Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Loyal to a fault: finding conflict in Hunterdon

In New Jersey, as in the other 12 original states, there are plenty of places and things that use the word patriot in their names. Businesses, sports teams, streets, grammar schools -- I'll bet you can easily come up with something in your town that evokes the spirit of the Revolutionary War.

Loyalist, well, that's a different story. Go to Canada and you'll find a ton of places, businesses and other entities named to memorialize the folks who stayed true to the Crown during the war (for example, the Loyalist Humane Society offers adoptable cats fit for a queen). In New Jersey, where the battle for independence was also a civil war, it's virtually, if not totally impossible to find evidence of those who didn't at least remain neutral, let alone join the patriot cause, and for good reason. Revolutionaries made life exceedingly hard for many with sympathies for the British cause, seizing their property, jailing many and even resorting to tarring and feathering as a device of humiliation. Some loyalists escaped to British-held New York until the end of the war, while others fled north to the Canadian provinces or to England. When you don't stick around, your descendants don't get much of a chance to tell your story.

We've roamed thousands of miles around the state without running into a place that labels itself as a loyalist hot spot. Now we've found one, awaiting restoration next to a new middle school on the outskirts of Clinton. It was home to a family whose men not only sided with the British, but actively fought their neighbors to maintain the status quo.

The heavy-timbered wattle-and-daub Vought House was built in 1759 by Christoffel (Stoffel) Vought on a 258 acre farmstead in what was then Lebanon Township. Of German heritage, the family ancestors were part of the exodus from the Palatinate to the New World, traveling first to New York and then to western New Jersey. By the early 1770s, Stoffel had married, established a strong reputation in his community and had transferred ownership of his land and home to his son John.

As the Revolution started in 1775, New Jersey's population was substantially loyalist or ambivalent about the idea of independence from Great Britain. It wasn't until the winter of 1776-77 that the state's residents' sympathies began to turn, prompted by the looting, pillaging and physical attacks of British and Hessian troops on civilians. The Voughts, however, started making their mark months earlier, when John reportedly convinced several local men to refuse to serve in the local militia.

While the Continental Congress was debating independence 60 miles away in Philadelphia in June 1776, the British were preparing to invade New York City, perhaps a sign to the Voughts that their opportunity had come. Not content to simply affirm his loyalty to Great Britain, John turned violent, leading a band of loyalists in a raid of militia Captain Thomas Jones' tavern, violently setting on the officer, threatening his young family and looting the bar. By the time John Witherspoon and the rest of the New Jersey delegation were signing the Declaration of Independence, both John and Stoffel Vought were in the Hunterdon County jail. In fact, it's quite possible they were there when the Declaration was read on the nearby courthouse steps.

Their time behind bars, however, was brief, and six months later, as the British pursued the Continental troops across New Jersey, the Voughts saw another opportunity. As some of their fellow New Jerseyans were actively declaring allegiance to the crown in hopes of keeping their property and avoiding personal injury at the hands of the invading troops, John and Stoffel gathered allies and headed east toward New Brunswick to enlist with the New Jersey Volunteers loyalist troops.

This was the start of the Voughts' active attempts to quell the fight for liberty, which ultimately cost them their property, including the house and farmland auctioned in the spring of 1779. John Vought eventually rose to the rank of captain in the Volunteers, an honor that did him and his family little good once the war was over and the British left the newly-formed United States. Finding themselves homeless at the close of the war and their Lebanon Township neighbors unwelcoming to their potential return, they settled in Nova Scotia, where much rockier and less arable land made farming difficult. They finally returned to the U.S. in 1792, taking up residence on land they'd long held in New York State.

After being confiscated from the Voughts and sold, the farmstead stayed largely agricultural well into the twentieth century. The house was last occupied by a renter in 2003, until the Clinton Board of Education acquired the property for the construction of a new school. The impending construction attracted the attention of historians and landed the property on Preservation New Jersey's 2010 list of the state's 10 most endangered historic sites, based in part on its role in 18th century events and unique decorative ceiling plaster, including an intriguing serpent design.

Fortunately, concerned residents created the non-profit 1759 Vought House organization to purchase the house with an eye toward restoration and interpretation to tell New Jersey's complex Loyalist story. The timeline appears long, as with most grassroots preservation projects, but the group has already held several events, including public participation archaeology digs to broaden interest in the effort. I'm personally waiting for a chance to get inside and see the plasterwork, including the serpent featured on the sign advertising the cause in front of the house.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for featuring the Vought House, I am on the Board and we have great plans and programs, May 30th is going to be a wonderful conference and tours of the house. Check the web site.


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