How Rutgers University is connected to Sojourner Truth: The Hardenbergh family in Ulster County, NY

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by Helene van Rossum

 

Composite photo showing silhouette of Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh on left and Sojourner Truth on right
Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh (posthumous silhouette) and Sojourner Truth, 1883

In February 2017 Rutgers University announced that it will name an apartment building on its historic New Brunswick campus after the abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883). The decision followed research findings, published in Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, that Sojourner Truth had been enslaved as a child to members of the family of Rutgers’ first president Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh (1736–1790). However,  Sojourner Truth–who was born with the name Isabella–never lived in New Jersey but grew up in Ulster County, New York. She was born enslaved to Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh’s brother, Johannes Hardenbergh Jr. (1729-1799), after whose death she and her family became the property of his son Charles. Johannes Jr. has been confused with his father, Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh (1706-1786), a founding trustee of Queens (later Rutgers) College. Not only did they share a name and lived in Hurley, near Kingston. Both also had a son named “Charles” and served as “Colonel” in the Revolutionary War.

 

The narrative of Sojourner Truth: “Colonel Ardinburgh”

Illustration of Sojourner Truth with white head wrap
Frontispiece of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, 1850

Sojourner Truth, who never learned to read or write, dictated her life’s story to fellow abolitionist Olive Gilbert (1801-1884), which was published as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth in 1850. According to Gilbert (who spelled the names that Truth provided as she heard them), Isabella was “the daughter of James and Betsey, slaves of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York.” After his death, Isabella, her parents, and “ten or twelve other fellow human chattels” became the legal property of his son Charles. Not older than two when her first owner died, Truth only remembered her second master. When he died too, she was about nine years old and was auctioned off to John Neely, a storekeeper who lived in the area. Her new master severely beat her because of her inability to understand orders. Having been raised in a Dutch Reformed household, she had only learned to speak the language of her masters: Dutch.

 

“That class of people called Low Dutch”

Reproduction of runaway ad  offering 50 dollar reward
Advertisement in the Ulster Gazette by Jacob Hardenbergh about two runaway slaves (1808)

According to the Narrative Isabella’s first two owners “belonged to that class of people called Low Dutch.” These people were descendants of Dutch Reformed families who had emigrated from the Netherlands (the “Low Countries”) in the 17th century and settled in New York and New Jersey. Uninhibited by their Dutch Reformed faith, they farmed their lands with the help of enslaved blacks, like their English-speaking neighbors. (Read about the farm ledgers of Johannes G. Hardenbergh). In 1707 the grandfather of Sojourner Truth’s owner, also named Johannes Hardenbergh  (1670–1745), had purchased a tract of two million acres of land in the Catskill Mountains from a leader of the Esopus Indians. For this land (spread across today’s Ulster, Sullivan and Delaware Counties) Hardenbergh and six others were granted a patent in 1708, which became known as the “Hardenbergh Patent.”  By the time of the first federal census of 1790, fifteen heads of Ulster households had the name “Hardenbergh,” of whom ten listed enslaved people. Advertisements for runaway slaves in the Hudson River Valley (including three from members of the Hardenbergh family) indicate that many slaves spoke Dutch as well as English. Sojourner Truth herself always kept a distinct low-Dutch accent, and never had the Southern black accent that the white abolitionist Francis Gage gave her when publishing the speech that became known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” (compare this speech, written 12 years after the original speech, with a more authentic version).

 

Col. Johannes Hardenbergh (1706-1786), Rosendale, Hurley

Black and white postcard showing home among trees with caption "House of Col. Johannes Hardenbergh."
Postcard of the home of Col. Johannes Hardenbergh  (1706-1786) in Rosendale, Ulster county

As can be seen in Myrtle Hardenbergh Miller’s The Hardenberg family; a genealogical compilation (1958) many male members in the Hardenbergh family inherited the name of the Hardenbergh patriarch in Ulster County. Miller makes a clear distinction between the older Colonel and the younger Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh (1729-1799), the owner of Sojourner Truth. But the older Colonel Hardenbergh (1706-1786) was more famous: he was a field officer under George Washington in the Continental Army, and served in New York’s Colonial Assembly. He lived with his family in “Rosendale,” a house with many rooms as well as slave quarters, formerly owned by his grandfather Colonel Jacob Rutsen. The house, in which Colonel Hardenbergh entertained Washington in 1782 and 1783, burned down in 1911. In the New York Census of Slaves of 1755 Hardenbergh is listed as living in Hurley owning six slaves, which made him one of the largest slaveholders in the county. In 1844 Hurley’s town boundaries changed, however, and the house became part of the newly formed town Rosendale. (View a map of Ulster county, 1829)

 

Col. Johannes Hardenbergh Jr. (1729-1799), Swartekill, Hurley

photo of last page of handwritten inventory
Inventory of Charles Hardenbergh’s estate, listing Isabella, her brother Peter and her mother Bett (source) (full inventory)

The younger Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh was lieutenant Colonel of the Fourth or Middle Regiment, Ulster County in August 1775, and received his appointment as Colonel in February 1779. Married to Maria LeFevre, he lived with his family in Swartekill, Esopus, which was a short distance north of Rifton and also part of the town of Hurley. Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh Jr. appears in the 1790 census for Hurley with seven slaves, who must have included Isabella’s parents James and Betsey and possibly siblings of Isabella who were sold before she was born. It was his son Charles who inherited Sojourner Truth and her family. Born in 1765, he was married to Annetje LeFevre and died in 1808. The inventory of his estate, written on May 12, 1808 and filed on January 2, 1810 lists “1 negro slave Sam, 1 negro wench Bett, 1 d(itt)o Izabella (and) 1 d(itt)o boy Peet.” Isabella, Peter, and the man named Sam were valued at 100 dollar but Isabella’s mother Bett was only valued at one dollar. Rather than being sold, she was freed so that she could take care of her old and sick husband, James Bomefree. Sadly, as recounted in The Narrative, “Mama Bett” (spelled as “Mau-mau Bett” by Olive Gilbert) preceded him in death, and he died in miserable circumstances.

 

Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh (1736–1790)

Image of stained and partly damaged letter
Jacob R. Hardenbergh to his father, December 6, 1777 (in Dutch, read up close)

Like his brothers and sisters, Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh was born in the family home “Rosendale.” He left home when he was around seventeen years old to prepare for the ministry at the home of John Frelinghuysen (1727-54), a young prominent Dutch Reformed minister, who served five congregations in central New Jersey, and lived in what is now known as the “Old Dutch Parsonage” in Somerville. When Frelinghuysen unexpectedly died in 1754 the young Hardenbergh took over the five pulpits. He married Frelinghuysen’s much older widow, the pietist Dina van Bergh (1725–1807) in 1756 and was ordained to the ministry in 1758. Whether he also retained the three slaves (including a child), whom Dina had inherited according to her first husband’s will, is not known. But they did have at least one slave at the parsonage: in a letter from Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh, written (in Dutch) to his father in 1777, he wrote that he had to hurry “because the negro is getting ready to go”  (“wijl de neger gereet maakt om af te gaan“).

In 1781 Hardenbergh was called by the congregations of Marbletown, Rochester, and Wawarsing in Ulster county, and left New Jersey to move back into his parental home “Rosendale” with his family. He returned to New Jersey in 1786 to serve as minister in New Brunswick and president of Queen’s College. Whether he maintained any enslaved people during these last four years of his life we do not know. There are no slaves mentioned in his will.

 

This blog post was extracted from the presentation “Land, Faith and Slaves: the shared heritage of the Hardenbergh family, Rutgers University, and the Dutch reformed Church on June 17, 2017 

Hidden Dutch treasures at Rutgers Special Collections

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By Helene van Rossum

Farm ledger opened for Benjamin Oosterhoudt, shoe maker, showing debited entries on left and credited entries on right
Farm ledger of John G. Hardenbergh, 1773-1794, opened for Benjamin Oosterhoudt, cobbler

For people who are familiar with the history of Rutgers University, founded as Queen’s College by the Reformed Dutch Church in 1766, it will not be surprising that there are Dutch archival materials among the university’s Special Collections. Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh (1735-1790), the college’s first president, was a member of  the powerful Dutch Hardenbergh family that had settled in the Hudson valley in the 17th century. The philanthropist Henry Rutgers (1745-1830), after whom the college was renamed in 1825, was also a descendant from New Netherlands colonists. On the occasion of this year’s annual conference of the New Netherlands Institute, dedicated to New Jersey’s Dutch past,  we have embarked upon a search for Dutch resources in our collections, some of which have only been accessible through a card catalogue so far. The provisional list that we came up with contains surprises. (Download the list.) Below are some highlights. 

 

Dinah van Bergh’s pietist diary, 1746

 

Archival box displaying folded up ivory dress with enboded flowers and berries
Dinah Van Bergh  Frelinghuysen Hardenbergh’s wedding dress in Rutgers Special Collections, 1750 or 1756

The only Dutch document that has gained some attention in the past is the devotional diary that Dinah Van Bergh (1725-1807), daughter of a wealthy Amsterdam merchant, kept in 1746 and 1747. Her pietist faith inspired her to believe that God wanted her to marry the Reformed Dutch minister Johannes Frelinghuysen in 1750 and follow him to Raritan, New Jersey, where he was to serve as minister to three congregations.  The diaries, of which the earliest part is owned by Rutgers and the second by the Sage library at the Theological Seminary in New Brunwick, is available online in an English translation, along with a few letters and a religious Dutch poem (view a publication of the diary in Dutch).

Sadly, Johannes Frelinghuysen died in 1754, leaving Dinah widowed with two young children. When one of Frelinghuysen’s pupils proposed to her, the much younger Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh (Rutgers’ future president), she again felt it was God’s will that she would serve as a minister’s wife in New Jersey and cancelled her plans to return to the Netherlands. Her wedding dress, used for either her first or second marriage (or both), is one of the Dutch treasures at Rutgers University Special Collections.

 

Johannes’s G. Hardenbergh’s farm ledgers, 1763-1794

 

Black and white photo of delapidated one story building with broken roof
Farm house built by Johannes G. Hardenbergh at Kerhonkson in 1762, 16 miles from Kingston, Ulster,  NY

Of particular interest to local historians are two farm ledgers, kept by Johannes Gerardus Hardenbergh (1731-1812), cousin of Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh. In 1762 he built a farm house at Kerhonksen, 16 miles from Kingston, Ulster County NY, later known as the “Old Fort,” where he raised his family and lived until his death. The house played an important role in the Revolutionary War: in October 1777 governor George Clinton ordered the government’s most important papers at Kingston to be sent there for safekeeping, only days before Kingston was torched by the British.

Hardenbergh’s farm ledgers, which span the years 1763-1794 (with references  to a third volume), are an interesting example of a barter economy. Purchases by customers (mainly wheat, corn, and butter) are recorded on the left; payments were usually made in services rather than in cash, expressed in pounds under the heading “contra” on the right.  Those services often included days of mowing, ploughing, spinning, or just “work” for somebody else. Particular services included the making of a coffin, or mending shoes for members of the family, as  in the case of Benjamin Oosterhoudt (shown above). There are a few more individuals listed among the members of the household whose shoes were mended, with simple English first names, rather than Dutch. Could they have been Hardenbergh’s slaves? According to the first census records eleven enslaved people lived on his farm in 1790.

Detail of a sheet of scrap paper with calculations and Hardenbergh's name in the ledger
Detail of sheet of scrap paper inside the ledger including Johannes G. Hardenbergh’s name

A most interesting aspect of the ledgers is that all entries are written in Dutch, which may well have been the language spoken at the farm. Dutch was the only language known to Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883) as a child. She was born enslaved in Swartekill, Ulster County on the farm of Hardenbergh’s cousin Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh (1729-1799), who was the oldest brother of Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh. According to her personal narrative, in which she refers to her first master as Colonel Ardinburgh, her lack of understanding English caused her to be severely beaten by her new master, John Nealy in Kingston, after she was auctioned off in 1806.

The ledgers raise the question who did the actual labor that was traded for the goods that Hardenbergh sold. How many people doing the “work” recorded in the ledgers were enslaved? We will need more research to find out.

 

Dutch autographs from the Netherlands, 1673-1781

 

Detail from a doccument showing signature of Michiel A. de Ruyter
Detail from John Romeyn Brodhead’s Dutch autographs collection…. Stay tuned!

A final surprise found among the Dutch materials in our holdings is a folder among the papers of  the historian John Romeyn Brodhead (1814-1873), simply labeled “early Dutch documents.” Brodhead, who spent time in Dutch archives to transcribe documents relating to New York’s colonial history, clearly had an eye for names of famous Dutch naval heroes and politicians. But that will be the subject of another post. Stay tuned!