"A Nest Of Rebel Pirates" - Part One

I very much enjoy the study of History. I love it. Not for any academic requirement or gain, but just because.

World history I have studied over the years for pleasure. I also believe it should be a gentleman's duty to learn and absorb such. 

It’s a perfect means to gain perspective. And while I do just that, I much prefer the study of local history. The history of the state I reside in, New Jersey, is fascinating for me.

It’s not that I don’t care about what has happened outside the borders of this country, it is more a matter of, well, I don’t live there. Sure, I love reading and studying Roman history. But you know what? Some amazing, intense, and adventurous events transpired right here in my home state. There is something intimate and immediate about local history. Small events that helped shaped the course and path of this Nation. (Something else, too - I can visit and wander these historic places and locations).

Take, for instance, pirates.

Everyone knows about pirates, right? You most likely, and probably, have heard of Blackbeard the Pirate. Maybe the name Captain Kidd rings some memory bells.

Hell, Disney gave us Pirates of The Caribbean. Entertaining right?

Forget all that.

We’re going to discuss privateers.

New Jersey gives you privateering and “A Nest of Rebel Pirates” - Real Adventure.

Picture this:

Privateer ships outnumbered the size of the Continental Navy.

It’s the year 1777, and Great Britain’s maritime insurance costs have risen almost 20% as both trade and military operations suffered under the attacks of privateersmen, particularly due to the Jerseyman operating out of Little Egg Harbor.

The Annual Report for the Year 1779 shows us the British viewpoint of our privateering activities:

“...and as the trade of New York had suffered greatly from their depredations, the commanders determined to root out this nest of privateers as effectually as possible.”

Privateers were disrupting trade, stealing much needed military supplies, and embarrassing the Crown.

In many instances, British military personnel were taken as prisoners-of-war (almost sixteen thousand during the Revolution) to be traded for Colonial prisoners in British prisons.

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin had his own interest in privateering? Yes indeed, he was interested in the military prisoners I have just mentioned. His goal was to use them in exchange "for our poor countrymen".

Sir Henry Clinton was extremely vexed with us.

It was time to put a stop to this. 

But, just what exactly, was this “Nest of Rebel Pirates”, as the British called The Little Egg Harbor and Chestnut Neck area?

Sounds sort of High Romance & Adventure, doesn’t it?

Own a sloop or schooner? If so, get your Letter of Marque & Reprisal from the state and the Continental Congress and you were now a Privateer. Hell, even a whaleboat, or pilot boat would do. Outfit that little boat with a swivel gun and some armed men and you’re all set.

The Letter of Marque & Reprisal gave you or your sponsor the authority to prey upon enemy commerce and loot their ships.It, fundamentally, made you a legal ‘pirate’. Cynics and whiny Loyalists termed this “piracy under a government flag.” Whatever naysayers spouted, Privateering produced monumental benefits and contributions to the cause.

It is estimated that by 1778, “the number of ships lost by capture or destroyed since the beginning of the war was 733 whose cargoes were computed to be worth over 10,000,000.” - The London Times.

This made New Jersey one of the most dangerous coastlines to the British.

Once captured, the cargo was sold at public auction and the proceeds divided up among the owners, officers, and crew. It was not unheard of crew member to receive a thousand dollars or more in addition to his normal wages.

Ships not burned and scuttled were taken and used as privateer vessels in turn.

Make no mistake, Privateering was most profitable.

The town of Chestnut Neck, an ideal and almost natural location for smuggling and privateering, due to it’s “difficult entrance channel” and random sandbars, became the main port from which captured vessels were taken and their cargo stored temporarily until they could be loaded onto wagons and thus taken overland through the dense Pinelands to locations such as Philadelphia.

Chestnut Neck, on the Little Egg Harbor River (Now Mullica River), was a small coastal town consisting of  several store houses, George Payne’s Tavern, John Adam’s Landing, and Daniel Mathis’ Inn.

These houses belonged to Jerimiah Adams, Edward Bowen, Joseph Sooy, Henry Davis, James Giberson, and Joseph Johnson.

This port town was the second largest on the seacoast between Sandy Hook and Cape May. 

Another small town, located at what is known as The Forks, existed further up the Mullica River and, consequently, more difficult to navigate to with larger vessels. This area also served as a staging point for goods captured by the privateers. 

In the winter, when the Delaware Bay froze over, ships would offload cargo onto small boats and pilot them into Chestnut Neck for later wagon transportation to Philadelphia.

It was from this advantageous port that Privateers harried the British ships.

New Jersey, being overshadowed, historically speaking, by both New York and Philadelphia, had long been neglected and it’s privateer activities all but forgotten.

Part of this was due to the fact that the majority of the movers & shakers within the free-thinking political community were all centered in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Furthermore, many of the privateer outfits were sponsored by Philadelphians. 

One final note - many records of New Jersey Privateers were scattered and lost. Over the years historians have pieced together events in this region and the state’s privateer exploits have taken shape.

Thus ends Part One.  Part Two will detail the battle, events leading up to it, and the aftermath. I will also look for the photos I took whilst visiting Chestnut Neck last year.

References & Resources.

  1. Smuggler’s Woods, by Arthur D. Pierce. 1960.
  2. A Nest of Rebel Pirates, by Franklin W. Kemp. 1966 & 1993.


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