emancipation act was “greeted by the people (italics mine) with more joy that by the slaves themselves.”

Runaways: Vivid Images of Slavery’s Grueling Reality

The vivid images of runaway slaves, as depicted in newspaper ads offering paltry rewards for their return, speak to the grueling reality of slavery. South Nyack farmer, Michael Cornelison’s , appeal for the recapture of his runaway slave named Scipio in 1784 serves as a haunting reminder of the challenges faced by those seeking freedom. In 1814, Nicholas Lansing of Orangetown, posted a $1 reward for the apprehension of Isaac, a 21-year-old “negro boy of slow speech.” He threatened any ship captain who either hired or employed Isaac with prosecution.

The Williamson Plantation: Microcosm of Master and Slave Dynamics

The Williamson plantation, spanning 90 acres, became a microcosm of the intricate relationship between master and slave. In 1800, slaves outnumbered white people on the estate, 4 to 3. Slaves lived in cottages on the farm. The Moorings, the family’s manor house, still graces North Broadway, while records indicate that, after Emancipation, Nicholas Williamson deeded a cabin on the farm to a former slave, with 16 heirs eventually selling it to Stephen R. Bradley.

Peter and Emeline: Navigating Post-Emancipation Challenges

In 1835, Peter’s life took a turn when he married Emeline and together, they navigated the complexities of post-emancipation existence. Operating a small grocery and candy store near the Old Stone Meeting House, Peter carved a niche for himself within the community. Emeline worked as maid in the summer home of the Maxwell family just across the street from their store and residence. Here they raised seven children.

An unidentified home in Upper Nyack that might possibly be the Williamson home. Note how close the house is too the street. A gentleman stands in front of what is likely a small storefront. Courtesy of the Nyack Library, The Win Perry Collectiion.

The Williamson Legacy: A Golden Anniversary and Controversies

The Williamsons’ enduring legacy witnessed a golden wedding anniversary in 1885, celebrated at their North Broadway home. The Rockland County Journal reported at the time that “Uncle” Peter, and” Aunt” Emmeline were said to be “highly respected by their neighbors”. The same article mentioned that Emmeline related that the Maxwells gifted them their house and an acre of land as a reward for her thirty years of service. However, upon hearing this, Hugh Maxwell Jr, the oldest son and an executor of the family estate, published a statement in the paper denying the Williamson claim. 

Brief story in the Rockland County Journal about the Williamson’s Golden Wedding celebration.

Ownership came to a head again in 1892 when the Village of Upper Nyack sought to widen a section of North Broadway including the land upon which the Williamson house sat, testing Emeline’s resolve to retain her home—a testament to her indomitable spirit. Emeline refused to move until village attorney’s ruled that she owned the house by rights of adverse possession. In return, Emeline agreed to allow the house to be moved east away from the widened street.

A detail from an 1890s map of Upper Nyack. The arrow points to the likely location of the Williamson house and store. Just north is the Old Stone Meeting House (labeled Old Ch).The Maxwell estate house is across the street surrounding by a semicircular driveway. In the 1890s, the estate became the home of the Nyack Country Club, although the land was still owned by the Maxwell family heirs.

Property Dispute Finally Resolved

In 1897, during one of the interminable partition hearings of the Maxwell estate will, Hugh Maxwell Jr. once again claimed ownership of the Williamson property and sought to evict Emeline. The matter became of less concern after the deaths of Emeline and Hugh Maxwell Jr. the next year. The Williamson family later sold the house, the tiny property forming a small part of DuPratt White’s early 20th century estate.

Legacy Lives On: The Williamson Children’s Contributions

Peter’s passing in 1886 marked the end of an era, with his funeral held in the Old Stone Meeting House—a structure that silently echoed the story of a man who had witnessed the evolution from slavery to freedom. Emeline’s struggles persisted, culminating in her death in 1898, leaving behind a legacy of strength and perseverance. The Williamson children, dispersed yet connected by blood, contributed to the fabric of society as gardeners, laborers, butlers, maids, and soldiers in the Civil War.

Photograph of the26th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry at Riker’s Island New York. it i likely that GErge Williamson is shown in the photo.

George, the second oldest, served in the 26th Regiment United States Colored Infantry as a private, and John, the next oldest son, enlisted in the U.S. Navy. George, trained at Riker’s Island and shipped to South Carolina where the regiment saw action in South Carolina. John served on the Civil War steamer Dawn, part of the South Atlantic Blocking Squadron in the James River, Virginia, defending Union troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Wharf.

The steamship dawn upon which John Williamson served during the Civil War.

Revisiting Peter Williamson’s Life

In revisiting Peter Williamson’s life, we unveil a chapter often obscured in local history—a chapter that deserves recognition, reflection, and remembrance. Peter’s journey from bondage to resilience, and the Williamson family’s enduring legacy, serve as poignant reminders of the complexities faced by those who lived through the transitions of emancipation. As we reflect on this history, we honor the indomitable spirit of individuals like Peter, whose stories contribute to a richer understanding of our shared past.

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

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