The king’s peace

Perth Amboy’s “Old Jail” as it appeared in the 1820s, from a drawing by William A. Whitehead. The jail used in Samuel Nevill’s time, which was attached to the courthouse, was destroyed by fire in the 1760s.

THAT quiet foothold onto which imperial designs projected a future “London of America” enjoyed some modest communion with the city far away on the Thames. The first settlers located their government here, yet its fortunes diminished when the two Jerseys became one province–the Assembly convening now in this capital, now in the other, and the royal governor seldom appearing in either. In its initial decades, the Proprietors handled affairs mainly from Britain where many continued to reside, the instruments and fruits of their power loaded into the ships’ holds of such stalwarts as Captain William Bryant, whose elegant grave marker on the Amboy bluff still testifies to his fifty-five ocean voyages, many in service to the Proprietors of Eastern Jersey.1

Only late in the 1700s did events seriously threaten Perth Amboy’s identity as a British city loyal to the Crown, but it was anything but an oasis of peace. As home base for the Eastern Board of Proprietors, it served as a place of exchange that parceled out tracts across New Jersey to an aspiring gentry, many keen to expand and exploit this bounty by cementing it together into vast landed estates. Yeoman farmers already working the terrain stood up to them, asserting their freehold claims based on purchases from the land’s first peoples. The Proprietors’ practice, in turn, was to deny recognition to such titles. Besides the lands themselves, where disputes over clearing and fencing sometimes brought parties to blows, the controversy’s chief flashpoints were the court houses of the province and, at the tensest moments, its jails.

Much of this rancor would be obscured and forgotten amid the fateful events of the Revolution. But the records it generated remained in Perth Amboy for decades after, stuffing cabinets, chests and cellars in the former capital’s statelier homes. Perhaps already in the 1820s, the Proprietors’ dusty minute books and faded parchments were beginning to open their secrets to a budding chronicler of the place’s past named William Whitehead.

Whitehead became absorbed from an early date with the exertions of one conspicuous leader of the Proprietary side, Samuel Nevill. “Even the few memorials that are now to be found of him,” he observed in 1839, “indicate the possession of character and talents of no ordinary kind.” An attorney and newspaper editor in London until his emigration to America, Nevill arrived in East Jersey to settle the affairs of a lately deceased sister, whose husband had been one of the least sympathetic among the Proprietors.2 It took Nevill most of a decade to resolve all claims on his sister’s estate, a process that Whitehead saw had cost him “much labor and anxiety.” Indeed, Nevill faulted his quarrelsome brother-in-law for not having “labored for peace and good neighborhood so much as I do.”3

The émigré Nevill embarked on all channels of public life in the East Jersey capital, joining the Board of Proprietors, the vestry of St. Peter’s Church, and the colonial Assembly representing Perth Amboy. He became a Middlesex County judge in 1741, and later sat on the Supreme Court. The New Jersey House elected him its speaker in 1744, and he filled these and other “important offices,” in Whitehead’s eyes, “to the credit of himself, and, it is believed, to the satisfaction of the government and the well disposed among the people.”4 The people, however, were not universally so disposed.

A rendering of Samuel Nevill’s signature, published by Whitehead.

Justice Nevill, if more lenient than some of the other Proprietors, upheld their claims and was an outspoken critic of their enemies: those who would “take Deeds from the Indians” without Proprietary confirmation, he said, must be treated “as Breakers of the Kings Peace, and the Peace of the Province.”5 When militant yeomen began to take the law into their own hands, breaking into jailhouses in Essex, Hunterdon and other counties and setting their fellows at liberty, Nevill decried as “rioting” their “appearing in Arms; terrifying the King’s Subjects; breaking open Goal [jail], and rescuing the Prisoners legally committed by the Governor’s Warrant; assaulting and resisting the Sheriff and his Assistants, in the legal Execution of his Office, and beating and wounding them.” “The Infection,” the governor worried in a letter to Nevill, “will Soon Spread from Such a notorious Riot to a Rebellion.” Nevill, too, was afraid, and responded by declaring the assaults indictable as high treason.6 Soon, a faction of “rioters” was bending its course toward Perth Amboy.

On 17 July 1747 the capital city witnessed a singular demonstration of the yeomen’s power. A contingent of between one and two hundred men armed with clubs rode into the town, dismounted, tied their horses to one of the Proprietors’ fences and, with a duo of fiddlers in the lead and pennants floating overhead, marched to the court house, broke into the jail and set free a ringleader of the Hunterdon riot. The county sheriff, the mayor and a constable were all struck down trying to resist. According to a tavern keeper in nearby Woodbridge, the attackers were prepared, if fired on, to leave no man in Amboy alive and no house standing. Judge Nevill, while not present, was threatened in the most virulent terms with capture and death.7

The rioters’ designs on Nevill’s life went unconsummated that day, though “not through any want of will,” as far as Whitehead could tell, “on the part of those who made them.”8 Soon, however, more conservative Proprietors started to question his loyalty, and he would be seen as a moderate. In 1752, the Perth Amboy jail was attacked again in a bid to free a leader of the previous offensive, but Nevill doesn’t seem to have been a target anymore.9

Title page from Nevill’s New American Magazine.

Nevill had probably begun to hope for a different legacy, and this he achieved. In 1751 and 1761, he produced two essential compilations of provincial laws, the first issued in Philadelphia by printer William Bradford, and the sequel in Woodbridge by Bradford’s onetime apprentice James Parker. Between the two installments of “Nevill’s Laws” so-called (volumes that Whitehead termed a “valuable service to the Province, simplifying greatly the labor of subsequent compilers”10) he returned to his former calling as a journalist, engaging Parker’s presses to bring out a monthly called The New American Magazine, New Jersey’s first periodical. As editor Nevill styled himself “Sylvanus Americanus,” emulating “Sylvanus Urban,” the unrivalled British publisher Edward Cave.

“Such things are never permanent in our country. They burn brightly for a little while, and then burn out.” So wrote New England intellectual Charles Eliot Norton, a century after the debut of Nevill’s magazine. He was lamenting to the first editor of The Atlantic that America had never begotten a “Sylvanus” of its own.11 It had in fact had one for a time, but after twenty-seven issues, Nevill’s enterprise was laid to rest owing to “a Deficiency in the Number of Subscribers to defray the Expence of Printing.” Nonetheless, it was an achievement. Whitehead, no doubt impressed by its local origin and historical perspective, believed the magazine would compare favorably with the respectable periodicals of his own day, though it’s doubtful many would agree with him.12

Grave marker for “the Honorable Samuel Nevill,” who died in 1764.

Nevill died at Perth Amboy in 1764, and was buried beside his wife Anne on the grounds of St. Peter’s Church. Some 70 years later, Whitehead found the two graves and “their simple headstones of gray slate” in a disorderly condition. Samuel Nevill, having left “a name unsullied by the slightest stain so far as the writer can discover,” deserved “a place among the eminent men of other days.” And so, in a manner that we can now only guess at, Whitehead “caused the spot where his remains were deposited to be rescued from the neglect and decay to which time had assigned it.”13 The stones stand today, if they didn’t then, in the north yard of St. Peter’s close to the wall of the chantry, a construction that postdates Whitehead’s intervention by eighty-odd years.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] William A. Whitehead, in publishing a reconstruction of the text on Bryant’s damaged headstone, observed merely that “[h]is ship, the ‘Joseph,’ is frequently mentioned as the bearer of important intelligence to or from the colonies.” Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 145. From Whitehead’s manuscript Inscriptions on monumental stones of dates prior to 1800 at Perth Amboy, N.J. (bound at the back of his Inscriptions, of dates prior to 1800 transcribed for the New Jersey Hist. Society from the Cemeteries of Woodbridge & Piscataway [1849], New Jersey Historical Society, call number N 929.5 M58), it appears that Whitehead in the 1840s could read the final letter of “William” and the entirety of “Bryant.” Today only the last three letters of the surname are extant.

[2] G. P., “First periodical, editor, and printer, in New Jersey,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 10 September 1839 2:1-2; Contributions 120-121. Two separate London newspapers, the Daily post and Evening-post, bore Nevill’s imprint; Whitehead gives a single title, “the London Morning Post,” perhaps conflating the two. Nevill and fellow publishers ran afoul of the British Government, and saw their papers’ distribution restricted not long before Nevill emigrated to America. See Michael Harris, London newspapers in the age of Walpole. A study of the origins of the modern English press (Rutherford, N.J. 1987) 152-153. Elaborating on his subject’s low regard for Nevill’s brother-in-law Peter Sonmans, Whitehead judged Sonmans “one of those fortunate personages who enjoy contentions, and would rather attain their end by some tortuous course, abounding in difficulties to be overcome, than by a straightforward procedure, requiring some concessions and accommodation to circumstances. The same amount of energy, exhibited by him in his various conflicts with all parties, directed in other channels, might have made him a prominent benefactor to the people of the province.” Contributions 79.

[3] Whitehead quotes a letter of Nevill to James Alexander, stating, “I have made a peaceful end with the Jews, and heartily wish it had been done some years ago.” Contributions 79-80. Whitehead here is silent on the probable allusion to Jewish agents such as Rodrigo Pacheco, who brokered business dealings for the East Jersey Proprietors in both London and New York. I have not yet located Nevill’s letter.

[4] Contributions 121. In his earlier version in “First periodical,” Whitehead placed the parenthetical “it is believed” after “to the credit of himself.”

[5] “Mr. Nevill’s Speech to the House of Representatives of the Colony of New-Jersey, upon the Second Reading of the Petition from the Rioters Committee, &c. on Saturday the 26th of April, 1746,” repr. from New-York weekly post-boy 26 May 1746 in William A. Whitehead, ed. Archives of the State of New Jersey. First series. Documents relating to the colonial history of the State of New Jersey (hereafter NJA series 1) (Newark 1882) (6:336-348) 344.

[6] Ibid. 335. Lewis Morris to Samuel Nevill, 26 September 1745, in William A. Whitehead, ed. The papers of Lewis Morris, Governor of the Province of New Jersey, from 1738 to 1746 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 4. New York 1852) 271; Eugene R. Sheridan, ed. The papers of Lewis Morris (Newark 1993) 3:401. “Judge Nevill’s Charge to the Grand Jury of Middlesex County at Session of June, 1747,” NJA series 1 (6:456-462) 461.

[7] “Letter from John Deare to Chief Justice Morris–informing him of the Riot at Perth Amboy,” Perth Amboy 18 July 1747, in NJA series 1 6:463-464. “Affidavits relating to the Riot at Perth Amboy, July 17th, 1747,” NJA series 1 6:465-470. See Brendan McConville, These daring disturbers of the public peace. The struggle for property and power in early New Jersey (Philadelphia 1999) 161-162.

[8] “First periodical”; Contributions 122.

[9] “Letter from James Alexander and Robert H. Morris to Ferdinand John Paris–concerning Governor Belcher and the rioters,” 24 April 1749, in William A. Whitehead, ed. NJA series 1 (Newark 1883) (7:251-260) 254, 258-259. Reports of the 1752 Perth Amboy riot are collected in William A. Whitehead, ed. NJA series 1 (Newark 1885) 8, pt. 1, 37-39, 43-53; cf. Frederick W. Ricord, ed. NJA series 1 (Trenton 1891) 16:372-378, and McConville 193.

[10] “First periodical”; Contributions 122.

[11] Letter to James Russell Lowell, 20 June 1857, in Letters of Charles Eliot Norton with biographical comment by his daughter Sara Norton and M. A. DeWolfe Howe (Boston and New York 1913) 1:170.

[12] The new American magazine 27 (March 1760). Well after it was discontinued, James Parker had a large stock of the magazine on hand, and sold “many copies,” says Whitehead, “in sheets … as waste paper.” “First periodical”; Contributions 122. See Joseph J. Felcone, New Jersey books 1698-1800. The Joseph J. Felcone collection (Princeton 1992) 136-137, and the evaluation of Lyon N. Richardson, A history of early American magazines 1741-1789 (New York 1931) 98-99, 123-135.

[13] NJA series 1 6:323-324 n.1. “First periodical”; Contributions 123. Samuel Nevill’s headstone and footstone are of gray slate cut in William Stevens’s shop at Newport, Rhode Island, but New Jersey’s own sandstone quarries and carvers produced the marker for his wife Anne, who died nine years earlier.

Images: 1) “The old jail.” William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 253. 2) Facsimile of Neville’s signature. William A. Whitehead, ed. Archives of the State of New Jersey. First series. Documents relating to the colonial history of the State of New Jersey 6:323. 3) The New American Magazine for June 1759. The New Jersey Historical Society. 4) Gravestone of Samuel Nevill, St. Peter’s Church, Perth Amboy, N.J. Photograph by the author.

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