Approaching 200 Years of History, Timbuctoo’s Evolution Continues

June 14, 2021
By Rikki Massand

Guy Weston’s fourth great-grandfather was among a handful of free African Americans who purchased land in his hometown of Westampton Township in 1829, integral to the movement for black settlements in South Jersey. Settlement at what became known as Timbuctoo began in 1826 when four African American men from Maryland purchased parcels of land from a Quaker businessman. The area soon developed as a community of both escaped slaves and free blacks at the time.

Guy Weston and Machell Still-Pettis, a descendant of the renowned Still family

Today Guy is spearheading the cemetery and historic site’s preservation efforts there nearly 200 years later. The South Jersey native currently living in Washington, D.C. is a writer, family historian and genealogical researcher, and a public health consultant focused on documenting and sharing stories of “antebellum free African Americans.”

The name Timbuctoo first appears in an 1830 deed but by later in the nineteenth century the ‘village’ had over 125 residents, a school, the  Zion Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal African Church. Church and an adjacent cemetery. At present there are 11 remaining gravestones but over 100 graves were estimated to be at this site, according to results of a 2009 geophysical survey and initial archaeological excavation work, organized through Temple University as part of the Timbuctoo Discovery Project, a joint effort between Westampton Township, Temple U. community members and a specialist in African American history and genealogy. Of the 11 remaining stones, eight are of U.S. Colored troops that fought in the Civil War. But the survey revealed the untold stories Weston and others hope to present.

“There could be literally 100 graves here. Archaeologists and historians would imagine the 11 stones don’t represent near the totality of persons buried here. About 100 more exist, and there is biographical and historical information about those people and the communities they represented.”

Of particular help in the research of this site are circa 1850s archives in the New Jersey Mirror newspaper, which originated in Mount Holly in about 1818.

“The cemetery, since the mid-2000s, was known as Timbuctoo Civil War Memorial Cemetery. They spent $1,500 with plaques as fancy markers bearing this name. But it turns out that the cemetery is the Zion Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal African Church cemetery. The real history of the cemetery is not only the U.S. colored troops, it’s the church that established it. The deed and incorporation certificate are dated 1854, although in that period entities existed for many years, decades, without being incorporated. The oldest gravestone at Timbuctoo dates to 1847, and there’s a host of history about that church and its role in the Underground Railroad, with people that belonged to it,” Weston explained. The Timbuctoo Historical Society is working to identify the names correlating with unmarked graves from researching pension files and permits.

Today Timbuctoo features historical interpretive signage, secured through the support of Burlington County’s governing body.

“One sign is on the U.S. colored troops; the text has a bio of eight soldiers, and there is a QR code to scan to get detailed bio’s of each of them. We removed the name on the plaque to state Timbuctoo Civil War memorial, removing the word cemetery from it, so we could be comprehensive in our descriptions of this site,” Weston said.

Timbuctoo, NJ Excavation Site

Municipal and private land ownership considerations contribute to some tightrope-walking in preservation efforts. ”Timbuctoo is an entire 50-acre area. The excavation site was on land owned by the township but Timbuctoo consists primarily of privately-owned land. There is much publicly-owned land in Timbuctoo, it is however a residential area and most people who live there did not know they were on historic land before we got all this started in 2009,” Weston said.

In 2015 the Westampton Township Committee appointed a Timbuctoo Advisory Committee, which Weston became the chair of. He resigned from that position early this year. With the August 2019 incorporation of the nonprofit Timbuctoo Historical Society the plans to establish a dedicated organization and fundraising program came forward.

American Legion Post 509 took an interest in our cemetery, due to the US Colored Troops buried there.  They helped us obtain a $1000 grant from the Wal-Mart Foundation, to put up a road sign for the historic site’s entrance. Weston noted that the newly established historical society, set up as a nonprofit, helps for obtaining funding from such corporations moving forward.

“Funding was one issue, and it makes sense for historic preservation to take place outside of the context of politics. You can be full-steam ahead with support and excitement and then all of a sudden there’s a change in the local government’s makeup, changing the dynamics of support we receive,” he said.

Timbuctoo NJ Memorial Marker

Guy says a few important “preservation issues’ remain. As a result of archaeological work beginning in 2009, in 2011 the site was determined eligible for listing on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places with a (COE) Certificate of Eligibility. But there has not been adequate follow-up with NJSHPO to this listing potential. Weston hopes this effort gets completed by 2022.

Land ownership of the historic site has continued to evolve. There is a boundary discrepancy between marked grave sites and the legal boundary line, with graves extending at least 18 feet beyond that point according to multiple archaeological examinations.

Some site work still in progress include an arched entranceway, and fencing. Weston notes that the cemetery is “a preexisting non-conforming entity in a residential area, so we actually have a few zoning hurdles around simple things such as our signage and fencing as there is no provision for it.”

A major effort for Timbuctoo in the year ahead will be community engagement and education.

“Community members and elected officials in the greater South Jersey region, and across the state, need to understand why this work is important and there should not be obstructive efforts in the attempts to preserve the cemetery grounds. For example I had to do a utility markout on-site to put our signs up, because the construction official was concerned about utilities running under the cemetery. Of course I inquired about how often cemeteries need to perform utility markouts? If that were the case you would need to do one every time a burial occurs and we know that does not happen.”

Weston plans to expand educational efforts for area municipal officials, staff and to elected officials, and even to community groups and residents “to better understand preservation work for African American cemeteries, and for cemeteries overall.”

“They serve as important repositories for our history, genealogy and culture, and must be preserved,” he said.

Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki N. Massand serves as Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County. He also covers Hunterdon County government, planning and economic development for Flemington’s TAPInto online news and freelances for multiple tristate area ‘newszines.’

Rikki is a regional historian and local advocate in his present municipal government-appointed roles on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. He is also experienced in not-for-profit administration and advocacy as office administrator, records manager and bookkeeper for a local United Church of Christ.

Rikki holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Quinnipiac University. His work has appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, AsianWeek and more.