Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Massacre at Hancock's Bridge

The Massacre at Hancock's Bridge
Written by NJ Historian

A few miles south of the City of Salem, far from major highways and tucked away from suburban sprawl, is a small village known as Hancock's Bridge. In this hamlet exists a unique patterned brick home, which in addition to its fascinating architectural style, was a site of tragedy during the American Revolution. Standing for over 275 years, the Hancock House remains a memorial to the militia men that perished during a surprise attack by the British on the morning of March 21, 1778.

The landscape of Salem and Burlington Counties is dotted with patterned brick houses, of which the Hancock House is a fine example. Salem County has the second largest concentration and variety of patterned brick houses after Burlington County, and in the nation. These homes were often built by the wealthy and comprised approximately one-tenth of the late eighteenth-century homes in Salem County. Their construction is modeled after seventeenth century English Quaker traditional building methods. Masons used variations in the color and placement of bricks to create designs, dates, and initials in the exterior walls of the house.

The Hancock House sits on property that was purchased from John Fenwick in 1675 by William Hancock, an English shoemaker. Records indicate that William Hancock's owned 968 acres in Alloways Creek, sixteen acres in New Salem and sixteen acres at Cohanzick, the site of the current day Greenwich in Cumberland County. Upon his death, the property passed to his wife Isabella and nephew, John Hancock. Isabella soon sold 500 acres to a man named John Maddox; the rest she left to her nephew. John who was to work for another colonist named Wade for nine years to finally obtain his inheritance.

John’s inheritance of approximately 500 acres made him a major landholder in Fenwick’s Colony. He contributed to the development of the area by building a bridge across Alloways Creek in 1708. The bridge was named “Hancocks Bridge,” and it allowed passage on the highway between Salem and Greenwich. The bridge also accounts for the settlement's name. When John Hancock died in 1709, he willed his property to his son William. William became a Justice of the Peace for Salem County in 1727 and served in the Colonial Assembly for twenty years. 

In 1734, William and his wife Sarah built the Hancock House. The masons who constructed it alternated red bricks laid length-wise, called stretchers, with blue glazed bricks laid on end, referred to as headers. The result was a checker-board type design called Flemish bond. The masons used a similar method to create the herringbone design on the gable end walls. On the exterior western wall of the Hancock House, Willian and Sarah Hancock installed their initials [HWS] and the construction date [1734] in the brickwork.

The main block of the house is two stories tall and three bays with a door positioned in the center. A smaller, one story, two bay wing is located on the eastern side of the building and may have operated as a tavern during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as some evidence suggests. Other elements of the English Quaker-inspired architecture includes a pent-roof that wraps around the front and back of the house; simple porch steps; interior paneling; and the use of local materials such as Wistarburg glass. On a few exterior bricks of the home, initials of the brick-makers have been etched directly into the stone. Examples include "SH" and "EM."

Upon William Hancock's death in 1762, his home was willed to his son William, who succeeded him in the Assembly and became His Majesty’s Judge of the County Court for the holding of Pleas for the County of Salem.

Hancock's bridge was a strategic transportation route for the American colonies. It was used by the Continentals to move cattle and provisions to General Washington at Valley Forge from the fertile lands of southern New Jersey. The British troops headquartered in Philadelphia had learned about the fertile lands and livestock of southern New Jersey and that they would find little resistance. The British moved into the City of Salem on March 18, 1778. A small skirmish, known as the Battle of Quinton's Bridge was fought, in which companies of the New Jersey militia were lured into a trap by British Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood and suffered significant casualties.

The American forces were able to hold the south side of Aloes (Alloways) Creek, where most of the livestock and supplies had been moved. At all of the bridge crossing in Cumberland and Salem Counties, the British were met by resistance and turned back. Frustrated, Colonel Mawhood was determined to obtain the supplies and "chastise the rebels."

Colonel Mawhood chose the area surrounding Hancock's Bridge as his next area to infiltrate. In order to prevent the British from advancing, the local militia removed the planks from the bridge. On March 20, 1778, Mawhood issued the following mandate to his British troops: “Go - spare no one - put all to death - give no quarters.” The British, decided to attack from the south, going by boat to an inlet about seven miles south of Aloes Creek and crossed the meadows to surprise the Quaker garrison numbering about thirty men at Hancock's Bridge. With local Tories and their slaves acting as guides, Major John Graves Simcoe and approximately 300 troops attacked the Hancock House which Judge Hancock allowed the local militia to use as barracks. Major Simcoe relaid the bridge planks and joined forces with Lt. Colonel Mitchell, who had waited all night on the north side of the bridge-less creek. At approximately five o’clock in the morning of March 21, 1778, Mahwood's orders were carried out. Attacking from the front and rear, everyone inside the Hancock House was bayoneted. Not a shot was fired during the massacre. Among the ten killed and five wounded was Judge William Hancock, who had unexpectedly returned home that evening from Salem. He was carried to the nearby home of Joseph Ware. He died several days later. It was quite an unfortunate stroke of luck for Judge Hancock, as he had been known to be a staunch supporter of the crown and was a non-violent Quaker.

The Hancock House remained in the family until 1848, although the extent to which the house was used as a private residence and the property farmed is uncertain. The house was transferred to four other owners between 1848 and 1931. There is evidence to suggest a section of the house was leased for use as a tavern during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1931, the State of New Jersey acquired the Hancock House for $4,000 and opened it as a museum in 1932. The house was fully restored beginning in 1976. Four years later, in 1979, the home reopened, complete with new mechanical systems and air conditioning. In 1991, due to budget constraints, the house was closed to the public.

Hancock House interior, October 1941. Source: HABS
In 1996, the NJ Division of Parks & Forestry began a series of improvements to the house, including a new cedar shingle roof, repairs to the window sills, removal of a 1970s kitchen shed, interior plaster repairs, site and access improvements, a security system, and exterior lighting. On March 21, 1998, the Hancock House finally reopened to the public on the 220th anniversary of the massacre, a living memorial to those who perished that morning in 1778.

The Swedish Plank Cabin
To the east of the Hancock House is a small wooden cabin. This cabin, although partly a reconstruction, demonstrates some of the earliest housing stock that was once found in the Swedish colony in southern New Jersey. The cabin contains a single room  and is a rare remaining example of handhewn, white cedar plank construction. The cabin contains glazed windows, which is more elaborate than those typically constructed in the seventeenth-century, but as time evolved, so did the amenities that the cabin provided to its occupants.

The Swedish Plank Cabin, April 1936. Source: HABS
The cabin was originally located on the property of John Tyler on Salem-Hancocks Bridge Road in Salem. The structure has been standing since at least 1701, when William Tyler, an immigrant to Salem County in 1688, made his will. The cabin was moved to the Hancock House property and rebuilt in 1931 by the Civil Works Administration. The cabin was moved once again 1975 from the rear to the side of the Hancock property and converted into restrooms. In the 1990s, those changes were reversed and the building restored to its former glory.

The cabin’s construction follows the traditional building techniques of the seventeenth-century, with four-inch thick side planks, dovetailed corners, a fireplace and wooden pins instead of nails. The woodwork on either side of the fireplace came from two local Salem County houses: the Abel Nicholson House (1722) and the John Oakford House (1764).

Known as stugar, which translates to “room inside,” cabins such as this one, were built in small clusters or stood alone, depending on the size of the farm. Swedish settlers established small communities throughout Salem County, clearing only enough land to farm.

Additional photos of my trip to the Hancock House on Pinterest

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That was a nice story...thanks for the history lesson!

I am a direct descendant of Judge William Hancock; nine generations removed from Judge Hancock, who was the owner of the home and killed in the Hancock House Massacre by British soldiers March 21st 1778. I am thankful to you for this historical account of my heritage. I am the daughter of William Bell Hillman, son of Gertrude Bell Hillman who was the daughter of William Williams Bell who was the son of Mary Jane Williams - the daughter of Reverend Williams and Elizabeth Hancock whose ancestors go through Thomas Hancock II and Thomas Hancock I, to Judge William Hancock. Many blessings, Sandra L. Hillman

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