When history draws a blank, legend will fill it in

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This historical marker stands outside a little-used entrance to the renovated Sloatsburg rest area northbound on the New York State Thruway. Its placement almost invites the the visitor to ignore it.

But I’m a sucker for these markers, and something caught my editorial eye. It had been edited. They don’t make whiteout for raised golden letters on blue metal. Someone ground it down and painted it over. Was this a literal case of erasing history?

Things are rarely so simple. This was a case of applying correction fluid to the historical record to erase a racial slur.

"Ramapo Valley Historical Marker, July 31, 2022, Sloatsburg, NY." By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
“Ramapo Valley Historical Marker, July 31, 2022, Sloatsburg, NY.” By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Following the war, some Tories, Hessians, Dutch, Negroes and Indians sought refuge in the mountains. Their descendants___________ lived in seclusion in the Ramapo wilderness, largely cut off, until World War II, from developments around them.

Ramapo Valley Historical Marker

White out

It was clear from the context of the sentence that the missing words were a short adjective clause describing the word “descendants” of the mixed-race settlers described as “Tories, Hessians, Dutch, Negroes and Indians.” (As it turns out, that description itself is also probably inaccurate.)

Having grown up in northern New Jersey, I was able to fill in the blank. The missing letters were undoubtedly “, known as Jackson Whites,”. The phrase deserves to be erased because it is both historically inaccurate and a slur for what may be two separate communities of color.

When this marker went up in 1963, the only available histories of the Ramapo Mountain people were from the turn of the 20th century, well after the fact. At best, these sources took the community’s oral origin stories and put them into print. At worst, it was “fake news.” A newspaperman made up a lot of it for a book. And once in print, it all became “history.”

Ten years after this marker was cast, author David Steven Cohen of Rutgers University published “The Origin of the ‘Jackson Whites’: History and Legend among the Ramapo Mountain People” in The Journal of American Folklore, Jul.-Sep. 1972, Vol. 85, No. 337.

The Journal of American Folklore? Cohen’s point is that we must not confuse history with legend. Apparently that’s what this marker did. Lacking any written documents, the mountain people in the late 19th century told their own origin stories. These merged with fictional tales into books and thus into the marker.

Fiction is stranger than truth

The legends described a community that fled the Revolution for the safety of the mountains. These included British loyalists, defecting Hessian soldiers, and comfort women procured by a mythical Captain Jackson for the British troops in New York.

Cohen found none of those, but did trace the oldest core families of the community to three free, “colored” landowners with Dutch surnames living outside New York City in the 1670s. These “colored pioneers” later sold their farms in the Hackensack River Valley and moved to the Ramapo Mountains, but not during the Revolution. Instead the exodus seems to coincide with a 1798 New Jersey law restricting the rights of free Blacks to travel without a permit.

As for indigenous peoples, Cohen found no evidence of native tribes that mixed with the Dutch settlers. Today’s Ramapo Munsee Lenape Nation, recognized by the State of New Jersey, would disagree. “Our homeland once extended from Western Connecticut to Eastern Pennsylvania, and from the Northern bank of the Raritan River North to Albany N.Y.,” their web page states.

Over the years, the indigenous peoples may have been confused with the settlers from the Hackensack valley. The Ramapough Mountain Indians Inc. explained this when they applied for federal recognition in 1979, which was denied two decades later. In its petition, they argued that:

“Jackson Whites” was not a term that was used carefully or specifically. It was applied to the RMI with some frequency, but it created a great deal of confusion because it was also applied to a basically unrelated group of non-RMI mountaineers living around Ladentown in Rockland County, New York. By extension it came to be applied in the region of southeastern New York and northeastern New Jersey to persons who had no connection with either of these communities, but whose life style was perceived by their critics to approximate that which elsewhere in the country was called ‘white trash.'”

Historical Report – Ramapough Mountain Indians Inc., p 56

All this came well after the marker was made. So we can’t fault the New York State Historical Commission, or whoever, for editing the sign.

But it’s time for a new one. And maybe this time the mountain people can have a hand in writing the section that describes their communities.

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