Wednesday, July 8, 2015

America's first cattle drive? Salem County's Great Cow Chase

New Jersey isn't especially known for its wide open prairies, ranches and cowboys. According to some, though, Salem County just may have been the sight of the nation's first cattle drive. And no, I'm not talking about a Saturday night rodeo in Cowtown, though the historic drive took place nearby, led by a brigadier general known as Mad Anthony Wayne.

Venture back to early 1778, when General George Washington's army was encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Beset by desertions by February, Washington still had to feed more than 2000 men, as well as the horses they relied upon, even as the British conducted their own foraging expeditions and dealings with help from sympathetic Pennsylvanians.

This specimen would have fed a LOT of Continental soldiers.
Across the Delaware River was New Jersey, known as the Breadbasket of the Revolution for its plentiful forage for animals and food for humans. Washington sent Wayne with about 550 troops down Jersey to Salem County to retrieve the life-sustaining supplies. Starting from Wilmington, Delaware to avoid the British-controlled river near Philadelphia, Wayne and his troops made their way to Salem and to the area near present-day Pilesgrove, where they gathered about 150 head of cattle. Horses and wagons, however, were in short supply, meaning that the Continentals would have to drive the cattle on the hoof back to Valley Forge, rather than transporting butchered beef.

By this point, a local Loyalist had tipped off the British and more than 2000 Redcoats were sent to track Wayne and his troops down. After an initial stab at transporting some of the cattle to New Castle, Delaware to evade the British, Wayne led the procession northward and west along the Old Kings Highway on the 50 mile journey to Valley Forge, eventually crossing the river north of Philadelphia, somewhere between Burlington and Trenton. While some say that the herd was diminished to a mere 50 head by the time Wayne reached camp, the Jersey beef and hides undoubtedly made the difference for countless hungry and shoeless Continental soldiers.

The Great Cow Chase, as it's now known Down Jersey, has been commemorated a few times in recent years. Back during the Bicentennial, Cowtown founder Stoney Harris and friends drove 50 cattle up Kings Highway, with cheering spectators lining the road. And last year marked the first running of the Cow Run 10 Miler road race for humans, starting at Cowtown in Pilesgrove and ending 10 miles away in downtown Salem City. It may not be the running of the bulls, but it's a truly unique way of celebrating a little-known yet important part of our Revolutionary history!



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