"A Poisonous Threat: Slavery, Intimacy, and Social Order in Schenectady" by Virginie Adane

In September 1684, Jacob Sanders, constable and slaveowner in Schenectady sued  “Frenchman” Matthys Boffie for threatening to poison and kill Pey, one of Sanders’s slaves. Upon cross-interrogation, Boffie claimed having had an intimate relationship and children with said slave woman for the past two years. When he offered to buy her for 60 beaver pelts, Sanders refused the exchange. Upon this refusal, Boffie threatened to poison her and then commit suicide, a threat that was then confirmed by several eyewitnesses and led to his prosecution. 

At first sight, the case seems to be about an established slaveowner objecting to a mixed family and an interracial romance. Yet, the formation of a mixed family was not the issue here. Since the relationship between Boffie and Pey had been ongoing for two years, one can assume that Sanders turned a blind eye to it as it did not question his authority as slaveowner. The court’s immediate decision – to imprison Boffie until its next session – suggests that other factors were being considered. 

When the court reconvened in April 1685, Pey was joined by Francyn, a slave woman belonging to Albany surgeon Jacob Staets, to accuse Boffie of seducing them into running away to Canada. For their part, they said they refused Boffie’s offer. Whether these testimonies were truthful or meant to satisfy their masters remains unknown. However, they turned what seemed at first like an interracial intimate relationship into repeated attempts at smuggling “both men and women slaves” outside of their masters’ jurisdiction. The love story was no longer, as Boffie declared he “[did] not like” Pey after all, and as multiple slaves claimed to have been seduced by him into leaving their masters, it would seem that the case against Boffie was really about his efforts  to remove them from their master’s authority and perhaps resell them for his own profit. After this testimony, Boffie’s case was transferred to the Court of Oyer and Terminer which had jurisdiction over crimes regarding slavery. Unfortunately, the outcome of the judgment has been lost. 

In spite of the many unanswered questions raised by this case, the story offers a telling picture of social order in a frontier society where social and racial barriers might seem fluid. Schenectady was characterized by ethnic and racial diversity from its earliest settlement in 1661; the fur trade drew Europeans settlers and Natives together, outsiders from New France came and went, and farm labor relied on African slaves. 

Yet, fluidity does not mean that there was no social order. Those who testified in support of Sanders were Arnout Cornelise Viele, Reynier Barents, Johannes Cuyler and Hendrick van Dyck. Like him, they were prominent citizens in the local communities of Schenectady and Albany, whose families had settled there during the Dutch period. Sanders’s father was one of the first landowners in Schenectady. His social status appeared reinforced by slave ownership, as slaves were scarce in the area and extremely expensive. 

On the other hand, Boffie was an outsider. The court records present him as a “Frenchman and vagrant fellow of no settled habitation,” which, combined with the fact that he offered sixty beaver pelts for Pey, would indicate he was a coureur de bois, a “runner of the woods” trading with the natives for furs on the frontier between New York, New France and the Indian territory. In any case, having intimate relationships with female slaves was not considered a crime – both lovers were on the margins of society. In that respect, the possibility for intimacy contributed to making the abduction of slaves easier. 

However, by threatening to poison Pey, Boffie was not so much threatening murder as he was robbing Sanders, an honorable man in Schenectady and Albany, of his property. In doing so, he threatened his position in society and therefore, a social order dating back to the Dutch period. Paying attention to intimacy is thus a good way of appraising the complexity of racial and social order in a colonial society. In this matter, racial order was not the issue at hand here, but social order was.

SOURCE: A. J. F. Van Laer (ed.), Minutes of the Court of Albany, Rensselaerswyck and Schenectady 1680–1685, Albany, University of the State of New York, 1932, vol.3, 480–481, 526–528 (doc. 593–593, 655–657)

Bio: Virginie Adane received her PhD from EHESS (Paris, France) in 2017 and is currently an associate professor in Atlantic History at the University of Nantes, in France.  Her dissertation focuses on the regulation of gendered roles and relations in New Netherland and colonial New York between 1630 and 1730. She is working on a book manuscript derived from her PhD. 

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