A Guide to the Underground Railroad
in New Jersey
New Jersey Historical Commission
Steal away, steal away,
steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here
— Negro spiritual
ome of those daring and artful runaway slaves who
S Railroad (UGRR) no doubt sang the words of old entered New Jersey by way of the Underground
Negro spirituals like "Steal Away" before embarking
on their perilous journey north. The lyrics of these
precious black folk songs indeed often had double meanings, serving as code songs that conveyed plans to escape the yoke of bondage. The phrase "steal away" thus meant absconding; "Jesus" and "home" symbolized the yearned for freedom in the North; and the words "I ain’t got long to stay here" meant that flight northward was imminent.
Running away as a form of protest by slaves against their bondage is as old as African enslavement itself on American soil. The first European settlement on land that would ultimately become part of the United States of America, a Spanish colony established in 1526 in the area of present-day South Carolina, witnessed the flight of its slaves; it is said they fled to neighboring Indians. The presence of African slaves in the British colonies of North America, whose history begins in 1607 with the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, was also marked by flight as an expression of resistance. The 1772 runaway slave notice shown on the right, for example, is evidence of slave dissent in colonial New Jersey.
Down to the outbreak of the Civil War, New Jersey continued to bear witness to the presence of runaway slaves. However, with the passage in 1804 in New Jersey of An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, these fugitives come increasingly from the South; this legislation indeed made New Jersey part of the "Promised Land," those northern states to which bondspersons escaped to quench their thirst for freedom. And from the early 1830s on, these escapees
were connected to the Underground Railroad, that secret network of persons and places—sometimes well organized and other times loosely structured—that helped southern runaway slaves reach safety in the northern states and Canada.
The Underground Railroad is an immensely popular subject, a fact attributable perhaps to the dramatic and exciting nature of its operation, as well as to its having served as the nation’s first example of biracial cooperation in the cause of social justice. Coinciding with the UGRR’s popularity has been the perpetuation of many myths, legends, and misconceptions surrounding it. Tales about tunnels, trapdoors, and secret compartments connected to the UGRR abound, perhaps exceeded only by the number of UGRR sites and communities for which an association with the Underground Railroad is claimed, often without credible evidence. UGRR operatives usually acted clandestinely because of the illegality of assisting fugitive slaves, a circumstance that has further served to make documenting the Underground Railroad—separating fact from fiction—difficult.
While the origin of the term "Underground Railroad" remains obscure and rooted in several apocryphal tales, the term can be dated to roughly 1830, after the appearance of the first trains in the United States. It was the rise of radical abolitionism in the 1830s, however, that helped to create a nurturing climate for the UGRR. This new approach to the antislavery cause found expression in such forms as the publishing in 1831 of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and the founding two years later of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with its aversion to "moral suasion" and its call for immediate emancipation without compensation to slaveholders.
The scale of the Underground Railroad has often been exaggerated, with some estimates exceeding 100,000 participants. More recent scholarship seems to suggest that between 30,000 and 40,000 runaways—50,000 at the very most—were involved. Although running away was a very common form of slave protest, the overwhelming majority of southern slaves who absconded during the antebellum period remained in the South, many gravitating to the region’s urban centers, where they often sought to pass themselves off as free blacks. The advent of the Civil War reinforced this tendency to remain in the South, with runaway slaves flocking in droves to the invading Union forces that came near them and becoming known thusly as "contraband."
The significance of the Underground Railroad, of course, lies foremost in its serving as an expression of slave resistance. Slaveholders and their sympathizers, in attempting to make slavery morally defensible, asserted that slaves were simple, child-like creatures who were very much contented with their bondage. Each fugitive who headed north therefore personally refuted the claim that bondspersons had no desire for freedom.
Underground Railroad runaways also helped exacerbate the sectional strife over the issue of slavery, thereby facilitating the very event—the Civil War—that would lead to slavery’s end. Indeed, slave flight to the North prompted the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which, as a concession to the slave states, empowered federal agents to apprehend and return runaways who had fled to the free states. Public opinion in many parts of the North, however, increasingly turned against this legislation, some of its provisions (for example, the power of federal marshals to deputize individuals to assist in capturing runaways) being perceived as grave violations of civil liberties. Some free states therefore enacted personal liberty laws that sought to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act. Such laws in turn infuriated the South; it saw them as further evidence of a hostile North prepared to deny slaveowners their property.
NATIONAL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Most Underground Railroad fugitive slaves hailed from the Upper South, in particular, the states of Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Most were males between the ages of 15 and 30 who traveled singly—by foot, horseback, wagon, stagecoach, carriage, train, and boat—and at night, often guided by the North Star. While great attention has been accorded the role of white abolitionists in assisting UGRR fugitives, this role appears somewhat overdrawn.
In the South, where slave patrols made escape an extremely risky undertaking, the fugitives, when not relying solely on their own cunning and wile to reach the free states, were mainly assisted by free blacks and fellow slaves. And in the North, free blacks—acting individually, in the vigilance committees common to many northern cities, or through their own churches and self-help organizations—were often in the forefront of efforts to provide shelter, financial help, and general support to the runaways. Indeed, on reaching the North, the "passengers" were routinely hidden, fed, clothed, allowed to rest, and cared for at each "station," which could be any kind of structure, for example, a house, church, hotel, or store.
NEW JERSEY UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
New Jersey, an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad, received fugitives mainly from the Atlantic coastline states of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Its proximity to the slave states of Delaware and Maryland, as well as its location between two of the most active UGRR metropolitan centers—Philadelphia and New York City—only serves to underscore the crucial place it occupied in the movement of runaway slaves northward.
New Jersey is also identified with the Underground Railroad’s two most celebrated figures. One, the legendary Harriet Tubman, spent the summers between 1849 and 1852 as a hotel worker in Cape May, earning money to finance her forays into her native Maryland Eastern Shore to guide fugitives slaves to freedom. And in all probability she traversed the state in leading some of her estimated 300 charges from Maryland to safety. The other, William Still, was a native New Jerseyan who was distinguished by being both the most important UGRR operative in Philadelphia and the author of the 1872 classic The Underground Railroad. This study, which offers accounts of the flights of the fugitives he assisted in Philadelphia, is especially noteworthy because it alone among nineteenth-century works on the Underground Railroad made the freedom-seeking fugitives—not the abolitionists who assisted them—the true heroic figures of the Underground Railroad’s dramatic and compelling story of struggle against oppression.
Finally, no other northern state exceeded New Jersey in the number of all-black communities that served as UGRR sanctuaries for southern fugitive slaves. Springtown
(Cumberland County), Marshalltown (Salem County), Snow Hill (present-day Lawnside, Camden County), and Timbuctoo (Burlington County) were among such places, located mainly in rural South Jersey, in which fugitive slaves also settled. One consideration for remaining in these communities was the physical safety they afforded runaway slaves; there are several instances recorded of slave catchers being run out of town with haste when they were discovered in such communities.
Underground Railroad is an epic American story featuring the forces of righteousness arrayed against those of evil—forces locked in moral combat over the elimination of perhaps the greatest expression of inhumanity: the ownership of one human by another. Certainly the important New Jersey chapter in this antislavery saga merits recounting. Some New Jerseyans indeed transcended conventions of race, class, gender, and culture and accepted the bold challenge of striking a blow against the peculiar institution. In so doing, they, often at great sacrifice and risk, bequeathed to future generations of New Jerseyans an Underground Railroad heritage worthy of being appreciated, celebrated, and preserved—a heritage first made possible by those who, in their quest for human dignity, respect, and freedom, were moved to "steal away, steal away."
1619 As part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 20 Africans are landed in Jamestown, Virginia, marking the beginning of the historical presence of blacks in English North America. These slaves are listed in later censuses as indentured servants.
1623 Dutch establish Fort Nassau, a military post in present-day Gloucester City in Camden County; it may have witnessed the presence of African slaves for its construction and maintenance.
1625 Dutch establish colony of New Netherland; it includes New Amsterdam (present-day New York City), where 11 African slaves are recorded.
1639 African slaves present by this year in Pavonia (located in or near present-day Jersey City), which, as part of New Netherland, was the first permanent Dutch settlement on New Jersey soil.
1664 English seize New Netherland from the Dutch, establish the colony of New Jersey, and find slaves who had been on Burlington Island (Burlington County) since 1659. The Concessions and Agreements, the constitution governing the establishment of New Jersey, encourages slavery by granting settlers additional land for any slaves imported.
1675 First legislation implying the actual presence of black slaves in New Jersey is enacted; it prohibits transporting or harboring a slave who has left his or her owner without permission.
1676 New Jersey is divided into two provinces—East Jersey (mainly North Jersey) and West Jersey (mainly South Jersey)—thereby marking the proprietary period, which lasts until 1702. Owing to East Jersey’s topography, more advanced state of economic development, and considerable Dutch presence, most slaves are located here, rather than West Jersey, which had a large Quaker presence.
1680 Between 60 and 70 slaves are recorded for the Shrewsbury (Monmouth County) manor of Colonel Lewis Morris, marking the largest slaveholding in New Jersey up to this time.
1688 Francis Daniel Pastorius, a Germantown (Philadelphia) Quaker, writes the first antislavery tract to appear in the American colonies; it is subsequently read during the same year at the yearly meeting of Delaware Valley Quakers held in Burlington.
1702 New Jersey becomes a royal colony and, owing to the desire to increase the Crown’s wealth, the importation of slaves into New Jersey is encouraged.
1726 New Jersey slaves number roughly 2,600, approximately 8 percent of the colony’s population.
1734 A slave conspiracy is uncovered by authorities in Somerville, the first such significant plot for New Jersey.
1741 In Hackensack three slaves are convicted and burned alive for setting fire to seven barns, marking New Jersey’s second significant slave plot. Subsequent conspiracies are unearthed in Perth Amboy in 1772 and Elizabethtown in 1779.
1745 Roughly 4,700 slaves are recorded for New Jersey; they constitute approximately 7.5 percent of New Jersey’s population.
1750 By this date, most slaves imported into New Jersey
are arriving directly from Africa, rather than the Caribbean.
1776 Declaration of Independence is adopted on July 4, marking the official beginning of the American Revolution. Some New Jersey slaves, like others elsewhere, use the chaos of the war to flee and, in some instances, later present themselves as free blacks.
New Jersey’s first state constitution is adopted on July 2; it grants the franchise to women and free blacks.
Several blacks, including Burlington County’s Oliver Cromwell, cross the Delaware River with Washington on the night of December 25 and engage in the Battle of Trenton, marking a turning point in the American Revolution
1783 With the end of the American Revolution, some New Jersey free blacks and slaves leave with the British troops and settle in Nova Scotia.
1786 New Jersey enacts legislation that essentially bans the further importation of slaves, thereby ending the African slave trade to New Jersey. Another provision of this law makes manumissions easier.
1789 U.S. Constitution takes effect; it states that no runaway slave becomes free by escaping from one state to another (article 4, section 2, clause 3)
1793 New Jersey Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the state’s first antislavery organization, is established.
First federal Fugitive Slave Act enacted; it requires appropriate officials in the state to which a runaway slave has fled to return the fugitive to his or her owner.
1804 An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, New Jersey’s first abolition law, passes. It frees all black children born on or after July 4, 1804, after serving an apprenticeship to their mother’s owner of 21 years (female) and 25 years (male).
1807 Free blacks and women lose the franchise granted in the state constitution of 1776.
1808 The importation of African slaves into the nation becomes illegal as the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States is banned.
1818 In the wake of a scandal involving the sale of Middlesex County slaves and free blacks in the slave market of New Orleans, the state adopts legislation prohibiting the selling of slaves outside of the state.
1826 New Jersey passes legislation that authorizes the return to their owners of fugitive slaves from other states residing or apprehended in New Jersey.
1830 Signaling the rise of radical abolitionism and the formation of antislavery vigilance committees in various northern cities, the Underground Railroad begins after the first appearance of trains in the nation in 1829. The origin of the term remains unclear.
1831 Indicative of the onset of radical abolitionism that helps to create a climate favorable to the operation of the Underground Railroad, William Lloyd Garrison prints the first issue of The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper.
1833 American Anti-Slavery Society is formed in Philadelphia, further evidence of the growth of radical abolitionism.
Slavery is abolished in the British Empire, making Canada a safe settlement area for runaway slaves participating in the Underground Railroad.
1838 Frederick Douglass uses the Underground Railroad to flee from bondage in Maryland. The abolitionist leader later becomes an Underground Railroad operative while living in Rochester, New York.
1840 New Jersey State Anti-Slavery Society, the state’s second statewide abolition organization, is formed.
1844 New Jersey’s second constitution is adopted; while eliminating property qualifications for voting, it continues to restrict the franchise to white males.
1846 New Jersey’s second abolition law is enacted; it eliminates apprenticeships for all black children born after its passage and, although formally outlawing slavery, makes the state’s remaining slaves (all of them elderly persons) "apprentices" for life, another form of slavery.
1847 William Still, a New Jersey native, begins his work in Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery; this work enables him to become an important figure in the operation of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad.
1849 Using the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland’s nearby Eastern Shore; her summers from this year to 1852 are spent working in hotels in Cape May and earning money for her own Underground Railroad exploits.
First statewide black convention is held in Trenton (August 21 – 22); participants agitate for the return of the franchise to black males.
1850 Fugitive Slave Act passes as part of the Compromise of 1850; this law, giving the federal government primary responsibility for capturing slaves fleeing to the North, causes some free blacks, fearing kidnapping, and fugitive slaves to flee to Canada and prompts some northern states (New Jersey not included) to pass "Personal Liberty Laws" that sought to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act.
1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act repeals the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and introduces the doctrine of "popular sovereignty"; this allows territories to decide whether to be slave or free states.
1857 Dred Scott decision is rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court; it holds that blacks are not American citizens and that Congress has no authority to prohibit slavery in any part of the nation.
1859 John Brown conducts a raid on the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in an effort to spark a large-scale slave rebellion. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, abolition activists and Underground Railroad operatives, are implicated in this conspiracy.
1860 Eighteen slaves are recorded for New Jersey by the U.S. Census, making the state the last in the North in which slaves can be found.
1861 With the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina by the Confederate forces, the Civil War begins. The Underground Railroad ceases to operate, as southern slaves who abscond from their owners gravitate toward the invading Union forces that come into their vicinity, rather than fleeing to the free states of the North.
1863 The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln goes into effect. It frees slaves in the Confederate states, but not those that remain in the Union. This encourages even greater numbers of southern slaves to flee from their owners.
1865 Thirteenth Amendment is ratified, bringing to an end the long presence of bondage on American soil. Presumably any of the 18 slaves recorded for New Jersey in 1860 who are still living are freed by this amendment.