The Straw That Broke the Puritans' Back: West Milford, the Story of a Suburb, Ch. 6
Chapter Six: The Straw That Broke the Puritan’s Back
If you think a huge township of 25,850 people spread out over 80 square miles of steep hills, valleys, streams, lakes, and new McMansion developments can’t come together, you should have tried to get into Gov. Christie’s Town Hall Meeting today at the West Milford PAL Center. The doors opened at 10:15 a.m. By about 10:30, it was SRO, and no one else was being allowed in.
That’s what you get when the government tries to bully mountain people into allowing urban bike lanes on one of their narrow mountain roads. The police officer apologized that I’d made the trip for nothing. But I told him it was always a pleasure to ride through West Milford at this time of year and seeing the autumn leaves made the trip well worthwhile. Friends who live there will tell me later how the meeting went. MC and PD – at least I tried.
On the way back down to civilization, I passed some of those fools struggling up winding Macopin Road, huffing and puffing as they impeded traffic on this main thoroughfare into the town. As I went by it, I noted the year of the First Presbyterian Church – 1807. I recall one of the Vreelands telling me that there was another church before this two hundred year-old beauty was built.
In absence of any genealogical records, one must use one’s wits to determine a town’s origins. That, and a good map. In West Milford, there are a couple of roads with variations of Vreeland. It’s easy enough to tell where the German settlers lived, as Germantown Road can attest. The Puritans-turned-Presbyterians are harder to trace. They left plenty of official records, but according to John T. Cunningham, they left no personal records; few letters, some family Bibles, no diaries, no books, no portraits. Determining who was born where, or at least when will require a trip to the Presbyterian Church’s cemetery, which will give me another excuse to ride through those scenic hills.
Early records indicate that a son of Michael Jensen Vreeland, who came to the colonies in 1636, settled on Westbrook Road in West Milford. The DeMouth or DeMonts family, French Huguenots built a stone cottage on Green Pond Road in 1732. The early 1700s are the generally-accepted date for development in West Milford. One must distinguish, however, between the Dutch and German names, and the English Puritan names, although while in Connecticut they were living in Dutch territory.
The “Milfordites” settled in the Pines Lake region of the township, which is recognized as the center of the town. Others settled in the village of Canistear (which is now under the waters of the Canistear Reservoir. The names of the day were Riggs, DeWint, Fitzrandolph, Paddock, Doughterty and Smith.
One can trace the family names of the original settlers of “Milford” in West Milford streets, roads, and lakes: Kitchell Lake, Tichenor Lake, Ward St., Lawrence St., Blakely (Blacthly?) Rd., Baldwin Dr., Curtis Ct., Lyon Rd., Crane Rd., Ward Rd., Lindsay Rd. (Linle?) and Harrison Mountain. Brown is a common name, but there was an Obadiah Bruen (Dutch for Brown) among the passengers who alighted on the shores of Newark. Not every family settled in West Milford, but enough evidently did. More may have lived there who are represented on the map. These would have been the landowners.
A search through the phone book reveals the presence in West Milford of Baldwins, Roses, Pecks, Wards, Balls (in the Pomptons), Harrisons, no Huntingtons but a bunch of Hunts, a few Cranes, the ubiquitous Davises and Johnsons, a few Lyons, plenty of Brookses, various Lindsays, a Day (they’re scattered throughout the area and my elementary school was named for one Martha B. Day), one Curtis, a couple of Dennisons, a few Walters, no Roberts but some Robertsons, and a pair of Sargeants. Some of the original families are found in other towns in the area, such as the Balls, the Riggs, and the Days. There were 64 original families in all.
When they arrived exactly is unknown, but by the early 1700s, they were here, living amongst the Dutch and Scotch settlers, who practiced Presbyterianism (driving along Macopin Road, you’ll also see MacGregor Road and others) and called their neck of the woods “New Milford.”
So what happened in Paradise? Well, Mr. Cunningham tells us that one of the problems Newark faced was a labor shortage. They needed more skilled laborers to manufacture the tools and other products that they needed, which is in direct contrast to Newark’s current problem – plenty of labor, but nothing for them to do. The second generation had begun farming the lands and creating villages around Newark. They began by settling on Watchung Mountain to the west. Soon, they found the trek down to the meeting house dangerous (wolf attacks were so common that there was a bounty on the animals). The road was difficult in good weather and impassable in bad. They also feared Indian attacks and it was common for men to carry their guns to church. Eventually, they built their own church. The congregational church in Newark, however, was in trouble.
“The Puritan hegemony was first openly challenged in 1687,” Cunningham writes. “Rev. Abraham Pierson Jr., who succeeded his father as the town pastor, clashed with the Conservatives.” He took up the Presbyterian faith. Five years later, they permitted him to retire to Connecticut, where he became the first president of Yale College.
“The most radical happening in the town’s first six decades, however, was the official switch in church allegiance from Congregational to Presbyterian. It had been long on the way, yet the actual transition did not come until Rev. Joseph Webb, a 1715 graduate of Yale College, became the sixth regular pastor in 1719.
“The shift meant little change in the church’s moral code. Both religions were strict, unrelenting, and dominated by fear of God. The principal difference was in church government. Congregationalists believed each church was sufficient unto itself, without church overlords, while Presbyterians developed a system of cooperating churches. In addition, Presbyterians were not insistent that civil and religious matters be combined.
“Affairs quickly revealed the lessened influence of the original meeting house. Families on the Orange hills broke away from the Newark church in 1719 to form the Mountain Society. Distance from Newark was a factor, but there is evidence that the hill people found Newark’s shift to Presbyterian doctrine too abrupt. The Mountain Society built its meeting house on First Road (now Main Street) and worshipped in the Congregational fashion.
“A third church was established in Second River (now Belleville) by Dutch settlers who had moved within Newark town boundaries. They established a Dutch Church, of course, and shared their minister with Aquackanonck (Passaic). This caused no concern in the church on Broad Street; Newarkers long ago had learned to live with the Hollanders.
“New churches rose in the hills or by the Dutch could be accepted without qualms. Such things were inevitable, but just over the horizon was the schism destined to change Newark’s church and political pattern forever.
“The Newark church serenely steered the course of rigid Presbyterianism. Dissension came not through visiting English divines but unexpectedly from Colonel Josiah Ogden, a leading Presbyterian, a staunch Newarker, colonial legislator, leader among men and son of Elizabeth Swaine, the Branford miss whose heart had been set on being first ashore in 1666. Elizabeth’s first husband had died and David Ogden of Elizabethtown married her and sired four sons, including Josiah.
“Practical as well as pious, Ogden fretted during the late summer of 1733, when continuous rains flooded his fields and threatened his wheat, already cut and on the verge of rotting in the muddy earth. Thus, when a warm sun broke through on a Sunday morning and dried his grain, the colonel led his family and his workers into the field and harvested his golden crop. Horrified Presbyterians on the way to meeting could scarcely credit their eyes: Josiah Ogden, harvesting on a Sunday!
“Church fathers tried Ogden for violating the Lord’s Day and rebuked him publicly, a move he deeply resented. Worried Newark elders appealed to the Presbyterian Synod in Philadelphia for support but had their decision reversed. That vindicated Ogden officially, but the harshness of the church trial and the severity of the public rebuke made Ogden feel he had no alternative except to leave the church.
“Ogden became a center of controversy. Friend opposed friend, churchman quarreled with churchman, neighbors and relatives took sides. The self-contained, agreeable village was no more. Church dropouts formed a new congregation based on Episcopal principles. They held meetings for at least a decade before being chartered as Trinity Church in 1746, which Ogden helped create. Trinity’s founders insisted on part of the town’s public lands for their church, correctly arguing that they were as much descendants of the original settlers as were members of the Presbyterian Church.
“Each church appointed members to a committee to work out an agreement. Trinity received a half acre of property at the northern end of the training ground. The church has stood there, to this day.
“Work began immediately on the new church. Nearby, stone masons and carpenters began to raise a parsonage on a 4.5 acre lot east of the training ground donated by Colonel Peter Schuyler. Funds evaporated quickly. In 1748, the New York Gazette announced a lottery ‘scheme’ to raise 337 pounds for Trinity. Three thousand tickets were offered for 15 shillings each, with 678 tickets guaranteed to be winners.”
Theological dissension was not the only reason the second and third generations headed for the hills. They resented the increasing imposition of English rule, as the Dutch did, and began moving westward. There was also growing unrest over property ownership.
“Ill feeling against the Proprietors could be traced back to 1670 when Berkeley and Carteret claimed rents due them under the terms of the grant giving them all New Jersey land. The colonists displayed extreme displeasure at the time. Later, in 1700, mobs openly defied the Proprietors, their agents, and the King’s men and forced the Proprietors to surrender their right to govern.
“Now the Proprietors once again had decided to exercise their real estate claims. They had become a large board of powerful men, and in 1744, they assigned three of their number – James Alexander, Robert Hunter Morris, and David Ogden – to investigate an area called ‘Horseneck’ in western Essex County. Then part of Newark, the area today embraces the Caldwells, Roseland, and Livingston.
“Ogden, the only Newarker of the trio, was the son of Josiah Ogden, who had founded Trinity Church after the Puritan-Presbyterians had persecuted him for working on Sunday. When an open break would come with Great Britain in 1776, most members of the Episcopal Church would remain loyal to King George, and David Ogden would join them.
“But in 1745, the matter of splitting with the King was not an issue. Alexander, Morris and Ogden wanted only to convince the back country dwellers that the Proprietors – not the settlers who were building the homes and tilling the soil – owned the land. The story of New Jersey’s Proprietors began in 1664 when the province was given to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. The former sold his share in 1673 and Carteret’s holdings were sold after he died in 1680. Boards of the West and East New Jersey proprietors eventually included many men whose chief interest was real estate. Governing powers were taken away in 1702. Squatters were at first ignored or tolerated, but as land grew valuable, pressure for rents increased, leading to clashes.
“Those who lived in the ‘Horseneck Purchase’ based their rights on a negotiation with Indians in 1702. They maintained that they could show a deed from the Indians, but by curious coincidence, their purported Indian deed disappeared in a fire that destroyed the Horseneck home of one John Pierson at the time that the Proprietors pressed their suit. Pierson was a great-grandson of Newark’s first minister. Nearly all his neighbors were descendants of Newark’s earliest settlers.
“Alexander, Morris and Ogden began serving eviction notices in the summer of 1745. Then, in early September, they discovered Samuel Baldwin at work in the Horseneck woods, ‘making great havock with his saw mill of the best timber thereon.’ They insisted that he was trespassing, but Baldwin countered that the Indian deed was his ticket to the woodlot.
“The outraged Proprietors arrested him. Baldwin refused an offer by neighbors to pay his bail, saying that the Proprietors intended to ruin the settlers with expensive law suits. The wood chopper of Horseneck trudged down the mountain to a cell in the Essex County jail on Broad Street and there he stayed peacefully until Sunday, Sept. 19.
“Newark, a sullen, uneasy town after church services that Sabbath, exploded in mid-afternoon when a band of 150 men (according to the sheriff’s account) flooded into town armed with clubs, axes, and crowbars. They brushed aside the sheriff, broke open the jail door, and freed Baldwin, without the nicety of bail. The mob paused only long enough to warn the sheriff that if anyone should be arrested for the caper, they would return ‘with double the number of men’ and might even bring a hundred Indians to help.
“Disorder spread to other towns, with the name of Amos Roberts (or Robards) of Newark appearing often in official records or the New York press. Roberts, ‘revered as much as if he had been a king,’ began his rise to power on a cold day in the January following Baldwin’s jail break.
“Despite the warnings of the Horseneck mob, the Essex sheriff arrest Nehemiah Baldwin, Robert Young and Thomas Sarjeant on Jan. 15, 1745, and jailed them in Newark on charges of being ringleaders in the September riot. He ordered out the militia to guard the prison, but not more than 15 men showed up. Newarkers had little stomach for the task of fighting neighbors, brothers and cousins.
“After an uneasy night, the sheriff ordered the militia to help bring the prisoners before a judge, but, as he later recalled, ‘most of them made frivolous pretences, as that they had no horses, and could not go.’ Pleading, threatening, cajoling, the sheriff finally found six townsmen willing to help and off they started to the judge’s home with Baldwin in their midst.
“A howling throng surrounded the little band and released the prisoner. Undaunted, the sheriff raised a company of 26 militia men to take Young and Sarjeant before the judge. More than 200 people blocked the street when the law party left the jail at 2 p.m. The sheriff ‘asked the meaning of their meeting together in such a manner.’ They ignored the question, demanding the two prisoners.
“Two judges stepped forward and ordered silence. The official report of the day said: ‘One of them read the Kings Proclamation against riots and acquainted the people with the bad consequences of such proceedings.’
“The warning fell on deaf ears. The sheriff sent two captains of Newark militia among the throng, beating drums to call all local militia men to duty. Not one Newarker responded. Amos Roberts (or Robards) broke the tension with a yell: ‘Those who are on my list, follow me!’ Most of the 300 men now assembled fell in behind his mount.
“Within minutes, Roberts’ army surged forward against the thin rank of soldiers drawn up with firelocks at the ready. A massacre was in the making, but the order to fire never sounded, for the advancing rioters were neighbors and friends, not an enemy. The mob beat the soldiers with clubs in unneighborly fashion then swarmed toward the beleaguered sheriff, standing alone before the jail door with drawn sword. He made a brave stand, but the crowd overwhelmed him, broke down the jail door and freed the prisoner.
“Governor Lewis Morris hastily called the Assembly to consider the desperate situation in Newark. He warned legislators that ‘so open and avowed an attempt, in defiance of the government and contempt of laws, if not high treason, makes so nigh an approach to it as seems but too likely to end in rebellion and throwing off His Majesty’s authority.’
“Obviously, the Newark riots held an ugly potential far beyond simple land disputes. Disorder spread – to Hunterdon County, to Somerset, to Perth Amboy. Amos Roberts led more than 150 mounted men into Perth Amboy in July 1747, seeking a prisoner arrested in a Somerset County riot. The invaders attacked the Sheriff, causing a ‘grievous wound,’ struck the mayor, ‘broke one of the constables’ heads, beat several of the others,’ freed the prisoner and carried him off, ‘huzzaing.
“Roberts denied any intention of disloyalty. In a letter to the New York Gazette on Jan. 23, 1749, the Newarker accused the Proprietors of causing ‘great disorders’ and said they offended him by accusing him of treason. He offered a reward of 10 pounds to any man who could prove him a traitor – but said he would continue to free men ejected from their lands. He concluded: ‘God bless the King that sits upon the British throne.’
“For all his declaration of loyalty, Roberts fitted the image of a revolutionist. By 1747, he had an illegal kingdom divided into wards, had appointed tax collectors, set up his own courts to settle disputes, and organized his own militia. In the spring of 1748, his army threatened to ‘level Perth Amboy to the ground’ and to drive authority ‘into the sea.’ That was as daring as anything said in America to that time and as bold as the talk that would later shake Virginia, Massachusetts and all the Colonies.
“The time for revolution had not yet ripened, and for the time, a split with Great Britain faded before the major threat that the homeland faced from the French. The possibility that the Continental power might unleash tribes against the American colonies chilled the settlers. By 1755, the dread of Indian raids enveloped Sussex County, and people in the valley east of the Orange Mountains wondered when the savages would strike from the hillside forests. This was no time for a split with the king; the sight of his red-coated soldiers was reassuring.”
New Jersey was ahead of its time in rebelling against England and took matters into their own heads. By the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, 28 years later, Newarkers were old hands at rioting. However, with a revolution against England on the horizon, their hands would be needed to manufacture the munitions and tools needed for war. Despite Roberts’ protestations of loyalty to the king – more a savvy boast to keep his head than a heartfelt sentiment – Newark and her northwestern suburbs, filled with Scots, Irish, Dutch, and German settlers who wanted no part of England and owed her no particular allegiance were ready for the fight. The northwestern hills were also filled with the iron ore necessary to arm the Continental Army.
Newark would have to wait another 222 years to riot again. Although the succeeding generations of Milfordites took flight to their "New Milford" in the northwestern hills (and another in northern Bergen County) to escape the mounting problems in Newark, they were also inclined to fight for their country, if not for the communal practices of the Puritan religion.