Unlike in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, slavery was not a hot button issue in Cape May and in much of New Jersey before the Civil War broke out and during the war.
Some hotel owners in the pre-war days, concerned that the controversy was hurting business that came from the South, wished that the issue would go even farther south to South America, for instance. Others, who fought in the Civil War, including local hero Henry Sawyer, said they were doing it not to free the slaves but to stop the South from separating from the Union.
It was not because Cape May’s history was immune to slavery. It goes back to 1688 when Dr. Daniel Coxe, who never set foot on colonial land, arranged through an intermediary to bring four slaves to the territory.
Coxe had a royal connection, being the official court physician in London, who in absentia bought 15,000 acres of land on the other side of the ocean and with others tried to improve the world according to their standards. The world he envisioned he called “The New Empire in America.”
Cape May and some slaves apparently were to be part of the improvement.
By the time 1738 arrived there were 42 slaves living in Cape May County and that number increased to 141 in 1790; 98 in 1800; 81 in 1810; 28 in 1829 and three in 1830, all before the Civil War started to change things. During the ten year period from 1774 to 1784 the county’s slave population grew to the largest percentage wise than any of the colonies of what was then West Jersey, much of it attributed to the arrival of whaler yeomen.
Some counties blocked the importation of slaves into the state but the whalers did not. The Lower Precinct grew from six to 33 slaves and possibly there were more since some property owners did not reveal all of them in an attempt to avoid paying the taxes assessed against slave owners.
As much as Cape May, then named Cape Island, wanted to keep the issue low key, it couldn’t escape the reality and the violence that accompanied it when in June of 1831 a man with a well-known name in local history was fatally shot in an encounter with runaway slaves. His name was Thomas Hand. There have been many Thomas Hands in that family, including the one-time owner of the Cape May Star and Wave.
On this long ago Wednesday morning in mid-June, so a newspaper account read, about a dozen slaves escaped from their owners in Virginia and made their way in a boat to Cape Island. Soon their owners were in pursuit from Cape Henlopen and found the escapees on the land of the other side of the bay. The pursuers, including Hand who apparently had joined them on the New Jersey side, fired at the slaves and they fired back.
Hand was hit in the forehead, dying immediately. Another member of the hunting party narrowly escaped the same fate when the brim of his hat was struck and it was blown off his head.
It was later to be reported that “five colored men” with two women and two children landed at Staten Island in a 28- to 30-foot long boat built of pitch pine and “sharp at both ends.”
“The Evening Post says they looked rather suspicious and were probably some of the runaways noticed above,” the article stated.
Many years earlier in 1751, Cape May County’s 18th sheriff, Thomas Smith, serving from 1751 to 1754, captured a 27-year-old runaway slave from Rhode Island with the interesting name of Jupiter Hazard. He had escaped from the town of Piscataway.
At that time the owners concluded that the runaways had an escape route through the Appalachian Mountains to New York City. Smith described his captive as one who had traveled quite a distance “for he gives a good account of Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Shrewsbury and other places.”
The Underground Railroad, a system to provide clandestine routes for slaves on their escapes to freedom, emerged before the Civil War. It featured stops along the way for the slaves to rest while on their way to Canada, Cuba, the Caribbean and the Indian territory of the west. There have been legendary stories that Cape May was one of the stopovers, but history has provided no tangible evidence to sustain that claim.
However, there seems to be strong historical support for one story. The central figure was Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1849 and came to Cape May three years later to work at the Congress Hall Hotel as a cook. Her earnings there were said to help slave runaways in their trips on obscure Indian paths. Some friendly Lenni Lenape Indians, early visitors at the cape, also cooperated by helping them along the way.
Eventually as the number of poor in the county increased, many of them African-Americans, the county built an almshouse, also known as a poorhouse, to accommodate them. From 1821 to 1850 the number of African-Americans at the poorhouse rose substantially because of the manumission of slaves. The young and the old were unable to work because of their ages and, no longer under the control of their masters, they had to be placed in public care. Those who were able to work obtained jobs on farms or in the growing tourism industry of Cape Island.
The freedom of slaves in New Jersey was to be a gradual and painstaking procedure. An act abolishing slavery was first enacted in 1804, but it was not all encompassing. Children born of slaves after July 4, 1804 were not to be freed until they served as apprentices for the masters of their mothers. The females, for all practical purposes, were to continue as slaves until their 21st birthdays, the males until they reached their 25th.
By 1820, that law freed 12,460 slaves in New Jersey, but there were still 7,557 held in bondage. New Jersey abolished slavery in 1846 and was the last of the northern states to do so.
Full emancipation was not achieved until the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865, at the end of the bloody Civil War.
(Some of the information in this article was researched in the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey, The Making of an American Resort Community” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)