Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Chatham: where the press was as mighty as the musket

If you grew up in Union County or are a New Jersey news media junkie, you might remember the Elizabeth Daily Journal. Before finally succumbing in the early 1990s, the Journal proudly proclaimed its status as New Jersey's longest-printed newspaper, founded in 1779. What many of us didn't know was that wasn't always printed in Elizabeth, one of the state's oldest cities. Rather, it was born in the much smaller community of Chatham.

The other day I headed to this tidy Morris County town to check out what I thought was the site of the Journal's first printing press, marked by this sign on Main Street.


The timing of the paper's founding during the depths of the Revolutionary War, combined with the longevity of its existence, would lead you to believe that the Journal had started its life as a pro-independence broadsheet. With Washington's encampment just a few miles away in Morristown, it wouldn't seem logical or probable that a Tory or Loyalist newspaper would survive after the war ended. But still, I wondered about printer Shepard Kollock, noted on the historical marker as a former soldier. Why had he left the military? Had an injury sidelined him? Was he needed at home yet still eager to support the cause with his profession?

Back at Hidden New Jersey headquarters, we discovered this was another case of the information that wasn't included on the marker being just as interesting as what is. The short answer, courtesy of The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey, was that Kollock, "an ink-stained Revolutionist," resigned from the Continental Army "for the more vital task of combating the Tory press of New York City." True, but that's not the complete story.

Look further, and you'll discover that while Lieutenant Kollock may have left the army, it was with more than the blessing of his superiors. It was with their direct support and encouragement, born from an acute need. No newspapers were published in New Jersey at the start of the war, leaving state residents to rely on the highly-slanted and misleading Tory propaganda sheets from New York. Though a Patriot-friendly New Jersey Gazette was published in Burlington, its circulation area fell far short of northern and eastern New Jersey, leaving residents with no news source critical of Great Britain. Continental Army leadership realized that if the battle for hearts and minds was to be won, they'd have to get someone to publish a newspaper that promoted the cause of freedom and boosted troop morale.

Who to do it? Alexander Hamilton, stationed in Morristown with General George Washington at the time, suggested Kollock, whom he knew had been a printer in the West Indies. Washington and General Henry Knox agreed, either allowing Kollock to resign or giving him an honorable discharge, depending on which source you cite. The influence of his press, it seemed, was worth far more than whatever he would contribute militarily. The Continental Army gained an ardent and exceptionally loyal mouthpiece eager to publish news provided directly by Washington's Morristown headquarters.

That's not to say that Kollock had an easy life as writer and publisher of the Journal. Though the army supported him, fed him information and ensured he had sufficient paper stock to publish, his safety was another issue altogether. He had to move his press several times, as he was constantly under threat of being captured by the British. In fact, it's not entirely clear to me when he published at the exact location of the historic marker I visited. Other sources say that at some point he printed from a back room in a building that once stood somewhere on the current location of the Mall at Short Hills. His other covert locations? They may be marked with plaques on rocks around town, but I haven't found them yet.

Both publisher and newspaper survived the war well; Kollock even moved to New York once the British evacuated to start a paper there. After returning to New Jersey, he founded another newspaper in New Brunswick before moving the Journal to its final hometown of Elizabeth in 1786, operating at 39 Broad Street. He sold the paper in 1818 after being appointed the city's postmaster.

Today Kollock is remembered in his onetime hometown of Chatham with a ballfield named in his honor, hopefully reminding kids that the power of the press is mighty and potent.



2 comments:

  1. My grandmother, Bernice Scarr, was a reporter for the Elizabeth Daily Journal in the 1940's.

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    1. hello, i just found out that Shepard Kollock is my Great Great Great Grandfather on my moms mothers side of the family...

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