Mob Storms Court House
On March 25, 1701, Court convened in Middletown, New Jersey. Governor Andrew Hamilton, Lewis Morris, head of the Assembly, and other dignitaries took their seats. The prosecutor had a slam-dunk case. Moses Butterworth, accused pirate, had admitted sailing on the ship of Captain Kidd.
However, as the trial got underway, a man named Samuel Willet appeared and shouted that the court had no authority. Mr. Willet had enlisted a drummer to come along to make noise so that the court could not proceed. Thirty or forty local men, including two Stout brothers, all armed with clubs and arms followed Willet.
The drum banged away as two men tried to release the prisoner. The sheriff fought them off and managed to subdue the trouble makers. The drum kept beating and the crowd kept pouring up the stairs to the courtroom.
Judges and attorneys drew swords and tried to re-arrest the prisoner. Imagine a period so unruly that judges and attorneys had to carry swords into court! The drum kept beating as the crowd assaulted the court officials and tore up court documents.
The drum kept beating, the crowd kept coming. The Rebels dragged off the King’s Attorney General and Justices, along with the sheriff and Clerk of Court and even Governor Hamilton. They threw them into cells and kept them under guard from March 25 to March 29.
Richard Stout’s sons, 36-year-old Jonathan and 43-year-old James joined in the rebels’ merriment. I give their ages to point out that this was not simply the work of young men feeling their oats. These were mature land owners. And based on other town records, we can surmise that pater familias Richard was cheering them on.
After this incident, Butterworth, the former pirate, took to farming, married a local girl and became an important citizen of the community.
Defending a Pirate
Why would these good citizens of Middletown take the side of a pirate? I believe there are two answers to that question.
Pirates Can Be Useful
The first answer became clear when I read a surprising article called “Well Behaved Pirates Seldom Make History,” by Mark G. Hanna. (See reference below). Hanna points out that although some of the captains of pirate ships fit the dramatic image we have of them, pirate crew members were ordinary folk.
The owners/captains of the pirate ship, recruited sailors or even farm boys along the eastern American coasts. The promise of enormous riches from their share of loot, lured these poor young men. For most of them, this was a one-time adventure. They would make their stake to invest in land to keep them the rest of their lives. And if they survived the pirate adventures, they returned to their communities and became respectable citizens.
Besides that, with shipping an uncertain business and transit slow, the pirate ships provided a useful service. They brought goods for merchants and ordinary folks that were unavailable elsewhere. The colonists turned a blind eye to where the goods came from in order to enjoy the bounty. They were no different than people today who buy merchandise that “fell off the truck,” or people who thronged to speakeasys during prohibition. Pirates were an important part of the colonial economy.
The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend
As I said in my article about David Stout and the mob in Middleton, this breach of the Butterworth trial was not the first such attack on officials. In the case of Butterworth, his trial became a handy focal point for resistance. If the British were against him, the colonists would support him.
Whose Land Is It Anyway and The Provincial Revolt
It takes a little history to understand why these upstanding citizens suddenly became criminals. I learned the history of the Provincial Revolt from the History of Monmouth County and from Historical and Genealogical Miscellany (see below for references).
The sovereigns of European countries felt free to dole out the lands of the New World, regardless of the fact that those lands were already occupied by the natives. So King Charles of England gave to his brother, the Duke of York (future King James) a large swath of land that included the property later known as the Monmouth Patent. After holding the land briefly, in June 1664, the Duke of York gave the land to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret –“the Proprietors.”
However before that, in January, 1664, Richard Stout was part of the group from Gravesend in Long Island who had purchased land from the local tribes. And in April 1665, the purchase was made legal when British Governor Nicolls issued The Monmouth Patent.
What Governor Nicolls and the Gravesend group did not know was that Nicolls was no longer the representative of the King when he signed the Monmouth Patent. The Duke of York had passed the land on to the Proprietors almost a year earlier and they had appointed a new Governor. News traveled slowly.
This set up a situation where for a time there were two governors, Nicolls acting, he thought, in the name of the Duke of York; and Philip Carteret, acting for the New Jersey Proprietors. The two sides continued to contest who owned the land for many years, with Carteret saying that any deeds executed by Nicolls were null and void. That meant the ownership of Richard Stout’s land and that of all his sons, were in question.
Who Had the Right to Govern?
Throughout what became known as The Provincial Revolt, the colonials tried hard to respect the King and the British law. The followers of Nicolls continued to hold a court and an Assembly that decided local matters, while also sending representatives to the court of Carteret. However Governor Carteret’s officials frequently turned away the representatives from Monmouth County. The people in the two towns of Middletown and Shrewsbury refused to swear allegiance to the proprietors and pay rent on land that they believed they owned.
They asserted in 1667 that they would follow the orders of Carteret, but only when they were just, and they would refuse to assist in the arrest of their own citizens unless the town agreed. In 1668 they reaffirmed their loyalty to the King, but “as the proprietors are something new and are issuing orders directly rather than for the King, we are not bound to obey.” Throughout, the towns refused to sign oaths that they believed would violate their patent. The Monmouth patent guaranteed them the right of self-governance, and free rent for seven years.
In February 1669, six men including Richard Stout were appointed by the town to “give answer to the Governor’s men in the town’s behalf.” The answer, of course, was “No!” At the same meeting, they called upon the people of the towns to gather and resist any effort to take property (i.e. collect rent.)
In other words, their local government was calling for armed resistance to the Proprietor’s government.
In November 10,1671, Richard Stout was chosen to attend adjournment of the general assembly to substitute for another man. But on November 18, he was discharged. The record states, “for several causes and considerations best known to the town.” The town chose John Throckmorton to take his place. I imagine these “causes” were Richard’s known resistance to the very legislature he was originally chosen to attend.
Also, note that John Throckmorton would have been either the young husband of Richard Stout’s daughter Alice, or more likely her husband’s aged father John I. This is just one example of how the colonial revolt involved alliances and enmities within families.
The Fight Escalates
The Assembly of the Proprietor’s Governor Carteret kept twisting the knot on the recalcitrant English settlements If they did not obey, they would not be allowed to vote, hold office or even become Freemen. It called the people of Middletown “Mutineers against authority and of the government and disturbers of the peace.”
In response, the local town meeting passed what became known as “The Monmouth Declaration of Independence.” (Note this is 100 years before the American Declaration of Independence.)
Their declaration brought even harsher rules from the proprietors, with incendiary language like this: “For such as pretend to right of property to land and government within our province by virtue of patent from Governor Col. Richard Nicolls, as they ignorantly assert, we utterly disown any such things….” and an even more explicit “No Way!” response from the rebels. I would love to give you the entire documents, but they are too lengthy to reprint here. If you are interested in the history of this early insurrection against the British, you can read the books referenced below.
Slumping Toward Settlement
Things got so heated that Governor Phillip Carteret had to flee back to England for two years. When he returned he offered some concessions to the settlers. At first the colonists resisted, but probably realizing that their 7 years of free rent was coming to an end, they finally settled. Until the Proprietors entirely gave up their claims of ownership, the settlers continued to resist.
Two factions developed, one led by Andrew Hamilton, a Scottish man supported by the proprietors and Jeremiah Ross Basse, supported by the settlers. Between 1675-1702 the battle raged between the pro- and anti-Scottish.
Taking It Out on the Courts
One of the things that Basse did that apparently pleased the settlers was to protect the pirates who hung around Sandy Hook and the mouths of the Raritan and Delaware Rivers recruiting local men.
When Basse was put in jail, a group of settlers broke into the court. Their leader cried “By what right do you keep court?” He was fined and put in jail. The settlers, using a beam from a nearby house, beat the jail to pieces and freed Basse.
During the summer of 1700, courts were periodically broken into, quite literally. Then in July, Hamilton marched on Middletown, and in August the mob with David, James and Benjamin Stout fought back.
In September, the Court of the County of Essex was interrupted and the crowd abused the clerk and pulled off his wig. 60 horsemen took the prison keys and released the prisoners.
Then on March 25, 1701 came the trial of Moses Butterworth, and the mob that included Jonathan and James Stout.
Finally, a year later, April 1702, the Proprietors surrendered their rights to Queen Anne.
Anarchy or Democracy?
A British official reported to the Queen a few months later that New Jersey “is a state without government.” From the colonials point of view, they had all the government they needed. It wasn’t being imposed by crooked officials claiming to represent the crown.
Lewis Morris, the official writing the report, proved somewhat prescient when he wrote,
“I dare not determine that the present ill circumstances of New York, Jersies, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas and Lucay Islands are derived from New England; but the transcripts were so Exact in most or all circumstances, that I fear they were too much Influenced by the worst example.”
Note: Lucay Islands refers to the Bahamas, inhabited by the Lucayan people. It is possible this letter was also referring to those islands we now know as the Virgin Islands.
While some British officials were beginning to worry about the bad example of New Englanders with their outrageous resistance to taxation without representation, our hardy farmers in New Jersey must have relished their few years of peace before the “real” revolution began.
Notes on Sources
Ellis, Franklin, History of Monmouth County, 1885, Philadelphia: R. T. Peck & Co. Chapter III covers “The Dutch, English and Proprietory Rule in New Jersey.” Coverage of the Provincial Revolt starts on page 85 and the Butterworth Trial on page 85. Accessed at Archive.org in June and July 2021
Hanna, MG. (2015). “Well-Behaved Pirates Seldom Make History: A Reevaluation of the Golden Age of English Piracy.” In Governing the Sea in the Early Modern Era Essays in Honor of Robert C. Ritchie. UC San Diego. Report #: 5. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9j63k6xp in June and July 2021.
Stillwell, John, M.D., Historic and Genealogical Miscellany : Data Relating to the Settlement and Settlers of New York and New Jersey, Vol. IV , New York, NY: Self-published, 1903. This entire text is available at archive.org The book contains family trees as well as legal documents from New Jersey covering a multitude of information.