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Salem County, NJ

Photo: Salem County Courhouse, 17 June 2010

Salem County is a county located in the U.S. state of New Jersey. As of the 2010 Census, the population was 66,083. Its county seat is Salem. This county is part of the Delaware Valley area.

The Old Salem County Courthouse, situated on the same block as the Salem County Courthouse, serves as the court for Salem City. It is the oldest active courthouse in New Jersey and is the second oldest courthouse in continuous use in the United States, the oldest being King William County Courthouse (1725) in Virginia.  The courthouse was built in 1735 during the reign of King George II using locally manufactured bricks.  The building was enlarged in 1817 and additionally enlarged and remodeled in 1908. Its distinctive bell tower is essentially unchanged and the original bell sits in the courtroom.

Judge William Hancock of the King’s Court presided at the courthouse.  He was later unintentionally killed by the British in the American Revolutionary War during the massacre of Hancock House committed by the British against local militia during the Salem Raid in 1778. The courthouse was afterwards the scene of the “treason trials,” wherein suspected Loyalists were put on trial for having allegedly aided the British during the Salem Raid. Four men were convicted and sentenced to death for treason; however, they were pardoned by Governor William Livingston and exiled from New Jersey. The courthouse is also the site of the legend of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson proving the edibility of the tomato. Before 1820, Americans often assumed tomatoes were poisonous. In 1820, Colonel Johnson, according to legend, stood upon the courthouse steps and ate tomatoes in front of a large amazed crowd assembled to watch him do so.

Salem County is also notable for its distinctive Quaker-inspired architecture and masonry styles of the 18th century.

Salem County Historical Society

The objective of the Society is to discover, procure and preserve whatever may relate to the natural, civil, literary and ecclesiastical history of Salem County and perpetuate the historical heritage for present and future generations.

Since its founding in 1884, the Salem County Historical Society has been the beneficiary of the interest and generosity of residents of the county and of those whose family roots are here. This has included the acquisition of all of its buildings, the collections that make up the museum, the library facility, and most of the cost of restorations and renovations that have taken place over the years, not to mention the vast contributions of volunteer time put in by its members. The result has been an historical museum that many believe to be unique and without equal in the United States and a library that draws genealogical researchers from all areas of the country.

History of Mt. Pisgah AME Church

*Mt. Pisgah African A.M.E. Church (1888-1999) Salem, New Jersey (c. Lawrence E. Walker Foundation Collection)

Mt. Pisgah’s beginning goes all the way back to the late 1700’s when this area that we now know as Lawnside was just a tract of land known as the Dublin Colony. It was part of a subdivision of New Netherlands, which is what New Jersey was called when it was purchased by the Society of Friends in 1674 and divided into eastern and western portions. Gloucester County was in the eastern portion, Union Twp. was part of Gloucester County and Lawnside was part of Union Twp. At that time, this area and areas surrounding it were nothing but thick, thick woods. Just picture woods miles and miles long and miles and miles wide with dirt paths running through them. The widest road was “Ye Olde Kings Highway”.

From there approximately 3 miles into the woods you would come to what is now known as Lawnside. The exact date of the original settlement here is not known but at some point in the mid to late 1700’s this heavily wooded area became known as “Free Haven”. There were log cabins with small clearings enough for farming; however, they were cunningly concealed from the road. Some of the first Mt. Pisgah people must have been former slaves released by the Quakers and others were people already there because the slaves who came from the south by way of the Underground Railroad didn’t get here until around 1840. At any rate, it was a place of freedom, thus the name “Free Haven”. They were happy people but secrecy was needed to conceal their habitation from the oppressors. They were intelligent and they were proud people.

Goodwin Sisters House

Photo: Elizabeth & Adigail Goodwin (c. Lawrence E. Walker Foundation Collection)

Humanitarian work shaped the lives of the Goodwin sisters, Elizabeth (born 1789-died 1860) and Abigail (born 1793-died 1867).   Daughters of a Quaker farmer who had freed, or manumitted, all his slaves during the American Revolution (1), both sisters were founding members of the Female Benevolent Society of Salem, NJ, an organization dedicated to aiding the poor, infirm and elderly (2).

In the 1830’s, Abigail emerged as an active figure in the Underground Railroad movement.  The sisters, now fervent abolitionists, came into contact with leading anti-slavery figures, including William Still, Lucretia Mott, and orator James Miller McKim, who came to Salem to lecture as their guest. His program, however, attracted a mob of anti-abolitionists who pelted the Goodwin house with sticks and rocks (3).

If anything, the attack deepened the sisters’ commitment.  From then on their home became a prominent beacon for freedom seekers, providing shelter, clothing, food, and funds as they were able.  When Amy Reckless (see: “How one woman set herself free”) returned to Salem, she partnered with the Goodwin sisters in collecting goods and financial contributions.

Because of her frank and eloquent writings, Abigail is better known than Elizabeth.  Many of Abigail’s letters and a portrait were published in William Still’s pioneering work, The Underground Rail Road, in 1872 (4).  Only Abigail lived to see slavery abolished as they had both desired.  The sisters rest in the historic Salem Friends Burial Ground, not far from the Black poet Hetty Saunders’ grave (see: “Poet Hetty Saunders describes her escape”).

In 2008, the Goodwin Sisters House on Market Street in Salem was designated as the first site in New Jersey accepted into the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The house is also a site on the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail (5).

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