Secret history of a northern slave state: How slavery was written into New Jersey's DNA

Though eventually & thankfully on the right side of history, the North wasn't immune to America's original sin.

Published July 29, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)


In the immediate aftermath of the election of President Obama back in 2008, a Gallup poll found a state of near euphoria among the public when it came to our hopes for improved race relations; 70 percent of the people polled predicting improvement. But earlier this month, almost seven years later, a New York Times/CBS poll found a much more pessimistic outlook. One of the more revealing results from the new survey was on attitudes about the Confederate battle flag: 57 percent of the whites surveyed said they viewed the flag as merely “an emblem of Southern pride,” as contrasted with 68 percent of African-Americans who said it was a symbol of racism.

It's in these divergent views toward this historic symbol that America's fractured narrative, riven 150 years ago and never repaired, becomes clear. So how do we heal this wound that resists healing? My hunch is it starts by deeply understanding the brutality that was slavery in the here and now, and not putting it off on past generations as their burden alone. As long as we have two divergent stories, one fully reflective of the historical struggles of black America and another one embraced more readily by white society, we’ll remain a nation divided. To expiate the original sin of American slavery, we have to own it. We don’t get a pass because the slave owners are all dead and buried.

Finding history

As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I was taught in school that slavery was a Southern moral defect. Imagine my surprise when at almost 60 I learned that my own state, New Jersey, was once an enthusiastic booster of slavery.

My path to enlightenment started while I was helping my daughter at her stand at our local farmers’ market last summer. The Mendham Farmers Market was located on the Pitney Farm, which up until our town bought it a few years back, had been in the same family since the 1740s -- 11 generations dating back to when New Jersey was a colony. As I stuffed kale into bags, I spotted a black lawn jockey, which stood in front of the Pitneys' manor house, the architectural focal point of a farmstead with barns and additional cottages. And thus I wondered: Was it possible that slaves worked this land?

So I decided to use the Pitney Farm as a prism of place through which I could glean the reality of slavery in my own community.

There was no mention of such history in any of the local literature, nor in the municipal documents that were part of the town’s due diligence when it purchased the homestead. Out back, the paint has faded on the Bicentennial Farm sign affixed to one of the red barns, vestiges of what was once a working farmstead. There’s no marking to note that slaves were part of the life of this place -- although I would come to learn that they were, throughout all of Morris County and across the entire state of New Jersey, from its earliest white settlement, up until the end of the Civil War.

Back in 2008, before it moved to buy the property, Mendham Township received a report from the Cultural Resource Consulting Group, which cataloged what is known about the historical significance of the site. The seven-page report highlighted the accomplishments of the Pitney family, which can trace its roots back to the 1720s in the area.

Mahlon Pitney, one of the family's patriarchs, fought alongside George Washington at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Another Mahlon Pitney served two terms in Congress and was nominated by President Howard Taft to serve on the United States Supreme Court. From the CRCG report, we know the farm grew to encompass more than 700 acres and included a dairy operation. But the slaves were invisible in this analysis.

The Pitney Farm was the center of a hub of productive activity that included an iron forge and distillery. Pitney peaches and apple brandy were famous in their day. The place was prominent enough that it was a stop on the Rockaway Valley Railroad line that ran from Whitehouse Station in Hunterdon County to Morristown back in the late 19th century.

The CRCG analysis concludes that the Pitney site has a multilayered historical significance because the 12-acre farmstead “demonstrates the evolution of the multi-generational homestead of an important and influential family that traces its roots to the Revolution” and “distinguished themselves in the area of local, state and Federal law.” But as for the day-to-day life on the colonial farm that laid the foundation for the family’s commercial and civic achievements, not much is known.

“Little information was uncovered concerning the family’s farming activities during the mid to early 18th century,” according to the CRCG report prepared by Gregory Dietrich, senior architectural historian.

The document makes no reference to the well-documented role of slavery at the Pitney Farms.

There are, however, multiple extant historical records available online and in the county library that offer a fuller image of just how much Mendham, and indeed my entire state, was reliant on, and enmeshed in, the day-to-day brutality of slavery.

My first break came while looking in a Rutgers index for old court records online. I found that, in May of 1793, in the case “of Negro James, a Boy about Thirteen Years of age, claiming his freedom,” New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered that James Pitney, listed as the defendant, “discharge” the black teen from “illegal detention.”

According to the history of the case, as recounted in the court order, three years earlier Pitney bought the African-American boy from relatives of Jasper Smith, of Hunterdon County. Smith died in 1769, but in his will called for the freeing of “all my negroes,” including “Negro Juddy,” the mother of the boy now in Pitney’s possession. (Evidently Smith’s heirs had other ideas.)

The order continues: “The Court having taken due consideration, are unanimously of Opinion, that the said Negro Juddy” was “a free woman by the Will of the said Jasper Smith,” which in turn meant that Juddy’s son James was, as the state’s highest court saw it, “entitled to his freedom.”

Just four years later that same Supreme Court, in a very similar habeas corpus petition, brought this time on behalf of a Native American known to the court only as “Rose,” had a very different ruling that would keep her in slavery.

“They [the Native Americans] have been so long recognized as slaves in our law," the Court wrote, "that it would be as great a violation of the rights of property to establish a contrary doctrine at the present day, as it would be in the case of Africans; and as useless to investigate the manner in which they originally lost their freedom.”

Slavery: A part of New Jersey's DNA

According to the late Rutgers professor Dr. Clement Price, “support for the institution” of slavery “was stronger in New Jersey than in any other northern colony.” Back in 2008, on the occasion of the New Jersey State Legislature’s formal apology for slavery, Price told the public television program "Due Process" that “slavery was very important to New Jersey’s colonial economy.”

From its founding, when it was called the "New Netherlands," as a Dutch colony in the early 1600s , and even after their English successors re-named it "New Jersey," promoting slavery was hard-wired into the state's political economy. According to the New Jersey State Library’s Unit on African American Slavery in the Colonial Era, the colony’s first constitution, the Concessions and Agreement of 1654/1665, actually “provided additional acreage” for each slave a prospective settler had.

By the end of the 17th century, Jersey-bound settlers were promised anywhere from between 60 to 75 acres for each slave they had on hand. Other documents indicate as much as a 150-acre incentive per slave.

“The earliest known record of slaves in New Jersey dates to 1680, when Colonel Lewis Morris of Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, is identified as owning approximately sixty to seventy slaves,” according to the New Jersey State Library.

Morris’ holdings in Monmouth County included an ironworks and forge, which was the first constructed south of New England to reach the production stage. “It was structured as a plantation, and there were 60 or more slaves at the ironworks in 1680; the first notable instance of slavery on record in New Jersey,” according to the Tinton Falls website.

Col. Morris’ nephew and heir, also named Lewis, inherited his holdings and was named the first Royal Governor of colonial New Jersey in 1738. (It is for this Lewis Morris that the New Jersey county is named.) Throughout this colonial period, supporting slavery was a major driver of public policy, and slavery was legally defined as including “negro, Indian and mulatto slaves,” according to Henry Scofield Cooley’s “A Study of Slavery in New Jersey,” published by the Johns Hopkins Press in 1896.

In the early 1700s, the ongoing chronic shortage of manual and skilled labor for an expanding empire prompted Queen Anne to order that “a constant and sufficient supply of merchantable negroes” be available “at moderate rates” to New Jersey settlers. The crown also wanted to ensure that there were no “encroachments” on the slave-trading franchise enjoyed by Royal African Company by any enterprising locals.

While the first large-scale use of slaves has been traced to the Morris ironworks in Burlington County, slavery really got traction in the northern and eastern portion of New Jersey. The major slave port of entry for the slave traffic in New Jersey was through Perth Amboy. From 1737 up until 1800, the slave population went from just under 4,000 to well over 12,000. By far the highest concentration of slave labor was in Bergen County, where by 1800 there were close to 3,000 slaves, almost 20 percent of the population.

Yet even as commercial interests embraced slavery, there was a countervailing movement for abolition in New Jersey. In 1693, Quakers out of Philadelphia, whose influence extended through southern and central Jersey, issued the first anti-slavery pamphlet in North America. For the entirety of the time that slavery was countenanced by law, a vigorous debate raged in New Jersey that divided religious congregations throughout the state.

During the American Revolution, the Rev. Jacob Green, a Morris County preacher, used the tumult of the times as a powerful rhetorical opportunity to call for abolition. Thus it was that the fault line of this great national debate ran right through my own home county.

According to David Mitros, historian and author, the Rev. Green, who established the First Presbyterian Church of Hanover, was also the first New Jersey man to go on the public record calling for the separation from Great Britain. In his book, "Jacob Green, and the Slavery Debate in Revolutionary Morris Count," Mitros writes that Green, in the darkest days of the Revolution, warned from the pulpit that the nascent nation risked appearing a great hypocrite if if maintained slavery at its inception.

“What foreign nation can believe that we who so loudly complain of Britain's’s attempts to oppress and enslave us," Green said, "are at the same time, voluntarily holding multitudes of fellow creatures in abject slavery... [even as we declare] that we esteem liberty the greatest earthly blessing.” This sermon was published in 1779 as a pamphlet by the New Jersey Journal, and helped frame the debate around the apparent contradiction of maintaining slavery while proclaiming national liberty.

Brutally Laying Down The Law

From slavery’s inception in New Jersey, slaves were subject to a separate set of laws and courts that had the power to dispense brutal punishment for any infractions. “In contrast to New England’s liberal laws, the slave codes of New Jersey and other middle colonies resembled those of the South,” writes David Mitros, in his comprehensive "Slave Records of Morris County, NJ (1756-1841)."

“Judged in separate courts with no access to trail by jury, Blacks and American Indians accused of crimes in colonial New Jersey had little hope of receiving justice,” writes Mitros. “When a slave received the death sentence, the slave owner received monetary compensation from the state.”

In April 1712, two dozen armed African-American slaves teamed up with Native Americans and set fire to a building in New York City and attempted to fight off the efforts to extinguish the fire. The slave rebellion was suppressed by the militia and 21 of the slaves were executed, some by being burned at the stake.

In reaction, both New York and New Jersey made their existing slave codes stricter. In 1735, a slave in Bergen County, who was alleged to have tried to set a house on fire, was also burned at the stake. In 1741, two slaves in Hackensack charged with a similar crime met the same fate.

In 1743, a slave insurrection on the scale of the one in New York City was planned for Burlington County but because the plan was foiled before it could be executed, only one suspect was hanged. “The rest were sentenced to be flogged or have their ears cut off,” writes Maggie MaClean on her History of American Women blog.

During the American Revolution the British offered slaves their freedom in exchange for fighting for the crown and thousands of African-Americans took them up on the offer. In New Jersey the state itself sold the slaves they confiscated from loyalists sympathizers.

In 1786, while the state banned the importation of slaves, it prohibited free black people from moving into the state.

As brutal as the slave codes were, there was some effort in New Jersey to regulate potential abuses by the slave masters. In December of 1808, Mahlon Pitney, James’ son, was the foreman on a Morris County jury of 12 men that convicted Abraham Cooper of Chester for using a hot iron to brand the forehead of his slave Cato.

The jury ruled Cato was “there by grievously wounded and hurt” and was put “to great pain, torture and other wrong” and fined Cooper $40, recounts David Mitros, in his "Slave Records of Morris County, NJ (1756-1841)."

Four years after that, Mahlon Pitney registered with Morris County the birth of a female slave child named Peg born on Sept. 20, 1810, in Mendham to “my negro slave named Rachel” to comply with New Jersey’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1804.

That act mandated that children born to slaves born after July 4, 1804, would eventually be granted their freedom -- for boys only after they served for 25 years as slaves to their mother’s master; for females the age was set at 21. Of course, the structure of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1804 required that thousands of African-American women would give birth to children that would start their lives as slaves. It also had a provision for slave owners to “abandon” these children a year after their birth to the “county poorhouse,” where they would be declared a pauper and “bound out” as indentured servants to the highest bidder by the overseers of the poor “in the same manner as other poor children.”

“Some slave owners took full advantage of the law,” writes Mitros. “They abandoned the slave children, then bid them back to receive the state subsidy” for maintaining these “paupers,” which got them $3 a month for their maintenance from the state treasury. Eventually this self-serving practice was ended in 1811, because it was consuming too much of the state’s revenue.

In the Union (just barely)

New Jersey fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War but, according to Jim Gigantino, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, New Jersey was the most enthusiastic Northern state when it came to holding on to slavery years after other Northern states had ended it. Just before the end of the Civil War, New Jersey even voted down the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, only voting to ratify it in 1866, after the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination months earlier.

Gigantino, author of the recently released book “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey 1775-1865,” says that after the Civil War, New Jersey obscured its well-established support of slavery by choosing to “memorialize things about the end of slavery.”

“So when we talk about slavery in modern times we talk about emancipation or abolition of slavery,” Gigantino says. “This is a purposeful reinvention of New Jersey as part of the free North narrative of participation in the underground railroad, participating in this freedom process.”

Professor Gigantino says his new research indicates that as many as 400 African-Americans remained in some form of slavery at the end of the Civil War, not the reported 18 long accepted in the historical record.

The local Mendham Township Committee is now in the process of subdividing off the Pitney homestead for residential development. Perhaps before the structures on the Pitney Farm are demolished we owe it to future generations to permit an archaeological dig at the site to find out more out about the shadow history we keep ignoring. We have already lost enough history.

By Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

History New Jersey Slavery