This article was originally published in “The Delaware Township Post” on March 1, 2009. The Post went out of business, and the articles I published there have disappeared. It seems appropriate now to republish this article, greatly modified, here.
Back in 2009, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, one of the greatest presidents in American history. But in his own lifetime, the people of Hunterdon County did not agree.
Hunterdon County had always voted strongly for Democrats, all the way back to Andrew Jackson’s first race for president in 1824. But in 1860, the Democrats were challenged by a new Republican Party and its standard bearer Abraham Lincoln. Hunterdon voted solidly for his opponent, Stephen Douglas, but Lincoln carried the nation.
One of the ways that Hunterdon party leaders encouraged enthusiasm among their followers for an upcoming election was to hold a pole raising. Ever since the revolutions of the 18th century, people have celebrated their yearning for liberty and political independence by raising liberty poles. This practice was continued after the United States passed its Constitution and began to hold regular elections.
A pole-raising involved the planting of a long pole, or even a pine tree, in a public place and the ceremonial attachment of a flag or liberty cap on top. During the campaign of 1824, supporters of Andrew Jackson took to raising hickory poles, harking back to the days of the Revolution, but choosing hickory wood to honor their candidate, widely known as Ol’ Hickory, a tough wood and a tough man.
As you can see from the illustration, this was very popular during the contest between Clay and Harrison. (See “Drinking Toasts to the Government Popular Years Ago.”)
There’s a particularly interesting story about a pole-raising that took place in the village that would eventually be named Sergeantsville. A hole was dug for a pole raising to take place the next day, in front of the tavern that now serves as the township municipal building. When the men returned the next day, they found a skunk family residing at the bottom of the hole. The story fails to explain how the skunks were removed from the hole, or if the pole raising ever took place. But supposedly, this incident inspired a name for the village: “Skunktown,” or as it was sometimes written “Schoonktown.”
Many years later, people began to wonder how this odd name came about. The editor of the Hunterdon County Democrat went to visit Dr. Isaac S. Cramer of Sergeantsville to get the answer and published his results in February 1888.
“How the Name Came About”
“We have often been asked how the thriving and pleasant town of Sergeantsville had acquired the nickname of “Skunktown.” We ran across Dr. Cramer last Tuesday night, and what he doesn’t know about Sergeantsville and Delaware township isn’t worth knowing. He promptly gave us the information desired. He said that away back in the early part of the century the proprietor of the hotel in that town secured a new sign-post. The erection of such a stick was made an occasion of great interest in those days. A hole was dug one afternoon large enough to bury a house and barn in, and then the workmen retired for the night. Next morning when the neighborhood had gathered to assist in planting the post it was discovered that three or four skunks had taken possession of the hole, as if they had decided upon it for winter quarters. From that day the town of Sergeantsville has been dubbed “Skunktown.” Unfortunately, the Doctor could not tell whether the “varmints” were buried with the post or persuaded to leave peaceably with their cologne sacks.”
As the Watson map below shows, the name Skunktown (in this case, Schoonktown) came into use quite early. If Dr. Cramer was correct, that the purpose of the pole was to hang a tavern sign rather than to celebrate an election, I am a little disappointed, but also curious to know who the tavern-keeper was who wanted that sign.
A review of Hunterdon County Tavern Licenses shows us that the name Skunktown was in use as early as 1794. That was the year that Godfrey Rockafellar applied for a tavern license. His petition read: “Your petitioner has lately removed into the House where he now lives in Skunktown upon an Expectation that the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the peace would Grant him a License to keep a Tavern or publick Inn.”1 This was the first recorded petition for a license at the tavern in Skunktown. (See “Tavernkeeper of Skunktown.”)
The name Skunktown shows up in documents of the time, so it was more or less official until the postal service awarded a post office to the village in 1827 on the condition that a new name be chosen. Here another story comes in—supposedly the villagers assembled in a meeting for the purpose of choosing a new name for the town. The two most prominent families in the area were the Sergeants and the Thatchers. Members of the Sergeant family managed to outnumber the Thatchers, thus winning the vote. But the Thatchers got the first postmaster, storekeeper and tavern keeper Jonas Thatcher.
Back to the politics of the 1860s, and the practice of pole-raising:
Democrats were still pole raising when Lincoln ran for president. In 1929, the Hunterdon County Democrat published an article by Egbert T. Bush titled “Reminiscences of Old Frog Tavern,”2 In it he described some pole raisings that took place in Franklin Township, just north of Croton, at the Frog Tavern, an important local landmark that is no longer standing. I will quote extensively from Mr. Bush’s article, but there is much more left out, focusing especially on the Trimmer family.
As a boy, Bush had been present at pole-raisings in 1860 and then again in 1864. He wrote that the “quadrennial pole-raising” was
. . . a purely Democratic meeting of course. It had to be, for it took many men to raise a pole eighty or ninety feet long; and practically nobody but Democrats lived in that vicinity then, however it may be now. The pole must be hickory, of course. Nothing else could fittingly represent the strong, inflexible character of old Hickory Jackson, who, though dead since 1845, was still a controlling power in the party. . . .
The pole-raising of 1856 is a blur, and that of 1860 does not stand out as a great success. The trouble with the latter may have been the disruption of the party that year. Certainly, there were wide differences of opinion in that usually one-minded community. Many were the fireside discussions, and many the memorable if not convincing arguments. But in one thing they were still united: “Old Abe” and the abolitionists caught it from both sides of the divided host.
For many years leading up to 1860, the Democratic party had sided very firmly against the abolitionists. It was not that all Democrats favored slavery, but that the idea of ending it abruptly was seen as too traumatic for the country. The states that favored slavery and its extension into the new western territories were a powerful voting bloc that the Democratic party had relied on for its success. But by 1860, things had gotten uncomfortable for many of these Democrats, particularly northern ones, which is why there were so many “fireside discussions,” as Bush says. As for the divided host, the Democrats had split at their convention. After Stephen Douglas was nominated, the Southern Democrats who wanted protections for slavery in their platform nominated their own candidate, John C. Breckenridge.
The Hunterdon Gazette, which had for years been a Whig paper, and was decidedly sympathetic to Republicans by 1860, reprinted an article opposing Lincoln’s election published by the Savannah Republican on August 29, 1860.
The Gazette editor wrote: “The effect of Lincoln’s election upon the country is thus portrayed by one of the ablest and most conservative journals of the South─the Savannah Republican. Let it be read by Union men, by Democrats, and by all good citizens who wish well to the country:”
“Let Lincoln be elected next November, and between that time and March, we shall see cotton at five cents, negroes at five hundred dollars, Railroad, Bank and all other stocks, North and south, down among the dead men, business destroyed, creditors unable to collect their dues, and debtors ruined, and everything completely disorganized. . . . It becomes then the imperative duty of every patriot of the land, to labor to prevent Lincoln’s election, and to avert such dreadful consequences as will, in all human probability, flow from it.”
Wild predictions seem to be part and parcel of heated political contests, now as well as then.
In the election of 1860, there were 6,446 votes cast in Hunterdon County for president; 3,619 for the “Democratic Union,” which was New Jersey’s solution to the split in the Democratic Party, and 2,827 for Abraham Lincoln. Delaware Township had the third highest number of votes cast among the townships in Hunterdon: 476 for the “Dem. Union” and 166 for Lincoln. A pretty solid victory for the Democrats. In fact, among Hunterdon municipalities, Delaware Township had the largest majority of votes against Lincoln. No other township came close to its 310-vote margin.
Despite the voters of Delaware Township, Lincoln won the election. During his triumphant 1861 train ride from Springfield, Illinois to Washington DC, Lincoln stopped off at Trenton and delivered two addresses, one to the New Jersey Assembly and one to the New Jersey Senate. In his Senate speech, Lincoln recalled his childhood fondness for the story of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River during a critical moment of the Revolutionary War. His words seem to presage his Gettysburg Address.
“ . . . you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for. I am exceedingly anxious that that thing which they struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”
Lincoln also recognized the terms under which he was invited to speak:
“You give me this reception, as I understand, without distinction of party. I learn that this body is composed of a majority of gentlemen who, in the exercise of their best judgment in the choice of a Chief Magistrate, did not think I was the man. I understand, nevertheless, that they came forward here to greet me as the constitutional President of the United States—as citizens of the United States, to meet the man who, for the time being, is the representative man of the nation, united by a purpose to perpetuate the Union and liberties of the people. As such, I accept this reception more gratefully than I could do did I believe it was tendered to me as an individual.”
Within three years of that speech, the country was at war with itself. Bush observed that by the election of 1864, the Democrats were far more unified than before, and that year’s pole-raising reflected it.
But 1864 made up for all previous lack of unity. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed. The pole was a beauty. The banner was finely decorated with the names of McClellan and Pendleton.
McClellan was New Jersey native, George McClellan, the Democrats’ candidate for President and future governor of New Jersey. Pendleton was George H. Pendleton, a Ohio Congressman who became McClellan’s running mate in 1864. Nationally, the Democratic party was divided over the war. McClellan was nominated as a compromise candidate, since he strongly supported the war, while the Democratic platform called for a halt to the fighting and a negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. McClellan did his best to take advantage of the mood of defeatism in the north, and seemed likely to win, until Sherman’s successful march through Georgia.
Given that this pole raising Bush wrote about took place so close to Delaware Township, and, according to Bush, attracted men from far and wide, I think it is safe to say that the opinions of the people Bush describes could be attributed to Delaware Township residents. As Bush put it:
In truth most of the men from a considerable distance around were there, anxious to show their colors and to protest against the “usurpations” of Old Abe and the Republican party.
The “usurpations” of Old Abe were probably the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, imprisonment of Confederate sympathizers without trial, and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862.
Pole-raising was not just confined to Democrats; it was confined to male Democrats.
Women were by no means so plentiful. They were not thought to count for much in politics, of course, and rarely appeared to take much interest. The men of that day all knew that women were not fit to vote because they did not know enough about government. Like all men wise in their own esteem, they did not stop to consider whether they them-selves knew enough or not. Things are very different now, except that the evidence of self-examination is not much more noticeable to-day than in that long ago.
Bush does not tell us any more about the pole-raising of 1864, other than a short reflection on his own feelings about the Civil War:
Of course, I felt that those present must be right about the contest, though I can recall consciousness of only one deeply-rooted article of faith that seemed to bind me to theirs: I hated the thought and even the name of war. I feel no shame in confessing that there has been no change in that matter to this day.
According to E. T. Bush, these Hunterdon men, and most of New Jersey, blamed Lincoln for the war and hoped that McClellan would end it. They were mistaken, of course, but it helps us to understand from such a great distance in time why there was such opposition to a man we now venerate.
It should also be said that following Lincoln’s assassination, attitudes about Lincoln changed dramatically. This was published in the Hunterdon Gazette on May 10, 1865:
A little over four years ago Abraham Lincoln, then a comparatively untried man, left his quiet home in the little town of Springfield, Illinois, to assume the high and responsible duties of President of this republic, the most exalted and honorable of all worldly positions. On Wednesday last all that is mortal of Abraham Lincoln returned to that same quiet little town.—But in those four years what mighty events in the history of the republic and of the world have occurred, how wonderfully have been the developments in the character of the then improved man. . . . Upon the face and heart of [the] nation has been ineffaceably stamped the character and genius of that then comparatively obscure man, whom in all its ages to come, it will recognize as its savior. Honors such as the people of the United States have never before paid to the remains of a distinguished citizen they have shown to the dead body of Abraham Lincoln as well because they loved the man himself as that in the assassin shot which terminated his life they recognized the blow struck at each and all of themselves.
On Presidents’ Day in 2009, my husband and I joined a large number of visitors to see Ford’s Theatre, which had recently reopened after an extensive restoration, and also the Peterson house across the street, where Lincoln died. I am thankful that these two historic sites were so carefully preserved, allowing us to recall more vividly the terrible events of April 14, 1865, and the profound effect Abraham Lincoln had, and continues to have, on our country.
The Township of Lincoln
As Mr. Bush wrote, the Democrats of Delaware Township were divided at their convention of 1860, and although they voted pretty unanimously against Abraham Lincoln in both elections, there were many residents of the Township who admired the man, a fact that became evident after the war ended.
Opposition to the war was centered around Locktown, where “Copperheadism” prevailed. (See “Copperheadism in Locktown.”) Given the more mercantile nature of life in the Stockton area, I suspect that was where one could find supporters of the slain president. By 1866, this difference in economies as well as politics resulted in a move to secede from Delaware Township, which is a little ironic.
The Hunterdon Gazette of February 28, 1866 published this column (I have highlighted the relevant parts). I have also included items that reflect the attitudes of the majority party in the Senate, the Democrats.
The Legislature. ─There is so little of general interest in the transactions of the Legislature that we deem it unnecessary to give an extended report. During last week the Hunterdon Farmers’ R. R. bill was lost in the Senate ─8 to 10. The bill to set off from Delaware tsp., in this county, a new township to be called Lincoln was postponed. Mr. [Alexander] Wurts presented several remonstrances against the bill and spoke against it, and Mr. [Augustus G.] Richey defended it—the contest between the two gentlemen becoming almost personal.
On Tuesday last . . . Resolutions were offered endorsing the action of President Johnson in vetoeing [sic] the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, which were referred to the Committee on Federal Relations. . .
A petition was presented by Mr. Ludlum, from the citizens of Delaware, Hunterdon Co., asking that the township of Lincoln be set off from that township.
Mr. Winfield offered a resolution approving the course of Andrew Johnson in vetoeing [sic] the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and declaring the thanks of the nation due to him for his constant effort to secure an undivided Union. Mr. Scovel moved to lay the resolution on the table. Agreed to─11 to 10─a strict party vote. Mr. Trusdell offered a resolution that we have full faith in the ability, patriotism and fidelity of Andrew Johnson, President of the United State, and that we have confidence in him as the national executive. Adopted 16 to 1.
In the Assembly on Wednesday, resolutions were offered commending the President for vetoeing [sic] the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, and ordering a salute of one hundred guns, &c., which was laid on the table.
“Mr. Ludlum” was Providence Ludlum, the State Senator from Cumberland County. Hunterdon County’s senator was Alexander Wurts, a Democrat. Richey was Augustus G. Richey of Mercer County, a Republican.
According to the Journal of the Senate of the State of New Jersey for 1866 (p. 54), the bill was originally introduced on January 23, 1866 as Senate bill, No. 60, entitled “An act to set off from the township of Delaware, in the county of Hunterdon, a new township, to be called the township of Lincoln,” which was read for the first time by its title, ordered to have a second reading, and referred to the Committee on Municipal Corporations.
In 1866 the NJ State Senate was far more efficient than it is now. The bill was reported out of committee the next day, January 24th, without amendment. On February 14th, it was given its second reading, at which time, Hunterdon’s senator, Alexander Wurts “presented a remonstrance from citizens of Delaware township, Hunterdon county, against the passage of said bill, which was read. On motion of Mr. Wurts, the bill was postponed for the present.”
On March 6, 1866, Senate bill No. 60 was brought up for a vote. As one might expect, eight Republicans all voted for it, including Sen’s. Ludlum and Richey, as well as the Senate President, James M. Scovel of Camden. There were 12 votes against it, presumably all Democrats, so the measure died. The Gazette never mentioned it again. Many years later, the village of Stockton did separate but chose another man to name itself after. (See “Aristocratical Stocktons.“)
Egbert T. Bush, in “Jottings Along the Path of Life,” published in the Hunterdon County Democrat on January 28, 1932, wrote that “soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, . . . a strange affliction of lice that seriously damaged the oat crop” broke out.
The excited people of our vicinity knew exactly what to call them. They were ‘Linkin lice,’ of course. The like had never been known before. They came with the war—certainly ‘a judgment upon the country for allowing ‘Old Abe’ to plunge us all into this wickedness,’ ‘just for the sake of freeing the Niggers.’ The logic was irresistible at least, among our logicians.
Why should not a suffering people pile anathema upon ‘Old Abe.’ Only puerile politics, did somebody say? hardly that. It was only human nature in one of its least detestable moods, trying to express its discontent with things as it finds them . . .
Another parallel with our times? I think I’d prefer lice to the scourge of a deadly virus.