Finding Our Place in Revolutionary History
All human beings want to feel like they belong to something bigger. This is
especially true when students reach adolescence, their whole psyche revolves around being liked, accepted, and belonging to a group. The importance of that “place” that they hold is the driving force held together by peers, social media, cliques, fashion, and home. Relating part of their place to history and pique that sense of belonging to that history, not feeling left out of it as a spectator, not feeling odd or different from the people and feeling like they are connected with the locations, can be the key to the level of engagement. Luckily, in New Jersey, it is not difficult to find Revolutionary era connections in our backyards and neighborhoods.
There is a disconnect with children during their education of history. Students often feel disconnected because of the difficulties in relating to elapsed time, distant places, and unfamiliar habits and customs. As educators, it is our challenge to create as many opportunities for connections as possible, to have the students relate to some “thin and brittle” threads of familiarities, and often we can wrestle grudging interest in the topics presented.
History, unlike active experimentation in science and the excitement of fiction in
language arts, is unsurprisingly often deposited toward the end of the favorite subject list, to muddle around in student’s heads where they view the facts as dull lists of events and dates of forced importance with scattered entertaining facts – more so if they relate to a holiday that includes time off from school.
To connect with people from generations past, it is important to find that common ground with today. Where I grew up in Morris County, I lived a short drive from an active and preserved area of Revolutionary history, spending many hours of my childhood roaming the woods and fields of Revolutionary significance, taking short field trips to Jockey Hollow, Fort Nonsense, and the Ford Mansion. Where I teach in Hunterdon County, the most notable area is Washington’s Crossing State Park, with which many of my students are completely unfamiliar, and the war to them
seems very distant. It is important to find nearby locations and people that are
connected to the Revolution era.
In my research for the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies, I was looking
for information on people from Hunterdon County who were actively involved in the
Revolutionary War. There were many references to soldiers, the Commissary General for Washington’s army and the local militia, but I came across one primary
source that I thought might catch the interest of my students.
Through researching into the life of this average local person, James Parker, reading about his daily missives on the management of the property, connections to the effects that the war had on the common people became evident. Parker’s
connections began as a proprietor whose primary residence was in one of the colonial capitals, Perth Amboy. He was a major landowner in Hunterdon County, owning land in what is now Kingwood, Union, Bethlehem, and Tewksbury Townships and built a large stone house in Union Township called Shipley. It is interesting to note that many people in this local area were not following the political patriots, but many had loyalist leanings or were ambivalent.
Mr. Parker was one of those who did not support the patriotic feelings and was
sentenced and jailed by the New Jersey Council of Safety during the summer of 1777, in Morristown, for refusing to take an oath renouncing loyalty to Britain. He was paroled and exchanged for a Patriot held in New York in 1778. At this time, he spent
more and more of his time in Hunterdon County, overseeing his lands. Some think
that he was avoiding the political climate of the large shore town of Perth Amboy,
though he documents in his farm journal his travels back and forth to his original home for proprietor meetings.
Some other examples of Parker’s political leanings come from an entry in his journal that appeared sympathetic to a local loyalist family, the Voughts who lived in Clinton, known then as Hunt’s Mill, about three miles away from Parker’s home in Pittstown.. On December 18, 1778, Doc Smith took his contribution to a relief fund for women, wives of people gone into the British line and had all of their effects sold. This is the same date that the Voughts had all of their belongings auctioned off. These families were considered traitors by the New Jersey Legislature, which allowed all of their property and possessions to be confiscated. At this time, a large amount of the British army and many of their sympathizers occupied areas of New York and Staten
Island) (Gigantino 2015)
The farm journal expresses many tasks that most would take for granted at the
time, documented in amazing detail, though commonplace and ordinary back then.
These entries in this primary source give glimpses of insight on the challenges of
conducting business during the Revolutionary War. He notes that on July 1, 1778, he was in the meadow with great firing heard at a distance, “Regulars and Continental troops engaged in general or skirmishes since Sunday last.” He notes that it was a “severe engagement” and we can assume that he was hearing the Battle of Monmouth and he must have been at Perth Amboy to be in the proximity to hear the
fighting, even though he does not mention it. There are no references of any major
engagement during this time period anywhere near his lands in Hunterdon County.
Financial struggle, even for wealthy proprietors, was a part of daily life. The
farm journal mentions the use of many different denominations of hard currency:
Continental Dollars, Johannes and Moidore, which were Portuguese gold coins, English Guineas, New York Currency, English Pounds and Spanish dollars. In January of 1779, Parker discusses an issue with the prevalence of counterfeiting, by mentioning that he was buying land from Abraham Bonnell. He could not confirm if the money he was paying with was counterfeit. Bonnell said he didn’t believe any was, due to being very careful to examine the bills and that the mark of a printer was not necessarily a proof of authenticity. At one point he mentions, “Paid for bushel of wheat in hard money.”
This may have been noted because of the general lack of coinage and the use of
continental paper money. He noted on March 5, 1780 that taxes were collected but there was a scarcity of money, and on March 13 taxes were collected on his Bethlehem property, and he complains about having no money until he could collect on his debts. On March 23, taxes were collected on Tewksbury property, and he mentions that he is owed more money than he can pay; he can’t pay the taxes until his debtors pay. For the same year, he was taxed on 200 acres, was able to pay three-quarters of the bill but had no continental money, so he borrowed it.
Everyone knows that Continental and British troops moved all around New Jersey. It is common knowledge that they were located near the famous areas of conflict such as Monmouth, Trenton, Princeton, and Washington’s Crossing at the Delaware River. Troops on both sides of the war marched through Hunterdon County and
stopped to rest their soldiers and horses.
On December 4, 1778, Parker mentions being told by Moore Furman, a local miller and merchant who was well connected as a Deputy Quartermaster General for New Jersey, that Gen. Burgoyne’s army was marching to Virginia and would be quartered in the neighborhood as they marched along. On December 5, troops of the 1st Division came down with three companies of men, eight officers. He notes little business was conducted due to attending the troops. On December 6th, the 1st Division “marcht” off and the 2nd division came in. Charles Stewart (local and
the Commissary General of Washington’s army) spared a gallon of spirits. On
December 7th the 2nd division left, no others came, on December 8th, the 3rd
division troops came with six companies and five officers of the 62nd regiment, on
December 9th, the 3rd division left. Parker noted that the Brunswick troops arrived with three officers and 78 men on the 10th and that little work was accomplished when troops were there. December 11th was active with part of a company of ‘foreign troops” that were there with a major, two horses, a baggage wagon with four more horses; this group left on December 13th.
Imagine the disruption of regular life and business when these troops had been
quartered on the property. May 15, 1779 brought troops from the Continental army through the Pittstown area. James Parker notes that the Regiment of the New Jersey Brigade, commanded by Colonel Ogden, marched to Pittstown on the way to Easton with 300-350 men. The Continental troops pastured horses in local fields. Parker notes that he put into pasture twelve Continental horses, then took on
seven more Continental horses, ending the day with a total of twenty. On August 25th, he received from Nehemiah Dunham, who built the stone mill in nearby Clinton, five barrels of flour for Continental service. On August 25th, he put into pasture 12 Continental horses. On August 26th he took seven more Continental horses, September 4th put up nine more Continental horses and on September 18th, all Continental horses left.
In today’s military, food and supplies are provided by the government, but back in
Revolutionary times, troops were expected to be supplied by local people, sometimes
with promissory notes, sometimes by donation with no recompense. Sometimes a
tax was paid to help sponsor troops. In Parker’s journal he mentions that on July
12,1779, he paid Adam Hope a tax toward raising a state regiment, as assessed by
Colonel Beavers and Charles Coke, of 45 dollars. On August 25th, he received from
Nehemiah Dunham of Clinton five barrels of flour for Continental service. He noted a meeting in Pittstown on January 18, 1780, “Spent day in Pittstown where residents met to deliver cattle and grain collected for the army.”
Students need to imagine for themselves that not all of the population of New Jersey followed the Patriot cause, most sources agree that in the colonies they made up only about thirty to forty percent of the population. They believe that around twenty
percent were acknowledged Loyalists, while the remaining population were neutral.
There were many risks on both ends of the political spectrum, with neighbors who
harassed or reported neighbors, or turned their coats when it was to their benefit.
They need to experience the feelings of taking sides, or remaining neutral in situations. It is important to realize that everyone in New Jersey was involved in the Revolutionary War because it influenced their ordinary lives in ways that did not directly involve battles, shooting, famous officers and other incidents memorialized with statues and National Parks. The areas right around the corner, a barn down the street, an old house, mill or tavern, a name of a road in New Jersey, may have been owned or named after ordinary people whose stories were intimately intertwined with the Revolutionary War.
The decisions of James Parker and others were difficult for them and they have
relevance for us today whenever we receive criticism for our decisions.
Gigantino, J.J. (2015). The American
Revolution in New Jersey: Where the
Battlefront Meets the Home Front. Rutgers
Stevens, S.B. (2015). All Roads Lead to
Pittstown. Hunterdon County Historical