Peter Hill was the first known African American clockmaker in America, and the only one of his race to have worked in this trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While there were other black entrepreneurs of that period, they were barbers, restaurateurs, caterers, merchants, and tailors, but not clockmakers. Although he was not an inventor, Hill was certainly a pioneer.
Quaker clockmaker Joseph Hollinshead Jr., of Burlington Township, New Jersey, held slaves in the seventeenth century. Presumably, Peter Hill was born to slave parents that Hollinshead owned. Hill was born on July 19, 1767 and lived his boyhood and youth in Hollinshead's home. His master followed the custom of local Quakers, who firmly believed in teaching their slaves certain skills to enable them to enhance their lives. Since Hollinshead was a clockmaker, he taught that skill to young Peter Hill. Thus, from age fourteen until he was twenty-one, Hill served some form of apprenticeship with his master and provided assistance in his clock-making shop. Then he was paid for his work in service as a shop assistant or journeyman in clock-making. Eventually, Hill saved enough money to buy his freedom. Hollinshead manumitted Hill, his mulatto slave, in 1794, when Hill was twenty-seven years old. Following local laws, a committee comprised of two overseers and two justices of the peace were required to examine the slave before he was liberated. Thus, the committee considered Hill and declared him fit to live as a free man. As noted in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, the committee certified in a document dated May 1, 1795, that Hill appeared to be of sound mind and "not under any bodily incapacity of obtaining a support and also … not under twenty-one years of age nor above thirty five."
Hill married on September 9, 1795, four months after his manumission took effect. Thomas Adams, who had served on his manumission board, performed the marriage ceremony between Hill and Tina Lewis, describing Lewis in the official records as a spinster from Burlington Township. Peter Hill purchased Tina Lewis's freedom as well. She had been linked to the Society of Friends of Burlington. Again, the Friends were strong advocates of free schooling for blacks; accordingly, they saw that Lewis received some education, and she made considerable progress in a short time.
Sometime before Hill's manumission process began in 1794, he opened his first shop. The date and location of his businesses are unknown. Records confuse the different locations in which Hill maintained a shop; however, he lived and worked out of his home in Burlington for a while. In this shop on the east side of High Street and below Broad Street, he was almost opposite the Friends' Meeting House. George Deacon operated a cabinetmaking shop nearby and built many of the cases for Hill's clocks. Some sources claim that Hill maintained his Burlington business for twenty-three years.
Between 1795, when Burlington tax records show Hill with a tax levy, and 1808, Hill's estate increased in value. He owned one head of cattle in 1796 and on March 3, 1801, he bought a two-and-one-half-acre lot and later that year he bought a horse. He acquired other properties at various times, each time increasing the value of his estate. By 1814, the Hills sold some of their property, but on February 20, 1820 they had bought a new brick house and several buildings in Mount Holly, a village some seven miles from Burlington in Northampton Township.
Hill continued to develop his clock-making business. Although he kept his Burlington property, sometime after 1814 he also opened a business on Main Street in nearby Mount Holly. Quakers had settled Mount Holly earlier, as they emigrated from England. They developed the area as a farming community with iron works and a paper mill. Apparently the community could support a clock-making business, for it served others who flocked there from Philadelphia after a yellow fever epidemic. Those who came included French refugees. Hill continued his clock and watch-making business and was listed in local records by 1820. His business appeared to thrive, but he was deeply in debt by the time he died in December 1820. To settle the sizeable debt that he owed, Hill's properties, including his personal estate, were sold. Tina Hill may have died shortly thereafter. Hill was buried in the Society of Friends' Burial Ground in Burlington, adjacent to the residence and shop that he maintained there earlier.
Five clocks made by this early black clockmaker are extant. They contain eight-day striking movements. One of Hill's creations—a tall case clock—may be found in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology, located in Washington, DC. This item documents his skill in a craft that was extremely rare for an African American during this early colonial period in the United States.
Bedini, Silvio A. "Peter Hill." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Hine, Darlene Clark, and Earnestine Jenkins, eds. A Question of Manhood. Vol. 1. "Manhood Rights": The Construction of Black Male History and Manhood, 1750–1870. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
- Born a slave in Burlington Township, New Jersey on July 19
- Begins clock-making apprenticeship with Joseph Hollinshead
- Manumitted by his slave master
- Marries Tina Lewis; listed in tax records as householder
- Begins to acquire land and other properties
- Moves clock-making business to Mount Holly, New Jersey
- Becomes property-owner in Mount Holly
- Dies in Mount Holly in December