His father’s business

NOTHING on earth’s surface is older than the New Jersey Highlands, which William A. Whitehead must have seen for the first time when just a boy. As an adult, revisiting the ageless landscape with his half-brother, he could contemplate its scenery with more seasoned eyes and mind.1

What most pleased the 20-year-old on his return in July 1830 was the human imprint on the countryside, especially the evidence of frugal husbandry seen from the road that rose steeply out of Morristown. As the sun settled in the west, the softer light of a long summer evening lent a new attraction to the land’s many hues and shapes: “The hills around covered with verdure,” he recalled, “with some of their ascending slopes bearing different coloured grain; the town in the distance with its spires, and nearer the cottages of the farmers, all together formed a beautiful picture.”

Meanwhile, their wagon carried the brothers further on, into higher altitudes, and a more rugged terrain that yet bore the marks of intense human activity. In the Revolution, laborers and capitalists had marshaled its rich iron deposits to help win the fight for independence. By 1820, over this crucible of warfare and wished-for wealth had settled a peculiar peace: overseas competition and the depletion of nearby forests for fuel had closed mines, stilled forges and furnaces, and quieted the once busy roads that threaded their way through the valleys.

Detail of Thomas Gordon, A map of the State of New Jersey (1828), showing Dover and the Morris Canal route (bottom), and Longwood Valley (center).

Towards the close of the 1820s, however, northern New Jersey’s languishing iron industry could look to the west, and also the east, for another lease on life. Anthracite mining in Pennsylvania promised a new and steady fuel supply, provided the coal could be brought to where the iron works were. Elaborate plans to scale the Highlands with a canal, linking the Delaware River to the Hudson by a chain of locks and inclined planes, seemed certain to set the furnaces alight once more.

On previous journeys into this country, the Whiteheads would have met a foundry and just a few dwellings at the crossing of the Rockaway River. But here in 1830 the brothers came upon “the flourishing town of Dover” recently laid out by Joseph Blackwell and Henry McFarlan, two New York iron barons of whom the latter had died less than a month before.2

Through the middle of the town ran the nearly completed Morris Canal, conveying water from the summit at Lake Hopatcong that at Dover mingled–controversially–with the river.3 “Upwards of one thousand mechanics and labourers” worked on the canal that summer. At the same time William Pragnell was busily fashioning boats that, come the Fall, would be the first to descend to tidewater in Newark.4

The brothers would not linger in Dover. Darkness was coming on, and a few miles of road lay ahead. The Union Turnpike sped them past the mining complex at Mount Pleasant, into Jefferson Township and the hamlet of Berkshire Valley where they lay their heads for the night, to rise early the next morning and visit “some property of our Father’s.”

What was their trip for? Many blanks need filling in, but it may help to look back at the earlier part of their father’s career in banking, beginning in New York, where he joined Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Bank as one of its original clerks, and then in Newark, where for ten years he served as cashier of the first bank chartered in New Jersey.

Notice of the 1818 auction of John DeCamp’s land, in the Morristown Palladium of Liberty.

The 1810s were a turbulent time in American finance: new banks proliferated, but currency was subject to extremes of fluctuation. In New Jersey it was said that a dollar note, current on one side of a turnpike toll gate, could be rejected on the other.5 But those with a knack for speculation stood to make money from the turmoil.

In 1814, William Whitehead resigned his cashier’s position at the Newark bank. But he likely maintained some of the relationships he had cultivated there, making his own funds available to needy borrowers. It’s probably in this context that, in 1816, he accepted a mortgage on land in the New Jersey Highlands from one John DeCamp.6

The tract comprised 552.82 acres in Jefferson Township. This roughly rectangular parcel straddled the Rockaway River; it was bounded on the east by Green Pond Mountain and touched the top of Longwood Mountain on the west. It included a forge, saw mill and grist mill.

Two years into his mortgage, John DeCamp lost the property to foreclosure, and Whitehead bought it at auction for a little over half the amount of the loan. Recovering his money didn’t come easily: DeCamp had accumulated a number of debts, sometimes using all or part of the mortgaged land as collateral. His many creditors included three banks. Whitehead had had to file suit against them all.7

John DeCamp’s identity may help establish the site of the property he owned and lost to William Whitehead. That DeCamp was a figure of some importance is suggested by the number and status of his many creditors, among them Morristown worthy Sylvester D. Russell, Newark shoe and leather magnate Luther Goble, and New York importer Thomas H. Smith. (The devious practices of this last, a mogul of the China trade, were abetted by Whitehead’s brother-in-law, and would entangle William Whitehead himself.)8

Detail of a manuscript map of Morris County iron mines, forges and furnaces. The forge labeled Upper Longwood (center) may mark the DeCamp tract.

It’s not impossible, then, that this was the John DeCamp later remembered as “one of the most prominent and perhaps the wealthiest of the early ironmasters.”9 DeCamp the ironmaker had built and operated the Upper Longwood forge, one of the oldest in the Rockaway valley.10 If he and Whitehead’s debtor were one and the same, the DeCamp tract very possibly lay on both sides of a forge at what is today called Longwood Lake, about four miles from Berkshire Valley.

Through the 1820s, William Whitehead held onto the DeCamp lands, conceivably renting them out to be worked by tenant farmers. As his son mentions visiting only “the Farm,” the forge on the property may have been long dormant. Young William and his brother made “all the inquiries we wished,” he writes, “in time to return to Berkshire to breakfast.” While the character of those inquiries can only be guessed at, they may have been prompted by an impending sale. Within six months of that visit, the lands and waters and all that stood there had passed to new owners.11

Copyright © 2022 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Some years having elapsed since I had before travelled that road, the views it presented of the picturesque scenery of the mountains, afforded me much gratification….” This and succeeding quotations come from W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, 1-2, Key West Art & Historical Society. The brothers’ journey from Morristown to Berkshire Valley and back took place on 26-27 July 1830.

[2] A history of Morris County New Jersey, embracing upwards of two centuries 1710-1913 (2 vols. New York and Chicago 1914; hereafter “A history of Morris County [1914]”) 1:462. McFarlan’s death occurred on 28 June: New-York (N.Y.) evening post 29 June 1830 2:5.

[3] The Canal’s use of the Rockaway at Dover was a flashpoint in a long-running dispute with the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures (SUM) at Paterson, which claimed rights to the Passaic River and all its tributaries. See Barbara N. Kalata, A hundred years, a hundred miles. New Jersey’s Morris Canal(Morristown, N.J. 1983; hereafter “Kalata, A hundred years”) 166-178 et passim.

[4] Emporium and true American (Trenton, N.J.) 19 June 1830 3:1. Newspaper accounts vary as to the date of the first passage of boats from Dover to Newark, but place it squarely within November 1830: see Kalata, A hundred years 149-150.

[5] E. S. Thomas, Reminiscences of the last sixty-five years, commencing with the Battle of Lexington. Also, sketches of his own life and times (2 vols. Hartford, Conn. 1840) 2:84-85.

[6] John DeCamp & Susan his wife to William Whitehead, 1 May 1816, Morris County (N.J.) Book of Mortgages Liber I, 198.

[7] William Whitehead vs. John DeCamp et al., 1817–1818, Chancery Court Case Files, 1743-1845, New Jersey State Archives. David Mills (Sheriff) to William Whitehead, 22 September 1818, Morris County (N.J.) Register of Deeds Liber GG 511-513.

[8] On the Whitehead family’s ties to the affair of Thomas H. Smith and Son, see my previous post The entrepôt.

[9] History of Morris County, New Jersey, with illustrations, and biographical sketches of prominent citizens and pioneers (New York: W. W. Munsell, 1882) 235. At his death in 1844, aged 84, John DeCamp was remembered for distinguished service in the Revolution (as an express rider in the department of the Quartermaster General he “became personally known to General Washington, who … during a period of three years, entrusted him with dispatches for Congress, and for his general officers”), as well as his 27 years of service as a Morris County judge. “With his life as a private citizen,” stated his obituary, “we have here less to do. It is enough to say that he was eminently successful.” New-York (N.Y.) commercial advertiser 25 October 1844 3:1. Cf. “Another veteran Jerseyman gone,” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 26 October 1844 2:2.

[10] A history of Morris County (1914) 1:183. Charles S. Boyer, Early forges & furnaces in New Jersey(Philadelphia 1931) 263. Cf. J. P. Lesley, The iron manufacturer’s guide to the furnaces, forges and rolling mills of the United States with discussions of iron as a chemical element, an American ore, and a manufactured article, in commerce and in history (New York 1859) 157.

[11] Joseph Dickerson Junior and Phebe his wife and William Fichter to William Whitehead, 1 January 1831, Morris County (N.J.) Book of Mortgages Liber O, 50-51; William Whitehead and Abby his wife to Joseph Dickerson Junior & William Fichter, 31 January 1831, Morris County (N.J.) Register of Deeds Liber A3, 103-104.

Images: 1) Horse-drawn wagon: “‘Going in’–old style,” Eighth and ninth reports of the Forest, Fish and Game Commission of the State of New York (Albany, N.Y. [1903]) 276 via Wikimedia Commons. 2) Thomas Gordon, comp. A map of the state of New Jersey with part of the adjoining states (Trenton, N.J., and Philadelphia 1828), detail, via West Jersey History Project. 3) Sheriff’s sale, Palladium of liberty (Morris-Town, N.J.) 25 June 1818 3:5, and 4) Lemuel Cobb and Walter Kirkpatrick, map of iron mines and furnaces, n.d., Map MC-3-7, detail, North Jersey History & Genealogy Center, The Morristown and Morris Township Library.
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