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

back to contents Prev Next


The Husbandry of Land and Sea

      Gabriel Thomas’ description makes it evident that, at the turn of the 18th century, the economy of South Jersey was predominately agricultural. Throughout the 1700’s, in spite of the appearance of a nascent industry, the economic base of the southern counties was rooted in farming and cattle raising. Grains such as wheat, corn, rye, barley, rice, and oats were grown in vast amounts, with winter wheat being the chief cash crop. Thomas emphasized the commercial production of rice in Salem County. South Jersey flax also was an item of export. Common garden vegetables in great quantity and variety were raised for home consumption and to be sold at market on the numerous fair days prescribed by the provincial legislature. Melons and berries were cultivated, cranberries especially being a marketable product of Salem County growers. The best methods known at the time were applied to the care of the orchards, which produced an abundance of apples, pears, plums, and cherries. From excellent peaches a notable brandy was distilled.

      The raising of animals for breeding and butchering was significant in the commerce of colonial South Jersey. Substantial profits were realized from the stud fees collected for the services of fine, blooded horses. Herds of cattle, fed in cultivated pastures and the thick, salt hay of the southern marshes, were driven by cowboys to markets in Philadelphia and New York. Hogs were slaughtered on the farms, where the meat was salted, packed in barrels, and sent to the cities of the coast and the Caribbean Islands. Dairy products and beeswax also were exported.

      The primitive and wasteful agricultural practices of the Jersey farmers have been decried. The apparently inexhaustible expanse of untouched land invited exploitation. There appeared to be little need for conservation and careful cultivation. Fertilizers were not used, fields instead of crops were rotated after the medieval fashion, nor was winter fodder provided for the cattle, which grazed in unfenced fields. By mid-18th century, with much of the better soil depleted, cheaper and less desirable land in the Pine Barrens was cleared for agriculture. Meanwhile, the sons of the farmers began to seek business careers in Philadelphia.

      In defense of the South Jersey cattle raisers and tillers of the soil, it can be pointed out that nowhere in the colonies or in Europe were scientific methods of agriculture widely known before the middle of the 18th century. Wasteful open-field grazing predominated in England until after 1740. Modern plows were not introduced there until the 1780’s. Crop rotation, the development of artificial feeds, and the knowledge of fertilizers were almost equally late in coming to Britain. Destructive as they were, the methods of agriculture employed in colonial South Jersey were not behind the times, but were instead representative of the times.

      Equally exploitative but fundamental to the colonial economy was the lumbering industry. Boards, shingles, and laths of cedar, oak, and pine, made from trees harvested in the southern forests, were turned out in great quantity from the sawmills to be shipped to ports of call in America and abroad. The sawmills hummed at Batsto, Pleasant Mills, Clark’s Landing, and Clark’s Mills along the Little Egg Harbor River. Forest tracts and landings on the Great Egg Harbor River were the sites of numerous mills and docks from which the lumber-bearing ships departed. Hundreds of thousands of shingles, for example, were sent out from Somers Point by Richard Somers on a single voyage of one of his vessels. Related to the lumbering industry was a market for pitch, tar and resin, and a trade in pine knots, which were used for fuel and illumination before inexpensive candles were available.

      The extensive forests were a factor in creating in the Pine Barrens of Burlington County a colonial industry that peaked during the early decades of the 19th century. This was the making of iron, which depended upon the accessibility of timber for the charcoal needed to heat the furnaces. The major streams of Burlington and Gloucester Counties were harnessed to generate the waterpower necessary to operate the bellows, and to turn the wheels of the various mills in the iron villages. The streams provided also the basic ingredient of the industry, the bog ore deposits, which had accumulated over the years in the beds of swamps and along the banks of the streams, heavy with a soluble iron content gathered from the strata of marls through which they flowed. The limestone flux required in the smelting process was available in the form of the clam and oyster shells that lay in seemingly unlimited abundance across the coastal plains. Here in the forests of oak and scrub pine, a barrens unsuitable for agriculture, were all the components for a new industry to add to the growing South Jersey economy.

      Charles Read, an ambitious and enterprising man from Burlington, realized the potential for an iron industry in southern New Jersey. Within the span of three years, from 1765 to 1767, he built four furnaces in Burlington County: Atsion, Batsto, Etna at Medford Lakes, and Taunton. Unfortunately for Read, the outlay of capital involved in this enterprise was enormous, greater evidently than he realized it would be, and he was forced to sell the offspring of his vision and imagination. By 1773, Read owned none of the furnaces.

      The projects, however, were reasonably successful and, except for Etna, molten iron poured from Read’s furnaces well into the 19th century. Much of the iron was exported as pigs, bars of porous metal which had been shaped in sand molds during its molten stage. Some of it was made into iron articles such as pots and kettles, stoves, sash weights, and hammers at the site of the furnaces, in spite of British proscriptions against colonial manufacturing.

      Self-contained communities of workers, living in isolated villages deep in the Pines, grew up around the iron works. At the heart of each settlement was the furnace or forge itself. Nearby was the ironmaster’s mansion, surrounded by the numerous plantation outbuildings, the mills for grinding grain and sawing lumber, shops for the blacksmith and harness maker, and the company store, where items of necessity and a few of luxury, that could not be grown or made within the community, could be obtained.

      Workers’ cottages of crude, frame construction lined the streets that radiated from the center. On the periphery of the village grew the gardens and orchards, and beyond them lay the fields, which furnished grain for the families and animals of the village.

      As in the case of iron, all the essentials for making glass were abundant in the South Jersey streams and forests. With its resources of white sand, stands of timber for potash and fuel, clay for making furnace pots, and stone for the furnace walls, to which were added the business acumen of Caspar Wistar and his foresight in hiring experienced glass-workers, Salem County became the scene of the first successful glassworks in colonial America.

      Four Palatine Germans sailed from Rotterdam on December 7, 1738 in response to Wistar’s invitation to come to Alloway’s Creek in the Jerseys, there to train him and his son in the art of making glass, and to take charge of the glassmaking operation. The furnace went into blast in the autumn of 1739. Labor was provided, for the most part, by German immigrants, many of them indentured servants bound out to the Wistars in exchange for their passage and a home in the New World. The village which housed the workers, similar in plan to that of the iron communities, was called Wistarberg. At nearby Friesburg, a Lutheran church tended to their spiritual needs. The Wistar factory was the only glassworks in New Jersey during the colonial era.

      Window glass and bottles, blown from metals of aquamarine for most window lights and hollow ware, a deep olive-amber for bottles, to protect their contents from light, and white (clear colorless) were the staple of Wistarberg production. Luxury, or "fine" glass, was probably made also but its sale was not promoted because of the British restrictions and taxation on articles of colonial manufacture. Most of these luxury pieces were bowls and pitchers of a pale green or bluish cast. Fine goblets of Wistarberg make were known, but rare.

      The waters of the sea and Delaware Bay provided a livelihood for many of the colonial South Jerseymen who did not rely solely upon the land for their sustenance. Whaling was a way of life for some; others made small fortunes in shipbuilding and the coastal, or "coasting," trade.

      Attempts at making whaling a profitable enterprise date back to the time of the Dutch fur traders when, for example, David DeVries complained mildly in his journal on a day in March, 1633, ". . . . our people has caught seven whales, We could have done more if we had good harpoons, for they had struck seventeen fish and only saved seven." William Penn recognized the potential value of the industry. Writing in 1683 to the Commissioners of the Free Society of Traders, he said, ". . . . mighty whales roll upon the coast, near the mouth of the Bay of Delaware; eleven caught and worked into oyl one season. We justly hope a considerable profit by a whalery, they being so numerous and the shore so suitable." Town Bank (known also at different times as Portsmouth and New England Village) in Cape May County, the site of the first successful whaling venture, was settled when Dr. Daniel Coxe was the owner and absentee governor of much of West Jersey.

      By the end of the 17th century, whaling was the distinctive industry of the county, as was noted by Gabriel Thomas: "The commodities of Cape May County are oyl and whale bone, of which they make prodigious, nay, vast quantities, every year, having mightily advanc’d that great fishery, taking great numbers of whales yearly." Town Bank was a thriving village of fifteen or twenty houses. At one time, the income from a single whale, when caught and reduced to oil and baleen, could approach $4000, and a Cape May whaler recorded that he and his party captured eight in one season. So profitable had whaling become by 1693 that the West Jersey legislature enacted a law requiring all non-residents of that province, or of Pennsylvania, to submit to the provincial governor 10% of all oil and bone extracted from whales caught by them in Delaware Bay.

      Whaling operations continued throughout much of the 18th century from the island beaches that stretch from Brigantine to Cape May. Companies of whalemen rowed up and down the offshore waters from mid-winter to early spring, setting up camp from time to time on one island or another from which they would launch their boats upon sighting a whale. But by the end of the century, offshore whaling had all but ceased, as few of the animals still came close enough to shore to be captured by men equipped only with tiny boats and primitive harpoons. The whaling industry, with the whales, moved out to sea.

      Although shipbuilding did not become a major South Jersey industry until the fourth decade of the 19th century, it was not unknown in the preceding century. Most of the vessels made in the southern counties during the colonial era were used by local merchants in carrying on a coasting trade. Among the prominent centers of this industry was Greenwich, on the Cohansey, where a sloop was built before 1735. Two more ships of Greenwich construction were launched in 1737.

      Others slid down the Greenwich ways regularly until the Revolution. They were small craft of no more than forty-five feet length on the keel, carrying a single mast with a fore and aft sail and sometimes small topsails. At Mays Landing, near the head of the Great Egg Harbor River, a number of sloops were built during this period. Colonial shipwrights worked, as well, along the Little Egg Harbor River and the streams of Salem County.

      Every commercial enterprise in colonial South Jersey contributed in some measure to a vigorous shipping industry that transported cargo to the coastal cities of America, and beyond them to the West Indies, on occasion even to Europe. Food products, whale oil, charcoal, lumber and shingles, tar and resins, iron, and glass left from the forests, the furnaces, and the farms of the southern counties in vessels that returned laden with sugar, molasses and rum, tea and coffee, hardware and canvas for shipbuilding, linen, and manufactured articles for sale in the general stores.

      On land, goods were carried over the colonial road system of South Jersey, which paralleled the waters of the streams and the bays. Basically, roads followed the old Indian trails, except, to some extent, the twists and curves of the native paths, the result of the Indians’ preference for ease of travel to shortness of distance and conforming therefore to the topography of the area, were altered by early road builders.

      When the roads were first laid, some were little more than bridle paths over which travelers moved on foot or horseback, followed by packhorses, or black or Indian slaves, bearing their baggage on their backs. In the same way, cargo was transported along the narrow routes.

      A major road, frequently called the King’s Highway, was laid between Burlington and Salem in the 1680’s. It passed near Cooper’s Ferry (Camden), touched Gloucester, Woodbury, and Raccoon, and met the Delaware at Penn’s Neck. From there it continued on to Salem. Later, the Salem road was extended to Cape May, by way of Greenwich and Cohansey Bridge (Bridgeton). A road was provided for travelers along the shore from Cape May to Tuckerton, where it took off across the Pine Barrens in Burlington. In 1696, a highway was laid between Great Egg Harbor and Gloucester. Local roads radiated from the larger settlements.

      Prominent citizens were authorized to operate ferries across the major streams, whereas crude bridges spanned the smaller creeks. On secondary roads, however, rivulets had to be forded, a road condition criticized by a Swedish visitor, Peter Kalm, who observed that, "many people are in danger of being drowned in such places, where the water is risen by a heavy rain." Travelers through the wilderness of pine and salt marshes sometimes came upon large streams where neither bridge nor ferry service was provided. Itinerant preachers, some of the most widely traveled of colonial men, wrote of having to cross Maurice River and the Great and Little Egg Harbor Rivers in canoes, while their horses swam alongside them.

      With few exceptions, the approved medium of exchange in South Jersey colonial commerce and trade was the coin of the realm. Theoretically, but not always actually, foreign currency was exchangeable at rates set by royal proclamation. The scarcity of specie, the cornering of bullion by colonial merchants, and the burgeoning trade eventuated in New Jersey’s first issue of paper money in 1709. Continuing demands throughout the century by the provincial legislature for the issuance of paper money seriously depreciated monetary values, thus creating the appearance of economic prosperity while, in fact, reducing the buying power of such money as did exist.

      Even the illusion of prosperity in colonial South Jersey was denied the many who lived in abject poverty. Their destitution was often underscored by their religious pastors, who lamented the inability of parishioners to pay them the barest minimum needed for survival. A large concentration of indigent dwelt along the untillable, marshy banks of the Delaware in Gloucester County. Elsewhere, among the poorest residents were the swampmen, who lived at mining cedar logs buried in primeval ooze, the woodsmen who felled the trees for the lumber mills, and the bog ore diggers at ironmaking centers such as Batsto and Atsion.

      Committed to the mercantilist theory that colonies are massive farms to be exploited for the economic benefit of the mother country, England in the 18th century pursued a policy that would have stultified American industry and shipping had not those measures been circumvented and resisted. Trade in and out of the colonies had to be conducted on ships of English or British colonial make and ownership. With few exceptions, products made or grown in the colonies could be sent only to the British Isles. Intercolonial trade was restricted to the extent that any item of colonial export that could have been provided by England had to clear a port in England before shipment to another colony. Alternatively, the shipper could pay an export duty, in the amount equal to the import duty that would have been collected if it had been sent to England, and send the merchandise directly to the colonial port. Any goods shipped from a non-British port to America had to go by way of England.

      Similar policies were formulated by British political and commercial interests in regulating colonial manufacturing. Food and raw materials were desirable as articles of colonial export to the mother country, but goods manufactured in the colonies and placed on the market posed a threat to the English work force and the nation’s position in domestic and international trade. Such operations as those at Batsto and Wistarberg, therefore, incurred the official displeasure of the British government and felt the restrictive hand upon them.

      In spite of these strictures, colonial manufacturing expanded, in South Jersey as elsewhere. Smuggling, the shipping and receiving of goods in violation of these regulations, became a way of life even for the most moral, upstanding, and honest of men engaged in colonial commerce and trade. The winding rivers of South Jersey, near the shipping lanes but with many hidden coves and estuaries protected by beach islands and narrow inlets, became havens for illicit traders. Sandy roads, traversed by heavy wagons carrying loads of smuggled goods to outlets near Burlington and across from Philadelphia, were cut through the pine barrens. Moving usually at night, the drivers concealed their illegal merchandise beneath loads of salt hay or clams.

      Fortunes were made by the most prestigious families along the Great and Little Egg Harbor Rivers and in Cape May County through the purchase, sale, and distribution of contraband. It is likely that most goods received and shipped at those places were illegal because, at the time, the only legal ports of entry in New Jersey were at Perth Amboy, Greenwich, and Burlington.

      British agents in the colonies habitually displayed a very casual attitude toward the snuggling business. When their indifference was prodded into an attention to duty by the British authorities, colonial traders responded to the increased surveillance and enforcement with acts of open defiance, culminating in warfare. As John Adams put it, "molasses was an essential ingredient of our independence."

back to contents

Table of Contents    Next home