It can be said that the history of the Maurice River is as winding a trajectory as its physical path through Salem and Cumberland Counties. But the tale of how its 39 miles and shifting monikers have interacted with mankind is an assortment of fact, fiction, guesswork and tentative conclusions that say more about humanity than about the river itself.
Before the arrival of Europeans to this state, the Maurice River, the mouth of which is on the Delaware Bay, was a significant part of the lives of local Native Americans. Charles Harrison, author of Cumberland County, New Jersey, writes that “Unalachtigo families of the Lenape people of the Delaware tribe lived, worked, played and died along the banks of the rivers (kithanes).”
According to William McMahon in his book South Jersey Towns, local Indian tribes had named what would later be known as the Maurice River Wahatquenack. “According to local tradition,” McMahon adds, “half a mile below Mauricetown, New Jersey, a band of roving Indians attacked and sunk the Dutch sailing vessel Prince Maurice, after which event early settlers began referring to the stream as Maurice. Eventually, Maurice became the official name.”
Whether or not the legend of an Indian attack gave birth to the river’s name is difficult to corroborate, although Herbert W. Vanaman’s Vineland Historical Magazine article “Maurice River, Romantic Stream” identifies the wreckage of a ship “below Mauricetown Bridge in the reach of the river called ‘No Man’s Friend.’ ” The only certainty about the legend is the existence of a Dutchman by the name of Maurice who was Prince of Orange and steward of all but one province of the Dutch Republic from approximately 1585 to 1625.
The Dutch were among the earliest explorers of the area that is now known as New Jersey. Vanaman posits that English navigator John Cabot in 1499 and Giovanni Verazzano in 1524, “could have entered the Delaware Bay, and even the Maurice River, and not recorded it in such a manner that these places could be identified in their ships’ logs…” But he asserts that “it is known that [in 1610] Henry Hudson did enter the Delaware Bay a short distance but turned back due to the uncharted shoals.” Hudson was English but in the service of Holland when he conducted his explorations here and, according to online sources, christened the river that would eventually bear his name the Mauritius River after the Prince of Orange.
At the time, the area that would become New Jersey was part of the Dutch New Netherlands and Delaware Bay and River, Vanaman explains, were named Zuydt Baai and Zuydt Riviere, respectively. Once the Dutch abandoned their attempts to reach China by way of North America, they engaged in fur trading and whaling along what is now the Northeastern Seaboard. But their exploration continued with individuals like Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who undertook an investigation of the Zuydt Baai and Zuydt Riviere. He named one of the capes after himself and rechristened Zuydt Baai Niew Port Mey, which shortly thereafter took on the name Delaware Bay.
The renaming of territory and bodies of water would continue when Sweden entered into an exploration of this area. Peter Minuit, formerly a New Netherlands governor, led two Swedish ships to what is now South Jersey. According to Vanaman, “Ostensibly, they came into the [Delaware] river to secure water, wood and provisions; actually, they came for the purpose of establishing a trading base. This deception permitted them time to get well enough situated that the Dutch did not force them out.”
Vanaman reports that the colony the Swedish established grew and extended “until it covered parts of New Jersey at Fort Elfsborg near Salem, Penns Neck, Raccon (Swedesboro), and later Maurice River…”
The Swedish engineer Peter Lindstrom was commissioned in 1654-5 to survey the area that became New Jersey and draw up a map of the territory. Vanaman explains that among the various locations Lindstrom identified in his map was the Maurice River. “He gives the river three separate names,” Vanaman writes, “the Asseveticans River, which according to some students is a poor attempt to spell or pronounce a Lenni Lenape name; the Riddare kylen, Dutch for Riddare River; and finally the Knight River.”
Next Week: Watching the River Flow