Shedding New Light on Northern Jersey

Shedding New Light on Northern JerseySlavery was not confined to the South, and new information about slavery in New York comes from archaeology research conducted on Long Island by Montclair State anthropology professor and archaeologist Chris Matthews.

The 1790 Federal Census reported that the Martin family of Long Island owned 17 slaves. Josiah Martin built Rock Hall, a Georgian manor house, in 1767 on his 600-acre estate, staffing it with slaves from his Antiguan sugar plantation.

Matthews has unearthed new evidence at the Rock Hall manor house museum in Lawrence, New York suggesting that the relationships between the Martin family and their slaves were surprisingly complex.

“I’m interested in the stories of people without power. My interest in Rock Hall was the African-American story,” says Matthews, who has been involved with the museum’s archaeology projects since 2005. The artifacts suggest that the African Americans actively shaped the construction and culture of the manor house.

Finding Rock Hall’s kitchen was key. Excavations in the museum’s west yard unearthed a fireplace base made of tabby – a concrete made by crushing and burning seashells.

“This was an unusual find,” Matthews says. “Tabby construction is a technique most commonly found in the Caribbean. This is the first tabby fireplace to be found north of Georgia.”

The implications are clear: “Slaves built this fireplace,” Matthews explains. “They claimed the space and made it their own. It’s important to understand that you don’t need to revolt to resist. By claiming the kitchen, the Martin slaves practiced a form of resistance.” They also resisted by practicing their religion. Matthews’ team found straight pins and other small items believed to be placed in doorways to protect slaves from harm.

For Matthews, the cached artifacts are the site’s most significant discoveries. “I almost couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “It was amazingly fortuitous to even recover these tiny things. It would be easy to misinterpret these findings as remains of a dropped sewing basket, for instance. We were definitely in the right time and place to be able to interpret these artifacts by considering who worked and lived here.”

Mark P. Leone, an archaeologist and University of Maryland anthropology professor, told The New York Times that Matthews’ findings are “a significant discovery” in a relatively new field and that such sites are rare.

While Matthews ran a Montclair State field school in Setauket, New York this past summer and will return there in 2015, he is focusing his current archaeological efforts closer to campus on promising New Jersey slavery sites, such as the Vought House in Clinton. “Students will definitely be involved in these projects,” he says.

Matthews aims to paint a fuller picture of slavery. “I hope my work prompts a change in consciousness at historic sites. Many people benefited from slavery — many more suffered. We need to understand how complex the relationships were between slave owners and their slaves.”