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The Road to Freedom

344 Nassau Street, known in the 19th Century as the “Robert Horner House”


By Doug Wallack // Photographs Courtesy of The Historical Society of Princeton

The Underground Railroad has long captivated the American popular imagination; as a nation in turmoil struggled to reckon with its moral realities, this network of safe houses and volunteers conveying fugitive slaves to free states and Canada was a beacon of grassroots resistance, an instance of interracial cooperation, and the setting of countless tales of individual and collective courage.

New Jersey played an important role in the Eastern portion of the Underground Railroad’s operations. Its location between the Underground Railroad hubs of Philadelphia and New York City, as well as its nearness to the slave states of Maryland and Delaware, made New Jersey a crucial stretch along the northerly routes of escaped slaves.

Tracing the routes of the Underground Railroad is often a matter of careful historical guesswork. The “station masters” or “conductors” who ran safe houses were understandably reluctant to record much information about their operations in case they were exposed. As a result, there are now both homeowners who mistakenly believe that their house’s cellar was once a hiding place for freedom-seeking runaway slaves, as well as homes, churches, and businesses whose present residents are completely unaware of the historical significance of the buildings they occupy.

Much of what we know about the Underground Railroad routes in New Jersey comes from William Still (1821-1902), an African-American abolitionist originally from Burlington County, who is often called “The Father of the Underground Railroad” for his efforts in assisting as many as 800 fugitive slaves. After the Civil War, in 1872, Still published an account of his work as an Underground Railroad conductor entitled The Underground Railroad Records — a rich, first-hand account later used by many historians to understand the logistical workings of the Underground Railroad, including, most extensively, Wilbur Siebert. Siebert’s 1899 study The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom indicates that, while several overlapping routes crossed New Jersey, the main one was what he called the Philadelphia Line, which lead fugitive slaves from Philadelphia to Camden, along the Delaware River to Burlington and Bordentown, and then northeast toward New York City along a variety of paths.

A boat in the D&R Canal below Kingston. Fugitives often hid in boats to escape slavery.

The Underground Railroad stations were often homes maintained by free blacks, Quakers, or churches—particularly A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) congregations. Conductors would receive fugitives; provide them with food, clothing, and shelter; and protect them from slave catchers before directing or sometimes escorting them to their next stop. Fugitives typically traveled by night, going only as far between stations as they could travel before daylight. Most traveled alone—by foot, horse, wagon, boat, train, or whatever means of transportation was available to them.

The work of Underground Railroad conductors was dangerous and required a high degree of secrecy. Over time, their work has accrued a number of popular misconceptions. There is little evidence, for instance, that conductors or station masters hung coded quilts from the windows of their homes to indicated their status as stations (This would have been extremely risky). Likewise, the use of code songs to indicate stations seems to be more myth than historical fact. And while many safe houses would have had hiding places for fugitive slaves, few if any would have the tunnels that are commonly believed to have existed. Constructing tunnels would have posed a huge expense for station masters with no clear added benefit. The Underground Railroad was, after all, neither underground nor a railroad.

A canal boat with a clothesline on the D&R Canal, possibly in Princeton Basin. 

New Jersey was home to more than 80 all-black communities that served both as way stations for fugitive slaves as well as places where many of them settled down, taking comfort in their safety in numbers. Mainly in the Western and Southern portions of the state—nearer to the Quaker influence of Philadelphia—these towns included Snow Hill (present-day Lawnside), Springtown, Marshalltown, and Timbuctoo.

Christopher Barton, a member of the anthropology department at the University of Memphis, was the principal investigator for the Timbuctoo Discovery Project while completing his Ph.D. at Temple. The interdisciplinary project, which began in 2009, drew on historical records, anthropology, archaeology, and oral histories collected from the descendants of Timbuctoo residents. It gave rise to a body of research that forms a complex case study of the all-black village.

Timbuctoo was founded circa 1825, in the wake of the 1804 New Jersey Gradual Abolition Act, and at its peak was home to roughly 125 residents. Barton argues that the new research on Timbuctoo complicates the conventional historical narratives of interracial harmony along the Underground Railroad. Timbuctoo was located less than two miles from Mount Holly, which Barton writes was “a Quaker community described as one of the most ardent opponents to slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” but while the residents of Timbuctoo certainly benefited from this proximity and from Quaker abolitionist efforts, they were for the most part not welcomed into the Quaker community. Free blacks and escaped slaves who applied for membership in the Religious Society of Friends (the Quaker Church) were routinely denied. What’s more, the area’s involvement in Underground Railroad activities was spearheaded and maintained principally by the black community—not the Quakers, as is commonly believed. But, as Barton notes, “History is rewritten by the victors,” so perhaps this smoothing over of historical tensions should come as no great surprise to us.

Linda Caldwell Epps, a historian and former president of the New Jersey Historical Society, believes that New Jerseyans need a fuller accounting of their state’s historical relationship with slavery more broadly. We tend to be ignorant of that history or turn away from it, she says. While many people assume that, as a Northern state, antebellum New Jersey shared in the attitudes of Pennsylvania and New York, New Jersey actually had surprisingly strong Southern sympathies. New Jersey voted against Abraham Lincoln in the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864, opposed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and was the last Northern state to fully abolish slavery—an event that came to pass only with the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Two men and a boat named “Mildred” in the lock at Griggstown, D&R Canal

In the Gettysburg College Journal of the Civil War, historian Emily Hawk argues that New Jersey’s Southern tendencies were chiefly a result of economic forces. Colonial New Jersey, she writes, lagged behind New York City and Philadelphia in fostering industry and a major urban center, and consequently focused its resources on agriculture. And though the farms of New Jersey were not as reliant on slave labor as the plantations of the Deep South, they still took advantage of it well after neighboring Northern states had moved away from the practice. It is also the case that what industry New Jersey had developed—mainly around shoes and clothing—had strong Southern markets that it was hesitant to disrupt.

Collectively, this all amounts to an uncomfortably mixed record: on the one hand, operatives along the New Jersey portions of the Underground Railroad worked tirelessly to spirit away escaped slaves toward freedom, while on the other, many citizens of New Jersey supported the institution of slavery, and there were a handful of enslaved people in the state until the very conclusion of the Civil War. This defies easy categorization or succinct judgement, and perhaps that’s as it should be. New Jersey’s past is something that we should continue to grapple with and explore (Princeton University’s newly unveiled Princeton & Slavery Project is an excellent example of this sort of work).

To quote William Faulkner, a son of the American South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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