Showing posts with label 17th century.
Showing posts with label 17th century.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Conquered by mosquitoes: New Sweden's Fort Elfsborg

Not a cloud in the sky, and temperatures were expected to hit the mid 80s -- perfect beach weather. No doubt, the sandy expanses of Long Beach Island, Wildwood, Asbury Park and Sandy Hook were already reaching peak capacity.

. On the way, I'd passed several residential garages and driveways, evidence of a shore community whose more photogenic side was pointed toward the lovely bay view.

New Jersey has its share of forts that don't exist anymore (we've shared the stories of the Revolutionary-era forts Billings and Mercer along the Delaware River), but Elfsborg is the granddaddy of 'em all. Not only is it not there anymore; it was the product of a colony that most New Jerseyans are unaware ever existed.

I first discovered the existence (or maybe the concept) of Fort Elfsborg many years ago on an aimless drive through Salem County, where there are still reliable signs at crossroads to tell you which towns are in which direction. One, somewhere, pointed to Fort Elfsborg. My trusty WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey noted that Elsinboro Point was the site of the first Swedish settlement in the state. The colonists built a fort there in 1643 "to force Dutch trading ships to haul down their flags."

Colonizing Swedes came to the Delaware Valley in 1638, with hopes of getting their share of the lucrative New World fur trade, despite the fact that the Dutch had already claimed the area and built Fort Nassau near current day Gloucester City along the Delaware, then known as the South River. The Swedes chose to build their fort closer to the mouth of the river, figuring they'd force the Dutch and English to get their permission to sail past, rather than having unfettered access to their own territory.

It was a perfect case of "looks good on paper" - an idea that probably seemed so logical that the Swedes might have wondered why the Dutch hadn't already secured the area. Reality proved different. The true adversary did not reach the Swedish settlement by ship, but by air, as evidenced by the name the colonists gave their fort: Myggenborg, or Mosquito Castle. The marshy land on which the fort was built was so rich with the pesky skeeters and gnats and their stinging so relentless that it was said the garrisoned soldiers appeared to have been afflicted with a horrible disease. It's small wonder that the fort was abandoned not long after.

Historians suspect that the actual fort site is underwater, somewhere off the Salem County coastline. In fact, PSE&G, the Swedish Colonial Society and the New Sweden Centre funded a 2012 expedition that explored both the Delaware Bay and the phragmites-infested coastline for evidence of human habitation. While they discovered portions of smoking pipes and arrowheads, none could be linked to the Swedish settlement. Given changes in sea level, the inevitable depositing of silt and whatnot over the years, impact of storms, what was close to the surface in the 1600s is likely well buried at this point, and the complex root systems of the phragmites are unlikely to give up any secrets.

As for the beach itself, the public portion is relatively small, but serviced by a gated 10-stall paved parking lot courtesy of PSEG Nuclear (that's right - free beach parking brought to you by the wonders of nuclear power!). Fans of natural beachscapes will appreciate the rustling phragmites and the dried-out bay vegetation along the high tide line, but that's about it. It's beautiful and somewhat secluded, but best left to the locals.

The WPA guide notes that Oakwood Beach was a summer colony, named for large oaks that once stood there and were taken down to build ships before the Civil War. Given the tidy upkeep of the 七乐彩彩票app下载s there today, one has to believe that folks still enjoy living the shore life on Delaware Bay, hopefully without the relentless pesky insects.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Here's to you, Dr. Robinson: finding the 17th century in Clark

One of the fascinating aspects of Northern New Jersey is how history is sometimes obscured within the community that's developed around it. You can walk or drive past a centuries-old building and not realize it, given how it's seemingly shoehorned between a gas station and a Dunkin Donuts. I'm struck by this every time I drive through an intersection where the Merchants and Drovers Tavern stands in Rahway. Several buildings nearby look distinctly Colonial and old enough to be authentic, but there's no signage to confirm it.

Not far from the Merchants and Drovers is a house that had already been standing a century when the tavern and those other structures were built. In fact, the house in question was built in the days of East and West Jersey, 85 years before the start of the American Revolution.

The Robinson House, 21st century...
Now that's OLD. It's so old that when it was built as a farmhouse for physician and surgeon William Robinson and his family, the surrounding land wasn't known as a farm but as a plantation. Today, it's still got a nice piece of land around it -- by Union County standards, at least -- but much of the plantation has been replaced by a much newer housing development. And for a period of time, it was seemingly just another house, maybe appearing not so remarkable in context with its neighbors.

Dr. Robinson came to East Jersey in June 1684, as part of a movement of Scots encouraged to settle in the English colonies of the New World. Finding the area suitable, he returned to Scotland to retrieve his family to settle here in 1686. He'd bought a parcel of land on the Rahway River and built the a house in 1690, eventually expanding his holdings to nearly 750 acres.

... and a century ago.
Viewing the house from the street, it's difficult to believe that people lived there until 1965, a feeling that's perpetuated when you go inside to discover a rustic interior with authentic wooden beams and floors. However, it changed with the times, and archival photos show the exterior with additional windows and a dormer on the roof, suggesting that the interior was likely remodeled extensively over the years.

After gaining possession of the house in 1973, the Township of Clark restored the building to its original rustic, New England style look, eliminating extra windows and other features that had been added since Dr. Robinson's day. It's been lauded by historians as a superior example of early American architecture, one of the few still existing in the country七乐彩彩票登录 that incorporates aspects of medieval architecture.

Likewise, the Clark Historical Society has assembled a fun collection of artifacts from Dr. Robinson's era and beyond. Regular visitors to Colonial house museums will recognize some of the staples -- spinning wheel, candle molds, butter churn, bedwarmer -- but the Medicine Room is a special treat. Besides a representative sample of herbs used by physicians of Robinson's day, artifacts include a blood-letting knife that would have been used to draw the "bad blood" from an ailing patient.

When you visit, be sure to check out the cellar and the attic, too. Upstairs, the Historical Society maintains a wall-mounted, poster-sized scrap book that includes photos of the restoration process, along with maps, an inventory of Robinson's property at death, and documentation on the house's provenance. The cellar, once the probable shelter protecting livestock from bad weather and predators, now holds an assortment of items that range into the 20th century. Depending on your age, you might remember some of them from your grandparents' garage or basement, or possibly from the Smithsonian.

Step outside and you're back in the 21st century, wondering about the mysteries other houses might hold. Could there be a 七乐彩彩票app下载 in your own neighborhood, older than it appears to be?