According to most accounts, Timbuktu was founded in the 12th century. Popular etymology of the name attributes it to the site where a slave named Buktou lived. It is located 15 km north of the bend in the Niger River in the arid borderlands of the Sahara. Timbuktu was in a good location to be an entrepôt of regional trade networks that brought salt mined in the Sahara to the south in exchange for gold, grain and other items which were sent north. Timbuktu also became an important site in the trans-Saharan trade that connected North and West Africa. Incorporated into the Mali Empire in the 14th century, the town welcomed several Muslim scholars who returned with its ruler Mansa Musa,(c 1280-c1337)  from his pilgrimage (1324-1325)  to Mecca. One of these was a Spanish architect who built the Grand Mosque (Djingerebeer) in Timbuktu. The wealth of Mali attracted other scholars to West Africa, and this helped to inaugurate the beginnings of a very serious engagement with the fullness of Islamic knowledge. The Mali Empire lost control of Timbuktu in 1433. It was brought under the power of the expanding Songhay Empire in 1468, when it was conquered by Sunni Ali Beer. 

The city was never a seat of political power, nor the capital city of a large state. Instead, it was a port city on the southern shore of the Sahara desert. The tradition of Islamic scholarship that developed there was not beholden to a royal court or a state; instead, Muslim scholars were able to operate much more independently with less need to compromise with non-Muslim religious practice. The destruction of the Songhay Empire at the hands of a Moroccan invasion in 1591 did result in Timbuktu becoming the temporary seat of the Moroccan occupation and its successor state known as the Arma, but from the 17th century Timbuktu declined in political importance even as it continued to act as a commercial entrepot and site of Islamic scholarship. Conquered by the French in 1893, the city regained some of its luster as a provincial capital and garrison center. Since independence in 1960, tourism has played an important role in reshaping the city when the security situation allows it.



New Jersey

Located in Westampton Township, Burlington County, Timbuctoo was settled by former slaves and free Blacks, beginning in 1826, with the help of local Quakers. Quakers supported Timbuctoo’s development by selling land at reasonable prices, providing employment, and in some cases, even mortgages subsequent to land purchases.   It was one of a number of African American settlements in southern New Jersey that were associated with the anti-slavery movement. At its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, it had more than 125 residents, a school, a church, and a cemetery.  Quaker influence was strong in Burlington County, which had also been the home of John Woolman, arguably the most prominent Quaker abolitionist of the eighteenth century.

The settlers in Timbuctoo were very involved in the Underground Railroad and the settlement was an important ‘station’.  At present, the only visible remnant of Timbuctoo's past is the cemetery, which includes graves of Black Civil War veterans. Today's Timbuctoo residents include some descendants of early settlers.

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New Jersey Underground Railroad

New Jersey served as a gateway for escaped slaves from the South.  Runaway slaves crossed the Delaware River to reach Underground Railroad (UGRR) stations in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), New York (New York City) and Canada (Toronto).  Many runaways stayed in New Jersey’s numerous all-black communities that served as UGRR sanctuaries, such as Burlington County’s Timbuctoo.  Burlington County, New Jersey was of particular significance to the UGRR and the abolitionist movement because it served as a hub for UGRR activities.  It was the birthplace of John Woolman, a Quaker abolitionist whose writings helped to turn Quakers against slavery in the early 1800s.  It was also the birthplace of black abolitionist, William Still (Father of the Underground Railroad.) who operated in Philadelphia.  The state of New Jersey is of great significance to the UGRR movement because of its large number of all-black communities that served as UGRR sanctuaries for escaped slaves.

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New York

In 1846, Gerrit Smith, a land-rich, deep-pocketed antislavery reformer from upstate New York, donated 120,000 acres in the Adirondack wilderness to 3,000 poor black men from New York. With these land gifts, Smith hoped to inspire a mass migration of black families from metropolitan New York to the northern frontier. His purpose was twofold. His land deeds would help his 3,000 “grantees” gain equal voting rights; since 1821, black New Yorkers lacking proof of $250 in landed property were not allowed to vote. And farming would ensure their economic independence and good standing in their new adoptive Adirondack communities.

The best-known enclave spawned by Smith’s initiative was Timbuctoo (also, Timbucto), a multi-family neighborhood in the hamlet of North Elba, near today’s Lake Placid. Timbuctoo would also come to stand for the black settlement effort overall, which had several outposts in Essex and Franklin Counties. In 1849, the sheep farmer and militant abolitionist John Brown, moved his large family close to Timbuctoo to help the black “grantees” build their farms. Ten years later Brown gained international fame with his bold and frustrated attempt to seize a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in order to arm slaves and incite a regional revolt.

The great majority of Smith’s grantees would not move onto their Adirondack land. But those who did won a lasting page in regional history for their friendship with John Brown, their early efforts at community-building, and their service in the Civil War. No visible trace of the black Adirondack farm colonies survives. Only a few headstones in local cemeteries attest to Gerrit Smith’s long-neglected “scheme of justice and benevolence” of 1846.

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