Knowledge of the history, and some would say even the existence, of slavery in the northern United States remains largely unknown outside of a small community of scholars and historically-minded people. Indeed, even as awareness of northern slavery grew exponentially after the discovery of the New York African Burial Ground archaeological site in Manhattan in 1991, research on and public understanding of slavery as an essential aspect of colonial and early American life in the North remains poorly recognized and even less understood (LaRoche and Blakey 1997, Melish 1998, Hodges 2019).
Nowhere is this more the case than in northern New Jersey. Settled as part of the Dutch New Netherland colony, Bergen and other northern New Jersey counties developed a largely agricultural economy producing surplus food and fuel for the urban center of New Amsterdam (later New York), the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world. Historians (e.g., Hodges 1999, 2010; Fishman 1997; Hack 2012; Gigantino 2015) have documented the development of the region and its consistent reliance on enslaved African and African American laborers. For more than 200 years, enslaved laborers cleared fields, built homes and outbuildings, planted and harvested crops, tended to farm animals, carted fertilizer and produce, cared for children, and performed countless other tasks that enriched their masters and stabilized the settler society.
While this work was common in the state and not done solely by enslaved Africans, the reliance on slavery among the largely Dutch farmers in northern New Jersey stands out. Bergen County consistently had the highest percentage of its population who were enslaved among all New Jersey counties, remaining close to 20% of the total in censuses take between the 1726 and 1820. Hodges (1999:109) estimates that slaves made up 40% of the Bergen’s labor force, a fact that led most landless and tenant whites to leave the county for opportunities elsewhere. This sense is captured by this account (Ryan 1996:7), in which Peter Hasenclever describes travelling up the Passaic River from Newark in 1764:
We appeared to have been suddenly transported to the Netherlands. The Dutch are settled throughout this fertile river valley. The roads are lined with the fields of prosperous-looking farms, in some cases of hundreds of acres; they are able to maintain such large properties by the use of slaves. I saw dozens of them hoeing in the furrows, men, women and children, often singing in a deep mournful-sounding way.
The evocative scene clearly depicts a situation where slavery was visible, common, normal, and a basic foundation of the local community. I ask readers to keep this image in mind as they go through the following pages. I suggest they pair this thought with this statement by historian Graham Hodges (1998:30): “the history of Bergen County allows us to consider what an American future in which virtually none of the white citizenry opposed slavery or favored black freedoms would have been like.” The investment and commitment to slavery in Bergen and other counties in northern New Jersey was not the norm for the American north. Rather, this region, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century may have been the one most closely approaching what Ira Berlin (1998) termed a “slave society.” In contrast to a “society with slaves” where slavery was practiced, but was one among many forms of labor, a slave society was concentrated on permanent and inherited bonded labor. Moreover, in slave societies slavery is sustained by law, economy, politics, and a wide latitude granted to slaveowner authority, including the right to punish or kill their slave property without recourse. Recognizing this situation is essential for interpreting the history of enslavement and freedom in New Jersey.
At the same time, this is a story about Africans and African Americans, so we cannot focus solely on how they were abused and exploited by white settlers. As with all people, enslaved and free people of color sought self-determination and struggled to preserve the freedoms they earned. Hodges (1989:1) provides a useful overview of the way freedom was envisioned by these African American New Jerseyans:
Freedom meant several things: personal freedom to exercise rights, to form black institutions, create black leadership, to work for wages, avenge past wrongs and to protect and extend liberty through military service. Rather than express their identity within the paternalism of the Dutch masters, blacks relied on an ideology drawn from African heritages and from the crucible of slavery and freedom.
The following review of secondary literature on early African American communities in New Jersey thus considers slavery and freedom as a relationship defined by the negotiation of power. On one side there was the power of the colony and the state, the masters, and a racist white community which sought to limit the freedom of black people. One the other side were Africans and African Americans, who found power in resistance, retribution, and their own forms of community. As Hodges suggests, these drew from multiple sources, some ancient and African and others recent and American.
While the focus in this review is the northern parts of New Jersey, examples are drawn from instances of slavery and freedom state-wide. I follow a framework used by most researchers by breaking the story into segments of time starting with the initial colonial settlement and Dutch colonization, turning next to the early decades under English rule, then the subsequent decades in the heart of the eighteenth century. I follow these sections by looking at the era of the American Revolution and then the period of emancipation that takes us to the start of the nineteenth century. The last section reviews the first part of the nineteenth century, tracking the slow end of slavery in the state and the development of African American life in freedom up to 1860. The focus throughout is on the experience of African-descended people and communities as they struggled with, adjusted to, and resisted the restrictions placed on them by legal status and race.