Marginalia

Martin Johnson Heade, Jersey Marshes

WHITEHEAD must have cherished the natural attractions of Amboy Point, which was not just the home of his teenage years but a refuge from the less wholesome cities where he later worked and lived. Yet even before his first glimpse of Perth Amboy human activity had already so altered the coast and nearby woodlands that to summon up the character of such a place, “yet undisturbed by the intruder Man,” to grasp “how rich, how attractive to the lover of nature, must have been its aspect,” took an act of some imagination.1

Tidal marshes had lined the estuary’s shores, affording habitat to fish, shellfish, birds and other wildlife, and safeguarding the coast from damaging storms. The region’s early promoters may not have fully understood the importance of wetlands–especially in view of the malevolent “muskettos” that bred there–but they almost invariably saw these “meadows” as an advantage for their highly prized salt hay, which prospective settlers would use as fodder for cattle.2 The harvesting of meadow hay intensified with the growth of cities, their burgeoning industry and commerce still heavily dependent on animal power.

Detail of Whitehead’s map showing Benjamin Maurice’s homestead (27), hay press (28), hay scales (29) and Patrick’s wharf (31)

Benjamin Maurice, who managed a busy hay pressing and shipping operation in Perth Amboy for merchant John Patrick and his widow Mary Ann Patrick,3 left a remarkable document of this trade in his “Daily Work Book,” a ledger kept from 1825 to 1829. Here he logged the men employed each day, and the quantities of hay received, pressed, baled, stored and shipped. In spite of stoppages due to mechanical breakdowns, freezing temperatures or shortages of supplies, Maurice had business enough to purchase a sloop with another merchant, easing the backlog in shipments.4

The Daily Work Book also records many varied details of life in Perth Amboy, from its citizens’ comings and goings to church and township meetings to religious services, lectures, weddings, illnesses, deaths, funerals and, of course, the weather. It touches on the affairs of the Commercial Bank of New Jersey (Maurice was one of its directors) including the sale of the whaling ship Susquehanna and its equipment.5 The name of young William Whitehead, who witnessed many of these events, does not appear in the Work Book, but his father is mentioned, mainly in relation to the bank where he was cashier. One entry alludes to the elder Whitehead’s duty of preparing new bank notes for circulation.6

An expanse of salt hay recently planted along the south shore of Rahway River

As the salt hay industry gave way to other energy sources, especially coal,7 the agriculturally marginal salt marsh fell prey to uses that hastened its degradation or outright destruction. Today, small-scale experiments in wetland restoration can only hint at the natural beauty that once flourished all along the fringes of Whitehead’s Perth Amboy.

Copyright © 2017 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy and Adjoining Country (New York 1856) 5.

[2] Part of a plan to encourage Scottish immigration, George Scot’s The Model of the Government of the Province of East-New-Jersey in America (Edinburgh 1685) incorporated many glowing commendations of the province’s virtues. On the subject of the marshes these reports are almost universally favorable, as for example John Reid writing from “New-Perth” that “here are great conveniencies of Bay, Sounds, Rivers, Creeks, Brooks, and Springs, all over the Province; but one of the best things is the large quantities of brave Meadowes, both salt and fresh, which makes the people here able to supply their Neighbours as they doe, throw [through] the abundance of their cattle.” (Scot 187) Deputy governor Thomas Rudyard wrote of the meadows that “no man here will take up a Tract of Land without them,” but conceded that, “where salt Marishes [sic] are not; there is no Muskettos.” (Scot 147-8) Similarly James Johnstone cautioned, “There is a Flee by the salt Marishes most troublesome in Summer, but is not in the up-lands.” (Scot 263) Early maps of Amboy Point emphasized the proliferation of marshes along the area’s rivers and tributaries; Whitehead’s map of Perth Amboy in 1823 shows salt marsh only at the north edge of the town.

[3] William Northey Jones in The History of St. Peter’s Church in Perth Amboy, New Jersey (New York 1925) 411 gives this brief biography: “Benjamin Maurice, born in England, 1766, came to this country in 1791 and settled in Savannah, Ga., where he became a shipping merchant exporting southern products to Liverpool and importing English goods. In this business he was very successful having at one time five vessels engaged in this trade. Like many other shipping merchants of that period, he was financially ruined by the Embargo of 1807, and moved to Perth Amboy, N. J., in 1812, where he was engaged for many years in the comparatively small business of shipping country produce to the New York market. Owing to the failure of his New York correspondents in the panic of 1837 he was obliged to give up business and left Perth Amboy in 1843.” Maurice died in Ossining, New York, in 1851. Less is known of John Patrick, whose tombstone identifies his birthplace as Ayrshire, Scotland (Jones 445). Maurice’s Work Book (see note 4) records Patrick’s death in New York City on 31 October 1826.

[4] Daily Work Book, Perth Amboy 25th October 1825 to 3rd October 1829, Manuscript Group 455, Perth Amboy Wharf, New Jersey Historical Society. The sloop Diana was purchased in New York, as recorded in the entry for 11 April 1827.

[5] See my post Birth of a bank. The Susquehanna was auctioned off on 5 December and “articles belonging” to it were sold on 31 December 1825.

[6] On 17 June 1828 Benjamin Maurice “filled blanks in 200 $3 Notes [of the] Commercial Bank in my name & returned them to Mr Whitehead.” The following day’s entry shows that he “filled in” the same number again; the phrase “filled in” has been inserted above the word “signed,” which was crossed out. Notes were often made payable to an associate of the bank, although redeemable by anyone, and this was presumably Maurice’s function; signing the notes was the duty of the cashier and president. A $3 note dated May 1823 bears the signatures of William Whitehead, Cashier, and James Parker, President, with the name of the payee (perhaps Matthias Bruen, one of the bank’s founders) entered in a third hand.

[7] Perth Amboy became a major railroad terminus for Pennsylvania coal in the 1870s, but the Daily Work Book refers to a much earlier delivery of “Lehigh Coal” by sloop in December 1827, and another coal shipment in September 1828.

Images: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (Jersey Marshes); Whitehead, Contributions facing page 57 (map detail); author’s photo, Joseph Medwick Memorial Park, Carteret, New Jersey

 

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