Monday, July 15, 2013

From enslavement to business mogul: Elizabeth Sutliff Dulfer

I love it when a Hidden New Jersey story reveals another, equally as obscure story about an accomplished individual who's somehow evaded widespread notice. Such is the case with accomplished 19th century businesswoman Elizabeth Dickerson Sutliff Dulfer.

You might remember her name from our story about the clay trade that once prospered along the Hackensack River. She was the first person to capitalize on the wide-scale commercial value of the local clay, purchasing 87 acres of land in Little Ferry for the purpose of mining and selling the substance. It's remarkable for a woman of that time to have the resources and ability to acquire land without a man's help, but it's an even more fascinating story when you consider her origins.

Elizabeth Dickerson was born into slavery in 1790, in New Barbadoes, current-day Hackensack. She worked in servitude for William and Polly Campbell at their home along the banks of the Hackensack River until achieving manumission in 1822. It's not known whether she paid for her freedom or whether it was granted for past service, but either way, she was free to enjoy the same rights as any woman who'd never been enslaved.

Census records indicate that following her release, she may have lived and worked as a seamstress in New York City, marrying a Jamaican immigrant named Alexander Sutler. Regardless of her profession, she must have managed her income wisely, for she started acquiring land on her return to New Jersey in 1847. She spent more than $1300 to purchase the Little Ferry property not far from her childhood home, aggregating tracts from several sellers. You've got to believe she had a goal in mind, as it took time, serious persistence and a strategy to negotiate the number of transactions she had to make to acquire the land.

Once she had the property together, the real work began. Mining clay was a tough, labor-intensive business in the mid 1800s, and she hired several employees to help her. As we saw in the case of the Mehrhofs, Dulfer counted on ships to transport her product to customers in the larger cities of New Jersey and beyond. Some accounts say that her business was one of the largest clay providers in the country; she was likely among the wealthiest landowners in Bergen County, too. That said, she still had to deal with the prevailing attitudes of the time: the 1850 census listed her husband as owner and farmer of the property, even though she herself held legal title to the land.

Following Alexander's death in 1855, Elizabeth remarried, this time to a Dutch immigrant 33 years her junior. John Dulfer joined his wife's business, and together they also tended the 50 acres designated to agriculture. Records show that the farm was successful as well, yielding potatoes, hay, butter and produce that Elizabeth sold at market in Hoboken and elsewhere.

Elizabeth's business and financial acumen served her well in her advancing age, when she capitalized on the potential of her considerable holdings. Selling the clay beds in 1867 for more than ten times what she'd paid for them 20 years earlier, she became a financier. Between 1864 and 1870, she invested more than $16,000 in Bergen County real estate and high-interest bearing mortgages.

Elizabeth died in 1880 at the age of 90. Buried in what's now known as Gethsemane Cemetery in Little Ferry, she seems to have fallen largely into obscurity, much like the clay industry in which she excelled. It's truly a shame: in her time, she defied the odds against women and African Americans to become one of the most successful entrepreneurs in New Jersey.

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