Who were the people who settled and developed the region?
It's not known for certain when the first human beings settled the Sourland region. Lenni Lenape Native Americans may have had small villages on the mountain’s flanks for ten thousand years. They did not live in the deep woods, but hunted for deer and squirrels, and occasionally retreated into the woods to hide from more aggressive tribes passing through the area. As European settlers began to arrive, the Lenape population declined, and by about 1800 the few remaining had “sold” or simply abandoned their lands and moved west. Their trails survive as county and local paved roads in this part of the state.
The land upon which the SSAAM stands is part of the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape, called “Lenapehoking.” The Lenape People lived in harmony with one another upon this territory for thousands of years. During the colonial era and early federal period, many were removed west and north, but some also remain among the three continuing historical tribal communities of the region: The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation; the Ramapough Lenape Nation; and the Powhatan Renape Nation. We acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with their territory. Rev. J.R. Norwood, PhD
European Settlement & the American Revolution
The first European settlers to arrive were the Dutch, followed by the English, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. English kings claimed the area and in 1673 ordered a “province line” survey, going across the middle of the Sourland region, dividing what is now New Jersey into eastern and western jurisdictions. To this day parts of this line serve as the division between Somerset and Hunterdon Counties.
Because of its ubiquitous rocks, dense forest, and clay soils, only a very few hardy souls ventured to take up residence in the Sourland region; early 18th century villages such as Ringoes, Lambertville, and Hopewell slowly grew up around its edges.
During the American Revolution more battles were fought in New Jersey than in any other colony. The higher elevations of Sourland Mountain served as a vantage point for American army scouts. It provided hiding places for at least one Signer, John Hart of Hopewell, and one pacifist, Hans Van Pelt. The summer of 1778 saw the largest gathering of Revolutionary military leaders, convened by George Washington at the Hunt House near Hopewell, as his troops bivouacked on the slopes of the mountain.
In the 19th century small settlements, such as Minnietown, Dutchtown, and Amwell grew up in and around the mountain, while existing villages grew larger. Much of the deciduous Sourland forests had been cleared for ship timbers and charcoal for pottery kilns so that limited agriculture became possible. Towns such as Neshanic Station and Hopewell benefited from the coming of the railroad in mid-century, so that much of their architecture is Victorian rather than Colonial.
In 1820 a turnpike, now County Route 518, was built and other roads were gradually improved. One-lane stone bridges were constructed at stream crossings. However, the roads that crossed over the mountain were generally dreadful: muddy in winter, dusty in summer, always rocky and uneven. Many remained unpaved well into the twentieth century so that residents often found it easier to walk several miles to work or school than to try to navigate the roads with a wheeled vehicle. Small schoolhouses, some of which remain because they have been converted into houses, were built for the local children. Mountain churches suffered from uneven attendance due partly to the difficulties of getting there.
Some of the first African Americans of the region appeared as slaves on the farms in the valleys surrounding the mountain, as early as the beginning of the 18th century, and were contributors to the area’s agricultural economy. Between 1821 and 1850 New Jersey gradually passed laws prohibiting slavery; during this period Sourland Mountain played a part in providing hiding places for the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, freedmen of the region volunteered at Camp William Penn near Philadelphia (as New Jersey did not provide African Americans with a state recruitment center), who served the Union Army in 1864-65, near the Confederate capital of Richmond.
After the war, free blacks and whites would live and work side by side in the region. Some worked in the clay pottery works and some in the peach orchards and related basket-making. Their AME church still stands on Hollow Road, which will soon be home to the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. Camp meetings were held near the church; these meetings were comprised of religious services and socializing. Meeting attendees came from people of both races, who arrived at the Stoutsburg station by train, from nearby towns and villages.
In the late 1800’s, a peach blight and changing economy led to the dispersal of many African Americans from the region. With the exception of Hopewell Borough and nearby Pennington, few African Americans now inhabit the Sourland region.
Sources: Sourland Conservancy, unless otherwise indicated.