There has been some interest lately in finding a way to preserve the old Saxtonville Tavern in the village of Raven Rock. It is currently owned by the State of New Jersey under its Green Acres program. Sadly, this means it is unoccupied, which is one of the worst things that can happen to an old house. The State of New Jersey desperately needs a program of resident curators for its historic properties.
But that is not the subject for this essay. Instead, I’d like to write about the Saxtonville Tavern itself and its neighborhood, Raven Rock and Bulls Island.
Raven Rock was once known as Saxtonville, also as Saxtonsville or Sextonville. Just like the village of Headquarters whose name was changed to Grover and then back to Headquarters, Raven Rock was changed to Saxtonville, before reverting back to its original name. But even before Raven Rock, there was a Lenape name.
The earliest documentary notice of the place was in 1708 when the township of Amwell was created by the state legislature. The boundary description began “at a place called Mauanissing.” This was the point on the Delaware River where the dividing line between today’s Kingwood and Delaware townships begins, which is just north of Raven Rock. Mauanissing is obviously a Lenape name, but the meaning of the name is obscure.
The first time the name “Raven Rock” appears in documents is in the will of John Ladd in 1731. That is a very early date, and makes me think that Raven Rock might be a translation of the Lenape’s Mauanissing. But that is just a guess.
Needless to say, with a name that poetic, there are lots of theories for its origin. Egbert T. Bush, my favorite Hunterdon historian, thought it might be a corruption of “riven rock” which aptly describes “the great rock which is the distinguishing figure of the village.”1 As you approach the cliff, Bush wrote, the “perpendicular rock . . . seems to become overhanging . . . There it stands from 90 to 100 feet high, with a dwelling house so close that it appears to be at its foot.” That house is the Saxtonville tavern.
Some have written that the name Raven Rock is derived from hawks that were observed riding the thermal air currents to rise up the cliff face. But hawks and ravens are very different birds. Perhaps at one time ravens were seen circling around at the top of the cliff.
Another theory comes from former resident and local historian B. A. Sorby who wrote several articles on the Raven Rock neighborhood in 1959 when the State of New Jersey was paving Route 29 from Raven Rock to Byram. Sorby wrote that red shale and sandstone was blasted away near Byram to make way for the road, and that the site was
“located a short distance from New Jersey’s “Great Stone Face” which towers over the river at this point from the rock which gives the village its name.”2
Although the “Great Stone Face” probably did “give the village its name,” it should be noted that that ‘Stone Face’ was made of argillite, not red shale and sandstone. It is the tip of the Hunterdon Plateau, a massive outcropping of sedimentary rock that resists erosion, unlike the sandstone and shale.
Needless to say, no one will ever be able to explain the name with absolute certainty.
Bull’s Island is another ancient neighborhood name, frequently written in old documents as “Bool’s Island.” It was originally known as Ponnacussing or Paunacussing. This was probably a European guess at the real Lenape name, which is supposed to mean “place where the powder was given us.” I rather doubt that meaning. Sounds to me like someone’s fantasy of Lenape history.
The name “Bull’s Island” comes from an early surveyor, Richard Bull of Gloucester County (c.1675-c.1722), who made many surveys in early Amwell Township on behalf of the West Jersey proprietors. Most of his surveys date back to 1710-1720. “Bool” is probably the way his name was pronounced. Many people wrote words phonetically in the 18th century, creating a baffling but charming variety of spellings.
It was Richard Bull who surveyed a 625-acre property on November 11, 1712 for himself and his partner, the will-writing John Ladd, also of Gloucester.3 About ten years later, Bull and Ladd decided to divide the property between them, and on February 18, 1721, shortly before his death, Richard Bull quit claimed his rights in 300 acres to John Ladd, retaining his rights in the balance. Oddly enough, Bull’s Island and the area of Raven Rock went to Ladd rather than to Bull.
Even though the name Raven Rock was in use since 1731, it was not always the preferred name. When Moses Quinby advertised for return of a stray horse in 1794, he identified himself as “living at a noted place called Bull’s Island in Amwell Township, Hunterdon County.”4 But Quinby was not living on the island; his home was in the village of Raven Rock, before it was a village.
This is just the beginning of the history of Raven Rock, Bull’s Island and the Saxtonville Tavern.
Addendum, 2/13/15: For an interesting survey map showing the early landowners of this area, see “Return to Raven Rock.”
- I will soon post Bush’s article, “Raven Rock Was Once Bool’s Island” under Historians Revisited. ↩
- B. A. Sorby, “35-Foot High Landmark With Giant Wistaria (sic) Blasted Away,” Hunterdon Co. Democrat, Sept. 24, 1959. ↩
- West Jersey Deeds, Lib. A fol. 137. ↩
- Thomas B. Wilson and Dorothy Agans Stratford, Notices From New Jersey Newspapers, Records of New Jersey, Vol. 3, Lambertville, NJ: Hunterdon House, 2002, pg. 362-63 ↩