18th Century Jersey Shore Saltworks

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Date: 1770 [unknown]
Location: Monmouth, New Jerseymap
Surname/tag: Watson Squan Quakers
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In 2014 I took a trip from North Carolina to Monmouth New Jersey, on the trail of a story told very briefly in A Genealogical and Personal History of Bucks County, Pennsylvania written by William W. H. Davis, A. M. (President of the Bucks County Historical Society) on page 136. The author was John Watson's grandson.

John Watson, eldest child of Aaron and Sarah, born at Kingwood, about 1755, was reared on the Jersey farm. During the Revolution he removed to Shrewsbury, and engaged in the manufacture of salt on the Jersey coast, where Point Pleasant is now located. He sold the product to the continental army, and thus incurred the special enmity of the British, who destroyed his residence and plant, thereby ruining him financially.

I drove up to Monmouth County, New Jersey to investigate. There I found a great article by the area historian Michael S. Adelbert: “Long in the Hand and Altogether Fruitless”: The Pennsylvania Salt Works and Salt-Making on the New Jersey Shore during the American Revolution

Before the war, salt was imported into the colonies from the British Caribbean. Salt was needed to preserve meat - a lot of it. Besides being essential in the production of favorite colonial American meats — ham, bacon, and dried fish - salt was central to the curing of animal skins for clothing and shoes, and to medicines, and fertilizers. There was no substantial domestic salt-making in the Colonies on the eve of the American Revolution.

On July 31, 1775, the Continental Congress formed a committee “to inquire into the cheapest and easiest methods of making salt in these colonies.” At the end of the same year, Congress “earnestly recommended” that each colony “immediately promote, by sufficient public encouragement, the making of salt.”

October 1776 New Jersey passed an act "to encourage several men to erect saltworks" – there was somewhat of a rush to join what was anticipated to be a profitable enterprise. (In August 1777 John Adams wrote to Abigail from Philadelphia, complaining that salt prices had risen to $27 a bushel despite all of the “salt water boiling all around the coast” of New Jersey. He joked that Philadelphia was near empty, “all the old women & young children are gone down to the Jersey shore to make salt.” ) John Watson left home, perhaps around 1776 - and abandoned the Society of Friends - to join in.

In 1778 ads like this were running:

Extraordinary Wages, and an exemption from serving in the militia: AND still higher wages, without such exemption, will be given to a few choice wood-cutters and labourers, to be employed at the independent salt-works, about eighteen miles southward of the forks of Little-Egg-Harbor, and two miles northward of Absequean river. Apply at the said works to NATHANIEL PETTIT.

It took a while for Aaron Watson to inform the Quakers that his son was gone – or perhaps some other inquiring soul made the discovery and reported it. From the Kingwood Monthly Meeting minutes of November 11, 1779 this terse notification:

The meeting is informed John Watson has remov'd without Certificate and since Marry'd contrary to the rules of our discipline.

The Bucks County biography cited at the top of this article continues: "... married about 1778 or 1779, at Shrewsbury, Mary Jackson, a descendant of Daniel Jackson, who migrated from Stangerthwaite, in Yorkshire, about 1693, and located in Bristol Township, Bucks county, whose descendants had removed to Shrewsbury prior to the revolution."

They were probably married by what the Quakers disparagingly called a "Hireling Priest" and their daughter Sarah was born 4 October 1779.

In this map, Point Pleasant is in the middle of the shore, north of "The head of Barnegat Bay" and south of the Manasquan River. The Squan bridge is just inland: perhaps this is near the location of the Squan or Squaneum preparative meeting to which John and Mary Watson belonged. If they kept their own notes, I haven't found them, but they did report to the Shrewsbury Monthly Meeting (for instance, about needing money to repair their meeting house).

There were 17 saltworks in the Mount Pleasant area, most cannot now be identified by owner. Land records in the county were extremely spotty at the time and none exist for John Watson nor for the Quaker Thomas Hopkins, who established the "Friendship Saltworks" and left memoirs in which he bewailed the difficulties of getting good help.

Here is a chart from Professor Abelson's work on the saltworks:

Saltworks on the Jersey Coast

I think the saltwork at Manasquan Inlet is most likely to be John Watson's.

Here is a description I found in "A History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties by Edwin Salter, 1890" pp 241 and 419, 422-423:

"During the Revolution quite extensive salt works were carried on at Barnegat, on the meadows near the farm of Mr. James Mills, by the Cranmers, Ridgways, and others. The usual plan to manufacture salt was to seek some place on the salt meadows where no grass could grow. By digging wells in these bare places, the water was found to be strongly impregnated with salt-The water from these wells or springs was put in large boilers with a kind of arched oven underneath, in which a fire was built. After most of the water was boiled away, the remainder, thick with salt, was poured into baskets of sugar-loaf shape, made to allow the water to drain out. One of these curious-shaped baskets was pre-served and in possession of the Late Uncle Eli Collins as late as 1860.
During the war of the Revolution, salt works were quite numerous along Barnegat Bay; two or three at Barnegat, Newdin's at Waretown, Brown's at Forked River, and one or two Government works near Toms River being among the number. From the following items it would seem that off Toms River the State of Pennsylvania had salt works and also that there was one there built by Congress. In the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, Nov. 2, 1776, it was "Resolved, That an officer and twenty-five men be sent to the salt works at Toms River (erected by this State in Toms River, N. J.) as a guard, and twenty-five spare muskets and two howitzers and a sufficient quantity of ammunition to defend in case of attack." In Continental Congress, 1776, the President of Congress " was requested to write to Gov. Livingston of New Jersey, for two companies of militia to guard salt works near Toms River."
Mention of Government salt works near Toms River is occasionally met with in ancient deeds and of a wind-mill connected therewith. During the war nearly all the salt works along our bay were either destroyed by the British or by storms, ('some notice of which will hereafter be given.) Those destroyed by storms appear to have been built up again. I know of no salt works along our coast of late years, except at Absecou (Atlantic county), some fifteen or twenty years ago, which probably was not much used then.
In the New Jersey Gazette, July, 1778, is a notice from the Board of Proprietors, signed James Parker. President, calling upon owners of salt works along the bay, who wish to buy wood of them from their outlands, to meet them at Freehold in August and they would dispose of it in parcels near salt works.
April, 1778. About the first of this month the British under Captain Robertson, landed at Squan with a strong force and destroyed a number of salt works on the coast; one building (probably the one near Toms River) they said, belonged to Congress and cost .£6,000. The New Jersey Gazette said of this affair: "About one hundred and thirty-five of the enemy landed on Sunday last about ten o'clock on the south side of Squan Inlet, burnt all the salt works, broke the kettles, etc.; stripped the beds, etc., of some people there who I fear wished to serve them; then crossed the river and burnt all except Derrick Longstreet's. After this mischief they embarked. The next day they landed at Shark River and set fire to two salt works when they observed fifteeen horsemen heave in sight which occasioned them to retreat with the greatest haste; indeed they jumped into their rial bottomed boats with such precipitation they sank two of them. One of the pilots was the noted Thomas Oakerson. The enemy consisted chiefly of Greens, the rest Highlanders." The owners of salt works along our coast must have experienced a streak of ill luck about this time, as a letter in the New Jersey Gazette, dated April 1, 1778, says : "The late storm destroyed many of the small salt works along our shore with all the salt in them."

Salt works expert Michael Adelberg responded to my recent query:

Reading the excerpted article that you sent, I wonder if the author was referring to the Union Salt Works in Brielle, which was on the other bank of the Manasquan River opposite Point Pleasant. We know that the Union Salt Works (owned by Col Davie Forman, who held a Continental Army commission) sold salt to the Continental Army. But there were many smaller salt works up and down the coast that are not well documented. It's also possible that there was a smaller salt works in Point Pleasant that sold salt to the army at the same time as the Union Salt Works. Because antiquarian histories from the 1800s often confuse small details like place names, it's hard to know for sure.

More than half the Monmouth saltworks were wrecked by the British in a series of raids beginning in 1778. Watson lived at Squan – after leaving the militia he attended the small Squaneum Monthly Meeting – so I took special note of the following two events. First, a raid at Squan in April of 1778, as described here from two viewpoints..

On the 5th in the Morning they sailed from the Hook, under the Command of Capt. Collins of the Fowey; at eight o'clock of the same morning arrived off Squan, where the Troops landed and marched up to some very considerable Salt-Works, erected there by the Rebels, which they entirely demolished...”
About 135 of the enemy landed on Sunday last about ten o'clock on the south side of Squan inlet, burnt all the salt-works, broke the kettles, &c. … The enemy consisted chiefly of Greens, the rest Highlanders.”

Second, the following disaster, one of the last:

Manasquan April 22, 1780: Detachment of British troops raid rebel salt works."

At any rate, John Watson was 'ruined.' Perhaps this was why he and his wife decided to go back to the Quakers, who were generous about helping members get back on their feet after financial setbacks. That very April we see in the Shrewsbury MM minutes, April 1780:

Dear Friends, I have to Confess I have been married contrary to the good order Established amongst Friends, and without consent or knowledge of my parents, for which offences I am Sorry and desire friends to continue me under their care, hoping for time to come shall give them no more trouble – Mary Watson

There are a few more traces of John Watson in the Point Pleasant area. There was a John Watson in the Shrewsbury tax records of 1779 and 1781 and John Watson appears in the list of members of Stephen Fleming's unit, Captain in third regiment, New Jersey Militia of Monmouth County. (He didn't show up in 1780 - in the Database of the American Revolution in Monmouth County, New Jersey, compiled by Michael S. Adelberg, John Watson is on the list of Militia Delinquents, August 1780, Shrewsbury. )

In August 1780 John Watson is listed as delinquent from the militia and in that same month he presents to the Shrewsbury Monthly Meeting a rather tepid certificate from Kingswood (his home town). Shrewsbury seems to accept it, albeit reluctantly. Note Watson has had the certificate in hand for 'some time' before bringing to the Society of Friends:

The following Certificate coming before this Meeting, and finding the Friend had for some time before the giving of Certificate resided here, and Marryed out, for which offence this Meeting is informed by inquirers appointed for that purpose be condemned to the Monthly Meeting of Kingwood therefore the Certificate is received. "To the Monthly Meeting of Friends at Shrewsbury, Dear Friends. These may inform that our friend John Watson, who has removed to reside within the Verge of your meeting, has applied for our Certificate. The necessary inquiry has been made, and we find that while among us his conduct was in some good degree orderly and sometimes attended our Meetings, his affairs settled to satisfaction as far as appears, and as one having a Right of Membership we recommend him to your Christian Care and oversight. Signed in and on behalf of Kingwood Monthly Meeting at Hardwick John Heaton clerk

Perhaps Watson rejoined Friends because he planned to go back to live near his birth family; in May and June 1781, there is this notice:

From the preparitive Meeting at Squaneum we are informed that John Watson requested a Certificate for himself Wife and daughter Sarah to Kingwood Monthly Meeting. This meeting appoints Edm. Williams & Jacob Laing to make the necessary inquiry and report to next meeting.
At a Monthly Meeting held in Shrewsbury the 4th of the 6th month 1781 ... The Friends appointed to make inquiry in Order for a Certificate for John Watson & Family report that they are in a good degree Orderly in life and Conversation. Edw. Williams and Obadiah Tilton are appointed to draw up a Certificate and bring to next Meeting for approbation.

7 month 1781: The Friends appointed produced the following certificate which was approved.

To the Monthly Meeting of Kingwood. Dear Friends. John Watson being about Moving within the Verge of your Meeting, hath requested our Certificate for himself Wife and Daughter Sarah (a Child) on the necessary inquiry we find their lives and Conversation in a good degree orderly (of Late) having frequented our Religious Meetings and Settled their affairs to Satisfaction, as far as appears, as Members in Unity. We commend them to your Christian Care, desiring their Growth in the truth. Signed in and on the behalf of the Monthly Meeting held in Shrewsbury this 2 day of the 7th month 1781 by John Hardsheim and Hannah Wardell [Note from the last of these references that John Watson has been 'a good degree orderly (of Late)'.]

Shortly afterwards, in 1782, the family intends to move on, to Bucks County PA, as noted in the minutes of the Middletown Monthly Meeting:

From Kingwood Monthly Meeting held at Hardwick the 13th of the 6th month 1782 to Middletown Monthly Meeting in Pennsylvania, Dear friends, Whereas our friend John Watson haveing removd from us to live within the virge of your meetings and has requested our Certificate for himself and Mary his wife and their too young children these may inform on their behalf that the usual Enquiry has been made and we don't find but that their lives and conversations was in some good degree orderly. They attended our Religious Meetings as often as they convenently could, their affairs settled to Satisfaction. Therefore as members of our Religious Society we recommend them to your Christian Care... Signed by John Heaton and Abigail Willson

However, it seems they did not go to Kingwood but, rather, spent three years in Little Egg, south of Squaneum. Their daughter died and two sons were been born in this time. A certificate of Removal was prepared from Ocean, the Little Egg Harbor Monthly Meeting:

From the Monthly Meeting of Friends held at Middletown the 5th day of the 5th Month 1785. To the Monthly Meeting of Friends to be held at Buckingham. John Watson and his wife Mary having removed within the compass of your meeting requested our certificate in order to join themselves in membership with you now these may certify you that inquiry hath been made as usual and nothing appears but that their lives and conversation hath been in a good degree orderly and diligent attendees of our Religious meetings and settled their affairs as far as appears therefore as members of our meeting we recommend them with their two minor children (to wit) William and Aaron to your Christian care and oversight with desires for their growth and perseverance in the unchangable Truth and subscribe Isaac Watson & Sarah Blakey clerks

Watson bought land in Buckingham Township where the births of all his children are recorded. He died on his farm in 1819 (where his grandson was still living at the time he wrote the passage cited at the start of this piece). A John and Mary Watson who are probably this couple are buried at the Buckingham Friends Cemetery at Lahaska near the Watson farm which is on Mechanicsville Road near Doylestown, bordered on two sides by the now Burnt House Hill Road and Watson Drive.

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