Tuesday, May 20, 2014

At war with the natives... or was it the New Yorkers? A mystery in Montague.

Sure, it's lightly populated now, at least by New Jersey standards, but it's hard to imagine a time when Sussex County was truly wilderness, with European settlers mixed with Minisink Indians of the Lenape tribe. It was an era when settlers built forts along the Delaware River and folks were still debating whether the land was actually in New Jersey, or in New York.

Ivan and I found vestiges of the time in question, the early 1700s, during a recent drive along Old Mine Road in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. It might have been Montague, or maybe Sandyston where we pulled off the road and onto a dirt drive to read the historic marker for the Westbrook-Bell House, the oldest surviving dwelling in Sussex County. Take a look:

An adjacent plaque from the local Daughters of the American Revolution stated that two forts had been built in the area during the French and Indian War: one about a mile to the south, and another behind the barn on the Westbrook property.

So which story was true? Had fortifications been built to protect the inhabitants during the conflict with natives and the French in the late 1750s, as the DAR claimed, or to fend off land-grabbing flintlock-toting New Yorkers, as the Sussex County Historical Commission stated?  I was more inclined to go with the French and Indian War. Sure, there were disagreements about the placement of the boundary, but I'd never heard about things getting so contentious that weapons were required to defend one's property and provenance. When it comes to borders, New Jerseyans are more likely to go to court than to battle, but I couldn't be sure. We were talking about the early days and sparsely-populated territory.

Either way, there was a house to be seen. We walked down the picturesque road, shaded by a row of stately trees, until we found the small stone Dutch Colonial house, looking very closed up but still somewhat cared for. The doors and ground-floor windows were boarded up, but a TV satellite dish stood on a pole next to the home, leaving me to wonder whether someone lives there. The DAR marker had noted that nine generations of the Bell family had made the tiny house their home. Had descendants still been there when the Federal government cleared inhabitants from the land in the 1960s, when plans were underway to build the Tocks Island Dam? (For a little more perspective on that, check out this story about neighboring Montague.) Could someone have moved back in, even if only a National Park Service employee?

Back at Hidden New Jersey headquarters, we hit the books and the internet for more information. Turns out that what's now known as the Minisink Historic District has been studied fairly extensively by the U.S. government: by the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1941 and again in 1970, and then by archaeologists before the planned flooding of the area with the dam project.

HABS dates the house circa 1725, based on documentation from the Westbrook descendants who lived there at the time of the first survey. However, the Historical Commission sign may be right about the date that Johannes Westbrook originally gained possession of the land. There's some conjecture that he might have made a deal with the natives as early as 1701 but arranged for a deed decades later in an attempt to thwart possible claims or intercession by the Jersey Proprietors. In any case, the property stayed with the family until 1959, when it was finally sold to an unrelated party.

As for the fortifications and their origin, I can't find any reference to organized disputes between the colonies that rose to the level of building defensive structures. Sure, there were violent conflicts among landowners with conflicting claims to property, and New York aggressively granted ownership of land that was actually New Jersey, but were militias raised as a result? I don't see where.

Citations pointing to the need for forts to defend Northwestern New Jersey against foes in the French and Indian Wars, however, is abundant. Blockhouse forts were built along the Delaware in 1756 as a far-forward defense against possible invasion of population centers in Newark, Elizabeth and Perth Amboy. Once the local Minisink changed their alliance to the British, the forts were largely unneeded, and were reportedly abandoned.

Old Mine Road is dotted with old structures like the Westbrook-Bell House, stone and brick laid by folks who truly set out for adventure. Our earliest history of European settlement, little-known to most New Jerseyans, stands waiting for exploration and study within the boundaries of the Water Gap. It's hard to imagine that the lot of it could have been lost to the deluge of an ill-planned dam.


  1. the sign has been acknowledged as incorrect. as a researcher & descendant of Johannes Westbrook (builder) as well as many other Dutch settlers of the region - the NY/NJ Border Confict effected the area of what is now the Town of Deerpark Hamlet of Huguenot, NY. the "old Jersey claim line" is marked in that area. what people are seeing with the Westbrook & their later descendants the Bells (descendants of Clementia Westbrook) in essence the same family. This is one of nearly a dozen fortified homes erected to protect the settlers from Native America agression during the French & Indian Wars... well well documents.

  2. The first forts built in the area were constructed by employees (soldiers) of the Dutch West India Company to protect shipments of copper ore moving along the Old Mine Road from Pahaquarry to the Hudson River at either Kingston or Newburgh. Whether these are Forts Minisink and Nomanock is unknown.
    Johannes Westbrook likely visited the area as early as 1689 and the exact date of the construction of the original part of the house is unknown but likely by 1701. The left section and larger portion of the house was added on in 1725. I, too, am a descendant of Johannes Westbrook and the last surviving family member who actually lived in the house.

    1. Thanks so much for the additional information!


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