Austin Steward: Escaped to freedom, 1815, with help from Darius Comstock, Otis Comstock, and Amy Smith Comstock, Farmington Quakers
Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman (Rochester, N.Y.: William Alling, 1857).
Austin Steward was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1793. He died in 1869, a free man since his early twenties, having achieved an education and worked in a sequence of professions including construction, grocer, public servant and political leader, abolitionist, lecturer, and author.
Steward’s ties to Farmington-Macedon Quakers were established at the time of his escape from the “ownership” of Virginia planter William Helm, who had moved to New York to establish slave-holding agricultural plantations in Bath and Sodus Bay. Helm secured additional income by “hiring out” enslaved labor, and Steward worked for a while for Henry Towar of the hamlet of Alloway, Town of Lyons, New York. Steward’s autobiography described an ongoing experience of brutal abuse in such a hired out situation:
“There is no one, I care not how favorable his condition, who desires to be a slave . . . I have often heard fugitive slaves say, that it was not so much the cruel beatings and floggings that they received which induced them to leave the South, as the idea of dragging out a whole life of unrequited toil to enrich their masters.
Everywhere that Slavery exists, it is nothing but slavery. I found it just as hard to be beaten over the head with a piece of iron in New York as it was in Virginia. Whips and chains are everywhere necessary to degrade and brutalize the slave, in order to reduce him to that abject and humble state which Slavery requires. Nor is the effect much less disastrous on the man who holds supreme control of the soul and body of his fellow beings. Such unlimited power, in almost every instance transforms the man into a tyrant; the brother into a demon. (pp. 107-8)”
Steward knew in a vague way that, since he had been hired out, New York’s laws might define him as already free. With legal advice from the Ontario County Manumission Society, Steward fled slavery. He went first to Manchester, New York, and then, narrowly escaping pursuit, made his way to the home of Quaker Darius Comstock. Comstock sent him directly to his brother and sister-in-law Otis Comstock and Amy Smith Comstock in Farmington, where Steward lived, worked, and went to school for four years. “I was about twenty-two years of age,” Steward remembered, “and felt for the first time in my life, that I was my own master. I cannot describe to a free man, what a proud manly feeling came over me when I hired to Mr. C. and made my first bargain, nor when I assumed the dignity of collecting my own earnings.” Steward spent the first money he earned on books. “No king on his throne could feel prouder or grander than I did that day.” Very likely, Austin Steward, along with other community members, helped build the 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse.
Austin Steward’s life in freedom was driven by commitment to abolitionist and Christian values. “I have come to the conclusion that God created all men free and equal,” he declared. He set up a store in Rochester, New York and then moved to Ontario, Canada, where he served for much of the 1830s as President of the board of directors of the African American Wilberforce Colony. After he returned to Rochester in 1837, he became a statewide and national leader of organized conventions for African American rights.
He died in Canandaigua in 1869 and was buried in the local cemetery.
Go here to read 2019 news coverage of the Canandaigua historical marker commemorating events of Austin Steward’s life.
Go here to learn more in brief about Austin Steward and find links to other North American Slave Narratives.
Go to here to read Austin Steward’s autobiography Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman(Rochester, N.Y.: William Alling, 1857).
Go here to read a scholarly article about plantation-style slavery in New York State.