|Slavery in Somerset County
|Last month this author was searching the internet for information on local history when I found some historical records that I almost wished
that I did not find. It was a list of slave owners in Somerset County. As I read them I cringe as some of the last names are the prominent local
families that are celebrated in today’s local history - Frelinghuysen, Van Weghten, Ten Eyck, and Southard. And the towns on these “slave” records are our towns
- Bridgewater, Bedminster, Hillsborough, and Bernards. Even the dates on these records do not seem distant enough.
As much as I want to believe in the purity of our local town and people - there is no error on these records. While today the “South” is the featured bad guy in slavery and civil rights history, the truth is that right here in Somerset County the sin of slavery once existed.
|The local story of slavery was defined by the laws of New Jersey. The countries fight for “freedom” in the Revolutionary War against Britain
brought the discussion of freedom for all – white and black – to the forefront.
What hypocrisy it would be to establish a country based on freedom and democracy, yet deny freedom to blacks in that same country. That mentality slowly took root in the Northern States of the U.S. By 1800 most Northern States had passed laws that would gradually free those enslaved. But New Jersey had been so badly damaged and looted in the war that the freeing of the slaves was judged to be too much of an additional economic burden that it was delayed.
|Above and below
Are Ads from the local newspaper
The Somerset Messenger
|But by 1804 there was tremendous pressure from the common folks for the politicians to take action in abolishing slavery.
But the rich, powerful people were the ones who owned the slaves. The politicians, like today, were part of the rich and powerful – the “one percent” of their era.
Thus they were hesitant to take anything away from themselves and their friends. There were many superficial reasons given “not” to free the slaves.
But the bottom line was that the rich and powerful did not want to give up their slaves. For a slave owner of a farm it was free labor which meant almost
guaranteed profits. For a slave owning rich lawyer even a single house servant meant not having to prepare meals or clean up after yourself.
The New Jersey legislative in an effort to appease both groups - the rich/powerful and the common folks - passed a compromise law for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The new law stated that any slaves would still be slaves for life, but any of their children born after 1804 would be freed after serving their owner for a period of time. This period was 21 years for a woman and 25 years for a man. These children were labeled “slaves for a term.” This law took the pressure off the lawmakers, but at the time did not free a single slave. The common folks were not entirely pleased with the law, but it was similar to what surrounding states had passed a decade before so it would have to do. Many who strongly believed in the abolitionist of slavery fought on for the complete freedom of all slaves, but without the internet to communicate and with the people in New Jersey so scattered about , in frustration they abandoned their efforts after a few years.
|The 1804 law required paperwork to be filled out at The County Clerk’s Office. Slave owners would have to file two types of documents. The first was a “Birth Record” for any babies born to slaves. This would serve as the marker for the much later freedom they “could” obtain. Only 50% of those born as “slaves for a term” even lived long enough to be granted freedom. The second document needing to be filed with the County Clerk would be if a slave owner decided to grant freedom to his slave.
|Above is the birth record of a slave in Bridgewater
Click to see full view and wording typed out
|Since this author had only found a list of these documents, not the documents themselves,
I wonder does the County Clerk still have the original documents. I go to the County Clerk’s Office and ask.
The woman at the desk looks surprised, and then she says they keep the slave records in the back (all others documents are keep out in the open.)
The staff says that no one has ever asked for them.
They take me to the records. The documents are in several binders with each page in thick plastic, well protected indeed. There are 352 records of owners freeing their slaves. And 736 birth records for slaves being born as “slave for a term”. The records are hand written, hard to read, but with patience one can make out the wording. The birth records are short and simple stating the slave owner’s name, the slave parent’s name, the child’s name and the date of birth. The documents granting Freedom are a full legal size page. Their purpose was to show that the owner was freeing a slave of sound mind who could function on his own. While this may seem to be a humanitarian effort for the slave’s benefit, it was as much to make sure that the newly freed slave would not become a burden on society.
|As stated before the slave owners on the documents are the prominent names from our local history.
We find John Frelinghuysen, proud General from the War of 1812, whose home is used as the Raritan Library appearing on several birth records.
Another record for him from 1837 shows his estate freed a slave Cecelia after his death.
And then there is Michael Van Veghten whose family’s home in Bridgewater today serves as the headquarters of the Somerset County Historical Society. He was very busy with slaves as 4 birth records and 3 freedom records bear his name.
Then there is the onetime U.S. Senator Richard Stockton Jr. (son of the signer of the Declaration of Independence) who freed his slave Thomas in 1823.
The records show nine slave owners were “Reverends”. One of the Reverends is Bernard’s Robert Finley who established a controversial movement that was designed to ship free blacks back to Africa.
|Above is the legal document granting
a slave in Bridgewater her freedom
Click to see full view and wording typed out
|After the visit to the County Clerk’s Office I try to find more information about local slavery. I look to the newspapers.
The Bridgewater Library has microfilm of local newspapers as early as 1823. It does not take me long to find some ads placed by slave owners offering a
reward for a runaway slave.
Seeing the towns in these ads say Somerville and Raritan sends chills down my spine. One of the ads for a runaway (summarized) reads: Six Cents Reward – RANAWAY a Negro man by the name of SAM, between 40 and 50 years old, and is lame in one leg. The public are cautioned against harboring him on my account. The above award will be paid for his delivery to me.
James Quick, Raritan, June 22nd, 1831.
|I find another type of ad that is equally disturbing. The Somerset Messenger from March 1831 has printed on the front page a
listing of things for sale or rent. Most of these ads are for horses, but the bottom one is for the sale of a person. It states:
FOR SALE – A smart, active, BLACK GIRL, aged 29, a slave for life; she is a good cook and trusty.
So the above is what this author learned about local slavery. Those that read my monthly articles know that I always write a “feel good” story. Things like the heroics of a local soldier or that championship team that took the state title against all odds. But this month there is no “feel good” to my article, only a story of a dark chapter in our history – but a chapter that should be read.