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Slaves were bought and sold in Westfield in the 18th and early 19th centuries, although the exact location of the auction site is unknown, it was most likely in this central downtown area, possibly at Lincoln Plaza according to local folklore. In 1780 there were 25 enslaved people living in Westfield, more than the number of houses reported in town and the Westfield Historical Society documents that slaves were openly traded on the streets of Westfield in 1813. Westfield’s wealthiest families, including the Cory, Elmer, and Ross families, all owned slaves in 1830.

Possible area of Westfield's slave auction site.

Possible area of Westfield's slave auction site.

Historical Marker

Historical Marker

In 1757 Westfield resident Cornelius Hetfield advertised for sale (in a slave auction in Elizabeth) a “likely parcel of negro boys and girls from 12-20 years of age who have had small pox.” Implicit in this ad is the cruel separation of enslaved children from their parents. Laws in place at the time broke up families and prohibited enslaved people from visiting family in other states. The laws enacted separate regulations with more severe punishments for African Americans and prevented African Americans from meeting and holding property.

New Jersey newspapers of the day were filled with advertisements for slave auctions as well as ads searching for runaway slaves, in fact there were some 1500 such advertisements from 1715-1781. Most runaway slaves in New Jersey were men with an average age of 27 and were often described by their particular skills, such as: tanner, skinner, tailor, carpenter, millwright, cooper, baker, brickmaker, musician, and shoemaker. This was a change from the earlier decades in which most slaves were described as farmers or field hands.

There were numerous slave insurrections in New Jersey in the second half of the 18th century, including in Somerville in 1734, in Hackensack (1741), in Perth Amboy (1772), and in Elizabethtown in 1779. In fact, at this time New Jersey had the second highest number of slaves of any colony north of Maryland (New York was first). After a major slave rebellion in New York City in 1741, fears of a similar incident in Elizabethtown led to fourteen slaves being burned at the stake and eighteen being hanged. Although the names of those slaves killed were not recorded, the names of the men who provided the wood for the fires was recorded along with the amount they were paid for that wood by the Elizabethtown freeholders.

By the time of the 1830 census, there were 19 slaves and 134 free African Americans living in Westfield. John Williams, born in Westfield in 1795 and living on Clark Street, was one of those free men. Mr. Williams was Wallace Brown’s great, great, grandfather, listed in Mr. Brown’s family bible. It is unclear whether John Williams was born free, which was a possibility if a parent had served in the Revolutionary War, or if he escaped bondage or was rewarded with his freedom in some other way. At any rate, John Williams owned property worth $200, which is notable since for many years African Americans (enslaved or freed) were not permitted to own property. He was most likely an apprentice or servant.

Cooley, Henry Scofield, A Study of Slavery in New Jersey (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1896).

Honeyman, A. Van Doren, History of Union County New Jersey, 1664-1923, Vol. II, Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1923.

Johnson, James P., Westfield From Settlement to Suburb, p. 19, 1977, available as a pdf at: (select: Westfield from Settlement to Suburb).

Levine, Jesse, A Brief Overview of Slavery in Westfield, Westfield Historical Society.

Marrin, Richard B., Runaways of Colonial New Jersey: indentured servants, slaves, deserters, and prisoners, 1720-1781.

Philhower, Charles A., History of Town of Westfield, Union County, New Jersey (Lewis Historical Publishing Co. 1923), available online at: (select: History of Town Westfield (Charles Philhower).

The Reeve History and Cultural Resource Center, A Brief History of Slavery in Westfield.

Washington, Ethel, Union County Black Americans (Arcadia Publishing, 2004).

Westfield 1830 Census.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Elizabeth A. Wolf

Westfield Historical Society