Jacob’s Path, an 1813 Shortcut

In his article, “Old Sentinel Oak Has Passed,” Egbert T. Bush wrote that the old oak, across the road from the Baptist Church in Stockton, close to where Route 523 meets Main Street, stood near a “never-failing stream.” This stream runs along Route 523 for some distance and today is a little hard to find. But it does show up on Google maps, and is a clue to two interesting road records of 1813.

The First Survey

Efforts to establish the first of these roads began in July 1813 when notice was posted in the taverns run by Ezra Shamp (at Howell’s Ferry), Godfrey Rockafellar (at Sergeantsville—then known as Skunktown), and Samuel Rittenhouse (at Rosemont, which did not have that name until the 1850s). The notices were posted by Joseph Howell, who swore that he saw the petitioners for the road sign their names, and that he could vouch for them.

Signers of the petition were Jonathan Johnson, Godfrey Rockafellow, John Sergeant, William Lake, Isaac Lake, Othniel Gordon, William ‘Rittinghous,’ Isaac Fox, William More, Jonas Thatcher, Jonathan Robins, and Cornelius Lake. The majority of these men lived in or near Sergeantsville, which suggests that Godfrey Rockafellar’s tavern was a popular place.

The Court of Common Pleas agreed with the petition and named six surveyors of highways to lay out a path for the road. And here we find out the reason for this road. The bridge at Centre Bridge (now Stockton) was under construction. It would not open until 1814, but the abutments were up. We know that from this road description, which begins at “the abutment of the Bridge now building over the Delaware near Howells ferry.”

The Centre Bridge Company needed a road to connect the bridge to today’s Main Street in Stockton, a road that was then known as the road from Shamp’s tavern to Coryell’s Ferry (Lambertville). The path of the proposed road went up what is today’s Bridge Street, then left onto the Shamp road, then around Shamp’s tavern, which is today where the old Baptist Church now stands. Then the road followed along a small creek 14 chains (924 feet) to a small bridge, then further northeast 35 chains 58 links (2,348 feet) to the point where it intersected with the road that went from Prall & Lambert’s store in Prallsville to Skunktown (written ‘Skooktown’ on the map). This path took it as far north as the old Errico farm opposite the Bodine farm.

1813 Map of the road from Centre Bridge to Skunktown

1813 Map of the road from Centre Bridge to Skunktown

This is a copy of the map that was included in the road file. No landmarks at all except for a modern notation of the location of Centre Bridge. But because metes and bounds were given in the survey, it is possible to locate the route on a modern map (see below).

The road was to be opened by the overseers of roads in two stages. The part that ran from the bridge abutment to a “certain path, commonly called Jacob’s Path” was to be opened by October 1813, and the rest of it to open by April 1814.1

This all seems perfectly reasonable, but it was not reasonable to John Prall, Jr. Prall had purchased the mill property and 250 acres from the Ely family in 1792 and added to his holdings over the years. He was a shrewd businessman and expanded his operations to include several  mills—a grist mill, saw mill, linseed oil mill, and plaster mill.2 There was also a store next to Prall’s mansion house that was run by his son Williamson Livingston Prall and his son-in-law Jacob Lambert. They operated the store from about 1805 to 1820 when the store failed, probably due to the Panic of 1819. This road from the store to Skunktown is today’s Woolverton Road, and was probably first established by John Prall Jr. after he bought the Prallsville mill lot in 1792.

The Second Survey

Obviously, Prall needed traffic to come to his place of business, but the route laid out in this survey made that difficult, requiring travelers to climb a steep hill before turning left onto another steep hill descending to Prallsville. So, Prall decided to take advantage of “Jacob’s Path,” and reroute the road to Skoonk Town closer to Prallsville. First he built a bridge over the creek where it crossed Jacob’s path, and then he started circulating petitions and putting up notices, at the same locations as the previous road.

I was intrigued to see that only one person had signed both petitions, Cornelius Lake of Sergeantsville. The list of names was longer than Joseph Howell’s was, perhaps attesting to the clout that John Prall, Jr. enjoyed. The petition was signed by Daniel Rockafeller, Joseph Sergent, Peter Prall, farmer, Robert Sharp, Daniel Butterfoss, Daniel Larrowe, Samuel Hunt, Daniel Ent, Jno. Bowne, Robert Bonham, William Dilts, Nicholas Bacon, George Hidlay, Thomas Horn, Gershom Lambert, Cornelius Lake, Charles Ent, Garret Wilson, Henry Vandolah, and John Wilson.

Some of these men lived along Route 523 near Stockton, and some as far north as Skoonk Town, and some lived near Sandy Ridge. There was no one from the Rosemont area, but Thomas Horn who lived at Brookville signed, which shows that people traveling from the south were also concerned with this roadway. “Peter Prall, farmer” was apparently not Peter Prall the tanner who lived near Sergeantsville. It is interesting that no member of the Howell family signed this petition, nor did Ezra Shamp or John Prall, Jr. even though Prall and the Howells were most effected by this change.

John Prall, Jr. had acted very quickly. The petition succeeded and surveyors were named to lay out the route that had been asked for. Their report and survey can be found in file #19-4-41 in the Hunterdon County Clerk’s office, dated September 27, 1813. It read, in part:

Do hereby certify and return that having met agreeably to the order of the said Court, on this eighteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirteen, At the house of John Prall Junior, in the Township of Amwell in said County . . . and having viewed the premises and heard what could be said for and against the road, do think and adjudge the said Road as applied for, and as mentioned in the said order of the Court to be necessary ; and have laid out and do accordingly lay out the same as appears to us most for the public conveniency and having regard to the best ground for a road and the shortest distance in such manner as to do the least injury to private property as follows to wit ;

We do lay out a public Road of four rods wide in the Township of Amwell in said County to begin near a small house now occupied by Daniel Dedman at a stake in the centre of the Road leading from the abutment of the Centre Bridge by the Inn of Ezra Shamp to the intersection of the Road from Pralls and Lamberts Store to Skunktown . . .”

It is important to read this carefully. I first thought the road began at the bridge abutment, but that is not what it says. It began in the road that leads from the bridge and by the inn of Ezra Shamp, in other words, Main Street in Stockton.

Map of road from file #19-4-41, Hunterdon County

Map of road from file #19-4-41, Hunterdon County

I am intrigued by the difference between the two survey maps. They must have been drawn by two different people, even though the surveyors were the same six men, except that Christy Little was absent for the second survey. The Surveyors were John Smith and Daniel Case for Amwell, Thomas Lequear and Christy Little for Kingwood, and Aaron Hart and Daniel Howell for Hopewell.

Daniel Dedman

There is no way to know where Daniel Dedman was living. He did not record any deeds in Hunterdon County. But he was still in Amwell Township in 1830 when he was counted in the census for that year, in his 50s, with a woman (probably his wife) in her 40s, and three children between the ages of 5 and 19. After that he moved to Solebury Township where he was taxed from 1840 to 1852. He appears in some Quaker records, and was buried in Solebury Friends Burying Ground.

The Inn of Ezra Shamp

The next marker in the description was the inn of Ezra ‘Shamp.’ Mr. Bush has written that the original tavern in Stockton stood where the old Baptist church now stands, and that it served the passengers on Howell’s Ferry, which is why it stands at the end of Ferry Street. Boyer’s book on inns and taverns3 does not list Ezra Shamp as an owner of Howell’s Ferry Tavern, but in fact he was. He bought the 3-acre tavern lot from Joseph and Sarah Howell on June 21, 1815 (Deed 24-348) for $3000. But thanks to this road record we now know that Shamp was running the tavern two years before that. And in fact, he had acquired tavern licenses as early as 1809.

Following the death of the former tavern owner Joseph Howell in 1821, Ezra Shamp and wife Rebecca sold the tavern lot at Howell’s Ferry to John Bake (Deed 33-354). This conveyance is said to have been in trust for the heirs of Joseph Howell dec’d, but the deed made no mention of that. The Shamps were still living in that vicinity when they were counted in the 1830 Amwell Township census. It is quite possible that John Bake did not run the tavern himself, but left it to the Shamps to continue as they had. However, Ezra Shamp owned property in Brookville and is more likely to have stayed there.

I do not know enough about Ezra Shamp, and I am not the only one. Even genealogist extraordinaire Fred Sisser was unable to connect Shamp with parents or sibings. There is some hint that he had a family connection to Sheriff John Cavanagh, but no proof has been found. I assume he was married when the road was laid out, but do not yet know his first wife’s name. After selling the tavern lot, he married Jerusha Kitchen on Nov. 16, 1816. But she must have died before 1822, when Shamp’s wife was named Rebecca in the deed to John Bake. I have read that she was Rebecca McPherson, daughter of Nathaniel McPherson and Ann Butterfoss, but do not yet have proof of that.

Jacob’s Path

Now things get really interesting. According to the surveyor’s return, after passing Shamp’s tavern, the new roadway was to run

 “over lands of Joseph Howell and John Prall Jr. along the Indian or Jacob’s Path four chains (passing over the centre of the Bridge as erected by said Prall) . . .  till it intersects the said Road leading from Prall’s and Lambert’s store to Skoonk Town and there to end.”

“Indian or Jacob’s Path” is so tantalizing. What did they mean? “Indian path” makes sense, since we know that Route 523 was one of the earliest roads in Amwell Township. Who was Jacob? He might have been an Indian who lived on or near that section of roadway, one of those remnants of the New Jersey Indians who had mostly departed for Pennsylvania and New York once their land had been sold to the colonists. However, this is the only reference I have ever seen to “Jacob’s Path,” so this idea is no more than speculation.

Another possibility is that “Jacob” was the grandson of Daniel & Mary Ann Howell, born 1757, to Benjamin and Agnes Howell, and for a time the innkeeper at Skunktown. He and brother Joseph inherited their father’s property when Benjamin Howell died suddenly in 1795, it is said from a rattlesnake bite. In 1797, Jacob Howell released to his brother Joseph his rights in his father’s real estate, excepting the tavern lot for the use of their sister Delilah Howell (per Deed 39-523). And yet, when Jacob Howell wrote his will in 1835, he left to his “niece,” Eliza Ann Scarborough, his home farm, which was the northern part of the original Howell plantation, eventually to become the Bodine farm. (Eliza Ann was the daughter of Jacob’s actual niece Mary Howell and Mathias Case. She was the wife of Isaac Scarborough.) So perhaps “Jacob’s Path” was a shortcut that Jacob Howell took to get from the tavern to his home.

On the other hand, the fact that the road was to run along this path suggests that it was an existing alternative route to the old one that was to be vacated. This reinforces the idea of being an Indian path because from their long experience, Indians knew the best way to traverse the land. It is one example of Europeans giving up on their own route in favor of the Indian route. Things usually went the other way, in which an old Indian route was changed to one more suited to property lines or automobiles. Another reason for changing roadways was to avoid a creek that had shifted direction, which may have been part of the reason for changing the roadway in 1813.

John Prall Jr.’s Bridge

Let’s go back to the description of the road:

“. . . over lands of Joseph Howell and John Prall Jr. along the Indian or Jacob’s Path four chains (passing over the centre of the Bridge as erected by said Prall) . . . till it intersects the said Road leading from Pralls and Lamberts store to Sckoonk Town, and there to end.”

By comparing the two road records, it is not difficult to locate John Prall, Jr.’s bridge. It was built at a point where the road rises over what is now a sort of large gully, but was once the location of the creek, not too far south of the Wolverton Road. This area was part of the large tract of land that Prall had purchased in 1792 (Deed 2-206). Here is a map of the two road routes drawn on a map of the modern roads.

Map of old and new roads from Centre Bridge to Sergeantsville

Map of old and new roads from Centre Bridge to Sergeantsville. Click to enlarge.

Apologies for the homemade map. I have tried to show the two surveys together with the modern roads, but it does look confusing. Also, I added the path of the creek as it was shown on the Prall survey, while the solid blue line shows the creek as Google sees it. Much of the route laid out in the first petition was vacated in the second one, all to accommodate John Prall, Jr. This vacated route does not join with Route 523 until it reaches Block 53 lot 16 on the Delaware tax map, a farm that at one time belonged to the Errico family. The map also seems to say that part of the old roadway (along the Errico lot) was not to be vacated—if we can accept that the solid line means the road was to remain open. That suggests that there was a residence along that section of road, even though the map did not show a house there.

Two More Maps

Originally I published this article dealing only with the Prall petition. I was somewhat uncertain about the location of the road change, so I consulted with Dennis Bertland to get his opinion. He was convinced, but had some interesting questions. For instance, why was nothing said about Old Prallsville Road, which certainly would be a much shorter route to Prall’s mills. Perhaps that road had not yet come into use, even though it predates Risler Street by many years. I looked for a road return for Old Prallsville Road, and also for Woolverton Road, but there was nothing about them in the road files.

However, it appears that Old Prallsville Road did exist by 1828, when Thomas Gordon published a map of New Jersey. This detail of the map shows a triangle at Prallsville consisting of the Sergeantsville Road (523), the Woolverton Road and what must be Old Prallsville Road. The spot where the road meets Woolverton Road is just in front of the Woolverton Inn. No doubt there is a story there.

Detail of Thomas Gordon's Map of New Jersey, 1828

Detail of Thomas Gordon’s Map of New Jersey, 1828

The Woolverton Road probably came into existence about the time that John Prall, Jr. began building up his mill operation, around 1792. The Old Prallsville Road must have been built soon after the road return of 1813, but why it wasn’t recorded is a mystery. I would have guessed that it was built in the 1840s when John Sharp set up his store, but the Gordon map shows it was much earlier.

Dennis Bertland also wondered about the exact route of the old roadway and the path of the creek. The bridge seems to be in an odd place. But the USGS map of 1906 shows that the creek ran under Route 523, which explains why a bridge was needed if the road was going to be moved to the west from the old path.

Detail of USGS Map of New Jersey, 1906

Detail of USGS Map of New Jersey, 1906

I love old road records. We take for granted the routes we travel every day, but every twist and turn in the road probably has a story to tell. These records tell us that construction of the bridge at Centre Bridge brought about major changes in the vicinity. And that people like John Prall, Jr. knew how to manage those changes for their own benefit.

Note:  This article is a replacement of the one published on June 7, 2014, which neglected to take into account the impact that traffic over the new bridge would have on John Prall Jr.’s business.

Correction, 6/8/14: I had originally identified the northern end of the road change as being at Block 53 lot 16. Marilyn Cummings spotted my error–it is Block 56.

Addendum, 6/8/14: According to an article by Austin Davison in 1975, Ezra Shamp applied for tavern licenses from 1809 to 1819. He was preceded at the tavern by the son-in-law of Joseph Howell, Mathias Case. I also learned from another Davison article, that Ezra Shamp never paid off his mortgage to Joseph Howell, which led to “a long period of litigation.”

Addendum, 6/27/2014:  I neglected to include a very relevant map to this story. It is the 1812 Watson Map, showing how prominent the road to Prallsville was, and also how the road to Schoonktown ran to the east of the creek, until it was changed in 1813. 

A Map of the State of New Jersey by William Watson.  Engraved by W. Harrison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1812

A Map of the State of New Jersey by William Watson. Engraved by W. Harrison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1812

Footnotes:

  1. The survey was recorded in Road Book 2 p. 117, and the related file, #19-4-14).
  2. Carter Litchfield et al, Linseed Oil Mills in New Jersey 1732-1955. Arlington, VA: Oléarius Editions, 2012.
  3. Charles S. Boyer, Old Inns and Taverns in West Jersey, Camden, NJ: Camden Co. Historical Society, 1962.

3 thoughts on “Jacob’s Path, an 1813 Shortcut

  1. Mercedes Hayes

    Great article! I keep wondering about Jacob’s Creek in Hopewell Township. Seems too far to be the same person; I guess Jacob was a fairly common name?

    Reply
  2. Nancy Rittenhouse Parker

    Appreciate all that you are doing – lets me feel the life that some of my ancesters lived. Thank you so much – wish I were there to ride around the area, feel the spirits of all those great people who worked so hard there to build a new life for themselves and lives for the next generation and the next generation, etc. ..wish they had taught me all this in school. While my family rose from Hunterdon County and Warren County, I was born in Easton, PA and parents were older when I was born – my father very busy so we only went to visit relatives in Asbury area and Brainards once in a while – thks again

    Reply
  3. Chuck Williams

    Thanks for the history lesson! I really enjoy reading your work and learning about the history of the region. I’ve only been a resident of Kingwood for 2.5 years and am quickly discovering the historical significance of this unique area.

    Reply

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