Nate Johnson & History
Image from Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/rbpe.0990100b/
Well, I'm back in action. Ready for some hard-core history? It revolves around Nate Johnson from the Saint Maggie series and the history of slavery in the state of New Jersey.
Nate Johnson’s story has not been related in the Saint Maggie series yet, but it deserves to be told (just as the story of Emily’s mother, Katy Rice, needs to be told and will be told in the future).
Because Nate is black, his background is far different from Eli or Maggie’s, whose families immigrated in the 1700s to the British colonies from England and Scotland respectively. Nate’s family, meanwhile, was kidnapped from West Africa, forcibly brought to the so-called “New World,” and ended up in New Jersey.
But before I can get into the specifics Nate’s family history, I need to deal with the history of slavery in New Jersey first.
Important and embarrassing fact: New Jersey was the last state in the North to free enslaved people. Like most things New Jersey, it was a complicated and rather underhanded thing. I can say this freely. I grew up in New Jersey from the age of seven and, despite having moved away several times, have always returned. I’m a Jersey Girl at heart but I’m well acquainted with my home state’s flaws. The history of slavery isn’t one of the better-known flaws.
Race relations were (and still are) difficult in New Jersey. In that way, our history remains with us, like it or not. The reality is New Jersey didn’t hop on the emancipation bandwagon. Not to say that prior to 1804 those who owned other human beings did not free them out of the good of their hearts. That did happen. Sometimes. But the state did not pass “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” until 1804. It was not “immediate abolition,” which would have meant that enslaved people were released all at one time. No. It happened over a long period time and in a convoluted way.
You see, the new law had caveats to make the change more palatable for those who had owned other human beings. For one thing, people born to enslaved parents after 4 July 1804 were not immediately free. Males had to wait until they attained the age of 25 and females until they were 21. During that time, they remained “apprenticed” to their parents’ former owners.
The act also included another option, according to the Slavery in the North website.
Like New York’s, this law held a hidden subsidy for slaveowners. A provision allowed them to free their slave children, who would then be turned over to the care of the local overseers of the poor (the state’s social welfare agency in those days). The bill provided $3 a month for the support of such children. A slaveowner could then agree to have the children “placed” in his household and collect the $3 monthly subsidy on them. The evidence suggests this practice was widespread, and the line item for “abandoned blacks” rose to be 40 percent of the New Jersey budget by 1809. It as a tax on the entire state paid into the pockets of a few to maintain what were still, essentially, slaves.[i]
If that little perk didn’t work for the owners, then they could always sell their enslaved people to other slave-holding states or ship them off to Pennsylvania to serve as indentured servants for extended periods of time. This practice went on until 1818 when another law forbade New Jerseyans to export black enslaved or indentured people out of the state.
To make matters worse, although free black people had possessed the right to vote in New Jersey, they were disenfranchised in 1807, when the vote limited to men who were white and free. In this way, emancipation also led to a backlash on free people of color, who soon found their lives being hemmed in by laws controlling where they could go, what they could own, and what they could do.
As the “Slavery in the North” website concludes, all those legal workarounds meant that in reality, New Jersey was still a slave-holding state. As a result, by the time the Civil War started, there were still eighteen people listed on the state’s census as “apprentices for life.” However, the Federal Census called it for what it was and listed the “apprentices” as what they really were: slaves.
On to Nate’s family.
His father, Nathan Johnson (b. 1805), was the property of Augustus Johnson, who owned a farm outside Blaineton. Nate’s mother, Molly Linden (b. 1806), was a child of nine when she was sold to Augustus by George Linden. Linden, a merchant, lived in Washington and had suffered a business-related loss. The sale of the little girl provided the merchant with enough capital to resuscitate his enterprise.
And so, Nathan and Molly grew up together. When Nathan showed a talent for carpentry, August Johnson hired him out to make furniture for friends and neighbors, while Molly proved to be an adept seamstress, whose skills also made money for her owner.
The young people eventually fell in love and were married, with Augustus Johnson’s consent, in December 1824, at which time Molly was 18 and Nathan 19. Their first child, a boy named Nathaniel (Nate) was born on 2 August 1825.
When Augustus died later in 1825, his eldest son Reuben took possession of the farm. At that point, Molly had a little over one year left to her indenture and Nathan had six years to go. Reuben, who already owned a farm of his own, wrote up an agreement of indenture with Nathan. The young black couple would continue to live at the farm and work for Reuben until his 25th birthday. Any monies Nathan earned from carpentry would be his own. Once Nathan turned attained the age of 25, he would be able to rent the farm from the Reuben. Molly, meanwhile, would continue to work as the family seamstress (which included doing needlework for other people as contracted by Reuben’s wife). Once she turned 21, she would have no obligations to the Reuben Johnson and his family and could pursue work as a seamstress on her on.
As for young Nate, Reuben declared that he was free from birth. That meant Nathan and Molly could raise him as they wished without fear that he would be sold. Eventually, Nate was joined by six siblings, two brothers and one sister of whom survived childhood. Nate’s siblings left New Jersey as soon as became adults. Nate stayed and learned carpentry from his father.
Nate met Emily Baltimore, a cook for a local family, in 1844 when they both were 19 years old. They married the next year and Emily moved into the old farmhouse, where the couple cared for Nate’s parents until Nathan died in 1847 and Molly in 1849.
In 1850, Reuben Johnson decided to sell the old farm and Nate and Emily moved into Blaineton proper, where Nate set up a carpentry shop.
And that brings us up to the time of “The Dundee Cake,” when Maggie hires Emily as the cook for her boarding house.
Amazingly, I just made this all up while writing the blog! But you can see how an author creates a
family history and how the history of the period feeds into the family’s story.
I’ll be doing this for the other characters throughout 2018. The stories of Emily’s mother’s self-emancipation, Eli’s merchant Quaker family, and the rise of Maggie’s prosperous relatives will give me (and you) a sense of the world around the Saint Maggie family.
[i] Slavery in the North. http://slavenorth.com/newjersey.htm. This is a fascinating article and has a good works cited list.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder