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 ↩
August 27, 2011 @ 10:51 am
Congratulations for starting this conversation! I’m sure you will have more to say on the subject, but based on the difficult year you have endured, you initial effort is much appreciate by all of your fans and followers.
I look forward to your next installment.
January 16, 2012 @ 11:16 pm
Hi: Nathaniel Saxton brother name was Annanais Saxton There father Charles Saxton died in Shamokin Township in 1812 at 92 years old.Annanais daughter Mary Saxton born 1805 married a Isaiah Morgan there first son name was Nathaniel S. Morgan I couldn’t determine where that name came from.but after readin this article I’m assuming it was for her Uncle Nathaniel Saxton.I also was from Shamokin area as Charles Saxton was a 5 th grandfather.Thank you for the information..
January 19, 2012 @ 5:30 pm
Dear Harold, Thank you for this very helpful comment, which is especially pertinent for a later post (“Saxton in Raven Rock,” dated Jan. 10, 2012). You’ve solved the mystery for me of who this “Nais” person was, and shown what interesting nicknames people came up with for those burdened with given names from the Bible.
May 26, 2013 @ 7:07 pm
I found your story most interesting. I was looking for taverns with importance during the Revolutionary War, and learned that my 8-G grandfather John Ladd owned Bull Island and Raven Rock at one time. Very unexpected!
Thanks for your beautiful and well-written blog.
September 8, 2020 @ 8:51 pm
I have an original oil painting of the home across from Bull’s Island. The house I believe is over 200 years old.
My grandfather ran the Post Office of Raven Rock back in the 1940’s there also was a general store in the center of the home that my grandmother ran. They lived in the far left of this home. When the flood in 1955 happened , my grandparents left this home. My father is no longer living and my brother and I inherited an original oil painting done on canvas and signed by an artist, Angus Dun.
We are sure this painting is a valuable piece of art work. Our father had it painted well over 65 years as it was a memory of his childhood. No one would understand this painting unless familiar with the history of this area in New Jersey. The painting looks like it did 65 plus years ago. It has not been damaged and hung in our parents home as long as we can remember. The house is still there today with a few changes to the front. We believe it has been converted into 3 separate living quarters today and still has the original fireplaces.
Just trying to research some history about the area and this home. Just a beautiful area along the Delaware River.