South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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The First Settlers and the People They Found

      Sailing for the French king, who wished to add to the glory of his reign the discovery of a water route to the Far East across the American continent, a Florentine navigator by the name of Giovanni da Verrazano sighted the future South Jersey in 1524. That spring, while exploring the coastline on a voyage northward from the West Indies, the Italian mariner passed the chain of narrow, sandy islands on which today stand the seashore resorts of the Garden State. He and the crew of his ship, La Dauphine, were the first Europeans known to have traveled alongside these shores. Unhappily for the historian, Verrazano left no description of what he saw, nor is it likely that he landed on them.

      The Delaware Bay was first sighted by an Englishman, Henry Hudson. Employed by a Dutch Trading Company, Hudson too was searching for a passage to the Orient when, aboard the Half Moon, he attempted to enter Delaware Bay on August 28, 1609. A ship’s officer, Robert Juet, recorded the event in his journal. Encountering shallow water and sand banks, upon which, as Juet noted, "once we strooke," the captain brought his tiny ship about, headed for open water, and set a northerly course along the coast. Juet wrote on August 29, "We weighed at the breake of day, and stood toward the Norther Land, which wee found to bee all Ilands to our sight," the off-shore islands of the South Jersey shore.

      A year later, almost to the day, an English mariner, Samuel Argall, successfully entered the bay, where he and the crew of the Discovery "found great store of people, which were very kind, and promised that the next day in the morning they would bring him great store of corn." Before the Indians could return, Argall and his vessel were forced out of the bay by the winds, but not before the captain christened it in honor of his friend, the governor of Virginia colony, Sir Thomas West, Lord de la Warr.

      Argall’s "great store" of kind people, whose generosity was denied him by a contrary wind, were the Lenni-Lenape, "men of men," or Original People, frequently called the Delaware Indians. The fewer than 2000 who inhabited the southern portion of New Jersey, a region they knew as Schejachbi, "the land of the shell wampum," dwelt in villages on the riverine flats along the Delaware. Few permanent sites were located on the rivers, bays, and lagoons of the outer coastal plain, although vast mounds of shells give evidence that the Indians set up temporary summer encampments by the seashore.

      Modern archaeology casts suspicion upon the long-held notion that the Lenapes of southern New Jersey constituted the Unalachtigo sub-tribe, of which the turkey was the supposed totem. (Those who subscribe to the sub-tribe theory claim that central New Jersey was inhabited by the Unami and the north by the Munsee sub-tribes, with the turtle and the wolf, respectively, as totems.) It is proposed that such animal names were used to designate clans or familial groups, and were not the totems of sub-tribes. Some archaeologists contend, furthermore, that such a term as "Unalachtigo" is properly used only to refer to an enforced Lenape grouping after they had been displaced from their ancestral lands by white colonists. In short, the Unalachtigo were not members of an ancient and natural sub-tribe of the Lenapes, but of an artificial social structure of 18th-century origin.

      European observers who first arrived on these shores described the Lenapes as a handsome people, slender but strong and well-proportioned, and of varying heights, some of them quite tall. Their skin was of a yellowish complexion, ranging from almost white to the color of brass. Their heads were covered with coarse, black hair, which the men cut into shocks or a scalp lock and ornamented with shell beads. The women braided their long hair and dressed it with bear grease.

      The summer attire of men and women was simply a loincloth of deerskin that barely covered their genitals. Even that, some reporters believed, was a later concession to Christian modesty. In winter, they wore a cloak-like garment of animal fur. Moccasins, usually of deerskin but made sometimes from corn husks, protected their feet. On festive occasions, the beardless faces and smooth bodies of the braves were painted with lines and circles of black, red, and green. The paints were made from ocherous clays ground in small mortars with a pestle no larger than a finger.

      Always there was the wampum, the sign of wealth, worked into strings that hung from the braves’ necks, dangled from their wrists and shoulders, and encircled their foreheads and waists. Hanging also from their necks were their paahras, or sacred charms, and down their backs bags containing such necessities as food, money, tobacco, pipes, and, when hunting, their bows and arrows, The women were equally fond of beaded necklaces and bracelets, but to the male went the prize for vanity.

      Most of these objects of Lenape dress and ornamentation underwent modification when the Europeans began bartering with them for pelts and furs. Shirts that reached to their knees and wraps of red and blue Dutch duffel were eagerly accepted in trade from the white men. Firearms were gradually substituted for bows and arrows. Pipes of Dutch manufacture came to be preferred to their own of carved stone or crudely baked clay, while the cheaper and more easily made Dutch beads became popular as an alternative to the shell beads, which had to be laboriously cut from the straight inner core of the whelk and polished.

      The Lenapes lived in small villages, located along the banks of streams, in which the family was the center of a loosely-structured sociopolitical order. Their wigwams were made of two rows of saplings, each twenty feet long and set about ten feet apart, tied at the tops to form a dome-shaped roof, and covered with bark. Flaps of skin closed the open ends. Inside, along the walls, low platforms functioned as chairs and beds. These and the floors were covered with mats of white oak and poplar. Smoke from a fire, which burned in a pit in the center of the floor, ascended through a hole in the roof. In the larger longhouses of sixty feet length, partitions were erected to divide the building into multi-family units.

      For meat, the Lenapes depended upon the catch of the hunter, the fisherman, and the trapper. Seafood, like the shells for wampum, was gathered on annual summer treks to the shore. Berries and nuts were collected from the woods. Corn, vegetables such as beans, squash, and pumpkin, herbs of various sorts, and tobacco grew in gardens, tended by the women, near the houses. Both meat and vegetables were sometimes eaten raw, but usually the meat was broiled over the open fire, and the vegetables were boiled in clay pots. Cakes, of corn meal, mixed at times with berries and nuts, were baked on beds of hot stones. The winter fare was dried or smoked meat, fish, and seafood, with dried squash, roots, and tubers.

      After generations of travel by Indian feet in single file over paths along the edges of the forests and across the marshes, well-defined trails were set. The most traveled trails in the south ran from Camden to Cape May, across the Cohansey and Maurice Rivers, following the upper limits of tidewater. Another followed the shore to Cape May from Beesley’s Point. Other trails from Somers Point and Leeds Point went westward to the headwaters of the Cohansey. The Shamong Trail crossed the middle of South Jersey, extending from Burlington, along the western edges of the Pine Barrens, across the headwaters of the Great Egg Harbor River, to Cape May. Numerous connecting trails criss-crossed the region. The streams and rivers also were highways of Lenape travel. Vessels were dugout canoes made by felling large trees, lopping off the branches with a stone ax, and hollowing out the trunks by a process of repeated burning and removing the charred wood with stone chisels. In three to five days, an expert could produce a complete canoe.

      Advanced little beyond a Late Stone Age culture, the Lenni-Lenape were a simple people, yet evidently a happy one. To whatever extent there was a chief, his powers were restricted to times of war. Divorce was uncommon, although it was easy to obtain. Their well-behaved children were disciplined by example instead of physical punishment. Verrazano found them to be "sweet and gentle" of manner; in the opinion of Juet they were "very civil." Their generosity in aiding the newcomers was frequently praised.

      On the other hand, the Lenape religion, or lack of it, shocked some observers, while their alleged immorality was offensive. Verrazano’s handsome, well-mannered and pleasant "goodliest people" had come to be called "savages" by the time of Juet. When the Swedish engineer, Peter Martens-son Lindestrom, wrote his classical description of the Lenape, in 1653, showing them among other things to be "very mischievous, haughty, are eager far praise, wanton, bestial, mistrustful, untruthful and thievish, dishonorable, coarse in their affections, shameless and unchaste," they had long been subject to corrupting influences from abroad.

      Among the remnants of the Lenape culture in modern South Jersey are the roads, which vaguely follow the ancient trails carved by the Indians through meadow and woodland. Some Indian names have survived in modern form - - Absecon and Alloway, Nacote Creek and the Nescochague, Tuckahoe and Patcong, Cohansey and Pennsauken, and more than a score of others. Our vocabulary has been enriched with such Indian words as hickory, chipmunk, pone, papoose, sassafras, tobacco, canoe, and wigwam. To our diet has been added the August delight of corn-on-the-cob, to our habits the dubious pleasure of smoking. Charm bracelets, men’s necklaces, and moccasins for leisure are, in part at least, our Indian heritage, altered perhaps by modernism but yet a reflection of our past. Furthermore, there is tourism -- the annual escape to cool sea breezes, tasty seafood, and a dip in the brine. The Lenni-Lenape pointed the way to a summer at the seashore.

      Sailing under the banner of the United Netherlands Company, Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, in 1620, set southerly course along the coastline from Cape Cod to New York Bay, which he called Port Mey, and on to the mouth of the Delaware. Facing upriver, the captain named the cape to his left Cape Cornelius (now Cape Henlopen); the cape to starboard he called Cape Mey. Only the last of these names has remained, anglicized to Cape May, Several years afterward (variously dated between 1623 and 1626), the proud Dutchman ascended the Delaware to the mouth of Timber Creek, where he set twenty-four persons ashore to establish a trading post. They constructed a stockade, Fort Nassau, which housed the first known white settlement in the future South Jersey. 1

      The favorable and vivid accounts of the newly discovered land given by the explorers, especially that of Robert Juet, diverted the Dutch from a concern to find an easier access to the far-off wealth of China to an interest in the more proximate benefits obtainable in the region between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. The lust for silks and spices was supplanted by the desire for the "good furres" and animal "skins of divers sorts" that could be turned into a handsome profit. The stated purpose of the Dutch West India Company, incorporated in 1621, was to carry on a peltry trade with the Indians. With this intent, Fort Nassau and neighboring New Amsterdam, on Manhattan Island, were begun.

      For eight years after Fort Nassau was built, no ship of record called at the lonesome outpost. In 1632, when David Peterson DeVries sailed upriver to the fort, he found it occupied only by Indians. Evidently, the white traders had been ordered to New Amsterdam in or about 1626, when Peter Minuit was concentrating the Dutch population in America on Manhattan Is land. The theory that the Dutch at Fort Nassau were slain by Indians is given little credence by reliable historians. They point to a presumed lack of evidence, an inference drawn from DeVries’ silence regarding the matter, and to the uninterrupted tradition in South Jersey of good relations between the native peoples and white colonists. No organized attack was ever perpetrated by the Lenni-Lenape upon European settlers in the southern peninsula, while the Europeans themselves left numerous testimonies to their kindness, even open friendliness.

      The Scandinavian kingdom of Sweden stepped to the forefront of European affairs in the early decades of the 17th century. As the tiny country was emerging as a major power, her merchants began to cast envious glances at the colonial enterprises of their English, French, and Dutch neighbors. The profitable trade in American pelts and furs was a mercantilist pie of which they wanted a taste. Their illustrious monarch, Gustavus Adolphus, was anxious, too, to fill the coffers of his kingdom with the revenues obtainable through foreign trade, while hoping as well to enhance thereby Sweden’s international prestige.

      The king and his able chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, gave a willing ear, therefore, to the founder of the Dutch West India Company when he, bitter over an alleged slight by the Dutch government, proposed that Sweden organize a foreign trade company. Promptly, a charter was issued. The plans for such a company, however, failed to materialize, as Sweden became further enmeshed in the Thirty Years War and as sufficient corporate funds could not be raised. The king himself was slain in battle in 1632. Because the crown passed to the head of a six-year-old girl, to Chancellor Oxenstierna fell the task of bringing the late king’s dream of Swedish commercial expansion to fulfillment.

      Peter Minuit, the famed purchaser of Manhattan Island and Director General of New Netherland, was removed from his post in 1632 because of a dispute with the Dutch West India Company. He offered his services, along with his extensive knowledge of the New World, to Sweden in a letter to the chancellor, in which he proposed that, not just trading posts, but a permanent colony be founded. Thereupon, a corporation by the name of the New Sweden Company was chartered, in 1637.

      Only twenty-six people, a number of them Dutch, sailed for the intended New Sweden in early November, 1637. Among them were no women or children. Delayed for weeks by weather and repairs at a port in Holland, their two small ships headed for the open Atlantic on the last day of December.

      Had Swedish colonization begun when the first trading company was chartered in 1624, perhaps the settlement of New Sweden would have been accomplished with less interference from rivals. As it was, these tiny Swedish ships, beating against the westerlies, were about fourteen years too late. Both the Dutch and the English had laid claim to the lands toward which they were heading. Fort Nassau, reestablished as a permanent garrison in 1636, was the visible evidence of Dutch occupation. England’s claim was more tenuous. Charles I granted a tract of land extending from Long Island to Cape May, a region to be called New Albion, to Sir Edmund Plowden in 1634. England claimed the right to this land by virtue of John Cabot’s discoveries in 1497. Within Plowden’s tract, at the mouth of Pennsauken Creek, fifteen English traders had settled and erected a fort, called Eriwoneck, before the Swedish arrival. (Some historians believe that Eriwoneck was, in fact, Fort Nassau, near Timber Creek, which stood temporarily unoccupied.)

      Minuit and his company reached the Delaware in March, 1638. After purchasing two strips of land on the west bank from the Indians, the Swedish settlers chose the site for a fort and began to construct it, while the director set off on further exploration. When the fort, located near modern Wilmington, was completed in May, it was named Christina, in honor of Sweden’s queen. His mission accomplished, Minuit attempted to return to Sweden to deliver a progress report in person. Although he was lost at sea during a violent hurricane, his report reached Sweden safely.

      However, for nearly two years after Minuit sailed from the wharf at Fort Christina, the settlement had no word from Sweden, nor did they hear of the director’s death. His replacement, Peter Hollander Ridder, arrived in April, 1640, bringing with him some of the necessaries for colonization -- supplies, domestic animals, items for trade with the Indians, soldiers, a new trading commissioner, and a Lutheran pastor. Also with the coming of Ridder, the chapter of Swedish settlement in the future South Jersey was officially opened when, in the spring of 1641, the governor purchased from the Indians a strip of land extending along the east bank of the Delaware River from Raccoon Creek to Cape May.

      Sweden’s entry into the region did not go unobstructed. The English acquired tracts from the Indians nearly identical with Ridder’s, including the banks of Varkens Kill (Salem Creek), where a band of New Haven Puritans settled sometime before 1642. Disturbed at this English intrusion, the Swedes and the Dutch put aside their rivalry long enough to lay plans for a joint attack upon their common enemy.

      Action was not needed, however, for the colonists at Varkens Kill were denounced as lawbreakers by their own mother country because they had settled without leave on Plowden’s lands. The former New Haven people appealed to New Sweden and the Dutch for protection, acceding gladly to the authority of either.

      Apparently with no intent to deprecate the manifest accomplishments of Ridder, the crown decided in 1642 to replace the Hollander with a man of Swedish citizenship. His successor was Johan Printz, New Sweden’s third and ablest governor.

      A man of huge dimensions, said to have weighed nearly 400 pounds, the humorless Printz was of a heavy hand as well, ruling with arrogance and despotic power. For ten years, he ran New Sweden as a dictator. Even before the retiring Ridder departed, the new executive of the Swedish colony defied the Dutch by sailing boldly past Fort Nassau, a feat the former governor had been unable or unwilling to perform three years before.

      Important to South Jersey’s history was Printz’ decision to erect a fort on the east bank of the Delaware, on a promontory a few miles below the mouth of Varkens Kill. Built during the summer and fall of 1643, it was named Fort Elfsborg. Within a short time, Elfsborg became the chief Swedish stronghold on the river. Dutch ships proceeding upstream to Fort Nassau were forced, when passing the Swedish bastion, to strike their colors, sometimes even to anchor beneath it.

      Within a year of his arrival, Printz had made the Swedes the undisputed master of the Delaware, although the population of New Sweden, in 1644, was as yet only 121, a figure that included the subservient English at Varkens Kill. Of these citizens, a third were soldiers; the others were farmers, and artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths.

      Throughout these years, Printz repeatedly begged Sweden and the New Sweden Company for additional people, especially soldiers, and for the material reinforcements needed for protection and trade, but they were unable to comply. Sweden was heavily engaged in the last gasps of the Thirty Years War.

      The homeland’s neglect of New Sweden was to take its toll. In her weakening condition she fell prey to new Dutch thrusts into the Delaware region, after the bold Peter Stuyvesant appeared as the director of New Netherland. The first serious threat came in May, 1653, when an armed ship from the colony on Manhattan Island sailed upstream, past Fort Elfsborg, to an anchorage below Fort Christina and closed the river. The Dutch ship withdrew when it was hastily confronted by a sloop, armed and manned, sent out by Printz.

      The victory of the Swedes was only apparent, for that summer the governor at New Netherland both reinforced Fort Nassau with an additional contingent of soldiers, who marched overland from New Amsterdam, and constructed a new fort on the west bank of the Delaware below Fort Christina. Printz did not have the forces to resist. To consolidate his strength on the west bank, he withdrew the garrison from Elfsborg, thus bringing an end to the Swedish military occupation of the east bank. Still no assistance was forthcoming from Sweden. Discouraged, sick of body, his people restless and resentful, his soldiers disloyal, the once proud governor of New Sweden relinquished his command to his son-in-law, and departed the colony for Europe in October, 1653.

      After an abortive attempt by Printz’ successor, Johann Rising, to reinstate Swedish power on the river, Peter Stuyvesant dealt the final blow to New Sweden in late summer, 1655. With a fleet of seven vessels, two of them battleships, and an army of more than 300 troops, the Dutch reached Fort Christina and surrounded it. The conquerors ravaged the homes of the Swedish colonists. Rising surrendered the fort, with all of New Sweden, to Stuyvesant. The defeated governor, with a number of soldiers and colonists, returned to Europe, while those who remained at Fort Christina swore their allegiance to the Dutch and turned to rebuilding their despoiled property. Others crossed the Delaware to begin anew with the building of houses and the planting of farms.

      No records give positive proof of the year in which the colonizers of New Sweden first embarked into the wilderness between the river and the ocean. Surely the opposite shore beckoned the more hardy Swedes shortly after their arrival in the new land. Adventurers doubtless scouted the peninsula in search of furs and pelts during the time of Printz, perhaps before, for under his and the previous governorships individual trade with the Indians was forbidden. The only legal commerce was that carried on by the New Sweden Company. The hidden coves and secreting forests along the streams of the east bank offered easy escape from detection to those who preferred to deal with the Indians directly, unencumbered by the company’s restrictions. Then too, others who wished to avoid the harshness of Printz’ regime could remove themselves physically from his brooding presence by carving homesteads in the untouched wilderness, far away from the established settlements along the west bank.

      A reasonable assumption is that more settlers were encouraged to migrate eastward when, with the building of Fort Elfsborg, they could be more confident of speedy protection against any would-be attackers. The fertile soil, grassy marshes, and low, rolling meadows of the eastern shore were a further inducement to farmers and cattlemen whose cultivation had quickly exhausted the rough, stony patches and thin grasses of the west bank. Fish and game, too, were more abundant in the Jersey streams, salt marshes, and woods.

      At the coming of Dutch rule, the center of Swedish colonization along the Delaware moved to the east side. With this shift, the documented history of the Swedes and Finns (who, from the beginning, were a part of the Swedish migration to America) in South Jersey began, although no land titles were recorded until later. The first legal residence of a Swede in New Jersey was established in 1673; yet during the ten preceding years numerous Swedish families had settled at the mouths of Raccoon and Pennsauken Creeks, and others had moved to the interior along their banks. Finnish settlers, and shortly thereafter Swedes, had located upward from the mouth along Varkens Kill.

      During the decade of the 1680’s, Swedish settlements grew apace up and down the streams of old Gloucester County. Twenty-nine Swedish landowners worked 5000 acres of farm and grazing land between Oldman’s and Timber Creeks in 1687. By 1697, the Swedish population of New Jersey was nearly 1000. New emigrations from Europe and a continuing high birth rate swelled their numbers. Long since, the uncertain economy based on a trade in furs and pelts had given way to a more permanent and secure order founded on agriculture and cattle raising. Among the Swedes of Gloucester County, the latter was the major source of income.

      Late 17th-century migration brought Swedes to the stream banks of Cumberland County and to the shore, where the first known settlement of a Swedish family, that of James Steelman, occurred along the Great Egg Harbor River in 1693. Three years later, Steelman was chosen to supervise the laying of a road between Gloucester and the Great Egg Harbor. On the Burlington County side of the Little Egg Harbor River, Eric Mullica fixed a plantation in 1697. This Swede was the first European to explore the river that today bears his name.

1 For another opinion on Fort Nassau, see C. A. Weslager, Dutch Explorers, Traders and Settlers in the Delaware Valley, Chapter V.

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