“My Negro Wench Lydia”
Not long ago, I learned an ugly truth about slavery in New Jersey and how it persisted so much longer than I ever knew. Unable to change the past, I volunteered to help in the present. I wrote about New Jersey’s slow road to abolition in “The Ugly Truth” — a June 2018 article providing background on New Jersey’s slavery laws. I also told stories about Hunterdon-County-resident Nehemiah Dunham’s slaves based on what I could scrape together from historical records.
Nehemiah Dunham is not the focus of this article. Yet. his ownership of slaves demonstrates, to some degree, how accepted slavery was in New Jersey, including with those who possessed great influence. As discussed in “The Ugly Truth,” Nehemiah Dunham, occupied a lot of influential roles in the late 1700s. He was a businessman, an officer of his church, a large landholder, a New Jersey Assembly Representative, a Mayflower descendant, a Justice of the Peace, a behind-the-scenes procurer for the Revolutionary War troops, an Officer of the State of New Jersey responsible for pardoning loyalists, and, of course, a slave holder.
My efforts to tell the stories of the Dunham slaves won’t end with “The Ugly Truth.” As I continue to scour records from Hunterdon County, I am continuing my efforts to look for evidence of what happened to the Dunham slaves. And so, that brings me to Lydia–Nehemiah Dunham’s “negro wench.”
In Dunham’s 1801 will, he conveyed ownership over a number of slaves to his family members and ordered their freedom at age 28. One of those slaves was Lydia. It is unclear who Lydia’s parents were and whether they were also Dunham slaves. Dunham made no mention of Lydia’s parents in his will.
Dunham made his will not long before his death. Given that proximity, Lydia may have learned before his death where Dunham planned for her to go. By its terms, Dunham’s will conveyed property rights in Lydia to his granddaughter, Susannah (Susan) Dunham Guild–who was married to Reuben Guild. As a result, Lydia was to pass to Reuben Guild’s household when Nehemiah Dunham passed away.
Lydia is referred to as both as a “Negro wench” and a “girl” in Dunham’s will. Since Lydia was to have her freedom at age 28, we know that, at the most, she was 27 years old in 1801, born no earlier than 1774. A full dissertation on the development of the word wench as applied to women or the phrase “negro wench” to African-American women is well beyond this article. However, Dunham’s use of the phrase may provide a clue as to Lydia’s approximate age.
In a review of various slave-sale and runaway advertisements, “negro wench” seems to be used most consistently with a slave of at least child-bearing age. (See the “Negro Wench” Appendix.) This is consistent with the often-derogatory nature of the term wench as implying a young female servant, such a “bar wench” or a “kitchen wench.” In addition, the term is laced with sexual connotation and can also be used to describe a prostitute. While I am certainly not implying that Lydia was any of these things, given Dunhams use of the terms “negro wench” and “girl,” it seems reasonable that Lydia would be of young child-bearing age. Assuming she was at least 12 in 1801, that means she was born no later than 1789.
At the time of his death, Dunham’s wife was Bethany Berdin, and Lydia may have been a house servant for Bethany. Lydia likely lived in Dunham’s household in the present-day Kingwood Township, New Jersey. As of the making of his will in 1801, that is where Dunham resided. Note that Kingwood Township of today is only slightly smaller than in 1801. See Barbara & Alexander Farnam, Kingwood Township of Yesteryear (1988) (excerpted at http:// www.kingwoodtownship.com/kthistory-BarbaraFarnham (lasted visited July 11, 2018)) (“Kingwood Township was established in 1746,” after being broken off from Bethlehem Township. By 1845, the northeastern section of Kingwood township then broke off to form Franklin Township.”).
Lydia was not the only property that Nehemiah Dunham willed to the Guilds. He bequeathed land in Middlesex County. It is likely, therefore, that upon Dunham’s death, Lydia would have gone to Piscataway to be with the Guilds.
So what happened to Lydia?
Twelve years later, Lydia makes another mark in historical records. She is still with Susan and Reuben Guild, who are now living in Readington, New Jersey.
What we learn is that on November 25, 1814, “a slave named Lydia” gave birth to a male child named Andrew. Because Andrew was born in 1814, he was technically born “free.” Nonetheless, consistent with the Gradual Abolition Act, he still owed 25 years of service to the owner of his mother, as long as his birth was properly registered. As you can see below, Reuben Guild completed Andrew’s registration.
Using Andrew’s birth date set forth in his October 27, 1815 birth registration, we can also learn more about Lydia’s age. Lydia was ordered to receive her freedom no later than age 28 years, and 13 years has passed since the 1801 will. Yet, in this birth return record, Guild still describes Lydia as a “slave.” This implies that in 1814, Lydia remained under 28. If that is the case, then Lydia was born no earlier than 1786. So Lydia was likely born between 1786 and 1789.
Unfortunately, Lydia’s trail goes cold after Andrew’s 1814 birth. Just over 2 years later, Reuben Guild was murdered in cold blood in a bizarre and random incident in Centre County, Pennsylvania. The story has been retold numerous times in several publications regarding Centre County. Most of these stories focus on the life of the man who convicted of and confessed to this crime–James Monks. While in jail awaiting execution, Monks penned his confession in the form of a poem. Much less has been written about Reuben Guild.
Reuben Guild (and by extension Lydia) was likely living in Readington at the time of his 1817 murder, as that was only two years after Guild filed Andrew’s birth return as a Readington resident. Apparently, Guild was a traveling salesperson of some type and happened to be traveling on horseback through Centre County, Pennsylvania. On the road, he met a stranger, James Monks, who was on foot. As the two passed and greeted one another, Monks shot Guild. Monks, who was 24 with his own young family, was simply overcome with the desire to pull the trigger. Guild did not die, but fell off his horse. Monks then approached Guild and shot him again to ensure that he was dead.
As a result of this trauma, Lydia’s and Andrew’s lives were likely upended. Andrew was still a toddler at the time and was required to be supported by the Guilds. Lydia may or may not have already gained her freedom, but I have not yet searched the Hunterdon manumissions to confirm. Andrew’s trail also goes silent after Reuben’s death. Even though Reuben Guild died, that did not change Andrew’s legal status. He was still legally indentured to Guild’s heirs until his 25th birthday. Assuming that Andrew did not suffer a childhood death (which is a very real possibility), he would have been released from his indenture at the close of 1839–25 years from his birth date. Of course, Andrew’s indenture could have been and was likely sold given the turmoil that surrounded the Guild family with Reuben’s death. Several years after Reuben’s death, Susan Dunham Guild eventually married widower Abraham Wyckoff (previously married Isabella Dunham, who was a first cousin to Susan Dunham Guild’s father, Benajah Dunham).
Reviewing post-1820 census records from around the country, there aren’t that many options for who Andrew could be (assuming he lived to adulthood). We are not sure what name Andrew used. Typically, he would have taken the name of his actual father, if known, or he could have taken the name Guild. However, I could find no Andrew Guilds in the census records. There are exactly 6 black men with the name Andrew listed in all US Census records who were born in New Jersey between 1813 and 1815 (based on my search of all US census records on ancestry.com). The chart below lists those men and their residences at the time.
|Andrew A. Boel||North Brunswick||Middlesex||New Jersey||born about 1815||listed in the 1850 Census.|
|Andrew Willets||Lower Penns Neck||Salem||New Jersey||born about 1815||listed in the 1850 Census.|
|Andrew Burns/Burr||Harmony||Warren||New Jersey||born about 1814||listed in the 1860 and the 1870 Census.|
|Andrew Schenk||Princeton||Mercer||New Jersey||born about 1815||listed in the 1870 Census.|
|Andrew Shorter||Philadelphia||Philadelphia||Penn.||born about 1813||listed in the 1880 Census.|
|Andrew Raddal||Franklin||Somerset||New Jersey||born Dec. 1813||listed in the 1900 Census.|
Of course, Andrew could have been using a different name, or have been listed under an initial, or provided a different birth date, or the census taker could have omitted his race, or so many other possibilities. Nonetheless, perhaps one of these Andrews is Lydia’s son. Hopefully so.