Before I got started in family history I thought that with few exceptions only Southern people had ever held slaves in colonial America, the United States and its territories. Once I began reading their wills, I soon found that there were slaveholders among my colonial New Jersey Dutch ancestors. I did not find any references to slaves in Post-Revolutionary wills, and at first assumed slavery did not persist into the Federal period in New Jersey, at least not among my people. Surely they were better than that.
I now know that New Jersey was the last northeastern state to abolish slavery, that slaveholding was always disproportionately common there among those with Dutch ancestry, and that some of my direct Jersey Dutch ancestors held slaves as late as 1840. New Jersey officially apologized for its role with regard to slavery in 2008.
The 1804 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in New Jersey made abolition so gradual that 16 people remained enslaved there in 1865. The law stated that people born to enslaved women after 4 Jul 1804 would be “free” except that they were required to work as indentured servants until adulthood, meaning to age 25 for males and 21 for females. And that people born before that date would remain enslaved unless otherwise emancipated.
The 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules list 236 slaves remaining in New Jersey, down from over 12,000 in 1800, with 65 of these in Bergen County. Though none of the 1850 slaveholders is a direct ancestor of mine, the majority are at least distant relatives, having the same surnames that appear repeatedly in my grandmother’s tree: Ackerman, Blauvelt, Haring, Terhune, Vanderbeek, Westervelt.
Looking carefully at my ancestors’ 1830 and 1840 census records however, I now see several households with one or two slaves. Some also contain “free colored persons,” though many of these may actually be indentured servants under the 1804 law.
Unfortunately the 1790-1820 U.S. Federal Censuses for New Jersey are lost except for Cumberland County in 1800, so there are no decennial “snapshots” of households available for those years. The 1820 census form was the first with several columns for both slaves and free colored persons, broken out by age and gender, which would have been helpful to many researchers.
I first learned of latter day slaveholding in my family from an article in the Hackensack Republican of 20 Jul 1890, reprinted in 2007 in the newsletter of the Bergen County Historical Society. Marginalia from Ancient Almanacs describes the events recorded by some of my Bogert ancestors in the margins of several almanacs between 1785 and 1840.
These events include births, marriages, deaths, relatives sailing for distant ports, and extreme weather. (In the winter of 1820-1821 it was possible to cross between Jersey City and Manhattan on the frozen Hudson River.) Many notes pertain to farm activities and household chores—”sowed buckwheat,” “left the red cow go dry,” “begun to mow hay,” “knitted our socks,” “made candles.”
Interspersed among these entries are records concerning the family’s slaves. On 2 Oct 1796 my 5th great grandfather Casparus Bogert (1758-1826) noted that he had “Sold Susan.” The 1804 law did not make buying and selling slaves illegal, and several later transactions are recorded, the last in 1818. Mink, first mentioned in 1798, was sold in 1813 for $275, after he had been part of this household for at least 15 years.
I realized there must have been relatively recent slaveholding among my Zabriskie ancestors as well when I read of the effort to save the Zabriskie Tenant House in Paramus from demolition in 2012. The Tenant House was built about 1786 by my ancestor Andrew Zabriskie (1728-1819) as a home for his son Christian.
By 1830 the Zabriskies had moved out and descendants of their slaves had moved in. A small but vibrant African-American neighborhood known as Dunkerhook developed around this house, persisting into the 1930s. Many people worked together to try to save the house, including descendants of both the Zabriskies and of Dunkerhook’s black residents, but unfortunately developers prevailed.
I need to do more research to document the lives of the people who were unfree members of my ancestors’ households, and to find out how those who finally obtained their freedom fared afterwards.