J. Afro-American Hist. and Geneal. Soc. 21(1):64-74 (2002)
by allen lutins (Dunkerhook@lutins.net)
Copyright © 2002-2022. Please click here for information about reproducing this article.
Dunker Hook Road...was the original location of slave houses built sometime before 1800 by Zabriskies who owned this land... [Dunkerhook] contained, at its peak population, about a half dozen houses, (three of which still stand on the north side of Dunker Hook Road) a school for the slave children and a church .In addition, Bogert suggested that the Dunkerhook school, constructed in 1726, was the earliest school in the region, and that it was integrated . Bogert's history included old photos of an "old slave house" and a "small slave church" that formerly stood at Dunkerhook.
Rogers, who apparently derived some of his information from Bogert, noted:
[There are at Dunkerhook] three homes which were formerly the quarters of negro slaves. These slaves, it is believed, belonged to Cornelius Board and the Zabriskies and worked on their plantations at the end of Dunkerhook Road. Mr. Bogert has pictures of the descendants of these slaves. One was Ben Bennet...Here also was a small negro church...with a negro school to the left .He added that the three houses still standing in 1960 were built around 1760. Neither author provided reference to documentation which confirmed their claims.
The only other source which mentions the existence of a slave community at this location is an historic marker, erected by the Bergen County Historical Society in the adjacent Saddle River County Park. The sign reads:
DUNKERHOOK ROAD: This old colonial lane was named Dunkerhook meaning Dark Corner by the Dutch who settled the area in the early 18th century. Along this road, the Zabriskie family, who bought the land from the Indians in 1702, built houses and a school for the use of their slaves.If Dunkerhook was indeed a `slave community' it was certainly unique, as references to other slave communities in New Jersey are unknown in the historic literature, although the existence of free black communities in New Jersey is documented . The assertion that Dunkerhook was indeed a slave community seems tenuous, given the fact that such communities are practically unknown in the northeastern United States, and that Bogert's and Roger's works apparently are based on previous histories and oral tradition, rather than primary documentation, (i.e., court documents, municipal, county, and state records, tax and census information, etc.). In order to assess the nature of such a community, it is imperative first to prove that a number of slaves were indeed residents there. Primary documentation demonstrates, however, that it is unlikely that Dunkerhook existed prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Furthermore, Dunkerhook was populated primarily or completely by free African Americans, and never housed a population predominantly of slaves. This article presents the relevant documents which support this assertion, and postulates that Dunkerhook's purported status as a slave community derives primarily from the political and economic position in which the area residents found themselves during the nineteenth century, and perhaps secondarily from the state of African American demographics in nineteenth century New Jersey.
The earliest reference to the area encompassing Dunkerhook is from 1668 . It describes a "tract of land, now called New Barbadoes, betw. the Hackensack and Pawsaick Rivers" which Governor Cartarett granted to Captain William Sandford. A 1682 map lists it as "Berry's Grant 1669" . The boundaries of New Barbadoes in 1693 were defined by the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers (west and east), the Newark Bay (south), and the Sussex, New York County line (north). Its first proprietors were Captains John Berry and William Sandford . In 1871 Dunkerhook became part of the newly formed Midland Township, in Bergen County, and in 1922 Paramus Borough was incorporated, which included Dunkerhook .
Albrecht Zaborowsky (whose name is spelled various ways throughout the literature and later became "Zabriskie") is the earliest known settler in New Barbadoes . After traveling from what was then Prussia to New Barbadoes in 1662, he purchased over 4000 acres of land . His first purchase in 1702, later known as the "Paramus Tract," included land which would become Dunkerhook . Much of the land stayed in the family throughout the centuries. The last person with the surname Zabriskie to inherit land in the Dunkerhook area was Frances H. Zabriskie, in 1920 , although land inherited by Wessells and Boards, descendants of Zabriskies, was in the family's hands a few years beyond that . Bogert  and Rogers  give details of the Zabriskie's ownership of this area. These historians wrote that the Zabriskies built a number of successive residences on Paramus Road directly across from Dunkerhook, including houses built in 1760 by Jacob Zabriskie and in 1790 by Andries Zabriskie .
The earliest known use of the name Dunkerhook, a corruption of the Dutch `Donkere Hoek' (meaning `Dark Corner') , occurs in the text of a 1767 county survey of Dunkerhook Road ; unfortunately, the map that originally accompanied this record is missing. Dunkerhook Road does not appear on the detailed maps of New Jersey and New York drawn for General George Washington by Robert Erskine between 1778 and 1779 , but the Zabriskies' residence is shown in the area, with no other structures depicted in the vicinity of Dunkerhook.
Historic maps from 1861, 1867 and 1876 indicate that either four or five houses were constructed at Dunkerhook during this time. These are the homes referred to as "slave houses" in local histories. Two of the homes are still extant at the time of this writing, and the foundation of a third lies under a home which was significantly altered in the 1980s; all are on the north side of Dunkerhook Road. The house at 273 Dunkerhook Road is on the State Register of Historic Places (# 10-03-80), the only vestige of Dunkerhook so honored.
A number of conflicting dates are listed for the construction of these homes. Rogers claimed 1760 as the construction date for the three houses that remained in 1960, while Bogert simply stated that they were built "sometime before 1800" . More recent sources suggest later dates for their construction: A county historical survey  asserts that the homestead at 273 Dunkerhook Road (listed on the National Register of Historic Places as of 24 July 1984) was erected in the mid-nineteenth century, with two others built in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier (the report describes these as "slave/tenant" houses and suggests that they "may have been built before or shortly after 1800"). These data derive from historic maps and architectural style. Another source  claims that all three structures date to the early nineteenth century . Unfortunately, no maps are available from the years spanning 1776 to 1861 by which to judge these claims.
A church formerly stood near the western terminus of Dunkerhook Road. It first appears on an 1867 map, and is labeled "Zion ME Ch." This identifies it as a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church . The church building was probably erected between 1861 and 1867, for it does not appear on an 1861 map, and an African Methodist Episcopal church built between 1856 and 1860 in what is now Alpine (also in Bergen County) is described in a well-researched work as "the first church of its kind in all of Bergen County" . Further evidence for the date of construction is the fact that it does not appear on Christopher Rush's list of Zion organizations for 1843 , which lists only three such churches in New Jersey (in Newark, Elizabethtown and Shrewsbury). The church most likely ran a Sunday school, for by 1846 all but one of the 132 A.M.E. Zion churches did so .
The 30 foot by 60 foot lot of land on which the church rested was granted to trustees of the church in 1904 by Catherine Wessells, daughter of Cornelius Zabriskie. The deed recording this conveyance stated specifically that the land was "to be used for church purposes only" . The trustees of the church sold the land in 1923 , at which time it may be presumed that the church had ceased to be used as such. The structure was destroyed by fire in 1932 or 1933 .
Bogert and Rogers claim that Dunkerhook was home to a very early historic school. Apparently the earliest reference to this school was in Frances Westervelt's history of Bergen County, published in 1900, in which Westervelt wrote:
Probably the first school in the present limits of the county was at Paramus, near the old Reformed Church, and was built about 1730. There was another built somewhat later on land now belonging to the Board Estate" .The latter school, mentioned as being on the lands of the Board Estate, is presumably the Dunkerhook school. However, the Board Estate encompassed a large area and a number of structures in Paramus, so the school mentioned in Westervelt's history was not necessarily in Dunkerhook. Bogert mistakenly took the former school to be Dunkerhook's when he wrote that the Dunkerhook school "seems to have been the first one-room schoolhouse in the borough," attributing its construction date to 1726 . If there was indeed a school at Dunkerhook, it did not date to this early a time.
There are incongruities in the school's description. One source says it was a "little brick schoolhouse" , while Bogert describes it as being built of rough stone , a description reiterated in a 50th Anniversary Commemorative Journal for Paramus. (This journal seems to have obtained its information from Bogert's history, as it also gives a construction date of 1726.) In addition, the Journal claims that both whites and blacks attended class at this "democratic place" . This story is found in its earliest form in Bogert's history, where he added (p. 47) that "[i]ntegration was not a problem then".
No reference to such a school exists in maps, deeds, school listings, or any other primary sources. As previously mentioned, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church probably ran a Sunday school; it is possible that historians have mistaken the church's classes for an actual school in Dunkerhook. If there was a schoolhouse in Dunkerhook, it was certainly built after 1730, and was not the earliest school in the area despite claims to the contrary.
An examination of historic records reveals that small slave houses existed on some large New Jersey farmsteads, but they invariably occurred as single dwellings , and there is no evidence that a number of such dwellings ever existed in the Dunkerhook area. My conclusion, based on the above data, is that Dunkerhook, consisting of some half dozen residential structures (and later including a church), came into being sometime in the early-mid 19th century.
Since Dunkerhook was likely founded after 1780, records were examined dating back to 1779. The latest year for which records were examined was 1860, for slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution, officially adopted in New Jersey in 1866 . And although local historians list only the Zabriskie, Wessels and Boards families as slaveowners in the Dunkerhook area, slaveholding records of adjacent landowning families (as determined by historic maps) were examined as well.
A book entitled "Black Births (slaves) 1804-1844 From Original Records", located in the vertical files of the Bergen County Historical Society (at the Johnson Free Public Library, in Hackensack, N.J.) contains in excess of 700 entries. State law required that such records be kept  in order to later assess a slave's right to freedom; this extensive set of records appears to be complete. Of all the entries, only one (p. 81) is absolutely attributable to a resident living near Dunkerhook: Cornelius Zabriskie. A second record (p. 12) probably refers to the same Zabriskie. The entry (dated 1805), listing the birth of a boy named Sam in 1804 to a slave of "Cornelius H. Zabriskie," employs a middle initial used nowhere else to designate the Cornelius Zabriskie who lived adjacent to Dunkerhook. However, a slave named Sam was freed 27 years later by "Cornelius Zabriskie" (see the following paragraph). The first entry refers more definitively to the Cornelius Zabriskie in question, and reads:
I, Cornelius Zabriskie, of the Township of New Barbadoes in the County of Bergen, do hereby Certify that on the 19th day of September, 1806, was born of my Negro woman slave a female child named Floor. As witness my hand this 10th day of January, 1810. [Signed] Cornelius Zabriskie."Another useful source of information is a book entitled "Bergen County Manumissions of Slaves June 17, 1804-August 10, 1841," currently in the hands of the Bergen County Office of Cultural and Historic Affairs in Hackensack, N.J. Like slave births, these listings, recording the freeing of slaves by their masters, are voluminous and apparently complete. Again, there is exceedingly scant evidence of slave ownership by the Dunkerhook area residents. One entry (p. 204) records the freeing of a slave named Sam by Cornelius Zabriskie in 1831. Two other entries (pp. 128,188) list slaves freed by Zabriskie's neighbors: In 1819, J. Harman Van Dien freed a slave named Ann, and in 1829 J.J. Bancker Aycrigg freed a slave named Jack.
Additional information can be gleaned from tax and census records for the Township of New Barbadoes, of which Dunkerhook was a part throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For some of the years between 1779 and 1820, Bergen County Tax Ratables exist which detail slave holdings. For the succeeding years, U.S. and New Jersey census information is available which lists the names and races of every individual in the Township; they usually mention slaves and/or "free colored persons" resident at a person's house. The proximity of individuals' census listings generally concurs with the proximity of their residences (due to the method of gathering and recording the information). Implications presented here regarding the location of residences based on census information have been confirmed through other sources (such as maps and deeds) when possible.
The data in Table 1 confirm that the Zabriskies and their neighbors owned very few slaves between 1779 and 1860. Residents in the area generally owned a combined total of two or three slaves; a peak of six occurs in 1820, after which there is no record of slave ownership in the area. Beginning in 1830, however, there are numerous references to free "negroes" living in Dunkerhook. By the 1850's, a large number of free African Americans were concentrated in the Dunkerhook area (see Appendix, "List of Dunkerhook Residents According to U.S. Census").
Table 1. Tax and Census Data for Dunkerhook.
Year Source* Resident** # Slaves Notes (see Appendix) 1779 BCTR Andries Zabriskie 2 1784 BCTR Andreas Zabriskie 0 Bogert 1 Hopper 1 1791 BCTR Andreis Zabriskie 1 Bogert 2 1802 BCTR Andries Zabriskie 1 BCTR Bogert 1 1820 BCTR Andries Zabriskie 0 Cornelius Zabriskie 1 Bogert 1 Van Dien 4 1830 USC Cornelius Zabriskie 0 1850 USC Cornelius Zabriskie 0 2 African American households listed in area 1855 NJC Cornelius Zabriskie 0 1860 USC Cornelius Zabriskie n.a. 4 African American households listed in area *BCTR=Bergen County Tax Ratables; USC=United States Census; NJC=New Jersey Census.
**Last name only indicates a Zabriskie neighbor.
Contrary to the facts, the assumption in the oral histories is that the majority of African Americans were enslaved throughout the nineteenth century. This is perhaps because, although technically "free," the rights of African Americans in New Jersey were severely limited by laws which were still in effect years after their emancipation. These laws served to perpetuate a system whereby African Americans were unable to attain a status far superior to their previous slavery. It is clear that, regarding the nineteenth century African American, "his powerlessness and rightlessness as a slave may be seen as related to the juridical idea of the slave as property, [but] his continued powerlessness and rightlessness as a free person was related to his racial identity" .
One example of this subjugation was the absence of African American voting rights between 1807 and 1875 . Most of the limitations were implemented through statutes enacted by New Jersey throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In 1769 an act was passed placing "the burden of the support of the indigent freedman directly on the slaveholder who had manumitted him" . Not only did this retard manumissions, but the fact that this act was never repealed indicates the degree of subservience in which "freed" African Americans were expected to live. In 1798, twelve years after slave importation was banned in New Jersey , a statute was enacted requiring free blacks who entered the state to have "a written certificate of freedom from their former masters, and all free Negroes already in the state had to have such a certificate in their possession at all times" .
In 1804, the Gradual Abolition Act was passed, freeing children of slaves at the age of 21 (for females) or 25 (for males) , but an act of 1820 "strengthening" the 1804 act set up an indentured servant system. This trend continued with the 1846 act abolishing slavery; although free in name, former slaves became indentured servants who could be liberated only with the permission of their masters . These people became "apprentices" for life .
The fact that Dunkerhook's African American residents were renters, not landowners, may contribute to the impression that they were not free. The property was rented from the Zabriskie family, which owned the entire Dunkerhook area into the twentieth century . Catharine Wessells, daughter of Cornelius Zabriskie, made mention of two tenants in her 1907 will , one of whom (Ben Bennett) is listed as the head of a Dunkerhook household in the 1860 U.S. census (see Appendix). Rental of the Dunkerhook homes is attested as late as 1928 .
It is likely that the occupations of Dunkerhook residents also contributed to the later notion that they were slaves. U.S. census data for 1850 and 1860 (Appendix) indicates that the job descriptions accompanying Dunkerhook residents consist primarily of such categories as "Laborer", "Domestic", "Washer Woman", "Help around farm", "Help around house", and other domestic jobs. The oral history may well preserve memories of menial tasks performed by the Dunkerhook residents, but not the fact that they were paid or otherwise compensated to perform them. The history of Dunkerhook, as recorded by Bogert and Rogers, reflects a bias towards a composite image formed through oral history, rather than the facts as elucidated in the primary documentation.
NAME AGE SEX OCCUPATION NOTES 1850 Census: (3 households; none with valued real estate) *Samuel Bennet 46 M Abby " 42 F Phobe " 9 F Elizabeth " 5 F *Jack Steward 39 M Mary " 33 F Charity " 10 F Thomas " 8 M Samuel " 6 M Henry " 4 M William M. " 2 M Benjamin Steward 18 M Laborer Resident of Wessells homestead John " 14 M " " " " " Patty " 16 F " " " " *Harry Sisco 33 M Laborer Arianna " 30 F Harry " 2 M Maria " 1/2 yr F 1860 Census: (6 households; none with valued real estate) *Ned Jackson 44 M Laborer Cannot read or write Jo---s " 30 F Mistress " " " " Sam " 10 M Attended school within last year Harry " 6 M " " " " " Gilbert Riley 22 M Laborer Mulatto Phobe J. " 18 F Mistress " William A. " 2 M " *Harry Jones 50 M Laborer Cannot read or write Dinah " 45 F Mistress " " " " Phobe " 20 F Help at home George " 18 M Laborer Sam " 15 M " Jane " 13 F Granny " 80 F Widow Sam Kiser 6 M *Benjamin Bennet 30 M Coachman Kate " 20 F Washer Woman Frank B. " 2 M John Stewart 43 M Laborer Mary " 40 F Mistress Thomas " 18 M Footman Samuel " 15 M Waiter Henry " 12 M Attended school within last year William M. Stewart 10 M " " " " " Anthony M. " 8 M Mary Stewart 2 F *Joseph Thompson 43 M Laborer Cannot read or write Dinah " 40 F Mistress " " " " John " 10 M Attended school within last year Caesar " 6 M " " " " " Benjamin Eglan 15 M Help on farm White from Morris County, NJ Hannah Richards 24 F Domestic White from Yorkshire, England Mary E. Kiser 7 F " White from Bergen County, NJ *Cuffy Joseph 72 M Laborer Cannot read or write Harry " 32 M " " " " " Mary " 32 F Mistress Hannah J. " 10 F Eliza " 7 F Henry " 1 M Nancy " 70 F Washer woman Cannot read or write *Sam Thompson 25 M Laborer Cannot read or write Jane " 20 F Mistress Samuel E. " 1 M
1. Fred Bogert, Paramus - A Chronicle of Four Centuries (Paramus, N.J., 1961), p. 40.
2. ibid., p. 75.
3. Robert Quillman Rogers, From Slooterdam to Fair Lawn (Fair Lawn, N.J., 1960), 60.
4. E.g., Joan H. Geismar, The Archaeology of Social Disintegration in Skunk Hollow, a Nineteenth-Century Rural Black Community (New York, 1982).
5. New Jersey Archives, First Series, Vol. XXI.
6. William A. Whitehead, East Jersey Under the Proprietary Governments (Newark, N.J., 1875).
7. Frances Westervelt, History of Bergen County, New Jersey 1630-1923 (New York, 1923), 273-274.
8. Bogert, Paramus, 28, 111.
9. Westervelt, Bergen County, 276.
10. Rogers, Slooterdam, 50-51.
11. Ibid., 15, 52.
12. Bergen County Court House, Deeds, Liber 1091, p. 526.
13. Bergen County Court House, Liber 1139, p. 561; Liber 1154, p. 479; et al.
14. Rogers, Slooterdam, 49, 52.
15. Gerre van der Kleij, personal communication, January 1989.
16. Bergen County Court House, Road Returns, Folder F, p. B70.
17. Edward L. Smullen, Surveys Done for His Excy General Washington by Robert Erskine 1778-1779... (retracing).
18. Rogers, Slooterdam, 60-61; Bogert, Paramus, 40.
19. Bergen County Office of Cultural and Historic Affairs, Historic Sites Survey of Paramus, New Jersey (Hackensack, N.J., 1981/1982), 5, L1.
20. Borough of Paramus [N.J.] Planning Board, Historic Preservation Zone, Article 23.
21. Rogers, Slooterdam, 61.
22. For a history of the A.M.E. Zion Church, see the following: Bishop J.W. Hood, One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (New York, 1895); Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience Vol. I. (1988); David H. Bradley, A History of the A.M.E. Zion Church 1796-1968. Part I, 1796-1872 (Nashville, 1956).
23. Geismar, Skunk Hollow, 38.
24. Bradley, A.M.E. Zion Church, 104.
25. Ibid., 483
26. Bergen County Court House, Deeds, Liber 590, pp. 482-483.
27. Bergen County Court House, Deeds, Liber 1224, p. 609.
28. Bogert, Paramus, 40.
29. Westervelt, Bergen County, 210.
30. Bogert, Paramus, 47, 75.
31. Sunday Post Tercentenery Edition (Paramus), March 1, 1964.
32. Bogert, Paramus, 75.
33. Borough of Paramus, Borough of Paramus 50th Anniversary Commemorative Journal (Paramus, N.J., 1972), 12.
34. Examples of ads listing residences for sale which include "Negro houses" include: The New York Evening Post 1/27/1746, The New York Gazette or the Weekly Post Boy 10/7/1754, The New York Mercury 6/16/1755, The New York Mercury 10/11/1756, The New York Mercury 12/13/1762, The Pennsylvania Gazette 11/29/1764, and The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury 3/21/1768 (all reproduced in William Nelson, ed., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey: Newspaper Extracts, Press Printing & Pub. Co., Paterson; various volumes released between 1895 and 1904).
Isaac Bangs' journal entry for 29 June 1776 describes a farmstead on the west bank of the Hackensack River where 50-60 African American domestic workers resided in a single dwelling (Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society VIII:123, 1859).
35. Simeon F. Moss, "The Persistence of Slavery and Involuntary Servitude in a Free State (1685-1866)," J. Negro Hist. 35(3):289-314.
36. Lee Calligaro, "The Negro's Legal Status in Pre-Civil War New Jersey," N.J. Hist. 85:167-180.
37. Geismar, Skunk Hollow, 8.
38. Moss, "Persistence of Slavery," 289.
39. Henry S. Cooley, A Study of Slavery in New Jersey (Baltimore, 1896), 26.
40. This wasn't quite true in Bergen County, however, which had a higher percentage of slaves than any other New Jersey County until 1820.
41. Geismar, Skunk Hollow, 8.
42. C.M. Knapp, New Jersey Politics During the Period of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Geneva, N.Y., 1924), 2.
43. Arnold Sio, "Commentary" on "Slavery and Race" in Roots and Branches: Current Directions in Slave Studies (ed. Michael Craton). Historical Reflections 6:271.
43. Geismar, Skunk Hollow, 9-10.
45. Moss, "Persistence of Slavery," 296.
46. Cooley, "Study of Slavery," 25.
47. Calligaro, "Negro's Legal Status," 168.
48. Moss, "Persistence of Slavery," 305; Cooley, "Study of Slavery," 26.
49. Calligaro, "Negro's Legal Status," 170; Cooley, "Study of Slavery," 28.
50. Moss, "Persistence of Slavery," 306.
51. Bergen County Court House, Deeds, Liber 1578, p. 154.
52. Bergen County Court House, Surrogate's records, Book 38, p. 499: "To Benjamin Bennett and Bartholomew Westerhaven (both in my service) I devise to each of them to be held and enjoyed by him during his life the cottage or dwelling now occupied by him at Paramus on the road leading to Paterson..."
53. Bergen County Court House, Deeds, Liber 1578, p. 159: "Subject to the rights of two tenants: Taylor and Behm, in two houses on the north side of Dunker Hook Road, which tenants were yearly tenants... Subject to a possible right of way leading north from Dunker Hook Road near the old church site."