Mt. Laurel, NJ
Jacob’s Chapel is an American Methodist Episcopal Church located in Burlington County. It was founded in 1840. The area was once known as Colemantown and was an African-American Settlement.
Colemantown was named for John Coleman, an early black settler in Burlco. He was highly respected in the community so the town was named for him. He was a pioneer in the Underground Railroad Operation and helped to free many slaves in his lifetime.
In 1813, John Coleman helped to erect a small meeting-house (in the vicinity) so that folks could have a gathering place to worship. The meeting-house thus named as the Colemantown meeting-house.
The church was constructed in the vicinity of the meeting-house. Both buildings were important as they were both used as a stop for Burlington County’s Underground Railroad movement.
What is also important about the site, is that it is the resting place for Dr. James Still. The legendary black doctor of the pines.
Dr. Still was a descendant of slaves. His parents both endured a life that we, today, could never fathom. His father, Levin Steel, purchased his freedom between 1799-1806 and was a born into slavery in Maryland. He married Sidney, another slave from the plantation and they had four children while in captivity.
Levin attempted to buy his family’s freedom from the Maryland slaveholder, but the price was too high. He could only free himself. Levin left the area to seek employment in Indian Mills, Burlington County.
Shortly after Levin bought his freedom, Sidney attempted an escape with her four children (two boys and two girls). She got as far as Cumberland County, here in South Jersey, until she was caught and sent back to her slave master.
She was locked in an attic for months as was her slave master’s way to persuade her from never trying to escape again, but this didn’t stop her. After her release, she fled again.
Sidney had to make probably one of the hardest decisions any parent could ever do. She took her two daughters and left her two sons behind, for she felt she would get caught with all four of her children. She eventually made her way to her husband, Levin, in Indian Mills.
Sydney changed her name to Charity and the couple changed their last name from Steel to Still, in trying to evade slavery hunters and from being taken back to Maryland.
Levin and Charity had about 16-18 children and James Still, the renowned doctor of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, was born on April 8, 1812.
James had a difficult upbringing. Hunger loomed all around and clothing sparse. Still grew up in a log cabin with one door and no windows. At 3 years old, a doctor came to the home to vaccinate the Still children and from there, is where Still had the vision to become a doctor. He was captivated.
His father sold James as an indentured servant and to earn money for the family. Still worked for local farmers to where he received minimal schooling, but it taught him how to read and write.
When James was of age he set off to Philadelphia to find work. He found himself working in a glue factory, but earned enough wages to save his money and allowed himself travel back home to the Pine Barrens in the cold months (the glue factory closed in the winter). He earned wages in the winter months by cutting wood and collecting marl.
In 1835, Still married his first wife, who later gave birth to Still’s first-born, a daughter. In 1838, his wife passed away and his daughter died a year later. He married again, in 1839. His late wife and daughter’s passing sparked more of his interest to educate himself in healing the sick.
It was while in Philly that he purchased his first natural health and remedy book on medical botany in a bookstore. It brought his burning desire to life and was the first step for Still to finally help people.
Dr. Still began his own stillery and learned how to distill sassafras roots. He also learned the art of creating oils from herbs and from there, he was able to sell his goods in town and make a decent living wage.
He began buying more books, learning different tinctures and making pills. He started to make these medicines for his family and neighbors. His medicines started to heal people of their ailments. Word of mouth spread and soon folks from all over South Jersey were knocking at his door for help. The cool thing is he used mainly native plants of South Jersey in his home remedies.
Dr. Still faced much criticism by other doctors and much racism even from those who called on him. However, he never allowed this to determine who he was. He kept persevering. He earned enough to buy a nice-sized property in Medford. He built his own practice out of his home so patients could see him.
Dr. Still became a wealthy man by the end of his career. His “healing powers” reverberated across the land. Many doctors wanted to see him crumble because of his race, but he thrived. His son was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Harvard with a medical degree.
The two oldest slave boys, who had been left behind in Maryland when their mother escaped to her final freedom, were sold to new owners on two different occasions. Levin, Jr. was subjected to severe lashings from his slave master and later died of poor health. The other boy, Peter (who was sometimes known under his slave name of Peter Gist), eventually purchased his freedom and fled to Philadelphia. There, by coincidence, he met William Still, the youngest brother of the Still family.
Both William and Peter achieved their own level of recognition as pioneers of the Underground Railroad movement and freed hundreds of slaves. William Still, went on to write the book, The Underground Railroad, which was published after the Civil War.
Today, there are hundreds of Still’s descendants throughout America and a few buried here.
Jacobs Chapel and Jacobs Chapel Cemetery are recognized by the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places. Jacob’s Chapel is a unique piece of history to the Burlington County landscape whose history shall never be forgotten.
You can read Dr. Still’s book for free at the link below. It is an eye-opener and will be one of your most favorite literary works of all-time.
P.S. Doctor Still’s office still stands today preserved in Medford!
Until our next adventure, my friends!