Image for NJ Slavery

Part 1 – Early Settlement and the Rise of Slavery in Colonial Dutch New Jersey

The history of settlement in northern New Jersey begins with settlement of New Netherland, which was originally based in what is now Manhattan. The story of the first settler sets the stage. Captain Thijs Volchertz Mossel sailed the vessel Jonge Tobias in the Hudson River harbor in 1613. Mossell stayed a few weeks to trade with Native Americans. When he left, a member of his crew, Jan Rodrigues, remained. As Rodrigues was an African-descended man, this means that the first non-indigenous settler of Manhattan was a person of African descent. Because of his supposed disloyalty, Mossel later referred to Rodrigues as a “black rascal.” Rodrigues is said to have remained in New Netherland and to have married and fathered children with women from the Rockaway Native American nation (Hodges 1999:6-7). Of course, many settlers eventually joined Rodrigues as newcomers in New Netherland. The number of settlers grew rapidly after the Dutch West India Company was contracted to build a settlement on Manhattan 1621. Five years later, in 1626, the Company purchased sixteen black people from Portuguese pirates. These men and women were the first enslaved Africans in New Netherland (Hodges 1999:8-9). 

The slave trade

It is not a coincidence that during these same years that the Dutch became heavily invested in the African slave trade. According to Fishman (1997:5-6) “the Dutch West India Company sold 15,430 African slaves to sugar plantations owners in Brazil. During the years 1623-26, Dutch plunderers captured 23,000 slaves from Spanish slave ships. Some of these slaves were sent to New Amsterdam. Dutch slave trading activities were expended in 1637 with the Dutch capture of the Portuguese-controlled slavetrading castle Elmina on the coast of Guinea.”

By 1650 slavery was praised by company Director Peter Stuyvesant who noted that “these Negro slaves have offered a great relief in the purchase of Provision for the Garrison. We have a great need of a few slaves in order to truck them for provisions” (in Fishman 1997:6). In 1660 Stuyvesant called for additional slaves: “They ought to be stout and strong fellows, fit for immediate employment of this fortress and other works; also, if required, in war against the wild barbarians, either to pursue them when retreating; or else to carry some of the soldiers’ baggage.” Later the governor indicated that a new shipment of slaves was necessary “to procure provisions and all sorts of timber work, fix ox carts, and a new rosmill” (Hodges 1999:9-10). Similarly, authorities in Amsterdam wrote to Stuyvesant in 1660 that 

agriculture would be beneficially promoted by Negroes, and the advancement thereof is of great importance, and the prosperity of the state [New Netherland] is, for the most part dependent thereon. We have therefore concluded and even resolved to try an experiment with a parcel of Negroes which … we shall have conveyed to your honour by the first opportunity … from Curacao. These Negroes shall then be publickly sold to the highest bidder there, on the express condition, nevertheless, that they should not be removed from thence, but are employed in cultivating the land” (in Fishman 1997:7). 

The upshot is that the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam adopted enslaved labor early and enjoyed the benefits captive labor throughout their tenure there. 

Image of New Amsterdam Slavery

Nieu Amsterdam, c1642.

First slavery in New Jersey

A consideration of the evidence of early slavery in New Amsterdam is important because the first colonial settlers in northern New Jersey were part of that same colony. The first settlement in New Jersey was at Pavonia, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan in what is today Jersey City and Hoboken. Pavonia was a patroonship, or land grant, under the absentee ownership of Michael Pauw, who in September 1630 instructed a company official in Pernambuco to send the “20 men and 30 women, negroes, who were captured in the last prize…[and] convey the said blacks to Pavonia.” The letter continued, “The instructions as to the coast of Africa and Pavonia it had been carried out as desired” (in Hack 2017:Ch 1, 25-26). Hodges (1999:9) notes that these “twenty male and thirty female Africans” brought to the plantation were the “first black residents of New Jersey.” The West India Company promoted settlement of Pavonia and other patroonships in New Jersey by “promising in 1630 to garner black laborers for Patroons, Colonists, and other farmers.” Fishman (1997:17) notes one instance in which Jan Everston Bout leased land in Pavonia and at least one female slave from the Company in 1638. Hack (2017:Ch 1, 26) explains that “in September 1638. [Bout] … came under scrutiny by Dutch officials after he snapped at a fiscal (tax collector). He declared, ‘Do you mean to catch me with the black wench?  What would you do? I sleep with the black wench and have trod her.’ He then threatened: ‘If you or any one belonging to you come to Pavonia, I shall shoot you or them.’” 

Pavonia was short-lived as it was in consistent conflict with Wappinger Native Americans who finally destroyed the settlement in 1643. One has to wonder what came of the enslaved Africans during and after these raids, and if any were able to escape their bondage by fleeing with the Native Americans. Nevertheless, Dutch settlers persisted and eventually secured a foothold strong enough for Bergen (present-day Jersey City) to be recognized as the first municipality in New Jersey in 1661 (Fishman 1997:8). Among those living in Pavonia, 19th-century historian Charles Winfield noted that “it is said that among the soldiers of (Governor) Stuyvesant who were given land upon retirement who were transplanted to Bergen, were some of the Moorish race, whose particular complexion, physiognomy and characteristics are, it is alleged, yet to be traced in their descendants—the swarthy complexion, the sharp eye and curling black hair, so opposite to the ruddy color, the light eye and fair hair of the Hollander” (in Fishman 1997:18). Clearly, the earliest Dutch settlers were diverse even among themselves.

Intensification of slavery in New Jersey

By 1640, the Dutch New Netherland colony was firmly established, and the West India Company intensified their efforts to settle the colony and provide settlers the resources needed to succeed. Of course, a top priority was labor and, especially after 1640, the use of enslaved African laborer was to be the man solution. It was around this time that Stuyvesant sought to make New Amsterdam the principle slave port of North America. In 1644, Governor Keift concluded that “Negroes would accomplish more work from their masters, and at less expense, than [Dutch] farm servants, who must be bribed to go thither by a great deal of money and promises” (Hodges 1999:25). 

In the 1640s we also see evidence a growing internal slave trade, as farmers sold their slaves to other farmers. An emerging merchant class also pushed back against the company’s restrictions of the economic activities, which included internal coastal slave trade as well as trade with the West Indies (Hodges 1999:27). The company eventually acceded to these demands, and, by the mid-1650s, local merchants in New Amsterdam were allowed to trade in slaves with the Caribbean and the Chesapeake, and eventually directly with Africa. In September 1655, the first ship arrived in New Amsterdam directly from Africa with a cargo of 300 enslaved persons (Hodges 1999:28-29). 

By 1660, New Amsterdam was considered the most important slave port in North America. At least 400 slaves came into the city for sale between 1660 and 1664, primarily brought through Curacao. By 1664, a tax list for New Amsterdam showed that approximately one out of eight citizens of the colony owned enslaved Africans (Hack 2017:25). In 1664, we see that agriculture was the focus. After England took control of New Amsterdam that same year, a captured cargo was inventoried showing 290 slaves designated “to be employed solely in agriculture, which is the only means by which the State can be rendered flourishing … the slaves must be sold to our inhabitants on express condition that they will not be taken out of our district, but kept specifically there and employed in husbandry” (in Hodges 1999:29-30). Among these agricultural efforts was Nicholas Verleith’s farm in Bergen County, which was one of the first plantations outside the city where slaves worked. 

The interest and commitment to enslaved African labor played a role in defining the character of the early settler communities. Among these characteristics was a consistent effort by African descended people to appeal and fight for their rights and their freedom. Hodges (1999:10) describes one instance when “five blacks traveled in 1635 from New Amsterdam to Holland to seek a settlement on their salaries of eight guilders per month, wages comparable to those of white laborers. They were apparently successful because in 1639 he company paid blacks for the building the fort.” 

Free Africans in Dutch New Jersey

In 1644, eleven enslaved black men petitioned the Council for New Netherland for their freedom. They argued “that they be released from their servitude and be made free, especially as they have been in the service of the honourable Company here [for 19 years] and long since have been promised their freedom” (in Fishman 1997:10). This petition was granted, though this half-freedom only applied to these men and their wives, and not to their children. The men were granted land as tenants of the Company as well as membership in the Dutch Reformed Church. Fishman (1997:10) suggests this action reflected a need to contain a stable work force which was depleted regularly as whites “were seduced by the more profitable fur trade.” The petitioners in 1644 were Paulo Angola, Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Manuel de Garrett, Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, Peter Santomee, Jan Francisco, Little Anthony, and Jan Fort Orange. 

Another individual who “demonstrated the fluidity of race relations” had ties to New Jersey. This was Jan de Fries, the son of ship captain Johan de Fries and a black woman, Swartinne. Jan de Fries inherited his father’s property on the outskirts of Manhattan, which was held in trust by two former slaves of the captain, Paul D’Angola and Clara Criole. After marrying Ariantje Dircks, Jan de Fries moved to New Jersey as “an original Patentee of Tappan [on the New York border] where his descendants lived for many generations.” Other free people of color also moved to Tappan including another original patentees Nicholas Manuel from Manhattan (Hodges 1999:11-12, 35; Nordstrom 1977). It is likely that Manuel was related to, if not one of the 1644 petitioners. Nordstrom (1977:146) writes 

Extant records designate three of the sixteen original shareholders of the [Tappan] patent as ‘free Negro, these being John De Vries, his son, John, Jr., and Nicholas Manuels. Manhattan records show that prior to their removal to Rockland [County] these three men had been yeomen farmers residing in the Outward above the ‘fresh water’ … and that while there had been close neighbors of several white members of the patent group. Subsequently in the early years of the eighteenth century, additional pioneers of African descent joined the De Vries and Manuels families in Rockland, generally by familial extension. A son-in-law of John De Vries, Frans Van Salee from Bedford in Brooklyn was included among those who signed the second patent division in 1721 as well as John’s son Jacobus. Augustyne Van Donck, for another married a granddaughter of Claus Manuels’ and farmed a plot, which he had purchased, at the Jersey line near Saddle River in 1744. And further west, in what was still dangerous country, Samuel Francisco and the brothers Solomon and Jacob Peterson, who in all probability had been close neighbors of De Vries and Manuels in Manhattan, earlier, cleared land and built rough cabins close to the edge of what was called civilization.”

Hodges (1999:35) also notes that Youngham Antonious Robert, a freeborn black, purchased two hundred acres of land and became one of the first residents of Hackensack, New Jersey. … Another free black, Jochem Anthony, was a member of the Bergen Dutch Reformed Church in 1679.” 

Religion and slavery in Dutch New Jersey

Early records show that religion was one arena where slaves and masters negotiated their relationships. Historically, slavery in Europe was minimal because of an understanding that Christians could not enslave other Christians. This question came to the fore in the colonies when enslaved Africans converted and were baptized as Christians. Like most other settler churches, the Dutch Reform Church in northern New Jersey found a way to work around this complication. Following the Synod of Dort, the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church were no longer obligated to baptize parishioners, as this was to be the decision of the laity heads of household. So, slaveowners were empowered to deny baptisms to their slaves (Hodges 1999:20-21).

Reduced to mere spectators of religious service and practice Africans were nevertheless free to develop their own traditions. Among the best known was at the annual Pinkster celebration, or the Dutch adaptation of the Pentecost. As early as 1628, Pinkster was celebrated in New Amsterdam as a three-day holiday that involved drinking, dancing, and music. One Capuchin monk observed Angolans this way: “They fell a playing upon several instruments, a Dancing and a Shouting So Loud that they might be heard half a league off” (Hodges 1999:25). 


By the end of the Dutch era in 1664, we can see that people of color were found throughout the New Netherland colony in what is now New York and New Jersey. Many where enslaved laborers, but under Dutch rule, incentives existed not only for the importation of enslaved Africans but also for enslaved persons to petition for rights and freedom. While political issues and social control may have fostered their freedom, these men and women seized these opportunities to escape bondage. For more than few, the hinterlands of New Jersey would become the starting point for a new life.