Some say that when the first Dutch settlers came to the ridge of uplands along the Delaware river in Central New Jersey, they found land that was rocky, and the soil so acidic that an acrid smell wafted through the air. They called this remote and desolate place the Sourland Mountains.
Around the time of the American Revolution though, another group of people came to the Sourlands. These people, who had once been enslaved, saw something completely different in these mountains. They saw refuge, a place they could be safe from those who would persecute them. And there they made their homes and tilled their farms in the hard land.
Now, two Hopewell Valley residents, Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, have written a book on the history of black settlers of the Sourland Mountains going back to the 1700’s, when some of their ancestors came to the area while enslaved. Together with researcher Kate McGuire, Buck, a lifelong Hopewell resident and Mills, a lifelong Pennington resident, used old photographs, public records, newspaper articles, wills, oral history interviews, and even store credit ledgers to write If These Stones Could Talk, a book that reveals previously unknown details of the most prominent black families of Hopewell Valley.
Buck and Mills are both former board members of the Stoutsburg Cemetery Association, which is in charge of one of three historic black cemeteries in Hopewell Valley. Ten years ago, they learned of a nearby, unmarked burial ground that was going to be bulldozed by a landowner.
Researching the history of this plot of land and the unknown people buried there eventually led them to the publication of their book, which was printed by Wild River Books and is now available for purchase in stores and online at wildriverconsultingandpublishing.com.
During the course of their work, Mills traced her own family history all the way back to a Friday True Heart, who was brought to Hopewell Valley from South Carolina while in slavery to a Reverend Oliver Hart. This was a feat of research in and of itself.
“It’s extremely difficult to research African-American history because of the lack of information that’s there,” Mills says.
One of the many dehumanizing aspects of slavery was that birth and death records were not kept for the enslaved the way they were for white citizens. They also didn’t have last names, usually only being identified with the last name of the slaveholding family if at all. Mills found her own family’s history in the 18th century written not in census records, but in the wills of white slave owners: her ancestors were listed as inheritance property.
“Slaves would be listed along with a pepper box, a straight razor, and a silver spoon,” Mills says. “Sometimes, they would not even be given a name, and would be referred to as ‘negro boy’ or ‘negro wench.’
The book recounts the story of True Heart as well as that of a number of other early black settlers. One was Sylvia Dubois, who was born into slavery in either 1768 or 1788, but who ran away after hitting her mistress. Returning to New Jersey after a period living in New York, DuBois lived near Puts Tavern on Sourland Mountain, an infamously rough-and-tumble bar. Her age is disputed by historians but she is thought to have lived to either 100 or 116 years.
There is some skepticism among historians about DuBois’s story because much of it rests on oral testimony rather than documents. But in writing If These Stones Could Talk, the authors discovered DuBois’s name in the credit ledger of a store that was close to her reported Sourland Mountain home. It had been overlooked by previous researchers because it was spelled phonetically.
Another noteworthy historical figure in the book is William Stives, who served in George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War, earning a badge of merit from Washington himself and a pension from the government. Stives saw the Sourlands during his military service and returned there after the war to build his homestead.
To Stives, the Sourlands looked like a good place to live, perhaps not coincidentally because the land there was cheap and had not yet been settled by white farmers, who lived in the more fertile valleys nearby.
“I think that because the land was difficult to farm, it was probably less desirable, so that was probably a factor,” Mills says. “Others were from the region, so they just decided to stay there and make a go of it.
The Trueheart family comes up again in the book as Friday True Heart’s grandson, William, had a clash with Charles Lindbergh. In the 1920’s, the famous and, unfortunately, bigoted aviator was looking to buy up land in Hopewell Valley to build a secluded mansion, and he approached William Trueheart to purchase his small homestead. Trueheart shut the door in Lindbergh’s face.
This wasn’t the end of Lindbergh’s interaction with the black community. Years later, when Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped and murdered, the body was discovered by Bill Allen, who was black, and who unsuccessfully tried to claim his share of the reward money.
Allen was reduced to joining a circus where onlookers paid a dime to gawk at him until the governor interceded on his behalf and got him a job at the New Jersey Home for Girls.
Minnietown, a small hamlet of homes, has an interesting history of its own. An 1880 article in the New York Times provides some information about the area, though from the viewpoint of a racist writer who was appalled to see white and black people living together and intermarrying. The article was headlined, “The barbarism of the Sourland Mountain region.”
The book brings into focus an often forgotten fact about New Jersey history, which is that slavery was only outlawed there in 1804, long after the other northern states had abolished it. Even then, it was a process of “gradual emancipation” that kept many enslaved for years afterwards.
“New Jersey was built on the backs of slaves,” Buck says. “These are things you don’t learn in history class.
The conditions of slavery in New Jersey were just as harsh as on the better-known plantations of the south. Accompanying slavery were Jim-Crow-like laws that applied only to black people. For example, any white person could ask a black traveler for papers, and if they couldn’t prove they were either freed or on an errand for their master, they could be whipped. Some towns, for example, Flemington, had whipping posts for this purpose.
The racism did not stop with the end of slavery. In the 1920s, the KKK began recruiting large numbers of members in Central New Jersey. The terrorist group held a funeral at Blawenburg Ceremony, and a 1924 cross burning in the area drew 300 members. They even held an Easter ceremony at Hopewell United Methodist Church, with members in robes and full Klan regalia.
Some of the families discussed in If These Stones Could Talk ended up losing their lands after several generations. Others have been more fortunate. For example, the Witcher family still owns land near Minnietown, a mixed-race settlement near where Hillbilly Hall stands today.
The book also covers the military contributions of black soldiers in the region, starting with the mixed-race “Marblehead” unit of sailors from Massachusetts whose boat handling skills were critical in getting Washington’s army across the Delaware for his sneak attack on Trenton.
After years of research, many mysteries remain to be investigated. For example, the authors were unable to discover where William Stives is buried.
“There is more work to be done,” Buck says. She says there have been strides in covering black history, but that schools need to do a better job teaching black history outside of perfunctory lessons on Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver during Black History Month.
Mills says more residents should be aware that much of the wealth of Hunterdon and Mercer counties can be traced back to the free labor supplied by slaves, with the dividends being carried on through the generations. “You’re talking about forced, free labor,” Mills says.
“We weren’t happy slaves,” Buck says.
Buck and Mills will be at the Johnson Education Center of the D&R Greenway Land Trust at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 11 to talk about their book and sign copies. One Preservation Place, Princeton. More information is online at drgreenway.org.