Fort Nassau

There are signs of a wooden building within the fort, but the fort itself is not evident.

by Vince Farinaccio

The study of history tends to focus its view on individuals who guided or participated in events that helped shape our world into what it is today, yet certain buildings constructed by some of these noteworthy figures are sometimes able to offer a more comprehensive narrative of their time.

Take, for instance, Fort Nassau. This structure, no longer in existence, was erected in 1627 in a portion of New Jersey that belonged at the time to New Netherland, a colony of the Dutch Republic that extended along the Eastern Seaboard northward from Delaware through New Jersey and New York and up into Connecticut.

The fort was built at the mouth of the Timmer Kill at its junction with the South River, today’s Big Timber Creek and Delaware River, respectively. Online sources acknowledge the generally held belief that it stood in what is now Gloucester City, but some offer theories that contend its true location may have been either of the current sites now known as Brooklawn or Westville.

The Dutch had laid claim to what we now know as the Delaware Valley in 1609 when Englishman Henry Hudson, working for the Dutch East India Company, explored what would become New Netherland. In his travels, Hudson sailed from Nova Scotia south to the Chesapeake Bay and visited the Delaware Bay on his return north.

Five years later, Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey (or, as it is rendered in English, May, the preferred spelling used for the South Jersey cape town named after the explorer) began his exploration of the same territory, which included a survey of the Delaware Bay. It was Mey who captained the New Netherland in 1624 and transported the first settlers to the area, a group consisting of mostly Walloons from the French-speaking region of southern Belgium.

According to First Settlement on the Delaware River, A History of Gloucester City, New Jersey, edited by Louisa W. Llewellyn, “Instructions issued to William Verhulst, Capt. Mey’s successor as Director-General in 1625 indicate that the Dutch planned to make the settlement on the South River the seat of government for New Netherlands. This plan was altered one year later when Peter Minuit became Director-General and moved the base of operations to a new fort on Manhattan Island called Fort Amsterdam.”

In the same year the South Jersey settlement lost its bid as the seat of government, Issack de Resiere of the West India Company wrote his superiors on September 23 about the necessity of building a small fort for the South River settlement. He provided three reasons for such a structure: “First to keep possession of the River, in order that others may not precede us there and erect a fort themselves. Secondly, because…one could control all the trade in the river.” His third reason was that a fort could help reconcile the situation between Indian tribes so that hunting and, presumably, trading with the Dutch would not be interrupted.

Once Fort Nassau was built in 1627, a garrison was immediately housed there. According to First Settlement on the Delaware River, “Company reports indicate the trading season of 1626 was highly successful, adding to the justification for the fort’s construction.”

There is no surviving description of the fort, but First Settlement on the Delaware River informs us that “the usual Dutch procedure was to select a site near a natural stream and enclose the area with a palisaded structure. There is evidence of a wooden building within the fort, but nothing of the fort itself.”

According to William McMahon’s South Jersey Towns, trade with the Indians had ceased after the fort was constructed and, in 1631, Captain Pieterzen De Vries paid a visit to the location in an effort to revive trade with the local tribes.

Next Week: A Fort in Peril

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Jersey Reflections