Forgotten 1800’s African American city discovered in New Jersey

A group of Temple University archaeology students and volunteers is currently excavating what may be one of the most important African American historical sites in New Jersey.

It’s called Timbuctoo – a once-thriving enclave probably founded by free African Americans and escaped slaves in the 1820s, now abandoned, if not forgotten, for more than half a century.

An entire village lies beneath the grassy hill near Rancocas Creek in Westampton Township outside Mount Holly – at least 18 houses, remains of a church, two roadways, an alley, a number of privies and wells, possibly schools, and large parts of a cemetery, where 13 graves of African American troops from the Civil War are marked by headstones – but where six times as many may lie in unmarked graves.

No African American site of this magnitude has been excavated in the region, and very few have been uncovered nationwide, according to archaeologists.

“This is the first time we’re seeing such a site being excavated,” said David Orr, the Temple professor and historical archaeologist overseeing the project. “The unique quality of this is that it’s very large. It has no problems, perfect preservation of its core – that’s also impressive. As an archaeological site, in my experience, I have never seen anything like this – only because nobody has excavated one.”

The site of the Timbuctoo project covers four or five acres. Westampton Township has acquired much of it from private owners, allowing the dig to proceed unimpeded. Work started at the beginning of June and ends Saturday, but will resume next year.

Standing near the crest of the open field, next to the red brick foundation of the first house unearthed, Orr held up a corroded cast-iron buffalo that had been pulled from the ground. Christopher Barton, a doctoral student who serves as site manager, displayed a small, heavily corroded toy gun and a wheel – all early 20th-century relics. He held up a small brown Vicks VapoRub bottle, a blue Vaseline jar, a clear Listerine bottle – all dating from the first half of the last century.

Barton said that some visitors have questioned the relevance of 20th-century artifacts to an archaeological dig. “They say, ‘Oh, that’s not old enough,’ ” he said.

“That’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is recreate the life, recreate the stories of what these people had. This is true not only with the pre-Civil War context but also with the Jim Crow period. We’re trying to discover what these people were doing and how they were living.”

In fact, the presence of 20th-century life on the site increases its importance, said Orr.

“We have the opportunity here to see a total African American community over time,” he said. “How it was like here in the 1830s. How it was like here in the 1870s. How it was like at the turn of the century and during Jim Crow. How it was like in the ’20s and ’30s, all the way to World War II. This is very exciting stuff.”

Beyond that, he pointed out, descendants of Timbuctoo families are still in the area.

Mary Weston, 74, lives down the road on a piece of land that has been in her family since 1829, when her great-great-great-grandfather purchased the lot for $35.

Weston has volunteered to help at the site throughout the dig, washing, cleaning, bagging the countless artifacts drawn from the ground – ceramic shards, leather shoes, buckles, metal wheels, bottles, glassware – all the detritus of everyday life.

She was born in the area, but her family moved to Philadelphia with everyone else, she said, when city industry revved up at the onset of World War II. She returned as an adult and is deeply moved by the excavation.

“It brings a sense of connection that nothing else could bring,” Weston said this week. “These wonderful artifacts being unearthed prove we did exist here very, very early. We did live here. Just the connection with the ancestors from the early 1800s brings a rush of joy.”

In addition to the extensive excavation yet to come, much traditional historical work is also necessary. The origins of Timbuctoo are somewhat obscure. There is an oral tradition, for instance, that suggests the town was buttressed by the area’s thriving Quaker community at the turn of the 18th century. A Quaker brickworks once stood nearby, which could have been an important source of work and building materials, said Orr.

Burton said the town stood directly on an Underground Railroad route, and there is no question that escaped slaves lived in Timbuctoo. Slave catchers worked the area too, and in 1860, residents took up arms to defend Harry Simmons, a runaway sought by southern bounty hunters. In what was known locally as the Battle of Pine Swamp, residents protected Simmons and drove off the slave catchers.

The prospect of such an attack was no doubt a source of anxiety, said Burton, and may have been one reason the village was laid out in an almost circular fashion, with small houses surrounding a large open area.

Such a layout would enable residents of each house to see what was happening around every other house.

“The point is, we don’t know what these houses looked like until we dig a hole and look at them,” said Orr. “We don’t know who built them and how. Was this [settlement] predesigned? Did it come from African Americans? Quakers? We don’t know. There are no images. None. That’s why archaeology is so important with African American communities.”

“It’s awesome for me,” she said. “I went to school in Philadelphia and the school did tell us something of ourselves as a people, but not very much. So for this to happen and for all these things to be unraveled and explored makes me have a greater sense of connection with who I am.”

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