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New York Times
January 1880

Hopewell. N.J.,Dec, 27.-If the traveler who speeds his way from New-York to Philadelphia or Trenton on the Bound Brook route, will look out of the window on the right side of the car, after leaving Skillman Station, he will observe for seven miles a long line of hills. In places these hills slope almost to the track, while again they terminate half a mile distant. This range is called the Sourland Mountain. The mountain extends for about 15 miles from Neshanic, in Somerset County, to Lambertville, along the Delaware. at one place it is the

dividing line between Mercer, and (Kanter on) Counties, and it is just in this particular portion that its characteristics are most plainly discernible. A tramp from this little village of Hopewell, over and along the ridge of the mountain is by no means desirable at this time of the year, but nevertheless it furnishes a good opportunity for investigation. There are two roads principally traveled, the one landing from here to Wertsville, and the other starting at Blawenburg and terminating near Neshanic. Taking the Wertsville road gives one the best chance to examine the modes of life peculiar to the people of this section.


The people and their manners are what have attracted observation to sourland. The charge of miscegenation has been preferred against the inhabitants for many years, and about a year ago these charges took more definite shape in some articles that were written, and in a trial for murder brought before the Circuit Court at Flemington. The belief in the intermarriage of whites and blacks has existed undisputed for many years. Dwellers in the villages surrounding the mountain have declared for a decade that such an unnatural and illegal state of things was going on above them, and they pointed to the women who peddled baskets and herries among them as proof of their statements. These women certainly bore all the evidences of white parentage while the men whom they called their husbands were as indisputably of mulatto origin. During the trail of Benjamin Peterson, a year ago this month, several of the residents of the mountain were summoned as witnesses. Both black and white went on the stand as to their knowledge of the deed, and the spectators in the court-room, as well as the Chief-Justice on the bench, were astonished to see a colored man leave the witness chair to be followed by his wife, a white woman. It was not the first time, however, that such a scene had occurred in that same court-room. Besides the pretty misdemeanors for which the people of the mountain have been tried within past years, two other murders have occurred to startle the neighborhood. Israel Morocco murdered Theodore Cruse about five years ago, and was caught and tried. The other murder was one enveloped in mystery, and has never been cleared up. Isaac Smith was on his way over the mountain two years ago, on a summer day, when some one from behind the thickets which abound thereabout, and lend a terror to the vicinity, shot him through the body. Smith lived long enough to tell the direction from which the fatal shot came, but he saw no one, and knew nothing else about it. No clue has ever been discovered, except the report which became current a few weeks ago that a man in a distant part of the State had confessed the crime. It is on account of these tragedies and the catalogue of larcenies traced to the dwellers on the Sourland that the adjacent country has been regarded so long with terror and avoided as much as possible by pedestrians. It also mainly for the same reason that no very searching inquiry into the stories of the miscegenation has been made.

When the summit of the mountain is attained the scene assumes a very picturesque aspect. Off in the distance are seen the towns of Monmouth County, dimly appearing close to the horizon. Nearer by lies Princeton. with the towers of the Scientific Building and Nassau Hall plainly visible. Pennington, Trenton, Flemington, and Clinton are discerned more or less distinctly. A study of the history of the mountain, as gleaned from the records in the offices of the Clerks of Mercor, Hunterdon, and Somerset, and as picked up in conversation with the old settlers, shows that a mulatto soldier named Stives, who did service in the war for independence, married an Indian maiden and became the pioneer of the region. The story is unique enough to tell. Stives was a slave in Virginia, having been raised by one of the early colonial families. As a youngster, he had accompanied Washington when he joined Braddock, and fell into the treacherous ambush of the french and Indians. Escaping from the paril, and while homeward bent, the soldiers captured an Indian chieftain who had been the cause of a many an Englisman’s death. Among the attendants of the chieftain were a squaw and her infant daughter, a girl about 6 years old. One of the soldiers became interested in these two females, and obtained permission to take them home with him. The Soldier was the owner of Stives, and hence the Indian girl and Stives lived on the same plantation. As the years rolled and the two grew up, the mulatto learned to love the dusky maiden, and she returned his affection. Their marriage was forbidden by the Virginians, however, and so they were compelled to keep secret their hopes and plans. The war broke out, and Stives was forced to accompany his master’s company. They were under Washington and crossed the Delaware with him upon that eventful Winter night. While the campaign was being waged about Princeton and Trenton, Stives was sent out foraging, and one day in his expeditions, his eyes beheld the long range of hills, bleak and uninhabited. He vowed he would run away with his sweetheart as soon he returned to Virginia, and, if possible, find this mountain. The war came to an end with  the surrender of Cornwallis, and Stives again joined his fair Pocahontas. He obtained permission, on account of his bravery in the war, to come north again. The Indian girl stole away with him, and(,) after a series of perils, they finally settled on Sourland Mountain, where they built a hut and founded the colony, which still remains.


It is this lineage from indian blood that some of the residents give as the cause of their color, although that circumstance can hardly explain the remarkably white skin possessed by so many of them.

Back from the road, standing in a position so concealed that with the foliage gone from the trees it is scarcely to be seen, stands a representative home of the mountain. Built partly of logs and partly of boards, it looks like the pictures once so common of Abraham Licoln’s early home. A space of about 30 feet has been cleared, where potatoes and several of the ordinary species of vegetables are raised. The family that dwells therein consists of the father, who is black; the mother, who is almost white, and five children, shading from the deep black through the octoroon, to an almost white baby.

The account which the negro father gave seemed so satisfactorily to answer some questions relative to the meaning of the diversity of color, that the substance of it follows:


“The talk about our havin’ Injun blood in our veins don’t amount to much, Sir. Thar’s a few families as has it, bein’ direct from Stives and his people. The most of us as has white-lookin’ women for wives gets it in another way. Some 15 year ago a good many of the yaller gals from this mountain went over to Princeton to work. They took in washin’, waited on tables, and did most any kind of jobs that paid ’em. Some of ‘em was most partik’ler fine lookin’, Sir, and a lot of that white trash over thar got hold on ‘em, and played mean on ‘em. They do say as some of those college boys had a hand in it, but I don’t know for certain ‘bout that. I does know, however, that this mixin’ up business as has caused so much talk, and even gotten into the papers, got started in jus’ that way, sure as you’re born, Sir. The chillen that came of that trouble were brought back here, and married the colored boys and gals. Why shouldn’t they? They was really of us, even if thar was white blood trieklin’ in ‘em. We ‘uns are sorry for it all; but ‘deed, Sir, it wasn’t our fault. Our gals oughter known and done better down thar aroun Princeton, for sure, but then yer know yaller gals are fearful vain and fond of pretty things, and it didn’t take long to deceive ‘em and ruin ‘em. See how it is, don’t yer? That’s the truth of the thing, and when these people livin’ for miles aroun’ here heard of it, they wouldn’t have nothin to do with us for years, and that’s why we got so wild and careless sorter. If it hadn’t been for that I don’t think we would have been called such hard names, or done such bad things. Our picnics, did you say, Sir? Wll, I reckon they are pretty bad, but nothin’ like they was. Why, lots of times I’ve seen the white boys, real ones, I mean, come to ‘em and they would help us get drunk and make fools of ourselves. Those picnics were sometimes awful promiskus, I know, and several times trouble has come out of it, but I really think twas the livin’ down in the valley that brought on this mixin’ of color. Thar was one very bad place, Sir, ‘deed thar was,  just at the foot of the mountain. Aunt Polly Snock was the woman that (kept) it. She Was a half-breed, I reckon, from her looks; maybe she came straight from Stives. She sold all kinds of liquor. Jarsey lightuin’, some call it, and it was the ruin of heaps of us darkies. I believe they’ve stopped her now; at any rate, she don’t sell it so often like as she once did.


“Do our chillen go to school? Not very much. Ain’t many school-houses about here and those that are don’t keep goin’ very much of the time. We go to church sometimes; there’s a Methodist church at Rock Mills, down yonder, and there’s a pretty little chapel further on built by some kind folks from Princeton and Flemington. The missioner that preaches in the chapel visits us often, and we mostly like him. He is mekin’ us better than we was, I reckon, and if things keeps on so well by and by we may be reckoned of some account by the people in the valley. It’s the kinder funny though, Sir, aint it, that they left us alone to be bad so long?”


It does seem strange that the mountain people should have been neglected for so long a time. Situated in the heart of New-Jersey, (with) one of the great railroads thundering in the one valley, and numerous towns of cultivated and enterprising citizens in the other, it would be supposed that attention would have been more speedily called to the semi-barbarians and immoral condition of these people. The reason for the neglect seems to have been the terror engendered by the lawless character of the people. Every depredation that occurred was laid to the account of the mountaineers, and  undoubtedly many a crime was traceable to the dwellers on Sourland. They still occasionally plunder and steal, and they still are lodged in the jails of the adjacent counties for crimes; nevertheless this is an improvement. The intermingling of the colors, the origin of the miscegenation, their wild uncouth appearance and demeanor, and (tacirough), lawless manner of existence continue, however, as a standing disgrace to the civilization of the Middle states, and present the phenomenal of a well-high heathen community living and working between the two largest cities in the Union. Even the inquirer who gathers the facts felt rather thoughtful as he tramped down the mountain the day after Christmas. Realizing how little of the “glad tidings” had been spread over that region, and how sorely they were needed there.


The New York Times, Published: January 2, 1880 Copyright © The New York Times

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