Cuffy’s Church – Enslaved Africans and The Old Dutch Church

Like other prominent families in early New York, the Philipses were major slaveholders, employing slaves in urban, rural, and maritime environments and in a variety of occupations as laborers in their city households and warehouses, as millers, craftsmen, and farmers at the rural farming centers; as boatman on their Hudson River sloops; and as translators and cooks on their Atlantic voyages.

Dennis J Maika, “Encounters: Slavery and the Philipse Family: 1860-1751 in Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture


It’s not hard to discern the geographic origins of the first tenant farmers and their families who are buried in the shadow of the Old Dutch Church. The name of the church proclaims a connection with the Netherlands, but the family names carved on the headstones reveal a more cosmopolitan community.

Sara Fochee’s Headstone. Old Dutch Church. Photo: D. McCue

Washington Irving has made us all familiar with the Van Tassel name – derived from Texel, an island that was a starting point for many Dutch West India Company ships. Van Weerts (Van Wart) could have roots in any city in the Netherlands called “Weert”. The Buckhouts may have come from the German city of Bucholte, located near the Dutch border. And even though her headstone is carved in Dutch, the name Sara Fochee, wife of John Enters, speaks to French origins, possibly a Huguenot who relocated to the Netherlands before immigrating to New Amsterdam. Abraham De Revier was most likely a Belgium Walloon who also sought refuge in Holland before ending up in Philipsburg. In the Church Register of 1715 the membership roll includes “Jan Hart from Switzerland”. Among the pastors buried here we have Rev. Thomas Smith – born in Scotland. All in all, the families that settled in Philipsburg may have spoken a common Dutch language, and shared a common Christianity based on Calvinist theology, but on closer look they are a surprisingly international mix from Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Scotland. One can imagine a child’s grade school project that displays strings of yarn starting in Sleepy Hollow, reaching out across the Atlantic and pinned to points in these ancestral lands.

Descendants of these old families often make their way to the Old Dutch Church where burying ground maps, church registers, and the headstones themselves can be used to help trace their ancestors. But there is another line of immigration for which these resources can not be employed. One must look to old shipping records, bills of sale, and wills to trace the origins of these men, women and children whose labors greatly increased the wealth of the Philipse family starting with Frederick Philipse I and his she-merchant wife Margaret Hardenbroeck and continuing with his son and heir of the Upper Mills, Adolph Philipse. For these, the strings on our grade school map would have to reach to places like Soyo, on the Kongolese coast; Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa; and other West African ports by way of Barbardos. Whether purchased or stolen, all were brought here involuntarily. These are the enslaved Africans of Philipsburg Manor.

In 1680, Frederick Philipse was a man with a plan. He acquired the property surrounding the Pocantico River from the Weckquaesgeek peoples and quickly added another parcel to the north, purchased from the Sinck-Sinck Indians, rounding out a contiguous holding of some 55,000 acres whose borders were defined by Spuyten Duyvil Creek to the south, the Croton River to the north, the Bronx River to the east and the great North River [Hudson] to the west. The Pocantico property already possessed a grist mill. But he would upgrade the facilities, add buildings and living quarters, and fortify the mill pond, thus creating a center of trade that would greatly enhance his wealth and stature, so much so that by 1693 he would receive a royal charter that would make his estate Philipsburg Manor and confer upon him the title of “Lord”. In the meantime, he advertised for tenant farmers to come and clear land and plant wheat. Those who answered his call were provided with rent-free leases and eventually, a new house of worship. However, this labor was not totally sufficient to meet his needs. The full realization of his business plan would rely on free labor.

It is said that the arrival of the first group of slaves to the Upper Mills was not planned. The inaugural foray of Margaret and Frederick Philipse into the slave trade took place in 1685 when 146 enslaved Africans boarded their ship Charles in Soyo to be sold to sugarcane planters in Barbados. 105 would survive the trip, many of them sick from the voyage. 8 who were considered too ill for sale continued the journey to Rye, New York, where they were met by 19 year old Adolph Philipse, who led them on a 15 mile hike to their new home in the Upper Mills.

At the Old Dutch Church we mark the year 1685 as our beginning. It is the year engraved on our bronze bell which was cast in the Netherlands and possibly carried by Margaret herself back to Philipsburg. It’s a profound thought for me that the year our bell arrived marks the same year of the arrival of the enslaved Africans who would ultimately provide the labor to complete the building of Frederick Philipse’s church, for the use of his tenants.

The possible encounter between Harry or Cuffy and Frederick Philipse allows us to imagine a rich and complex cultural interaction between Dutch and Africans in the Hudson Valley.

Dennis Maika, Historian

During the 1897 celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Old Dutch Church, the Rev. David Cole, D.D., related a story from historian Robert Bolton’s 1848 history of Westchester county, regarding a certain African who is sometimes called Cuffy or Harry. The story indicates that Philipse’s construction of the church was plagued with many starts and stops as laborers were needed elsewhere, primarily due to the continual flooding of the Pocantico.

He [Philipse] had laid the foundation of the church, but had withdrawn his workman from it to repair his dam, which had been injured by a freshet. When the repair had been made a second freshet came and carried it away. The dam was now entirely rebuilt and with great strength. But the freshet again returned and destroyed the work. Frederick was now much distressed. Meanwhile, his slave, Harry [Cuffy], had a dream. The dream was repeated and he felt compelled to tell it. It was that God was displeased with his master for stopping work on the church to repair the dam. He must go on with the church, and then build the dam and it would stand. Frederick heeded and followed the warning and the dam stood.

Rev David Cole D.D., 200th Anniversary Speech

Rev. Cole tells this story in an attempt to make sense of the various dates attached to the origins of the church. He believes the work may have started in 1684 and continued on and off until it was finally completed. Cuffy’s story gives a possible explanation. But to the modern ear, and I’ll use my own experience, the story sounds a bit fabricated upon first hearing. How is a slave, who may have recently arrived after a prolonged journey and illness, who is then force marched across Westchester county, capable of communicating to a master whose language he does not share and whose station in life would generally have prevented him close personal contact? When I became a docent at the Old Dutch Church, I stopped telling this story because it felt like a “magical negro trope”, in that it falls on the black slave to tell his white master how to do his job. I had to ask myself, what is the purpose of this story? Does it somehow make us feel better about Cuffy’s status as a slave?

The historian Dennis Maika reminds us that, “When they arrived at Philipes’s Upper Mills, the Kongolese cohort would have survived war and captivity at home, the cruelties of the Middle Passage, and illnesses that sent them from Barbados to New York.” He goes on to say that their Kongolese culture would help them recover and adjust. He shares some cultural insight into the nature of the first cohort of enslaved Africans at the Upper Mills. The Kongolese were an agricultural society who planted root vegetables, maize, fruit trees and understood how to care for the soil. Their proximity to the Congo River made them river traders and navigators and brought them in contact with a variety of other cultures. All of these skills would prove valuable to the work of the Upper Mills. But what about the church? What significance would that have to Cuffy? Why would this construction mean anything to him, or be different from any other building project at the Mills? Maika points out that Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries had been present in the Kingdom of the Kongo as early as the 1491 conversion and baptism of King Nzinga to Christianity. The nobility followed suit and Christianity would become the principle religion of the kingdom. A catechism translated from Portuguese to Kikongo was available in 1624. We can surmise that the former passengers of the ship Charles were Christians, who would have been familiar with the sign of the cross, standard Catholic prayers and liturgy. In Maika’s words, “For African Christians, basic principles of a proper Christian life, including divine intervention in daily affairs and the importance of a place of worship, were understood.” Further,

Dreams were acceptable conduits for such revelations and, in Kongolese culture, special individuals known as ngangas served as interpreters of dreams. Given his cultural heritage, we should not be surprised that an enslaved Kongolese at Philipsburg shared a dream suggesting divine intervention in building the Church.

This story about Cuffy and Frederick Philipse, repeated for generations, sounds more true to me when viewed from the perspective of Kongolese culture. A shared faith may be the key to understanding why Cuffy would feel compelled to approach Philipse the way he did.

Kongolese Cross, St Anthony of Padua, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Once the church was completed, both tenant farmers and enslaved Africans attended services, but the latter, who could be baptized, would not be admitted to full membership in the church. This practice was already in place in the churches of New Amsterdam. And true to age old practice, baptism did not change one’s temporal status. That would have to wait for one’s heavenly reward. Maika says, “Although Sabbath rituals would have been different, the enslaved Kongolese would have recognized Christian symbols like the cross and the Lord’s Supper and found them meaningful as they attended services in the Old Dutch Church.”

In his will of 1700, Frederick Philipse, who owned 40 slaves across all of his New York properties, only names the 21 slaves associated with the Upper Mills and he singles out one slave in particular “Old Susan”, who may have been part of the original Kongolese group: “I will and order that the Negroe woman Old Susan shall dwell and continue on the plantation at the Upper Mills so long as she lives.” We can only conjecture why Susan was mentioned in this manner, but it might indicate that Philipse had a close relationship with the enslaved at the Upper Mills. Unlike the second generation of slave holders, Philipse did not change the original names of his enslaved workers.

By the time of Philpse’s death in 1702, the enslaved community at the Upper Mills was a heterogeneous mix of races and ethnicities. Philipse knew them personally, and though he exhibited his own brand of kindness to Old Susan and perhaps others, he rarely saw beyond their functional contributions to his property and showed no interest in setting them free. The next generation of Philipse slave holders would respond differently to the people they enslaved both at the Upper Mills and in New York City.

Dennis Maika

For the past six years I have been welcoming visitors to the Old Dutch Church, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the descendants of the old families, talking with amateur historians like myself about the American Revolution, and discussing my own interpretation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But something has always tugged at my heart. There is a part of our history that we don’t engage with. It’s uncomfortable and descendants of Cuffy and Old Susan do not cross our threshold to remind us, but that can not and should not erase their memory.

For the past few years, Yonkers artist Vinny Bagwell, has been engaged in a passionate project to tell the story of the enslaved Africans of the Lower Mills of Philipsburg Manor. Combining sculpture and spoken word she is bringing to life a public artwork that will interpret their legacy in an installation along the Hudson River called the Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden. Two completed life-sized bronze sculptures, (five are planned), are currently on exhibition at the Yonkers Riverfront Library which sits in close proximity to the original Manor house of Frederick and Margaret Philipse, built in 1683.

Themba the Boatman by Vinnie Bagwell
Dawn-Marie Sakile Blackwell, photographer

When I think of Ms Bagwell’s work in Yonkers, combined with the educational programming of Historic Hudson Valley at the Philpsburg Manor historic site and our own role as stewards of the Old Dutch Church, I am made aware of the power of witness combined with story-telling. In between the lines of historic research we have to use our imagination, artistry and the art of story-telling to flesh out the lives of people who played an important role in the history of our nation. If we are to tell the story of the Philipse’s, we have to tell the story of Cuffy and Old Susan; of Mingo, Sampson, Billy, Charles, Peter, Mary and all the others whose only monument in our burying ground may be the very walls that surround us in worship at the Old Dutch Church.


So much thanks to our church historian Janie Couch-Allen who first told me the story of Cuffy.

Dennis J. Maikai’s essay “Slavery and the Philipse Family, 1680-1751” provided much of the historical context regarding the Kongolese cohort at the Upper Mills.

Vinnie Bagwell has been a source of inspiration since I was first made aware of the “Enslaved Africans’ Rain Garden” project during a talk she gave at Sarah Lawrence College. In her own words, she describes her work: “Anchored in realism, my style is defined by portraiture which provides insight into human character and shows a precise articulation of the human spirit. My subjects are meant to be engaged to invite memories of experiences and feelings. Each character is designed to remind viewers that artistry is a powerful, useful tool of social transformation; one capable of condensing our thoughts, distilling our minds, and renewing our hopes and aspirations.”

Historic Hudson Valley continues to provide innovative educational experiences around the topic of the enslaved community at Philipsburg Manor. Their interactive project “People Not Property” is a perfect starting place to learn more about this topic.

Other references:

Consistory of the First Reformed Church, “200th Anniversary at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow October 10 and October 11, 1897. 1898

Robert Bolton, “A History of the Country of Westchester, From Its First Settlement to the Present Time”, Vol 1, 1848

Roger Panetta, ed. “Dutch New York, The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture”, 2009

Deborah McCue

Daughter of a hula dancer and WWII vet. Born and raised on the East Coast and brought up by my Hawaiian grandmother. Mother of 2 married daughters and wife of a guy who still keeps me laughing after 38 years of marriage. Tutu to a lovely grandson! Docent at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow - think Legend. Member of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns