Text and original photography by George Cassidy Payne
Before I booked a one-night getaway with my wife at the Esperanza Mansion and Inn, located on Route 54A in Bluff Point, just outside of Penn Yan, I had no clue that its history has a connection to slavery. I found that out the day after we visited when I decided to do a little online research about the place.
I found that the builder was John Nicholas Rose, the son of a wealthy landowner from Virginia who journeyed north to Seneca County in 1804. His family came with a train of wagons and carriages and a “retinue of slaves.”
According to an article in the Crooked Lake Review, “John was born on 18 December 1799, in Virginia. After graduating from Union College in Schenectady he was lured away from the family homestead at Rose Hill by the challenge of establishing a farm in Jerusalem, Yates County. He settled at the first “Esperanza” in 1823, on land purchased from John Beddoe. He borrowed $9,000 from his wealthy father in 1825 and had done well enough to repay it completely by 1833. The bond was interest-free. Marriage to Jane Eliza Macomb of New York City took place in 1829, after which the young couple began their grand project, the building of Esperanza.”
With their extraordinary effort — and the benefit of accumulated wealth from his family’s involvement with slavery — Esperanza was completed on July 3, 1838. After digging a little deeper, I was unable to pinpoint when exactly construction on Esperanza began or whether his father’s slaves were used in the laying of the groundwork.¹ But the fact that his family-owned slaves and that Rose intended to create a Virginia styled plantation on Keuka Lake was unsettling to me. This knowledge led me to ask a straightforward question: is it ethical to stay in a place that was possibly built using slave labor and most certainly built with the goal of glorifying plantation life?
Unquestionably, Esperanza is one of the most stylistic examples of Greek Revival architecture in the Finger Lakes region, and at under $100 a night, it is one of the best bargains on Airbnb. The staff was courteous and responsive, and my wife and I loved the views.
To be fair, the mansion has a complex and multifaceted history, one that is far from morally unambiguous. Frances Dumas, in A Good Country, A Pleasant Habitation (1990) states, “Esperanza was rumored to have been a station on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Novelist Hughes Mearns, in Richard Richard (1916) wrote that “Red Jacket” (his name for Esperanza) was one of the last ‘stations’ before Canada, spiriting negroes from the South.”
Even if that is the case, how am I all that better than Rose and his family if I willingly choose to spend another night there? If I stay there in the future, as my wife and I both want to, knowing what I know now, would I not be willfully choosing to ignore the physical and mental suffering that went into creating that symbol of white privilege?
Perhaps. But as I said, the mansion has a complex history. What if I think of the estate as a site of liberation instead? If it was indeed a stop on the Underground Railroad, perhaps that cancels out its more sinister history as a site constructed in part on the backs of human beings in bondage. Could I morally justify a future visit that way? But what does it mean to vacation where individuals once risked their lives to escape bounty hunters? What does it mean to have a good time in a space where a system of oppression and a government of complicity made black lives untenable?
Honoring the courage and dignity of freedom seekers is not the same as taking in a sunset over Keuka Lake from Adirondack lawn chairs on a banquet terrace with a glass of merlot. Is that really a proper way to honor a site of conscience?¹
Sadly, the legacy of labor exploitation came back to imperil Esperanza in 2017. The owners at the time were David and Lisa Wegman. They settled a class-action lawsuit with banquet workers who alleged that customers paid mandatory service charges that were not passed onto them. That same year the mansion went into foreclosure.
¹ In “Homes had ties to South, slavery”, (Finger Lake Times, Jan., 2012), Fran Dumas reviews the history of slave holding in the Finger Lakes region:
Slavery was finally made illegal (after a long gradual process) in New York in 1827 (the bill was offered in the state Senate by local physician Joshua Lee), so all the slaves brought North by the Virginians, and their descendants, had to be freed. There is a letter still extant from John Nicholas to a relative back home, complaining (italics mine) that he could neither buy nor sell any of his people, as the law in his new home gradually changed. He could, however, free them, and the town of Seneca has the manumission paper of an aged couple named Mingo and Maria. They were approximately the same age as Nicholas himself, but were considered too old to work on the farm.
The question is when construction of Esperanza began, not when it was completed. Was it before 1827 when slavery was made illegal? What we do know is that John Nicholas Rose set out for Yates County in 1823 and there purchased over one thousand acres from Captain John Bedoe, paying $8 per acre for his land (Yates County Historical Society). Was the Esperanza estate part of that purchase and when did he start laying the groundwork for his mansion?
Esperanza (Jerusalem, New York), Wikipedia
The Branchport Connection: John Nicholas Rose 1799 – 1870 by Verne M. Marshall (The Crooked Lake Review, March 1995)
Esperanza mansion sued; in foreclosure, The Chronicle-Express, 2017
Homes had ties to South, slavery, Finger Lakes Times, Jan., 2012
George is certainly right that Esperanza is the gem of the Finger Lakes. For decades, our friends and family have dined on the deck captured in George’s photographs. I always order the lamp chops and baked potato. Many years ago in my match.com profile, Esperanza was listed as a favorite spot: “Favorite local spot: Cobb’s Hill. The Garden of Fragrance at the RMSC. Esperanza Mansion.”Despite all those years of dinners, no one I canvassed — including myself — knew the mansion was connected with slavery. Several felt the Rose family was redeemed by freeing its slaves and possibly participating in the Underground Railroad. Nonetheless, George’s point is well taken, especially in highlighting our historical amnesia.
George’s story reminds me of my time in southern Rhode Island when I often enjoyed lobster and chowder at the colonial era General Stanton Inn. Once, the waitress claimed the Inn was used as a “breeding room” where slaves were sent for coerced procreation. At the time, her revelation did not prevent me from dining at the General Stanton Inn, but George’s piece has made me think about the Inn’s legacy anew.