Slave Graves Unearthed in Mahwah

An adjunct Ramapo College professor is working to preserve a segregated cemetery behind the school

Segregation and slavery were alive and well in New Jersey in the 1700's and 1800's, and an adjunct Ramapo College professor says a racially-divided cemetery recently unearthed and cleaned up behind the school’s campus in Mahwah proves it.

Over the past few months, Jeff Williamson and a team of volunteers have investigated and cleaned up a family cemetery behind the school’s sculpture garden, off Ramapo Valley Road. The unearthed graves, Williamson said, were likely from the 1700’s and 1800’s. Williamson and his team found about 15 gravestones so far of family members of the Laroe, Hopper, Bogert, and Hagerman families, who all owned the land and were prominent families in the area.

But the more interesting find, he said, is a cemetery located further down the road that was sectioned off to bury slaves and freedmen working for those families, Williamson said.

“This cemetery is about the same size [as the family cemetery], has over 25 stone stub markers as headstone or headstone footstone combinations, plus a cleared area in the back,” he explained. “The assumption is that the cleared area is where slaves were buried without markers. The stone stubs are for possible slaves or freedmen.”

The people buried in that cemetery are likely of Afro-Dutch and possibly Ramapough Indian descent, he said. 

After finding out about the site from a student, Williamson said he appealed to the Mahwah Historical Society for funding to help clean it up, and begin to repair some of the damage the graves have sustained over time. A group of 10 or so volunteers, operating under the group name, “Grave Matters,” cleaned the site this fall.

Now, Williamson said he is working to research the history of the segregated graves, and preserve it.

“Working through records and censuses we know which families who lived here owned slaves, even how many and occasionally the names of a few slip through, but their full histories are unknown,” he said. “We also know that a fair number of freedmen worked on these farms, but again, their names and stories have become lost, unlikely to be recovered.”

Three of the stones in the graveyard are marked, he said: one for Joseph Harrison, who died in 1850, one for three children of York and Jane Harrison and one for Samuel Jennings.

“The Harrisons are the name of a known freed family of the area circa mid to late 1800's,” Williamson said. “Samuel Jennings worked for the Havermeyers at the end of the 1800s as a freedman, his father William worked in the mountains as a hunter-trapper and possibly as seasonal field hand.”

Though Williamson, an adjunct in Ramapo’s history department, says he is now continuing work at the area as a hobby, he’d like the project to turn into academic research.

The slave cemetery is in disrepair, thanks largely to the Ramapo River “eating away at it, and rebuilding it will cost a lot of money,” he said. His hope is to find a museum or historical body to sponsor the project, he said.

“My first goal is preservation,” Williamson said. “But, I’d like to get this site on the county, state and national historical registers. “Not enough people know this is here.”

Williamson said he hopes increased awareness about the site will lead to more understanding about the history of slavery and segregation in New Jersey.

“People up here tend to think of it as a southern issue,” he said. “But, it’s not, it’s an American issue. I hope this site can help shed light on that."

Williamson provided the following history of the families who owned the land surrounding the cemetery:

The primary owner families are thus: Laroe, Hopper, Bogert, and Hagerman between 1760 and 1860.

The site seems to fall under specific ownership of Jacobus Laroe (Larue) (1724-1781) who built the Laroe Van Horn House next door. Jacobus sold the land and moved to upstate New York around 1765, whereupon the land changed hands within the LaRoe family. According to the 1908 survey, his brother Arie was buried in the family cemetery in 1786. His marker is currently not found. Jacobus' brother in law Jacobus Bartolf was buried there in 1800 (and his sandstone gravestone is in remarkably good shape).
Between 1760s and 1800s other burials took place from the Bartolf and Terhune (cousins of the Bartolfs) families. There were also some Smiths (relatives), and non family members including the Reverend Peter Leydt (Light) who died in 1791 shortly after taking up the ministry in the area. Only a few of these stones are found and legible, Reverend Leydt's not being one of them (though I think I have an idea where he may be in the cemetery).

Arie LaRoe's daughter Marie married Andries Willem Hopper (1745 - 1815) who appears to have taken up ownership of the area, perhaps through his wife's inheritance. Their home was located where the current Havermeyer House now stands. Andries or Andrew Hopper's house served as a way station for General George Washington (as did several other homes along Ramapo Valley Road) during the American Revolution. Andrew and Maria are both buried in the Family cemetery, their obelisk and footstones still in tact. Maria died at 98 years of age and is referred to in at least one source as the "Matriarch of the Ramapo Valley."

Their daughter Anna (1774-?) married States (Staats) Bogert (1771-1850) and took possession of the land. They had at least two daughters Anna (1795-1849) and Rachel (June - August 1796), both are buried on the site. As is States Bogert. At this time we do not know the final resting place of Anna Hopper Bogert.

Daughter Anna Bogert lived in the valley for the rest of her life after marrying Henry Brazier Hagerman (1787-1853) from NYC. He was a Justice of the Peace and the two are buried in the family cemetery with their own obelisk and foot stones.

Their son Andrew Hagerman (1815-1886) was the last of this line to own the property. He married Elizabeth Ann Hopper (second cousin once removed through Andreis Hopper's father Willem). They had at least 6 children: 2 daughters who died at aged 6 and 2 who are supposed to be buried on site (stones unfound), Andrew Jr. who died at 28 in 1885 whose grave marker is still extant (and is the youngest grave in the cemetery). Three other sons, survived to adulthood to make their own families and their graves are located in the Mahwah Cemetery.

Andrew's wife Elizabeth died a week after giving birth to Andrew Jr. Her obelisk is still standing as is her foot marker. Andrew Sr.seems to have remarried and sold the land off in 1861 around the time his second wife gave birth to a son Wille (who died in 1876 and is buried here, his marker bearing the words 'His last words on earth were "God bless me and make me a good boy for Jesus sake Amen" '). Andrew became a hotelier in town, and died in 1886. His final resting place is unknown to us.

The Havemeyer family acquired the land and the site in the 1860's, they built over Andrew Hopper's old house and improved the area (including the Darlington School house). They also built a mansion for their daughter (now houses the Provost Office of Ramapo College). In the early 1900's the property changed hands again to ultimately the Birch family, and from them, the land became the property of Ramapo College. Throughout all of this the 2 cemeteries remained at first separated from the exchanges, and then ultimately in legal limbo: forgotten to most and slowly reclaimed by nature and the occasional passerby, or taboo breaker looking to party (a lot of beer bottles found in the area).

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Richard Levine December 19, 2012 at 01:11 PM
The graves behind the Ramapo Reformed Church also has a segregated section on the side to the West. I once went on a grave tour many years ago, and this fact had not been mentioned until I pointed it out.
Richard Levine December 19, 2012 at 01:11 PM
The graves behind the Ramapo Reformed Church also has a segregated section on the side to the West. I once went on a grave tour many years ago, and this fact had not been mentioned until I pointed it out.
JP December 19, 2012 at 03:18 PM
I've often wondered what this little grave yard, you can just barely make out riding down 202, was. Now we know. Thanks!
Andy Schmidt December 19, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Actually, the one you can see from 202 would be the "whites-only". To get to the slave cemetery you have to basically park at their sculpture studio, then walk a (very) dirt road along the fence all around the property towards the river. Things open up eventually and the slave cemetery is to your right under some big old trees behind the remnents of a stone boundary wall. I'm glad that the students and their professor have adopted this place. It certainly represents an important piece of Mahwah history that deserves preservation.
Leaking Ink December 19, 2012 at 05:41 PM
The Stephenson family worked as caretakers on the Havenmeyer estate for many years and used to live in one of the small houses that was on the property before it was taken down, and the huge estate houses built in that area. Contacting the Stephenson family would probably yield some valuable historical information for you.
Hank December 20, 2012 at 12:42 AM
From Bergen County Historical Society 1905 year................slaves NJ......................slaves Bergen..............population Bergen 1790...............11,423..........................2,301.............................12,601 1800................12,422.........................2,829..............................15,156 1810.................10,851........................ 2,180........................................ 1820...................7,551........................1,683...............................18,178 1830....................2,554..........................584.......................................... 1840......................675..............................22................................13,504
Aaron De Groat December 20, 2012 at 04:41 PM
Its interesting to read about what might be the final resting place for some of my relatives.....great work Bravo
Hal Miller December 24, 2012 at 04:34 PM
Thanks to Jeff Williamson for investigating and developing this interesting part of New Jersey history.
Dave Renz December 24, 2012 at 08:16 PM
Great work, Prof Williamson


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