When Jane Fonda’s Ancestor & George Washington Wanted Their Slaves Back (History)

Jelles Fonda, the ancestor of actors Henry, Jane and Peter Fonda, wanted his slaves back. During a 1780 raid, some had been captured and taken to Canada from his property in Caughnawaga (Fonda), New York and his farm which stood where the Mohawk Community now is near Yosts.

Site of Jelles Fonda’s house where some of his slaves were captured during Revolutionary War raid.

It is difficult to say how many slaves Jelles Fonda had. By his own admission he was the second wealthiest man in Tryon (now Montgomery) County and tax records substantiate his wealth. Until his death in 1774, Sir William Johnson had been the wealthiest man and had owned upwards of 40 slaves during his lifetime. A tax list made just prior to the Revolution, shows Jelles was taxed more than double his father Douw. Douw had five slaves taken during the 1780 raid, but we don’t know how many slaves escaped the raid. Most likely Jelles had more slaves than his father but far fewer than Johnson.

The Treaty of Paris made no provision for Americans to get their slaves back if taken to Canada during raids. The only article relative to African-Americans, Article 7, stated “…his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any Destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other Property of the American inhabitants, withdraw…from the said United States…”

Fonda wasn’t the only one who wanted his slaves back. On May 6, 1783, George Washington met with Sir Guy Carleton, Governor General of British North America, in Tappan, NY to discuss the withdrawal of British troops per the provisional Treaty of Paris. One item Washington discussed was the requirement the British return all slaves in their possession who belonged to Americans. Carleton told Washington that “delivering up the Negroes to their former Masters would be delivering them up some possible to Execution, and others to severe punishments, which in his Opinion would be a dishonorable violation of the public Faith, pledged to the Negroes in the proclamations.” The proclamations Carleton referred to were promises of freedom to rebel owned slaves if they fought for the British.

The usually unflappable Washington began flapping when he discovered Carleton had already evacuated 3000 slaves, some belonging to him, including one Harry Washington, whose story is well documented. Carleton’s thinking was that these Blacks had already been freed by the British and since they were no longer anyone’s property, Article 7 did not apply to them. Carleton also told Washington he had carefully recorded all slaves and former masters’ names so they could be compensated.

Fonda’s slaves were not covered under the treaty. They were “spoils of war.” Fonda appealed directly to Sir John Johnson, who had served with him prior to the Revolution on the first Tryon County Court and who led the raid in which Fonda’s slaves were captured. Writing to Sir Frederick Haldimand, Governor of Quebec, on September 8, 1783, Johnson said, “Having had an application from Major Fonda, of Tryon County, to return him his Negros, brought in by me in 1780, in Consequence of Lieutenant Colonel Butlers Acquainting him that I would Willingly do so, provided I could Obtain Your Excellency’s Approbation, As I imagine he would be glad to return me some of mine in lieu of them, that are in his Neighbourhood…”

Hearing of Fonda’s request, John Johnson’s brother-in-law, Daniel Claus, whose confiscated estate in between Guy Park and Fort Johnson on the Mohawk River, wrote to Haldimand’s secretary, Captain Robert Mathews, on July 7, 1783, stating “Among others, I hear a Major Fonda of the Mohawk Country has sent for two negro men of his that work at Quebec. This very man, I am particularly positively informed, has among other articles that were sold at one of the sales of my personal estate purchased two handy young negro girls. The cleverest (Mrs Claus’s maid) he sold again at an advanced price in Philadelphia or Virginia, and the other he gave to his son-in-law. And now, I suppose, he is anxious to get the little of his property he has in this province or elsewhere without the least thought of restoring the Loyalists’ effects he acquired by some means or other, for I understand he appropriated a considerable part of our family’s effects.”

On September 11, 1783, Haldimand approved the exchange of slaves. Little has been written about the dozens of slaves belonging to the Claus, Fonda, Johnson and other Mohawk Valley families who were confiscated or captured in raids during the Revolution. It appears, however, that most were in the same condition at the end of the war as at the beginning, except a few had new owners.

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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.

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