Road trip

Edward Lamson Henry, The Country Store.

LITTLE is known of the writings from William A. Whitehead’s youth, but a generous amount survives from his early twenties, chiefly through a book of travel narratives in his own hand. This volume is the second of at least two, none other having come to light. Whitehead gave the work a grandiose name, Memorandums of Peregrinations by Land & Water, and although their title page claims no use for them beyond his own “amusement,” he handsomely copied the contents with headers on each page, engravings tipped in and an occasional sketch to serve as explication or embellishment.1

Title page of Whitehead’s Memorandums, volume 2nd.

Without preliminaries, the narrative commences in the high summer of 1830 in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, a few miles north of the Whitehead home in Perth Amboy. On the 26th of July, “desirous of visiting some property of our Father’s,” William, aged 20, and his half-brother John, about thirteen years his senior, boarded a stage for a “jaunt” into the mountains on the far side of Morris County.

Because their starting point, direction and timetable are known, so too is the road by which the brothers traveled: the first of 44 private turnpikes that between 1800 and 1820 received charters from the State of New Jersey.2 Not all the intended highways were ever built, but the Morris Turnpike Company within a few years completed most of its route from Elizabethtown to Morristown, and “from thence into the County of Sussex” in New Jersey’s far northwest.

Under the presidency of Gabriel H. Ford of Morristown, whose mother had given General George Washington use of the family mansion for a winter headquarters, the Company set about its task “in a workmanlike manner,” winning the right to erect toll gates at six-mile intervals. Within a year of receiving its charter, the Company produced a survey of its route, whose “courses and distances” permit a fair reconstruction of the Whiteheads’ 1830 “jaunt.”3

The center of Elizabethtown.

The whole terrain around them was rich in colonial and Revolutionary associations, beginning in Elizabethtown itself, where New Jersey saw its first English-speaking settlers and had its first seat of government. Whitehead in his later works of history would deem the politics of the place tumultuous from the start, judging the people “ever refractory” and governor Philip Carteret, “in his public relations at least, ‘more sinned against than sinning.’”4

Whether the brothers’ coach collected them at the Elizabeth ferry, the Turnpike’s official beginning, or by the courthouse in the middle of town, soon they were heading through more rustic surroundings, in a generally straight line to the northwest. Their stage passed the Livingston estate, once the home of the Revolutionary-era governor. They paused in the village of Union, then rumbled over a wooden bridge spanning the Rahway River, where Continental troops and state militia repelled the last British invasion of New Jersey in 1780.

Next came the ascent of the Watchung Mountains through the scenic Hobart Gap. Here, as for much of its length, the Morris Turnpike hewed to a path established centuries before by the indigenous travelers of these lands. The Minisink Trail ran west from the Atlantic and north across the Raritan River, then northwest over the Gap, crossing the Passaic and Rockaway on its way to the upper Delaware River. The Turnpike’s charter had stipulated no more than a six-degree gradient; how well its builders conformed to that requirement in the Hobart Gap isn’t recorded, but the company’s survey promised “the road here to be 6 rods wide,” the maximum allowed.

Europeans had made the Minisink and other native pathways their own well before New Jersey’s turnpike era began, so the conversion of these routes to corporate toll roads in the nineteenth century didn’t lack opposition. Those disinclined to pay tolls found various ways to evade them, but at least one citizen took more direct action. In 1820, John Clark admitted to twice cutting down the Morris Turnpike gate at Union. The Company had erected it the year before on what Clark’s attorney called “an ancient, common, established public Highway.” As local overseer of highways, Clark felt he “had a right to remove it.”5

A view of Chatham.

Coming down the Second Watchung’s western slope, Whitehead would have glimpsed the broad valley of the Passaic, constrained to follow a long northerly course until it breached the mountains at the great cataract in Paterson and turned south again. Had he known of the career in journalism that awaited him, Whitehead might have relished the stop here in Chatham, site of the press from which Shepard Kollock printed early issues of the New-Jersey Journal. Later in life, Kollock became the first judge to try the Morris Turnpike’s case against John Clark.

Six and a half miles from the crossing at Chatham, having left behind them the village of Bottle Hill, soon to be renamed Madison, the Whiteheads and their stage entered the outskirts of Morristown. Gabriel Ford’s mansion appeared on the right, at the junction with another turnpike coming from Newark. Before them rose the hill that led to the town square, then and now called The Green.

It was at Morristown, in 1780, that George Washington received the Marquis de Lafayette, and the glad tidings of French aid for the American side. Lafayette’s 1824-25 farewell tour was met in the towns along his route by adoring crowds: the highway between Morristown and Elizabethtown, which he traveled in the direction opposite that of the brothers Whitehead, was no exception. William himself, in the first year of Lafayette’s triumphal return, had walked the better part of a day to glimpse The Nation’s Guest.6 Surely his own arrival in Morristown, if not the whole of the daylong drive, had made him again feel at one with New Jersey’s glorious past!

We will never know for sure. Arriving in the late afternoon, well before sunset, William and his brother hired “a light waggon with horses & driver” and continued on their way north. The future historian’s summation of the drive to Morristown is so spare as to be almost inauspicious: “As it was dry & warm,” he wrote, “the ride in consequence was very unpleasant from the dust.”

Copyright © 2022-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, Key West Art & Historical Society. For the phrase “peregrinations by land & water” Whitehead seems somehow indebted to a mock-heroic work that recounted the five-day exploration of the Thames estuary made a century earlier by artist William Hogarth and four friends. After the narrative’s initial publication by Richard Livesay as Hogarth’s tour (London 1781), editors not infrequently attached to it, and to the illustrations drawn to accompany it, the words “peregrination” and “by land and water.” See, e.g., the full title of the editio princeps, which includes the phrase “the Five Days peregrination”; a remark on the frontispiece to Livesay’s edition in John Nichols and George Steevens, The genuine works of William Hogarth; with biographical anecdotes (London 1808-1817) 3:113; the title “Tour by Land and Water” assigned the separately published plates, ibid. 3:iii and 3:204; and the heading of the frontispiece to John Camden Hotten’s edition of 1872, entitled Hogarth’s frolic. This last, which reads “Hogarth’s five day s peregrination by land and water 1732,” is unlikely, because of its late date, to have inspired Whitehead’s title.

[2] The number of turnpikes chartered in this period is derived from George Herberton Evans, Jr., Business incorporations in the United States 1800-1943 (Publications of the National Bureau of Economic Research, 49. New York 1948) 15.

[3] The Morris Turnpike Company was chartered by the New Jersey legislature on 9 March 1801: “An Act for facilitating the Communication from Elizabeth-Town in the County of Essex, through Morris-Town, in the County of Morris, and from thence into the County of Sussex,” in: Acts of the twenty-fifth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey. At a session begun at Trenton, on the twenty-eighth day of October, one thousand eight hundred, and continued by adjournments. Being the second sitting (Trenton 1801) 80-90. The turnpike route from the Elizabeth Ferry to the upper Delaware River opposite Milford, Pa., is outlined in “Morris Turnpike courses & distances,” dated 26 February 1802, in Morristown National Historical Park Library and Archives, Park Collection (P 1376), Morristown, N.J.

[4] G. P., “Glimpses of the past in New Jersey. No. VIII–Gov. Carteret,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 5 April 1842 2:1; G. P., “The insurrectionary proceedings of 1672.–No. 2,” Newark daily advertiser 22 January 1855 2:2.

[5] The Morris Turnpike Company v. Clark and John Clark v. The Morris Turnpike Company, New Jersey Supreme Court Case Files, 1704-1844, files 40162 and 8810. New Jersey State Archives.

[6] On Whitehead’s 1824 encounter with Lafayette, see my earlier post The hero’s welcome. For the Marquis’s passage from Morristown to Elizabethtown, see J. Bennett Nolan, Lafayette in America day by day (Historical documents, Institut français de Washington, Cahier VII. Baltimore 1934) 297; A history of Morris County New Jersey, embracing upwards of two centuries 1710-1913 (New York and Chicago 1914) 1:300.

Images: 1) Edward Lamson Henry, The country store, 1885, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum. 2) W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, Key West Art & Historical Society. 3) View in the central part of Elizabethtown, and 4) Central view in Chatham, in 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 (Newark, N.J.: Benjamin Olds, for Justus H. Bradley, 1844) 159, 378.

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