Watson Buck: The History of Rancocas

From a talk given to the Rancocas Women’s Club in 1962

Thanks to Nora Dunfee for the article

This evening, from many sources, I will attempt to bring back from the past a few memories and activities of Rancocas Village. At time, I must roam far to get a background for the story.

There are two kinds of history. One is made up of things that happen in our short lifetime and the other is taught by teachers or read about in books. The history of any country reduced to its fundamentals is simply a record of past events and the people who took part in them. An old writer once said, “without a knowledge of history, man loses the benefit of human experience.” striving in the lively present day, we give little thought to those early people of many lands, who, impelled by the rugged hope and courage of the pioneer, came with their dreams and hopes which went into the making of America. Though of diverse origins, these people were bound together by certain aims to escape the oppressions of Europe. What they sought was a commonwealth built by the axe and the plow, not by the sword and the gun.

We love then ancient buildings they left us, not merely because they are old, but because they are living memorials of a way of life long past. I hope this evening that I may be able to refresh the memory of the native born and perhaps interest the stranger within our gates in the early history of New Jersey. To me, the wealth and variety of early New Jersey history, folklore and tradition, has always been a fascinating study, and I am sorry that in one evening we can only bring out a small part of the Rancocas story.

In the fast pace of life today, few people know or care anything about the early history of the part of the country they now reside in or the suffering trials and tribulations of the early settlers. The questions often arises, “why did these people leave their comfortable homes in Europe and immigrate to the savage-infested forests of New Jersey?” Their principle fault was that they had the courage of their convictions, in both religion and civil affairs. Their peaceful way of life antagonized those then in authority, with the result that many persons were robbed, beaten and imprisoned. Eventually, many decided that no matter what terrors a primeval forest held, life here would be preferable to living in the old world.

These early pioneers had little use for physicians. They were a hardy race, capable of enduring privations and pains incident to settling in a new country. I doubt very much if a modern, high-spiked, painted and varnished young lady would last a whole week back in those days, when every hour of the day and part of the night was taken up with some necessary occupation, such as cooking, spinning and weaving, soap and candle making, attending to the children’s wants, gathering and drying medical plants, roots and herbs for use in the winter ahead. These curatives were a serious business for women of the household. Hanging from beams in the kitchen or garret were many plant and seed pods, all being carefully dried and stored away for use in decorations or teas, or pounded into powder as wanted. The settlers had to depend largely upon these primitive nostrums for their ordinary ailments.

If the women of the households had any spare time left, they assisted in the barn or field. The years passed quickly. There was spring ploughing and seed planting, summer reaping, autumn hog killing, winter cutting and stacking of wood or felling trees and mewing out framework to be used in erecting a building come summer. Ice had to be gathered to fill the ice house. Then came first and third day meetings. There was no time for television in those days.

The traveler of today, if he be in car or bus, gives scant, if any, thought to the smooth, level roadway he is traveling over. He knows or cares nothing of its origin and development. Most of our country highways have grown as gradually as man himself. Many of our older highways began as an Indian path, and then as a bridle path by the early settlers. As travel at this time was mostly by horseback or boat, wheeled vehicles would have been of little use in a country where the roads were still full of trees and tree stumps, and where streams had few if any bridges.

Later, the trees and tree stumps were removed from the middle of the road, but that did not remove all the travelers troubles. Funerals were frequently attended in boats, the coffin being placed on a small barge and followed by several rowboats containing the family and friends. Often we find graves in the dooryard of an ancient home, where a deceased member of a family was interred when any form of transportation to a cemetery was impossible.

There was very little foot travel at night, as a person never knew just when they might meet up with a few hungry wolves, a bear or wildcat, none of which were friendly. To back up that statement, I quote from the Pennsylvania Gazette of May 6, 1731: “There has lately been killed near Mount Holly in the Jerseys the largest bear that has been known in these parts. His forehead measured two spans wide. His leg just above the foot as big as could be grasped with hands after the skin was removed. Though exceedingly lean, he weighted upwards of 300 pounds. There has been seen another of the same gigantic size about the same place.” Personally, I believe I would rather meet the Jersey Devil than a bear that size. A short time ago a person from South Jersey told me that there are large bear tracks in that part of the country. Bears have been turned loose recently, for what reason I do not know.

The Indian Commissioners purchased from the Indians a tract of land extending from the Rancocas River to the falls of the Delaware and from the headwaters of the Rancocas to the partition line of Sir George Carteret’s right. The bounds of Willingboro and Rancocas are situated within that purchase. It may interest you to know the names of the Indians, Ack A Mers, Okan Isk Hon, Wes Kea Kit, Pet Mea Tus, Ke Krop Pamant.

It is difficult to imagine the Rancocas River valley a vast wilderness with no Mount Holly, Hainesport, Rancocas or Centerton, when Riverside, or Goat Town, was only sandhills and swamps, and with only Indian Wigwams to mark the sites of unnamed towns. This demands a nimble play of the imagination. Through the eyes of the first Europeans, the Eastern Shore of the Delaware from the Falls to the Capes, was a dense primeval forest. Today, it is difficult for us to picture in our minds this great expanse of timber that had never known an axe, thick, black soil, made of rotted leaves that had fallen for thousands of years, covered with undergrowth and thick with brambles. From this terrain sprang mighty oaks 60 or 80 feet up to the first limb. Among these great trees the lesser elbowed each other for living space and everywhere spreading over shrubs and low growing trees. Climbing in the branches of the highest, grape vines flung their tangled network.

Great bogs, formed by clogged streams or filling naturally undrained low places, grew rank with weeds and plants. Only by a few Indian paths, rarely over 18 inches wide and animal trails, could this wilderness be penetrated. There was a variety and abundance of wild life, such as is unknown anywhere on this continent today. This was the land to which Europeans were flocking, some for the adventure, for gold, for commerce, for settlement where they could freely worship God according to the dictates of conscience.

Through a slash in the forest wall, the Rancocas River entered, peopled here and there by a small Indian tribe, as it wends its torturous way into the waste lands of the Pines where its waters were later to be harnessed by early Iron Masters to drive the water wheels of the iron empire they carved out of the wilderness. The identity of the first European to inhabit the banks of the Rancocas is so obscured by the shades of time that we may never know. Time and building expansion have obliterated many of the old landmarks, but some mementos of the past are well preserved today. Other meager remains of ancient structures built by mortal hands are rotting and tumbling into the past. The rest are shadowy things of memory and tradition.

By the aid of pick and spade, much history of the past has been revealed. Here, under a mound of broken bricks, there, deep down in a muddy stream, and here again in the recent soil, are the several pages of a book which we must read, written in the language of stones, iron, bones and ashes, which will tell anew of the great drama of life.

Indian villages on the Rancocas are given as reference points in the early land surveys of Revel and Leeds. Molding sand operations over the years have obliterated many sites of Indian occupation and the river has washed away many others. Sand barges carried away many Indian artifacts, which are now resting in concrete structures in the city of Philadelphia. One of these Indian villages earned the everlasting gratitude of the immigrants on a large ship which ran aground in the Delaware Bay and it was 8 days before a favorable wind and tide carried the vessel up the river where the passengers were landed, with few if any provisions, on the Jersey shore. They went ten miles, to an Indian village on the Rancocas, where the Indians gave them peas and corn so they would not starve to death.

For several years, no one knows how many, before the settlement of Burlington and Philadelphia, a Water Reeves had a farm and family on the Rancocas between the forks and Mount Holly and from records at Trenton we learn that Walter Reeves exported beef, cheese and flour from his plantation on the Rancocas to Bridgetown in the Barbados in his ship, The Robert and William. John Huling, Master. Reeves died in 1698.

All writers agree that Mount Holly, in the early days, was called Bridgetown because of its many bridges, but I often wonder if the name did not come from Bridgetown in the Barbados as there was very early travel between Mount Holly and that island.

An unanswered question is just where Reeves got flour to export at that early period. A daughter of Walter Reeves is said to have married one Howell Davis, a known pirate. Pirates were known to come up the Rancocas as far as Mount Holly as late as the early 1800’s. In light of the foregoing, one wonders just what manner of activities were taking place on the Rancocas before the time of written history.

If we go to the early records, the name of Rancocas meant the river and most anywhere on its banks. Delanco was first called Wallace’s Landing. Next it was named the Rancocas Station of the Camden Amboy railroad. The Friends old Meeting House and the few houses strung along Will’s pond were called Rancocas. Eventually, the name settled down for good in the present village.

Although the first road from Mount Holly to Dunk’s Ferry, or Beverly, it almost lost from memory and tradition, let us, in fancy, travel along this ancient highway and visit some of the ancient homes. in 1700, there was only one house in what is now Rancocas and the road through town was something of the future. The original road was south of the present Woodlane, through Bunker Hill woods and right through the middle of the new school by the turnpike. It went south westward and crossed over the Daniel Wills mill dam. Then northwest by the Indian spring up the hill by the Franklin Park farm. Then westward, crossing the dam at Ollive’s mill. There the road forked, one fork going to Dunk’s Ferry and the other fork going to Wallace’s Landing, now Delanco.

Suppose we travel westward on this road, after leaving Bunker Hill woods and we come to the site of John Woolman’s home. Then on to the site of Dr. Daniel Wills home, which was on Hessert’s lane close to the Centerton Road. Dr. Wills was the first doctor to settle in Burlington County and gave the name, Westampton to the township. Northampton Township in the early days was one of the largest townships in the county. It included the present townships of Westampton, Eastampton, Southampton and part of Lumberton, as well as the present Township of Northampton in which Mount Holly is now located.

The present brick house on the bluff overlooking the Rancocas was built by Aaron Wills in 1786. As we cross the small ravine by the Friend’s cemetery, we see the remains of the grist mill built by Daniel Wills in the late 1600’s. There is a tradition in the Wills family that men from Tuckerton with sacks of grain on their horses to this mill before Ed Andrews built his mill at Tuckerton. On the west bank of Daniel Wills’ mill pond is the site of the Friends Burying Ground and their old Meeting House. The present Friends’ Cemetery is on the site of an Indian burying ground.

Many years ago an aged grave digger described to me two circular burial pits he had excavated during his grave digging operations. Each pit was about 16 feet in diameter with a step all around the bottom on which the Indian skeletons sat in a circle facing each other and apparently each circle was completed, the pit sealed over with logs and earth. There is a tradition that about every twenty years, the tribal members who had died away from home, no matter how far away they were buried, their bones were returned to this burying ground.

Most of the Rancocas written history begins in the Hardings homestead. In 1681, the Friends began to hold meetings in the Harding home and his neighbors until their first meeting house was erected in 1703. The dimensions of the Meeting House were 30 feet long and 20 feed wide with 12 foot walls. It had a single window with four panes of bulls eye glass and a fireplace in the southwest corner. Traditionally, it was constructed of logs from trees growing near the cemetery by workers from Ancocas and was in use until the preset Meeting House was built in 1772.

As we cross the Centerton Road, we come to the John Payne plantation. Often, the Green and Payne plantations cause confusion to the student of history. The survey recorded in 1681 reads, “John Payne for the use of Thomas Green.” For some reason, that paragraph has been left out of the 1681 survey by the historical writers. The ancient Green house on the north end of the Green plantation was built by John Green in the 1680’s for his father, Thomas Green of England, who apparently never came to this country.

The center part of the Lundy house on the Green plantation was built prior to the Revolution. It is believed it was built by Moses Wills, who bought the farm from Aaron Wills in 1766. The east end of the Lundy house was erected in 1820, the west end after 1840.

A very interesting and romantic story has come down to us on the wings of tradition. The Green family in England was a very proud and aristocratic family and when their daughter, Elizabeth formed an attachment for a young man to whom her father violently objected, she, with her brother John, were sent to the wilderness of West Jersey in the care of Dr. Daniel Wills. A groom was needed to accompany the gay Elizabeth on horseback rides through the country and canoe rides on the moonlit waters of the Rancocas. The services of John Stokes, a dependable young Quaker, was engaged with the result that John Stokes and Elizabeth Green were married.

Adjoining the Green lands on the west side was the Thomas Harding plantation. The Harding home was erected prior to 1681. It was destroyed by fire in 1800.

The present brick homestead, known as Stokingham, was erected by David Stokes shortly after the Harding home was destroyed. It was re-built and improved by his son, Israel, who inherited the farm. Eventually, Tylee B. Engle came into possession of the old Stokingham and sure had his share of bad luck, when all but the brick walls of Stokingham were destroyed by fire which started about 11 o’clock, Thursday nigh, December 22, 1905 and continued for several hours until it burned itself out, only a small portion of the furniture was saved. A few bureau drawers were about the only things saved from the second floor. After sheltering men for more than a hundred years, the strong gable walls and the huge hearth stones of Stokingham were open to wind and sky. Mr. Engle’s streak of bad luck had more trouble in store for him, for less than two months later, on the 16th of the following February, a little before 6 o’clock in the evening, a fire destroyed the immense barn and outbuildings with their contents. When the fire was over, all that was left of old Stokingham was the bare brick walls.

We next come to the Indian spring where in the 1680’s a Friends’ school was built in an Indian village. Both Indian and white children attended this school. It is believed that John Woolman’s early school days were spent here. All that is left today of this ancient structure is traditions and a few foundations stones, buried in an old apple orchard.

A few yards north of the Indian spring is the brick house built in 1816 by Charles Stokes. Clay for the bricks came from the pond across the road. West of the new Baptist Church stood a brick house built by Charles Stokes for his son, Jarrett, in 1850.

As we travel westward, we come to the Franklin Park farm, home of New Jersey’s last royal Governor. To tell the history of this farm would require a whole evening in the telling.

During the Revolutionary War, when the British, under General Howe, were expected to attack Philadelphia from the Jersey side of the Delaware River in the early part of December, 1776, Washington directed General Caldwalder to request the Council of Safety of Pennsylvania to immediately dispatch a party of men from Philadelphia to cut down and destroy the two bridges on the Burlington Road one on the Pennsauken Creek and the other on Coopers Creek, Camden, as he expected the enemy to pass to Philadelphia by that route. The Pennsauken and Cooper bridges were destroyed by Col. Hatlock, while another party under his command burnt the Rancocas Ferry flat and a wood flat belonging to Hugh Hollingshead at the Upper Rancocas Ferry. Tradition says that the remains of this boat are still buried in the mud flat.

Most writers ignore or give scant attention to military events in Burlington County which took place a few days before the Battle of Trenton and drew Count Danop’s Hessians away from supporting distance of Raul at Trenton when Washington attacked on Christmas Eve in 1776. If these Hessians would have reached Trenton, we might well be a part of the British Empire today. As Washington’s attack on Trenton was the last blow his small army was capable of delivering.

The present road through Rancocas to Mount Holly was surveyed in 1771 and marked the beginning of Rancocas. The Post Office was established in 1838. John Brainerd refers to his preaching station at Rancocas in 1781 which was in one of the houses along Wills mill pond. Today there is nothing left to show the locations of these houses. The oldest building in Rancocas is the Lundy House, built in the late 1700’s. The next oldest house is the brick residence on the western end of town, erected in 1810 by the Friends for the use of John Gummere, who taught at the Friends School. The final meetings of the Orthodox Friends were held in the Janney house built in 1837. The double brick house across from the fire house was the home of Dr. Granville Woolman.

There were four stores in Rancocas. Borton’s store was in a building which stood in Wilkens yard. Bishops store was in the present Oldershaw home. Stevens store is the old Leeds store and Richard Lippincott occupied the Colin Tait store.

The Garwood home was occupied by a Lew Fish, a carpet weaver and later Dr. Martin had his office in the front of the house and his living quarters in the rear. There was also a drug store. Tom Lawrence had a lime kiln between the Joseph Lundy house and the Centerton road.

The first Friends’ school at Rancocas was erected about 1681 at the Indian spring. The next one was a frame structure erected in 1773 in the meeting house yard. The present Friends’ brick school was erected in 1822, not in 1807. At this later day, it may be interesting to read an entry in the Friends’ School trustees report for 1823: “The cost of the little Friends’ brick school house, including the stone was $559.23, leaving a balance in the school fund of $2.64.” The Orthodox Friends erected a frame school in 1838 on the east side of the Meeting House grounds.

The story of Rancocas would be incomplete without reference to its library and the “Rancocas Lyceum.” The most famous literary society in Burlington County in 1877, the Lyseum Society erected a brick building for their own use, which is now the Fire Company’s building. At one time, Rancocas had many activities. The four brickyards are but a memory now. There was a steam flour mill, which burnt in 1903. There were the blacksmith and wheelwright shops, a coach build, Levi Atkinson, whose place of business across from the fire house, was destroyed by fire. A dealer in agricultural implements, whose salesman ranged far into Pennsylvania and Delaware. At the Leeds store, you could purchase almost anything mentionable from shoes to groceries. You could even exchange farm produce for a tailor-made suit or dress.

In February of 1909, in this same store, I witnessed an occurrence which I can never forget. It was the one and only time in my life to see a man come through a doorway bringing the door with him. It happened this way: The countryside was still jittery from the Jersey Devil scare of a short time before and just about dusk on a February evening. A dozen or so of us young fellows were soaking up heat from the great bot-bellied stove. The storekeeper had shut and barred all the doors and windows, except the front double door and was just about ready to shoo us all outside where the snow was a foot deep, when our attention was called to a person yelling loud and long.

Our first thought was that a fire had broken out. By this time, the commotion was alongside the store and just as we rose from our chairs, half of the double door came straight in with a big man in back of it, landed flat on the floor with the man on top, slid along the floor right up to the stove and barked the shin of one of our gang still in his chair. Hardened as country people are to most any occurrence, this was a new experience as this man was twice the size of any of us.

For an instant, we all froze in our tracks. Then each one of us selected a corn knife, axe of brush hook from the racks by the store counter and rushed outside to meet whatever pursued our friend. Two tail-wagging dogs, attracted by the commotion, met us outside and as they were not barking, we knew there was nothing strange around.

By this time, our friend had recovered his breath and informed us that on his way home from the Centerton Hotel, he heard a flapping of wings and far off in the field, the Jersey Devil came to a sliding halt in the snow. With all of his wings and long legs, the Jersey Devil could not keep up with our friend when he was in high gear. That night, the front door of the store was nailed shut with boards from a case. Most all persons concerned in this incident have passed away and its memory gone from the few living. I will not mention the person’s name who rode the door across the floor, as I believe it best to let sleeping dogs lie.

I will recite one more Leeds store incident as told me by an aged resident many years ago. He was a boy when the Civil War ceased and all over the country celebrations were in order. For years, an old cannon had reposed on the stem boat wharf at Centerton, but here was no gunpowder for it. This was no problem to boys of that day. Two or three of the boys went to the front of Mr. Leed’s store and started an argument with him, while the others reached in the side window and grabbed a can of gunpowder off the shelf and rushed down to Centerton with it. They used a half a fence rail to ram home the charge and on the last shot they left the fence rail in the gun. The fence rail went clear across the river and stuck in the riverbank where it was visible for several years. Later, someone pushed the cannon into the river and it is still there to the best of my knowledge.

In the 1870’s, the first Rancocas Fire Company was organized. Three large wells were dug and had operated force pumps installed in them. Rope ladders, hose and pumps were secured, but lack of interest let the hose, ladders and pumps decay and rust until they were useless when the Haines mill fire occurred in 1903.

The four brickyards of Scattergood, Tyders, McInnesses and Berryann are now but a memory.

Long, long ago a murder was committed during a drunken Saturday night brawl in the home of James Mullen. All that remains today to mark the site of the Mullen house is a slight depression in an open field where the well was. A few years after the murder, this house burned down.

The earliest steamboat of which we have any knowledge on the Rancocas was the Norristown, Captain John Gardner, which ran between Philadelphia and Lumberton in 1823. Most of the freight for the Rancocas stores came by stem boats to Centerton. When the Stevens store family moved from Chester to Rancocas, they came by boat to Centerton wharf. As late as 1845 (?) steam boats ran from Philadelphia to Lumberton, stopping on signal, at any wharf in between to pick up freight and passengers. The word freight covers a wide variety of items. The sheep, cattle, swine, horses and poultry were usually stored in the bow of the boat away from the noise of the engine. The farm produce and passengers were stored amidships and stern. The steamer, Annie VanSciver, took many excursions from Hainesport, Mount Holly and Rancocas to Lincoln Park and Washington Park on the Delaware Bay. In 1845, the steam boats, Barclay and Independence were making regular trips between Lumberton and Philadelphia. The steamer,Rancocas followed the Barclay and Independence. The steamboats, Clara and Fleetwing ran up to Mount Holly until the 1890’s. The steam boat has vanished from the Rancocas almost as completely as the Indian canoe.

Very few names of the first settlers in the neighborhood of Rancocas are left today. The Olive family died out. The Eves, the Roberts, French, Evans and Bortons families removed to Chester and Evesham townships at an early date. The Powell, Hudson, Harding, Scott, Paine, Green, Humphreys, Hilliard and Devonish names have entirely disappeared. The historic name of Woolman has disappeared and I believe I should bring this long, rambling talk to a close and disappear, too.

Watson Buck

Main Street
Rancocas, New Jersey