Arrival

The Perth Amboy waterfront in 1823. Detail from “Map of the City of Perth Amboy as it was in 1823,” by William A. Whitehead.

TWO hundred years ago or more, the heights of Perth Amboy offered an unobstructed view of Raritan Bay. At the horizon the bay opened onto a vast ocean. Thousands had traversed it at the behest of conscience or commerce, some secure in their liberty, others bound in servitude, to populate this point of land to which adhered a curious, hybrid name.

Geologically and historically, Perth Amboy is not simply a coastal town. It grew up along a ridge more than two hundred centuries old, a deposit from the last great glaciation which here reached its southernmost point on the Atlantic coast. Almost with the first wave of colonizers in the 1680s came designation as the capital of a province. High hopes for this “intended London of America”1 were thwarted even before the Revolution by the commercial behemoth across New York Bay.

Measured against geologic time the birth, growth and decline of a town are as nothing, the span of a human life even less, but it’s from a single day in one such life that a remarkable story unfolds.

Early on an April morning in 1823, amid the masts and rigging of oceangoing vessels a small sloop could be seen arriving at the Amboy wharves. It had taken almost twenty-four hours to carry the Whiteheads and their furniture from Newark, a journey of twenty miles.2 Thirteen-year-old William Whitehead disembarked with relief, we can be sure, but also excitement as he took in the sounds, smells and colors of the port city that was his new home.

I consider this moment a pivotal one in the long and productive life of William Adee Whitehead. In forthcoming posts I’ll try to describe in detail what he brought to Perth Amboy, why his family came here and what awaited them. For now it’s enough to state that these new surroundings opened young William’s eyes, both to a local history whose study continues to be shaped by his work and to a far-flung maritime trade that would leave a lasting imprint on his life and fortunes.

Old St. Peter's Church, as rendered by William A. Whitehead, 1832. From Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy (1856), page 227.
St. Peter’s Church in 1832, as drawn by William Whitehead.

One needn’t search far to confirm Perth Amboy’s importance in the life of William Whitehead, or his own sense of it. Although he would not be a permanent resident beyond his teenage years, he became a diligent scholar of the place’s history, even at a considerable remove.3 His modestly titled Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy and Adjoining Country were, he said, little more than “desultory gleanings” gathered “amid many cares and under the pressure of various pursuits.”4 Yet he saw fit to augment this work of his middle age with a map of the city “as it was in 1823,” evoking the very year that he first set eyes on it.

Because of family bonds and other ties forged here, Perth Amboy also became the refuge of Whitehead’s last days and his final resting place. In 1884 the city’s founding church received his remains in the ancient graveyard that he knew so well, atop the Pleistocene bluff from which it was then still possible to stare with wonder at the open sea.

Copyright © 2017 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy and Adjoining Country (New York 1856) 2.

[2] William A. Whitehead, “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” part of a memoir of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida. Pages 14-15 of the transcription describe the move from Newark to Perth Amboy.

[3] During 1833 and 1834 Whitehead, while Collector of Customs for the port of Key West, Florida, corresponded frequently about Perth Amboy with painter, playwright, theatrical producer and scholar William Dunlap, the town’s most famous native son. Diary of William Dunlap (New York 1930) 3:686-851 passim.

[4] Whitehead, Contributions vi.

Images: Whitehead, Contributions facing page 57 (map detail) and page 227 (Old St. Peter’s).
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