Delaware’s 170th Anniversary, Part 3. Mad Dogs, Politicians, and Passenger Pigeons

One of the letters written to the Hunterdon Gazette on the subject of dividing Amwell Township came from “An Inhabitant of Old Amwell,” who laid the blame on a certain member of Council, namely, Joseph Moore. He wrote that “The county [Mercer] would have been different in its northern boundary had it not been for the singularly untimely sickness of our representative in Council. It had been agreed among the members of Council that Hopewell should have been left in Hunterdon entire, upon our member in Council voting for the bill. To this he assented, for it  was all that the citizens in the upper part of the county wanted or could expect, when it was determined to divide the county.”

But then “some persons persuaded our staunch and true member of Council to recede from his promise. He accordingly went home after saying he would not vote for it;  and when the question came up, was most unfortunately sick at home.”

So the new county bill passed, with Hopewell divided: the northern half kept the name Hopewell and went with Hunterdon Co.; the southern half was given the name Marion and attached to Mercer Co. The boundary ran right through the middle of the village of Pennington.

It appears that the Whigs got the vote of the Democratic member from Hunterdon by promising to leave Hopewell (a Whig town) with a Democratic county. On February 14th, the Gazette reported that “The New County Bill was to be reported in Council on Monday. It is said that an amendment has been introduced into the bill, by which Hopewell township will remain with Hunterdon.”

But “some persons” persuaded Moore that keeping Hopewell with Hunterdon was not a good enough bargain, so, although he agreed not to vote for it, he seems to have been unwilling to vote against it. Perhaps this was because he had some dealings with the Whigs. According to the New Jersey Gazette, Joseph Moore was “the maverick Democrat from Hunterdon,” who had joined with the Whigs to shut down the legislature in the winter of 1837-38, when the Whigs first took a majority in the Council and were flexing their muscles by refusing to meet with the Assembly. Since Hopewell residents tended to have Whig sympathies, Moore’s behavior is not so surprising.

I cannot say who the “some persons” were who persuaded Moore not to vote for the bill, but the Democratic party bigwigs at the time were Peter D. Vroom, Stacy G. Potts and Garret D. Wall. Some of the prominent Democrats in Flemington were lawyers: Peter I. Clark, Alexander Wurts, John T. Blackwell and Andrew Miller. They were all likely to have leaned on Councillor Moore.

Also trying to influence Moore were probably the Democratic members of the Assembly from Hunterdon (John Hall, James A. Phillips, David Neighbor, Jonathan Pickel). The fifth member of the Assembly was John H. Huffman, who was aligned with the “anti-Caucus ticket.” Anti-Caucus Democrats were essentially disillusioned Democrats who had not yet joined up with the Whigs.

The “Inhabitant of Old Amwell” went on: “He [Joseph Moore] however very soon recovered – soon enough to introduce into Council a bill for the division of Amwell, with the representation that the inhabitants of Amwell were well satisfied with it; while to their utter astonishment not an inhabitant of Amwell hardly was aware of it. Well may the New Jersey State Gazette make the remark it did a week ago – that the legislature were deceived with regard to the division of the township.”

Joseph Moore was born about 1780 to Ely Moore and Elizabeth Hoff. He was a miller who suffered a disaster in June 1833 when his “large sawmill” on the Stoney Brook washed away in a flood. Disaster hit again in 1839 when his flour mill burned down. By 1850, he was running a linseed oil mill. Joseph Moore’s farm and mill were at Marshall’s Corner, in the northern part of Hopewell Township, the part that was given to Hunterdon County. Today the mill buildings are gone, and the site is occupied by the Hopewell Valley Golf Club.

Moore’s first wife was Sarah B. Phillips, daughter of Thomas Phillips, and after her death he married Leah Wilson, daughter of John Wilson and Jennie Deremer. Joseph Moore and his two wives had six children. Leah Wilson’s family lived on the Lambertville-Headquarters Road in the newly created township of Delaware. John Wilson had fought in the Revolutionary War and died in 1822; Leah’s mother Jane Deremer died in 1834. Leah Wilson Moore died age 60 in Hopewell in 1841; Joseph Moore died on May 9, 1852. He and his wife are buried in the west side of the Pennington cemetery.

The “Inhabitant of Old Amwell” continued his questioning: “How just and true must have been the representations made to the legislature, when he who proposed the bill, and those who drew it, well knew that they were putting Amwell, as it is now, to every sort of inconvenience – were leaving her all the paupers, and a township composed of a very long and very narrow strip of old Amwell.”

Why it was that all the paupers were located in the southern portion of old Amwell Township I cannot say, other than that Lambertville was a likely place for them to live. The canal had been completed in 1834, and some of those paupers may have been canal workers who had no work once the canal was finished.

This raises the topic of Keeping the Poor, which became a significant issue when the three new towns organized in April. So we’ll leave that subject for another instalment.

Our Inhabitant of Old Amwell finished his letter by saying: “Well done, ye just and faithful servants of the people – self-elected guardians of their rights. Well do you deserve a crown – but what kind of crown? You have made one of thorns, and shall wear it. We have been aggrieved, and our wishes not consulted. We only wish for justice; and when Amwell was divided, the good and convenience of all should have been consulted – not the dictation of a few, nor the convenience of a part.”

It is still a question why those “few designing individuals” who had such influence over Joseph Moore wanted to divide Amwell. Perhaps it was felt that Amwell was just too big and populous compared to the other towns in Hunterdon. But it seems clear from the letters that the division was instigated by the Democrats. They created two Democratic towns to one slightly Whig town. Perhaps they thought this would give them more clout on the Board of Chosen Freeholders, the governing body of Hunterdon County. Ever since legislation was passed in 1798 regulating townships, each town had sent two ‘chosen freeholders’ to sit on the Board.

If the County Board of Freeholders objected to these events, they did not memorialize their feelings in the minutes of their meetings. James Johnson Fisher, who represented the new township of Delaware on the Board of Freeholders, was the chosen freeholder of old Amwell in 1837. The other freeholder from Delaware in 1838 was James Snyder, who was elected to the State Council the following year as a Democrat. (James J. Fisher did not run for the Council, perhaps because he was in the minority as a Whig.)

It should be noted that in 1844 when the Democrats came back into power, they outdid the Whigs by creating six new townships and two new counties. In addition, they changed the borders of existing counties, first by adding Hopewell, which had been part of Mercer, to Hunterdon, and second by adding Tewksbury to Somerset. But the following year they undid some of their work and returned Hopewell and Tewksbury to their previous counties.

Old Amwell’s Last Meeting

The legislation stated the law would take effect on April 2, 1838, so the old Amwell Township had one last meeting on that day. An announcement for the meeting was published in The Hunterdon County Gazette on March 14th:

“TAKE  NOTICE !  THAT the Township Committee of the townships of Amwell, Delaware and Raritan, will meet at John W. Larason’s on Monday the 2d day of April next, to settle with the several township officers. – All persons in said townships having damage done to their Sheep by dogs, are requested to present their bills to said committee on the day above named before 1 o’clock P. M. If there is not a sufficiency of Dog Tax to discharge said bills, there will be a dividend struck at that time, and those not presented will be disbarred from a benefit of the same. – By order of Town Committee.  [signed] J. [Jeremiah] Gary, Clk.”

The wording of this announcement is a little confusing, but the fact is that the new townships had not yet organized, so the Township Committee referred to was actually the Committee for old Amwell. The meeting was probably intended to close the books on old Amwell’s business.

The principle issue they dealt with was reimbursement to sheep farmers for damage done by wild dogs. Dogs were taxed as early as 1803 in Amwell Township. Judging by tax returns of the late 18th and early 19th century, very few people owned dogs. Those dogs were taxed to make up a fund to reimburse the sheep farmers. Rabies was a particular concern. On March 15, 1837, the Gazette printed this notice:

“MAD DOGS ─ We are informed that one or two dogs in a rabid state passed through the neighborhood above Flemington last Sunday, and bit some dogs, &c. The alarm has been given, and dogs strolling from home, may run some risk of being captured. Public safety is the first consideration in such cases.”

The problem of dogs attacking sheep continued all through the 19th century. Delaware Township has in its archives, records of claims made for damages dating to 1892-1896. Sheep were listed, but also turkeys, geese, ducks and one colt. Generally, two freeholders (in the case of the colt, four) unrelated to the claimant would view the damage and estimate its cost. Then the claimant and appraisers would appear before a justice of the peace or a notary public (or, in one case, a commissioner of deeds) and testify. The value of the livestock ranged from $1.75 for a gander to $5.00 for a sheep to $37.50 for the colt. This system remained in effect until 1970 when an ordinance was passed making owners liable for the damage done by their dogs.

Post Script:  In the March 28, 1838 edition of the Hunterdon Gazette, it was reported that “Numerous flocks of wild pigeons have passed over this region of country during the past week. Great numbers of them were caught with nets.”

These were passenger pigeons. By “great numbers” the editor meant millions of birds, enough to create the shade of an eclipse. They were easily caught in nets every time they passed by in the spring and fall migrations. One method of catching them was to tie the leg of a live pigeon to a stool close to the spot where nets were waiting. The sociable pigeons would come down to visit the “stool pigeon” and get netted. The pigeons were a popular food, but it is likely that many more were caught than were eaten. By 1870, they had became rare. According to Wikipedia, the last one died in 1914.