Evidence that Negro slavery once existed in what is now Warren Township will surprise no one familiar with American history. Slavery, that "peculiar institution," was by no means peculiar to the South. In fact, New Jersey had the largest slave population of any northern colony save New York. Black slaves, most of whom were agricultural workers, were introduced by the Dutch as early as 1625. In the early 1700s the large migration of Dutch farmers from New York to New Jersey, many to lower Somerset County, brought with it the spread of slavery to these parts. English colonists also prized slaves as the cheapest labor available.
Somerset County had the second highest percentage of nonwhite population from 1726, when the first census was taken, through 1810. Only Bergen County, where many Dutch also settled, had a higher percentage. In 1726 16.7% of the county's population was nonwhite, almost all of them black slaves. By 1810 that number had dropped only to 15.5%.
Most of New Jersey's slaves were well-treated as they were a valuable asset. Manumission was not infrequent and in some areas, if a slave were dissatisfied with his master, he could seek another owner. Bought and sold during the Colonial period at prices that ranged from $100 to $500, slaves were employed in both agricultural and domestic tasks. When slaves misbehaved or ran away, however, they could be punished viciously. Negro slaves convicted of murder were burned at the stake in the l8th century; for lesser offenses, they were tied to a tree and flogged.
"It has been said by good authority that slavery in New Jersey is coeval with the advent of the Dutch," wrote the Somerset Unionist on Jan. 5, 1870, just five years after the close of the Civil War. "Nearly every family brought Negro servants with them, and most of these were fresh from Guinea.... Stringent laws were passed at the beginning of the last century giving the master almost absolute power over the slave. If a Negro was caught five miles from home after night fall he might be taken up and whipped by a citizen without a warrant. Indeed, there are persons now living in this county who can remember when Negroes were whipped at the public whipping post for trivial offenses. They were even burned to death in several instances....
"These people retained their native language and superstitions. Though unlettered they were endowed with remarkable cunning and sagacity. There are many negroes now living in the county, with families, where their parents were slaves from Guinea. As a general thing, the slaves were not harshly treated--sometimes they received great kindness.... On large farms out houses were provided for the accommodation of the negroes, and some of these are yet standing.... We have abundant authority for stating that most of the labor in families was performed by blacks prior to the revolution...."
Lower Somerset County accounted for most of the slaves in this area but not all. When Phillip Cox, one of Warren's earliest settlers, died in 1736, the second most valuable asset in his estate was a "neger man" worth œ45. Eighty years later, when Nathaniel Taynor made his will on Dec. 1, 1816, leaving his personal property to his wife, Mary, for life, he provided that "after the death of my wife, my black girl named Sor to be freed." Benjamin Coon, who signed his will on Jan. 21, 1807, left his wife, among other things, "the black girl, Nance." Coon's will further provided that if his wife died before him, his blacks were to be sold, "except Deyon, who is to be freed at the expiration of 8 years." Other 18th and early 19th century wills and inventories of Warren residents also refer to slaves.
State law required that County Clerks keep a record of the birth of slave children. Somerset County's register covering the years 1805 to 1844 lists only three such births in Warren Township, the smallest number of all county townships, an indication that by the early l9th century the institution was on the wane in the northern towns. The three slave owners from Warren listed were John Vermule, 1805, Zebulon Ayers, Jr., 1807, and John Titus, 1818. Titus' certification states: "I certify that my negro woman slave named Bet was delivered of a female black child named Julian at my house in the Township of Warren in the County of Somerset on the eighteenth day of May in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred & Eighteen. Witness my hand this 10th day of June 1818."
Manumissions of slaves also recorded by the County Clerk from 1805 to 1862 list six freed in Warren Township: Betsey, slave of Luke Covert and Jane, his wife, freed 11/10/1823; Peter and Hannah, slaves of Isaac Manning Jr., freed 9/25/1827; John and Sarah, slaves of Abraham Cadmus, freed 12/21/1827; and Sarah, slave of the Estate of Frederick Vermule, Esq., freed 4/27/1831. Warren manumissions are about 2% of the total recorded.
By the end of the 18th century many in New Jersey considered slavery a relic of the past that should be eradicated, albeit gradually. Anti-slavery forces won a major battle in 1804 when the New Jersey Legislature passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery." It provided that females born of slave parents after July 4, 1804, would be free upon reaching 21 years of age, and males upon reaching 25. If the act did not abolish slavery, it did convince many slave owners that holding another person in bondage was wrong.The institution of slavery declined rapidly in New Jersey in the 1830s.
What would become of freed slaves concerned many Americans, many of whom believed that the races could not or should not intermingle. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 to enable "Free People of Color" to return to what was later to become Liberia. In June 1831 citizens of Somerset County met to form a local chapter of the Society. William D. Stewart and Stephen Vail of Warren were among those elected to the chapter's board of managers.
The 1830 Federal census of Warren Township lists 48 Negroes, 32 free and 16 slave, out of a population of 1634. Ten years later the census showed 39 free males, 17 free females and no slaves out of a population of 1535. The 1855 state census listed 2202 inhabitants, of which 85 were free colored. Clearly, sometime between l830 and l840 the last slave in Warren Township was manumitted.
In June 1857 the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the case of Morris v. Warren, where two justices of the peace in Warren Township had ordered a pauper removed from Warren to Morris Township "upon the ground that his father had been a slave of one Solomon Cooper, who died seven or eight years before at his residence" in Morris Township. According to the Court, "the pauper, a colored man aged 24 years, resided, at the time of making the order, with his father, in the township of Warren. Where he was born did not appear. The father was the slave of one John Manning, as whose property he was sold, when a small boy, in 1804, and purchased by Cooper. He served Cooper 15 or 20 years until he was married, when Cooper gave him a certificate of freedom, and he left him, afterwards residing in different townships...." The court ruled that the justices of the peace had erred since the pauper, never having settled in Morris, was legally Warren's responsibility.
Blacks remained a visible presence in Warren Township until 1872 when the southern portion of the township, where most of them resided, became North Plainfield Township. An abstract of the 1860 Federal census which appeared recently in the newsletter of the Somerset County Historical Society illustrates the place of free blacks in Warren Township on the eve of the Civil War. All were born in New Jersey except where noted: