Understanding Interstate Slave Trade & Kidnapping Documents
New Jersey Slavery Records has digitized and indexed 92 removal certificates from Middlesex County.
Go to the Removal Records Index to browse these records.
Each record lists all the names that were mentioned in the document, provides an explanation of the event, and links to an image of the archival source.
A removal certificate is a document authorizing an enslaver to relocate (or "remove") an enslaved person out of the State of New Jersey. A New Jersey law adopted in 1788 (and expanded in 1812), stipulated that an enslaved person had to give their consent before an enslaver could take them out of the state permanently. These rules applied when an enslaver's family planned to move to another state or when an enslaver wanted to sell a person across state lines. The procedure required the enslaver to bring the enslaved person before two judges, who were supposed to privately examine the enslaved person, asking whether he or she agreed to relocate to another state. In the case of a minor child, parental consent was required. If the judges were satisfied that the enslaved person gave their consent freely, the officials would issue a removal certificate authorizing the relocation.
Once the removal certificate was issued, the county clerk would transcribe a copy of the certificate by hand into a bound volume, next to records of manumissions (i.e. records of individuals who were freed from slavery). For this reason, early 19th-century removal certificates can be found in county records inside of bound volumes with titles such as "Book of Manumissions" or "Manumission of Slaves."
State of New Jersey }
Middlesex County }
On the 23rd day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventeen Phillis the negro slave of Staats Van Deursen of the city of New Brunswick, in the county and State aforesaid, aged twenty two years was privately examined before us Thomas Hance and John F. Randolph two of the Judges of the Court of Common Pleas in and for said County of Middlesex, and on her examination did state and acknowledge to us that she was twenty two years old and that she was perfectly willing to leave the service of her present master and to remove with Jacob Klady to the State of Louisiana and that she would rather go with and serve the said Jacob Klady than continue with her present master. All of which we do hereby certify. In Witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands the day and year above written. -
John F. Randolph. -
Received October 8th, 1817 recorded
by Wm. P. Deare CLK
Related event: 1817, Phillis, Removal
Historians have documented abuses of the removal registration system by legal officials and slave traders who participated in the interstate slave traffic. In some cases, Black people were coerced or told lies about their destination so that they would say “yes” when the judges asked about their consent. In other cases, the enslaved individuals were not examined by the judges at all, and the certificates were falsified after the person was already on their way to a slave ship bound for some southern state.
One of the most notorious cases of abuse took place in Middlesex County where a corrupt judge named Jacob Van Wickle took advantage of his position to establish a slave trading ring. Jacob Van Wickle's son Nicholas Van Wickle and brother-in-law Charles Morgan were involved in a scheme to buy groups of enslaved people in New Jersey at cheap prices and send them to the Deep South to make huge profits. Judges John Outcalt and John Smith colluded with Van Wickle to sign removal certificates under shady circumstances. You can browse the profiles of Van Wickle and 15 associates who are mentioned in the removal certificates and related sources.
In 1818, Jacob Van Wickle signed removal certificates for 77 people, authorizing his own son, brother-in-law, and other associates who were part of the scheme to remove Black men, women, and children from New Jersey to Louisiana and Mississippi. But these Black people did not actually give their consent and were instead coerced to leave New Jersey with the slave traders or else left the state under false pretenses after being lied to about their destination.
At least 12 Black mothers were forced to leave New Jersey with their young children as part of Van Wickle’s operation. Additionally, 17 children were sold down south without parental consent, with the removal certificates simply stating that the minor had no mother or father who could provide consent. At least 15 of the children taken from New Jersey had the status of a “slave for a term,” meaning that they were eligible for eventual emancipation under the gradual abolition law, and moving to the Deep South through Van Wickle’s machinations deprived these children of the promise of freedom. The Middlesex County removal certificates also show that 2 free Black people were taken to Louisiana to labor in bondage. These special cases can be identified in the Removal Records Index using the “Group by keyword” feature on the left side of the page.
The Lost Souls Memorial Project in East Brunswick seeks to memorialize the individuals whose freedom was stolen by Van Wickle's slave trading ring. Researchers working with the project have documented over a hundred victims who were taken away from their communities in New Jersey, including additional individuals who do not appear in Middlesex County removal certificates. Visit the Lost Souls Memorial Project website to learn more about this story and the efforts to memorialize the victims of the interstate slave trade in New Jersey.
Most removal certificates document movement to the slave states of the South, primarily to Louisiana. Several certificates list destinations in Mississippi and Virginia.
But not all removal certificates issued in Middlesex County pertain to the interstate slave trade with Southern destinations. A handful of certificates show relocation to the northern states of New York and Ohio. These were usually instances where the enslaver moved together with the enslaved person, rather than selling the enslaved person to a third party.
A series of articles in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans newspapers reported additional details about the human trafficking operation that revolved around Judge Jacob Van Wickle and his brother-in-law Charles Morgan. These articles highlight the tactics that Van Wickle's associates used to kidnap and forcibly transport Black people to Louisiana.
Additional reports of kidnappings in New Jersey and in the surrounding region (particularly around the Delaware river) show the dangers facing Black people in the early 19th century.
Browse newspaper articles about kidnapping, human trafficking, and Van Wickle's slave trading ring.
Drake, Jarrett. “Off the Record: The Production of Evidence in 19th Century New Jersey.” New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1, no. 1 (2015): 104–25. https://doi.org/10.14713/njs.v1i1.16.
Gigantino, James J., II. “Trading in Jersey Souls: New Jersey and the Interstate Slave Trade.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 77, no. 3 (2010): 281–302. https://doi.org/10.5325/pennhistory.77.3.0281.
Lost Souls Memorial Project website: https://lostsoulsmemorialnj.org/
Pingeon, Frances D. “An Abominable Business: The New Jersey Slave Trade, 1818.” New Jersey History 109, no. 3 (1991): 15–35.