Up in Ramapo, Down in Paterson

New York Skyline as seen from Ramapo Mountain, NJ.

New York Skyline as seen from Ramapo Mountain, NJ.

The story of the Jackson Whites was a ubiquitous subject around our campfires at the Glen Gray Scout Reservation up in the Ramapo Hills of northern New Jersey.

The Jackson Whites, our scoutmaster said, were a band of local outcasts whose bloodline ran back to the Revolutionary era. They were different looking, almost albino, the scoutmaster added, because they were part-Lenni Lenape, part-runaway slave, and part-Hessian mercenary too. The Jackson Whites lived in near isolation only fifty miles west of New York City, and although their numbers had dwindled, sightings of their descendants were still reported by scouts who had strayed too far on their hikes into the farthest corners of Camp Glen Gray. We never saw the Jackson Whites on all our campouts in the Ramapo Hills, but it was understood that they were out there in the forest somewhere.

I had entirely forgotten the Jackson Whites until recently when I found them again in William Carlos Williams’ book-length poem Paterson. Paterson blends verse with prose, history with observation, image with metaphor, and his account of the Jackson Whites lends some degree of authenticity to the story spun many times around the campfire up at the Glen Gray scout camp:

“Violence broke out in Tennessee, a massacre by the Indians, hangings and exile—standing there on the scaffold waiting, sixty of them. The Tuscaroras, forced to leave their country, were invited by the Six Nations to join them in Upper New York. The bucks went ahead but some of the women and stragglers got no further than the valley-cleft near Suffern. They took to the mountains there where they were joined by the Hessian deserters from the British Army, a number of albinos among them, escaped negro slaves and a lot of women and their brats released in New York City after the British had been forced to leave. They had them in a pen there—picked up in Liverpool and elsewhere by a man named Jackson under contract with the British Government to provide women for the soldiers in America. The mixture ran in the woods and took the general name, Jackson’s Whites.”

-excerpt from Paterson by William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams and the city of Paterson.

William Carlos Williams and the city of Paterson.

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