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Bizarre History of Cape May: Emancipation came for one Cape May County slave in 1790

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Before, during and after the Civil War the people of Cape May and thereabouts spoke and acted on the subject of freedom, some of them enthusiastically, others equivocally. How to handle the freedoms was a big topic of conversation in the chambers of government and on the southern-influenced plantations of what was then called Cape Island.

The big issue, of course, was slavery. In 1790, some 14 years after the United States won its freedom from the United Kingdom, there were advocates for the abolition of slavery, but they nevertheless kept slaves under their ownership, selling and buying them just as they did cattle and real estate. The first American census in that year showed there were 141 slaves in Cape May County.

Dr. Daniel Coxe, a physician in the royal court, is reported to have been a factor in exporting Africans to Cape May County. Although he never set foot on American soil, he is said, via the use of agents, to have been a long distance entrepreneur from England in the development of real estate and other activities in the New World.

“I have either at Cape May or Burlington four stout Negroes,” he wrote in 1688. His agent, George Taylor, had four slaves, presumably the ones referred to by Coxe.

There were occasions, however, long before Lincoln’s famous proclamation, when New Jersey was not that antagonistic to giving freedom to the slaves. Like in 1790, for instance, when the shackles were removed from a young man named Jethro and he was allowed by the New Jersey Supreme Court to walk free.

Jethro was 22 years old when the state’s attorney general Joseph Bloomfield sued John Ware in a habeas corpus action to remove the reins he held on the slave. Jethro was the son of Charity Briggs, who was of mixed ancestry, and while the woman was feeding him in his very early infancy on Sept. 8, 1768 the baby was taken from her and given by the overseer of the poor to Nathaniel Foster.

Meanshile, Briggs was purchased by John Connell, who sold her to Jonathan Jenkins. Jenkins also acquired the child in sort of a family reunion.

But not for long. Jethro was sold by Jenkins to Christopher Leamng who in turn sold Jethro to John Ware.

The Supreme Court put an end to Jethro’s involuntary travels in 1790 when it declared him a free agent. It made local history because it was the first case of freedom from slavery in Cape May County.

The issue of freedom moved on until its prime time during the Civil War. Still, it wasn’t clearly defined. Some from Cape Island who fought the war said they did not volunteer to free the slaves, but to stop the South from seceding from the Union.

When the war ended and the presidency was left in the hands of Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, freedom again was an issue nationally as well as in Cape May. One of the subjects was how to accommodate the freed slaves, another how to reconstruct the South.

Tempers flared when some charged that Johnson, a southerner, was too easy on those defeated “rebels.” They claimed that for all its sufferings the Union should impose stricter punishment for trying to secede.

At the close of the war, as Cape Island and other communities were attempting to move to peacetime living, the total value of property in the county had decreased about a half million dollars to $2,638, 028. Middle Township led the country with 28,476 acres valued at $427,760. Among the five detailed municipalities, Upper, Dennis and Lower townships being the others, Cape Island came in last with 240 acres valued at $281,000.

The war debt in Cape May County reached $20,000 in 1866 and was eventually paid off at the rate of $3,500 a year.

The price of freedom sometimes can be costly, not necessarily in money. In Cape Island, where most people had hoped life would quiet down, the national controversy about President Johnson’s moderate attitude toward the South touched its shores.

Johnson’s policy, something he claimed would have been the same as Lincoln’s, was to let the secessionist states back in the Union as long as they swore an oath of allegiance and with little federal interference. The hard liners wanted the South divided into military districts and better protection for the rights of the newly freed blacks.

Things got hot for Johnson in Cape May County. The Union Republican Party passed a resolution accusing the president of “harmonizing with traitors.” Meanwhile, in Washington they started impeachment proceedings against him, the first in the nation’s history, but he survived by a close vote.

In 1868, the year of the first national election since Lincoln’s assassination, war hero Ulysses S. Grant, who was to vacation later in Cape May, easily defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour. In that same year the politics heated up in Cape May County as an all out campaign was launched locally for Grant by the Republicans.

Horse-pulled wagons carrying politicians and loud bands traveled to various neighborhoods to boost Grant and the other GOP candidates. It worked successfully in the county, but he did not win the state of New Jersey.

Name calling, in the guise of freedom of speech, highlighted the local campaign. County Democratic leader Christopher S. Magrath, owner of the Ocean Wave, contended that the all Republican Board of Freeholders “plundered the county.” It was more than coincidental that Magrath was upset because William Seigman, the editor of the Star of the Cape which had started in 1868, was named clerk of the freeholder board, a position Magrath wanted. Seigman countered Magrath’s accusation by calling him “a miserable creature” for his “mean and contemptible attack on The Board of Freeholders.”

So it was that freedom for the freeholders, their critics, the slaves and just about every law-abiding resident was to exist in Cape May. As it was to be challenged again in future wars, it was a reminder then that freedom does not come easily and usually requires a heavy price to be paid.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the books “The History of Cape May County New Jersey 1638-1897” by Lewis Townsend Stevens, and “Cape May County, New Jersey,” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)

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