"Philip’s Wet Nurse: Uncovering Race, Gender, and Community in a 1783 New Jersey Freedom Case" By Nicole Maskiell

In 1748 a little boy named Philip arrived in Somerset County New Jersey wrapped in a blanket. [1] He was passed from the hands of James van Horne, an elite New Jersey man of Dutch heritage, into those of van Horne’s housekeeper, a woman named Margaret Wiser who resided at the Rocky Hill plantation year-round. Tasked with finding a wet nurse for the infant, Wiser decided on Jane Furman, a local woman of Welsh descent. Elite infants were sometimes suckled by such wet nurses, a practice that was hotly debated by the middle of the eighteenth century with a discourse that linked the wrong wet nurse with conveying disagreeable qualities. [2] The child in Wiser’s care added another dimension to the search: his mother was white and his father, black. Jane Furman agreed to nurse him after Wiser stressed the pedigree of Philip’s mother, that she was likely related to the van Horne’s and that (perhaps as proof) she would visit her newborn child shortly. The woman, whose name remains a mystery, did visit Philip, eighteen months later.

Thirty-five years later, Philip returned to his origin story as the son of an elite white woman in his appeal for freedom against the claim of two elite men: James van Horne, a man who might well have been Philip’s uncle and Dirk Ten Broek. [3] The elite in New Jersey counties such as Somerset and Bergen were, like the van Hornes and Ten Broeks, overwhelmingly of Dutch ancestry with roots that dated back to New Netherland and slaveholders. The testimony on Philip’s behalf was given by Gabriel Furman, his wet-nurse Jane’s nephew. The Furman’s were of Welch descent, were not members of the local elite and had arrived in the area by way of Massachusetts. This ethnic and social difference might very well have translated into differing political ideals as well, and in a state recently recovering from the trauma of the American Revolution, such political divisions were not perfunctory. Gabriel detailed Philip’s birth and early childhood, a tale that emphasized Philip’s mother’s racial and social status, as well as Margaret’s efforts to find a wet nurse and Jane’s role in nursing him. In the process, his testimony uncovered the multiethnic white network that Philip leveraged in the Rocky Hill community for his defense.

Philip’s case for freedom is undoubtedly unique, and I would not have ever stumbled upon had it not been for Ted O’Reilly, reference librarian at the New-York Historical Society who directed me to the case, which is located in the Alexander Papers. Although compelling, how can such an example shed light on a broader understanding of the place of race, kinship and gender in colonial and early national constructions of race? Philip’s case offers more than just the story of one man’s struggle for freedom but gives a unique view into the gendered aspects of how such notions changed over time and shaped ethnic communities in the North. Philip’s story also points to another dimension in the enduring legacy of New Netherland’s Dutch families.

Nicole Maskiell received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2013  Her dissertation was entitled "Bound by Bondage: Slavery Among Elites in Colonial Massachusetts and New York." She is currently Assistant Professor of History at University of South Carolina, Columbia.


About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

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Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More


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