Slave to Fiddler: Utica’s Joseph Pell

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pelldeathI wrote an article about early black musicians in New York State back in December, but I decided to omit Joe Pell from that piece for two reasons. He seemed never to have been a full-time musician (as were the other performers in the article), and, in December, nearly all the information I had on Pell came from his obituary, and obituaries are not always the best place to locate objective, unbiased information about a person.

I have since been able to confirm much of what was written upon his passing, and I present here an annotated obituary of this talented and beloved black performer. My annotations appear within square brackets.

“Death of Joe Pell,” Utica Morning Herald, February 8, 1888

“Joe Pell, the old colored patriarch of Post street, is dead. The deceased was born long ago on what is known as the Wilson farm, directly opposite Oriskany. His father was a free man from Connecticut, but his mother had for many years been a slave to a gentleman named Ives, residing in Whitestown.”

[The man named Ives may have been Jesse Ives, a member of a family originally from Connecticut. He and a brother were early setters of Bridgewater, New York. Ives relocated to Whitesboro (a village in the Town of Whitestown) in 1800.]

“When Mr. Pell was three years old, he was sold as a slave to Samuel Carey of the town of Marcy for the consideration of $25.”

[The 1820 Census lists a Samuel Carey in Deefield, a town from which Marcy was formed in 1832. A different newspaper item says Pell had been sold for $25 and “a jug of whiskey.”]

“He remained in bondage until, as he supposed, he was 21 years of age, but he afterwards thought that he was kept a slave several years longer than he ought to have been, and for this reason he was never satisfied as to what was his correct age.”

[Pell’s year of birth, calculated from the ages given for him in census listings from 1850 to 1880, was probably between 1812 and 1816. That he was uncertain whether he had been held in bondage longer than he should have been is not surprising. New York State passed a gradual emancipation law in 1799, which said that slaves born after July 4, 1799 were to remain in servitude until age 28 (for males) or 25 (for females). This law made no provision for slaves born before that date. Thus, a parent could be a slave, yet his or her children would become free upon reaching the requisite age. In 1817, the Legislature passed a law saying that slaves born earlier than July 4, 1799 would be free after (not on) the Fourth of July in 1827. This act also provided that slaves born after its date of passage, March 31, would only have to remain servants to the age of 21. In addition, if a slave owner had not made arrangements for the education of a slave, the person was to be free as of the age of 18. If Pell had not been educated (and census records mostly indicate he could not read or write), he would have been entitled to his freedom at 18. Based on the schedule of age-based emancipation, some people in New York were still legally held as slaves after 1827: there were 75 in 1830, and just 4 in 1840.]

“As soon as he was free he worked as a farm laborer.”

[Pell’s occupation, as listed in census schedules, is usually “laborer.” In 1850, no occupation is given for him; in 1855, he is a “boatman”; and in 1880, a “white washer.”]

“About 50 years ago he was married to Margaret Spark of this city, who survives him.“

[An obituary for his wife, who died in 1904, said that she was born in Johnstown, New York in 1823, to parents who were slaves. She went to Utica and Whitestown, where she did housework for families. After marrying Pell, the couple lived in Whitesboro for about 20 years, then moved to Utica.]

“He lived in Whitesboro for about 20 years and made a pretty fair living by working as a farm laborer, and using to good advantage his knowledge of fiddling, which he obtained while a slave.”

[His wife’s obituary said that Pell “sawed wood and did odd jobs for a living, while evenings he played the violin for dances and parties,” and that he was a “typical old time fiddler.”]

“Thirty-three years ago he moved to this city, and has lived on Post avenue, with the exception of one year, ever since.”

[At the time of her death in 1904, Pell’s wife Margaret still resided at 16 Post Street in Utica.]

“While a resident of this city Mr. Pell has continued himself mainly by acting as orchestra in barroom dances.“

[He sometimes played at more formal gatherings. A newspaper account of the Rome Centennial in 1876, said “Dr. Joseph Pell, the ebony Arion from Africa, mounted the platform and discoursed notes liquid and airy upon the violin.”]

“He had a capacious mouth, and a laugh on which he had his trade mark. He was a jolly, good natured old soul, and was known by about every youngster in the city. “

[Two Utica men, W. F. Daly and William H. Healey named a mine in Colorado after Pell. Daly told a newspaper: “I know of no more unfortunate yet good-natured soul than Joe Pell of Rue de Post, Utica. We therefore dubbed our mine ‘The Joe Pell’–a name that will bring a smile to our faces in good or bad fortune.”]

“He was taken sick last spring and never fully recovered. Besides a wife, Mr. Pell leaves nine children as follows: James of Rome, Albert, Samuel, Charles and Lewis of this city, Frank of Saratoga Springs, and Walter of Syracuse, Mrs. Fannie Jackson and Emma Wormworth of this city. “

[Records show that many of his children remained in the Utica/Rome area, Frank, who had been a waiter in Saratoga Springs, later ran a hotel in Syracuse. A number of his children performed music, or gave recitations, at Utica’s Hope Chapel, an African-American church. The obituary for Pell’s wife noted that all the children had inherited their father’s love of music. At an event in Utica in 1878, “The musical exercises were entrusted to the Pell Serenaders, a company of eight dusky youths, in which the Pell characteristics were emphatically prominent.” The family was described in the newspaper as  one “that has been noted for years in the annals of Post street for turning out more musical prodigies than any ten tribes on the Avenue.”]

“Mr. Pell is believed to have been about 90 years of age, and experienced religion, and was baptized three months ago. The funeral services will be held Thursday at 3 P. M., in Hope Chapel. “

[Pell’s age was probably closer to 63, though as mentioned above, the year of his birth was uncertain, even to him. His family was active in Hope Chapel (a church that was once served by Rev. Jermain Loguen, for years afte Pell’s death.]

3 thoughts on “Slave to Fiddler: Utica’s Joseph Pell

  1. Tyra McKinsey

    I am a direct descendant of Joseph Pell and we are looking for other family members.

    I reside in the city of Utica. I am so interested in speaking with the writer of this article.

    Thank you.
    Tyra McKinsey

  2. david fiske

    It’s been a while since I researched Joe Pell, but, as a caution, I believe there was also a different Joe Pell in the Utica area. My website is


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