unidentified slave family, from Google Images
unidentified slave family, from Google Images

In the most recent issue of the Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, Lois Crane Williamson wrote an article titled “The Last Slave in Franklin Township.” It shows that slaves were still living in Hunterdon County long after the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1804 was signed. The last advertisement for a runaway slave to appear in the Hunterdon Gazette was published on February 14, 1838:

Six Cents Reward. RAN away from the subscriber in Amwell township, about the 19th of January last, a female Negro Slave named Peg, about five feet 6 inches in height, her color dark; had with her a variety of clothing. Reasonable charges will be allowed for returning her to the subscriber. – All persons are forbid harboring said runaway at their peril. Abraham T. Williamson.

In light of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War today, it seems fitting to publish this article by Egbert T. Bush. No comments or corrections have been added except for a final observation at the end. Please remember that this article was written in 1930, long before the notion of political correctness came into vogue.


Slavery May Have Existed in County Up to Civil War

Last Slave Was Sold In This County in 1856
- Many Given Their Freedom

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N. J.
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, May 8, 1930

To mention slavery naturally sends the Northern mind on a hasty journey to the South; and proof that slaves were once held in New Jersey, even here in good old Hunterdon County, strikes us as showing only sporadic offshoots from the Southern institution. But investigation shows that slavery was far from being sporadic in the early days of New Jersey.

There appears to be good authority for the statement that in 1680, Col. Richard Morris had sixty slaves working in his mill and about his plantation at Shrewsbury, then a flourishing town of 400 inhabitants, surrounded by prosperous plantations. If none of the colonel’s neighbors held slaves. his alone would make a high percentage for those early days; but it is not at all likely that Lewis Morris, who owned the iron works there, and the thrifty owners of surrounding plantations, did not avail themselves of the same kind of “cheap labor” on which they saw their big neighbor prospering.

According to Gordon’s Gazetteer of New Jersey, the colony held 4,000 slaves in 1737, when the total population was less than 48,000. At the taking of our first national census in 1790, New Jersey was found to be holding 11,423 slaves, of whom Hunterdon had her full share. We find no record to show that Hunterdon ever had a slave-holder whose human “chattels” equaled these of Col. Morris; but we do find that many men—and some women—held anywhere from one to several. In fact, most of the names of prominent early families are associated with slavery or transactions in slavery along the line.

Quakers Opposed Slavery

Even in the early days there was a strong feeling against slavery. The Quakers, who were numerous in the colony, were always opposed to it as a body. In their yearly meeting of 1716, ‘we find them “expressing concern about the practice of buying imported negroes, and requested that no Friends may buy any more for the future.” This implies that some of their number did buy and hold slaves, regardless of the feelings of the Society. But was there ever an organization that did not have in it dissenters or non-conformists enough to worry the working majority?

Some of the New Jersey laws concerning slavery seem to have been based upon Justice, at least as far as Justice can be done to persons held in bondage, not for any fault of their own, but solely for the benefit of the holders. Other laws look very harsh to us, though evidently not so considered at that time.

The act of 1713 provides: “That all persons who shall find or take up any Negro, Indian or Mulatto Slave or slaves five miles from his, her or their Master or Mistresses habitation, who hath not leave in writing from his, her or their Master or Mistress, or not known to be on their service, he, she or they so taken up, shall be Whipt by the party that takes them up, or by his order, on the back, not exceeding twenty lashes; and the Taker up shall have for his reward Five Shillings—about $1.25—for every one taken up as aforesaid.” Who wouldn’t whip a “Nigger?”

Punishment For Slaves

The same act provides various regulations and punishments for offending slaves; thirty lashes for stealing to the value of six pence and under five shillings, and forty lashes for stealing goods to the value of over five shillings. It also imposes a penalty of five pounds ($25) upon the person refusing to whip a slave that has been “taken up.” Another provision is for the payment of 30 pounds to the owner of any slave legally executed for crime. It further provides. “That no slave that shall hereafter be made free, shall hold or possess any House or Houses, Lands, Tenements or Hereditaments within this Province, in his or her own Right in Fee simple or Fee Tail, but the same shall escheat to her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors.”

An act passed in 1675 forbids any person to harbor any runaway slave. And the law of 1767, after a long and convincing “Whereas,” enacts: “That every person hereafter purchasing any Negro, Indian or Mulatto slave, If such slave has not resided in this Colony at least for one whole year, shall pay a Duty of Ten Pounds.” This was a virtual reenactment of that clause of the law of 1713 which expired in 1721. Of the period following that expiration, Lee’s Colonial History of New Jersey says: “There came nearly a half century of conflict between the House of Assembly and the Council concerning the question of regulating the slave trade.” The Assembly passed two bills tending toward the abolition of slavery, one in 1739 and one in 1744. But neither ever reached the King for his approval. From this it appears that in earlier days, the wishes of the people as expressed by their closest representatives, were sometimes blocked by the “Upper House.”

The act of February 15, 1804, provides: That every child born of a slave within this state, after the fourth day of July next, shall be free, but shall remain the servant of the owner of his or her mother, and the executors, administrators and assigns of such owner, in the same manner as if such child had been bound to service by the trustees or overseers of the poor, and shall continue in such service, if a male, until the age of twenty-five years, and if a female until the age of twenty-one years.”

It further provides that the birth of every such child shall, within nine months, be certified to the County Clerk for recording and further that any owner of the mother of such child might, by giving notice of his desire so to do, abandon his right to such service, but must maintain the child until it became one year old, after which it should become a public charge, to be bound to service by the overseer of the poor. It appears that the maintenance of such abandoned slave children became a source of what we call “graft.” Consequently, a law to guard the public against such imposition was passed in 1811. The law of 1818 prevents the exportation of “Negro or other slaves, or servants of color, for life or years, except as herein after provided,” and fixes severe penalties for its violation. The same law prevents the assignment of slaves to non-residents. Evidently there had grown up a system by which “servants for years” were cheated out of their rights under the law of 1804.

Gradual Emancipation

In 1824 a resolution was passed by the Legislature of New Jersey, recommending to the several States and to the Congress of the United States, consideration of a system for the gradual emancipation of “people of color held in servitude in the United States.” These various acts show that New Jersey did want the slaves set free in some gradual way that did not do too great violence to the “rights of property.” Though it seems to us a slow way for removing an evil, a law for gradual emancipation was a long step in the right direction.

I remember that during the feverish days of the Civil War, many opposers bitterly said: “If slavery should be abolished at all, it should be done as New Jersey did it, not in this bloody way.” And surely that would have been cheaper, wiser and more humane. But, though Congress had been importuned for the enactment of some law of gradual emancipation, who could convince the slaveholding States that this was either wise or just? Who ever really tried to convince them? In those mad days of prejudice and passion, who, on either side of the controversy, was listening to reason.

Freeing of Slaves Encouraged

A law of New Jersey, passed in 1786, not only empowered but encouraged masters to set free such slaves as were able to take care of themselves. This manumission was to be in regular form and to become a matter of record for the county. The first in Hunterdon County to take advantage at this privilege was Moore Furman, of Trenton, then a part of Hunterdon. The following is his forcible way of declaring his act and the reasons for it:

“To all Christian People to whom this present writing shall come. Greetings: I, Moore Furman, being convinced of the Injustice and Inhumanity of slavery, and desirous of discouraging the same, have this day manumitted my Negro man Slave Thomas, and I do by these Presents manumit, set free and discharge my said Negro man Thomas from all Bondage and Slavery to me, my Heirs and Assigns forever. In Testimony whereof I have hereunto set my Hand and Seal this seventh Day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven.”

William Green and John Finger, overseers of the poor, and Russell Williams, Benjamin Yard and B. Smith, justices of the peace, signed the required certificate, giving the age of Thomas as over 21 and not over 35, and declaring, him to be apparently sound in mind and body and not likely to become a public charge.

Freeing For a Consideration

Mary Bames [probably Barnes], also of Trenton, was the first to manumit a female slave, her “Mulatto female named Malfilda” who was manumitted Sept. 22, 1787.

March 2, 1786, Anthony Reckless had given this or some other law a different twist as follows: “Know all men by these presents, that I, Anthony Reckless of Nottingham in the county of Burlington and State of New Jersey, for diverse good causes and considerations thereto moving, and also in consideration of the sum of forty pounds in specie to me in hand paid at or before the sealing and delivering of these presents by Robert Lettis Hooper of Trenton in the county of Hunterdon and State of New Jersey, . . . do hire and bind unto the said Robert Lettis Hooper my Negro boy Tom aged about ten or twelve years, to serve the said Robert Lettis Hooper for During the space of fifteen years to begin and commence the first day of April next ensuing the date hereof.” He promises that if Tom shall have served his boss faithfully “for During the space aforesaid,” he will secure the Negro’s manumission.

Joseph Capner, of Amwell Township, manumitted his Negro called Hannah, Nov. 11, 1799; John Barcroft, of Amwell, manumitted his “Slave Cato”, April 7, 1800; and Abraham Lowe, of Readington, set free his “Negro man Jack,” March 29, 1802. The last slave to be manumitted in the county was Tamer, a slave of Susan J. Blackwell, March 27, 1852.

The Record Births

The following is the first of many recorded births as required:

“To the Clerk of the County of Hunterdon. This is to certify that a Negro child named Jack, son of a female slave named Cate, the property of Peter Young, was born the twelfth day of January in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and five at the township of Amwell in the county of Hunterdon. Peter Young.”
These records, after showing many amusing variations, close with the following: “To J. A. Farlee, Clerk of Hunterdon County. Please to record the age of Ann a Colored Child born January 26, 1837, the daughter of Phillis a Servant of Mine. Sarah Lake.”

At a public sale held March 28,1838, at the house of Israel Smith, Innkeeper in Clinton, the executors sold to A. B. Bradfor (?) for $10, “a Black man named Charles, aged 36, a part of the personal property of Joseph Ramsey, deceased.”

The last sale of a slave recorded in Hunterdon is that of Catharine, aged 67, a slave of John Hagaman, sold February 16, 1856, to Charles Sutphin of Somerville, for $20. The bill of sale shows that the acknowledgment was taken by Charles Bartles, M. C.

Slaves Law Abiding

The slaves in Hunterdon County appear to have been generally law-abiding. Few crimes were recorded against them. The only execution on record is that of James Guise—“Little Nigger Jim”—who was hanged in Flemington in 1828.

We are prone to think of the national emancipation as affecting only the South. It is hard to realize that it could directly affect anybody here in Hunterdon County. Yet, from what the records show, it is both possible and probable that actual slavery here was thereby finally ended. The Negro “Charles,” sold in 1838 at the age of 36, may have been alive and vigorous at that time; and the slave woman “Catharine,” sold in 1856 at the age of 67, may have been still alive and not extremely old. Besides, the census of 1860 shows Hunterdon had one man and three women still held as slaves; that, 56 years after the enactment of our gradual emancipation law, four slaves in Hunterdon and fourteen others in the State, were still waiting for death, the Great Deliverer, to set them free.

If some of us wide-eyed boys had witnessed the sale of “Catharine,” we might be still recalling how that item of “personal property” looked after the sale; how she furtively and apprehensively rolled great eyes at her new master, knowing no more than the horse or the ox what kind of life was to be meted out to her for the remainder of her days. Not having seen her then, one can, nevertheless, almost see her now, can fully sympathize with her in her human perplexity over treatment as an animal, and can sincerely hope that she still lived, at least feebly to sip the sweets of freedom at the close of life.

I know that that last paragraph is rather uncomfortable to read. The sentiment is sympathetic, but the description is disturbing, equating Catharine the slave with livestock. And yet, that is exactly what slavery was—the treatment of human beings as chattel and animals. We should never forget that that was what slavery meant, and we should therefore be inspired to oppose it in any form it takes. There is nothing benign about slavery.