Fortress in Peril

With construction of Fort Casimir in 1651, Fort Nassau was demolished 24 years after it was built.

by Vince Farinaccio

The story told by Fort Nassau, constructed during 1627 in the Gloucester County territory once known as New Netherland, is one of acquisition, preservation and control, common preoccupations for new colonies at that time.

The fort initially housed a garrison of soldiers, but many of the settlers of this South Jersey portion of New Netherland were relocated to New York once Governor Peter Minuit moved the seat of government to Manhattan. Fort Nassau, according to William McMahon’s South Jersey Towns, was deserted for a period.

The remaining inhabitants used the structure occasionally for a few years, but it’s probably England that deserves the credit for the fort’s resurrection. McMahon writes that “in 1634, English explorer Thomas Young attempted to start a settlement at Pennsauken Creek.” The British had become interested in this area, and online sources explain that by 1635 English colonists from Virginia took control of Fort Nassau.

Wouter van Twiller, who had replaced Minuit as governor, dispatched Dutch troops in a successful attempt to retake the fort, marking what online sources call the first clash between the English and Dutch in the New World. The British would not be the only adversaries the Dutch encountered in New Netherland.

According to First Settlement on the Delaware River, A History of Gloucester City, New Jersey, edited by Louisa W. Llewellyn, in “1638 when the Swedes came to the Delaware Valley… the Dutch sent a permanent garrison to the fort.” McMahon reports that Sweden had established a colony “at Fort Christina, now Wilmington, Delaware, and proceeded up the river. When their ships attempted to pass Fort Nassau, they were fired upon and returned to base.”

The Swedish, however, were not to be dissuaded. Determined to expand the territory of New Sweden, they followed the directives of Governor John Printz who, according to McMahon, “nullified Fort Nassau by building Fort Elfsborg at the mouth of Salem Creek,” prompting Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant to send “320 reinforcements to Fort Nassau.”

In 1651, Stuyvesant ordered that Fort Nassau be partially dismantled, with its armaments and garrison moved to what McMahon describes as a location “across the river from Elfsborg” in a new citadel called Fort Casimir. The new fort would witness the final battles in South Jersey between the Dutch and the Swedes.

The Swedish, in 1651, unleashed an onslaught in an attempt to drive the Dutch out of the region. They targeted Fort Casimir and captured it, renaming it Fort Trinity. Stuyvesant himself led the Dutch forces on September 11, 1655 to recapture the fortress, which was rechristened Fort Amstel, the site of the capital of the colony. McMahon writes that the Dutch eventually “captured both Fort Elfsborg and Fort Christina, giving the Dutch control of the area.”

But the threat to Dutch territory wasn’t over. With England’s claim to the New World in 1664, King Charles II gave his brother James the territory of New Jersey. It wasn’t until 1673 that the Dutch were able to regain control of Gloucester County but, as McMahon explains, “they were disposed within a year, and the Jersey lands divided…signaling the start of more solid colonization.”

And what of Fort Nassau? With the construction of Fort Casimir in 1651 and most of the older fortress’s weapons and equipment transported to the new structure along with its troops, there was no further need for it. Stuyvesant ordered that it be destroyed. So, 24 years after it was built, Fort Nassau was demolished so thoroughly by soldiers that it leaves a question mark in South Jersey history. As McMahon states, “even today the exact site of the fort has never been ascertained to the satisfaction of historians…”

We’ll continue our look at Gloucester County when this series resumes.

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Jersey Reflections