Who really found the Delaware River boats in December 1776? the boats that Gen. Washington was supposed to rely on to carry his army across the river on Christmas Eve? For a long time I was certain it was David Johnes of Amwell, working with Daniel Bray and Jacob Gearhart. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I now have serious doubts.
Jonathan M. Hoppock had no doubts at all, but it appears he was wrong. He wrote the following article (“Neglected Revolutionary Heroes”) in 1906, calling attention to the role played by Daniel Bray especially. Since I have decided to print all of Mr. Hoppock’s articles, this one seemed appropriate now, since I want to correct the record, and incidentally, Mr. Hoppock.
Mike Alfano, State Registrar for the Sons of the American Revolution,1 has been researching the pension applications of Revolutionary War soldiers and their widows from Somerset and Hunterdon Counties. That is where he found evidence that the story that so many 19th-century historians loved to tell is wide of the mark. Mike will be discussing his findings in a talk scheduled for October 23, 2016.2
I do not wish to steal Mike’s thunder, so I will save the details for now. However, there are two articles of mine in particular that will need correction, based on Mike’s findings. They are Thomas Jones v. David Johnes and Home of Capt. David Jones. The principal correction? It was Thomas Jones of Clinton after all, and not David Johnes of Amwell who helped to collect the boats.
With that in mind, here is Mr. Hoppock’s article (with some of my comments):
Neglected Revolutionary Heroes
by Jonathan M. Hoppock
published in the Democrat-Advertiser, April 19, 1906
It is a well-known fact that The Daughters of the American Revolution have been very energetic in marking the historical places throughout the United States, and as the Colonel Lowrey Chapter have succeeded in their efforts in procuring a tablet to mark the site of the old Fleming house—the oldest dwelling still standing at the County Seat—it is to be hoped at the proposed coming meeting in May of the delegates of the Chapters of the D. A. R. in New Jersey, to be held when the tablet is unveiled, that these descendants of illustrious sires will assist in procuring means by contributions, State aid—or both—to mark other spots of historic interest in this part of the county.
Efforts heretofore made for this commendable work have so far proved futile. Even the at one time much-talked of Bray monument has apparently been forgotten during the past winter.3 The petitions that were to be circulated asking the Legislature while in session for a small sum to mark in an appropriate manner the spot where rest the remains of the noble old Jerseyman who, as a leader and commander of the soldiers of his native State on many a bloody field, and as the guiding spirit in the memorable expedition that secured the boats from the head waters of the upper Delaware for the passage of the American army across that stream from the Pennsylvania shore to Trenton, previous to the capture of the Hessians at that place, and who did more to gain the independence of this great Republic than any Jerseyman that ever lived, were never circulated nor presented.
The only tangible marker to show where repose his remains is that of a plain marble slab, with a soldier’s marker seen in front, standing in the Rosemont Cemetery and shown in the view hereunder, and marked with this inscription:
October 12th, 1753,
December 5th, 1819
Hoppock’s description of the gravestone, and his somewhat inaccurate version of what was carved into it made me think he saw an earlier stone than the one that can be seen today in the Rosemont cemetery. But the photograph accompanying the article convinces me he was describing the same gravestone. It reads: “Sacred to the Memory of Daniel Bray, born October the 12th, A.D. 1751, and departed this life December the 5th, A.D. 1819, in the 69th year of his age.” The consensus appears to be that he was born in 1751, not 1753. (I would have included the photograph from the Democrat-Advertiser, but it is too fuzzy.)
As for the missing monument, in 1931 the Gen. Mercer Chapter of the D.A.R. succeeded in erecting one recognizing Bray’s service in the Revolution. This photograph was found on the Find-a-Grave site, provided by Duke Thatcher:
Mr. Hoppock continues:
In this humble and modest manner is marked the resting place of as grand a hero as ever figured in ancient or modern history, the leader of the gallant band who, in the darkest hour of the revolutionary struggle, secured the means that enabled the patriot army to achieve the pivotal victory of that glorious old war—the turning point in the American Revolution; the achievement of which rekindled the fires of patriotism, aroused the lovers of liberty to renewed efforts, caused the invading foe to retreat from the Delaware to the Hudson, paved the way for the overthrow of Burgoyne at Saratoga, and finally culminated in the triumph at Yorktown—achievements that never could have been realized had it not been for the man who “Brought the Boats to Washington.” May his memory be kept green in song and story as long as the records of valor exist.
Events of the war preceding the battle of Trenton are well known to every student of history: the disastrous defeat of the American army on Long Island August 27th, 1775; the abandonment of New York; partial defeat of the Continental troops at White Plains; the capture of Fort Washington on the Hudson by the Hessians, followed by the flight of the patriots through New Jersey.
Pursued by the British commander with six thousand men, the van of the pursuing army often in sight of the American rear guard—defeated, disheartened, ragged, barefoot—marking their pathway by the blood oozing from their naked feet on the frozen ground, after a retreat of more than thirty days’ duration—a mere handful of fugitives—they fled across the Delaware and took up their position on the western shore of that stream. Such was the condition of the American army when encamped on the west bank of the Delaware, December 1775 [sic, this should be 1776].
At a council of war at this place, by Washington and his Generals, it was resolved to strike one more blow for the apparently lost cause. In these transactions General Bray played a leading part. His biographer in narrating the great service Bray rendered his country, state[s] that:—
After a council held in Bucks Co., Pa., December 20, 1776, a trooper was sent across the river with a letter to General Bray, at Kingwood.4 It had been resolved to make an attack on Trenton. One of the council had expressed doubts about securing boats for the passage of the army. Washington said: “Leave that to me.” Then he said he knew a young fellow up in Kingwood named Daniel Bray, one of his trusted officers, who had never failed in any duty given him to do, and that he lived near the river and knew every ford and ferry boat from Coryell’s (Lambertville) to Easton. He would bring all the craft needed, in good time.
This yarn sounds like good old-fashioned, fireside story-telling. Mike suspects the stories were told by Daniel Bray’s son Wilson Bray, sometime sheriff of Hunterdon County, to Wilson’s son Stacey B. Bray, who became a fierce defender of his grandfather’s role in the Revolution. One of the most compelling refutations of this story is Mike’s observation that Gen. Washington always adhered to the chain of command and would never delegate such an important job to lowly militia captains and lieutenants.
I have some other questions about what Hoppock wrote. First of all, the paragraph above was not printed in quotes, so I must assume Hoppock was paraphrasing. Secondly, who was that unnamed biographer? It was most likely Rev. Joseph F. Folsom, sometime recording secretary for the New Jersey Historical Society, and an author of several poems and articles pertaining to NJ History. He wrote a biography of Daniel Bray in 1917 which is probably the source that Mr. Hoppock was relying on.5 Folsom got much of his information from Dr. George S. Mott’s article in the book Hunterdon’s First Century, and also from Gen. W. S. Stryker’s Battles of Trenton. However, both Mott and Stryker named Thomas Jones, not David Johnes.
It must be remembered that the boats used in the crossing from Trenton to Pennsylvania, Dec. 7, 1776, were all down stream below Trenton Falls, and were to be used for simultaneous crossing at Bordentown and Trenton, while Washington would cross at McKonkey’s Ferry, eight miles above Trenton. It would have been impossible to get the boats up stream under the circumstances, hence others must be brought down from above.
Mike Alfano will take issue with this statement in his upcoming talk. In brief, the boats collected by Bray and company were meant to be used for a crossing at Frenchtown, for the branch of the army under Charles Lee’s command that was crossing New Jersey well to the north of Washington’s route. They were to be collected at Tinicum, across the river from Frenchtown.
The trooper proceeded six miles north from Coryell’s to Kingwood, where, at midnight, he aroused Capt. Bray who, after ordering his horse saddled, returned with the orderly to Coryell’s ferry, where it is alleged, Washington met him. It is said that John Coryell ferried Washington over and that he introduced his brother, Abram, to the General at the “Ferry Hotel,” and that Washington was provided with an upper room, where he gave the young Captain his instructions in regard to the boats. He told him to secure every boat on the Delaware, from the Lehigh River down, and expressed his confidence in him. Bray say he would try and then started off in the night to find his helpers. He first rode to the home of Captain David Jones, at Head Quarters, four miles inland, and from there to Flemington, where he roused up Captain Thomas Gearhart.
Here is the problem. Hoppock claims that Bray rode to the house of David Johnes at Headquarters to recruit him in the effort to collect all the Delaware River boats from Amwell north to Easton. But, Mike Alfano has discovered from the pension applications that David Johnes, who definitely was active in the Amwell Militia, was not at Headquarters at this time. He was actually somewhere near Boundbrook or Trenton. Meanwhile, members of the Hunterdon militia who were designated to collect the boats were located at Penny Town (Pennington), and others were on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
So how did Hoppock get the idea that it was David Johnes rather than Thomas Jones? I will save the answer for the end of this post.
They were informed of the project and requested to pick out men for it. They met at Ringoes and then finally at Baptisttown. They went northward in three sections of companies, breaking up into small groups, as though on a hunting expedition, carrying flint-locks, dressed in linsey suits, and wearing rabbit and coon skin caps. They kept inland, not approaching the river till near the Lehigh. From there downward they cut out by night the boats of every ferry, the Durham boats, and all other craft suitable for transporting the army. It was a perilous undertaking, as every one who has come down the Delaware rifts at night knows. Rocks and shoals must be avoided, the treacherous rapids must be descended carefully, with the river running from six to eight miles an hour. When there is added the cold, wintry night, with exposure to biting winds, on a dark and icy river, the danger is intensified. But it was successfully accomplished. Twenty-five boats were captured. These were hidden behind Malta Island (once near the present Lambertville, but since washed away by the river) which with its dense timber shielded them from observation. When they were wanted that Christmas Eve, they were floated down eight miles to McKonkey’s Ferry, where they did memorable and effective service in transporting to victory the troops of Washington.6
I am often amazed when I hear this story about the cavalier attitude toward the unfortunate boat owners, whose livelihoods were threatened by the loss of their boats. Such are the sacrifices required to create heroes and history myths.
The boats played a very important part in the attack on Trenton. For all time Washington crossing the Delaware will be one of the most dramatic incidents in the great struggle. Art has fixed it upon canvas, history has dwelt upon it, but few eyes beheld that little band of men, risking life and health through the long nights, bringing the boats to Washington. Among those who shall yet be honored with tablet or monument, let the brave man that led this enterprise be included; and let his memory be accorded a fair and just measure of praise.
“The Delaware with stately sweep,
Flows seaward, as when armies fought;
But they who struck for Freedom sleep
Beneath the soil their valor bought.
At Rosemont inland, Daniel Bray,
In lonely grave, with rest hard won,
Waits for his country’s voice to say,
He brought the boats to Washington!”
Of Bray’s two trusted lieutenants who so nobly aided him, the one, Captain David Jones, whose remains repose in the Mount Airy Cemetery, his grave modestly marked with a small marble stone, with his name given, is the only marker of the last resting place of the sterling old patriot who, as a leader, enrolled, called into action and commanded the militia of this part of the county (that were brought into service during the war) on nearly every Revolutionary battlefield in his native State.
The old “White Hall” shown at top of this sketch, and standing at Head Quarters, built in colonial style, now rapidly falling into decay, was the place of rendezvous when the old soldier collected his followers after having been notified by General Bray on his midnight ride from Lambertville to secure his aid in the proposed expedition up the Delaware.
The remains of the other, Captain Thomas Gearhart, found their resting place in an unmarked grave, near a huge wild cherry tree in the old part of the Presbyterian cemetery at Flemington. While on our way to visit the spot, our attention was attracted by the enduring and handsome monument in front of the Church, erected in honor of the gallant soldiers of the great civil conflict and the thought was brought to mind that Republics are not always ungrateful.—But being shown further, the neglected surroundings and unmarked grave of the gallant Gearhart, the contrast made conspicuously manifest the fact that Republics are often very forgetful.
Note that at the beginning of this paragraph, Hoppock refers to “Captain Thomas Gearhart.” Was that a Freudian slip? The correct name was Jacob Gearhart. Hoppock’s use of the name Thomas makes me wonder if he was thinking about the claim that it was Thomas (not David) Jones who helped collect the boats.7 Note also that Hoppock thought that Jones and Gearhart were lieutenants under the command of Daniel Bray, when in fact, Bray was the lieutenant, and Jones and Gearhart were both captains.
Surely, the memory of this man is worthy of greater recognition. The man who at Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth and other points, rallied the Jersey soldiers to deeds of daring and valor. Should we be content to have the memory of such as he sink into oblivion? The tradition of our ancestors, written a few years since, narrates the following:
In one of the conflicts in which Gearhart was engaged, he was severely wounded in the leg by a bullet. It remained imbedded in his limb through life, but in after years worked itself out so as to become visible under the skin. Advised by a surgeon to have it removed, the old hero replied, “No, I got that bullet in the Revolution, and I mean to carry it as long as I live.” He had his way; the bullet was buried with him.
Bray, Jones and Gearhart, the partisan Revolutionary heroes of the North, were surely the peers of the Marions, Sumpters and Moultries of the South. The writer is indebted to Rev. Samuel Williams and James M. Cox for the photographs above shown.
J. M. Hoppock
Some more observations:
Hoppock was certainly correct that the Christmas Eve river crossing and the successful raid on Trenton was of great importance to the outcome of the Revolution. The “incident” was well described in David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing, but even that very thorough account has some flaws.
What is the original source for the story anyway? In addition to some important letters from Gen. Washington in December 1776, references to the collection of boats north of Lambertville prior to December 25, 1776 were found by Mike Alfano in the pension applications of John Clifford, William Anderson, Nicholas Gulick, Peter Aller, Cornelius Van Fleet and Capt. Christopher Johnson. In John Clifford’s application dated October 20, 1832, he named Bray, Gearhart and Thomas Jones as the men who collected the boats, under the command of Maj. Nathaniel Pettit.8
Clifford testified to his service before Benjamin Egbert, a judge of the court of common pleas, and it is probably Egbert who wrote the transcript, including this excerpt:
About the first of December 1776 & after being discharged from the five months service he marched as first Lieutenant under Capt. Jacob Geerhart in company with a detachment of Capt. Daniel Bray & Capt. Thomas Jones Companies under the command of Major Nathaniel Pettit agreeable to the General order, to collect all the water crafts that could be found in the Delaware River between Easton and Sherrerd ferry (now French Town) and bring them to Frenchtown to assist Gen. Lee’s army in crossing the Delaware from N. Jersey to Pennsylvania and after performing this duty, crossed over the Delaware with Major Pettit and joined Gen. Washington’s Army as a volunteer acting as Lieutenant with the Army until the 25th day of that month (Dec)
You will note that Clifford referred to “Capt. Daniel Bray.” This was probably because Bray often served as an acting captain in his company, which was commanded by Capt. Jacob Gearhart, at least on some occasions.
I looked for some clue to the mystery in the letters of George Washington, but did not find much help. In a letter to Gen. William Maxwell dated December 8, 1776, Washington wrote:
As it is a Matter of the utmost Importance to prevent the Enemy from crossing the Delaware, and to effect it, that all the Boats and Water Craft should be secured or destroyed.
I do hereby earnestly request and desire that you will take upon you the Care and Superintendency of the Matter—At Tinicum a parcel of Boats are to be collected for the Transportation of the Troops under the Command of Major General Lee, but of this as little should be said as possible, least the Enemy should avail themselves of some Advantage from the Knowledge of it. These Boats should be kept under a strong Guard. The Boats at other places ought, in my Opinion, to be destroyed or removed to Tinicum, least they should be possessed by some Stratagem of the Enemy.
And on December 10th, Gen. Washington wrote a letter to his cousin Lund Washington in Virginia. It said:
Dec. 10th: We have brought over, and destroyed, all the Boats we could lay our hands on, upon the Jersey Shore for many Miles above and below this place; but it is next to impossible to guard a Shore for 60 Miles with less than half the Enemys numbers.
In the same letter, but written a week later, Washington wrote:
I have since moved up to this place [the home of William Keith, near Newtown, PA] to be more convenient to our great and extensive defence of this River. hitherto by our destruction of the Boats, and vigilance in watching the Fords of the River above the Falls (which are now rather high) we have prevented them [the British] from crossing; but how long we shall be able to do it, God only knows, as they are still hovering about the River, and if every thing else fails will wait till the first of Jany when their will be no other Men to oppose them but Militia, none of which but those from Philadelphia mentiond in the first part of this Letter, are yet come (tho I am told some are expected from the back Counties) . . . The unhappy policy of short Inlistments, and a dependance upon Militia will, I fear, prove the downfall of our cause, tho early pointed out with an almost Prophetick Spirit.
Those were very dark times for Gen. Washington and his army.
So where did the name of David Johnes come from? Mike Alfano believes that John Clifford himself is responsible for the confusion. In 1838, he made an affidavit in support of the pension application of Daniel Bray’s widow Mary. That was when Clifford named David Jones rather than Thomas Jones. Mike is inclined to think that because Clifford was 89 years old at the time, he was probably somewhat confused. However, when Clifford died on August 2, 1842, his obituary stated that he was 94 years of age, having been born on January 10, 1749, and that he was “in full possession of his mental faculties.” This raises just a bit of doubt about what Clifford meant. Still, one can be in possession of one’s mental faculties and still make a mistake with names from a distant past. I have done it many times.
But the person who was most effective in promoting the idea that Daniel Bray and David Johnes were instrumental in collecting and hiding the boats is Bray’s grandson, Stacey B. Bray. Stacey Bray and his father Wilson Bray probably never saw the original 1832 pension application of John Clifford. They were relying on Clifford’s affidavit for Mary Bray in 1838 in which David Johnes was named. And thus is history remade. To the descendants of David Johnes, my apologies. He may not have helped to collect the boats, but he was still an important figure in the Revolution. And Captain Thomas Jones certainly deserves an article of his own on this website. He is on my list.
- He is also State Librarian, Sons of the American Revolution; acting President of the Daniel Bray (Hunterdon Chapter) of the Sons of the American Revolution; and board member of the Somerset County Historical Society. ↩
- I will send more details of the talk in my newsletter. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link at the top of the page. ↩
- In 1903, there were attempts made in the legislature to establish a monument for Bray, but Sen. Gebhardt reported to Stacy B. Bray that although the idea was acceptable, there were no funds for that project. Bray’s report about this was published in the Democrat-Advertiser on June 18, 1903. ↩
- Bray is variously called General and Captain in articles about him. This can be confusing. In December 1776, he was neither. He was only a lieutenant, and would not become a captain until 1779. In fact, of the three men involved (there were actually more than three) Thomas Jones and Jacob Gearhart were captains, and only Bray was not. However, he was active in the militia as early as 1775. ↩
- Memorial Cyclopedia Of New Jersey, 1917, vol. 3., pp. 134-139 (it can be viewed online at https://archive.org/details/memorialcycloped00memo). ↩
- Mike Alfano has found that the only mention of Malta Island comes from Wm. Stryker’s history of the Battle of Trenton; there was no mention of the island in any of the pension applications submitted by people involved in collecting the boats, and Washington never mentioned the place in his letters. ↩
- Another possibility, of course, is that the mistake was made by the type-setter, rather than by Hoppock. ↩
- We cannot get information about the event from Jacob Gearhart because he did not file a pension application. His son Jacob Jr. also served but not until 1777, so his application does not shed any light on this event. Thomas Jones died in 1812, so there was no application for him either. ↩