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  • Dutch-Speaking Runaway Slaves in New York and New Jersey, 1730–1825
  • Michael J. Douma (bio)

The history of runaway slaves in America has suffered from both chronological and geographical limitations. Even in the best modern works on the topic, runaway slavery is treated as a mostly nineteenth-century phenomenon, with slaves fleeing the slave South to reach the free states of the North.1 The relative availability of source material must explain a significant part of these conceptual biases. There is simply much greater recordkeeping and many more printed sources regarding slavery that have survived from the antebellum than from the colonial period and early republic. And, of course, by the 1830s, slavery had mostly faded out north of the Mason–Dixon Line. Later, after decades of abolitionism and years of war, it was easy for Americans to forget that there were once slaves in the North, let alone runaway slaves that came from Northern slaveholders.

But in the past decade or two, there has been an increased focused on the history of slavery in the North, and with it often an interest in runaway slave advertisements.2 Despite recent books on slavery in New Jersey, Boston, Rhode Island, New York City, and the Canadian Maritimes, there is yet little understanding of the connections between these regions. The New York and New Jersey case is particularly interesting because slavery lasted longer there than elsewhere in the North, and because much of slavery there was rooted in Dutch culture. A study of Dutch-speaking runaway slaves potentially has much to offer [End Page 239] for understanding the nature of slavery in New York and New Jersey as well as the comparative history of slavery in the United States. Such a study could help indicate connections between the slave cultures in the North and meanwhile identify any unique characteristics of Dutch American slavery.

This present study is an analysis of advertisements for 478 runaway slaves in which the runaway is described as speaking Dutch (at least to some degree) or English with a Dutch accent.3 This collection supersedes earlier efforts by historians Graham Hodges, who reprinted only fifty-eight such advertisements; Michael Groth, who compiled slave advertisements limited to the Hudson Valley's Dutchess County between 1785 and 1827; and the team of Susan Stessin-Cohn and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini, who assembled an extensive list of runaway slave advertisements from the Hudson Valley.4 New digital search databases and technologies not only make the search for historical newspapers much easier than in years past, but they also allow for a more expansive geographical range of coverage, including, in this study, newspapers from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland, for example.

Research on the history of Dutch American slavery in New York and New Jersey includes a number of dissertations and case studies of particular locations, but a general synthetic account is missing.5 Slaves were introduced to New Netherland in the 1620s, and they primarily served the West India Company, not individual masters. Slaves under Dutch colonial rule appear to have had status approaching that of indentured servants, as they were often able to work toward their freedom, or at least "half-freedom," the status of owing only part of their time for laboring for the West India Company. When the English took over New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York, there were perhaps three hundred to five hundred slaves in the colony. Too often the story of Dutch slavery in North America ends there, with the end of Dutch rule. But the Dutch inhabitants of New York and New Jersey continued to import slaves, and as the Dutch occupied more farmland in the [End Page 240]

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Figure 1.

Dutch-Speaking Runaways by Decade

Hudson Valley and on Long Island, slavery spread with them. Dutch-speaking slaves lived primarily in New York, both in New York City and throughout the Hudson Valley, but also in the northeastern sections of New Jersey. The geographical distribution of Dutch-speaking slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was roughly coequal to the territory once claimed by New Netherland in the early seventeenth century, but it spread...