Law Once Compelled Every Town to Have a Drinking Place
How “Amwell” Originated

by Egbert T. Bush
published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, May 7, 1931

Sundry notes from old histories and other sources though jotted down in a haphazard way may serve to awaken thought or to throw light upon the ways of the past.We are told that in 1668, every town in the province of New Jersey was required by law to have “an ordinary for the relief and entertainment of strangers.” The penalty for failure to provide such necessary place was 40 shillings for the first month and 40 shillings for every month thereafter. An actual legal penalty for not having a drinking place, you see;  curiously enough the exact opposite of our present law.

The method of collecting penalties from a town in those crudely-organized days is left to our imagination. But ways are, and probably then were, usually found for collecting penal sums; probably because failure to pay would bring something still more unwelcome. The keepers of those ordinaries, and no others, were permitted to sell “strong liquors” in quantities less than two gallons. That quantity and upward might be sold by anybody having both the liquor and the customers. Wouldn’t that be a rather heavy investment in our day—one hardly to be thought of in providing for the needs of an average family? But things were very different then, and what do we know about it, anyhow?

The quantity does seem to have been too high. In 1677 it was reduced to one gallon, and still later, others than the keepers of ordinaries were allowed to sell by the quart. In 1683 the keepers of ordinaries were disbarred from collecting debts for liquor amounting to five shillings.  This barrier does not appear to have applied to debts for liquor sold in larger quantities. Such items are found charged by the merchants all through their “running account,” and settled in their “Contras,” among other necessary things. Barring the collection of such debts by keepers of ordinaries may have prevented now and then a “man in his cups” from recklessly spending what his family needed. But it is more likely that such were considered “debts of honor,” to be paid for the double purpose of proving the debtor a man of honor, and of making and keeping such badly-needed credits easy to obtain.

First License Act

We find that, in 1692, “because there were great exorbitances [sic] and drunkenness observable in several towns, occasioned by tolerating many persons in selling strong drink in private houses,” an attempt was made to regulate the matter;  but in the following year, the excise was repealed, and the licensing of retailers was “confined to the governors.”

In 1704, under the rule of Lord Cornbury, many of the old “prohibitions” were re-enacted. By this time, we are told, the use of ardent spirits had come to be considered necessary. But the keepers of public houses were forbidden to allow “tippling on the Lord’s Day”—except for necessary refreshment.
One can easily see how “necessary” that refreshment might be made to appear, and that a thriving business might be worked up, no matter on what day the necessary befell. But the observance of the Lord’s Day was strictly required, “by abstaining from all servile work, unlawful recreations and unnecessary traveling.”

It may not be so easy to see why this selling of something to eat should be a violation of the law, while the selling of drink to meet a necessity, real or imagined, was not. And it is certainly still harder to see how we could work into the life of today the provisions against “unnecessary traveling.” With automobiles by the hundreds of thousands, standing ready to display their pleasing lines and glittering parts to millions of beholders, it is impossible to make such prohibition fit even clumsily into modern civilization. And yet the law is still—No, do not whisper it aloud!  Some crazy Don Quixote might endeavor to enforce the law.

The First Newspaper

We find that the first newspaper published in the province of New Jersey, was “The New Jersey Gazette.” It was a weekly, published at Burlington by Isaac Collins in 1777. It is described as a folio 12 inches by 8 inches. The subscription price was 26 shillings a year; the rates for advertising were 7 shillings 6 pence for the first week and 2 shillings 6 pence for every week thereafter. The only requirement as to extent was that “it must be of moderate length.”

One would think so—of very moderate length indeed. And even so, it does not seem that there was room for many advertisements in a sheet with a total area of only 384 square inches including margins or for much verbosity in either news items or editorials.

Smith’s History says, and Barber & Howe’s quotes the following: “One Robins, in Amwell, at a spot on his own plantation, had upwards of ninety rattlesnakes killed in each of three springs successively. The parties performing it barked young chestnut-trees of the size of their own legs and tied them on;  and thus accoutered, they effected their business without much danger;  but the snakes frequently bit the bark.” 1

From this and other things told us on good authority, we are forced to conclude that rattlers were then very plentiful in Amwell. Fortunately, they are scarce now—almost as scarce as the protective Chestnut trees. The pioneer Robins, if he could come back, would no doubt be much surprised to find neither rattlesnakes nor chestnut trees anywhere on his old plantation or in the vicinity.  Good riddance for the rattlers, but for the trees a sigh.

Origin of “Amwell”

How did that name Amwell originate? We are not sure about that. There is at least some amusement in the following story which, in substance, has been long in print, though its authenticity may still be questioned:

One man named Stout settled on the southeasterly side of the Sourland Range, and another on the northwesterly side. Whether brothers or not, they were very friendly, frequently meeting and greeting each other. The Stout from the east always said to the other, “Hope you’re well;” and the Stout from the west always answered, “Am well.” From this the jocular neighbors came to call one “Hopewell Stout,” and the other “Amwell Stout.” Then the “Stout” was dropped from each, one side of the range becoming Hopewell and the other Amwell. 2

Who cares whether that is true or not? The names like the valleys are hard to beat, whether we are considering pleasure to the eye or pleasure to the ear.

And of the Stouts, one history says that in an Indian outbreak in the eastern part of the colony, the savages thought they had killed every inhabitant of a small hamlet. But one German girl, though left as dead, revived, reached a distant house and finally recovered. Later, she married a man named Stout; and from that couple, sprang most of the Stouts widely scattered about the colony. Whether this is true or not, the Stouts became numerous and influential among the early settlements;  and it might be added, they are holding their own better than most of the good old names.

Old John Reading

We notice by warrant granted Col. John Reading in 1702, he became the owner of 1/20th of all the land in West Jersey. Col. John half traversed the region as a surveyor in 1688, and had been impressed by its desirability. Another survey gave him still another tract of land. Col. John Reading was the father of Governor John Reading, whose history and holdings and descendants are so well known.

Mahlon Stacy, in a letter dated the 26th day of 4th month, 1680, writing to William Cook, from “Falls of the Delaware in West Jersey,” says: “This is a most brave place. * * * Burlington will be a place of trade quickly, for here is way for trade; I, with eight more, last winter, bought a good ketch of fifty tons, freighted her out at our own charge, and sent her to Barbados, and so to sail to Saltertugas [sic], to take in part of her lading in salt, the rest in Barbados goods as she came back; which said voyage she hath accomplished very well, and now rides before Burlington, discharging her lading, and so to go to the West Indies again. We intend to freight her with our own corn.”

One would hardly have supposed that the colonists could muster on short notice, or could spare, enough to load even such a vessel for export. But this appears to indicate that there was plenty. A footnote to Stacy’s letter, written by the historian, says: “The inhabitants of West Jersey had hitherto pounded their corn or ground it with hand mills, but about this time Olive had built his water mill nigh Rankokas creek; and in this year Stacy had finished his mill at Trenton. * * * These two were the only two mills that ground for the country several of the first years after their arrival.”

In regard to the Indian’s habit of “not laying up much,” a footnote in Smith’s History has this: “Sir William Temple somewhere says: An Indian once put this question to a Christian, to give him a reason why he should labour all his days to make his children idle all theirs?”

An Indian’s Reasoning

While the acquirement of a great fortune does sometimes work as the Indian shrewdly saw that it might, he jumped to the wrong conclusion—that such was the natural consequence of thrift and accumulation. That result is only the occasional perversion of one of the most necessary things in civilization. All can admire the Indian’s keenness, but not his utter lack of breadth of view. His was only a bit of crude philosophy cuttingly expressed. Unfortunately, that kind of reasoning is not confined to savages. We have heard the same thing variously expressed by people of our own blood, as though that were the sum and substance of sound financial reasoning. If such reasoners will stop to consider, most of them will see that all are benefited by the effort to save; that small accumulations add to comfort and stability; that moderate accumulations bring both comfort and a measure of security; and that, though most of us must make the best of little, even great accumulations are indispensable to moderate progress.

We find that in 1682, “all men in New Jersey from 16 to 60 years of age,” were required to furnish themselves with arms, on penalty of one shilling for the first week’s neglect, and two shillings for every week thereafter. How different from the laws of today! Now one would be fined for carrying what would then have doubtless been considered “arms,” fined not one shilling to two shillings, but $100 or $200, probably with imprisonment. Fined for doing now what they were fined for not doing then—or with a shade of difference too slight to spoil the contract. Again, how changed!

Heavy Penalties for Crime

We also find that in the same year, the penalty for burglary or highway robbery was: for the first offense, burning on the hand; for the second, burning on the forehead; for the third, death. For stealing, the thief must make triple restitution for the first, second and third offense, and if unable to make restitution he might be sold for satisfaction.

Our growing ranks of criminals have good reason to rejoice that our laws are more “humane.” But, shudder as we must over the old-time severity, it may be well to consider whether we have not traveled a little to fast with our humanity. Anyhow, it is quite evident that criminals, not good citizens, are the beneficiaries of our numerous changes in criminal laws and in the practice of the same. It does seem sometimes that criminals are protected, while good citizens are shut out from the means of defense, and the state is barred from the infliction of penalty. While we have been growing more lenient and our laws more humane, criminals have been growing more cruel, relatively more numerous, and incomparably more dangerous. It may be better so; but it does appear to be all backward way of working out a higher civilization.


  1. It is thought that this “Robins” was Daniel Robins who owned large acreage near the intersection of Routes 523 and 579.
  2. It is interesting that Mr. Bush includes this apocryphal story of the naming of Amwell Township in an article that also mentions John Reading Senior. For it is to John Reading that we can look for the source of the name. When Amwell Township was established in 1708, John Reading was undoubtedly the most important and prosperous man located in the municipality. He was living on his new farm located along the Delaware River just north of Stockton and Prallsville, which he had named “Mount Amwell.” He had taken the name Amwell from his birth place in England, in Hertforshire. Reading was well known by the West Jersey members of the Assembly and Council, so it is not surprising they would name the new township for their friend.