Field work

Gravestones in the historic Piscatawaytown Burial Ground.

CONVENING in January 1846 at the place of its birth to celebrate the New Jersey Historical Society’s first year, members could look back with satisfaction, and look expectantly ahead. They reviewed the Society’s achievements over the past eleven months, chose officers for the year to come–a formality, as the incumbents were re-elected without exception and by voice vote–and relished their participation in an enterprise lofty of purpose, and understood to have a “very flattering” future.1

If a pleasurable sense of accomplishment and anticipation filled the assembly room of Trenton’s city hall, it was tempered by sober reflection. Among the missing was Albert B. Dod, professor of mathematics at the College of New Jersey, “one of our first members and most beloved Coadjutors.” Having agreed initially to address the Society the previous fall “on some of the subjects connected with our labours and investigations,” Dod withdrew from that engagement when one of the students boarding with him died in a hunting mishap. The Executive Committee then appointed him to deliver the anniversary address at this January meeting, but the invitation “lay unopened on his desk” as Dod, too, was “summoned away to mingle in other scenes, where conflicts end in an eternal rest.” Professor Dod was 40 years old.2

Dod’s substitute as speaker was George Washington Doane, bishop of New Jersey’s Episcopal Church. The 46-year-old Doane, one of the state’s most eloquent and energetic leaders and among the Society’s originators, gave an address called “The Goodly Heritage of Jerseymen.” Doane was short on specifics but long on enthusiasm, imploring his hearers to embrace such a “community of feeling” as, in his view, the people of New Jersey were sadly without:

We are of Trenton, or of Newark, or of Burlington. We are of East Jersey, or of West Jersey. We are not ALL JERSEYMEN. … We do not sympathize. We rarely congregate. We fail to co-operate. … We have well nigh forgotten that we have a history. We have almost lost the very sense of our identity. We have had no centre. We have made no rally.

In Doane’s eyes, the best remedy for such parochialism was the Society itself, the instrument “most likely to bring us all together, and to bring us out.” While it was not the bishop’s purpose or his place to catalogue the successes of the Historical Society’s first year, he did point to one, “the work of a son of New Jersey.” It represented a pledge by his assembled listeners “that you are in earnest in the cause.”3

The work to which Doane alluded came from the pen of the corresponding secretary, William A. Whitehead. East Jersey under the Proprietary Governments, then just emerging from the press, comprised “a narrative of events” from the moment in 1609 when “the eyes of the natives, then inhabiting the shores of Sandy Hook,” gazed in wonder at the approach of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon, on through the settling of what became the province of East New Jersey, to the surrender of government to the Crown by the proprietors of East and West Jersey in 1702. To the title of his monograph, Whitehead added the purposeful words “Drawn principally from original sources.” And, in an appendix, he made available for the first time since its publication at Edinburgh in 1685 the full text of George Scot’s Model of the Government of East-New-Jersey in America, a tract that had sought to encourage migration to this nascent colony from the British Isles.4

Among its many publications over the next 175 years, Whitehead’s monograph was the Historical Society’s first, and one of the most useful. It would have the distinction of seeing a second, expanded edition 30 years later, due more perhaps to its author’s industry than to an overabundance of readers. For, in a short but pregnant preface, Whitehead confessed that his was not a popular work; that he aspired, by the inclusion of details and “minor circumstances,” to address the needs of “the student of our history,” “thereby, probably, marring the interest of his book to the general reader by giving it too precise a character.”5 The undeniable tension between Bishop Doane’s rousing appeal to unify “ALL JERSEYMEN” and Whitehead’s desire to accommodate the specialist would necessarily shape the progress of the Historical Society in the years to come.

If, in the cause of history, and in an organization devoted to it, New Jerseyans were to find a force for that unity so desired by the bishop, how should this aim be defined, and how achieved? At its creation the Society had made its object “to discover, procure and preserve whatever relates” to New Jersey history. But its understanding of “history” was vast, embracing all its branches, be they “natural, civil, literary or ecclesiastical.” The Society’s domain, in other words, included not only the development of institutions of church and state but also progress in the arts and sciences. And despite its focus on New Jersey, the Society expected to promote historical knowledge of “other portions of the United States” as well.6

With the recognition that the project could falter for want of more specific guidance, the Executive Committee was directed to prepare “an address to the public” through which the interests of the organization would become better known. This took the form of a circular letter, such as many learned societies in the preceding half-century had placed before their fellow citizens.7

Drawn up in the spring of 1845, the New Jersey circular posed twenty-nine “queries” seeking information on a daunting array of topics, from clerks to court houses, Indian treaties to libraries, shipping to mining. The subjects were so wide-ranging that it’s hard to imagine one organization digesting even a fraction of it all. But perhaps more interesting than its spectrum of topics, the circular letter’s long preamble anticipated both Bishop Doane’s appeal to the universality of the Society’s mission and the devotion to detail espoused by Whitehead.

To collect the raw materials for “a full and satisfactory history,” in the words of the circular, required an effort “in which almost every member of the community may render solid assistance.” The prominence given to natural history meant that every adult citizen could participate: “The contents of every mountain, hill, valley, river and field, ought to be carefully explored; and this can be done only by the agency of many hands….” In other areas, too, the contributions of ordinary citizens, no matter how modest, could make a difference: “The suggestions of a single useful thought; the transmission of the smallest valuable pamphlet, manuscript or specimen; the ascertaining of a single fact, however apparently trivial, pertaining to our early history, may be of great value to us, and will certainly be received with gratitude by the Society.”8

Aspiring to a wide readership for the circular letter, the authors disseminated its text first to newspapers around the state,9 then in pamphlet form appended to the constitution and by-laws.10 Its preamble made clear, however, that while the work of history depended on materials gathered by the exertions of “discerning and public spirited individuals,” they should be deposited where

the future historians and annalists of our state may find them concentrated for their use … and their contents compared with that patient labor and enlightened discrimination, which those alone can exercise who are aware of the difficulties, and know how to appreciate the true excellence of historical composition; drawn not from ingenious conjectures and amusing fables, but from original words and authentic documents.11

The division between those who would gather information and artifacts and those whose duty it was to preserve and study them is an enduring problem in the evolution of museums and archives, by no means peculiar to New Jersey. Perhaps, if anything, it had never before been so plainly drawn, and this at a time when history, at least history of a sort, had become immensely popular. In 1844, John Warner Barber and Henry Howe brought out their Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey, a compilation in such high demand that it went through three editions in three years. The early pages of that work, in turn, borrowed much from William Whitehead’s pseudonymous newspaper columns, written for the Newark Daily Advertiser and Sentinel of Freedom over four months in 1842 and published under the heading “Glimpses of the Past.”12

Maurice Beesley, M.D., of Cape May County

Whitehead’s role in developing the circular letter is regrettably unknown, but he had an opportunity to expound his views on this enterprise in February 1846, when one of the original members, Maurice Beesley, a Cape May County physician and avid inquisitor into historical matters, asked him “the best method of subserving the views of the Society.”13 Henry Howe had made a research trip to Beesley’s Dennisville home a few years before, and Barber and Howe’s chapter on Cape May drew substantially from the doctor’s own “industrious researches.”14 But as the Historical Society’s approach was likely to be more rigorous, Beesley asked whether items should be forwarded “in detached portions” or first be somehow synthesized “in the form of a history.”

Whitehead answered by advising against weaving local details into “a connected narrative,” as that would necessarily impair their completeness and precision. Instead, he recommended “a most patient and minute examination” of county records and “a thorough testing” of local traditions. He even suggested Beesley walk the streets of each community with its elderly citizens, pressing them for their recollections of the first inhabitants of each house, “the children they had,–what became of them, &c: all of which should be committed to paper.”

History must often depend on widely scattered sources, and Whitehead advocated both the systematic gathering of materials and the primacy of the Society as the state’s central repository, even for a distant county such as Cape May. To Beesley, however, he acknowledged the great value of “such historical memoranda as your researches may have enabled you to make.” Whatever treasures the Dennisville doctor agreed to commit to the Society’s care, wrote Whitehead, “would be a great acquisition,” but their importance would be lessened if they came without interpretation by a local authority.

Yet Whitehead’s guidance went further, providing his blueprint for a thoroughgoing history of the county, in the event that Beesley or someone else decided to attempt one. The headings he proposed ranged from a “general sketch of the first settlement” to notices of prominent old families, church congregations, buildings, crime and punishment, roads and ferries, commerce and fisheries, and local events of the Revolution–an outline somewhat more compact than the circular letter’s twenty-nine queries, but embracing many of the same topics.

Thus two parallel paths were charted for Beesley, who to a degree followed both. He presented the Society a diary of Jacob Spicer, Jr., one of colonial Cape May’s most powerful figures, a treasure he had just recently acquired.15 But eventually he organized his findings into a “Sketch of the Early History of Cape May” that proved him a capable writer, not a mere collector of antiquities. It was the first work of its kind on Cape May County, and the foundation of all subsequent histories.16

View of Cape May Island in Barber and Howe’s Historical Collections (1844).

Although not mentioned in the circular letter, a signal example of the kind of communal activity it envisioned was the copying of tombstone inscriptions in old burying grounds. The practice was not a new one, but it acquired greater urgency as these storied places fell into disuse and were threatened by rampant urbanization. The Society’s early work in this field grew out of the exertions of another physician, John S. Condit of Newark. Condit resided “over the river”17 but crossed the Passaic regularly to tend to patients, and devoted spare moments to recording every extant inscription in Newark’s oldest surviving burial place, a deteriorating, fast-disappearing vestige of the early town, hemmed in by buildings on all sides and widely regarded as an eyesore. Condit extended his efforts across Broad Street to the sprawling graveyard then in use behind Old First Church, copying information from every eighteenth-century stone there as well.

Chaotic conditions in Newark’s Old Burial Ground.

In May 1845 the Society approved creation of a Committee on Monumental Inscriptions to support Condit’s investigations in Newark and expand them to burial grounds in outlying areas. Creation of similar committees and initiatives was recommended “in other of the old towns in the State,”18 but after a year it appeared none had been launched. Whitehead was especially eager to see monumental inscriptions gathered throughout the state, noting that the idea had attracted interest outside New Jersey,19 and, as if to back up his words with deeds, presented the pre-1800 inscriptions he’d collected from burial grounds in the colonial capital of Perth Amboy.20

Whitehead’s manuscript preceded by two months Condit’s more extensive compilation, “submitted in a handsomely engrossed volume” that featured pen and ink drawings of some of the oldest or most interesting Newark gravestones.21 Condit’s ambition to collect beyond the bounds of Newark, however, wouldn’t be realized while he lived. His sudden death in 1848 left the work to be finished by others, and it was presented to the Society by Whitehead two years later.22 Whitehead on that occasion brought new compilations of his own, containing information from graveyards in Woodbridge and Piscataway townships recorded with the help of his 12-year-old son.23

The pace of collecting elsewhere in the state was comparatively glacial, a source of frustration for the corresponding secretary. Whitehead would continue pressing members to secure old inscriptions, pointing out that “no special authority was required” to do so; “that the resolution under which the Committee for Newark had acted, and under which he had secured the inscriptions in Perth Amboy, Woodbridge and Piscataway was all sufficient.”24 The examples of Condit and Whitehead may have inspired other initiatives, but their results don’t figure in the Society’s collections.25 Further advances had to await the turn of the next century, when the Society’s Woman’s Branch took up the cause, producing several volumes of monumental inscriptions for its library.

That there would always be work left undone, no matter how many hands or how skilled, was borne out by John S. Condit’s untimely death at the age of 47. Whitehead, in the wake of this grievous loss, spoke affectingly of the doctor’s dedication to the Society’s aims, which had never been far from his mind, and advised his Society colleagues that “all might in that respect profitably follow his example.”26

Whitehead could well have added to his plea a reminder of the tremendous urgency of such work. The materials of history were vulnerable, but so were its promoters. Drawing from the death of young Albert B. Dod a lesson in “the uncertainty of life and the instability of all earthly relations,” the Society’s Executive Committee observed that “whatever we do for our generation must be done quickly.”27 But it would always be a difficult matter to translate such instructive events and wise words into action.

Copyright © 2021-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (hereafter Proceedings) [ser. 1] 1:3 (1845-1846) 116.

[2] Minutes, Manuscript Group 1258, New Jersey Historical Society Records, Box A1 (hereafter Minutes), 15 January 1846 (cf. Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:3 (1845-1846) 97-98, 115-116).

[3] George Washington Doane, The goodly heritage of Jerseymen: the first annual address before the New Jersey Historical Society; at their meeting, in Trenton, on Thursday, January 15, 1846 (Burlington 1846) 10-11, 23.

[4] William A. Whitehead, East Jersey under the proprietary governments: a narrative of events connected with the settlement and progress of the province, until the surrender of the government to the Crown in 1702 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 1. [n.c.,] 18461, Newark 18752).

[5] East Jersey under the proprietary governments vi. Notwithstanding these caveats, earlier versions of Whitehead’s colonial investigations had reached a general audience through the pages of the Newark Daily Advrertiser in 1840-1842, and his indings “became in that way, although in an imperfect form, available to others.” Ibid. vii-viii.

[6] Minutes, 27 February 1845; Constitution and by-laws of the New Jersey Historical Society. With the circular of the Executive Committee. (Founded February 27th, 1845.) ([n.c.,] 1845), 5.

[7] Minutes, 27 February 1845; Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:1 (1845) 3. Alea Henle identified circular letters of 14 state historical societies (not counting reissues and revisions of the originals) and 7 national, local or otherwise specialized historical societies that were produced between that of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791 and New Jersey’s 1845 circular (which is omitted from her list). Rescued from oblivion. Historical cultures in the early United States (Amherst, Mass. and Boston 2020) 81.

[8] Constitution and by-laws …. With the circular …, 16-17.

[9] The plan to publicize the circular through newspapers seems to have had limited success. I have found versions of it, under the heading “Address of the N. J. Historical Society,” in three newspapers of April 1845: Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 9 April 1845 2:1-3; The sentinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 15 April 1845 1:4-6; Monmouth Democrat and farmer’s and workingman’s advocate (Freehold, N.J.) 24 April 1845 1:3-6.

[10] Constitution and by-laws …. With the circular. The same pamphlet is found with publication dates of 1845 and 1846, and three revisions were issued during Whitehead’s lifetime, in 1848, 1854 and 1870, with only minor changes to the circular letter.

[11] Constitution and by-laws …. With the circular 15, 17.

[12] John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical collections of the state of New Jersey; containing a general collection of the most interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, anecdotes, etc. relating to its history and antiquities, with geographical descriptions of every township in the state (New York 1846). See esp. 35-52, 59-63.

[13] This letter and an extract from Whitehead’s reply were printed in Proceedings [ser.1] 1:4 (1846) 140-142.

[14] Ibid. 140; Barber and Howe, Historical collections 130.

[15] Minutes, 3 September 1846; Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:4 (1846) 176. The Spicer diary is part of the Jacob Spicer Papers, Manuscript Group 59, New Jersey Historical Society.

[16] Beesley’s “Sketch” was prepared for and appended to Geology of the county of Cape May, state of New Jersey (Trenton 1857), whose principal author George H. Cook commented (12): “It embodies the facts which he has been years in collecting, and contains a great deal of matter which has never before been printed.” The “Sketch” was also distributed as a separate work.

[17] B. T. Pierson, Directory of the city of Newark, for 1844-45 (Newark 1844) 71. Condit was elected the Society’s recording secretary in January 1847, serving until his death in April 1848. Proceedings [ser. 1] 2:2 (1847) 55, 3:1 (1848) 8, 3:2 (1848) 61.

[18] Minutes, 4 September 1845; Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:2 (1845) 68-69.

[19] Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:3 (1845-1846) 120.

[20] Inscriptions on monumental stones of dates prior to 1800 at Perth Amboy, N. J. Copied and presented by W. A. Whitehead [1846]. Bound manuscript N 929.5 M58, New Jersey Historical Society Library.

[21] Proceedings [ser. 1] 2:2 (1846) 2.  Condit’s volume, presented at the November 1846 meeting in Elizabethtown, can probably be identified with the first volume of Essex County Monumental Inscriptions in the Society library’s reading room. Its title page, however, is dated to the following year. Inscriptions from monumental stones in the Newark cemeteries, 1847.

[22] Inscriptions from monumental stones in the public cemetery at Orange formerly Orangedale, 1847. Monumental inscriptions from cemeteries at Belleville, 1849. New Jersey Historical Society Library.

[23] Inscriptions, of dates prior to 1800. Transcribed for the New Jersey Hist: Society from the cemeteries of Woodbridge & Piscataway by W. A. Whitehead assisted by his son Wm. Whitehead. August 1849. In neither Whitehead’s Perth Amboy compilation nor that for Woodbridge and Piscataway is the cut-off date of 1800 strictly observed.

[24] Minutes, 8 September 1852; Proceedings [ser. 1] 6:3 (1852) 99.

[25] These include projects in Freehold and Shrewsbury, as reported by Daniel V. McLean, and in Sussex County, as reported by Archer Gifford. Inscriptions in Pluckemin were collected in 1850 by Robert J. Blair and presented at a meeting of the Society in 1851, but their whereabouts are not currently known. See Proceedings [ser. 1] 4:3 (1849) 104, 6:1 (1851) 3; “The old Pluckemin burying-ground,” Somerset County historical quarterly 1:2 (April 1912) 119-121.

[26] Proceedings [ser. 1] 3:2 (1848) 61-62.

[27] Minutes, 15 January 1846.

Images: 1) Gravestones in Piscatawaytown: author’s photograph, 2009. 2) Maurice Beesley: Leslie Townsend Stevens, The history of Cape May County, New Jersey, from the aboriginal times to the present day, embracing an account of the aborigines; the Dutch in Delaware Bay; the settlement of the county; the whaling; the growth of the villages; the Revolution and patriots; the establishment of the new government; the War of 1812; the progress of the county; and the soldiers of the Civil War (Cape May City 1897) 289. 3) Cape May Island: John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical collections of the state of New Jersey; containing a general collection of the most interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, anecdotes, etc. relating to its history and antiquities, with geographical descriptions of every township in the state (New York 1846) 127. 4) Old Burial Ground: “Newark,” Harper’s new monthly magazine 53:317 (October 1876) (660-678) 670.


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