Nominated, researched, and introduction by Michelle D. Novak. Images courtesy of the New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, New Jersey, and the author.
Many first think of Federal records when researching those in the military or civilians during times of war. But they often overlook records held by states—records which may provide new insights and resources, as well as some surprises, for family historians.
This artifact is located in the collection of the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA) in Trenton, New Jersey. The NJSA holds a vast repository of Colonial and Revolutionary War era letters, manuscripts, maps, censuses, tax books, poll books, muster rolls, claims of damage, deeds, wills, tavern licenses, quitclaims, letters, and other important documents.
The NJSA also holds State military records through WWI. In the 1890s, an order was dispatched to all State Adjutant Generals to inventory the military records in their collections. The quality of these indexes varies from state to state—but New Jersey has a particularly comprehensive and excellent index compiled under the direction of Adjutant General William S. Stryker (1838–1900). Stryker was renowned for his skill as a historian and archivist and he created genealogical indexes and historical publications about record sets at the NJSA. Many of indexes these can now be found online and have been invaluable to generations of researchers. (As tribute, his portrait overlooks the reading room at the NJSA.)
For those conducting Colonial-era research this record group is a must-use resource as by New Jersey law of the time every free male from 16 to 50, and regardless of race, was automatically enrolled into the County militia. Those Loyalists who did not support the revolutionary cause often had their properties confiscated or fled to the protection of British-held New York City or Canada, causing deep divides in Bergen County families which lasted generations. And many families' loyalties flip-flopped multiple times during the war in reaction to immediate threats and uncertainties about who would prevail in the conflict (and what would become of their property should the back the wrong side).
Nearly all New Jerseyians served in some capacity in their County’s militia; others signed-up to serve in the State regiments (embodied for terms of three, six, nine, or 12 consecutive months); or joined one of the state’s four Continental Army regiments (the first US Army). And some served in multiple capacities. Those who held Civil Servant positions (magistrates, etc.), religious objectors (for example, Quakers, who were not primarily in Bergen County), and some vital trades were exempted from military duty and served in other capacities. Many Loyalists chose to join one of the British Provincial regiments, with those from Bergen County entering primarily into the (British) 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers—for which the NJSA holds some records as well. But, most Revolutionary War military records, as well as records for those who served in uniform as well as in civilian capacities, are local records and begin with an accounting at the County level.
The Revolutionary War index cards and slips at the New Jersey State Archives are compiled indexes that reference manuscript materials in the collections of the New Jersey State Archives (such as muster rolls, claims of damage, civil service, Loyalists, desertions, pay and quartermaster rolls, etc.) as well as records held by the National Archives in Washington, DC (such as pension applications, which were first offered to those who served in the Continental troops, then to State Militias, and finally expanded to County Militias). The information from a card in this collection can unlock new resources for researchers as well as lead to documents to be rediscovered.
Why are these Documents Important?
The documents are two nearly identically-worded petitions from the residents of Bergen County in the spring of 1781 to the New Jersey General Assembly. The two letters are in different hands and one appears phonetically spelled, possibly indicating verbal dictation to two different individuals rather than a direct copy of one letter.
The contents of these petitions detail the hardships suffered by those in Bergen County during the war. But of interest to genealogists may be the signatures affixed to the documents as, together, the two petitions contain the signatures of 107 men living in Bergen County in the spring of 1781.
The petitions contain signatures of fathers and sons, cousins and uncles, and friends and neighbors in Bergen County. Many of the names appear again and again in different hands—a testament to the traditional naming patterns which saw many first cousins named after the same common relative and a very common problem for those researching early New Jersey, especially Dutch, families. Some individuals and families anglicized their names, whereas “Jan” became “John,” but still held to the traditional naming patterns. Of note, the letter was indexed in the collection to William (Williem) Christie (1720–1809) whose signature appears directly under the petition (and the author's great-x-grandfather). But the letter is not cross-indexed to every name that appears on the letter, possibly because of the confusion of the multiple signatures of the same name where the exact person to index it to could not be determined.
In some places, the order of the signatures suggest that they were collected in family groups. It is unknown how the signatures were collected—possibly as the families visited a tavern to sign the petition, or maybe as the petition organizer traveled the lanes of Hackensack and New Bridge visiting homesteads. If the latter, it may be possible to use the order of the names, cross-referenced with deeds, tax ratables, censuses, militia records, and other Colonial-era documents, to reconstruct a map of homesteads.
Some signatures are bold, steady, and clear. Others are shakier and more crude, possibly by an elder member of the family, someone not used to writing, or possibly illiterate except for signing their name. (In Colonial America, reading and writing were viewed as two completely separate skills and children were often taught to read before they were taught how to write. Many were taught to read but never progressed far enough with studies to learn how to write.) A few signatures are in the form of a crudely-made “X” with the adjacent “his mark” and printed name written in by another.
From the nature of the documents, it can be assumed that all the signatories were patriots (or at least at that time as many localities wavered during the course of the war and its projected outcome). Those who signed the petition almost certainly witnessed Washington’s retreat from Manhattan through New Bridge at the start of the war in November 1776. They suffered hardships as troops of both sides washed across Bergen County, taking valuable supplies, food, livestock, firewood, and lumber. They watched as families split between patriots and loyalists, the latter often leaving their homes for New York City or Canada. They guarded and defended the strategically important bridge across the Hackensack River—an tidal waterway which linked the interior of Bergen County to New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean—and which there were only a few points of crossing large enough to move troops and munitions across. They may have helped supply the troops with food, shelter, medical aid, and arms. And they almost certainly felt that they were bearing the brunt of the hardships of the War—and that their lives, and families, would never be the same.
For genealogists, these two petitions are evidence of those in Bergen County in the spring of 1781, and, with some sleuthing, matching the signatures to known individuals is entirely possible. But unlike censuses and tax ratables, which were written by officials and clerks, these are certainly the marks of those who witnessed history in the making.
|Artifact Title||MSS #10381—Petition of 25 Bergen Co. Citizens to their Representatives in the General Assembly Concerning the Needs for Laws to Punish Loyalists [No date; Same as #10940]
MSS #10949— Petition of 82 Bergen Co. Citizens to their Representatives in the General Assembly Concerning the Needs for Laws to Punish Loyalists, 21 May 1781 [Same as #10381]
|Repository||New Jersey State Archives, 225 West State Street, 2nd Floor, Trenton, New Jersey 08625|
|Date||Manuscript #10949 dated 21 May 1781; Manuscript #10381 does not have a date but is assumed to be from the same time|
|Description||Two letters on rag paper. MSS #10381 is a single sheet, front and back, approximately 7.75” wide 13” high. MSS #10949 is folded into four pages, approximately 8” wide x 13” high, when folded. Petition and signatures in black ink. Most signatures clearly legible. Both letters are identically worded, except for spelling differences, in two different hands. MSS #10318 is contains a rough, possibly phonetic, spelling in an uneven hand. MSS #10949 is written in an elegant, steady hand and contains very few misspellings or slips of the pen.|
Braisted, Todd (2000). A History of the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers. On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies. Retrieved from http://www.royalprovincial.com/military/rhist/njv/4njvhist.htm
New Jersey National Guard Museum (2021). Revolutionary War. State of New Jersey, Department of Military & Veterans Affairs. Retrieved from https://njmilitiamuseum.org/military-heritage/revolutionary-war
New Jersey State Archives (2021). NJSA Searchable Databases and Records Request Forms. Retrieved from https://wwwnet-dos.state.nj.us/DOS_ArchivesDBPortal/index.aspx
The Cost of Bergen’s War
By Todd W. Braisted
Taxes, security, shared burden. The words and sentiments could come from almost any election today in the United States. The document presented here, however, dates from the American Revolution, and the locale is Bergen County, New Jersey.
Bergen in 1776 was as diverse politically, culturally, racially, and religiously as it is today. Dutch, Scottish, Danes, French Huguenots, Germans, Poles, English, Irish, Swedes, and a significant African population created a unique blend that often gets lumped together today as simply “Jersey Dutch.” That so many backgrounds produced a view of American independence that was less than unanimous should come as no surprise; what perhaps takes people unawares today (and possibly then as well) was the degree to which so many wished to retain their allegiance to Britain’s King George III.
This was brought home to the residents and leaders of the county when, on November 20th 1776, five-thousand British, Hessian, and Provincial troops under Lord Cornwallis scaled the towering Palisades above the Hudson River, forcing an immediate and precipitate evacuation of Washington’s Army from its one real outpost in the county, Fort Lee. Aside from three companies serving with the main army in New Jersey’s state troops, however, Bergen’s patriot citizens stayed home or, in the view of their leaders, much worse, joined Cornwallis’ invading army and offered it every service in their power.
Bergen’s civil and military leaders stood down in those darkest days of the Revolution, while watching their previously silent Loyalist neighbors ascend to high military rank in Britain’s Provincial forces. Hundreds of these Loyalists were formed into the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, a Provincial unit commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk of New Bridge, seconded by nearby school master Major Robert Timpany, and the county clerk, Hackensack’s Major Daniel Isaac Browne. Soon after formation, the corps would join other battalions of the same regiment on Staten Island, only occasionally stationed at such places as Paulus Hook, Hobuck, and Bergen Point (all in modern Hudson County).
Each side thereafter made forays into the county, the purposes varying but the resulting capture of combatants and civilians alike was commonplace. Throughout 1777 and much of the next year, the county’s militia was forced to act on the defensive, serving only in small detachments, often with hired substitutes, men privately hired by those unable or unwilling to serve in the field. It was dangerous work, not simply from the risk of British or Loyalist raids, but from those Loyalists who had stayed behind at their residences, typically those too old or infirm for service in the field, or whose station in life was above that of a common soldier. More than once did a militia orderly sergeant on his errand of warning men for duty find himself ducking from the occasional potshot fired his way by an irate Loyalist neighbor.
By 1779, the situation was starting to change. Continental troops, those of Washington’s standing army, were more and more often stationed in the county, garrisoning such areas as Ramapo, Paramus, and even Little Ferry. The presence of regular soldiers, long absent from the county, strengthened the resolve of the militia and the authority of the local government.
The document presented here represents this period of time, the middle of the conflict, where patriot authorities finally felt themselves in a position to proceed against the hundreds of Loyalists still in their midst, those who were primarily the family members of those who had gone off and joined the British in 1776 and subsequent years. The state, starting in 1776, had provided remedies for the government to punish Loyalists; the trick in Bergen County was being in a position to use them.
At its heart, the request made by these twenty-five Bergen County leaders, militia officers, politicians, and others, was to compel Loyalists to either serve in the militia or face confiscation of their private property. The state had indeed already passed a confiscation law, provided the Loyalist so charged was convicted after receiving due process. This new request seems not take that sort of legal nicety into account. The county, for all intents and purposes, was giving an ultimatum to everyone within its borders: you are either with us, or against us. By the end of the war, the state had decided 134 properties in Bergen County were subject to lawful confiscation and were subsequently auctioned off to help support the war effort. This number was more than any other county, although Bergen’s population was hardly the largest in the state. Amongst the properties included was that of John Zabriskie, which is the modern home of the Bergen County Historical Society at Historic New Bridge Landing in River Edge. The names on the petition are a poignant reminder of the civil war nature of the conflict, with every family but Goetschius and Auryansen being represented on both sides of the conflict.
The second part of the request on the petition addressed two problems facing the state and county: a lack of provisions for its own soldiers and a prevailing black market economy with the British in New York. Known at the time as “London Trading” it involved residents, even those otherwise active in the patriot cause, to secretly sell or trade eggs, produce, meat, and other local goods with the British in exchange for hard currency (as opposed to highly inflated paper money) or hard to find imported items such as fabrics, tea, coffee, etc. Residents were taxed based upon their property, and that included how many cattle they owned. Hiding cattle from tax assessors not only diminished their taxable property, but it hid from view commodities that were planned for trading with the British. With these things in mind, the proposal for confiscating hidden assets, as it were, no doubt seemed a proper solution to hard-pressed government officials. That the need to provide for the local soldiers was real, whether serving in the militia or state troops, as expressed by Captain Thomas Blanch when he wrote from Closter to George Washington on August 24th 1780: “I am at present much Necessitated for provisions – knows not Where to apply.” The peril of confiscating goods from the residents, or over-taxing them, was that it played into British propaganda that the residents lived under a new sort of tyranny that attacked prosperity and commerce. Indeed, on April 17th of the same year, the British published in one of the New York City newspapers a document captured a month before in a raid on Hackensack, which they entitled “List come in of the Inhabitants of Harrington Township, in Bergen County, with their various MONTHLY Assessments, under the Tyranny of the New-Jersey usurpers…for the Purpose of squeezing their Substances out of them.” It then went on to list the residents and their taxes, which included Weirt Banta, Thomas Campbell, and Petrus Bogart, three of the signers of the petition.
The war that created the United States would officially end in September 1783, but the rifts between former neighbors, friends, and family members would take some time to mend. Some never did. For the residents of Bergen County during the eight years of the American Revolution it was truly, as Thomas Paine so aptly put it, “the times that try men’s souls.”
Transcriptions are character-by-character recordings of documents. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization match the original and are not corrected. Text, notes, or comments that do not appear in the original are inserted in brackets [ ].
The letters are identical in content but appear to be written by two different individuals. Petition 10949 (dated 21 May 1781) is written in a more elegant hand with far fewer errors or corrections. Petition 10381 (no date, but assumed to be similar to 10949) is in a rougher hand with many more spelling errors.
New Jersey State Archives, Department of Defense, Military Records, Revolutionary War, Revolutionary Manuscripts Numbered, Document No. 10381.
The Representation petition of the Subscribers Freholder and Inhabitans of the County of bergen To there Honnerable Representatives in general Assembly Convened humbly Sheweth
That whereas the United States have nobly Embarked in the Arduous Struggles for Justies Equity and Liberty the more that their Laws Correspond with these principels the more may we hope for a happy Issue from the Supreme being who Delights in Justies; And whereas we humbly presume that there is not a Just and adequate proportion between the fatigue and hazard of the good people of this State who turn out upon all Occations and those who duly Unvoluntaryly bring up a pennery tribute which must be forced from them by Law; and both have by Law as far as we know an Equall prospect in the Close of the Dispute. Therefore we humbly persume to offer to your wisdom and Consideration wheather it will not be beneficial for the present and Just in the End to pass a Declaratory Law Enacting that all those who have not heretofore been in arms against this State or the United States of America Shall in the Close of the war Enjoy all there Real and personal Estates upon this Express Conditions that they from hence forward turn out upon Every occation When and Where Required by there proper Officers to Defend the Lives and property of the people of the State; But in Case of falure thereof When the alarm is given at there alarm posts or Otherwise That then they Shall forfit a Cartain proportion of there Real Estates Either to a Certain pedegree in there Family who Afail themselves in the arduous Struggles for Liberty and our property; or to the State as in your wisdom Shall appear most Equitable and Just;
And wheras it hath been found very Deficult in this County in a Just method to procure beaf for the melitia when out upon Duty; and it is not less Evident that more then neccissary may be found for which in the present mode to the oppression of Others for which no Taxes are paid; we humbly Submit it to your Wisdom and Discrastion weather it would not promote Justies and Equity To authorise two or more persons by Law in Each Tounship or Presinck for to take a Copy of the Essessors List by Which the Last tax was paid and in Winter or Spring Exammine every Inhabitans Stock Sease and put to pasture all that they may find not rated for if the posesor doth not give and Satisfactory account of the Incrase of his Stock for the use of the Melitia; and allowing the Said persons Such a Consideration which will prevent any Temptation; but Resonable pay them for there Troble. We must futher Submit to your Consideration Wether it Would not be Just for to pas a Law to Enable those Sufferes that are Robed of there horses and Other Cattel and house Furniture by those hors tiefs Stroling out in the nights Which appear to us must have pleaces amoung us Where They Can Conceal themselves untill they Can Rob those Which they Intend to Rob and then go of we persume if a Law was past for to Enable persons for to Lay and assessment on those who are Emicable to the Lyberties of Amirca and Aspeseial on those who have there near Ralations among the Enimy and do not Come forth in behalf of our Struggels Either in milatarie or Civil Departments; We persume that if nothing Can be done of this nature that the Spirit of Retaliation will Rise to Such a Degree in our County that it will not be in the power of the Court of Justies in our County to afail in Keeping good Order and Retaliation may fall on those Whom it Ought not to Do.
To Conclude Gentleman it will afford us Pleasure and ample reward if any hints we have hereby given may assist you in promoting the true Charecterysticks of Humanity; and your Petitionerrs as in Duty Bound will ever pray &c
John Mauritius Goetschius Major
David Demarest Lieut:
Samuel Demarest Capt.
Elias Romine Capt.
James Christie Captn.
Abraham + Devoo
Weirt Banto Ensn.
Joseph + Coderis hoglend
Weart D Banta Esqr.
David J Demarest
New Jersey State Archives, Department of Defense, Military Records, Revolutionary War, Revolutionary Manuscripts Numbered, Document No. 10949.
The Representation & Petition of the Subscribers Freeholders and Inhabitants of the County of Bergen to their Honourable Representatives in General Assembly Convened Humbly sheweth
That whereas the United States have nobly embarked in the arduous struggles for Justice Equity and Liberty, the more their Laws Correspond with these principles the more may we hope for a happy Issue from the Supreme Being who delights in Justice.
And whereas we humbly presume that there is not a Just and Adequate proportion between the fatigue and hazard of the good people of this state who turn out upon all Occasions, and those who only involuntarily bring up a penury tribute which must be forced from them by Law, and both have by Law as far as we know, an Equall prospect in the close of the dispute.
Therefore we humbly presume to Offer to your wisdom and Consideration, whither it will not be Beneficial for the present, and Just in the End, to pass a declaratory Law, Enacting that all those that have not heretofore been in Arms, against this State or the United States of America, shall in the close of the War enjoy all their Real and personal Estates, upon these Express Conditions, that they from henceforward turn out upon every occasion, when and where required by their proper Officers, to defend the lives and property of the people of this State, But in case of failure thereof when an alarm is given at their alarm post or otherwise, that than they shall forfeit a Certain proportion of their Real Estate either to a Certain pedigree in their family who assail themselves in the Arduous Struggle for Liberty and our prosperity, or to the State as in your wisdom shall appear most Equitable and Just.
And whereas it has been found very Difficult in this County in a just method to procure Beef for the Melitia when out upon duty and it is not less Evident that more than necessary may be found for which in the present mode to the Oppression of others for which no Taxes are paid, we humbly submit it to your wisdom and Discretion whither it would not promote Justice and Equity to Authorise two or more persons by Law, in each Township or precinct to take a Coppy of the Assessors lists by which the last tax was paid, and in Winter or Spring Examine every inhabitants Stock, Sease and put to pasture all they may find not Rated, for which the possessor doth not give a Satisfactory Account of the increase of his stock for the use of the Malitia, and allowing the said persons such a Consideration as will prevent any temptation, but Reasonably pay them for their trouble. We must further submit to your further Consideration whither it would not be Just to pass a Law to Enable these Sufferers that are Robbed of their Horses and other Cattle and house furniture by those horse thieves Stroling out in the nights which appear to us to have places among us where they can conceal themselves untill they can Rob those they intend to Rob and than go of[f].
We presume if a Law was past to Enable persons to lay an Assessment on those who are inimacable to the Liberties of America and Especially on those who have their near Relations among the Enemy and do not come forth in behalf of our Struggles Either in the military or civil Department, we presume if nothing if nothing can be done of this Nature the spirit of Retaliation will rise to such a degree in our County that it will not be in the power of the Court of Justice in our County to avail in keeping good order, and Retaliation may fall on those on whom it ought not to do.
To Conclude Gentlemen it will Afford us pleasure and Ample reward if any hints we have hereby given, in assisting you in the promoting the true Characteristicks of Humanity and your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray &c: &c:
[name crossed out]
Peter S. Demares
Henry olk [?]
Isaac X Blauvelt
Abraham B Blauvelt
Henry Van Dalsem
John Van Dalsem
William Van Dalsem
Abraham Abr. Haring
Garret a Lydecker
John D: Haring
Corenlius D Haring
John de Lamater
John F. Haring
John F Haring
John F Hereboum
Isaac Blanch Junr.
About the Authors
Michelle D. Novak, MI, is a brand-designer (mnd.nyc), historian, genealogist, archivist, and speaker. She holds a Masters of Information degree in Archives and Preservation from Rutgers University and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has served in leadership positions (current and former) with the Society of American Archivists, Genealogical Society of Bergen County, Genealogical Society of New Jersey, and American Institute of Graphic Arts-NY Chapter; and served as the Grant Administrator for a NHPRC project at the New Jersey State Archives.
Todd W. Braisted is a historian, author, and past president of the Bergen County Historical Society. His most recent books are Grand Forage 1778: The Battleground Around New York City (Westholme Publishing : 2016) and Bergen County Voices from the American Revolution: Soldiers and Residents in Their Own Words (The History Press : 2012).