BERGEN COUNTY'S LOYALIST POPULATION
by Todd W. Braisted
While the American Revolution was supported by a majority of the population, it was not universal, and in some places was a minority view. Such was the case in Bergen County. While many shared the popular views that there were grievances with Britain over colonial rule, it did not rise to the level of armed opposition. Bergen County in the late 18thCentury was generally prosperous, certainly by European standards, and the residents enjoyed representation through a provincial assembly, under the governorship of William Franklin, son of Benjamin. The governor was certainly popular in the county, with one of its townships named after him. Under these circumstances, it’s understandable that a number of residents would support the British, hoping to maintain a lifestyle that many enjoyed.
Loyalists in Bergen County came from all backgrounds, religions and economic classes. At the beginning of the war, a number were officers in the militia, the military force composed of all able-bodied males maintained by each province, and later the states. The lieutenant colonel of the militia was John Zabriskie of New Bridge. Zabriskie understood the sentiments of many of his neighbors, particularly those of Abraham Van Buskirk, whose property was directly across the bridge in Teaneck. Van Buskirk was a surgeon in the militia under Zabriskie, and with whom he served on Bergen County’s Committee of Correspondence, an entity established to keep in touch with other New Jersey counties and the events occurring there.
Reenactors portraying the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, c-1777
Bergen County’s committee, formed in May 1775, reflected well the opinion of the county, and certainly less radical than other parts of New Jersey. While expressing the views against taxation without representation, they at the same time expressed their loyalty to King George III, their first resolve being “That they think it their greatest happiness to live under the Government of the illustrious House of Hanover, and that they will steadfastly and uniformly bear true and faithful allegiance to his Majesty King George the Third, under the enjoyment of their constitutional rights and privileges.” Bergen County’s views were shared less and less by other parts of the state, and by June 1776 Governor Franklin’s authority was dissolved and himself arrested. It may have been this drift to radicalism that prompted Zabriskie to resign his commission from the militia on 16 June 1776. The new authorities appointed Cornelius Van Voorst in his place. Van Voorst likewise proved to be unfriendly to the new government and he too was soon gone, along with captains Isaac Noble, Peter Ruttan, Cornelius Haring, Garret Demarest, John Banta and John Brinkerhoff.
Governor Franklin’s arrest would involve Bergen County in some way, as he needed to be transported through the county en route to his imprisonment in Connecticut. George Washington, commanding the Continental Army in New York City, learned of the governor’s route and his being then at Hackensack, prompting this letter to Captain Thomas Kinney of the Morris County Militia, commanding Franklin’s guard:
“I understand that the Convention of New-Jersey did resolve that Govr. Franklin was an Enemy to the Liberties of America and that he should be conducted under a safe Guard into Connecticut, & for that purpose he was committed to your Charge. I have this morning Recd. Information you have Halted with him at Hackensack. I would enjoin it upon you to set off Immediately and carry the resolve of the Convention into Execution, delays are Dangerous, and should any accident happen you never could answer your neglect to our much injured Country. I would therefore again repeat to You, that it is my advice immediately on receipt of this to set forward on your Journey with Govr. Franklin and make all possible dispatch for the place you are ordered to. Govr. Franklin once had his choice and chose Connecticut, & ‘tis not for you to Hessitate on frivolous pretence but do your utmost to execute the orders you have Received in every particular.”
Captain Kinney’s conduct was examined into for possible ill-intent, but the delay in Hackensack was officially deemed “accidental causes” which were regrettably not specified.
The arrival of hundreds and then thousands of Continental and state troops in Bergen County with the construction of Fort Lee suppressed any local overt Loyalist activity. It did not stop Abraham Van Buskirk however with making contact with British Lieutenant General Hugh Earl Percy, whose troops captured Paulus Hook in September 1776, the first crown foothold in the county. While some made their way to join the British after their capture of New York City, it was still a very dangerous prospect. On 13 November 1776 a soldier from Fort Lee wrote “Last night I went tory hunting with a party of 50 men, but the birds had flown before we arrived… I was just now interrupted by the sergeant of the guard we left at the river side opposite to the ships. He informs me, they have taken a red hot tory coming from the enemy’s vessels, so our expedition was not entirely fruitless.” That would soon change.
On November 20, 1776, three Bergen County Loyalists who had previously joined the British: John Aldington and Isaac Perkins of the Fort Lee area and Joseph Hawkins of Weehawken, quietly led 5,000 British and Hessian troops up the Palisades from the lower Closter Landing, about 6 miles above Fort Lee, and commenced the rout of Washington’s troops from Fort Lee. Aldington lived adjacent to the property taken over by what became Fo9rt Lee, losing his newly built brewery to the garrison as a storehouse. During the course of the war, he would become a captain and later major commanding the corps of Guides & Pioneers. Perkins owned a ferry boat below the fort, at what was known as Bourdett’s Landing. It was Perkins’ family, observing the American chevaux-de-frize and sunken obstructions in the Hudson that enabled the Royal Navy warships to safely navigate the Hudson. Little is known about Hawkins, other than he was a tenant on the estate of William Bayard, Bergen County’s richest Loyalist.
It was in the aftermath of this British invasion that Bergen County’s Loyalists openly showed themselves. Meeting at New Bridge in the days following the British arrival with New Jersey’s highest ranking Loyalist, Brigadier General Cortland Skinner, those Loyalists wishing to voluntarily serve in the military would be organized into a corps. The person to lead the new unit would be Abraham Van Buskirk, whose land lay on the Teaneck side of New Bridge. The two other senior officers would be Majo9r Daniel Isaac Browne, the county clerk who lived next to the court house in Hackensack, and Major Robert Timpany, a schoolmaster at New Bridge. Other principal officers included Captain William Van Allen, whose home lay adjacent to New Bridge in what is now New Milford, Captain Peter Ruttan of Ramapo and Captain Samuel Ryerson of Saddle River Township. The unit would be named the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers. a part of Brigadier General Skinner’s brigade.
This Provincial unit enlisted hundreds of Bergen County (and other) Loyalists for service anywhere in America until the conclusion of the war. They would be paid, uniformed, armed, equipped, disciplined and fed the same as regular soldiers in the British Army. The battalion spent much of the period from 1777 into 1782 garrisoning Staten Island, Paulus Hook and even briefly Hoboken, Bergen Point (Bayonne) and Governor’s Island. The remaining year of the war was spent shuttling between Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Newtown, Long Island. Detachments of the unit served in such far off places as Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. They would take part in major engagements at Staten Island in 1777 and 1780, Paulus Hook in 1779, Connecticut Farms, Springfield, Charleston and King’s Mountain in 1780; Eutaw Springs and New London in 1781, as well as numerous skirmishes throughout the war.
Other Bergen County Loyalists chose different paths of service. Royal Governor William Franklin, on his exchange in November 1778, organized a less formal military organization known as the King’s Militia Volunteers to make nuisance raids into the countryside. Operating out of Hoboken and Bergen Point from 1777-1779, the group included such Bergen County officers as Captains Peter Earle, David Peek and Samuel Peek; Lieutenants Johannes J. Ackerman and Theunis Blauvelt; and Ensigns Weart Banta and Peter Myer, the last mentioned officer being killed in a raid on Closter in March, 1779. Others such as Jacob Brower and John Berry served locally in a corps of woodcutters Commanded by Thomas Ward of Orange County, New York. This unit successfully defended a blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry (modern West New York) against over a thousand Continental troops commanded by Brigadier General Anthony Wayne and latter fought against the Bergen County Militia while attempting to establish a new post at Fort Lee in 1781.
Soldiering was not for everyone. Many were either too old or infirm for active military duty and worked in the British “Civil Branches” in a variety of logistical capacities, both on land and on the water. James Van Embury of New Barbados Neck was one of those who drove a wagon in the Quartermaster General’s Department. This labor generally came with much higher pay and was better suited for Loyalists with families to care for.
Many Loyalist families were forcibly removed from their homes and turned into the British lines during the war. After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the new State of New Jersey passed laws against anyone joining or maintaining loyalty the British, making such action treason against the state. The penalties ranged from confiscation of property to death. Three Loyalists were in fact hanged in Bergen County during the war, but primarily from additional charges. A total of 134 Loyalists lost property in Bergen County, more than any other county in the state. Confiscated properties were then sold by the state at auction, often to the former neighbors of those attainted of treason. The home of Daniel Isaac Browne in Hackensack for instance was purchased by Sheriff Adam Boyd and was probably a leading cause of why the British burned the house in the raid of 23 March 1780. Among the properties confiscated were those of New Bridge residents Abraham Van Buskirk, William Van Allen and John Zabriskie. Zabriskie’s property was in turn gifted by the state to Major General Baron von Steuben at the end of the war in recognition of his services to the United States. After extensive renovations, he in turn re-sold it into the Zabriskie family. The house today is a part of Historic New Bridge Landing and exhibits some of the collections of the Bergen County Historical Society.
At the end of the war, many Loyalists chose to remain under British rule. Those who had lost their property had no opportunity to return home. When volunteers enlisted into the army in regiments such as the New Jersey Volunteers, they were promised a bounty of free land at their discharge as a reward for their service. The amount varied based upon rank, with 100 acres for a private and upwards of 500 or 750 for an officer. The amount of land increased by increments of 50 acres for each dependent. The original intent of the British was to grant this land in New York, but with the loss of America, they had to look elsewhere to fulfill their promise. For the majority of Loyalists evacuating New York City in 1783 (the numbers would be in the tens of thousands) that land would be in Nova Scotia, one of the colonies that did not rebel against the British. So many Loyalists settled in this colony, that in 1785 it was partitioned in two, with the land west of the Bay of Fundy becoming the new Province of New Brunswick. It was here, along the River Saint John, that the New Jersey Volunteers, along with the other British American regiments (as they were then known) were disbanded on 10 October 1783. Abraham Van Buskirk was not among them. He, with his second wife Jane and son Jacob, who had served under him as a captain and was seriously wounded in South Carolina, settled in the new city of Shelburne, on the southwest coast of Nova Scotia. Shelburne rose from nothing to become a boom town of perhaps 14,000 Loyalists but by the end of the 1780’s had but a few thousand remaining, the rest seeking farmland elsewhere to start their lives anew.
When the war ended, Parliament passed an act allowing Loyalists to file claims in England for compensation for their property losses, professional income losses, unpaid services, debts, etc. The detriment to many successful claims was the requirement that the losses be substantiated in writing with such things as deeds, wills and other legal documents proving ownership and value. Only a fraction could provide such information. For the remainder, the British provided food, clothing and the tools to start a new life in what was then a wilderness. When the bulk of the transport ships deposited the Loyalists in Nova Scotia, particularly those in what would be New Brunswick, the land was not yet surveyed and in most cases would not be for another year or two. Without the land being properly surveyed, it was impossible to grant any. Most lived that first winter in simple linen canvas soldiers tents, meant for five men in the summertime. They would now accommodate whole families in winter.
There is one surviving account of the voyage, written in the 19th Century by Mary Fisher, wife of Private Lodewick Fisher of Ramapo, an old soldier of Captain Ruttan’s Company. Mary leaves a wonderful account of their arrival and first few months in their new home:
“We sailed from New York in the ship Esther with the fleet for Nova Scotia. Some of our ships were bound for Halifax, some for Shelburne and some for St. John's river. Our ship going the wrong track was nearly lost. When we got to St. John we found the place all in confusion; some were living in log houses, some building huts, and many of the soldiers living in their tents at the Lower Cove. Soon after we landed we joined a party bound up the river in a schooner to St. Ann's. It was eight days before we got to Oromocto. There the Captain put us ashore being unwilling on account of the lateness of the season, or for some other reason, to go further. He charged us each four dollars for the passage. We spent the night on shore and the next day the women and children proceeded in Indian canoes to St. Ann's with some of the party; the rest came on foot.
“We reached our destination on the 8th day of October , tired out with our long journey, and pitched our tents at the place now called Salamanca, near the shore. The next day we explored for a place to encamp, for the winter was near and we had no time to lose. The season was wet and cold, and we were much discouraged at the gloomy prospect before us. Those who had arrived a little earlier had made better preparations for the winter; some had built small log huts. This we could not do because of the lateness of our arrival. Snow fell on the 2nd day of November to the depth of six inches. We pitched our tents in the shelter of the woods and tried to cover them with spruce boughs. We used stones for fireplaces. Our tents had no floor but the ground. The winter was very cold, with deep snow, which we tried to keep from drifting in by putting a large rug at the door. The snow, which lay six feet around us, helped greatly in keeping out the cold. How we lived through that awful winter I hardly know. There were mothers, that had been reared in a pleasant country enjoying all the comforts of life, with helpless children in their arms. They clasped their infants to their bosoms and tried by the warmth of their own bodies to protect them from the bitter cold. Sometimes a part of the family had to remain up during the night to keep the fires burning, so as to keep the rest from freezing. Some destitute people made use of boards, which the older ones kept heating before the fire and applied by turns to the smaller children to keep them warm. Many women and children, and some of the men, died from cold and exposure. Graves were dug with axes and shovels near the spot where our party had landed, and there in stormy winter weather our loved ones were buried. We had no minister, so we had to bury them without any religious service, besides our own prayers. The first burial ground continued to be used for some years until it was nearly filled. We called it The Loyalist Provincials Burial Ground.”
For further reading, please visit the sites listed below:
Books by Todd W. Braisted:
- Grand Forage 1778: The Battleground Around New York City
- Bergen County Voices from the American Revolution: Soldiers and Residents in Their Own Words
- The Loyalist Corps: Americans in the Service of the King