04 February 2016

Silvia Dubois

When contemplating the life of Silvia Dubois - one of the most remarkable women in the history of Hillsborough Township - one needs to first dispose of the idea that she ever lived to be 125, or 120, or even 116 as claimed by her biographer Dr. C.W. Larison in 1883. The reality is that upon her death in 1888 she was perhaps 100, which is remarkable without exaggeration - and fitting for a former slave who lived such a remarkable life of freedom.

Dr. Larison published his interviews with Silvia Dubois as her "biografy" in 1883.
That we know anything at all about the life of Silvia Dubois is due to the work of Larison. He was a physician, an educator, a scientist, a local historian, and, notably, a spelling reformer. The biography he produced from the interviews he conducted with Silvia in 1883 was written in a phonetic spelling of his own creation - perhaps somewhat useful in capturing Silvia's colorful language, but maddening for the modern reader, and unwittingly destined to keep the narrative from becoming widely accessible until transcriptions were made in standard English, about 100 years after publication.

An etching made from a photograph of Silvia Dubois taken in Flemington in 1883
which became the frontispiece for her biography. P.S. She wasn't born in 1768.

Although Larison is an interesting subject - and we can learn much about him from the biography and his other works - the real interest is Silvia Dubois. She was born about 1788 in the tavern owned by Richard Compton just north of Rock Mills in Hillsborough Township, NJ. Silvia's mother, Dorcas, was a slave belonging to Compton, whose name she took and used throughout her life. Silvia's father was Cuffee Bard, a fifer during the Revolution participating in the battles at Trenton and Princeton.

Dr. C.W. Larison (1837-1910) of Ringoes, NJ
Silvia remarked that her mother was "ambitious to be free". To that end, she borrowed a considerable sum of money from prominent Hillsborough farmer Dominicus Dubois - indenturing herself and her children to him while using the cash to buy her freedom from Compton. When she found herself unable to repay Dubois, she and Silvia became his slaves. Still striving for freedom, Dorcas endeavored upon a similar transaction with one William Bard - this time sadly leaving Silvia, who was still only a toddler, behind.

Dominicus Dubois - called Minical in Silvia's remembrances - was the youngest of three brothers who were the grandchildren of an original settler of Hillsborough, Abraham Dubois. The eldest, also named Abraham, moved to Philadelphia and became a jeweler. The second, Nicholas, remained in Hillsborough eventually inheriting his grandfather's home and estate south of Amwell Rd. near the present day Eisler Lane. Dominicus struck out on his own, opening a tavern in the frontier wilderness of Great Bend, Pennsylvania, and hoping to make his fortune in the fledgling turnpike business.


Great Bend, PA on the Susquehanna River circa 1811

Silvia was only fourteen when she made the 152 mile trek with the Dubois family to Great Bend. She walked the entire way. Already big and strong for her age, she became bigger and stronger in Great Bend, eventually reaching five feet ten inches tall and weighing 200 pounds. Silvia was employed by Dubois in ferrying passengers across the Susquehanna  - in competition with a ferry service owned by a Captain Hatch. The way she was able to steal customers from Hatch, and her speed in rowing single passengers across in a skiff, endeared her to Dubois.

Although she got along well with Dubois during this period - stating that when she pleased him, he pleased her - relations with his wife were more than brutal. She was repeatedly beaten by her mistress, once being hit about the head so furiously with a fire shovel that Silvia was left with a three inch depression in her skull. When she was about twenty years old, while Dubois was away serving on a grand jury in Wilkes Barre, Silvia unleashed her fury, delivering a mighty blow to Mrs. Dubois that drove her back against a door and left her unconscious on the floor.

Silvia immediately ran away across state lines to New York, but soon returned to retrieve her 18-month-old son Moses, who she had left behind. By this time, Dubois had decided to give Silvia her freedom, telling her that he would write her a pass so long as she took her child back to New Jersey and didn't return.


The cabin home of Silvia Dubois and her daughter Elizabeth Alexander
 at Cedar Summit near Rock Mills
The 152 mile journey back to Flagtown, carrying her child the entire way on foot, through wilds where there were few roads or paths to follow and where wild animals howled each night was bad enough, but one day as she came closer to civilization she heard a man call out to her, "Whose nigger are you?" A piece of paper in the pocket of a freed slave often wasn't enough in a frightening situation such as this. So Silvia set her child on the ground, adopted her best pugilistic stance, and answered, "I'm no man's nigger - I belong to God - I belong to no man."

Hoping to find her mother in Flagtown,she was disappointed to learn that Dorcas was now living in New Brunswick with yet another master, Miles Smith. Silvia lived with her mother in New Brunswick for three years finding menial or household work. In 1811 she went to Princeton and became a house servant for the Tulane family for many years.


Silvia Dubois, right, and her next-to-youngest daughter Elizabeth, circa 1883

About 1830, Silvia accepted an invitation to come back to the Sourland Mountain and help run the notorious tavern at Rock Mills owned by her maternal grandfather - a freed slave named Harry Compton who went by the name of Harry Put after his first owner General Rufus Putnam. Put's Tavern was the kind of place where people went to get a little wild. A completely unlicensed establishment, the entertainment featured boxing, gambling, cockfights - and plenty of booze. As Harry became ill, Silvia took over more and more of the responsibilities of the tavern, inheriting it upon his death. Around 1840 the tavern was burned to the ground by, in Silvia's words, "those damned Democrats" and she lost everything. She rebuilt a wigwam style hut on the land and for a couple of decades made a living raising hogs.

Some time in the 1870s her home was again burned down and she went to live with her daughter Elizabeth, also known as Big Lib or Lizi, the only one of her six children still living, just across the county line at Cedar Summit in East Amwell Township. Already 85 years old by this time, Silvia and Lizi lived in a log cabin with no windows, little furnishing, and an ancient wood cookstove in the corner of the room. In her later years she would come down from the mountain just twice per year, usually visiting the village of Harlingen, to entreat on the generosity of her neighbors.

Still drinking and smoking her clay pipe well into her 90s, Silvia deigned to allow herself to be exhibited as a curiosity at the state fair at the Waverly fairgrounds in Elizabeth in 1887. Despite newspaper claims that she had perished in the great blizzard of 1888, she in fact survived until the spring of that year, newspapers trumpeting that at 125 years she was certainly the oldest person to have ever lived! In fact, she was 100 years old - full of freedom to the end.

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