It was June of last year that we celebrated our town’s founding, then 250 years ago, as a new political entity – the “Township of Dover” (now known today as the Township of Toms River). But that’s not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. In a prior column, the early years of the colonial-era local government was surveyed. In this column, our early “founding fathers” are examined. Who were these people? What were they doing? How did they shape our early history?
250 Years Ago (Plus One)
Our town was created by Royal Charter on June 24, 1767. New Jersey was still a Royal Colony – to become one of the original thirteen states nine years later when independence was declared. Thus, our town is older than the United States! In 1768, 37-year old William Franklin – Benjamin’s son – was in his fifth year in office as the Royal Governor. The Franklins, in the 1760s, were staunchly loyal to the British Crown and Benjamin helped secure his son’s royal appointment. During this time, New Jersey had dual capitals, harkening back to when, before 1702, the colony was divided into the provinces of “East Jersey” and “West Jersey.” Perth Amboy and Burlington were the capitals and below them lie a huge pine forest – which would become our town – with the tiny village of Toms River serving as an important gateway to the sea.
The early settlers to our area were mostly of English descent. While the Native Americans of New Jersey – the Lenni Lenape, known as the “original people” – had been here for thousands of years, by the time of English colonization, few natives still lived here.
One of them was the local chieftain’s daughter, Princess Anne, who married an Englishman, Thomas Luker, circa 1685, and settled along a body of water which became known as “Tom’s River.” Unlike the Dutch who came to New Jersey in search of minerals and then often moved on, the English, instead, came to stay. They settled. This is the story of the 17th and 18th centuries, and for us here our history is predominately that of English settlers.
Unlike those in New England and in the South, many of those early settlers who came here were second and third generation Americans – seeking escape for religious, economic, and political reasons in other colonies – rather than from problems in Europe. Some came to escape taxes in the northern colonies. Others came for religious toleration. The 1648 “Monmouth Patent” (our town then was part of Shrewsbury in Monmouth County) guaranteed religious toleration. In the period roughly from 1660 to 1730, northern Monmouth County was mainly settled by Puritans and southern Monmouth (our area) by Quakers. The area’s remoteness allowed people to follow their own beliefs and be self-sufficient.
And when they settled, they did so, typically, like Thomas Luker did – near some body of water. And although speculative (we never have been able to historically document it), those early Englishmen probably brought with them a name – “Dover” – from the famed White Cliffs of Dover.
That pine forest which became our town in 1767 stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Burlington County line to the west, the Metedeconk River to the north, and the Oyster Creek to the south. It was 440 square miles – the size of all of present day northern Ocean County!
In the east, the Barnegat Bay with its many tributaries and marshes dominated colonial life. “Barnegat” – an Anglicized version of the Dutch word “barend-gat,” meaning “where the waters breaketh (the Barnegat Inlet)” – was a “pleasant land to see.” The Dutch saw this area in the early 1600s and the English settled it in the 1700s.
In the west, thousands of acres of thick forest of pine, oak, and cedar trees, with sandy soil, with swamps and bogs, made living there difficult. While there were some sporadic settlements to the west, as time went by, it was in the eastern part of this vast town where history was first made.
The early settlers here were fishermen who would cure their catch and obtain oil from whales. They needed to be self-sufficient. On land, they grew their own crops and hunted. Carpentry, blacksmithing, and tanning grew out of necessity. And since the coast was dominant, smuggling and pirating became prevalent.
Geography And History
It is often said that geography affects history, and this was certainly the case here in the 1700s. Now known only in the history books, there once was an opening to the sea in colonial times and its existence would play a vital role: Cranberry Inlet.
Situated directly across from present day Shelter Cove Park at the end of Bay Avenue, Cranberry Inlet was one of the best inlets along the Jersey coast. It is unknown when nature first created it, but it probably “broke through” about 1750.
It closed in 1812 as it had been shoaling for years. Its closing caused great inconvenience to those trading and about 1821, a man named Michael Ortley began efforts to re-open it – all unsuccessful. Its closing stagnated local commerce and Toms River became something of a small, isolated hamlet in the early Nineteenth Century – but that’s another story.
But, in the 18th Century, the inlet’s existence was defining. It allowed easy access from the ocean into the bay and river, making Toms River a busy seaport and it is more than fair to say that the battle of Toms River would not have occurred but for Cranberry Inlet.
War And Destruction
The Revolutionary War began just eight years after our town’s founding and geography affected these events. To the east, the extensive coastline left us open to easy attack by sea. To the west, the dense, forested area was an asylum for local “pine robbers” and loyalist “refugees.”
Along the coast, with the Continental Congress legalizing pirating, Toms River became a harbor for seized ships. To the west, wagons, arms, and provisions were regularly captured. Said Nineteenth Century historian Edwin Salter: “Old Dover twp. was the scene of many stirring incidents during the war.” What is today our peaceful downtown village, was an American military post designed to protect residents from the refugees, check contraband trade through the inlet, and aid privateers’ activities.
Some 77 naval battles were fought off the Jersey coast. Our salt works at Shelter Cover were destroyed by the British in 1778, Lt. Joshua Studson of Toms River was shot and killed by the notorious pine robber John Bacon in Cranberry Inlet in 1780, and the Toms River blockhouse was attacked, overrun, and destroyed in 1782. Said Salter in 1887, “Toms River then did not seem quite as desirable place for pleasure resort as it is in the present day.”
Not only was the Toms River fort destroyed, so, too, was the village. All homes were destroyed by fire but two: those of one Aaron Buck and Mrs. Joshua Studson. Buck’s wife was the niece of William Dillon, the refugee guide who led the attacking British to the village from their landing spot (near present day Mathis Bridge). Since Mrs. Studson’s husband had been killed by Bacon two years earlier, the British thought that was enough injury to her. The destruction of Toms River was, in Salter’s words, “a day of horrors.”
But like the Phoenix, Toms River would rise from the ashes and become a thriving community again. Our rebirth as a town truly is a remarkable story of the resilience of mankind and of the American spirit.
NEXT: The rebuilding of our town and the early Federal years: How Toms River’s story mirrors America’s story
SOURCES: “Old Times in Old Monmouth” by Edwin Salter and George Beekman; “The People of Ocean County” by David Oxenford; “Ocean County: Four Centuries in the Making” by Pauline Miller
Mark Mutter served as the Township Clerk and Historian of Toms River. He served as chairman of the Township’s 225th anniversary committee in 1992 and its 250th anniversary committee in 2017.