SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ - The South Brunswick Historical Society is currently working on a book about the history of the township, a chapter of which focuses on the origins and legacy of slavery. Ed Bedling, the township historian, has spent the past few years visiting and researching the roots of slavery and their impact on the community at large.
This chapter, which describes the period between 1700-1750, outlines the origins of slavery, important historical families, local government and the struggle for freedom. Many of the historical sites and landmarks can still be found in the township today.
The township was settled in the early 1700s by the Dutch, many of which were slave owners. As farming and agriculture grew in the area, more slaves were purchased. Most of the slaves in the area were purchased at the port of New York and Perth Amboy. Although the numbers are hard to calculate exactly, the book claims that by the 1740s there were roughly 400-800 enslaved people in South Brunswick township.
“The South Brunswick area was an integral part of this slave owning society. The local slave population probably outnumbered the free white and black wage workers by the end of the period,” the chapter reads.
Major slave owning families in South Brunswick include the Van Dykes, the Higgins, the Wetherills and the Dean families. Historical records indicate that all of these families have had instances of runaway slaves. All of them mentioned slaves in their wills.
The Van Dyke family is remembered for having one of the first stone houses in the Colonial era, which can still be found in Plainsboro, in the area which used to be part of South Brunswick. In 1713, the family built a cramped farmhouse for slaves which can still be seen today. One historian claims that 10 to 12 people lived there at a time, documents show that one slave gave birth every two years in an attempt to add slaves to the household.
In 2006, Preservation New Jersey put the farmhouse on a list of endangered historical sites. A private developer was set to demolish the farmhouse for a warehouse and then to develop housing units, according to The New York Times. After being pressured by the township, the application was withdrawn. Joseph Morris, the developer who purchased the land, agreed to sell the property to the New Jersey Green Acres Program in 2011 for historical preservation
The Dean Family owned multiple slaves through two generations of land ownership in South Brunswick. References to the Dean family are still found in South Brunswick to this day. Dean’s Lane off of Route 1 is named after the family, as is the Elementary School Brooks Crossing & Dean in Monmouth Junction.
To most residents, the area of the township known as “The Deans” can be found near George’s Road and Lawrence Brook. The name comes from a contest held by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1800s. When they bought the Amboy-Camden railroad, South Brunswick became an important depot. A contest was held to name the depot after two wealthy families, the Deans and the McDowells. Although the McDowells got the most votes, the railroad decided to name the area Deans anyway because it was shorter and better, according to an archived article from the South Brunswick Post.
John Wetherhill represented the South Brunswick area in the assembly, and owned 1,700 acres of land in the Dayton section of town. According to a series of articles from the South Brunswick Post, he was known as a scoundrel in his youth. When he was 21, he tricked a tribal leader into signing over his land by getting him drunk on cider and making him sign an ‘x’ on a deed of sale. In a legal battle, John Wetherill had to give the land back to the Lenape tribe. The leader reportedly ripped up the contract and threw it on the floor. The Wetherill House is a historical landmark that can be found on George’s road.
According to Belding's book, there were multiple attempts by the early settlers to coerce Native Americans into slave labor, but none of them succeeded. There are no records of Native Americans being enslaved in the South Brunswick area, but there are some mentions of Native Americans working in the area of Kingston.
Earlier this month, an online petition was started to change the name of Indian Fields Elementary School to honor the Lenape people, a native group who used to live in the South Brunswick area. The petition has nearly 1,500 signatures.
While Belding’s book is still incomplete, he is still tracing the roots of enslaved people in South Brunswick, from their involvement in rebellions to the cultural landmarks still visible in the township to this day.
“Their contributions have largely gone unnoticed by previous local historians. That is no longer the case. There is still more work to be done in this area and it will be done,” the book reads.