by Shannon Butler

The name of Livingston is well known in the Hudson Valley. One can travel up and down both sides of the river and find residences or evidence of actions of several generations. A few Livingstons decided to make Poughkeepsie their home, most notably Henry Livingston Sr. (seen right). He served his county and state in many different capacities, with his longest role serving as our County Clerk. He was a son of Gilbert and Cornelia (Beekman) Livingston, and the grandson of the first Lord of Livingston Manor, Robert Livingston (there are a lot of Robert Livingstons, but the first Lord of the manor is where it all started, at least in this country.) So when it comes to wealthy members of Poughkeepsie society, Henry Livingston Sr. is one of the first.

Henry studied as a land surveyor before he made his way into the position of County Clerk sometime around 1742, though his name does appear on documents as early as 1737 (it was made an official appointment in 1742). He married Susannah Conklin and ended up buying about 60 acres of land from her father, near what is now the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. Henry also proved himself worthy of serving in the New York Assembly in the years before the American Revolution. By the time the war broke out, Henry was in his sixties, but two of his sons (Henry Jr. and Gilbert) did their part to serve with local regiments. By the end of the war, his youngest son, Robert, had also joined up.

Henry also contributed to the community around him. Besides his work as the County Clerk, he served as a Deacon with the Poughkeepsie Dutch Reformed Church, all while establishing a home (seen right) and farm on the banks of the Hudson with his wife and several sons and daughters. However, there were others living on this property besides just him and his family; as it turns out, Henry owned slaves. In the 18th century, wealthy land owners here in New York had no issues with the idea of “people as property,” as we can see in his will, which reads in part,

“I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife, Susannah for and during the whole term of her widowhood, the house where I now live together with the farm and all lands in Poughkeepsie Precinct with barn, orchard, meadow and all appurtenances thereunto belonging and all the household furniture of what kind soever, all my plate and my slaves, all my cattle and horses of which I shall be possessed at the time of my death”

A revealing letter (seen right) within our collections here in the Local History Room shows just how harshly enslaved people were treated in New York. The letter was from Henry’s brother, Robert Gilbert Livingston, who was having problems with a female that he owned. He wrote on the 18th of June in 1752 that his “wench – has a devilish tongue and will be in stress in any family unless she’s overpowered by a master that can manage her and then she’ll be as humble as a dog.” He threatened to sell her son, although he admitted, “I always took a great likeness to him.” She also had a daughter, but of her he wrote, “the girl I don’t value much” (he is concerned with monetary value in these cases).

Robert sent the woman and her children to Henry in Poughkeepsie and told him to do with her as he saw fit. He suggested that he should sell the mother and daughter but keep the boy. By July 4th, Robert wrote to Henry again and asked how things were going, adding, “You can (to assure her) persuade her to believe you intend to keep him (the son) for yourself and hope by that means she may consent. But if she doesn’t you can try another method, selling her by force without the boy, threaten to have him whipped.” It is painful to think of any mother having to go through this type of situation. It is also important that we not forget that such conditions existed right here in our own backyard.

Livingston Family Correspondence – Letters from Robert Gilbert Livingston to his brother Henry Livingston Sr. 18 June 1752, 4 July 1752 – LH Collections
Poughkeepsie Journal, Feb 1799

01 – Photo of a portrait of Henry Livingston Sr. – LH Collections
02 – Photo of a portrait of Henry’s father, Gilbert Livingston – LH Collections
03 – Photo of a portrait of Henry’s mother, Cornelia Beekman Livingston – LH Collections
04 – Photo of the Livingston House in Poughkeepsie, no longer standing – LH Collections
05 – Scan of the original letter from Robert Gilbert Livingston to his brother Henry, 18 June 1752, LH Collections