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Stories of New Jersey
The Slaves Of New Jersey
(Period, 1626-1860.)

By Frank R. Stockton

Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

But the negroes were not the only slaves in New Jersey during those early days. Here, as well as in many of the other Colonies, was a class of white people, generally from England, who were called "redemptioners." These were poor people, although often persons of fairly good station and education, who desired to emigrate to America, but who could not afford to pay their passage.

A regular system was then established, by which a poor person desiring to settle in New Jersey would be brought over free. When one of these emigrants took passage on a ship, he signed a contract which gave the captain of the vessel the right to sell him, as soon as he arrived in America, for enough money to pay his passage. This white man was thus bought, when he reached New Jersey, exactly as if he had been a negro slave; and he was subject to the same rules as those which governed other slaves. Of course, he was made the subject of great imposition; for the captain would naturally desire to get as large a sum of money as possible for each redemptioner, and therefore would be perfectly willing to sell him for a long term.

The people who owned redemptioners could sell them again if they chose; and it often happened that some of them passed into the possession of several families before they finally served out the term for which they had been sold. All sorts of people became redemptioners, – mechanics, laborers, and even professional men. Among the people who sold themselves into limited slavery there were schoolmasters, and it is stated that at one time the supply of redemptioner schoolmasters was so great that they became a drug in the market.

In the days before there were many regular schools in New Jersey, much of the education must have been carried on by what we now call private tutors; and a schoolmaster who could be bought as if he had been a horse or a cow was often a very convenient piece of property. If a family should own a teacher who was able only to instruct small children, it would he very easy, when these children grew older and able to undertake more advanced studies, to sell this primary teacher to some family where there were young pupils, and buy one capable of teaching higher branches.

It is said that these redemptioners were often treated much more harshly and cruelly than the negro slaves, and any one who assisted one of them to escape was severely punished. There was good reason for this difference in the treatment of the two classes of slaves; for a negro was the property of his master as long as he lived, and it was manifestly the interest of the owner to keep his slave in good condition. But the redemptioner could only be held for a certain time, and, if his master was not a good man, he would be apt to get out of him all the work that he could during the time of his service, and to give him no more food or clothing than was absolutely necessary.

After a time there were laws made to protect the redemptioners. One of these was, that any person sold after he was seventeen years old could not serve for more than four years; and another provided, that, when a redemptioner's time of service had expired, his master should give him "two good suits of clothing, suitable for a servant, one good ax, one good hoe, and seven bushels of Indian corn."

But although the redemptioner sometimes fared very badly in the new country, it often happened that he came out very well in the end. Among the white people who came here as slaves there were often convicts and paupers; but even some of these succeeded in bettering their condition and establishing themselves is good citizens, and in founding families.

It often happened that some of the Germans who came to buy land and settle, chose rather to put away their money, and sell themselves as redemptioners to English families, so that they might learn the English language and manner of living. Then, when they had educated themselves in this practical manner, and their time of service was over, they could buy land, and establish themselves on terms of equality with their English neighbors.

But the trade in redemptioners gradually decreased; and by the middle of the eighteenth century there were not many of them left in New Jersey, although there were a few in the State until after the Revolution. Negro slavery, however, continued much longer. It grew and flourished until it became a part of the New Jersey social system; but it must not be supposed that all the people of the State continued to be satisfied with this condition of things.

At first everybody who could afford it owned slaves, and the Friends or Quakers bought negroes the same as other people did; but about the end of the seventeenth century some of these Quakers began to think that property in human beings was not a righteous thing, and the Quakers of New Jersey united with those of Pennsylvania in an agreement recommending to the members of the Society of Friends that they should no longer employ negro slaves, or, if they thought it best to continue to do this, that they should at least cease to import them.

A strong party among the Quakers of New Jersey opposed slavery for many years, and the system was denounced at some of their yearly meetings ; and this went on until about the middle of the next century, when a law was made that no person owning slaves should continue in the Society of Friends.

As years passed on, people other than Quakers began to consider slavery an injustice and an evil; and this feeling gradually increased, until in the beginning of the nineteenth century it became very strong, and in 1820 an act was passed by the Legislature for the emancipation of the slaves. They were not set free all at once, and turned into the world to take care of themselves; but a system of gradual emancipation was adopted, by which he young people obtained their freedom when they came of age, while the masters were obliged to take care of the old negroes as long as they lived. By this plan, slavery was very gradually abolished in New Jersey, so that in 1840 there were still six hundred and seventy-four slaves in the State; and even in 1860 eighteen slaves remained, and these must have been very old.

"History of New Jersey." T. F. Gordon.
"History of New Jersey." J. C. Raum.
"Historical Collections." Barber and Howe.
"Story of an Old Farm." A. D. Mellick.


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