Chapter IX. 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

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

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

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.