In a recent post on the life of John P. Rittenhouse, I mentioned that his parents, Samuel & Hannah Rittenhouse, lived near the covered bridge in Delaware Township. This reminded me of the interesting article written by Egbert T. Bush about the history of the area around Sergeant’s Mill, The mill once stood just east of the bridge, on a tributary of the Wickecheoke. It was taken down in the 1930s, but before that happened, it was well-photographed, and the pictures were frequently used in postcards. Shown above is just one of the many views of the old mill.
Whenever Mr. Bush wrote about a neighborhood, he named many of the people he remembered from his earliest days, as well as people who were spoken of by friends and neighbors. The list of people mentioned can get quite long, as is the case with this article—much too long for me to comment on them all.
My solution is to publish the first part of the Bush article today, with my comments on the earliest known settlement in this place. (All quotes are in italics; my comments are not.) It may take two or three more articles to cover all the rest of Mr. Bush’s very interesting history of Sergeant’s Mills.
SERGEANT’S MILLS ONCE A PROSPEROUS COMMUNITY
Old Mill With Its Wooden Machinery Still Stands Intact
Covered Bridge Last in State
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, January 16, 1930
Here along the Wickecheoke Creek was a busy center of old-time industries dating back into colonial days. Perhaps nobody will ever know who first discovered the possibilities of the location. But the old mill, still standing, though long out of use, was built by John Opdyke in 1754, according to elaborate records of the Opdyke family. The mansion house, still standing in fine condition, has a date stone marked, “M I O 1754,” the M being above the I, and standing for Margaret, the name of John’s wife, who had been Margaret Green; and the I standing for John, as was common in old carvings and is certain in this case.
This John Opdyke, who died in 1777, had already given the mills and the farm to his son Samuel, who owned and operated them for many years, and then passed them to his son John, who, by deed dated April 1, 1805, conveyed the mills and 130 acres of land to Charles Sergeant for 2,500 pounds—over $12,000—a great sum of money for that time. The deed describes the farm in part as follows: “Beginning at a whiteoak Tree corner to Abraham Lewis’s [sic, should be Larew] land thence north four Degrees west Eighteen chains and fifty links to the road leading from “Skunktown” (now Sergeantsville) to “Rittenhouse’s Tavern (now Rosemont).
First Settlement at Sergeant’s Mills
People have long been confused about when the mill was built. As an example, here is an item from the Hunterdon Republican of June 6, 1900:
“Those of our readers who are interested in history will be surprised to know that the mill of the late Green Sergeant, near Sergeantsville, has stood for nearly 200 years and was built around 1734 by John Opdyke. It was soon after purchased by, Charles Sergeant, and after his death it passed on to Green Sergeant and then to his grandson, Richard Green Johnson, of Sergeantsville. It is still in good appearance and is in running order.”
After researching several properties in this area, I feel quite confident in stating that John Opdycke was not the first miller here, and he certainly did not build a mill here in 1734. There was an Opdycke mill built around that date, but it was built at Headquarters. The first mill in this location was built by a man named Edward Milner, who had purchased a tract of 437 acres from the estate of Deborah Medcalf in or before 1743.
Dorothy Medcalf was the first European owner of the property, having gotten that tract of 437 acres surveyed on April 29, 1712. Medcalf lived in Gloucester County and never occupied the Milner property. She was the widow of Matthew Medcalf who died in 1710 owning a number of proprietary shares entitling him to surveys in the Province of West New Jersey, which his wife Dorothy inherited and used to create the 437-acre tract. She died in 1715, without having written a will, and her son Matthew died the next year. One of the surviving heirs was the Medcalf’s daughter Mary, wife first of Samuel Ladd, and later of Tobias Holloway. She had estate debts to pay off, and may have raised the funds by selling her mother’s Amwell property. There is no deed recorded to show exactly when the sale took place, but there is no question that the purchaser was Edward Milner, based on the mortgage he got from the Hunterdon County Loan Office in 1743 for those same 437 acres.1 At that time, the property was reduced by 100 acres which had been previously sold to John Quick, who got his mortgage at the same time.2 But, like Edward Milner, there is no deed recorded to show when that sale took place. Metes and bounds from the mortgages indicate that the 100 acres was taken from the southern end of the Medcalf tract.
Edward Milner (sometimes spelled Milnor) was a resident of Pennsylvania. He first appears there in 1712 when he was sued for debt. This suggests he was middle-aged when he decided to buy the Amwell Township property. The other notable fact is that he and his wife Hannah were Quakers. The Medcalfs were also Quakers, which is probably how Milner became acquainted with them. Another family that Milner was acquainted with was the Howell family of Solebury Township. In 1739 Milner witnessed the will of Daniel Howell of that place.
The Milners seem to have taken possession of the Amwell property before 1743 because in 1738 or thereabouts they sold a lot of 147 acres in New Britain Township. In that deed he was identified as “Edward Milner late of New Britain now of Amwell, N.J.”3
Without an archaeological study, it is impossible to say exactly where Edward Milner built his mill. It could have been on the Wickecheoke Creek, south of the covered bridge. It could also have been on the tributary known as Cold Run where Sergeant’s Mill was located. Because records are so scarce for the 18th century, we know nothing about Milner’s milling operation.
In any case, the Milners had left Amwell Township by 1752 and moved to Wrightstown, Bucks County, Pa. Going by the tax records, it seem likely that Milner died sometime before 1770. He was probably born about the same time as his wife Hannah. Fortunately there was a notice of her death in the Pennsylvania Gazette when she died on July 13, 1769, a widow, at the age of 100. This means that Edward and Hannah were born about 1670, and were in their 50s when they started life over on their wilderness property in Amwell Township. Pretty remarkable.
M I O 1754
Bush’s reference to elaborate records of the “Opdyke” family is very tantalizing. I suspect he was referring to the very lengthy and thorough genealogy, The Op Dyke Genealogy, by Charles Wilson Opdyke, Leonard E. Opdyke and William S. Opdyke, which was published in 1889.
Note also that despite Bush’s consistent spelling in this article, members of the family of John & Margaret Opdycke who lived in Amwell/Delaware Township generally used the spelling with a ‘c’ – Opdycke. Those who moved north into Kingwood and Alexandria Townships tended to spell the name without a ‘c’ – Opdyke. The spelling of Op Dyke in the title of the genealogy derives from the family’s Dutch origins.
There is no deed recorded for the sale of property by Edward & Hannah Milner to John Opdycke. Likewise, there is no deed for the additional property Opdycke acquired to the north of Milner’s tract. But at least we know when Opdycke settled in that location, thanks to the datestone in the stone house standing north of the Rosemont-Sergeantsville Road, just east of the Wickecheoke. But Opdycke had been living in Amwell Township by 1737 or earlier. We know this because that year Opdycke’s father-in-law Samuel Green mortgaged property in Amwell at Headquarters that was bordered by John Opdycke. That was probably the year that Opdycke married Margaret Green, for their first child Elizabeth was born in 1738.
It is interesting that the Milners moved to Wrightstown in 1752, but Opdycke did not build his house near the Wickecheoke until 1754. Perhaps during the interim he was building a mill. The Op Dyke genealogy claims that John Opdycke built mills for all of his four sons. After his death in 1777, the property by the Wickecheoke was transferred to Opdycke’s son Samuel. John Opdycke’s will made no mention of this, leading one to suspect that the transfer took place before this time.
Samuel Opdycke and Joseph Robeson
Samuel Opdycke was born in 1749, the sixth child of John and Margaret Opdycke. On December 7, 1775 he married Susannah, daughter of Joseph and Mary Robinson/Robeson. Most likely John Odpcyke gave the Wickecheoke mill property to son Samuel at the time of his marriage. (I am a little surprised that Samuel Opdycke was an executor of his father’s estate, along with his brother-in-law John Buchanan, instead of Samuel’s older brother George. Administering the estate took Opdycke and Buchanan several years, as there were many debts to collect.)
Samuel Opdycke served in the Hunterdon militia during the Revolution, and survived it fairly well. The 1780 tax returns show us that Samuel was prosperous. He was taxed on 193 acres plus 33 unimproved acres, along with 5 horses, 6 cows, 5 pigs, a gristmill and 2 stills. He was also assessed on “one old slave.” This was no doubt “the negro called Robbin” that Samuel’s father had bequeathed him in 1777, along with a cow and a windmill.
The Revolution was still raging in 1780. It was a difficult year for Amwell taxpayers, with inflation roaring. It was so bad that taxes had to be collected twice, first in January and again in June. When taxes were collected again, Samuel Opdycke had lost two horse, but he had gained a cow and six pigs.
Note that the mill Opdycke was operating was a gristmill, not a sawmill or fulling mill—two types of mill that were also common at the time. It is likely that the gristmill was located on Cold Run, a tributary of the Wickecheoke, where the old mill of the 1930s was located. There is no way to know if Edward Milner’s mill was also built there. It may have been further south, on the Wickecheoke itself.
Samuel Opdycke enjoyed respect in his community. In 1779 he was Constable for Amwell Township and Overseer of Roads. In 1785, he was listed in the vestry of St. Andrews Episcopal Church, along with father-in-law Joseph Robeson. In 1787, the county freeholders met at his house to consider repairing “the bridge over the Wickecheoke near Samuel Obdike’s mill.” It was ordered to be repaired “provided Samuel Obdike keeps the pillars and Buttment in good repair at his own expence for and during the Term of 50 Years from this date to come.” A bond of £500 was given, signed by Sam’l Opdyck.
There were not many references in documents to Samuel Opdycke’s mill. In October 1795, a petition was filed in Hunterdon County for a new road to run from Samuel Opdycke’s Mill to Elisha Rittenhouse’s Mill. (Elisha Rittenhouse’s mill was located on today’s Old Mill Road, on the way to Locktown, and was previously owned by Thomas Opdycke.) This is known today as Upper Creek Road. In 1809, a petition was filed to change the route of the road, “ending up at the bridge near the mills of Samuel Opdycke dec.”
Joseph Robeson wrote his will on October 28, 1796 in which he mentioned that his daughter (and only child) Susannah Opdyke was deceased, so he left all his estate to her five children. He named his wife Mary and son-in-law Samuel Opdycke his executors.
Joseph Robeson died about January 1801. On January 23, 1801, Samuel and Mary renounced executorship of the estate, and administration was granted to Daniel LaTourette (husband of Samuel Opdycke’s daughter Hannah).
Samuel Opdycke died about six months later. Perhaps there was a contagious illness in the neighborhood. Samuel Opdycke did not write a will, so presumably his property went to his children, who were also inheritors of the property of Joseph Robeson, dec’d. Here is where I scratch my head in wonder. It appears that the property that LaTourette was administering that belonged to Joseph Robeson was the same as that which belonged to Samuel Opdycke. In 1802, LaTourette was taxed on 207 acres (45 acres unimproved), 1 grist mill, and 1 dog. And in 1803 he taxed the same acreage, plus 3 horses, 6 cow, 1 gristmill, 1 dog.4 This was not LaTourette’s own property; at the time he owned the mill property in Clinton (then Lebanon Township) and was taxed separately on that.
On March 13, 1804, the heirs of Joseph Robeson, dec’d (not the heirs of Samuel Opdycke) conveyed their rights in 207 acres (the amount that LaTourette had been paying taxes on) to John Robeson Opdycke, eldest son of Samuel and Susannah for $3,000. The heirs were John R. Opdycke’s sisters, Hannah, Mary, Nancy and Margaret.5 And plotting the deed shows that the 207 acres were indeed the original tract owned by John Opdycke Sr. Apparently, his son Samuel had conveyed the property to his father-in-law, probably to avoid going into debt, which was a common problem for 18th century millers.
John R. Opdycke did not have $3,000 on hand to buy out his sisters. But a solution was near at hand. On the same date as the sale was made, he got a mortgage from his grandmother, Mary Robeson on 190 acres, to be paid back to her in the form of an $80 annuity for the rest of her life.6
From John R. Opdycke, Esq. to Chas. Sergeant
Note: I have frequently mentioned Charles Sergeant in this blog in the past. By searching on his name, quite a list of articles will turn up. The most helpful ones pertaining to his background can be found in the link to the Pauch Farm, in the right column under Topics.
John Opdycke did not have $3,000 on hand to pay for this land. In addition to the mortgage John R. Opdycke got from his mother-in-law, he also got ones from Daniel LaTourette, from his sister Margaret Opdycke and his other brother-in-law Pierson Reading, each for $1,000. This was also done on March 13, 1804.7 What is curious to me is that the mortgages excepted out from the 207 acres the small lots sold by John Opdycke, Esq. to Aaron Thatcher, James Larowe, Hezekiah Larowe, Samuel Rittenhouse, and William Hartman containing about 80 acres altogether. These were woodlots located along Pine Hill Road. Opdycke must have sold these lots shortly before getting the mortgage. The timing of these transactions is rather curious.
John R. Opdycke was something of a character, and frequently dabbled in land speculation. Perhaps that is why he later became Hunterdon County sheriff. But eventually he went broke. He seems to have been happy to rid himself of his father’s property, because he wasted little time in doing it. Perhaps his distant relative Charles Sergeant realized this and made him an offer. (Charles Sergeant was married to Opdycke’s second cousin, Sarah Green.) What happened was that on April 1, 1805, John Opdycke conveyed 130 acres to Charles Sergeant for £2500, and Charles Sergeant conveyed to Opdycke 180 acres for £2,000.8
Oddly enough, Mr. Bush had nothing to say about Charles Sergeant’s ownership of the mill property, which lasted from 1805 until his death in 1833. Perhaps that is because very little information is available from that time period. Mr. Bush next gives a wonderful description of the construction of the mill, but whether it was built by Charles Sergeant or his son Green Sergeant is hard to say.
The mill still stands as a wonder of old-time workmanship but is rapidly going to decay. The big overshot water-wheel at its side was a fine sight when this century came in. But time and weather and neglect have been too much for it. Nothing of the wheel remains except the end of the great shaft, already rotted away to the wall. But the gearing inside remains almost intact, and is worthy of attention by all who are interested in those grand old things so rapidly passing away. This intricate gearing is entirely of wood, much after the fashion of the old-time clock—wooden cogs playing into wooden pinions, with no metal to pierce the ear with its shrieking protests. That part of the shaft not exposed and the huge driving wheels and pinions look as if they would last forever; but a leaky roof now threatens all with decay. Two of the millstones are still in position, with hoppers intact and all geared for business, though silent for a generation.
Water From a Brook
The water for the big wheel was diverted from a brook that rises above Sergeantsville and comes down through the old Butterfoss farm, now Irving Cline’s [on Reading Road], where in the olden time it turned a wheel for a sawmill, and then makes its way past the site of the Sergeant gristmill to the Wickecheoke. The water was first impounded in a big dam near the Sergeant school-house [at the corner of Reading Road and Route 604]. From this it ran by race into a forebay, whence it was carried by a wooden penstock supported by a long line of trestlework, getting gradually farther and farther from the ground until it reached the top of the wheel and almost to the eaves of the three-story mill. From that elevation the water struck the opposite side of the wheel with compelling force. Between two of the supporting trestles the farmers drove their teams to reach the upper end of the mill for unloading and then drove around to the lower end for whatever might be ready for taking home.
After doing its work here, the water was conducted by tailrace to the big arch bridge on the Pine Hill road, and thence behind the Sergeant blacksmith shop, now a pigsty, across the Sergeantsville road to a field where another forebay had been prepared for impounding it again. From that it was carried by a wooden aqueduct, sunk as a bridge, across the Creek road, to turn the wheel for Sergeant’s sawmill, which stood between the road and the creek about 300 yards below the covered bridge. Adjoining the sawmill was a larger building used as a weave shop and for various other purposes, power for whatever machinery might be needed being available from the same wheel.
This is an important paragraph because it describes the Sergeant mill property as it was in the 19th century, with its former blacksmith shop turned pigsty, and its sawmill and weave shop. This last item was probably built about 1836 when Green Sergeant was offering “wool carding,” as advertised in the Hunterdon Gazette on June 22, 1836:
THE subscribers respectfully inform the public that they intend to CARD Wool into Rolls this season at Sergeant’s Mills, near Sergeantville. The Carding Machines are of the first rate, and will be attended by an experienced workman. Samuel B. Robbins will attend to the Carding himself, and will warrant every roll passing through his hands carded in the best manner, if the Wool is good and in good order. – They would also inform the public, that thy [sic] have a first rate PICKING Machine, which will Pick Wool in the completest manner, without waste. Persons can have their Wool picked and greased by finding the grease, and no extra charge. – Carding will be done at the customary prices of the country. The subscribers will take in Wool, and return it when carded, at the following places, one day in each week: ─
At Rittenhouse’s Store, Head Quarters, Daniel Brink’s, near Frenchtown, Scott & Bateman’s, Baptist-town, Frnklin [sic] Gordon’s, Swamp Meeting-house, David Rockafellar’s Store, near Boarshead, Delilah Buchanan’s Tavern, and at Samuel B. Robbins’s, near Mount Airy.
Persons will be particular in putting written directions on each bundle of wool left at the above places, so that no mistake may occur. The Carding Machines are now in operation, and the subscribers are ready to card Wool at the shortest notice, as there is always a sufficiency of water in the driest season of the year.
[signed] Green Sergeant, Samuel B. Robbins.
Continuing with Mr. Bush’s article:
Green Sergeant Inherits Property
Charles Sergeant died in 1833, leaving a will by which he devised to his son Green Sergeant, “The mills and the farm which I bought of John Opdyke containing 130 acres, except the lot whereon Joseph Slack now lives.” This appears to have been the Edward Brown lot of late years, and was left to his daughter, Elizabeth Reading (a widow), during her life and then to his grandson Asher Reading, the creek to be the boundary between the devises.
Charles Sergeant died on April 13, 1833 at the age of 74. His wife Sarah Green died two years later, age 69. They were buried in the Pine Hill Cemetery. In his will dated February 2, 1833, Sergeant bequeathed “to beloved son Green Sergeant the mills and farm belonging to same that I purchased from John Opdycke of 130 acres, excepting the lot where Joseph Slack lives.”
Joseph Slack (the Edw. Brown lot). This lot is on the west side of the creek, just past the bridge. There is a charming small stone house there, later owned by the Gelvins. I have very little information on Joseph Slack. He may have been the son of Henry and Ann Sutton Slack, born in 1780, a soldier in the War of 1812, identified in the census of 1840 as “employed in manufacture or trade,” possibly married to Margaret Moode in 1804 and to Mary Cane in 1818. He had two daughters by his first marriage: Sarah (c1807-1880), married to Peter Sibley, and Susan (c.1811-1859), married to Matthias Williamson. By his second wife Mary he had one daughter, Lucy Ann (1829-1897), who married Moses Blair Williamson. All these sons-in-law resided in the vicinity of the covered bridge. This Joseph Slack may have been the one who died in 1854 and was buried in the Rake Cemetery at Sand Brook, but I do not have certain information of that.
Elizabeth Reading & grandson Asher Reading. Elizabeth Reading was the first child of Charles Sergeant and Sarah Green, born Jan. 9, 1793. She married William Reading on Sept. 18, 1812. He was born on Feb. 20, 1787 to William Reading Sr. and Ann Emley, making him a great grandson of Gov. John Reading. William and Elizabeth had seven children, from 1814 to 1830, Asher being the youngest. William Reading died on 22 April 1831, meaning Elizabeth was a widow when her father wrote his will. Her first two children, sons Charles S. and Joseph Reading, were only 19 and 16 years old, but Charles Sergeant made no provision for them or their sisters, who were even younger. They probably came into their father William Reading’s inheritance. Asher Reading was only about three years old when Charles Sergeant died. It appears from census records that by 1850, Elizabeth had conveyed Asher’s share of the property to her son Charles Sergeant Reading. I do not know what happened to Asher—he was not living with his brother Charles in the 1850 census, and neither was his mother Elizabeth. But we do know that Charles was living near the covered bridge, on the lot conveyed to his mother, as shown in the 1851 Cornell Map.9
Richard Green Sergeant was born March 14, 1795, the second child and only son of Charles Sergeant and Sarah Green. He was 38 years old when his father died, married with three children. Since Charles Sergeant lived to be 73 years old, it must have been Green Sergeant (as he was commonly known) running the mill since about 1820 or earlier. Green married Margaret Besson on October 12, 1825, the daughter of Francis Besson and Elizabeth Thatcher. She was seven years younger than Green Sergeant. Their children were Sarah (c.1826-1881, wife of George S. Johnson, Jr.), George (1829-1906, husband of Lillie English), and Charles (c.1830-1868, husband of Elizabeth Watson).
Green was prominent in his neighborhood by 1830 when he became a trustee of the Green Sergeant school (it probably did not have that name at the time), located just up the road from the mill property. He was named Justice of the Peace in 1833, and also signed various road petitions in the 1840s.
By 1850, it appears that Green Sergeant had handed over the job of miller to a tenant who inhabited the old stone house across the road, the house that was probably built by Edward Milner. This tenant was David Jackson, who was 36 in the 1850 census, identified as a miller. Green Sergeant was identified as a farmer that year and subsequently in 1860 and 1870.
The old bridge that was repaired by the freeholders in 1787 and maintained by Samuel Opdycke must have been in pretty bad shape by 1850. That year, the County Freeholders reported having spent $135 to construct a bridge “near G. Sergeant’s,” the money to be paid to John Smith and W. N. Snyder.10 A little surprising that no mention was made of the previous bridge, and whether or not it was a covered bridge.
Being a farmer has always been a dangerous occupation, and evidence of this fact is found in Green Sergeant’s life. He had a terrible accident in 1866, as recounted in the Hunterdon Republican on Nov. 9, of that year:
On Oct. 23, 1866, Green Sergeant, of Delaware Township, an old man of 75 years, while threshing, had his arm drawn into the cog-wheels of the horse-power, which resulted in his arm dreadfully crushed. The arm had to be amputated by Dr. Samuel Lilly.
Richard Green Sergeant wrote his will on June 17, 1878, two years after the death of his wife Margaret on Jan. 7, 1876. He divided his entire estate into three parts, one for each of his children. The third part left to his daughter Sarah Johnson was for her benefit, not for that of her husband. Another third part was to be invested for the sake of the children of son Charles, who had died in 1868. Charles had served as a private in Co. A, 13th infantry, NJ Vol. during the Civil War, and must have suffered from the experience. The cause of death was listed as “dropsy” an old-fashioned term for edema or congestive heart failure.
Green Sergeant died on August 7, 1878,11, but his burial place and that of his wife Margaret are not known. Most likely they were buried in the Pine Hill cemetery but their stones did not survive. Perhaps they will show up someday hiding under a foot of earth. Green was 83 years old when he died, so obviously he had turned over the day-to-day operation of the mill to someone else. That turned out to be his son-in-law, George S. Johnson, the man who was not entitled to his wife’s property.
This is a good place to stop. I will continue with the rest of Mr. Bush’s article and the saga of the Sergeant’s Mills neighborhood in my next post.