Underground Railroad History in New Jersey: The Peter Mott House 

May 20, 2022

Treasures of New Jersey: The Peter Mott House premieres Wednesday, May 25 at 8:30 p.m.

The Peter Mott House property in Lawnside in Camden County, New Jersey stands as a monument to the Underground Railroad. It was owned by mid-19th century Black freedom-fighters who were instrumental in helping enslaved people who were headed North to freedom.   

Peter Mott built the home in 1845 in a free Black community known as Snow Hill, one of the Lawnside area’s early names, and lived there with his wife, Elizabeth Ann Thomas.  It was the same era when many formerly enslaved people who had found freedom risked their lives to help others escape, from Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass. Stories handed down in the Lawnside area of New Jersey connect the Motts to the Underground Railroad and records indicate Peter’s prominence within that community.  

The importance of the Peter Mott house in history and now is the subject of Treasures of New Jersey: The Peter Mott House, which premiered on May 25 at 8:30 p.m. on NJ PBS. The episode is part of the NJ PBS documentary series Treasures of New Jersey, which pays homage to some of the Garden State’s most iconic places, from historic landmarks and cultural centers to popular destinations.   Stream the episode now.

He’s still a man of mystery,” said Linda Shockley, president of the Lawnside Historical Society, of Peter Mott in the episode, “but we know enough to know how important he was. 

It was very unusual for an African-American man to own a house of this size, and the state historic preservation officer noted that it indicated that he was a man of means and a leader in the community because of the size of this house,” adds Shockley in the episode. 

In the 1840s, the secret Underground Railroad network was growing as free Black people, along with white abolitionists who were often members of the Society of Friends (known as Quakers), created routes for the formerly enslaved crossing in and out of New Jersey. Oral history conveys that Mott took people in his wagon to the Friends in nearby Haddonfield, NJ, to help them on their way. 

Keith Green, Assoc. Professor, Rutgers University-Camden, explains in the episode, “Emancipation could never simply be individual. Emancipation had to require the freedom of everyone around you. And that’s what the Peter Mott house represents.”  

Shockley recounts in the episode that today’s visitors to the home, especially children, often want to explore the home’s cellar, where they assume the former slaves hid.   

“But there were so many inventive ways to assist people [at that time],” she explains. “People could have been hidden in the attic, or they could have been hidden in fields or in other properties. We’re still finding out those stories.” 

What’s always complicated about the Underground Railroad is that was one, it was never meant to be unearthed,” adds Green.  “It was never meant to be seen because that was the way in which it worked. Secrecy was the only advantage of escaped people.”  

During the Civil War, escapes using the Underground Railroad would eventually come to an end as President Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in Southern states.  But it was the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that abolished slavery nationwide. New Jersey was the last northern state to ratify the amendment in January of 1866.   

Elizabeth Mott died in 1879. Peter sold their house shortly before his death in November of 1881. It changed hands several times into the 1960s but remained standing, while many other historic buildings in the area simply disappeared. 

Saved from demolition almost 150 years later, the Peter Mott House building now serves as an Underground Railroad museum and stands as a monument to the struggle to end slavery in a community built by Black families, whose descendants are keeping history alive. It is listed on the national and state historic registers. 

“The goal of the Treasures of New Jersey  series is to showcase some of the Garden State’s most fascinating places,” said NJ PBS General Manager Joe Lee. “The Peter Mott House represents an important piece of New Jersey’s rich, and sometimes complicated, history, and stands as a symbol of what can happen when communities are committed to preserving it for future generations.” 

Earlier episodes of the Treasures of New Jersey  series feature the stories of the State Theatre in New Brunswick and Fairleigh Dickinson University- Florham. Watch episodes and previews on the Treasures of New Jersey  page of  MyNJPBS.org.