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Part 3 – Slavery in Mid-18th-Century New Jersey

Despite these early laws free blacks continued to live in East Jersey. In addition to those mentioned above connected to the Tappan patent, Yougham Antonius Robert purchased 200 acres in 1684 from indigenous people. Fishman (1997:35) also mentions several other land purchases by people of color between 1687 and 1707. Yet, the impact of new laws had a lasting effect. As Hodges (1999:69) describes it, “the free black society disappears.” Besides a few survivors who descended from the early settlers in Tappan, free people of color diminish in numbers as the colony entered the middle 1700s. 

Expansion of slavery

One important cause for this decline was the bonds attached to manumissions. The other part of it was the increasing monetization of enslaved labor. Hodges (1999:70) writes that as “white tradesmen, merchants, and farmers became dependent on slaves for labor, they were reluctant to let go of their most valuable movable property.” In 115 New York wills filed 1712 between 1742, Hodges noted that almost all slaves were either passed along as an inheritance or sold to pay off the decedent’s debts. New Jersey wills show the same pattern (e.g. Adams and Carey 2016). Conducting the 1724 census, Francis Harrison noted that New York and New Jersey freeholders increasingly relied on slavery. As he stated, slaves are the key “portion of which young men have from their parents or received with their wives when the set out in the world.” Harrison also noted that freeholders, especially the Dutch, are “so used to property and Command, that they will rather starve then serve under any roof but their own,” which is why they preferred the permanence of enslaved labor to white indentured servitude (in Hodges 1999:79). The upshot of Harrison’s report was the suggestion that much profit could be gained by increasing the imports of enslaved Africans to New York and New Jersey. 

Figures from the slave trade suggest that indeed the market for imported slaves was relatively hot after 1712. Moss (1950:293) notes that 115 slaves entered through Perth Amboy between 1718 and 1726. By 1757, more than 6,000 slaves came into New York Harbor and an additional 600 entered through Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Duties imposed on slaves from the West Indies suggest that most of these enslaved persons were brought directly from Africa. 

A story on the slave trade pertinent to northern New Jersey relates to the ship The Catherine, owned by John Watts of New York City and Arent Schuyler of Bergen County. Schuyler was large slaveowner and seems to have entered into the partnership with Watts to profit further from slavery. The Catherine was known to have docked twice at Perth Amboy with loads of human cargo. Details from its 1733 voyage indicate that 130 slaves were brought to Perth Amboy and 110 more brought to New York. These Africans were obtained through trade along the West African coast as far south as Angola. They purchased 257 people, 17 of whom died on the journey to America. 

Despite the growing slave trade, New Jersey officials did make efforts to curtail it. In 1769, New Jersey passed a duty on imported slaves in hopes of getting more white servants into the colony. Justification for this act noted that “duties on the importation of Negroes in several of the neighboring colonies have been found beneficial to the introduction of sober industrious Foreigners [whites] … [and] promoting a Spirit of Industry among the Inhabitants.” The act did not produce its intended effects since by 1775 the population of Africans grew to more than 21,000 within 30 miles of Manhattan (Hodges 1999:106). 

The preference for enslaved labor is also found in evidence drawn from Tax Ratable records kept by New Jersey. Hodges (1999:107) writes that “in Dutch-dominated Bergen County, slaves and [indentured] servants outnumbered single [white] men by 306 to 8 in 1751 and 422 to 34 in 1769. According to Hodges (1999:109) slaves made up 40% of the labor force in Bergen County by 1780. The demand for slaves matched the growth of farming and other trades in the colonies. In 1740 Hunterdon county one report noted that “three-fourths of the corn that was planted and hoed, the flax that was raised and dressed, and other work done was performed by Negro slaves.” Another assessment in the 1770s noted that all but one household out of 300 living in Perth Amboy included at least one slave (in Fishman 1997:32). 


One of the most compelling sites associated with slavery from this era is known as Beverwyck, a 2,000-acre property in Parsippany built in 1759 by New York merchant William Kelly. When the property was put up for sale a 1768 advertisement indicated had it had a “main house, several tenant or servant’s cottages, a barn, a significant number of small agricultural buildings, and a ‘Negro House.’” When the new owner, Caribbean planter Lucas Von Beverhoudt, settled at the estate in 1772 it was reported that there were twenty enslaved people there “including a blacksmith, shoemaker, and a mason” (Delle 2019:71). An archaeological study of the site in 1999 uncovered a wealth of information, including the location and archaeological contents of the “Negro House,” identified as Structure 8, 

Excavations in the northeast corner of Structure 8 identified of a discrete concentration of eighteenth century personal artifacts including buttons, cutlery, a glass bead necklace and case, a perforated metal disk, and coins. Also recovered from this immediate vicinity were two shackles, two cowrie-helmet shells indigenous to waters between South Carolina and the Caribbean Island, and two Revolutionary War military buttons. In the southeast corner of Structure 8, just south of the hearth remains, a discrete concentration of kitchen vessels was encountered. Stacked almost directly atop of one another, from the surface, these vessels consisted of an iron cooking pot, a large portion of a creamware platter, a large rim fragment of a tin-glazed (Delft) serving vessel, and a small Chinese export porcelain handled bowl. With the exception of the iron cooking pot and the creamware platter fragment, which were oriented upright, the vessels were discovered inverted, or upside-down. Similar caches of personal artifacts or “small finds” such as those in Structure 8 have also been identified at several contemporaneous sites known to have had enslaved African occupants in the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake region … Based on comparative research, these caches have been concluded to be archaeological remains associated with religious practices of the sites’ enslaved African American occupants. Comparative research has revealed notable similarities between these caches to West African nkisi (minkisi: /?/.), which are placed in ritual as offerings to or protection from the spirit world (Silber and Catts 2004:Sec 7:14).

Excavation Site Map of the Beverwyck Site in Parsippany.

Site map from the excavation of the Beverwyck Site in Parsippany. Structure 8, left of center, is interpreted at a slave quarter or “Negro House.”

Slave labor and skill

Beyond the numbers, enslaved men and women were recognized as being quite skilled at their tasks. Hodges (1999:82) describes them as “jacks of all trades in the house and the field. New Jersey farmers concentrated on growing wheat, corn, and rye as well as keeping orchards and meadowlands. In Dutch communities, slaves herded cattle, pigs, and horses. Other chores included barrel-making, carting, shoemaking, carpentry, and preparing meats, poultry, and fish for cooking.” Evidence of these skills suggest that “the only difference between skilled free white labor and enslaved black worker was their degree of liberty.”

The labor of enslaved females is captured in this advertisement from 1734: 

To be sold, A Young Negro Woman, about 20 years old, she dos all sorts of House work; she can Brew, Bake, boyle roast, soap, wash, Iron & Starch; and is a good darey woman she can Card and Spin at the Wheel, Cotton, Lennen and Wollen, she has another good property she neither drinks Rum nor smoaks Tobacco, and she is strong and hale healthy Wench; she can Cook pretty well for Rost and Boyld; she can speak no other Language but English; she had the small Pox in Barbados when a child” (in Hack 2017:Ch 3, 36). 

Enslaved labor also supported the establishment and growth of an iron industry alongside the focus on agriculture in New Jersey. Especially in the Highlands in Bergen and now Passaic Counties iron mining required large gangs of laborers, including dozens of Africans. Fishman (1997:33) records that “at least forty Black slaves worked in one iron operation” based on a 1759 report. Arent Schuyler (mentioned above as an owner of The Catherine) made part of his fortune through a copper mine in what is now Arlington in southern Bergen County. An enslaved laborer owned by Schuyler is credited with discovering this mine. This man was given “a dressing gown like his master and some pipe tobacco” (in Hodges 1999:109), a small reward given that the Schuyler family profited from their copper for the next 34 years, relying extensively on enslaved laborers working in the mines. One observer noted when visiting Schuyler in the 1770s that fifty to sixty slaves worked on his plantation (in Hodges 1999:113).

Based on an analysis of data from runaway slave advertisements, Fishman (1997:34) expands our understanding of African American skills further: “Black labor was employed in agriculture, mining, iron-making, construction work, quarries, land and sea transportation, log-hauling, and crafts. Black people were also self-employed. They had many trades and skills, with indications that African heritage was an asset in this regard.” The latter likely included carpentry, blacksmithing, coppering, tanning, leatherworking, crop and livestock care, carriage driving, potash cultivating, saw and grist mill operating cook, houseworker, and barber. One man, Yombo, was a master leatherworker who was born around 1750 in Africa. He was later purchased by Aaron Mellick from Somerset County because he was “a most valuable workman” (in Fishman 1997:36). Hodges (1999:108) also notes evidence of slaves skilled as river pilots and watermen as well as “domestics, farmers, privateers, mariners, chimney sweeps, blacksmiths, bakers, coopers, shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, wavers, and barbers.”

Slave resistance

It should not be a surprise that with the greater investment in slavery in New Jersey that we also see greater evidence of resistance by enslaved people. One form of resistance remained the cultivation of an alternative culture among the enslaved, and the clearest expression of this slave culture was revealed in the Pinkster celebrations. Described as a celebration of the “holy wind” that resurrected Christ, Pinkster promoted an ecstatic release of energy and faith, including moments when either master or slave could become “the mouthpiece of God.” In this way, Pinkster is interpreted as a promoting a sacred social equality of humanity. African-descended people seized this moment in many ways, but mostly to gather in collectives largely and otherwise forbidden. At the same time, Pinkster is known as “a mass celebration that often featured heavy drinking, gambling, prostitution, and much interracial comradeship” (Hodges 2019:23).

Photo of Philipsburg Dance Event

Recreation of Pinkster celebration at Philipsburg Manor’s Djembes and Dance Event. 

Hodges (1999:88) summarizes how “Blacks could use Pinkster for their own purposes.” As described in satire published in 1737, 

Africans from the Guinea Coast in particular were adept as drums and stringed instruments. Bangars, rattles, and fiddles were common at Pinkster festivals. Performance on the fiddle was very different from European methods, with a highly percussive style which the musician plucked the bow energetically. Pinkster songs, with their emphasis on role reversal, complemented African songs of dances of derision. Finally, the use of several instruments at Pinkster created an orchestral style akin to the music of an African festival.

Fishman (1997:69) explains the politics of these ‘Negro assemblages.’ 

Such gatherings undoubtedly served a valuable purpose of morale-boosting and welding together. They could also no doubt be the occasion for exchanging views on the oppression that weighed down on all and serve as basis for possible concerted action to advance towards the freedom goal …. Gatherings of black people were feared by masters and local authorities because of the human impulses and independence that could be demonstrated, the social ties that could be strengthened, and the concerted action that possibly could be aired.   

More active forms of protest are also known in mid-18th-century New Jersey. In 1734 a slave revolt was foiled in Somerset County when a slave informed a man named Reynolds that “Englishmen were generally a pack of Villians and Kept the Negroes as Slaves, Contrary to a Positive Order from King George, sent the G—– of New York, to set them, Free, which they said the G—– intended to do but was prevented by his C—– and A—–.” Reynolds reported the slave who was arrested along with two others, one of whom was hanged. Further investigation discovered that as many as 30 slaves were part of the conspiracy, most of whom were either maimed or whipped. It was also discovered that these 30 slaves vowed to each “rise at midnight, cut the throat of their Masters and Sons, but not to meddle with the women who they intended to ravish and plunder the next day, and then set all the houses and barns on fire, kill all the draught horses and secure the best Saddle Horses for their flight towards the Indians in the French interest” (in Hodges 1999:89-90).

A second revolt in Somerset County occurred five years later in 1739, though this was an individual act. In this case, a slave in Rocky Hill was ordered by the overseer’s wife to fetch wood and make a fire. “He replied in a surly tone that he would make fire enough and pursued her with an axe.” The slave killed the overseer’s son and then set fire to the barn burning more than a thousand bushels of grain. He was captured and burned at the stake. 

Resistance as self-defense is also known and the case of Jack is emblematic. In 1735, Peter Kipp struck Jack in punishment and “the said Negro Resisted & fought with his Master Striking him Several Blows and afterward taking up and (sic) Ax threatening to kill him his said master and his Son and the destroy himself” (in Fishman 1997:67). Jack was burned at the stake for this offense. Another act of self-defense seems to have actually worked for one slave, Silvia Du Bois. Fishman (1997:48) writes that “At age twenty, she determined not to be beaten by her mistress. As she told an interviewer in later years, ‘I fixed her …. I knocked her down and blame near killed her.’ Silvia fled only to be contacted by the master with the message that she was set free.” 

In 1741, New York was once again embroiled in a slave revolt conspiracy. Prompted by a series of fires, wary New Yorkers discovered a wide-ranging conspiracy to destroy the city and massacre whites. Dozens of slaves and a handful of white co-conspirators were tried and several of these hanged or burned at the stake. The extent of this conspiracy reached to Hackensack in New Jersey where slaves assaulted their masters with axes, poisoned them and burned seven barns (Hodges 2019:33). Two slaves, Ben and Jack, were tried for these crimes. At the trial, Ben “declared that some days before Ye fire Happened Ye Prisoner Jack with some other Negroes Came to him and Desired him to Aiding & Assisting to them to Sett fire on the Severall Barns Since consumed & and that he the Prisoner with some other Negroes Done Ye same” (in Fishman 1997:74).

In Bergen County, violent retribution against slave resistance was all too common. Dinar received 30 lashes and Pero 500 lashes for theft. Hodges (1998:42) also reports that “some masters … torture[d] recalcitrant slaves , including leaving them bound to tress in the mosquito-ridden swamps near the Palisades.”  

A fascinating story of slave resistance in New Jersey took place in 1752 in Somerset County. In this case, an unnamed slave was condemned to burn at the stake for the murdering his master, Jacob Van Neste, at the fork of two rivers near Raritan. Hodges (1999:134-135) recounts the story: 

Van Neste had angered the slave, described as ‘large and athletic,’ by taking some tobacco without his permission. When Van Neste returned home one evening, the slave struck his master with an ax as he dismounted at the stable door, nearly decapitating him. The next day, local farmers proved the bondsman’s guilt by forcing him to touch the slain mater’s head, causing, according to eyewitness reports, blood to run from the corpse’s nose and ears. The execution took place the following morning at dawn. Sherriff Abraham Van Doren of Somerset County orchestrated the killing with drawn sword held high above his head while riding on his horse. Van Doren represented implacable authority to the audience of local farmers and their slaves, for whom the immolation was intended to be a horrific lesson of the futility of resistance. Onlookers reported that the slave ‘stood the fire with great intrepidity.’ Newspapers accounts related that as the flames covered his body, he shouted to the assembled blacks, ‘they have taken the root, but left the branches.’

It is notable that a very similar set of events took place in 1767 in Hackensack. In this case, a slave named Harry killed a white servant named Lawrence Tuers quarreled, a conflict that ended when Harry crush Tuers’ skull with a cart rung and drove two plugs into his ears. Harry was forced to stroke the head of Tuers’ corpse to prove his guilt. Guilt was determined by magistrate Johannes Demarest who recorded that indeed “blood immediately ran out of said Tuers nostril” (Hodges 1998:42). In both of these instances, the pre-modern mindset of New Jersey’s slaveholding community is apparent, yet Hodges (1989:6) adds another interpretive dimension. For enslaved Africans, these resistance acts, taken in case from Raritan all the way to the funeral pyre, reflected an African tradition in which young men were taught to have “a profound disdain for pain,” which understood as a sign of their self-mastery. Thus, Harry and the others who fought back were likely highly respected, if not regarded as heroes.   


By the time of the 1712 conspiracy in New York, self-emancipated slaves and servants became a routine occurrence. Both Fishman (1997) and Hodges (1999, Hodges and Brown 1994) have analyzed advertisements posted in regional newspaper describing runaways as a means to understand the experience of the enslaved. The impact of running for freedom for the enslaved is clear, but we should also recall that “Blacks who fled slavery by the hundreds were a costly reminder to the slaveholders that freedom was foremost in the minds of the bondsmen. It cut deeply into profits and put the master on notice that neither repression nor paternalism could reconcile blacks with bondage … slavery itself was provocation enough for running away (McManus in Fishman 1997:61). 

Between 1711 and 1775, 1,300 advertisement for labor runaways were placed in New Jersey papers with close to 300 of these referencing people of color. The number of advertisements are telling such that in 1740 there were seven times as many ads placed as in 1710 even though the black population only grew by three times. Then again between 1740 and 1770 the number of ads increased four times though the black population only doubled in size. Calculations also show a much greater likelihood that people less than 26 years old would run away.  

Methods used to runaway also varied. For example, one ad noted that “a young Negro man, named Esop … can write, and it is most likely that he may have a counterfeit pass” (Fishman 1997:65). Simon “pretended to be a doctor and very religious and says he is a churchman.” Mark and Jenny, who ran from Major Prevost in Bergen County in 1775 were described as “a preacher” and “smooth-tongued and very artful” (in Hodges 2019:26). Sometimes runaways left in groups, some of which were interracial as slaves and indentured servants left together. In one, three left together, “one member was part Indian, one was full Indian, and the third was mulatto.” Families also left together. “In 1773, Phoebe, a Black woman, ran away with her two-year-old child. In the same year an interracial family took flight. This family included Ned, a mulatto, his wife—apparently free—and their three-month-old child” (in Fishman 1997:65).

Solidarity among people of color is also evident in runaway ads. In one case an escapee was assisted by two slaves across the Passaic River to Newark. Family solidarity also played a role such as in the case of Peter, a slave who ran away and was thought to have gone to his mother in Trenton. Indian-black alliances were also recorded. Sampson, a part-Indian, part Black slave ran away with a slave boy in Salem County, they both spoke a native language.” Such alliances also led to marriages, about which Herbert S. Cooley said, “the New Jersey Negroes are said to have been noticeably modified in physical appearance by an unusually extensive intermingling with Indian slaves” (in Fishman 1997:65-66). 

Slave laws

Given the possibility for resistance and escape and the growing dependence on enslaved labor across the colony, New Jersey continued to update its slave codes in the 1750s and 1760s. In 1751, the legislature passed An Act to restrain Tavern-keepers and others from selling strong Liquors to Servants, Negroes and Molatto Slaves, and to prevent Negroes and Molatto Slaves, from meeting in large Companies, from running about at Nights, and from hunting or carrying a Gun on the Lord’s Day. Imposing a curfew and prohibiting the assembly of large groups was clearly an effort to address some of the easiest ways enslaved person could resist. In 1754, a new Act established that rude and disorderly behavior was to be tempered with 30 lashes. Then, in 1768, the legislature updated core provisions of the 1713 act regarding the crimes subject to the death penalty that slaves sentenced to die would do so without the benefit of the clergy, and the elimination of special courts so quicker hearings could take place. 

Slave culture

Drawing from a range of sources, Hodges (1999:115-117) discusses evidence for a culture among slaves that ran alternative to that of whites. Black culture, he states is “reflected the hardness of black life” and is “evident in taverns, alehouses, and dance halls, at markets, and at secret black gatherings in the woods, where conspiracies were hatched.” Tavern keepers were indicted for allowing Negroes to fence stolen goods at their bars. We also see black culture in music and dance. For example, black fiddlers were apparently common given their frequent mention in runaway slave ads, though perhaps the exposure to the freedoms of tavern life led fiddlers in particular to find a desire to take off. Hodges notes that “a talented fiddler, or in African American terminology, a ‘songster’ or ‘music physicianer’ could make a living singing and playing for fellow blacks.” He further notes that touring musicians were common in West Africa. 

Like Pinkster, rural frolics created opportunities for musical and dance performances that some enslaved persons may have strived for. Easy access to alcohol and perhaps also prostitution at such frolics was clearly a draw but also a means of terrifying whites who would have been afraid that such ‘negro assemblages’ would get out of control. In response, in 1767, “twenty negroes received the Discipline of the Whip, at the Publick Post for preparing a ‘junketing frolic,’ designed at a poor white man’s house in the Out-Ward, where two pigs ready for the fire and two gallons of wine awaited them” (in Hodges 1999:116). 

Hodge’s analysis of the escaped slave advertisements shows that over time these slaves were described as being more belligerent and assertive. Once identified as cunning and artful, slaves in the 1750s became smooth-tongued and sly and “very apt to feign plausible stories and may perhaps call himself a Free Negro.” In the 1760s there was an increase in reference to slaves as drinkers or troublesome when drunk.  

Family and religion among the enslaved

Notably absent in this discussion are more traditional foundations of culture such as religion and kinship. Yet, as we know, slaves were mostly held back from formal religion and the “slave family was a precarious institution subject to the needs and wishes of the master” (Zilversmit in Fishman 1997:77). That said, Hack (2017:Ch 3, 33) observes:

Surviving wills uncover a striking ability by slaves to forge and maintain relationships. 162 out of 403 (40%) of the decedents in East Jersey noted some family assemblage – a number that is probably low due to the non-descript nature many decedents noted their slaves in their wills (i.e. ‘man, woman, 2 boys’). Masters often promoted marriage of their slaves, or at the very least recognized it. According to indentured servant, William Moreley, masters did this with their self-interest in mind. He wrote: ‘their masters make them some amends, by suffering them to marry, which makes them easier, and often prevents their running away. The consequence of their marrying is this; all of their posterity are slaves without redemption. On Sundays in the evening they converse with their wives, and drink Rum or Bumbo and smoak tobacco, and the next morning return to their masters labour.’ 

We also see evidence of family relations in the runaway ads indicating the importance of kinship ties, even despite the efforts of the slaveholders to undermine such relations. Among these as we also see interracial alliances and unions between whites, African Americans, and Indians as well as mulattos, indicating that part of the slave culture was defined by aspects of race and the racial and interracial communities that formed in colonial New Jersey. Among the few stories of free blacks and people of color in colonial New Jersey, Fishman (1997:79) relates the following: “Charles Selcy, who had obtained his freedom at age thirty-one, purchased the freedom of his wife and children for ninety-five pounds. He had accumulated money for the purchase by his labors on a rented farm.” To this we can add the marriages of free people of color recorded at the Lutheran Church in Hackensack in 1746. These include marriages of Willem Smidt and Barbara Franssen and Caspar Francis Van Sallee, the grandson of Anthony the Turk, and Johanna Cromwell, a free black (in Hodges 1999:124). 

The existence of a slave culture outside of the white Christian mainstream is also evident in some cases. A clear example is found the autobiography of James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, and African born man who ended up in Somerset County, New Jersey as the slave of Reverend Theodore Frelinghuysen (Fuentes and White 2016). Gronniosaw was instructed by Frelinghuysen in Christianity, though he rejected many of the lessons, even attempting to kill himself because his confusion and despair. He eventually found God while sitting under tree outdoors. Hodges (1999:123-124) concludes: “Gronniosaw got his revelation in the open air near a tree, a symbol of the presence of divinity in African culture. His private conversion enabled him to live as a slave in a white-dominated culture. At the same time, his inner light stemmed from an African conception of salvation.”

Hodges (1999:128) discusses other examples of African cultural survival with less influence of Christianity. “During the 1730s New Jersey slaves used African methods to poison their masters. Self-appointed black doctors were leaders in the revolts of 1712 and 1741 … [and] Jack, from Bergen County, gained a reputation as a cunning man, who used charms to secure obedience from others.” Hack 2017:Ch 3, 32) notes that an increase after 1750 of slaves imported directly from Africa led to “consternation of whites when Africans arrived ‘bearing their tribal marks, and exhibiting their native characteristics, as if still inhabiting the wilds of Gueana.’”