Chronicles of America 

Planters And Traders Of Southern Jersey

Most of the colonies in America, especially the stronger ones, had an aristocratic class, which was often large and powerful, as in the case of Virginia, and which usually centered around the governor, especially if he were appointed from England by the Crown or by a proprietor. But there was very little of this social distinction in New Jersey. Her political life had been too much broken up, and she had been too long dependent on the governors of New York to have any of those pretty little aristocracies with bright colored clothes, and coaches and four, flourishing within her boundaries. There seems to have been a faint suggestion of such social pretensions under Governor Franklin just before the Revolution. He was beginning to live down the objections to his illegitimate birth and Toryism and by his entertainments and manner of living was creating a social following. There is said also to have been something a little like the beginning of an aristocracy among the descendants of the Dutch settlers who had ancestral holdings near the Hudson; but this amounted to very little.

Class distinctions were not so strongly marked in New Jersey as in some other colonies. There grew up in southern Jersey, however, a sort of aristocracy of gentlemen farmers, who owned large tracts of land and lived in not a little style in good houses on the small streams.

The northern part of the province, largely settled and influenced by New Englanders, was like New England a land of vigorous concentrated town life and small farms. The hilly and mountainous nature of the northern section naturally led to small holdings of land. But in southern Jersey the level sandy tracts of forest were often taken up in large areas. In the absence of manufacturing, large acreage naturally became, as in Virginia and Maryland, the only mark of wealth and social distinction. The great landlord was looked up to by the lesser fry. The Quaker rule of discountenancing marrying out of meeting tended to keep a large acreage in the family and to make it larger by marriage. A Quaker of broad acres would seek for his daughter a young man of another landholding Quaker family and would thus join the two estates.

There was a marked difference between East Jersey and West Jersey in county organization. In West Jersey the people tended to become planters; their farms and plantations somewhat like those of the far South; and the political unit of government was the county. In East Jersey the town was the starting point and the county marked the boundaries of a collection of towns. This curious difference, the result of soil, climate, and methods of life, shows itself in other States wherever South and North meet. Illinois is an example, where the southern part of the State is governed by the county system, and the northern part by the town system.

The lumberman, too, in clearing off the primeval forest and selling the timber, usually dealt in immense acreage. Some families, it is said, can be traced steadily proceeding southward as they stripped off the forest, and started sawmills and gristmills on the little streams that trickled from the swamps, and like beavers making with their dams those pretty ponds which modern lovers of the picturesque are now so eager to find. A good deal of the lumbering in the interior pines tract was carried on by persons who leased the premises from owners who lived on plantations along the Delaware or its tributary streams. These operations began soon after 1700. Wood roads were cut into the Pines, sawmills were started, and constant use turned some of these wood roads into the highways of modern times.

There was a speculative tinge in the operations of this landed aristocracy. Like the old tobacco raising aristocracy of Virginia and Maryland, they were inclined to go from tract to tract, skinning what they could from a piece of deforested land and then seeking another virgin tract. The roughest methods were used; wooden plows, brush harrows, straw collars, grapevine harness, and poor shelter for animals and crops; but were the Virginia methods any better? In these operations there was apparently a good deal of sudden profit and mushroom prosperity accompanied by a good deal of debt and insolvency. In this, too, they were like the Virginians and Carolinians. There seem to have been also a good many slaves in West Jersey, brought, as in the southern colonies, to work on the large estates, and this also, no doubt, helped to foster the aristocratic feeling.

The best days of the Jersey gentlemen farmers came probably when they could no longer move from tract to tract. They settled down and enjoyed a very plentiful, if rude, existence on the products of their land, game, and fish, amid a fine climate--with mosquitoes enough in summer to act as a counterirritant and prevent stagnation from too much ease and prosperity. After the manner of colonial times, they wove their own clothes from the wool of their own sheep and made their own implements, furniture, and simple machinery.

There are still to be found fascinating traces of this old life in out-of-the-way parts of southern Jersey. To run upon old houses among the Jersey pines still stored with Latin classics and old editions of Shakespeare, Addison, or Samuel Johnson, to come across an old mill with its machinery, cogwheels, flywheels, and all, made of wood, to find people who make their own oars, and the handles of their tools from the materials furnished by their own forest, is now unfortunately a refreshment of the spirit that is daily becoming rarer.

This condition of material and social self-sufficiency lasted in places long after the Revolution. It was a curious little aristocracy--a very faint and faded one, lacking the robustness of the far southern type, and lacking indeed the real essential of an aristocracy, namely political power. Moreover, although there were slaves in New Jersey, there were not enough of them to exalt the Jersey gentlemen farmers into such self-sufficient lords and masters as the Virginian and Carolinian planters became.

To search out the remains of this stage of American history, however, takes one up many pleasant streams flowing out of the forest tract to the Delaware on one side or to the ocean on the other. This topographical formation of a central ridge or watershed of forest and swamp was a repetition of the same formation in the Delaware peninsula, which like southern Jersey had originally been a shoal and then an island. The Jersey watershed, with its streams abounding in wood duck and all manner of wild life, must have been in its primeval days as fascinating as some of the streams of the Florida cypress swamps. Toward the ocean, Wading River, the Mullica, the Tuckahoe, Great Egg; and on the Delaware side the Maurice, Cohansey, Salem Creek, Oldman's, Raccoon, Mantua, Woodberry, Timber, and the Rancocas, still possess attraction. Some of them, on opposite sides of the divide, are not far apart at their sources in the old forest tract; so that a canoe can be transported over the few miles and thus traverse the State. One of these trips up Timber Creek from the Delaware and across only eight miles of land to the headwaters of Great Egg Harbor River and thence down to the ocean, thus cutting South Jersey in half, is a particularly romantic one. The heavy woods and swamps of this secluded route along these forest shadowed streams are apparently very much as they were three hundred years ago.

The water in all these streams, particularly in their upper parts, owing to the sandy soil, is very clean and clear and is often stained by the cedar roots in the swamps a clear brown, sometimes almost an amber color. One of the streams, the Rancocas, with its many windings to Mount Holly and then far inland to Brown's Mills, seems to be the favorite with canoemen and is probably without an equal in its way for those who love the Indian's gift that brings us so close to nature.

The spread of the Quaker settlements along Delaware Bay to Cape May was checked by the Maurice River and its marshes and by the Great Cedar Swamp which crossed the country from Delaware Bay to the ocean and thus made of the Cape May region a sort of island. The Cape May region, it is true, was settled by Quakers, but most of them came from Long Island rather than from the settlements on the Delaware. They had followed whale fishing on Long Island and in pursuit of that occupation some of them had migrated to Cape May where whales were numerous not far off shore.

The leading early families of Cape May, the Townsends, Stillwells, Corsons, Leamings, Ludlams, Spicers, and Cresses, many of whose descendants still live there, were Quakers of the Long Island strain. The ancestor of the Townsend family came to Cape May because he had been imprisoned and fined and threatened with worse under the New York government for assisting his fellow Quakers to hold meetings. Probably the occasional severity of the administration of the New York laws against Quakers, which were the same as those of England, had as much to do as had the whales with the migration to Cape May. This Quaker civilization extended from Cape May up as far as Great Egg Harbor where the Great Cedar Swamp joined the seashore. Quaker meeting houses were built at Cape May, Galloway, Tuckahoe, and Great Egg. All have been abandoned and the buildings themselves have disappeared, except that of the Cape May meeting, called the Old Cedar Meeting, at Seaville; and it has no congregation. The building is kept in repair by members of the Society from other places.

Besides the Quakers, Cape May included a number of New Haven people, the first of whom came there as early as 1640 under the leadership of George Lamberton and Captain Turner, seeking profit in whale fishing. They were not driven out by the Dutch and Swedes, as happened to their companions who attempted to settle higher up the river at Salem and the Schuylkill. About one-fifth of the old family names of Cape May and New Haven are similar, and there is supposed to be not a little New England blood not only in Cape May but in the neighboring counties of Cumberland and Salem. While the first New Haven whalers came to Cape May in 1640, it is probable that for a long time they only sheltered their vessels there, and none of them became permanent settlers until about 1685.

Scandinavians contributed another element to the population of the Cape May region. Very little is definitely known about this settlement, but the Swedish names in Cape May and Cumberland counties seem to indicate a migration of Scandinavians from Wilmington and Tinicum.

Great Egg Harbor, which formed the northern part of the Cape May settlement, was named from the immense numbers of wild fowl, swans, ducks, and water birds that formerly nested there every summer and have now been driven to Canada or beyond. Little Egg Harbor farther up the coast was named for the same reason as well as Egg Island, of three hundred acres in Delaware Bay, since then eaten away by the tide. The people of the district had excellent living from the eggs as well as from the plentiful fowl, fish, and oysters.

Some farming was done by the inhabitants of Cape May; and many cattle, marked with brands but in a half wild state, were kept out on the uninhabited beaches which have now become seaside summer cities. Some of the cattle were still running wild on the beaches down to the time of the Civil War. The settlers "mined" the valuable white cedar from the swamps for shingles and boards, leaving great "pool holes" in the swamps which even today sometimes trap the unwary sportsman. The women knitted innumerable mittens and also made wampum or Indian money from the clam and oyster shells, an important means of exchange in the Indian trade all over the colonies, and even to some extent among the colonists themselves. The Cape May people built sloops for carrying the white cedar, the mittens, oysters, and wampum to the outside world. They sold a great deal of their cedar in Long Island, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Philadelphia finally became their market for oysters and also for lumber, corn, and the whalebone and oil. Their sloops also traded to the southern colonies and even to the West Indies.

They were an interesting little community, these Cape May people, very isolated and dependent on the water and on their boats, for they were completely cut off by the Great Cedar Swamp which stretched across the point and separated them from the rest of the coast. This troublesome swamp was not bridged for many years; and even then the roads to it were long, slow, and too sandy for transporting anything of much bulk.

Next above Cape May on the coast was another isolated patch of civilization which, while not an island, was nevertheless cut off on the south by Great Egg Harbor with its river and marshes, and on the north by Little Egg Harbor with the Mullica River and its marshes extending far inland. The people in this district also lived somewhat to themselves. To the north lay the district which extended to Sandy Hook, also with its distinct set of people.

The people of the Cape became in colonial times clever traders in various pursuits. Although in one sense they were as isolated as islanders, their adventurous life on the sea gave them breadth of view. By their thrift and in innumerable shrewd and persistent ways they amassed competencies and estates for their families. Aaron Leaming, for example, who died in 1780, left an estate of nearly $1,000,000. Some kept diaries which have become historically valuable in showing not only their history but their good education and the peculiar cast of their mind for keen trading as well as their rigid economy and integrity.

One character, Jacob Spicer, a prosperous colonial, insisted on having everything made at home by his sons and daughters--shoes, clothes, leather breeches, wampum, even shoe thread--calculating the cost of everything to a fraction and economizing to the last penny of money and the last second of time. Yet in the course of a year he used "fifty-two gallons of rum, ten of wine, and two barrels of cyder." Apparently in those days hard labor and hard drinking went well together.

The Cape May people, relying almost entirely on the water for communication and trade, soon took to piloting vessels in the Delaware River, and some of them still follow this occupation. They also became skillful sailors and builders of small craft, and it is not surprising to learn that Jacocks Swain and his sons introduced, in 1811, the centerboard for keeping flat-bottomed craft closer to the wind. They are said to have taken out a patent for this invention and are given the credit of being the originators of the idea. But the device was known in England in 1774, was introduced in Massachusetts in the same year, and may have been used long before by the Dutch. The need of it, however, was no doubt strongly impressed upon the Cape May people by the difficulties which their little sloops experienced in beating home against contrary winds. Some of them, indeed, spent weeks in sight of the Cape, unable to make it. One sloop, the Nancy, seventy-two days from Demarara, hung off and on for forty-three days from December 25, 1787, to February 6, 1788, and was driven off fifteen times before she finally got into Hereford Inlet. Sometimes better sailing craft had to go out and bring in such distressed vessels. The early boats were no doubt badly constructed; but in the end apprenticeship to dire necessity made the Cape May sailors masters of seamanship and the windward art.*

* Stevens, "History of Cape May County," pp. 219, 229; Kelley, "American Yachts" (1884), p. 165.

Wilson, the naturalist, spent a great deal of time in the Cape May region, because of the great variety of birds to be found there. Southern types, like the Florida egret, ventured even so far north, and it was a stopping place for migrating birds, notably woodcock, on their northern and southern journeys. Men of the stone age had once been numerous in this region, as the remains of village plats and great shell heaps bore witness. It was a resting point for all forms of life. That much traveled, adventurous gentleman of the sea, Captain Kidd, according to popular legend, was a frequent visitor to this coast.

In later times, beginning in 1801, the Cape became one of the earliest of the summer resorts. The famous Commodore Decatur was among the first distinguished men to be attracted by the simple seaside charm of the place, long before it was destroyed by wealth and crowds. Year by year he used to measure and record at one spot the encroachment of the sea upon the beach. Where today the sea washes and the steel pier extends, once lay cornfields. For a hundred years it was a favorite resting place for statesmen and politicians of national eminence. They traveled there by stage, sailing sloop, or their own wagons. People from Baltimore and the South more particularly sought the place because it was easily accessible from the head of Chesapeake Bay by an old railroad, long since abandoned, to Newcastle on the Delaware, whence sail- or steamboats went to Cape May. This avoided the tedious stage ride over the sandy Jersey roads. Presidents, cabinet officers, senators, and congressmen sought the invigorating air of the Cape and the attractions of the old village, its seafaring life, the sailing, fishing, and bathing on the best beach of the coast. Congress Hall, their favorite hotel, became famous, and during a large part of the nineteenth century presidential nominations and policies are said to have been planned within its walls.

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