Nathaniel Saxton Esq. is one of the more intriguing characters to appear in Hunterdon County history. I have been looking forward to writing about him for a long time.

He was elected to the State Senate (called the Council) in 1834, and in 1841 served as Master of New Jersey’s Chancery Court, and later as the Court’s Reporter. Not only was he a well-respected attorney, he also had a winning personality. In his “Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar,” Lucius Q. C. Elmer wrote that “Nathaniel Saxton, the Chancery reporter, generally called Natty,” was one of the leaders in the fun at the little social gatherings at the Rising Sun Tavern in Trenton, where “songs were sung, old stories revived, and flashes of wit sparked, each one deeming it a duty to contribute as well as he could to the general amusement.”1 After Saxton’s death, Charles Bartles, who studied law under him in 1822 and later became his partner in real estate investments, recollected that Saxton was “a most eccentric man,” who never married.2 In those days, one did not speak of a person’s sexual predilections, and I have always wondered about Natty Saxton’s. Whatever they might have been, his reputation never suffered from them.

When Saxton died in 1850, at the age of 72, a fulsome obituary was published in the Gazette, based on a meeting of the bench and bar of the circuit court in Flemington.3 It read, in part:

Since the last term of this Court, Nathaniel Saxton, Esq., the oldest member of the Bar of this Court, and among the seniors of the Bar of the Supreme Court, has died.

He commenced the study of the law in this County, about the year 1795, with Lucius W. Stockton, Esq., who was at that time Clerk of the County. He continued with him during the term of his Clerkship, when the office was bestowed upon the late Ralph Hunt, Esq., during whose term the entire work and duties of the office were discharged by him [Saxton].

He was admitted to the Bar in 1804, at the age of about 30 years, and for a period of thirty-five years from that time was extensively engaged in the business of his profession.

He was a man of sound legal learning and of varied literacy and scientific acquirements.

Without the advantages of a liberal education, by careful and persevering study he in a great degree overcame the embarrassments incident to the want of early training in the schools.

Strong in the feeling of self-reliance, he was the artificer of his fame and fortune. His associations with the men of the olden time, aided by his quick perception and tenacious memory, rendered him an interesting chronicler of the stirring events of the past.

In the years 1835-6, he represented this County in the upper branch of the State Legislature, and subsequently, for a short period, was appointed Reporter of the cases in the Court of Chancery, as appears by the Volume of Reports bearing his name.

Origins

Saxton was born in Hopewell Township about 1775 to Charles Saxton and Elizabeth Pelton, who were married on April 24, 1774.4 Charles Saxton was a yeoman farmer, and, as the above tribute described, but was unable to provide his son with the sort of education he would need in his chosen profession. So Nathaniel Saxton had to get it on his own. He probably came to Flemington about 1800 when he was ready to begin studying law under Lucius W. Stockton, attorney and also Clerk of Hunterdon County.

Saxton’s Flemington Career

In 1798, Saxton’s name begins to appear on court documents, usually as a witness to performance bonds and wills. According to Snell, he was indefatigable in pursuing his education. While serving as a deputy in the county clerk’s office, he studied surveying and law. I have seen some of his surveys on file at the county archives. They are nicely drawn, but none of those I saw were in the vicinity of Raven Rock.

The first recorded deed for Nathaniel Saxton was dated 1803, when he was given power of attorney by George C. Maxwell Esq. of Flemington to collect debts owed to the estate of John Bryan Esq. of Somerset County, deceased. The debts were to be collected from a George [someone; surname illegible] living in Albemarle County, Virginia, so presumably, Saxton made the trip south to collect the debts.5

In 1804, Saxton was admitted to the New Jersey Bar.6 By 1805, he was working to obtain funding to survey a road to run from the court house in Flemington to the state house in Trenton, and collected subscriptions to pay him for the work. He only found eight people to sign up, and collected $18.7 A document in the Saxton Papers on file at the Hunterdon County Historical Society reads:

“We the subscribers agree to pay to Nathaniel Saxton or any other surveyor who may perform the same the sums annexed to our respective names toward defraying the expense of making an accurate survey and plan of the road from the Court house in Flemington to the State house in the City of Trenton. November 1, AD 1805. [signed] George Maxwell 3 dollars, John Snyder 2 dollars, Alex. Bonnell 3 dollars, Joseph Capner 1 dollar, James Gregg 1 dollar, C. D. Coxe 1 dollar, William Bennett 2 dollars, John Rutherford 5 dollars.”

Although the road did not get surveyed as Saxton hoped, this document shows that he had already made himself acquainted with some of the most important people in Flemington at this time, and had inspired sufficient trust for them to willingly pay him for his work.

The first time that Nathaniel Saxton purchased real estate for himself was on August 20, 1805, when he bought for $800 the one-half interest of James Reading in a grist mill, sawmill and fulling mill on the South Branch of the Raritan River, in “Readington and Amwell Townships.”8. The following May, he purchased for $150 at public vendue the remaining share, owned by one Ellis Reading who had been sued for debt.9 This gave Saxton full ownership of a mill that he had no personal interest in running. On July 27, 1807, he sold it to Samuel Taylor of Flemington for a handsome $3200.10 That was a pretty good start for a novice real estate investor.

The Anderson Farm

The first time Saxton purchased real estate in Delaware Township, he only acted as a middleman. It is a complicated story, one that shows how vulnerable people were at that time to bankruptcy, even more so than today. The property was not in Raven Rock, so I will describe it in a separate post {and provide the link here once I’ve published it}. For now, I will simply say that in 1807, Saxton bought a lot of 47.27 acres near Stockton from James Gregg Esq. of Flemington, assignee for former Sheriff John Anderson, and then turned around and sold the lot to Anderson’s widow Ann. Saxton made a profit of about $50 on the transaction, which seems to me more of a fee for services than anything else.11

In 1807, Saxton made another land purchase, this time a woodlot of 8 acres in Kingwood from John Runyan.12

Saxton’s legal education continued during these years, and in 1808 he was admitted as a Counsellor at Law.13 In 1808-09, he served as Clerk to the Board of Freeholders.14 By this time, his career was definitely on its way.

It has been written that Saxton had a penchant for buying real estate, but seldom for selling, and that as a result, he did not prosper as he should have. I have compiled a list of his deeds as grantee or buyer (47 deeds recorded from 1803-1842) and as grantor or seller (66 deeds recorded from 1807-1852). That seems to argue convincingly against the idea that Saxton never sold what he bought. However, it is true that he died less prosperous than one would have expected.

Next Post: Saxton’s first investment in Raven Rock.

Addendum:

1/10/2012: Added information on Saxton’s sale of the Reading Mill to Samuel Taylor.

1/28/2012:  Regarding Nathaniel Saxton’s appearance on deeds relating to Delaware Township, I neglected to include deeds of 1804 that he witnessed in which Agesilaus Gordon conveyed his property in Sergeantsville, including the tavern lot that is now the township hall, to Godfrey Rockafellar.

 

  1. Lucius Q. C. Elmer, The Constitution and Government of the Province and State of New Jersey and Reminiscences of the Bench an Bar During More Than Half a Century, Newark, NJ: Martin R. Dennis an Co., 1872, page 183
  2. Snell, pg. 207
  3. Hunterdon County Gazette, 13 August 1850, “Tribute of Respect”
  4. New Jersey Archives, Marriage Records, pg. 310
  5. Deed 7-128
  6. Snell, pg. 207
  7. HCHS 0005/3-56
  8. Deed 12-200
  9. Deed 12-343
  10. Deed 14-098
  11. Deeds 14-068; 14-072
  12. Deed 14-049
  13. Snell, pg. 207
  14. Snell, pg. 265