TOMS RIVER – As the countdown to Toms River’s historic 250th anniversary of its founding continues (June 24), let us not forget another milestone in our history – March 24.
It was on March 24, 1782 – 15 years after our township was created – that the battle of Toms River occurred.
It was on that date that in the sleepy colonial town of Toms River, located within Dover Township, that a British expedition attacked the Toms River patriot Blockhouse, burned the village, and captured its defender Captain Joshua Huddy.
The Blockhouse fight did not happen by accident.
It was the culmination of a series of events, at the end of the Revolutionary War, that began in 1780.
1780 And 1781
December 1, 1780 – A coastal skirmish occurred near Cranberry Inlet between the notorious Pine Robber John Bacon, who sided with the British, and Lt. Joshua Studson. Studson was in the company of local Patriot militiamen stationed in Toms River and he was determined to stop local inhabitants from gaining profits from illegal trade with the British. Studson was shot and killed while trying to capture the traders.
January 10, 1781 – Another naval skirmish occurred off the Jersey coast.
February 5, 1781 – An infantry company with two cannons, commanded by Captain John Nice, was sent to the Village of Toms River to protect the warehouses storing salt produced from several salt works along the bay, including one that was located at Shelter Cove. Previously, the Pennsylvania Council of Safety had built salt works along the Barnegat Bay. The first attack on the salt works was by the New Jersey Royal Volunteers. This attack was repelled by Patriot militia. A second attack, in 1778, at Little Egg Harbor was successful.
An infantry and cannons were sent to Toms River to stop further attacks.
April 1, 1781 – The effort to defend the salt works failed, as the “Coates Salt Works” was destroyed by the loyalist troops, chiefly “Skinner’s Greens,” who marched up from Egg Harbor on April 1, plundering chickens and ravaging salt works along the way.
The Continental Congress hired a Philadelphia merchant, recorded only as a “Mr. Coates,” to build the salt works at a cost of six-hundred pounds of Continental money. It was located about a half mile west of the Barnegat Bay and about six-hundred yards from the mouth of the Toms River; but before it produced any salt, it was completely destroyed.
During the Revolutionary War, salt was a valuable commodity for the preservation of food.
July 1781 – The infamous Tory spy Joseph Mulliner was captured. Mulliner was known as “South Jersey’s Robin Hood,” an “outlaw in the pines,” and “the terror of the county.” He spent most of his time pilfering along the Mullica River and in the western part of the county. He was declared to be an enemy of New Jersey and captured in July, 1781. After a trial, he was hung and later reburied in a secret grave near Batsto.
December 18, 1781 – The citizens of Monmouth County petitioned the state legislature to send Captain Joshua Huddy to Toms River to command the militia of “twelve-month men.” This militia was made up of 360 men from all parts of Dover Township. They volunteered one month’s service at the Blockhouse for the defense of the village. Twenty-five men at a time split their time between patrol duty and protecting the salt warehouses. They were citizen soldiers.
March 1782 in Toms River
March 16, 1782 -William Dillon, a loyalist privateer who lived on Dillon’s Island (now Island Heights) who preyed on ships at sea, was returning up the bay from Little Egg Harbor with his boat, the Lucy, filled with contraband. The Toms River militiamen spotted his boat off of what is now Waretown, captured it, and removed the cargo to sell in Toms River. This was the last straw for Dillon. He contacted the Board of Associated Loyalists who were headquartered in New York City and asked for retaliation.
The Board of Associated Loyalists was headed by none other than William Franklin, Benjamin’s son, and the former Governor of New Jersey who was arrested when the Revolution began. He was later released in a prisoner-of-war exchange. Franklin wanted to re-start the Revolutionary war, which had technically ended six months earlier, with the British surrender at Yorktown. Ironically, Franklin signed the Charter establishing Dover Township in 1767.
March 20, 1782 – A British expedition left New York Harbor headed for Toms River in the aptly named vessel, the Arrogant. Eighty men in three armed whaleboats sailed down the Jersey Coast. They were delayed in Sandy Hook due to a nor’easter storm.
March 23, 1782 – By the night of March 23, Lieutenant Blanchard and his fleet sailed through Cranberry Inlet. The inlet was located in present day Ortley Beach and provided a direct route from the Atlantic Ocean into the Toms River. (It was closed by a violent storm in 1812.)
March 24, 1782 – The British marched overland from the east early Sunday morning and attacked the Blockhouse fort at dawn. They were aided by about forty renegades and pine robbers.
The Patriots were alerted to the British presence by militiaman Garret Irons, who ran seven miles from his patrol post along the bay to the village. The Americans were out-numbered almost five to one and were quickly overwhelmed. Nine Patriots were killed.
After the battle, all but two houses in the Village of Toms River along with the tavern, blacksmith shop and salt warehouses were burned. All of the Township’s early colonial records were destroyed, and Huddy was found hiding in a nearby mill and captured. He was later hanged without a trial, setting off an international incident.
The British may have won the battle of Toms River, but we, the Americans, won the war. And, what of Toms River? We would rise from the ashes and within the space of a lifetime be designated as the seat of a new county – Ocean County – in 1850.
We remember it all in this our 250th year – – our Semiquincentennial!
–J. Mark Mutter is the Toms River Township Clerk and Historian. He is Chairman of the Semiquincentennial Committee that is planning the Township’s 250th anniversary in 2017.