ELIZABETH FORUM 2007
 

THE BELCHER OGDEN LANDSCAPE
Presented by
The Historical Society
Elizabeth NJ Inc
2007

A Special Thanks to our Oral
History Sources - Mark and Mary Bannworth - Paul and Lois Hattrich

MORE SOURCES (from left to right)
Pat Maloney - Jean Talbot -   Lillian Cooke

The Belcher - Ogden Mansion

The Belcher Ogden mansion on the corner of Catherine and East Jersey Street dates from the 1750s. The stately Georgian design rests on the site where earlier, wooden and less permanent buildings once stood, as early as the 1720s. The Ogden family were the original builders and owners   until it became the residence of one of New Jersey's royal governors, Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757), who lived there until he died in 1757. The building served as the seat of New Jersey government in those years. The house's 18th century history included important visitors like Elizabeth pastor, Rev Jonathan Dickinson, who would serve as the first president of a school that eventually became Princeton University. His friend and Belcher's friend, Rev Jonathan Edwards, one of the important theologians and intellectuals of the colonial period, visited here a number of times. In 1778 George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton attended a wedding   here joining Catherine Smith (whose father, William Peartree Smith, owned the house then) and Elisha Boudinot, whose family resided down East Jersey Street at Boxwood Hall. Later the home served as the residence of Aaron Ogden, an aide to Washington, a standout military presence during the Revolution, esp at the conclusive Battle of Yorktown. In 1812 he served as Federalist governor of New Jersey.

All of these associations combined gave the Belcher Ogden a special historical character. Even the British during the Revolutionary War considered the residence a strategic outpost where they hoped to capture Washington during the Boudinot-Smith wedding reception. Fortunately for the Americans, the British timing was off and the event was over by the time the redcoats arrived. The British took out their exasperation on the house itself.   So one inference we have begun to entertain is that this house is not a passive locus in history but an active agent all by itself, one which continues to carry its history with it into the next several centuries.

Nassau Hall, Princeton University

The Sacking of the Belcher-Ogden Mansion

The 1856 Ernest L Meyer Map

Our current Belcher-Ogden project set out to learn two major things: first, how did its subsequent history extend or change its 18th story; and secondly, how have its neighbors in the 19th and 20th century regarded their proximity to such a resonant historic place. The Historical Society of Elizabeth NJ set out to reconstruct the Mansion's historical landscape. Our first task was to learn when and how the original property - supposedly five acres at the end of the 18th century -   changed, altering its holdings which extended from the present building to the Elizabeth River. This 1856 map   prepared by Ernest L Meyer shows several buildings on Catherine Street in this year and an additional structure on the corner of Catherine and Elizabeth Avenue, originally called Water Street. However, the opposite border street, Morrell St, has virtually no buildings on it until it reaches Elizabeth Avenue. Along this border residents recall a lilac alley extending from the Mansion to the river, but eventually cut short as Elizabeth Avenue widened and became commercial. The Belcher Ogden mansion on the map extends the entire length of the East Jersey St block, making clear the residence has expanded and contracted over the centuries.   

THE WOODRUFF - BOUTON HOUSE

The Bahrs Going into their Garden
(Richard Koles Photo)

2006 Morrell St Townhouses

MORRELL ST POLICE STATION - CONSTRUCTION IN 1929

The absence of structures along Morrell St in 1856 has become more important as we probe the 19th century landscape of the Belcher-Ogden house. The next oldest residence on the Catherine St side of the Belcher property became 26 Catherine St built in 1837. The stately federal design of the home complemented its 18th century neighbor up the street and incorporated parts of the old Belcher lilac alley into a beautiful garden,   owned in 1856 by David Woodruff who registered himself in the 1860, 1870 and 1880 federal census as a "mason," though he was likely a contractor as well. 26 Catherine Street extended the entire block from Catherine to Morrell. The garden received fond attention from subsequent owners, the silk merchant Edward Bouton and later Richard and Lillian Bahr, when they purchased the house in 1954 from the Bouton family. When this family sold the house in 2001, that owner turned out to be a developer who put two row houses   in the bottom of the garden, facing Morrell Street. In excavating the foundation for these homes, the contractor discovered a tunnel, which had clearly been in place a long time. It turns out that by this time, other structures like the old Morrell Street police station,   built in the 1929 by Dan McCarran Construction Co, had also uncovered a tunnel. In retrospect, the tunnel connected the Belcher Ogden Mansion to the Elizabeth River for many decades and more importantly opens a dramatic window not only to the house's landscape history but to the history of Elizabeth NJ itself.  

THE ELIZABETH RIVER

The tunnel, subsequent owners believed, made the Belcher Ogden mansion a station on the Underground Railroad. Others thought it dated from earlier times because of   colonial smuggling and the evasion of the British Empire's efforts to tax and stamp imports and exports between the colonies and non-British ports. There is no question that both options connect Elizabeth via its river   with its strategic location to New York Harbor, Newark Bay, and the Staten Island border with the Arthur Kill.   Let us explore both options to see how Elizabeth fit with its larger transportation world.

After they captured New York from the Dutch in 1664, the British began to solidify their gains with a set of imperial strictures. They tried to control the city's multi-national trade by having American goods shipped on British ships   and charged tariff on American goods in non-British ships. From the middle of the 17th to the Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the British government passed a constant string of imposts on rum, tobacco and other goods. They tightened these tariffs with the 1733 Molasses Act on through the succession of Navigation Acts in the 1760s. But, the continuous passage of these laws with stiffer and stiffer fines actually meant that the enforcement of British laws had many loopholes (at least until the 1760s). Not the least of these involved smuggling and piracy, often, as in the case of   Capt William Kidd, drawing in highly respectable New York and British merchants. They could not afford to ignore the high prices for finished goods paid by Martinique, Guadeloupe and the French West Indies and their low prices  

SLOOP

ROYAL GOVERNOR JONATHAN BELCHER

prices for sugar and molasses.   Many of Britain's own officials in the colonies turned a blind eye to questionable practices to insure the vibrant economy under their charge    By the time of the Revolution smuggling had become a way of life, accounting for an estimated one-third of all North American commerce. Smuggling profits of the colonials guaranteed the colonists had money to pay for British manufactured goods.

British royal governors often had to walk a narrow path between maintaining the colonial economy and meeting the letter of British law. Jonathan Belcher himself   lost the governorship of New Hampshire and Massachusetts because the British crown thought him too lenient in many matters with the colonists. Ultimately Belcher went back to Britain, cleared himself of all suspicions and regained his career with the governorship of New Jersey (where he continued to be a better defender of colonial than of crown interests). The original tunnel may well have been the product of the governor importing goods to avoid the taxation from his own employer. It would not have been a first precedent, especially for a governor so partial to Madera wine.

HUDSON RIVER SLOOP

One might also note that until the time of the American Revolution the Elizabeth River was navigable to the bridge at the present-day Elizabeth Public Library. Such ships were likely to be sloops, favored by coastal traffic and indeed enterprising pirates who did most of their work raiding places on land rather than commandeering ships on the high seas. Eighteenth century sloops were prized for their speed and maneuverability; they had single masts but with a large spread of sail, fore and aft, and shallow drafts. These hundred-ton boats, carrying a dozen guns and at times up to 50 persons, were perfect coastal vessels, navigating estuaries and harbors without much depth; in other words, perfect for ocean travel and riverport delivery. One British sloop was actually sunk in the Elizabeth River during the Revolution. Sloops could negotiate the Atlantic to the Indies, could cruise places like the Arthur Kill and deliver goods to Elizabethtown and warehouses below the city's Broad Street bridge. Not too far below this bridge would be the likely outlet for the Belcher-Ogden tunnel, which could have been built just below the Mansion's garden walkway.

BELCHER-OGDEN GARDEN WALKWAY

Privateering and smuggling in 18th century Elizabeth had an important comparable, clandestine use in the 19th century. From the 1830s abolitionists supported the estimated 1,000 successful escapes a year between 1838 and 1860. The enterprise was known as the Underground Railroad and was often most successful when its "conductors" like Harriet Tubman,   were African-Americans themselves. Though it was named after a recent invention - the BALTIMORE & OHIO RAILROAD dating from 1831 - the Underground railroad was neither as organized as a railroad nor was it underground. It was primarily a locally generated alternative without commanding organization. Many escapees did not know of it or use what little organization there was, but many of the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 runaways (less than one percent of 4M slaves) in the antebellum period did. On the eastern route,   originating in the border states of Virginia and Maryland particularly, runaways traveled by night, usually between safe houses called "stations" about twenty miles apart. The threat of sale - which intensified in the 1850s   - and often the splitting of slave families became a   common precipitating event.

HARRIET TUBMAN

ROUTES OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

The ultimate destination of the eastern route was Canada. The majority of runaways on the eastern route, crossed from Delaware at Cape May and made their way, often by stowing away in coastal steamers to arrive at Perth Amboy,   Jersey City or Elizabeth. They then sought a Hudson River ferry to New York City. They would continue up the Hudson by whatever means, west at Albany along the Erie Canal, then to Buffalo and eventually Toronto. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 intensified escapes as well as   the penalties for hiding and aiding them.

Many of the white abolitionists in the cities were either ministers or physicians. Between 1837 and 1858 the Belcher Ogden Mansion was owned by a renown medical doctor, Charles Davis, age 53 in the 1850 Federal census, who resided in the historic building with his young wife, Caroline, seven children (Anna, Emily, Fanny, Charles, William, Luther and Helen, probably his mother in law Frances Gildersleeve, two Irish servants (Mary Heany 21 and Ann Burnes 30) and a 40-year old Scottish handyman. William Bender. In Elizabeth Dr Davis had a reputation not only for his medical skills but for his ardent advocacy for temperance. In the antebellum period one's involvement in temperance reform often put one in contact with equally ardent advocates of social reforms like abolition. Davis also held important economic and civic posts alongside his medical practice. From 1840 to 1851 he was president of the State Bank of Elizabeth and was president of the Elizabethtown Mutual Fire Insurance Company.

ESCAPING TO CAPE MAY, NJ

DISCOVERY ON A COASTAL STEAMER

STEALING AWAY

DR. CHARLES DAVIS

The very secretive nature of the Underground Railroad means that there is no solid evidence for Dr Davis's participation but according to historian, Giles Wright, there are circumstantial features that help make the case for a "station."   In the case of the Belcher-Ogden residence,    Charles Davis's   profile, the ample space for sequestering runaways, the Elizabeth access to the Hudson River crossings and,   above all, the tunnel,   strongly suggests that the Belcher-Ogden mansion was a station on the Underground Railroad. The Mansion's brick stairway to the attic could also have been complicit in this endeavor.

The tunnel remained a secondary thread that wove together the relations of the neighborhood. It was known by the successive owners of 26 Catherine Street and likely the owners of the   Belcher-Ogden mansion itself, some of whom wrote in detail about the house's history. One owner's grandson at 26 Catherine St continually poked shafts down into the backyard to find the empty space, but without avail. Parties were held in their backyards atop their very special history,   all knowing a murky story lay below their festivities. The Catherine St neighborhood remained very cohesive for much of the 20th century. The dominant ethnic group was German but there was also residents from Ireland, Russia and Greece and on parallel streets African Americans beginning in the 1930s. As one longtime resident explained, neighborhood boundaries change. In the late 1940s it was possible to set the eastern boundary of the neighborhood over by St Michael's church where children walked.  

BELCHER OGDEN BRICKED UP BASEMENT ENTRY

BACKYARD PARTY AT 26 CATHERINE STREET

THE 1929 JEWISH Y

Some, like Mark Bannworth,   made their trip crossing Spring St (now Routes 1 & 9) four times a day, because of lunch at home in the middle of the school day.   St Michael's also reinforced a strong German presence in the area but with the expansion of Spring St in 1928, the neighborhood contracted and its eastern boundary became either routes 1 & 9 or Prospect. A small group of Russians on Prospect in 1930 probably signaled the movement of the Elizabeth Jewish community out of First Street and Elizabethport up to their East Jersey temple, B'nai Israel, and concomitantly the Jewish Y on the corner of Catherine St in 1929. One Catherine St neighbor testified that the coming of Jewish Y represented a prosperous upgrading of the neighborhood's anchors, even though few ever went inside the building. Through the Y's street windows local children often watched as the Jewish kids   bowled on their   alleys. Gradually the influx of other ethnic and racial groups diluted the earlier German presence but never achieved the vibrant ethnicity of the neighborhoods nearest Singer Sewing Machine on Trumbull St. With the coming of Jefferson High School, the neighborhood's western boundary shifted, away from a small chain of physician's office/residences. In 1910 one of these (#1062) East Jersey residences belonged to Dr. Victor Mravlag (b 1839), himself an immigrant (1873) from Austria, who was then serving as the first and only Elizabeth mayor of German descent (1909-11; 1913-23).

But the largest concentration of residents in the Belcher-Ogden Mansion area were native Americans, especially residents born in New Jersey.

DR. VICTOR MRAVLAG'S RESIDENCE - 1062 E JERSEY

ORIGINS OF BELCHER OGDEN NEIGHBORHOOD RESIDENTS

(Greece, France, Hungry, Poland, Ireland, and China)
  1910 1920 1930
Europe 29% 31% 47%
Germany 21% 17% 12%
Russia 12% -- --
Italy 6% -- --
England 7% -- --
Other 8% 14% 10%*


BELCHER OGDEN LANDSCAPE - ORIGINS OF AMERICAN RESIDENTS
 
United States 71% 69% 52%
New Jersey 38% 42% 31%
New York 18% 12% 8%
Pennsylvania 11% 15% 6%
South -- 3% 4%
Other
(CA, Ohio, Iowa et)
4% 5% 2%
Unknown -- -- .6%

THE 18 TH CENTURY BELCHER OGDEN MANSION

The only neighborhood to have more American-born residents than this East Jersey/ Catherine St sector was that surrounding the Elizabeth Train Station. It was as if the older settled places hung onto their early traditions. The actual owner of the Belcher-Ogden in 1910 was a lawyer Warren Dix, who invested large amounts of time researching the history of his home, especially its 18th century records   . His Catherine St neighbors claimed to be proud of this heritage, but few remembered socializing with the Dixs, respecting their privacy while watching for ways to visit and get inside the historic place. Both the Belcher Ogden Mansion and the Bonnell House across East Jersey may have been significantly historical benchmarks for the city and indeed shelters for its owner's antiques but primarily they were individual residences until later in the 20th century. In part, this mental conversion of the historically significant to the ordinary helps explain the dormancy of the Mansion's history as a smuggler's depot or as an Underground railroad station.

26 CATHERINE STREET

The 1837 house at 26 Woodruff   seems to have provided more of a cultural orientation or the neighborhood. Its original owner - David Woodruff - and later his son-in-law - Edwin Bouton - were staunch members of the Third Presbyterian church (f 1851). The Woodruff name appears early in the city's history, on the roster of Elizabeth Associates, who were its first settlers in the 17th century. The 20-room residence   clearly had the capacity for gala events and holiday fetes, which it surely had even into its post-Woodruff owners. The Woodruffs and Boutons must have worried some about the non-Presbyterian affiliations of their neighbors, because when the house finally passed from the family's hands in 1954, they sold it self-consciously to new owners who were Presbyterians. They specified a desire, never to have crucifixes hung on the house's walls.   The buyer was Lillian Bahr (nee Brunenmeister) and her husband Richard, both of   whom had been born nearby in German families and raised in nearby (Bahrs at #1059) Elizabeth Avenue tenements. Lillian recalled she walked past 26 Catherine St all her elementary years, admiring it enormously and thrilled when she eventually became its owner and experienced a Horatio Alger ascent. Her garden became a jewel of the neighborhood,

A SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

THE ELEGANT HALLWAY

THE CATHERINE STREET FLOWER GARDEN
(Richard Koles Photo)

THE CATHERINE STREET INTERIOR
(Richard Koles Photo)

Incorporating portions of the Belcher-Ogden lilac allee   and sustaining the neighborhood's own flowery tradition. In 1976 the city paper, the Elizabeth Journal, did a cover story on the house and garden, showcasing exteriors and interiors.   Lillian's mother initially passed on fears of Catholics, especially Peterstown Italians, but later Italian and Cuban neighbors and friends (not to mention her marriages to two Catholics among her three husbands)    provided Lillian a more expansive acculturating experience. In its way her story captures the powerful acculturating impact of a 20th century urban neighborhood

                Many of the houses, especially on Catherine St, had front porches, a major device for socialization and mutual information. Indeed even before the Morrell Street police station was built in the 1920s, the walking policeman remained a known figure, especially to front porch sentinels. Before World War II, much of the city's policing concerned the domestic peace and arbitrating domestic disputes. The patrolman's knowledge of many of the family histories permitted them to settle issues short of actual arrest and incarceration. Such arrests, as Pat Maloney made clear in an interview, also generally meant the loss of a job Monday morning and no paycheck the following Thursday. The patrolman's sensitivity to such issues became a major resource to the neighborhood, abruptly cut short by the 1950s with the coming of the radio car and cruising rather than schmoozing. But always the police building provided its own special sense of order and propriety. One neighbor explained the collective insight: "You had to behave" or even more forcefully, as longtime Catherine St resident Paul Hattrich insisted, everyone then had    pride in their neighborhood.

AN ELIZABETH FRONT PORCH STILL IN SERVICE



THE BELCHER OGDEN LANDSCAPE – OCCUPATIONS OF ITS RESIDENTS

 
  1910 1920 1930
Unskilled 25% 14% 25%
Skilled 32% 42% 32%
Managerial 24% 21% 24%
Professional 6% 8% 6%
Unknown 12% 14% 12%

For much of its early 20th century history the Belcher Ogden neighborhood reflected a strong middle-class continuity. On its western and northern boundary (Scott Plaza east and East Jersey St, physicians and lawyers made their homes. A substantive managerial class lived on Catherine and Prospect streets not far from their Elizabeth Avenue businesses. These two groups plus the skilled craftsmen - carpenters, masons, machinists etc - formed two-third to three quarters of the residents in the 1910-1930 period. Individuals without specific "occupations" often listed themselves as retired or more frequently, especially female household heads, put "own income" on the federal census forms. It was not uncommon for these households to have a number of working family members or boarders. In effect, such women headed households which served as businesses, as functional keepers of boarding houses and hence managers in their own right. One such example in 1930 was Kathleen Donaldson, a 46 year old British born widow who had at her 1033 Elizabeth Avenue residence four boarders, all recent immigrants from Greece - George Dougarus, John and George Nicholas, all waiters in a nearby restaurant, and Minnie Lopaze, a machine operator in a shirt factory.     

14 CATHERINE STREET

If Elizabeth Avenue tended to acculturate many different ethnic and racial groups through commerce, its adjacent streets tended to be a bit more cohesive in terms of ethnicity and social class. In 1920, at 14 Catherine St   -now the Hattrich residence - (which didn't exist in 1910) Harry Simonowtiz lived. He and his son, Julius, were Russian Jews who worked as musicians in concert orchestras; in 1930 this house sheltered the family of Frederick Berger, a German immigrant and a tool maker in a machine Shop. Up the same street - at 36 Catherine St    - still in the Talbot family - in 1920 was John Talbot (his wife Mary and son Leroy) John Talbot was a city policeman, a 43 year old New Yorker by birth; in 1930 at the same house Mary Talbot is   a 56 year old widow, a Jersey native with Irish-born parents.. She also houses her brother, Michael Tobin, a 59 year old watchman and   also a second generation Irishman.   Across the street at 37 Catherine in 1920 - for many later years the Bannworth residence   - lived the family of   John Kennedy, a 45 year old tinsmith who was born in New Jersey; ten years later the Franklin family resides there, headed by an 45 year old Irish born mason. In these years there were few Italians, Slavs, Hungarians, Poles,   etc, all of which had larger concentrations in other parts of the city especially nearer the Singer Sewing Machine plant on Trumbull Avenue.   Finally in both 1920 and 1930 on Spring and Prospect streets,   there is a small (3-4%) contingent of African Americans, born in the Carolinas and Virginia and recent arrivals, a part of the greatest internal migration in American history.

36 CATHERINE STREET

37 CATHERINE STREET

This vibrant influx of newcomers as well as the mobility of even native born Elizabethans dramatically affects the collective memory of urban communities. They are immediately pressed for shelter and survival upon arrival, then gainful work and a stability of routines. All of these issues take priority over, say, leisure, recreation and culture. It is hardly surprising, even if residents of the neighborhood knew the histories of the oldest neighborhood dwellings, that those past associations would have qualified their present needs. But each ethnic and racial group carries their histories with them and transforms them as they pursue life-sustaining needs. Indeed the way each group or family pursues their needs re-shapes the historical narrative of their city. Today we need to give some thought to the role of memory in shaping our image of Elizabeth and the way its historical narrative conditions how we understand an urban quality of life. What does it matter if Elizabeth physicians do not know the extra-medical role of Dr Charles Harris as a station master on the 19th century Underground Railroad?   How significant is it that many Elizabethan are ignorant of the presence of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton or the Marquis de Lafayette in their very community or their narrow escape from the British in 1778?   Would Elizabethans think differently of their governor, if he, like Jonathan Belcher, breached the laws he had sworn to uphold?

ORDINARY TO EXTRAORDINARY

The moment of reconsidering the actual narrative of a community's past is itself both an historical and political act. Whose history should become the major story to explain how comparable residents lived generations before? The stories we have here recounted - some extraordinary, some richly ordinary - actually changes the fabric of our city and makes clear that a more accurate history must itself be more inclusive than is usually the case. Most of the extraordinary individuals in our tale were simply ordinary people who engaged unforeseen contexts and issues and carried them to unpredictable - occasionally remarkably successful - conclusions. But all of the experiences of residents have their place in a city's narrative, and if not every story can be told with equal force, history manifestly cannot be simply a story of the fortunate survivors.   The Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc has tried to tell a more inclusive story, has interviewed neighborhood residents to change the top-down perspectives that so often represent

THE BELCHER OGDEN MANSION TODAY

textbook history. In doing so, we think we have begun a process of inclusion that pairs the ordinary and the extraordinary and searches for their interface. In doing so, we have excavated different perspectives for a major historical icon, the Belcher Ogden Mansion and liberated it from its 18th century chrysalis. Actually any   long-standing residence has a special place in the narratives and experiences of many families, of all social classes, of every ethnic and racial group. The Belcher-Ogden residence enters the 21st century as a different social resource than it has been hitherto. It is more than a mere orientation device along East Jersey street; it is a testament to the elongated, checkered history of our city, a quiet witness to many distinct histories. By researching and retelling those histories, the Society plans to be receptive to various narrative, to enrich and inform its citizenry.    We hope to use this historic facility actively, to tell a more complex story, one in which every citizen can connect their own individual and family narratives. The result, we are confident, will make a more useful history, a better urban landscape and a better city.

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LINDA C. EPPS Comments on “THE BELCHER OGDEN LANDSCAPE”

Noted historian Richard Hofstadter once wrote: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” While doing some research for this presentation this evening, I ran across this Hofstadter quote in an article written by Dr. Larry Green of Seton Hall University for The New Jersey Historical Society Journal, New Jersey History. It was written in 1973. It reminded me of a few things:

1. My love of history and particularly my love of the Civil War period of history – and, for the first time I wondered, if you love Civil War history, why have you not ever done anything connected to the Civil War and New Jersey? I still have not come up with an answer - I’ll let you know when I do.

2. I was reminded of my graduate school days, for Dr. Green was my graduate dissertation advisor, and I realize I must get in touch with him one of these days soon to discuss some work I am doing now at The New Jersey Historical Society.

3. I was reminded of my father, who, hopefully cannot hear me from up above – or, perhaps down below – for in addition to being a true son of a gun hell raiser, was quite paranoid, and really very paranoid about history.

Rev James Caldwell distributing Issac Watts’ hymnal for soldiers to use as rifle wadding during the
Battle of Springfield, June 23 1780

While in third grade and learning about New Jersey, Union County, and Elizabeth history, I came across the story of Rev. James Caldwell and his famous patriotism during the Revolutionary War. You most likely all know the story of Rev. Caldwell, a popular minister and patriot. His popularity with the army and the people was unbounded, and his practical wisdom and business talents were held in the highest estimation. The British called Rev Caldwell “The Fighting Pastor” and “The High Priest of the Rebellion”. The murder of Rev. Caldwell’s wife Hannah by the British was a cause celebre for the patriots and did much to fire up the patriots as opposed to undermining their spirit. In 1781 the pastor himself was killed by a British sentinel in Elizabethport.

I remember asking my father if he knew about Rev. Caldwell, since the good reverend has the same last name. My father did not – but, quickly went someplace, found information on him, and we had a long discussion about his philosophy of religious and secular freedom, the rights of man, etc. – pretty heavy stuff for a man who most likely left school somewhere around the 3rd or 4th grade, and a third grader. I asked my father if he thought Caldwell was related to us. I can remember him getting a little smirk on his face and saying, “Well, Linda, you never know. Maybe he was.” Well, the likelihood of that is quite slim. My Caldwell grandfather immigrated from Panama shortly before the turn of the century to Jacksonville, Florida and then moved to South Carolina and finally to New Jersey after WWI. And yes, the Caldwell’s that most likely owned my grandfather in Panama could have immigrated there from first France, and then Scotland as the Rev. Caldwell’s family did. One never knows, we could be related but that is highly unlikely.

[ Larry A. Green, “The Emancipation Proclamation in New Jersey and the Paranoid Style”, New Jersey History, Col XCI, Number Two, Whole Number 353, Summer 1973, p. 124 ]

presbyterian church
First Presbyterian Church of Springfield in 1840

But one of the histories I read of Rev Caldwell points out that “During the Revolution, Reverend James Caldwell, the pastor of Elizabethtown’s oldest house of worship, the First Presbyterian Church, was well known for his appeals to the black residents of the town, encouraging them to attend his church and to join in its services.” So, Rev. Caldwell, no relative, but certainly, my father’s interest in him and subsequent respect for him was perhaps a bit paranoid, but not totally ridiculous that he would find something to admire in this devout patriot and Christian – a man accepting of blacks attending a white church – a concept that we still have difficulty with today, some 200 years later. [ Ibid, p. 74 ]

Life for blacks in Elizabeth during the colonial period was not easy. There were few free blacks, but for the most part, those who were here were slaves. The Dutch introduced black slavery to New Jersey while it was under their possession in 1626. Elizabethtown, the original seat of English government in Nova Caesaria, or New Jersey was the capitol of the province. There are no accurate records of slavery’s first appearance in Elizabethtown but by 1680 there were indications that residents of Elizabethtown did own slaves. (Will and testament of Gov. Philip Carteret gave his faithful servant, Black Jack, his freedom). Slavery was prosperous and plentiful and there was encouragement from officials in England as part of the concessions and agreements sent by Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, any settler relocating in New Jersey with a slave was to receive sixty acres for each slave brought in 1665, forty-five acres for each slave brought the following year, and thirty acres for every slave imported in 1667.”

Slavery was such a dominating part of the culture that people were afraid of insurrection – especially as there were reports of disturbances such places as Somerville in 1734 and New York City in 1724. Two slaves from the New York revolt conspiracy were found hiding in Elizabethtown and were sentenced to death. It was a very public execution. Townspeople hoped that the fugitive sentences would serve to deter local slaves contemplating similar kinds of activities.

During the colonial period there were stringent laws that dictated slave behavior and harsh punishment for slaves found in error. Disobedience was not allowed. Sounds like the South, you say? Well, slavery in the North, particularly in New Jersey was not easy. There are many reports on the books that speak of harsh punishment and death for unruly slaves during the colonial era.

We all know that after the Revolution, the philosophy of liberty and freedom was not limited to white men. There were few white women, and an untold number of black men and women who picked up the cause. After the American Revolution, according to Winthrop D. Jordan, a leading historian of colonial slavery, “public opinion in the North would no longer tolerate chattel slavery.”
[ Spencer Crew, “Black New Jersey Before the Civil War: Two Case Studies”, New Jersey History, Volume XCIX, Number 1 and 2, Whole Number 379-380, September 1982, p. 69
Ibid. p. 70
ibid, p. 70
ibid, p. 71 ]


Some feel slavery became a moral issue. Others felt the decline in the profitability of slavery where there was no staple crop like cotton or tobacco and where immigrants poured into northern seaports thus displacing black, slaves was more likely the cause.

Slavery was not officially ended in New Jersey until the Emancipation Proclamation, even though there was a gradual emancipation effort started as early as 1804. But what to do with these free blacks that were growing in numbers and becoming, in some cases, a nuisance? Even if they were not slaves they held the most menial jobs if they were employed and the poverty rate among them was unthinkable cruel.

One way to get rid of blacks in the colony was to send them South for a profit. Negro traders – sent slaves to the South after public opinion began to call for their removal from slavery in New Jersey. Blacks were often kidnapped but sometimes convinced to relocate under their own power. They were transported to the deep southern states of Mississippi; Louisiana where cotton was still king and slavery was unusually harsh and inhumane. Thus, in 1818 a law was passed prohibiting such action.

In spite of the power of the “Negro traders,” the New Jersey legislature, on November 4, 1818, in response to petitions from Middlesex, Essex, and Somerset counties and to the general public outcry, unanimously passed a law prohibiting the export of blacks except under the most stringent conditions. The only slaves or black servants who could leave the state were those who had served the same New Jersey resident for the five preceding years and who left the state with that resident. Even then, no person could remove a black from the state who was not “of legal age” (twenty one) and who did not consent to leave before the presiding justice of the Court of Common Pleas. Finally, no black could leave the state if his owner or guardian had not received a license from the same court. The passage of this act was triumph for New Jersey abolitionist and for humanitarian opinion.
The Times & New Brunswick General Advertiser hailed the law and congratulated the New Jersey Legislature on an act, which was “so consistent with eerie feeling of humanity and justice.” It concluded with a verse typical of the romantic spirit of that era:

Sound the loud timbrel o’re Egypt’s dark sea
Jehovah has triumphed, his people are free.

[Frances D. Pingeon, “An Abominable business: The New Jersey Slave Trade, 1818, New Jersey History, volume 109, Numbers 3-4 (Falk/Winter 1991), p. 15
Ibid p. 28]

Although better than harsh slavery in the south, freedom in the north was not a panacea, as most abolitionists like to believe. Willie Lee Rose noted when blacks were “forced into the lowest paying jobs, denied equal access to education, excluded from the franchise, a large part of the black population was reduced to pauperism.” Although free blacks in the larger cities established their own churches and other African American institutions, others living in small cities and isolated rural districts did not fare as well. Living in the uncertain and unknown area between slavery and freedom, they found that basic human needs for work, community, and family were almost impossible to fulfill.

The black family, always at risk under slavery, found that their existence as a family unit was becoming even more precarious as the “peculiar institution” began to disintegrate. In New Jersey, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery allowed those who still owned slaves to abandon children born of their slave women at the age of one. Records show that many owners took advantage of this provision of the law by turning over young black children to the Overseers of the Poor, who in turn gave three dollars, monthly to any household that was willing to take them. Newspapers confirm the indifference of slave-owners to the closest of family relationships in advertisements for the sale of mothers and children “together or separate as best suits the purchaser.” Faced with this threat, it s not difficult to understand why black women may have agreed to leave the state with their children.

A state, where even the clergy who were opposed to slavery, were not in favor of the war for NJ was the only northern state that Lincoln did not carry in his bid for election in either election. NJ had the largest number of slaves in 1860 then any other northern state. In a paper by Frances D. Pingeon, “Dissenting Attitudes towards the Negro in New Jersey – 1837,” one clergymen stated: “But let us suppose that slavery was exterminated by violence, and that every slaveholder was compelled to relinquish all his slaves, would this better the condition of the world? Would this arrest oppression, injustice, and make all men benevolent and upright? It would merely set loose a multitude of ignorant, unprincipled, immoral men, and give them the power to follow the promptings of their evil hearts. No permanent and beneficial reformation can be effected, except through the mercy and grace of God in Christ, and there are usually bestowed through the instrumentality of his church, by which God diminishes and will finally remove the evils of slavery.” So, where does that leave us as we try to explain the tunnel? Well, we know that slavery did exist in New Jersey for a number of years, the tunnel could have been used to smuggle slaves out of the state to a more sympathetic northern state. I remember in graduate school doing a paper on Ona Judge, one of George Washington’s slaves. Although it is thought that Washington had some privately expressed misgivings, Washington never criticized slavery in public. In fact, as President, Washington brought eight household slaves with him to the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia. By Pennsylvania law, slaves who resided in the state became legally free after six months.
[ Ibid p. 31] [ Frances D. Pingeon, Dissenting Attitudes toward the negro in New Jersey – 1837, New Jersey History Volume LXXXIX, Number Four, Whole Number 377, Winter 1971]

presbyterian church
1845 Romanticized version of Washington’s
relations to his Mt Vernon slaves

Washington rotated his household slaves between Mount Vernon and Philadelphia so that they did not earn their freedom, a scheme he attempted to keep hidden from his slaves and the public. One slave who escaped while in Philadelphia was Ona Judge who relocated to New Hampshire. Judge could have been captured and returned under the Fugitive Slave Act. Tried in Washington’s absence, the local New Hampshire jury ruled in Judge’s favor and did not return her to Mount Vernon. To his credit - Washington had signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 and could have tried Judge again but this was not done so as to avoid public controversy.


[Wickipidia, George Washington and Slavery, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_and_slavery]

1795 New Jersey Advertisement for Runaway Slave

1795 New Jersey Advertisement for Runaway Salve I remember reading in the paper last week of a tunnel that was found at reconstruction sight at the house where George Washington and his family inhabited in Philadelphia. The tunnel is thought to have been used by slaves. The reason is still under investigation. One theory is that it would allow the Washington slaves to go back and forth attending to their business out of the public eye. Could be, but it also could have been used as escape for Ona Judge and the other slaves lost by Washington during his Philadelphia stay.

Could the Elizabeth tunnel been used by slaves of Elizabeth for escape? For the escape of visiting slaves? Could it have been used to hide those who managed to escape from the South to Elizabeth thinking that freedom is here – or at the very least, this was a stop on the freedom train? We have much to digest. There is much work to be done. One thing is for sure, it is only through rigorous and objective research that we can begin to put together the many stories that make up our history and arrive at near truth to those incidents that make and shape this community of Elizabeth.

At The New Jersey Historical Society we like to say that The Historical Society promotes exploration of our cultures, past and present. As we challenge and inspire people to grow as learners and thinkers, we strive to make a difference in their lives. This is a relatively new way of looking at history that Dr. Mattingly and the rest of the membership of the Historical Society of Elizabeth has sought to promote. No longer are we satisfied to just know the history of the Ogden’s or the Belcher’s, or the Carteret’s, or the Woodruff’s, or the Hatfield’s – true, all important men who did much for their city, their state, their country. But we are also interested in Mrs. Ogden and Mrs. Belcher. We want to know about Mrs. Belcher’s cook, Mr. Woodruff’s farm hands and their families for we know now that history is the collection of stories of all individuals for we all make an impact on society, we all contribute to the culture. Nothing should be hidden. There is no story that is insignificant. We know that I am we. You are me. As Dr. King said: “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.... Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

[Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”, http://www.nobelprizes.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html]

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