Slavery had been a fact of life in New York  since 1626, when 11 African slaves were brought to New Amsterdam and forced to work as servants and craftspeople. Before the Revolution, New York had the largest number of slaves of any colony north of Maryland. Later, as a state conducting lucrative business with the cotton-growing South, New York often turned its back on the cruelties of the “curious institution.” In fact, New York was one of the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery, only doing so in 1827.
Despite this dismal beginning, New York played a critical role in the antislavery movement before and during the Civil War. Many of the country’s most ardent abolitionists—including William Seward, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, and Martin Van Buren—lived upstate, and the Finger Lakes  region was regarded as a hotbed of antislavery sentiment.
Gerrit Smith and John Brown established a farm for escaped slaves near Lake Placid in 1849, and Underground Railroad stations  dotted the state, especially along the Niagara frontier. When escaped slave William “Jerry” McHenry was arrested by federal marshals in Syracuse  in 1851, he was promptly rescued by vigilante abolitionists. That rescue, which challenged the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was one of the early precipitating events leading up to the Civil War.
The pre–Civil War years also witnessed the influx of the first of the great waves of immigrants that swept into New York City  between the mid-1800s and the 1920s. From 1840 to 1855, over three million Irish and Germans arrived. Many of the Irish were escaping the potato famines; many of the Germans, the failed Revolution of 1848.
When the Civil War began, New York officially supported the Union. But the citizenry remained divided. The city’s newest immigrants resented having to fight to free slaves, who might then come north and compete for jobs. In 1863, this deep-rooted discontent led to the Draft Riots, in which 2,000 people were injured or killed.
About 500,000 New Yorkers served in the war, and about 50,000 were killed. The state also contributed much in the way of supplies and weapons.
After the war, the infamous William Marcy “Boss” Tweed rose to power in New York City. A tough street fighter, Tweed was America’s first “political boss.” He never held mayoral office, but he controlled the city from behind the scenes through the Democratic machine known as Tammany Hall.
During Tweed’s corrupt reign, from 1866 to 1871, he and his henchmen pocketed as much as $200 million from padded or fraudulent city expenditures and tax improprieties. Eventually indicted, Tweed died in a Ludlow Street jail not far from his birthplace.