You may have heard of Timbuktu, an early center of learning and commerce in Africa. But what about Timbuctoo, New Jersey? It was a town founded in the 1820s by free African Americans who had purchased the land from Quaker abolitionists. This small settlement in the eastern suburbs of Philadelphia once had about 150 residents and 37 homes. African Americans who fought in the Civil War were buried in its cemetery. The buildings are long gone, but remnants of the settlement survived into the twentieth century, and descendants of Timbuctoo residents still live in the area. Archaeologists from Temple University are unearthing Timbuctoo’s secrets as they excavate the site. One such secret was the town’s importance as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Artifacts have been found that tell much about Timbuctoo’s daily life. They include the silver clasp of a woman’s purse, Mason jars, crockery chips, and an empty jar of Dixie Peach Pomade. Medicine bottles, cosmetics jars, and pieces of shoes also show that the people of Timbuctoo lived in a thriving community. Other findings, however, point to the brutality that some residents had suffered while they were still slaves. Forensic analysis of bones from the burial ground reveals evidence of malnutrition, anemia, high infant mortality, injuries, and physical abuse.
Local people who trace their roots to Timbuctoo’s early days support the excavations. Mary Weston’s great-great-great-grandfather bought a lot there in 1829 for $38. She says, “How can you know who you really are if you don’t know from whence you came?”
- Excavation of Sites Such as Timbuctoo, N.J., Is Helping to Rewrite African American History
This article describes the excavation of Timbuctoo and its findings; includes a photo gallery.
(Source: Washington Post, August 3, 2010)
- The Secret Town Fed by the Underground Railroad
This article explores details about the site, with an emphasis on Timbuctoo’s role in the Underground Railroad; includes audio version.
(Source: NPR, July 25, 2010)
- Archaeologists Dig into African American History in N.J.
This report focuses especially on the site’s cemetery, in which Civil War veterans are interred.
(Source: newjerseynewsroom.com, July 2, 2010)
- African American History Sites, Part 1
This Web site places Timbuctoo in the context of other African American historical sites in Burlington County, New Jersey.
(Source: Burlington County, New Jersey, accessed October 29, 2010)