History hunting in New Jersey part two

Published 4:37 pm Monday, April 8, 2024

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In last week’s column, I shared how I planned a road trip to Burlington New Jersey to do some ‘history hunting’ for more information about Washington’s connections to the underground railroad. I was specifically interested in a community named Timbuktu in Mount Holly. Those plans were altered somewhat as Milt and I learned of the death of his nephew William in New Jersey. So, Milt, my sister Lena and I headed to New Jersey on a somewhat saddened road trip.

Once in New Jersey, we had a blessed time-sharing memories of William and comforting each other with the anchor of love that sustains a family during trying times of loss.

Later, we decided to take Lena on a tour of Burlington where Milt and I had lived for over twenty-five years.
I was happy to play tour guide. I showed Lena Burlington’s Delaware River waterfront, a key part of the underground railroad, and several locations in Burlington City, that were used as safe houses for freedom seekers on their journey to freedom. One building, erected in 1731 at 301 High Street, later became the Burlington Pharmacy in 1841. The Pharmacy is still there today and is the oldest in the state. It was used to harbor fugitive freedom seekers.

Burlington was also prominent for free Blacks as well. By the late 18th century, it had the largest number of free Blacks in New Jersey.

One house I particularly wanted to show Lena was the Oliver Cromwell House located at 114 East Union Street. The house was built in 1798 and was later lived in by Cromwell and his family that included 14 children.

Cromwell was a Black Revolutionary War soldier. He enlisted in the army at age 20 in 1772, although General George Washington at that time did not want Black soldiers in the army, because he feared insurrections. However, since there were not enough white men to fill militia quota, some 5,000 Black men were enlisted.

Cromwell fought in seven major battles from 1776-1783. While some may not have heard of Cromwell, many have seen a depiction of him in the boat with General Washington during his historic crossing of the Delaware River, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, Christmas Day 1776. And he was not the only Black man in the boat with General Washington. Prince Whipple, who had been an enslaved man, is depicted in the painting as well.

In the famous 1851 painting by German artist Emmanuel Leutze, Oliver Cromwell (who was bi-racial) is the man at the bow of the boat, with the oar in the water. He has one leg over the side of the boat. Whipple is sitting next to Washington, who is standing. You can see him behind Gen. Washington’s bent knee. He is wearing a dark hat, and he is also holding an oar in the water. His coat has red sleeves at the end of the cuffs.

Gen. Washington honored Cromwell’s dedicated and long service to him by signing his discharge papers and personally awarding him the Badge of Merit.

Next week, I will share part two of Cromwell’s story, because there’s always more to a story. Until then, here is a copy of the painting of Gen. Washington’s Delaware River crossing from my private collection which will be on display at the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-curator of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.