The following is an update of a speech I delivered at the Locktown Stone Church in May 1997. I thought it would be a good idea to archive the speech here on my website, especially since it makes a nice short history of Delaware Township. When I gave the speech, I had two large maps showing locations of mills, taverns, ferries, the oldest roads. One map showed the 18th century version of Delaware Township, and one showed the 19th century version. Whatever happened to those maps? If I find them, I’ll turn them over to Marilyn Cummings who has been working hard on just such a map project, one that can be seen on Google Earth.
The speech describes villages in general, and then focuses on each separate village. Because it was a speech, each description is brief and somewhat vague. But it produces a longer post than usual. So much longer that I’ve divided it into two parts.
I began the speech with a disclaimer, knowing that there were many in the audience who knew much more about the township’s history than I do. I did not grow up here, nor did my parents, which puts me at a disadvantage. Even now, after living here for over 35 years, there are some who still think of me as a newcomer. It’s that kind of town.
There are many different ways to talk about our township’s history. Looking at its villages tells us a lot about how things got started and how they changed.
Villages don’t just happen. There’s a reason why each one comes into existence—sometimes not much of a reason, but people don’t need much reason for what they do. Villages are a little like roads; the ones that are now highly traveled highways sometimes began as paths taken by wayward animals, paths that were adopted by the Indians and then enlarged by early settlers, slightly modified by new landowners who wanted to protect their property lines, and then paved and made permanent.
Villages might start with a location where two trails intersected, or at a good fishing spot. A ferry attracted a tavern, a mill attracted a store, and soon there would be a village.
We should look at the very first villages. Lenape settlements were of two types, the semi-permanent village and the seasonal camp. The only village in this area that I am aware of was located at northern Lambertville, at the mouth of the Alexauken Creek. Evidence of Lenapes in other areas in Delaware Township—and there is lots of evidence—indicates seasonal fishing and hunting locations, especially at the mouths of the Wickecheoke and the Lockatong Creeks, but also inland at good deer-hunting locations.
Some of these Lenape camps were adopted by the later European settlers. There was often a cleared area where the Lenapes gardened, and cleared areas were always attractive to Europeans.
18th century villages didn’t amount to much. But following the Revolution, village life became the best part of living in the country. Villages were the center of the neighborhood, the place where people gathered to take care of business, share their experiences and just have a good time. They were lively places, especially on Saturday nights.
And then the automobile took over the land. Especially following World War II, America became a different place, a place that no longer had much need for villages. Local post offices were closed, small stores yielded to larger ones further away, so there were fewer reasons to spend time in a village.
Today Delaware is one of the few townships left in New Jersey that still has recognizable villages. We should know more about how they came into existence, what they were like during their heyday, and what we have left now.
Before It Became Delaware Township
Delaware Township is a very large municipality, almost 37 square miles. It used to be part of an even larger Amwell Township, which covered Delaware, Stockton, Lambertville, West & East Amwell, Flemington, Raritan, and a little of Readington and Lebanon. It was created in 1708 at the instigation of John Reading, back when he and his family were practically the only Europeans living here, besides possibly John Ringo and John Holcombe and their families.
The northern border of Amwell was the line between Delaware and Kingwood, which extended northeast past the South Branch all the way to the Black River, and the Somerset County line. It was huge. For many people that is a difficult space to identify with. It is much easier to relate to one’s own neighborhood. People have always needed to have a smaller, more local place to identify with. That is the case even today. Twenty years ago [sic, make that 35], when I first moved here, I met a woman at a party held near Sergeantsville. I asked her if she was from here, and she answered no, I’m from Stockton. Having just come to Delaware Township from the other side of the state, I was amazed by her answer, but it makes sense to me now.
So, aside from the Lenape camps, where was the first village in Delaware Township? I’m afraid the earliest village that the township can claim no longer belongs to it. I am referring to Prallsville and Stockton. Stockton separated from Delaware Township in 1898. Until then, it was Delaware’s most important community. We don’t think of it as part of Delaware now, but for much of its history it was the commercial center of Delaware Township. Delaware farmers brought their harvests to Stockton to be sent to market first by way of boat down the river, then by the canal or railroad. But Township meetings never took place there and Stockton had always been focused away from the rest of the town, towards the river and Pennsylvania. It took on the name of Stockton in 1853 when the post office was moved there from the Prallsville Store. It separated from Delaware when legislation made it easier for small boroughs to be created.
But back to Stockton’s beginnings: One of Delaware’s earliest settlers was John Reading, who came here in 1708 or earlier and built a home on 1,440 acres of land that extended from the Lockatong on the west to today’s Route 519, and included the northern part of Stockton. That area (northern Stockton) and the area around today’s Prallsville Mill complex he gave to his daughter Mary and her new husband Daniel Howell as a wedding gift in 1710. Before moving to this area, John Reading had kept a ferry in Gloucester County that ran over to Philadelphia. So it was natural that he and his son-in-law would start one here in their new home. It became known first as Reading’s Ferry and later as Howell’s Ferry. It connected up with an old Indian path in Pennsylvania that led down to Philadelphia. But the destination on the New Jersey end was not Flemington (which didn’t exist in 1710), but the South Branch of the Raritan, which could lead a traveler to the eastern settlements of New Jersey and on to New York.
Traveling in the 18th century was a very challenging and time-consuming endeavor. Often the river was impassable, which meant that travelers had to wait until storms blew over or ice melted. Enterprising ferry keepers were quick to help the poor travelers out by establishing taverns close to the ferries, and that is what Daniel Howell did. I can picture Mary Reading Howell, daughter of the important and prosperous John Reading, putting her foot down when travelers started camping out in her kitchen. But whether Howell simply enlarged his house or built a separate one for the tavern, I cannot say. Daniel Howell’s tavern was located at the corner of today’s Route 523 and Highway 29, where the defunct Baptist Church now stands.
But Daniel Howell was more enterprising than that. At an early date he also established a grist mill and an oil mill on the Wickecheoke near today’s Prallsville Mill. So—he had a ferry, a tavern and 2 mills, all businesses that attract people. There weren’t many people around from 1710 to 1733, the year when Daniel Howell died, but the ones that were here most certainly spent time at Howell’s Ferry, and some of them built houses there, log houses that are no longer standing. This meant that a store of some kind was also needed. I don’t have a record of a store at such an early period, but there certainly was one there by the time of the Revolution.
So these are the ingredients for an 18th century village in Delaware Township: a ferry, a tavern, a mill, and a store. A blacksmith shop would also be an attraction. And it helps to have an intersection of roads. Such intersections were important for the simple reason that there were so few of them. The roads that did exist were not much more than dirt paths.
When settlement was sparse, people didn’t travel much. For one thing, there weren’t many places to go, and for another, it was just so difficult. They stayed on their farms where they were quite self-sufficient. But there were reasons to travel. Milling was an unavoidable necessity, as most farmers could not set up the equipment needed to grind their grain into flour. Stores provided goods that farmers could not provide for themselves, like coffee, tea, sugar, spices, tobacco, and later on, cotton and other manufactured fabrics. Taverns weren’t absolutely essential to local folk, since many people could and did make their own hard cider and beer. But you could get imported liquor, like rum and sweet wines there, and hear and share news from the travelers who passed through. The taverns began by serving the traveling public but became important institutions for local people, providing a neutral, public place to hold town meetings and conduct business.
But, back to the roads: There were only a few main roads, so wherever they intersected, there was almost certain to be a tavern. Take the intersection of Routes 523 and 579, both very old roads. There was a tavern in operation there since about 1725, which makes it one of the oldest in Hunterdon County. It was probably run by Daniel Robins, and later taken over by John Buchanan. The location made sense, as anyone can tell you who tries to walk up the hill from Ringoes. But no village grew up around this tavern. About three 18th century houses were built there, but no other attractions developed in this spot.
Another example of this was the Boarshead Tavern, located on Route 579 where the Boarshead Road intersects. Boarshead Road is a very ancient road that was once called the road to Baptistown. The tavern is also very old and was a well-known stopping place, even though it is only a little over two miles from Buchanan’s Tavern. Although the tavern was very popular, there was never a village or even the hint of one at this location. By the way, Buchanan’s Tavern is now a residence, but the Boarshead (which was actually on the Raritan side of the road) burned down, and a modern home was built on or near the foundation.
So, it takes more than an intersection and a tavern to make a village. In the 18th century, a mill was needed, and an important one was built around 1735 in Headquarters. It was probably built by John Opdycke, who also built a handsome stone house next to the mill, and two other stone houses across the road. The man could not restrain himself, for he also built a mill and a stone house on the Wickecheoke. He seemed to prefer this second mill because in the 1760’s he sold the Headquarters mill to the son of Daniel Howell of Howell’s Ferry, But he kept the Wickecheoke mill for another ten years before giving it to his son Samuel Opdycke. Joseph Howell soon went bankrupt and sold his mill to Benjamin Tyson. Tyson did better, and the area was known all through the Revolution as Tyson’s Mill. Tyson’s Mill also had a store and a distillery, to turn all that grain that farmers used to pay for their milling into a marketable product. The tavern at Headquarters was known as the White Hall, and is said to have been the gathering and recruiting place for the Amwell Militia during the Revolution, from whence comes the name Headquarters. There was a lot of activity there, and people built houses near the mill and tavern. It is probably safe to say that during the Revolution, Tyson’s Mill was the most important village in what we today know as Delaware Township.
Opdycke’s Mill on the Wickecheoke was also a popular place to go for milling, but it had no store or tavern, so it never developed as a village. In the 1770’s the road we now call Route 604 or the Rosemont-Ringoes Road was known as the road from Tyson’s Mill to Opdycke’s Mill. Nothing was said about the village of Sergeantsville then because it didn’t really exist until after the Revolution.
Another example of a mill location that did not develop into a village is the Rittenhouse Mill on the Wickecheoke, on today’s Old Mill Road. That was a well-known mill (actually two mills, a grist mill and a saw mill) and it stayed in operation well into the late 19th century. People traveled there from some distance, and yet no village developed. They came for their flour or their lumber, and they left.
As for other possibly pre-Revolutionary villages, there are only a couple that might qualify. One is Sand Brook. What did Sand Brook have? A mill, of course. This one was run by the Kitchen family, first Henry Kitchen, by 1739 or earlier, and then his son Samuel Kitchen. There may have been a store in Sand Brook at a fairly early date, but there was no tavern. People in Sand Brook went up the road (523) to use Buchanan’s Tavern.
Other than the Kitchen Mill, which was located on a very small body of water (i.e., the Sand Brook), there wasn’t much reason for people to go to there. Strangely enough, the road from Sand Brook to Headquarters was a very old road, definitely an 18th century road, although not based on an Indian trail. You can see that by how straight it is. Here I’m speculating, but it seems as if many of the early roads connected the mills. I’m not at all sure why people would want to travel from one mill to another, but it must have been fairly compelling, since making roads and maintaining them took a lot of effort. On the other hand, most of the earliest roads did follow Indian paths, and the Indians traveled from their more permanent settlements to good hunting and fishing locations. Perhaps the mills got located where the fishing was good and people using the mills took advantage of the Indian paths. Just a theory.
But we should remember that by the 1750’s, there were virtually no Lenape present in Delaware Township. Disease, migration and war had taken their toll, and no real attempt was made by the Europeans to make room for them here.
Rosemont might claim to be a pre-Revolutionary village of sorts. William Rittenhouse and George Fox and their families were the earliest settlers there, and the Rosemont Cemetery was established in the 1720’s on land belonging to George Fox. Route 519 was another of those very early roads, almost certainly based on an Indian path. William Rittenhouse established a tavern around 1740 that was widely known as a landmark all through the 18th century. His son Isaac took it over and is supposed to have named it the Crosskeys Tavern. I am not aware of any other village activity there before the Revolution.1
So, what about Sergeantsville? Sometime before the Revolution, in the 1760’s, the Sergeant brothers John and Joseph set up a store on the southeast corner of the intersection, and later on a blacksmith shop on the northwest corner. The Thatcher and Gordon families were living here by the 1740’s. But there was no mill here. The intersection must have been important enough to sustain a store and a blacksmith shop. In 1780, the land that the Township Hall stands on was bought by Franklin Gordon and then sold to his brother Agesilaus Gordon.
Recently [back in 1997 before the web got useful] I looked up the name Agesilaus in the New Century Cyclopedia of Names and learned its correct pronunciation (a jes i lá us), along with its history. Agesilaus was a king of Sparta in Greece from 399 to 360 B.C. Agesilaus Gordon had a brother named Othniel, which was a Hebrew name meaning something like ‘God’s lion.’ What on earth were his parents reading?
Records seem to show that Agesilaus Gordon started the tavern at the crossroads of the road from Howell’s Ferry to Flemington and the road from Tyson’s Mill to Opdycke’s Mill. Once the tavern got going, the crossroads became an attractive center with a very unattractive name: Skunktown. The word skunk comes from the Algonquian language, a variant of which the Lenape spoke. So the name could have been used here for a very long time. Cornelius Lake called it Skunktown in 1803 when he applied for a tavern license. In 1805 Godfrey Rockafellar applied for the tavern license and gave the name as Skoonkton, which suggests the writer was Dutch. But the Rockafellar family came from Germany in 1723. In 1821 William Rake called it Scuncktown in his tavern license application.
One wonders about the local Chamber of Commerce—how could they allow such an unfortunate name to be put to their village? The Gordons, Lakes, Thatchers and Sergeants (the most important families here) must not have been paying much attention. But it may have something to do with the fact that in the 18th century, people were not much interested in naming places or naming roads. The roads were all identified as where they came from and where they went to, like the road from Tyson’s Mills to Opdycke’s Mill, mentioned before.
Try to imagine what it was like to live here then. There were perhaps as many as 500-800 people in today’s Delaware Township in the 18th century, whereas today we have over 5,000 and are still considered lightly populated. With so few people, every house and farm became a landmark. Roads were known as ways to get to these houses, and everyone knew where everyone else lived. They had to, for neighbors depended a great deal on each other. They traded with each other, borrowed money from each other, chased each other’s animals, and helped erect each others houses and barns. They worshipped together and their children married into each others’ families.
Take my road, as an example, the Locktown-Flemington Road. In the 18th century there were two houses on the stretch running from Route 579 to the intersection with Ferry Road. One was owned by John Besson, the other by Andrew Bearder and his family. From Ferry Road to the end of the road in Locktown, there were three houses, owned by the Myers, the Rockafellars, and the Lawbachers. You can be sure that everyone on the Locktown-Flemington Road knew everyone else on that road. During the Revolution, the road was called “the road from Flemington to the Swamp Meeting House,” which was how the Locktown Baptist Church was known back then. There was no village of Locktown until the 19th century.
This leads me to the inescapable fact that the villages of Delaware Township as we think of them today did not really come into existence until the 19th century. Following the Revolution and the War of 1812, village activity increased greatly, with new stores and shops of different kinds opening up. That wonderful innovation, the post office, arrived at Prallsville in 1817 or earlier, and in Lambertville in 1814. Most post offices were located in stores and sometimes in taverns, but always in established villages.
One of the earliest and most controversial post offices was the one established in Lambertville. The place was known as Coryell’s Ferry at the time, and the Coryell family dominated the southern part of the town, ever since Emmanuel Coryell came there in the 1730’s. But in 1814, Sen. John Lambert, a Delaware resident whose home was on Seabrook Road, pulled strings to get a post office set up in the village, in a store run by his nephew, John Lambert. That store is now the restored Lambert House. When the post office was established, the job of postmaster was given to the Senator’s nephew, and the office (and thereby the town) was given the name of Lambert’s Ville, later shortened to Lambertville. The Coryell family took offense and insisted on calling it “Lambertsvillainy.”
In 1827, it was Skunktown’s turn to get a post office. Clearly this was an opportunity to rid the town of an awful name, so the occasion was treated with due seriousness. A large meeting was called, a vote was taken and the Thatcher family lost out to the Sergeant family, who got the name. The Thatchers took it in stride since Jonas Thatcher got the job of postmaster, but that’s because he ran the store.
In 1834, the first Gazetteer of New Jersey was written and published by Thomas Gordon. Delaware Township had not been created yet, so it was not included. Gordon had no entry for Sergeantsville or for Headquarters or Raven Rock. He described Prallsville as having 1 store, 1 tavern, some 6 or 8 dwellings and a grist mill, along with “a fine bridge erected over the Delaware.”
Gordon had a listing for Amwell Township, which by 1834 was somewhat smaller than it was in 1708. He wrote that it was 16 miles long and 15 miles wide, with 77,000 acres. The Amwell post offices were located at Flemington, Sergeantsville, Ringoes, Prallsville, and “Lambertsville.”
Delaware Township was incorporated in 1838. Two years later, Barber & Howe wrote another gazetteer. What they found was quite different from the 18th century settlement. The population of Delaware Township had grown to 2,305, with 7 stores, 6 grist mills, 6 saw mills, 1 oil mill, $12,360 in manufacturing, 8 schools, and 227 scholars. What a dramatic change! Barber & Howe did not take the trouble to locate these mills and stores, although they did write that Sergeantsville had “a store, tavern, and a few mechanics, a neat Methodist church lately erected and about a dozen dwellings.” “Head Quarters” had a store, 2 grist mills and 8 dwellings. Raven Rock, which they called “Bool’s Island” at the head of the feeder canal had a store, tavern and 12 or 15 dwellings. And finally, Prallsville had a store, a tavern, a plaster, oil, grist and saw mill, and a few dwellings.
The Cornell Map of 1851 showed ten mills in Delaware Township (including a couple that hulled clover seed), eight hotels & distilleries, six stores, eleven “shops,” 2 tanneries, a copper mine near Yard Road, seven churches, and seven schools. Those hotels on the map were actually the old taverns, but by the mid 19th century, the temperance movement had become so strong that taverns were now socially unacceptable, and so they morphed into hotels.
I should also mention that in 1851, Delaware’s eastern boundary ran the length of Route 579 down to Ringoes, and then from Ringoes southwest along the Alexauken Creek to the River. So we could argue that for a time, Ringoes was a Delaware Township village. But most of that area was handed over to East Amwell in 1854.
The next post (Part Two) will cover each of Delaware’s villages and neighborhoods (there is a difference) alphbetically, and what they were like in the 19th century.
- I should note that this information regarding the Rittenhouse Tavern is what has been commonly understood, but I am growing skeptical and hope to get better information some day. ↩