“Ascending!

FINDING the room on the first floor of the Court House rather too much confined for an office, and the passage too much obstructed by lockage for the free ingress and egress of clients, I have selected, for a summer office, a beautiful airy chamber in the extreme front of the building. This pleasant apartment is situated immediately over the portico of this lofty edifice, and overlooks the main street of the village; After rising three inclined planes, clients will arrive at the summit level of my office; the door opens toward the east between two windows; No toll demanded until they arrive at the summit. – Passage back, free of expense; Samuel G. Opdycke, Flemington, May 19, 1830.”1

Flemington Courthouse, from Barber & Howe, p. 251 (1845)
Flemington Courthouse, from Barber & Howe, p. 251 (1845)

Note that today the center window is no longer visible. It was probably removed during a renovation in the late 1870s.

This advertisement in the Hunterdon Gazette must have caught the attention of readers, just as it was intended to. It certainly caught my attention, and got me wondering: who was this Samuel G. Opdycke?

As it turns out, Samuel Green Opdycke was one of the most interesting attorneys who practiced in Flemington in the 1820s. And there were a large number of interesting attorneys there. I learned a little about them when I wrote about the Fourth of July Jubilee celebration in 1826.2

Of all these interesting men, no one’s life was more like a meteor than Samuel G. Opdycke. He began his life in the cradle of what passed for luxury in Hunterdon County at the turn of the 19th century. His father was John Robeson Opdycke, who served as county sheriff from 1810 to 1812. As the Opdycke Genealogy describes him:3

‘Sheriff John Opdycke,’ as he was universally called, was tall, fine-looking, and had in life the advantages of family, inherited wealth, and popularity. He purchased the fine old Cornwall property of 500 acres between Everittstown and Quakertown, with the well-known white stone mansion; and here all his children were born and reared.4

The author of the Opdycke Genealogy thought that with his advantages of family prestige and wealth John R. Opdycke developed “a contempt for labor,” as demonstrated by a family legend published in the Genealogy:

On one occasion, he thoughtlessly was occupying himself a few moments in a flax-field, when a passing neighbor called out, “I did not know that you ever worked.” – ” Is this work? If it is, I will stop,” John replied, and immediately quit the field.

He was not provident in his spending, and eventually “exhausted his property.” But that was later in his life. He must have provided an interesting and stimulating environment for his children. Samuel Green Opdycke was the first child in this family of ten children, born in 1803 or 1804. His parents married on April 24, 1803.5 His mother was Rebecca McAtee, and her grandfather was Bartholomew Thatcher, one of the most significant early settlers of Hunterdon County. The Opdycke family also had an important role in the early history of Hunterdon County, giving Samuel a deep sense of belonging and importance. The Green of his name referred to the maternal side of his grandfather’s family. Margaret Green (1711-1775), wife of John Opdycke Esq., was the daughter of Samuel Green, one of the first settlers in Amwell Township.

Samuel G. Opdycke must have been very precocious. At the age of 18 he was already employed in the law office of Joseph Bonnell of Flemington, who was about ten years his senior. He began working on cases right away. It appears that Joseph Bonnell suffered from a lingering illness, perhaps tuberculosis, and when Bonnell took ill, his apprentice Samuel Opdycke was able to take over one of Bonnell’s cases, and bring it to a successful conclusion. Charles W. Opdycke wrote:

His handling was so judicious, his address so eloquent, and his success so unexpected, that it gave him a wide reputation throughout the County and beyond.

In the 1820s and 1830s, there were no law schools available as we know them today. An aspiring attorney learned on the job, so to speak. Kenneth V. Myers explained how it worked:

The preparation of those taking up the legal profession in colonial days is part of the heritage of the Bar Association. Young aspirants two centuries ago usually entered the office of an older experienced practitioner and remained in a student capacity for a period of four to five years. It was this intimacy of training and close relationship on a professional basis, studying the specialized methods and precepts of one whose skills had been similarly acquired, that bonded one generation of lawyers to another. 6

When Samuel Opdycke was 20 years old, his mentor Joseph Bonnell wrote his will, dated January 1, 1823. Among his bequests was this—to Samuel G. Opdycke “my sword as he has a decided disposition for military matters, and $100 to purchase a library as he is peculiarly fond of books.” Bonnell died on October 12, 1823, only 30 years old, and I suspect it was Samuel G. Opdycke who composed the inscription for his gravestone:

Gravestone of Joseph Bonnell Esq.
Gravestone of Joseph Bonnell Esq.

The grave of
Joseph Bonnell, Esquire
Counsellor-at-Law
who died
October 13th, a.d. 1823
Aged 30 years

They who knew him need no
monumental eulogy.
They who knew him not would
view as living vanity the
posthumous efforts of the
Tablet7

The Opdycke Genealogy claims that Samuel G. Opdycke succeeded to Bonnell’s law practice. In fact, it appears that Andrew Miller Esq. took over the practice, while Opdycke retained some of the cases and clients, probably ones that he was working on at the time of Bonnell’s death.

According to Charles W. Opdycke, Samuel G. Opdycke immediately

“took rank with the oldest lawyers of Hunterdon. The recollection of his brilliant promise is still fresh in the memories of the Hunterdon Bar. He is considered to have been fully the peer of such eminent men as Samuel L. Southard, Natty Saxton, George Wood (afterward a distinguished member of the New York Bar), and others whose names are still celebrated in New Jersey.8

I cannot say with certainty when Samuel G. Opdycke was admitted to the bar. It must have been shortly after the death of Joseph Bonnell. In 1824, Opdycke was admitted as an attorney with the New Jersey Supreme Court.9

In May 1825, Samuel G. Opdycke represented Joseph P. Chamberlin in the Court of Common Pleas to recover the sum of $300 from John Hughes, an absconding debtor.10 Later that year, in October, Opdycke was named with Edward Welsted and Charles Bonnell as an auditor of the goods of Stevenson & Hart, who conducted a store in Alexandria (Frenchtown) and had gone bankrupt.11

In August 1825, Opdycke represented the executors of Joseph Bonnell deceased in a case against Isaac Rea Jr. for debt. Andrew Miller represented the defendant, so it does not seem as if Miller had taken over Bonnell’s practice just yet.12

In October, Opdycke was selected to replace Charles Ewing as attorney in the case of Elijah Vansyckle and John Garrison v. Emley Holcombe, as Ewing had “lately been elected Chief Justice of the NJ Supreme Court.13

Also in October, Opdycke served with Edward Welsted and Charles Bonnell as auditors in the case of Augustus Stevenson and John V. Hart, partners, v. Edward M. Hinkle. It is noteworthy that Opdycke was at work with Welsted and Bonnell at this time; later on, he would be at odds with them. In fact, that same month, Edward Welsted sued Opdycke for debt. Opdycke appeared in court and “confessed to judgment.” The court ordered him to pay Welsted $400 plus costs of $4.14 This incident is the first hint of trouble to come.

Probably between October and December, 1825, Opdycke went west on business. When he returned to Flemington, he published this advertisement in the Hunterdon Gazette:

“A CARD–
The subscriber having been necessarily absent on business in the western country, informs his friends and clients that he has returned to his office at Flemington,
where he will be found ready to do business as usual in his profession,
Samuel G. Opdycke.”15

Apparently, Opdycke’s business did not provide him with the means to pay off his debt to Edward Welsted. In February 1826, the Court of Common Pleas issued a writ of fieri facias, ordering the Sheriff to levy on Opdycke’s goods & chattels and any real estate he might own. The list of goods and chattels is a sad one: one bookcase, law and other books, another bookcase, one clock, one saddle and bridle, all the books and other articles in the Surrogate’s Office, one third of the Ditmars farm in Readington Twp.16

Joseph Bonnell had served as Surrogate from 1818 until his death in 1823. Samuel G. Opdycke was working for him during those years, and probably left his books “and other articles” in the office. It must have pained him to have to sell his law books, books he probably bought with the bequest he got from Joseph Bonnell.

Despite this setback, he continued to practice law, representing the executors of the estate of Jonas Thatcher dec’d of Amwell in their case against Charles Thatcher, Jonas Thatcher, Jacob Kemple, and Lucretia his wife, late Lucretia Thatcher, non-resident debtors.17

In 1826, Samuel G. Opdycke dipped his toe into political waters. During the Amwell Township annual meeting, on April 10, 1826, he was named an Inspector with John Young. Their job was probably to inspect the ballots cast at the meeting.

In July, a grand celebration was had to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the country. After a parade, many people gathered for a grand dinner at which it was customary for several toasts to be given. Opdycke was well enough established to be among those attending the dinner. His toast showed which side of the political fence he stood on:

{To} “Gen. Andrew Jackson—defeated once, but how? That’s the question. We hope to fight that battle o’er again.”18

He was referring to Jackson’s defeat in his race for President against John Quincy Adams in 1824. That battle was indeed fought over again, in 1828, with a very different outcome. However strong his sentiments, judging by articles about the election published in the Hunterdon Gazette, Opdycke did not take an active part in the campaign. Perhaps he did not want to alienate clients that supported the Administration.

To be continued.

  1. Hunterdon Gazette, 19 May 1830
  2. Published in the Hunterdon Historical Newsletter, Spring 2006, pp. 981, 983-987, and republished HERE; and also when researching the life of attorney Nathaniel Saxton Esq. You will find his name in the list of topics in the right-hand column.
  3. Opdycke Genealogy (see Basic Sources)footnote, pp. 351-52
  4. Opdycke Genealogy, pp. 351-52
  5. The Opdycke Genealogy did not give specific birth dates, only the years, and lacked death dates for three of the children. I checked the Deats Genealogical Files at the Historical Society, but no exact dates were found there either.
  6. Kenneth V. Myers, “The Heritage of the Hunterdon County Bar Association,” n.d., printed by the Hunterdon Bar Association, p. 3. There was a sort of law school in Philadelphia as early as 1790, when Dr. James Wilson was hired to teach law at the University located there, but most lawyers followed the apprentice system that Myers described. Regrettably, Mr. Myers did not include either S. G. Opdycke or Joseph Bonnell among those lawyers he profiled.
  7. Bonnell was buried in the Flemington Presbyterian Cemetery. The photograph of his gravestone was found on “Find-a-Grave.”
  8. Opdycke Genealogy p. 354. The Genealogy was published in 1889.
  9. Rule of the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey, Appendix p. 70 (from Google Books).
  10. For the story of John Hughes and his relations, see The Fulper House.
  11. Hunterdon Gazette, 10 May 1825
  12. CPM 23: 270; for the story of Isaac Rea, see Buchanan’s Tavern.
  13. CPM 23: 302
  14. CPM 23: 316
  15. Hunterdon Gazette, Dec. 29, 1825
  16. CPM 23: 325
  17. Gazette, 23 Feb 1826
  18. Gazette, 12 July 1826.  For a description of that celebration in 1826, see The Jubilee of 1826.