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Watching the Rivers Flow

The Cohansey and Maurice have helped shape the region and its residents.

by Vince Farinaccio

Rivers played a crucial role in shaping the development of Cumberland County. Lenni-Lenape tribes and European settlers who had wandered to these shores made extensive use of the Cohansey and Maurice rivers. But waterways such as these, regardless of the ever-changing names by which they were known, also formed the boundaries by which territory was parceled out, controlled and, in most cases, rebranded. They certainly played a significant part in transforming the Dutch New Netherlands into what we know today as New Jersey.

According to the West Jersey website, in 1664, Sir George Carteret, governor of the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, was rewarded for protecting and caring for the son of England’s Charles I, who had been executed in the civil war that had erupted mid-century. Carteret’s loyalty was repaid with land located between the Hudson and Delaware rivers. According to the document bequeathing the property, “the tract of land is hereafter to be called by the name or names New Caesarea or New Jersey.”

The website argues that when the land was granted, “the source of the name Jersey was thought to be Caesarea by officials of the English government,” possibly due to the confirmed presence of Romans on the Isle of Jersey. However, no evidence has been uncovered to support the theory that a settlement named after Julius Caesar existed. Online sources suggest that Caesarea was used as the Latin name for Jersey.

By 1664, the Maurice River, the mouth of which is on the Delaware Bay, had been somewhat explored by the Dutch as well as the Swedish, earning a different series of names by both groups and making its 17th and 18th century history difficult to comprehend. For a period of time, it was presumed to be the site at which eight Englishmen traveling from Jamestown, Virginia had been massacred by Indians, according to Herbert W. Vanaman’s Vineland Historical Magazine article “Maurice River, Romantic Stream.”

Vanaman notes that the account of Dutch explorer David DeVries, who traveled the South Jersey region in 1632, explains how he and his crew sailed to what is now Timber Creek in search of provisions. After encountering a group of Indians who, according to Vanaman, “kept urging him to bring the yacht close to the bank so that they could walk on board,” DeVries was approached by “an Indian maiden…[who] warned the men that her people were planning to board the ship in a rush as soon as it was secured to the bank and kill the entire group.”

DeVries had noticed some of the Native Americans wearing British clothing and, upon asking his informant, the girl said they had belonged to the crew of a small ship who had been killed by her tribe on Count Ernst’s River and that the ship had sunk. Because of several sunken wreckages in the Maurice River, it was conjectured this may have been the site of the massacre, but further research uncovered that the Count Ernst’s River had been another name for either the Cohansey or Salem river.

Over the next several centuries, the Maurice River’s role in a developing South Jersey was recognized and recorded. According to Charles Harrison, author of Cumberland County, New Jersey, county residents sought to prevent their land from “slipping—foot by foot and yard by yard—into the rivers.” Harrison quotes Lucius Q.C. Elmer’s 1869 historical account of Cumberland County to present evidence that since 1839, the banks of the “Maurice River, which are easily renovated by the muddy sediment deposited from the water when allowed to flow over them are of an excellent quality and are still of much value.”

Harrison notes that the increase of population and industry since the 19th century “have often interacted with the Cohansey and Maurice Rivers in ways that have adversely affected both the people and the rivers.” Dikes and embankments dating from previous centuries, he reports, “have been allowed to fall into disrepair.” But he explains that since the 1980s, when concern arose over future threats that might affect the waterway, “the Maurice River has been designated by federal and state governments as a scenic river worth careful attention and saving.”

Jersey Reflections