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 1800s, 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.