TAKE NOTICE ! THAT the Township Committee of the townships of Amwell, Delaware and Raritan, will meet at John W. Larason’s on Monday the 2d day of April next, to settle with the several township officers. – All persons in said townships having damage done to their Sheep by dogs, are requested to present their bills to said committee on the day above named before 1 o’clock P. M. If there is not a sufficiency of Dog Tax to discharge said bills, there will be a dividend struck at that time, and those not presented will be disbarred from a benefit of the same. – By order of Town Committee. {signed} J. Gary, Clk. March 14, 1838, The Hunterdon Gazette.

When the first annual meeting of Delaware Township was held on April 9, 1838, the committee voted to have a “dog tax to pay for sheep killed by dogs.”

Dogs running loose were a significant problem in 1838, as they were nearly every year. Most of the township farmers kept a few horses, cattle, hogs and sheep, but sheep were (and still are) the easiest targets for dogs.

The 1790 and 1807 tax ratables show that dogs were counted in Amwell Township in order to levy the dog tax. In fact, on May 24, 1787, the state legislature sitting at Burlington passed “An Act to Discourage the Keeping of Dogs, by imposing a Tax on the Owners or Keepers thereof.” The yearly tax was to be 2 shillings and 6 pence for one dog, and 7 shillings and 6 pence for every additional dog more than 6 months old. This was probably done to reduce the incidents of dogs running in packs. There were fines for those who neglected to tell the assessor how many dogs they had. Nothing was said about how the funds collected were to be used, nothing about reimbursing those whose animals had been injured or destroyed by dogs.

A similar bill was passed on March 13, 1806, called an “An Act Concerning Dogs.”

Whereas in some of the counties of this state, great havoc is committeed upon sheep by dogs, which the existing laws are found inadequate to prevent ; for remedy whereof,
Sec. 1. BE IT ENACTED by the council and general assembly of this state, and it is hereby enacted by this state, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of same,
That from and after the passing of this act, the inhabitants of each township be, and they hereby are authorized and empowered at their annual town-meetings, to order to be levied, assessed and collected, such tax on dogs, in addition to the tax already imposed by law, and to make such other regulations and bye-laws to protect their sheep from the ravages of dogs, as a majority of said town-meeting may deem expedient.1

During the 35th session of the NJ Legislature, a more detailed act was passed on February 23, 1811, titled “An Act for the preservation of Sheep.” It stated that “for every person who shall keep or harbor a dog or dogs above the age of 3 months, shall pay yearly and every year for one dog so kept or harbored, the sum of 50 cents, and for every additional dog above one, the sum of $5.00, and for every slut the sum of $5, although said slut be the only dog kept.”2 The proceeds of the tax were to be used to “make good any losses” suffered by any inhabitants of the respective townships “for the destruction or wounding of their sheep by dogs.”

The act also provided that it would be lawful for any person to kill a dog that was harming or threatening sheep, and any dog owner whose dog was responsible for any damage would have to kill the dog himself within twelve hours, under penalty of law.

The act made reference to the earlier laws cited above, stating that so far as they related to the counties of Essex, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth, Burlington, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland and Cape-May, those acts “are hereby repealed,” to be replaced by the new act. “And be it enacted, that nothing in this act, nor any matter or thing therein contained, shall be considered as applicable to or in any way affect the counties of Sussex, Hunterdon, Bergen and Morris; . . .”

I interpret this to mean that Hunterdon and the other counties were not required to meet the standards of the Act of 1811, but were covered under the earlier acts. Whether or not legislation was passed to require Hunterdon to reimburse owners of damaged livestock, by 1838, that was in fact the practice.

On June 29, 1831, the Editor of the Gazette gave a clear account of how serious the problem was:

SHEEP. – Instances of the destruction of this useful animal by dogs are of such frequent occurrence that we seldom notice them. We should like, however, to see a united effort made by farmers to prevent so serious an evil. Many have improved their flock of sheep at considerable labor and expense. How often does it happen, that the labor of years in this laudable pursuit is blasted in a few hours by a pack of useless dogs. An instance of this occurred near this place on Sunday morning last, in the fold of Mr. Hugh Capner. his flock, consisting of 57, was attacked by dogs, and seventeen of them either killed or so badly wounded as to be useless – among the number was a fine buck for which he paid twelve dollars. The compensation allowed by law in these cases, we are told, is seldom equal to the loss actually sustained. If the tax on dogs were doubled or trebled, it would enable the townships more adequately to remunerate such losses, and lessen their frequency by discouraging the useless multiplication of dogs.

Another incident was recounted in the Gazette in 1835:

LOOK OUT FOR YOUR SHEEP. It is seldom we hear of such havoc among sheep by dogs, as follows: – On the night of the 30th March, the sheep fold, containing the beautiful flock of Merinos belonging to John Coryell, Esq. of Lambertville, was entered by dogs, and twenty of the finest were killed, and several severely bitten. The sheep were penned up as usual for security from the dogs, as they had been previously attacked and more or less injured. If they had not succeeded in forcing out from their place of confinement, but few would probably have escaped the rapacity of their destroyers. – Communicated. April 8, 1835.

Sometimes these dogs were simple farm dogs running loose at night. But there was also a considerable, and well-justified, fear of mad dogs, dogs infected with rabies. Interestingly, the term rabies was never used in the Gazette for the period 1825-1865, but there were many instances of mad dogs reported, and one reference to ‘hydrophobia.’3 For instance, there is this from the Gazette of June 17, 1835:

MAD DOGS. – There is at present, and has been for a week past, some alarm through this section of country on the subject of Mad Dogs; and we regret to state that it is not without some foundation. We learn that two persons near Head Quarters have been bitten by dogs which afterwards proved to be in a rabid state; and that a farmer near Lambertville lately lost two cows from their having been bitten by a mad dog. We are told some are killing off their useless dogs, as a measure of precaution; and it would be well if many others would follow the example. A great proportion of those which run at large are worse than useless to their owners, and during the present warm weather endanger the lives of the citizens.

One wonders what happened to those people who were bitten, who did not have the benefit of modern rabies treatment. There was no mention of them in the paper.

Following a story in April, 1836 about a rabid dog that had bitten a cow, the editor wrote:

The increased number of useless dogs in this neighborhood has become a nuisance to which public attention seems to be at present properly directed. As an evidence of this, we state, that Mr. Cox, of this place, had his flock of sheep attacked by dogs on Wednesday night last, and nine killed, and others badly mangled.

In some of the townships of this county, we are informed, the amount of the dog tax for last year fell far short of satisfying the claims presented for sheep destroyed by dogs within the same period. The present rate of dog tax, it appears to us, is entirely too low to secure the ends of protecting the flocks of the farmer from depredation, and the community from the danger arising from the useless multiplication of dogs.

Since it was usually impossible to determine whose dog was responsible for damage to sheep, Hunterdon municipalities maintained what amounts to an insurance policy funded by the dog tax, to reimburse farmers for their losses. I cannot say exactly what the tax amounted to in 1838 because tax records for this period were not saved.

However, by checking through later years in the Gazette, it appears that the usual tax was 50 cents for the first dog and $2 for the second one. In 1848, Raritan Township raised its dog tax to $1, and $2 for two dogs, while East Amwell maintained a tax of 50 cents. Several townships reporting the minutes of their annual meetings did not mention a dog tax, which is surprising. In 1857 (April 22), Lambertville determined that the dog tax would be $1.50 for the first dog, $2 for the second, and “50 cents additional for any others.”

In 1858, Clinton Township levied only 50 cents as its dog tax, but $5 for “sluts.” The Committee also passed a resolution authorizing it to “petition the Legislature at its next sitting for the passage of a law taxing dogs sufficient to pay the damage done to sheep.” Apparently the fund was not sufficient to meet demand.

Some Old Records

Some of the old township records for animal damage claims have been saved. They date from October 1892 through January 4, 1896. None of the dogs was identified. The livestock killed or wounded were predominantly sheep; others were turkeys, geese, ducks and one colt. Generally, two freeholders (in the case of the colt, four) unrelated to the claimant would view the damage and estimate its cost. Then the claimant and appraisers would appear before a justice of the peace or a notary public (or, in one case, a commissioner of deeds) and testify. The value of the livestock ranged from $1.75 for a gander to $5.00 for a sheep to $37.50 for the colt.4 Clint Wilson wrote that the claim for $37.50 by Dr. W. E. Cornog was refused—the only one to be refused. Claims were submitted as late as June 1961, when the Township Committee awarded $200 to Ivan J. Watson for the death of four sheep killed by dogs.5 The claims system was in effect until a dog ordinance was passed in 1970, which eliminated the tax and made the dogs’ owners liable.

Notice to Sportsmen

There was one other category of notice in the Hunterdon Gazette that appeared regularly every fall. That was “Notice to Sportsmen,” informing them that they, their guns and their dogs were not welcome on the property of the undersigned, usually a list of 10-20 names of property owners. Presumably, people did not post their land in those days, and had to resort to the local newspaper to give warning that violators would be treated as trespassers “under penalty of law.”

The first such notice appeared in the June 24 1835 edition of the Hunterdon Gazette:

Caution to Sportsmen! The subscribers hereby caution all persons against trespassing on their lands with dogs and guns, as the law will be enforced against all who may be found so trespassing after this date.

It was signed by Elijah Carman, Andrew Hogeland, Joseph Sergeant, Samuel M. Higgins, Aaron Hogeland, John Higgins and Gershom Sergeant. They were principally Raritan Township landowners.

A second notice posted on August 12, 1835 included Cornelius Williamson, Mahlon Higgins, William Rockafellow, Asher Fulper, Amos Hunt, Henry Suydam, John Barton, Isaac Barton and Christopher Kuhl. Once again, mostly Raritan landowners.

The first notice from Delaware Township landowners was published in the October 21, 1835 edition of the Gazette. They were Jacob Knight, Green Sergeant, Amos Hogeland, John Curl {sic, Corle or Carrell}, Cornelius Lake, Joseph Leigh and Daniel Hortman.6

 

  1. New Jersey Session Laws, 1806, p. 251-52,
  2. NJ Session Laws, 1811, Session No. 2, p. 327. “Slut,” an early American term for a female dog. The OED’s earliest example was from 1845.
  3. For those readers not familiar with this term, hydrophobia is “a set of symptoms of the later stages of an infection of rabies, in which the victim has difficulty swallowing, shows panic when presented with liquids to drink, and can’t quench its thirst.”
  4. See “Dogs Ran Wild and Killed Farm Stock” by Clint Wilson, in the Lambertville Beacon.
  5. Hunterdon Co. Democrat, June 1, 1961, clipping from Bertha Schuck.
  6. The only notice in the 1838 edition of the Gazette concerned only Raritan township landowners.