Who are your ancestors. Be honest.

Eliza-Jan-Van-Mater-Van-DornAlison Bailey,
Bloomington, IL.

Yes. I’ve been able to find out who my 3d greatgrandmother is until recently. She was the bastard child of Joseph C. Van Mater, or “Big Joe,” as he was called. The Van Mater family were early settlers in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Big Joe was the largest slave holder north of the Mason Dixon line. He own almost 100 people. His story is mind-boggling, and almost forgotten. I’ve summarized it below.

Eliza Jane Van Mater: Joseph van Mater’s Illegitimate Daughter?
I want to start my story with Eliza Jane because her life, until recently, was a mystery to me. Her grave is marked with an ostentatious headstone, yet the pedigree trail for Louisa’s mother immediately dead ends. Her last name is the only clue to her past. The Van Maters were among the earliest families to settle in Monmouth County, but she does not show up in any of the family trees. We don’t know much about her, but in this case, the backstory is more interesting, and worth telling.

At the age of seven, Joseph Van Mater leaves Eliza Jane the extraordinary sum of $7000 in his will, but the family relationship between the two is not made clear in the will, probated on 20 January, 1821. As one of the most wealthy men in the region, “Big Joe,” as he was called, had an immense amount of property to dispose of upon his death. His first and only wife, Catherine, died 11 months after they were married, and he is reported to be so grief stricken that her never remarried. He gives his land and most of his slaves, furniture and household items and money to immediate family members, and without reference to any family:“To Eliza Jane Van Mater, £1,400.” Eliza is listed in the orphan’s index. The citation reads: “VANMATER; Jan 1833. Eliza Jane VanMater, a minor over 14 yrs, and a legatee of Joseph VanMater, dec’d elected Joseph H. VanMater and Holmes VanMater as her guardians. One charitable reading is that, Eliza was an orphan Van Mater took to kindly, she took his name and at some point elected Joseph H. Van Mater and Holmes Van Mater to be her guardians. However, it was more likely that she was his illegitimate daughter and he saw to it to leave her a large dowry.

Joseph H. and Holmes [I think they were second cousins] were the appointed executors to administer his estate to take care of all of his ‘orphans’, including his “black family, or the black people that have belonged to my family.” George C. Beekman’s book, Early Dutch Settlers of Monmouth County (1919), includes a copy of “Big Joe’s” will, and tells the following story:

A story has been current for some two generations, among the farmers of Holmdel and Atlantic townships, that “Big Joe” VanMater, childless and wife- less, wanted to own an even 100 adult slaves, but although he made many efforts, yet when he reached this number, some accident or fatality would happen, which would cut down his “human chattels” to ninety and nine. As it was, he had more than he knew what to do with. After his death they were all set free, as directed by his will. Many of them by years of dependence for food, clothing and shelter on their easy going, good-natured master, were like children, unable to take care of themselves [sic]. Neither were they content with a new place of abode. They clung to their old home.

It is said that after “Big Joe’s” death the road from what is now the Phalanx to Colts Neck, was black with these newly freed negroes, and they wandered back and forth, perplexed and bewildered with the great change. For it was hard to find another home, where the “black people” would be treated as part of the family, and where there was another man, like lonely, but good-natured and generous-hearted “Big Joe” VanMater.

Many of them sought homes and shelter from Joseph H. and Holmes VanMater, the devisees and legatees of the deceased. For in his will he strictly charges them to take care of the “black people of my family” and “those which had belonged to the family.” This brought upon these two men, all the helpless and indigent ones of this estate, as well as those of their grandfather and father.

There are people….who remember Joseph H. VanMater when he drove over to church at Holmdel on Sundays. Not only his immediate family, but crowded in with the whites, in a big carryall, would be all the colored people who wished to go to church. This burden of the negroes, together with heavy legacies charged in the will of “Big Joe” made a heavy financial load for his devisees to carry. For the land brought in no income except as farmed and the profits were then small.

Caring for so many proved to be costly, and I’m guessing that executors were forced as some point to sell his land. Members of a new utopian community “The North American Phalanx,” the largest and most successful of some 28 communes found in the United States in the 1830s and 1840s purchased VanMater’s estate for their new social experiment. When they moved in they found a number of free Blacks living on the old plantation and simply evicted them.

Sources: Graham Russell Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North:African Americans in Monmouth. Oxford, U.K: Madison House (1996); George C. Beekman, Early Dutch Settlers of Monmouth County. Freehold, NJ:Moreau Brothers Publishers, 1919; Judith B. Cronk, Intestates and Orders from The Orphan Court Books of Monmounth County, New Jersey, 1785-1906. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield Company, Inc. (2002).


Tweets by Michele Norris