|Somers of Somers' Point, Atlantic County, New Jersey|
To: Bonnie Esther Somers
"our tower of strength"
There is a tower of strength
For you and me...
'Tis that which we call faith
And as the sea
Oft dashes on the rocks
To no avail
So storms may come to us,
But in the gale
We lean upon that faith
And soon once more
We see a beacon light...
It is the shore.
(Franklin Lee Stevenson)
In 1664, Charles II of England granted his brother, James, Duke of York, the land between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. James presented the land to two favorites: John, Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. He named the new land Nova Caesarea. Today the boundaries of Nova Caesarea (New Jersey) are exactly as set about in the original Duke of York's deed.
Southern New Jersey was the home of the LENI-LENAPE Indians. It was explored in the 16th century by Dutch, French, Swedish, Finnish and Portuguese sea captains. The first survey was made by Henry Hudson in 1609. Cornelius Jacobsun Mey sailed into Little Egg Harbor in 1614 and later charted the coastline.
The first settlement in Atlantic County was in Somers Point. In 1693, John Somers, a member of the Quaker Society of Friends, was appointed by the Cape May County Court as supervisor of roads and constable of Great Egg Harbor. The following year, Egg Harbor was made a part of the Old Gloucester County. At that same time, a ferry was established from Beesley's Point to Somers Point. In 1695, John Somers purchased from Thomas Budd, 3000 acres of land around Somers Point. Also purchasing land from Mr. Budd were John Clement, Jonathan Adams, Paul Scull, Jonas Balentine and Peter Conover.
Daniel Leeds, our first surveyor, made extensive surveys of Egg Harbor in 1698, thus founding Leeds Point. A descendant of his, Jeremiah Leeds became the first permanent resident of ABSECON ISLAND and later acquired title to nearly all of Atlantic City. His son, Chalkley Leeds, became the first mayor of Atlantic City. George May settled in Mays Landing in the early eighteenth century. Thus, Mays Landing was named for George May not Cornelius Jacobsun Mey.
Master Commandant RICHARD SOMERS became a naval hero and is buried near the walls of Tripoli.
Many of the early settlers were whale men. Shipyards, mills, iron furnaces and brick yards were all active in the region. SHIP BUILDING became a major industry. Prior to the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, numerous ships reached our beaches. Southern New Jersey was developing a cultural and social life all its own.
A NEW COUNTY
As early New Jersey settlements grew and developed, each had their own unique identities. These settlements included: BRIGANTINE , HAMMONTON , PLEASANTVILLE AND EGG HARBOR CITY. In February of 1837, Atlantic County (formerly known as Egg Harbor) was carved from Gloucester County with boundaries that have remained substantially the same to this date. The county is bounded on the north by the Mullica River; on the south by the Great Egg Harbor Bay and the Tuckahoe River; on the west by Camden and Gloucester Counties; and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean.
The County Seat was established in Mays Landing in 1837 and a courthouse built there in 1838 where it remains in use today. The first Board of Freeholders was established in 1837 in Mays Landing with representatives from four townships: Galloway, Hamilton, Egg Harbor and Weymouth. Mrs. Rebecca Estell Winston was the first woman to serve as mayor in Atlantic County and was mayor of Estell Manor in 1925. As townships and municipalities grew, the board grew as well. In 1967, however, the State Legislature changed the size to a seven-person-at-large County Board until 1975 when a new charter came into effect.
The County governmental form changed from Optional County Charter Law to the Executive Form in 1974. The Administrative Code was adopted in May of 1976 and amended in 1992. Today, Atlantic County land area covers 561.01 square miles and is incorporated into 23 municipalities. Estimated county population in the 1994 census was 232,231. The roots of local government in Atlantic County are long-standing. While community sizes and government forms vary, the commitment to citizen-service is well-developed and still a matter of pride.
Richard Somers was born in the late 1770's on Somers Point. As a youth, he was remarkable for his sense of purpose. In 1798, he received his warrant as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. It is during this period when service in the Navy was distinguished by famous frigates under John Adams administration giving the country a sense of naval power.
In 1803 when Commodore Preble's squadron was dispatched to Tripoli in a war with the Barbary powers, Somers first commanded the "Nautilus". By September of 1804, he was commanding the "Intrepid" during the blockade operations off the harbor of Tripoli. American reinforcements had been expected for weeks. A plan was devised for destroying the enemy's flotilla as it lay anchored in the harbor. The plan was to fit the ketch "Intrepid" with a hundred barrels of gunpowder, 150 shells and iron. The crew was intended to sail into the harbor, ignite the combustibles and leave the ship in rowboats. Every man on the mission was a volunteer.
After dark, the ketch "Intrepid" passed into the entrance of the harbor of Tripoli where three Tripolitan gunboats were at anchor. While the details are unclear, a tremendous explosion of gunpowder exploded and the "Intrepid" burst into flame sinking many pirate ships in the harbor. Somers and his men had sacrificed their lives and were buried on the beach near the walls of Tripoli.
The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis has a monument in honor of Richard Somers
and his men. In memory of his sacrifice, the U.S. Navy has since had a ship on
line named for Master Commandant Richard Somers. A family memorial in Somers
Point reads: "he perished in his 25th year, distinguished for his energy,
his courage and manly sense of honor."
To understand the legend of the Jersey Devil, you must first understand his birthplace. It is a remote region extending 1700 square miles across southeastern New Jersey. It is actually a giant aquifer with dense stands of white cedar. Inside, the air is calm, still and cool - the shadows heavy. The cedar stands throughout the swamp stain the streams red with tannen. One area of stunted trees is called the Pygmy Forest. While many consider it a barren wilderness, twenty-seven varieties of orchids grow there. In the early days, travel was difficult for the cedar swamps were great obstacles. Some roads are old Indian trails. Others are old stagecoach roads. Some roads are paved, others are sandy. Roads lead to places named Hog Wallow, Double Trouble, Sooy Place and Mary Ann Furnace. These names date back to colonial times when settlers first came to New Jersey. The birthplace of the Jersey Devil is called the Pine Barrens.
Many of the area residents descended from early farmers trying to make a small living from the sandy soil. Some may have been Hessians who escaped to the Barrens during the Revolutionary War and stayed rather than return to Europe. During that war, the Pine Barrens occasionally became a haven for those reputed to be Tories still loyal to England. Lenape Indians also inhabited the region. And then there were the pirates.
At the time of the American Revolution, the wide salt marshland located between the Pine Barrens and the Atlantic Ocean was part of old Gloucester County. That area today is part of Atlantic County. The earliest settlers mined the white cedar, made tar and pitch. Furnaces and forges worked day and night turning out munitions for the Americans in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the war with the Barbary pirates. But by 1850, New Jersey's finite supply of bog iron had played out. For a short while, resources in the Pines made the glass and paper industries profitable. As material became scarce, people moved from the towns and villages and sought refuge in the forests. They tried to eke out a living with seasonal work by picking blueberries or cranberries. But life was hard for those who remained.
THE DEVIL'S ORIGIN
One of the most famous stories tells of a place called Leeds Point. On a stormy night in 1735, a Quaker woman gave birth to a child during a thunderstorm. The room flickered with candlelight. The wind howled. Some believed her to be a sorceress. The impoverished woman, known as Mother Leeds, was believed to have many other children ? as many as twelve. Some say the child was born deformed. Some say she cursed the child because of her dire straits. Other accounts say the child was born normal and took
on odd characteristics later. Characteristics such as an elongated body, winged shoulders, a large horse-like head, cloven feet and a thick tail. According to legend, the child was confined until it made its escape either out the cellar door or up the chimney. The Jersey Devil had been born.
Another story tells of a young Leeds Point girl who had fallen in love with a British soldier. The British had come to the region because the iron furnaces at Batsto were supplying the privateers. In 1778, the British engaged the Americans at the Battle of Chestnut Neck. The townsfolk opposed the match, calling her liaison an act of treason. They cursed the girl. According to legend, when she later gave birth to a child ? it became known as the Leeds Devil.
A variation on the tale tells of a young woman who encounters a passing gypsy begging for food. She was frightened and refused. The gypsy cursed her for her refusal. Years later in 1850, with the curse forgotten, when the girl gave birth to her first child ? a male ? he became a devil and fled into the woods.
Another famous version: In October of 1830, a resident of Vienna, New Jersey, a Mr. John Vliet was entertaining his children with a mask he had made. A mask of a monstrous face. It became a yearly tradition and was adopted by the local townsmen. Its popularity grew and was repeated late in October as parents and children alike put on scary faces and costumes.
THE DEVIL'S DEEDS
Tales of the Devil's exploits abound. He has taken on a variety of forms. Because of the Devil: crops have failed, cows stopped giving milk and droughts ensued. He blew the tops off trees and boiled streams. He was blamed for the loss of all livestock. Some believed the Devil appeared every seven years. Others said he foreshadowed disaster and foretold of war.
Prominent citizens or government officials were among many who had witnessed sightings of the creature. They included businessmen, postal officials, and policemen who had seen or heard the creature and saw his tracks left in the snow. This marks the beginning of the change from local folklore to the Devil's presence in regional culture.
SIGHTING THE DEVIL
Commodore Stephen Decatur was an American naval hero in the early nineteenth century. According to legend, he visited the Hanover Mill Works to inspect his cannonballs being forged. While there, he visited a firing range and sighted a flying creature flapping its wings. He fired a cannonball directly upon it. It had no effect and the creature flew away.
Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and former King of Spain, was reported to have seen the Devil. The incident took place in Bordentown, New Jersey while he was game hunting in the nearby woods.
The infamous Captain Kidd is reputed to have buried treasure in Barnegat Bay. Legend has it he beheaded one of his men to guard forever his buried treasure. Accounts claim the headless pirate and the Jersey Devil became friends and were seen in the evenings walking along the Atlantic and in nearby marshlands.
In Clayton, New Jersey, the Devil was chased by a posse to the edge of a wooded area. The Devil fled into the wood. The posse, afraid to pursue him, halted and declared " if you're the Devil, rattle your chains."
The Devil's taste varies. He was seen cavorting at sea with a mermaid in 1870. And he is reputed to have had a ham and egg breakfast with a Republican ? Judge French. But the Devil is not known to have specific political leanings.
The Devil's sightings have covered great geographic distances. ? from Bridgeton to Haddonfield in 1859; to the New York border in 1899; and from Gloucester City to Trenton in 1909. Until this time, tales of the Devil were passed by word-of-mouth. However, published police and newspaper accounts during a famous week in January of 1909 took the story of the Devil from folk belief to authentic folk legend. Thirty different sightings in a one-week period told of the Devil sailing across the Delaware River to Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Newspaper articles created a near panic in the region.