Dutch craftsmen, day laborers, and farmers were among the first to settle along the Raritan. A good many, though they bore names like Ten Eyck, Vroom, and Van Nest, were actually descendants of Huguenots, Protestants who, during the previous century, had fled French persecution for tolerant Amsterdam. There they assimilated completely, learning the language, embracing the Dutch way of life, and marrying within the community. By the time Huguenots and their families re-settled in America, they were considered Dutch rather than French.
As settlement continued, the number of East and West Jersey proprietors grew. In 1702, weary of contending with schemes, confusion, divided interests, and widespread resentment against authority, all of them surrendered to the British Crown. Her Majesty Queen Anne immediately reunited the two halves, proclaiming New Jersey a royal province. Yet opposition and disputes about land rights, continued. This led to riots in 1740.
Because few Somerset County newcomers were trained as builders or architects, most erected their homes with the help of sons and neighbors. Most built with materials at hand, like wood, chips, or rubble, bound by clay reinforced with hogs hair or straw. Some used stone. East Jersey settlers received an additional 75 acres for each slave they brought into the colony. So the stones were probably quarried, cut, hauled, and dressed by slave labor– either white bonded servants, emigrants paying off their passage, or black slaves purchased in New York.
Other colonists built with brick that, supposedly, had served as ballast on Dutch cargo ships. In 1750, for example, Huguenot descendant John Brokaw (Broucard) built a one and a half story brick home on a rise along the Raritan River, amid hundreds of acres of farmland. Facing south to capture the warmth of the winter sun, featuring a packed-dirt cellar (warrened with storage rooms) , rough rafters overhead, broad wooden floorboards, 18 inch-thick walls, and was built to last.
The Brokaw house, like many, featured “Dutch doors,” ones that divided horizontally, allowing their bottom halves to remain shut while their top halves opened. Their kitchens boasted massive fireplaces with chimneys deep enough to smoke meat, and broad, walk-in hearths that could accommodate an array of cooking hooks, pots, warming pans, skillets, and teapots. Nearby shelves boasted wooden mortars, tinder boxes, drinking vessels, simple wooden trenchers, and pewter platters. Additional fireplaces, usually located in rooms directly opposite the kitchens, provided extra warmth during the wintry season. Heavy Dutch Bibles, printed in Holland and immortalizing generations of Van Cleefs, Van der Veers, Van Dorens, and Voorhees, for example, were always near at hand.
As there was no indoor plumbing, Dutch farmers dug wells and built outhouses nearby. They also added functional outbuildings, like quarters for livestock, open-slatted cretches for corn storage, and cow barns.
Their barns, far larger than their homes, were framed with thick, heavy cross beams secured with homemade wooden dowels. Many featured second-story hay and grain lofts formed by broad, rough planks of wood.
Farming was laborious. Well into the 1700s, reveals Charles Wilson Opdyke, Dutch farmers sowed seeds by hand, furrowed their fields with rude, wooden plows, and harvested their crops with “glittering knife swung …through the golden grain, marking the fields with lines of even swath. Rye, wheat, and buckwheat were cut with the sickle; oats, like grass, fell under the scythe. ”
Initially, maintaining contact between neighbors, who were often separated by broad fields and the Raritan River itself, was difficult. During storms and thaws, however, when the river flooded its banks, travel was far more daunting. Unlike the Naraticong, who had probably navigated its floodwaters by canoe, early settlers, relying on footpaths, bridle paths, and rough cart ways to make their way, had to wait until the Raritan receded. Though their needs were few, they soon built roads (well away from the river), to assure access to neighbors, and the markets, mill, blacksmith, and tavern of nearby North Branch village , which lies on the north branch of the Raritan River.
Wherever the Dutch settled, their culture predominated. They not only continued to speak their mother tongue but, like their countrymen, were known for their honesty, industry, and frugality. During the winter, when days were dark and fields lay fallow , men customarily tanned leather, made their own saddles and harnesses, cobbled their shoes, fashioned wooden kitchen utensils and household furniture, and constructed wheels for their carts and wagons.
Dutch farmwives, as thrifty as their husbands, favored traditional meals of potato, cabbage, and pea soups or simple combinations of meat, vegetables, and potatoes. Farmwives also washed, weeded, milked, dipped tallow candles, made soap, and brewed beer. They spun their own yarn, wove the family linen, and fashioned their own clothes. Some, it is said, even brought along spinning wheels when socializing with neighbors.
“If you are curious to know in what manner of garments [colonist women] were accustomed to array themselves, “adds Opdyke, “we may in fancy mount the poplar staircase to the garret, and there behold the treasures of clothing, of which women
in the olden time had a great profusion. Hanging on pegs driven in the
wall and depending from lines stretched from the eaves, were short-gowns,
over-gowns, outer garments and petticoats. The number of the last would
now seem excessive, but colonial women thought at least fifteen necessary,
while the … Dutch often had twice that number.” Their short-gowns were made of kersey, calamanco, or homespun. Frocks were made of satin, silk, and velvet, or old-fashioned fabrics like French tabby, lute string, bombazine, or moreen.
The Dutch likely saved their finest, most colorful outfits for Sundays, when church bells, ringing through their fields, called them to morning prayer. Somerset County Dutch attended either the Dutch Reformed Church in Raritan, or the one in North Branch village, which was organized in 1719. These congregations initially maintained ecclesiastic ties with Holland. Controversies frequently arose, however, regarding liturgical expressions, interpretation of doctrines, and language usage. Only in 1784 did the Rev. Theodorus Frelinghuysen, pastor of several churches in the area, preach “half the [time] in Dutch and half in English, which was the beginning of English preaching in these congregations.” Later, church records were kept in English as well.
In the meantime, anti-British sentiment was spreading throughout all the Thirteen Colonies. In 1775, after Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, the ride of Paul Revere, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Provincial Congress of New Jersey responded to the establishment of the Continental Army by ordering formation of ten battalions, each with some 250 men. On July 2, 1776, the colony, officially declared her independence from Great Britain, joining her sister colonies in their fight for their rights and their liberty. Two days later, the Second Continental Congress adopted the United States Declaration of Independence.
New Jersey, which is situated halfway between New York and Philadelphia, was near the center of the newly-proclaimed nation. So British and American troops not only crossed it many times over, but also fought more battles there, large and small, than anywhere else.
Although no pivotal battles were fought in Somerset County, many local landmarks connected with the Revolution have survived. General George Washington, who once described the area as the “Dutch Belt,” spent a considerable amount of time there, sleeping in many of the local homes. Moreover, during the Second Middlebrook Winter Encampment (1778-9), while his troops were encamped all along the Raritan River, Washington established his headquarters at the Dutch-built Wallace House, located today in Somerville, NJ.
While there, Washington befriended the pastor who resided in the nearby Reformed Dutch Church Parsonage.
Perhaps it was under his ecclesiastical influence that the general issued military directives protecting local civilians and property, as well as forbidding trespassing, swearing, cock fighting, shooting, and horse racing. Perhaps this pastor also informed Washington that one of his congregants, Lt. John Brokaw of the First Regiment, Somerset County Militia under Capt. Ten Eyck, fell in the 1777 battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Because Brokaw’s five sons had also given their lives for their country, this was bitter news indeed.
On hearing these tidings, General Washington was so moved, writes James P. Snell in The History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, that he rode out one day—a distance of five miles—to call on the widow Brokaw. When he entered the house he was deeply affected, and with many kind and comforting words expressed his sorrow for her bereavement. We have always regarded this incident in our Revolutionary history as one of the most affecting and beautiful manifestations of the great and tender heart of the Father of his Country. … As a monument of Washington’s tender heart, [the Brokaw house] ought to stand until it crumbles into dust. It may. In 1926, after passing from farming family to family, running water, electricity, and a bathroom were added. And through the years, each owner carefully plowed around the tiny Brokaw cemetery, which is located in a distant field. The Lane-Brokaw house (as it came to be known) still stands today.
Its broad fields, however, excepting the Raritan River floodplain meadow, have been parceled into tract housing. Its tiny, overgrown cemetery, still protected by law, nestles among those houses. In it lie Lanes, Brokaws, Van Pelts, Staats, Ten Eycks, and Vrooms, mute testimony to the Dutch settlement of Somerset County.
The author knows the Lane-Brokaw well. Her Bessarabian grandparents, the Sallys lived there from 1926 through 1969.