Edward Byllinge As West New Jersey’s First Governor

Just to review, in 1680, James Duke of York, with prodding from William Penn, agreed to confirm the 1664 grant of West New Jersey to John Lord Berkeley. This, along with a special deed, confirmed the grant to Edward Byllinge, Berkeley’s successor. Byllinge thereby claimed the governorship of the colony, even though there was no provision for the position of Governor in the Concessions & Agreements.1

Byllinge assumed the authority himself based on his deed from James. Fortunately for the West New Jersey residents, Byllinge’s deputy governor Samuel Jennings was entirely in sympathy with the provisions of the Concessions, giving most of the power to the Assembly.

The proprietors of West New Jersey had reason to be annoyed. They were not getting the same treatment as the proprietors of East New Jersey were. In March 1683, James granted rights to the soil and the governance of East New Jersey to its 24 proprietors, not to a particular individual. Even so, East New Jersey had to share a governor with New York.

Jennings’ view of Byllinge’s Governorship

In a pamphlet published in 1699,2 Jennings explained the Quaker proprietors’ acceptance of Edward Byllinge as governor, whose “soft and crafty dealing with us had drawn us on to recognize his Authority.” The Quakers of New Jersey were afraid that if they challenged him, Byllinge, who was known to be “hot-headed and rash as well as Indigent” might react “in a Frenzie” and “Sell the Government, and so make it more troublesome to us to recover.” And since the Quakers in West New Jersey fully expected that Byllinge as governor would reside in the place he governed, they decided to deal with him once he had arrived. Little did they know that Byllinge had no intention of leaving England.

The Contested Governorship

In 1683, Byllinge, whose holdings had been in receivership since 1675, was finally liberated from the restraints imposed on him by his Quaker trustees, for he had become solvent once again.3 Byllinge’s position was strengthened when he came into ownership of some of the proprietary shares that had been allotted to John Fenwick of Salem.

By this time, Byllinge had lost the idealism that brought him to write, or at least co-author, the “Concessions & Agreements.” In correspondence with the West New Jersey Proprietors (referred to in Jennings’ pamphlet), Byllinge repudiated the idea that he had taken on the governorship as a representative of the Quaker proprietors. Instead, he claimed the office rested solely with him. In his 1699 pamphlet, Jennings wrote that Byllinge let them know that

“he did not intend to part with the Gouvernment; Of which We complaining to him, of his dishonesty to us; in his next [letter] he tells us, That it was as much as our necks and estates were worth, to assume (what he before had owned to be) our Right.

The Assembly of 1681 had asserted that the role of governor should be very limited. He could not make war, raise money or deal with other colonies or states without consent of the Assembly. He could not dismiss the Assembly without its own consent, and he must confirm the acts of the Assembly. These were some of the conditions that Jennings had accepted in order to act as deputy governor in 1681. The Assembly had “exclusive power to legislate on all matters of provincial concern.”4 By 1683, the West Jerseyans feared this would all be surrendered to an absentee governor who had no understanding of the people he governed.

R. Morris Smith (in “The Burlington Smiths”) wrote that the residents feared that Byllinge was “inclined to turn Jennings out,” suggesting that Byllinge was unhappy with Jennings’ performance as deputy governor. In his charming way, Smith wrote:

“There were doubts being started, whether the government of West New Jersey had been granted with the soil, and reports industriously spread up and down the province, as well as in England, to the prejudice of the possessors’ title, as they thought; the assembly, in the spring this year [1683] thought it their business to obviate this.”

So, the Assembly decided to take matters into its own hands and assert as forcefully as it could the idea that the government was conveyed with the land and did not remain in the hands of Edward Byllinge. They did so by electing Samuel Jennings governor—not deputy governor. According to Osgood, this was actually done on the advice of William Penn, of all people.5 They elected Thomas Olive Speaker of the Assembly and passed several resolutions to the effect that the Concessions & Agreements should be followed, and that Byllinge should sign a paper agreeing to this.6 As Jennings wrote, the hard line position communicated to them by Byllinge

. . . opened the eyes of all, undeceived those that aforetime had been best opinionated of him, and the next General Assembly when Sett, did generally declare, They would no longer submit to his Authority, but immediately assert their own right, and chuse their Governour themselves: Which they did; pitching upon me.

Jennings wrote that he was not betraying a trust when he accepted the position of Governor. He claimed that he never accepted a commission from Byllinge himself, but rather

“to serve the Country . . . nor had I any reason to do it for his sake; who was much a Stranger to me, and from whom I never received any reward for it, and to be yet more plain; the Infamy that he was under was such, that to serve him, would have been a blemish upon my reputation.”

So there.

The West New Jersey Assembly

As 1683 opened, West New Jersey was governing itself by means of its Assembly. The Assembly consisted of ten members from each tenth, although only five tenths were settled enough to elect members. At its May 1683 session, the Assembly resolved that the government should consist of a governor, a council (to take the place of the commissioners) and an assembly. The Governor, Council and Assembly met together as a unicameral body. When the Assembly was not in session, the Governor and commissioners/council members took care of day-to-day governance.7

To reinforce its supremacy, the Assembly itself elected the governor and council members. The Assembly also chose all the other civil officers, such as “commissioners of the public seals, treasurers, chief justices, sheriffs, and collectors.” But constables and justices of the peace were chosen locally.

Other officers chosen by the Assembly were commissioners for dividing and regulating lands in each tenth, commissioners for buying lands from the Indians, two treasurers for the province (one for the Upper and one for the Lower Tenths), two recorders (one for the Upper Four Tenths and one for Salem), two sheriffs (for the same jurisdictions), a surveyor and constables for the first, second and third Tenths. This practice of choosing officers was continued annually.

Members of the Assembly of 1683 who had a role in the development of Hunterdon County:

From the first Tenth:  William Emley, Mahlon Stacy, Thomas Lambert, William Biddle
From the second Tenth:  Thomas Budd, Daniel Wills, Thomas Gardner, Isaac Merriott
From the third Tenth:  Francis Collins, Thomas Howell.

Thomas Howell

One person relevant to this story who appeared among landowners in the Third Tenth was Thomas Howell, who was listed with 650 acres as an “undivided part in two settlements.”8

It is time for a little genealogy. Thomas Howell and wife Katharine had a son Daniel Howell, who married Hannah Lakin in 1686 in Philadelphia, and whose son Daniel married the daughter of John Reading. This Daniel Howell, Jr. was the person responsible for the settlement known as Howell’s Ferry on the Delaware River at the northern end of Stockton in Hunterdon County.

Thomas Howell was probably born about 1640 in Tamworth, Warwickshire, England. However, he may have come from Haxleston, Staffordshire, and possessed a landed estate in Warwickshire. He must have married around 1660-1665 (since his son Daniel married in 1686). His wife was named Katharine (I do not know her surname). Thomas and Katharine had at least five children born in England: two sons, Daniel and Mordecai, and three daughters, Miriam, Priscilla and Katharine.

On August 31st and September 1st, 1677, Thomas Howell, yeoman of Haxelston, Staffordshire, acquired a 1/8th proprietary share in West New Jersey from Benjamin Bartlett, son-in-law of Edward Byllinge.9 This suggests that he was not a member of the Yorkshire group, nor of the London group, but was nonetheless a Quaker.

In August 1682, Howell sailed aboard the ‘Welcome’ along with William Penn. He came with his sons, leaving his wife behind in England. (I do not know what happened to his daughters, but they were still alive in 1687.) Thomas Howell may have sailed with William Penn, but he was destined for West New Jersey, rather than Pennsylvania, because of his purchase back in 1677 from Benjamin Bartlett. Penn was not offering shares in Pennsylvania until 1681.

Howell settled in what was called Waterford township in the third tenth (which became Cherry Hill, Camden County). His property was adjacent to land owned by Francis Collins. In 1687, Howell sold 100 acres of his own tract to Richard Wright.10

Thomas Howell must have made an impression on his neighbors, for he was elected to the Assembly in 1683, and also in 1685. At the Burlington Court of June 1684, Thomas Howell was named one of the overseers of highways in the Third Tenth with William Cooper.

Infant Bureaucracy

In May 1683, the Burlington Court named Overseers of Roads for the First and Second Tenths but did not name Overseers for the Third and Fourth. This suggests that the roads that existed in the latter two tenths were not significant or numerous enough to merit overseeing.  The other positions named by the court were overseers for the size of bricks, overseers for searching and sealing leather, for regulating weights and measures, and ale tasters. That last position was important because people did not trust the water, it being a source of cholera and other diseases back in England. They preferred (and trusted) fermented beverages, but in a place where government was in its infancy, that trust might be misplaced. Apparently, some brewers took liberties with their ingredients.


  1.  Aaron Leaming & Jacob Spicer, The Grants, Concessions & Original Constitution of the Province of New Jersey; The Acts Passed During the Proprietary Governments, and other Material Transactions before the Surrender  . . . to Queen Anne, 1752;  Somerville, NJ: Honeyman & Co., 1881.
  2. The quotations are from Jennings’ pamphlet, “Truth Rescued from Forgery and Falsehood,” published in 1699. Any words in italics in subsequent quotes are printed that way in the reprint I have by Collins Printing House, Philadelphia, 1880. I presume they were also in italics in the manuscript.
  3. Stellhorn & Birkner, The Governors of NJ, pp. 21-24.
  4. See Herbert Levi Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, Vol. 2.
  5. I have not found Osgood’s source for this.
  6. Leaming and Spicer, Concessions & Agreements, pp. 456-472.
  7. Osgood, p.195.
  8. Burlington Court Book, p.28.
  9. Gloucester Deed Book 2, pg 111.
  10. Gloucester Deeds, 1-14.