9. The Underground Railroad

New Jersey, an integral part of the eastern corridor of the Underground Railroad, received fugitives mainly from the Atlantic coastline states of Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Its proximity to the salve states of Delaware and Maryland, as well as its location between two of the most active UGRR metropolitan centers – Philadelphia and New York City – only serves to underscore the crucial place it occupied in the movement of runaway slaves northward.

New Jersey is also identified with the Underground Railroad’s two most celebrated figures. One, the legendary Harriet Tubman, spent the summers between 1849 and 1852 as a hotel worker in Cape May, earning money to finance her forays into her native Maryland Eastern Shore to guide fugitive slaves to freedom. And in all probability she traversed the state in leading some of her estimated 300 charges from Maryland to safety. The other, William Still, was a native New Jerseyan who was distinguished by being both the most important UGRR operative in Philadelphia and the author of the 1872 classic The Underground Railroad. This study, which offers accounts of the flights of the fugitives he assisted in Philadelphia, is especially noteworthy because it alone among the nineteenth-century works on the Underground Railroad made the freedom-seeking fugitives – not the abolitionists who assisted them – the true heroic figures of the Underground Railroad’s dramatic and compelling story of struggle against oppression.

Finally, no other northern state exceeded New Jersey in the number of all-black communities that served as UGRR sanctuaries for southern fugitive slaves. Springtown (Cumberland County), Marshalltown (Salem County), Snow Hill (present-day Lawnside, Camden County), and Timbuctoo (Burlington County) were among such places, located mainly in rural South Jersey, in which fugitive slaves also settled. One consideration for remaining in these communities was the physical safety they afforded runaway slaves; there are several instances recorded of slave catchers being run out of town with haste when they were discovered in such communities.

The Underground Railroad is an epic American story featuring the forces of righteousness arrayed against those of evil forces locked in moral combat over the elimination of perhaps the greatest expression of inhumanity: the ownership of one human by another. Certainly the important New Jersey chapter in this antislavery saga merits recounting. Some New Jerseyans indeed transcended conventions of race, class, gender, and culture and accepted the bold challenge of striking a low against the peculiar institution. In so doing, they, often at great sacrifice and risk, bequeathed to future generations of New Jerseyans an Underground Railroad heritage worthy of being appreciated, celebrated, and preserved.

Dates and events

1664 The Concessions and Agreements, written by William Penn, the constitution, governing the establishment of New Jersey, encourages slavery by granting settlers additional land for any slaves imported.

1676 New Jersey is divided into the two provinces – East Jersey (mainly North Jersey) and West Jersey (mainly South Jersey). Owing to East Jersey’s topography, more advance state of economic development, and considerable Dutch presence, most slaves are located here, rather than West Jersey, which had a large Quaker presence.

1726 New Jersey slaves number roughly 2,600 approximately 8 percent of the colony’s population.

1745 Roughly 4,700 slaves are recorded for New Jersey; they constitute approximately 7.5 percent of New Jersey’s population.

1750 By this date, most slaves imported into New Jersey are arriving directly from Africa, rather than the Caribbean.

1776 New Jersey’s first state constitution is adopted in July 2; it grants the franchise to women and free blacks. Several blacks, including Burlington County’s Oliver Cromwell, cross the Delaware River with Washington on the night of December 25 and engage in the Battle of Trenton, marking a turning point in the American Revolution.

1783 With the end of the American Revolution, some New Jersey free blacks and slaves leave with the British troops and settle in Nova Scotia

1786 New Jersey enacts legislation that essentially bans the further importation of slaves, thereby ending the African slave trade to New Jersey. Another provision of this law makes manumissions easier.

1789 U.S. Constitution takes effect; it states that no runaway slave becomes free by escaping from one state to another.

1793 New Jersey Society for the Abolition of Slavery is established. First federal Fugitive Slave Act enacted; it requires appropriate officials in the state to which a runaway slave has fled to return the fugitive to his or her owner.

1804 An Act of the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, New Jersey’s first abolition law, passes. It frees all black children born on or after July 4, 1804, after serving an apprenticeship to their mother’s owner of 21 years (female) and 25 years (male).

1807 Free blacks and women lose the franchise granted in the state constitution of 1776.

1808 Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States is banned.

1830 The Underground Railroad begins after the first appearance of trains in the nation in 1829. The origin of the term remains unclear.

1833 Slavery is abolished in the British Empire, making Canada a safe settlement area for runaway slaves participating in the Underground Railroad.

1844 New Jersey’s second constitution is adopted; while eliminating property qualifications for voting, it continues to restrict the franchise to white males.

1846 New Jersey’s second abolition law is enacted; it eliminates apprenticeships for all black children born after its passage and, although formally outlawing slavery, makes the state’s remaining slaves (all of them elderly persons) “apprentices” for life.

1849 Using the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. The first statewide black convention is held in Trenton (August 21-22); participants agitate for the return of the franchise to black males.

1850 Fugitive Slave Act passes as part of the Compromise of 1850; this law, giving the federal government primary responsibility for capturing slaves fleeing to the North, causes some free blacks, fearing kidnapping, and fugitive slaves to flee to Canada and prompts some northern states (New Jersey not included) to pass “Personal Liberty Laws” that sought to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act.

1854 Kansas- Nebraska Act repeals the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and introduces the doctrine of “popular sovereignty;” this allows territories to decide whether to be slave or free states.

1857 Dred Scot decision is rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court; it holds that blacks are not American citizens and that Congress has no authority to prohibit slavery in any part of the nation.

1860 Eighteen slaves are recorded for New Jersey by the U.S. Census, making the state the last in the North in which slaves can be found.

1861 The Civil War begins. The Underground Railroad ceases to operate, as southern slaves who abscond from their owners gravitate toward the invading Union forces that come into their vicinity, rather than fleeing to the free states of the North.

1865 Thirteenth Amendment is ratified, bringing to an end the long presence of bondage on American soil.

(Information provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission)


The users of this curriculum are encouraged to use the Seven Stories – seven Steps to Freedom website developed by the Salem County Cultural and Heritage Commission. The Stories include:

  1. Abigail Goodwin, Quaker abolitionist
  2. How one woman set herself free
  3. The great orator, John Stewart Rock
  4. A slave Catcher on Trial in Salem
  5. Poet Hetty Saunders describes her escape
  6. Thomas Clement Oliver, Underground Railroad Conductor
  7. Black Civil War veterans remembered

Short biographies of the Goodwin sisters and John Steward Rock are included in the Faces of Salem County document.