In our previous blog, we told the story of how the Dutch West India Company brought slaves from Africa and traded them for products such as beaver pelts and farm goods in New Netherland. Slaves populated most Dutch farms in New York and New Jersey.
In this blog, we look at the struggle between the farm owners, the common people, and the slaves to retain labor on the farms and deal with the quest for the abolition of slavery by the common people.
In 1621, the Dutch West India Company contracted to build a new settlement in what was then populated by the Manhatta Indian tribe, a land they called New Netherland. This would allow more Dutch immigrants to come to the New World to farm and reap the rewards of the new land. The Dutch immigrants quickly became aware that they needed more help on their farms than their families could provide, so five years later in 1626, they made their first deal to buy slaves. According to Colgate University Professor of History Graham Hodges, they purchased 16 enslaved black people from Portuguese pirates. During this same period of time, the Dutch West India Company sold over 15,000 slaves to sugar plantation owners in Brazil. They also captured more than 23,000 slaves from Spanish ships and sold or traded them to various colonies and countries. New Netherland was one of the recipients of these slaves.
Slaves crowded on the deck of the slave bark Wildfire.
A bark is a sailing ship with three masts.
Slavery existed in New Jersey from the earliest settlement of the state. Slavery grew in the Dutch Colony and when the British gained control of New Amsterdam in 1664 and named it New York, many Dutch moved to what is now New Jersey. They brought their slaves with them and the number of slaves and offspring of slaves grew. Somerset County had slaves as early as 1685 or 1690. In 1790, there were about 2,000 slaves in Somerset and Hunterdon counties.
The path to slave freedom was slow. In the early 1800s, there was growing resistance to slavery. This was largely a classic disagreement between the rich, powerful slave owners and the common people. The common people wanted abolition, and rich slave owners did not want to change. If they had to pay for labor, ending slavery would greatly reduce their income. At the same time, the farmers wanted to avoid a rebellion by the slaves, because there were more slaves than white people on many farms.
On February 24, 1821, the State of New Jersey passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. New Jersey was the last of the northeastern states to make an attempt to end slavery. This act was a compromise at best. It said that slaves would remain slaves for life, but children of slaves born after July 4,1804 would be free after a period of time. Females would be freed after 21 years and males after 25 years. Unfortunately, many of the children of slaves did not live long enough to gain freedom.
Meanwhile, people around the state began to free their slaves in a process called manumission. Manumission was a legal process that involved a witness, certification by two overseers of the poor, and two Justices of the Peace. According to the Somerset County Historical Quarterly, these certifications attested that the slave who was to be freed “appears to be sound in mind, and not under any bodily incapacity of obtaining a support, and also is not under the age of twenty-one years nor above the age of forty years." The records of these manumissions are in the Somerset County Clerk's Office, and they cover the period between 1805 and 1862. These books also include certifications by owners of slaves of the births of slave children in their households.
The Somerset County Clerk’s Office also compiled a list of slaves and their owners from 1800 to the 1830s. They listed slaves that were free or slaves that were born into slavery. Out of the 253 slaves in Montgomery Township, 38% are in the Record of Manumissions and 62% are Slave Owner Certification of Births, presumably slaves at that time.
Just thirteen years before slavery ended in the country and eight years before it was abolished in New Jersey, the census of 1850 showed that there were just four slaves in Montgomery—two male and two female. The slaves were owned by John Hoagland, Henry Duryea, Cornelius Cruser, and Abraham Cruser. Henry Duryea was a member of Blawenburg Church. However, the same census showed that there were 265 black or colored people in Montgomery. It is likely that many of them were either freed slaves or the children of freed slaves.
Slaves were considered property, and slaveowners wanted it to stay that way. They also wanted to control the lives of slaves. Each colony created their own rules, known as slave codes, to protect their investment in slavery. Among the restrictions on slaves were that they were not allowed to:
assemble without a white person being present.
be out of their houses after curfew.
testify in court against a white person.
serve on a jury.
be taught how to read and write.
be married to another slave.
These and other restrictions on the lives of slaves served the slaveowners, but made the abolitionists furious. Nevertheless, codes like these didn’t end when slavery was nationally outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Slaves who broke the rules were subject to corporal punishment or even death.
Following emancipation, a new more subtle group of unwritten codes that were meant to segregate black people from whites were implemented. Known as Black Codes, they were common in many places throughout the country, especially in the south. They were enacted in some communities in Somerset County, too.
The places that wanted to maintain white supremacy swiftly enacted the codes after the Civil War. The codes were meant to quell the growing threat of rebellion among former slaves and reduce the number of runaways. Former slaves were still an important part of the economic system. Cheap labor meant more money for the plantation owners. Among these codes that were designed to assure the inferiority of black former slaves included:
Vagrancy – Black people who were unemployed and did not have a permanent place to live would be declared vagrant. They could be arrested and fined. If they couldn’t pay the fine, they could be sent to work on a plantation.
Apprentices – Orphans and blacks dependent on whites were often sent to work for whites, and the people they worked for were often their previous masters.
Property – Blacks were restricted from buying some properties, businesses, and learning certain trades.
Firearms – Former slaves could not carry firearms.
Marriage – African Americans could marry other African Americans, but not have interracial marriages.
The punishment for violations of Black Codes was harsh, leading to physical punishment or even lynchings by people who took the law into their own hands.
Jim Crow Laws
Segregation was kept in place after the period known as Reconstruction that ended in 1877. New codes known as Jim Crow laws were enacted. These rulings said it was alright to have segregation of blacks and whites as long at blacks were not denied a similar activity. For example, it was okay for blacks to be excluded from entering the main door of a restaurant as long as they could enter another way (the colored entrance) and have a place to eat. Reality was that the facilities and menu for blacks was inferior to that of the whites.
This practice got a big boost in 1896 when the U.S Supreme Court ruled in favor of separate but equal segregation in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The ruling said that “separate but equal” did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave African Americans including former slaves the rights of citizenship and other civil and legal rights.
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed that Jim Crow laws were abolished and African Americans were given equal rights with other citizens. It was intended to end discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin.
While there is evidence today of unequal treatment of African Americans and other minority groups in America, the country has come a long way from the slave and black code era. Those who believe in white supremacy are still with us today, and the battle for equality still needs constant attention and reaffirmation with each new generation.
1. The Reformed Dutch Church, later called the Dutch Reformed Church, and now the Reformed Church of America, permitted slavery in the early years. This led to many early ministers of the Reformed Dutch Church having slaves. It is said that at seven pastors in Somerset County, or possibly more, had slaves, including at least one in Blawenburg.
2. The 1850 census shows that four old slaves and four younger ones were in the Montgomery Township Poor House. Slaves often used the surname of their owners. Henry Van Derveer, 96, Harry Little, 86, Toney Nevius, 65, and Betty Beekman, 80, were all too old to be of service. Two younger slaves were also there: George Lane, 36, and Caroline Van Pelt. Henry Van Derveer and Toney Nevius could have been slaves on farms in or near Blawenburg. People with these surnames appear on the 1843 Blawenburg Reformed Church membership list.
3. During the Jim Crow era, many towns had Sundown or Sunset Laws which said that blacks had to be out of town by sundown. If they remained, they did so at their own peril. The Ku Klux Klan were enforcers of Sundown Laws in many areas. There were no such laws in Montgomery Township. The closest know community to have them was Somerset. (See Blog 16 for information about the KKK in Blawenburg.)
4. Current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, apologized in 2022 for his country’s participation in slave trading in the past. In a speech in The Hague, he said, "For centuries under Dutch state authority, human dignity was violated in the most horrific way possible." He called slavery “a crime against humanity.” The Week magazine, 12/20/22
Several people were instrumental in providing information for this blog. Their contributions are greatly appreciated.
Jane Van Zandt researched old church and census records to figure out the names and locations of slaves. Her work was helpful in this blog and will be in future blogs as well.
Ken Chrusz provided information about early slaves.
Amy Golder-Cooper reported on the will of her ancestor, John Blaw.
Blawenburg Reformed Church membership list, 1843
Gigantino II, James J. “Trading in Jersey Souls: New Jersey and the Interstate Slave Trade,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Vol.77, No. 3, 2010.
Golder-Cooper, Amy. Email re John Blaw will, January, 2023.
Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. 1999. Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863. University of North Carolina Press.
“Manumissions of Slaves in Somerset County. Somerset County Historical Quarterly, V 4, No. 6, October,1912.
“Slavery in Somerset County,” The Somerset Messenger. Date unknown.
“The Black Freedom Struggle in Northern New Jersey, 1613-1860: A Review of the Literature,” Montclair State University,
Bark ship – public domain
Negro sale sign – public domain
Lynching – public domain
Segregation signs – restroom and swimming – Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI
Copyright © 2023 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.