Who Built the Stone Walls of New York?

“Stone walls are built by hands. How else would you bring them to life, other than to learn about and recognize all the people who were part of the stone wall building process?” -Susan Allport, author of Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York

“In any portrait of the wall builders of early New England, the Yankee farmer must move over to allow room for Native Americans and black slaves,” notes Susan Allport in the “Wall Builders of Early New England” chapter of her book, Sermons in Stone: The Stone Walls of New England and New York. The chapter explores hard-to-find firsthand material that Allport researched herself.

“The research process was challenging,” said Allport in an interview with HHLT’s Director of Natural Resources, Nicole Wooten. “When I started researching, nobody thought of stonewalls as a point of historic interest. The groups I reached out to—libraries and historical societies mainly—asked “why does she even care?” But people would look, which was lucky for me, because stonewalls are this door you can enter the past through.”

In the materials, Allport discovered that Native Americans, enslaved people, and indentured servants built stone walls in addition to the widely-recognized Yankee farmers. As Allport describes in Sermons in Stone, the colonial settlers employed Native Americans in order to fill debts. Those debts were sometimes accrued because actions that were once the norm for Native Americans were deemed illegal and punishable by colonial settlers.

“Indians didn’t require fencing but in the end, ended up building it for the colonists. There’s a huge irony there,” said Allport. “Often, self-interest gives us blinders. Colonists only saw a lack of improvements on the land. They were blind to the rich agricultural practices and hunting grounds that the Indians had created. Stonewalls could be used as a lens to look at so much of this.”

As she notes in Chapter 1 of Sermons in Stone, the concept of walls was part of cultural clash:

“Ultimately, Indians were forced to adopt the European method of protecting crops from livestock, the fence, even though they had no domesticated animals of their own and even though fences were fundamentally antagonistic to their way of life. It was only a matter of time before these native New Englanders, having lost their territories and their traditional means of survival, would also be erecting fences—and stone walls—for the colonists” (pg. 31).

Also, some of the labor was not debt-driven, nor paid, but rather forced:

“Some of the Indians who worked for the settlers were free men who were paid a daily wage, but others were slaves, captives from the King Philip’s Indian War of 1675 who had been subsequently awarded to colonists in compensation for their own participation in that war. Both of these groups of Indians were probably employed in building stone walls.”

Slavery is also a part of the history of the stone walls. As Allport remarks in the book (and as we learned in an earlier article in this Relearning Highlands History series), “Though many of us associate slavery only with the southern states, numerous New England farmers kept slaves well into the eighteenth century*.” She further describes how many Northerners enslaved African and African-American people, but that it never became as extensive a practice due to “economic rather than religious or moral grounds” (pg. 108).

Though many day-to-day records and account books from northern plantations did not survive to this day, some mentions of enslaved people that were forced to build stone walls do exist. For example, one landowner and reverend, James MacSparran, mentions that an enslaved person known as Harry built a stone wall “to the northward of the north orchard” in 1743 for multiple weeks (pg. 109).

In an account given by New York Quaker Ezekiel Hawley, another enslaved person, Robbin, was recorded as ‘being given a “Credit for making stone fence” and “for 4 days carting stone of thirty-two shillings.”’ (pg.110).

Further, in the account book of another New Yorker, Samuel Lyon, “he noted that “in the first year i made 124 rods” of stone wall” but later lists five names—Amos Roberts, Lieu, Moses, Joseph Offegins, and Wheeten—of the actual stonewall builders. According to historian Richard Landers, the five people were likely five of the many people that Samuel Lyon enslaved.

History also persists in oral traditions, such as the long-time residents of eastern Connecticut who shared with an interviewer for The Antiquarian that their grandfathers told them that enslaved people built the stone walls.

Allport also recognizes that Yankee farmers built many stone walls: “Stonewalls were always emblematic of the endless labors of those who worked the lands,” said Allport. “But that labor wasn’t just of the farmers. They are built by hands, and learning about those hands makes stonewalls a door to a deep historical past.”

*NOTE: The final legal exception to slavery in New York ended in 1841. Source: slavenorth.com/nyemancip.htm