About three years ago, I tracked down my maternal 3rd great-grandfather on my Grandad’s side, Cato Thompson. I found him listed as a being mulatto in every census from 1830-1880 in Newark, NJ. He was also listed in every Newark City Directory from, 1836-1890, as being a carpenter. What I found out about Cato was that he lived between 1809-1891; he was the son of Thomas and Ann Thompson, who was Dutch; he owned his own carpentry business; he invested in real estate; he trained carpenter apprentices; and was a very religious man. Cato was born in and lived his entire life in Newark — before Newark was a even a city.
On a whim, I googled Cato’s name. (By the way, I have found a lot of info on my family just by googling so I highly recommend it.) Lo and behold, it wasn’t long before I hit pay dirt in the form of several newspaper articles. My poor 3rd great-grandfather was robbed! One of the first articles was from a Black newspaper, The NY Freedmen Newspaper, on January 30, 1886:
My first thought was, “Whoa, my 3rd great-grandfather was rich!” Before I knew of Thomas Thompson, I figured his white father hooked him up real good. WRONG! It would be another year, before Andrea and I discovered that the Thompson line consisted of mulattos marrying mulattos for generations. My European ancestors on this line enter the family in the late 1600s and early 1700s. We would later learn that Thomas was the richest Free Person of Color from 1806 until his death in the 1830s. It was Thomas’s connection to a network of rich white people in Newark that Cato piggybacked off. But, more on that later.
Getting back to the article, my 2nd thought was, “Cato had servants?” Hmmmm. I remember thinking, did he own slaves at one point? Upon further research, I ruled that out. NJ had instituted a Gradual Emancipation Act in 1804 which would have precluded that. Cato was 77 years old when he was robbed. He lived alone and needed someone to help him. Annie Dutton (not Sutton as reported) was his live-in housekeeper.
On March 26, 1886, The NY Freedmen Newspaper reported the full story:
It looks like Annie Dutton was given several opportunities to repay Cato, but she refused. It also appears that she stole an additional $200 over the course of the 3 years she worked for him.
Her sister, Carrie, did plead guilty though.
I wondered how Cato earned his wealth. Based on several obituaries I found, I was able to put the pieces together. Wealth breeds wealth, for the most part, if the individuals are savvy. And my ancestors were SAVVY! At a young age, Cato learned his trade from his sister’s husband’s family as well as school. His sister Mary married into the King family, another Free Black Newark family, made up of carpenters, coopers, and planemakers. In addition, Thomas, his father, was able to refer Cato’s skills, as a carpenter, to the wealthy white families he was affiliated with as a stagecoach owner. Cato then became a wealthy carpenter who was able to invest in real estate at a time when white immigrants, like the Irish and the Germans, were arriving in Newark in numbers starting in the late 1840s onward.
To date, Andrea and I have learned that Cato owned a lot of real estate. In addition to inheriting his parents’ home, he owned about 10 other properties. His brother, Thomas Thompson, Jr., also owned two properties which he passed on to Cato’s son, Thomas Thompson III. After Cato died, my 2nd great-grandmother, Laura Thompson Green, inherited some of his property and she, too, lived off the rents as did her son, my Grandpa Green.
Please note that Cato was married twice. Whoever gave the info to the above newspaper had the info wrong. His first marriage was in 1838 to my 3rd great-grandmother, Susan Pickett. Susan was born around 1809 to a slave named Tun in Morris County, NJ. Since she was born to a slave, unlike Cato, she had to serve her master until age 21, according to the Gradual Emancipation Act. Susan died in 1854 after an illness. My 2nd great-grandmother Laura was her youngest child. She was around 2 years old at the time of Susan’s death. Cato was left a widower with 6 kids.
In 1856, he married his 2nd wife, Rosetta Dungy, the daughter of Rev. John A. Dungy. Rosetta’s father was a Free Black who was born in Virginia and who moved to NYC in the late 1790s. By 1800, he owned a clothing store in downtown Manhattan and he was a minister who was affiliated with the A.M.E. Zion Church in NYC. At some point, he moved to New Haven, CT to help found the A.M.E. Zion Church there. He met his wife Sarah and Rosetta was born around 1818. Rosetta died of pneumonia in 1880 in Newark, NJ and Cato was once again a widower.
For awhile, there was a debate in my family over which one of Cato’s wives was my 3rd great-grandmother. We confirmed that all his kids were from Susan. In fact, when he married Rosetta, she was overwhelmed with being a new wife to a man who already had 6 children —- so overwhelmed that she initially RAN AWAY, but she did come back. Here is a classified ad that Cato placed in the Newark Daily Advertiser on December 4th, 1856.
When Cato died, he was once again had housekeeper issues. Poor Cato! He had employed Hannah Vanderveer as a housekeeper after the Annie Dutton fiasco in 1887. When he died in 1891, unbeknown to Cato’s 5 living children, Hannah went to court and filed a “claim for dower.” She claimed that she was married to Cato for three years which, of course, caught his children by surprise. Believe me, both the NY and NJ press had a field day with her claim. Some of the headlines at the time included, “Now She Says She Was His Wife” (NY Herald Tribune, 9/7/1891), “The Queer Proof of Marriage” (NY Herald, 9/7/1891), and “Hannah Vanderveer Shows It to Prove a Marriage with Cato Thompson. (Newark News, 9/7/1891).
It turns out that Hannah lied to the court. She said they had been married 3 years when Cato died, but she produced a marriage certificate that was 25 years old indicating her marriage to a “Thomas Creignton.” She had the nerve to say that Cato went by “Thompson Cato” and that the old minister who married them wrote down Creighton instead of Cato. Pul-Leeze. I do give her an A for audacity as well as effort. It took some time to think up that hot mess of a lie. LOL
Not wanting to create a stir, however, his children settled with her:
From our research we discovered that Cato was first married in the white First Presbyterian Church in Newark in 1838 to Susan. Sometime after their marriage, they joined the Plane Street Colored Presbyterian Street. Cato was a member and benefactor of this church until the day he died. His funeral also took place in this church.
After Cato’s died, his death announcement made several national Black newspapers, like the State Capital newspaper out of Springfield, Illinois (9/26/1891), which simple announced:
In researching my Grandad’s family, I’ve learned so much about him. Most importantly, why he walked so upright. Given the family background, he had — and I have —generations of Black male ancestors, aided by their wives, were businessmen and property owners. They were the best role models for him and his descendants.
By the way, there was never anything poor about Cato. He lived a rich life and left us with an even richer legacy.