Long before the first European colonists arrived in this area, native American Indians of the Leni Lenape tribe had areas of settlement along the Delaware River and its tributaries. Big Timber Creek was no exception. Indian artifacts have been found here in Westville indicating that the Delaware tribe inhabited the area.
In 1624, the Dutch built a fort in our vicinity. Historians have argued for years about the possible location of Fort Nassau. Its’ site has been thought to be in Gloucester City, West Deptford, or even the “Newbold” area of Westville. A 1656 Dutch map indicates that Fort Nassau was located on the south bank of Big Timber Creek where it empties into the Delaware River, which means it probably was within our boundaries.
After the Dutch lost control of the area, the Swedes (along with a few Finns) took over.
In the late 1600’s William Penn purchased a large portion of the Delaware Valley. He employed John Ladd (a Quaker) to survey and layout the City of Philadelphia. When Ladd was finished, William Penn was so pleased that he offered John Ladd one city block in what is now downtown Philadelphia. Ladd refused and requested to be paid in sterling silver. With this money, he moved to New Jersey and by the late 1680’s he purchased a “plantation” stretching from what is now North Woodbury to Big Timber Creek. His home, “Candor Hall”, was built about 1690 and still stands on Lafayette Avenue in Colonial Manor.
John Ladd married and became the father of five children. One of his sons, Samuel, owned the shad fisheries on Big Timber Creek. He married and also had five children. One of his daughters, Deborah, married a young man from Philadelphia named Thomas West. Thomas West and his wife built the old “West” house located on River Drive and raised a family of three children. His son, Charles West, in 1776 donated 40 logs for the cheavaux-de-frize, an underwater fortification lodged in the river channel between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, used to impede British shipping on the Delaware River and to prevent the British from attacking Philadelphia. These fifty-foot logs came from trees cut down on his property (which included present-day “Newbold”).
Also, during the Revolution, when our troops were starving at Valley Forge, General Washington sent out troops to gather cattle for our soldiers to eat. One group was sent to Salem County and a great cattle drive was conducted up the old “King’s” Highway, which ran from Salem to Burlington. From Woodbury, it followed Old Broadway through the Westville Oaks area and then wandered over to the stream which feeds into this park. From here, it went along the high bank above our pond and then meandered over to Willow Run and up Broadway, past our Boro Hall, and then veered over towards “Timber Park”, before crossing Big Timber Creek and continuing on towards the present bowling alley. Along this dirt road came hundreds of cattle and soldiers, including General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and Captain John Barry. Because of the foraging activities, our soldiers were able to survive the harsh winter at Valley Forge in 1778. This same road was used a year earlier, when a young man named Jonas Cat tell ran from Haddonfield to National Park to warn our troops that the British and Hessians were coming. Because of his efforts, the Battle of Fort Mercer was won by our troops.
During the 1790’s, Stephen Decatur lived in Westville at the home of Charles West. It is said that he walked along old “King’s” Highway three miles each way daily, to attend the Woodbury Academy, the first Naval Academy in the United States. This is where he got his naval training which he used in the “War with the Barbery Pirates” and the War of 1812.
One of John Ladd’s daughters, Katherine, married John Howell. Her grandson, Joshua Howell also fought in the Revolutionary War, as well as the Pennsylvania Insurrection (known as the Whiskey Rebellion) and the War of 1812. He lived at “Fancy Hill”, a home located where the ‘Coastal tank farm or County incinerator is and his property extended into the “Victoria” section of Westville. His son, Brigadier General Joshua Blackwood Howell fought in the Civil War and died of injuries received during the War at Petersburg, Virginia. It has often been said that the old “Thomas West” house was used as a stopping-off place for the underground railroad, which was used during the Civil War for helping the blacks to escape to the North. There were tunnels which led from the Creek bank to the basement of the house.
Westville was originally a good-sized Indian Village. The Unalachtigo branch of the Leni-Lenape Indian tribe inhabited the Gloucester County area. The headquarters of the tribe was within the original county at a place called Armewaxes, which the first white settlers shortened to Arwamas, now known as Gloucester Point across the Big Timber Creek at the mouth of the Delaware across from Westville.
Timber Creek was called Sassackon by the Indians who lived by its banks. Indian arrow heads and other remains of this past culture can still be found along the banks of the creek. Many Westville residents have Indian artifacts which were uncovered when their homes were built.
Early New Jersey records show that Henry Hudson, and Englishman exploring for the Dutch East India Company, sailed into the Delaware Bay on August 28, 1609 and claimed the Delaware Bay area for the Dutch. Robert Juet, an English officer on the “Half Moon” kept a very accurate journal of this, the third voyage of Hudson: His words tell of discovery of Delaware Bay, as well a s the river:
“The eight and twentieth, faire and hot weather, the wind at South South-west. In morning at six of the clock we weighed and steered away North twelve leagues till noon, and came to the Point of Land (Cape Henlopen)”
Just then indicated that the ship had difficulty entering the bay because of shallow water. Once over the sand bar, he recorded:
“Then we found the Land to trend away Northwest with a Great Bay (Delaware Bay) and Rivers. But the Bay we found should; and in the offering we had ten fathoms and had sight of Beaches and drie’ Sand.”
Because of the shallow waters, Hudson weighted anchor and sailed north to discover the river which today bears his name.
The next visitor to what we know as the Delaware River was Captain Cornelius Jacobus Mey who headed an expedition into the Delaware River area in 1613. Crude maps of that period listed the river as south River (from Dutch word Zuydt meaning South) to differentiate from the Hudson River known as the North River. Mey was much impressed with the Eastern shore of the river. His reports so interested the new Dutch West India Company, successor to the New Netherlands Company, that he agreed to plant a colony for it in the new world.
By March 1624, Mey was enroute to the Hudson River with some 30 families aboard the ship, “Nieu Nederlandt”. Sixteen of them were brought to the Delaware Valley by Captain Mey between the months of May and October 1624.
While Mey was exploring the waterways, another Dutchman, Cornelius Hendrick, skipper of the “Onrust” (Restless) was also exploring the Delaware River. He probably sailed further up the Delaware River than and previous Dutchman. He noted on August 19, 1616 that he had discovered “certain lands, a bay and three rivers situated between 38 and 40 degrees.” He was making reference, no doubt to Oldman’s, Mantua, and Racoon Creeks. Hendrickson is recognized as the first man to set foot on the shores of the Delaware Valley and he was surely the first man to sail up the river to about the Philadelphia stands today. He was the first to chart the course of the river after his visit to these shores in the summer of 1614. His famous map also included the Schuylkill River and added the names of the Indians living along the rivers.
After Cornelius Mey established the first white settlement on Burlington Island, he established Fort Nassau in 1623. The site of Fort Nassau has been a subject of much controversy. The Hon. Frank H. Stewart, president of the Gloucester County Historical Society has set the site as back of what is now Brooklawn, at the mouth of Timber Creek, just west of where Big Timber Creek, Little Timber Creek and the Delaware join.
Records show that the Dutch trading post was “about fifteen leagues up the river on the eastern shore. The Dutch had built two strongholds or forts, largest about 16 miles up the river on the eastern shore, called Nassau”.
In 1631, Peter Loursenson, a Dutch sailor sent to the Delaware, commented that Fort Nassau consisted of a trading house with ten or 12 servants belonging to it. Records further show that in 1651, Fort Nassau was abandoned. Its cannon and other weapons were installed at Fort Casisnir (at New Castle). Its last trading commissioner Andries Hudde, served in the same capacity in the new fort.
The abandoned fort remained a landmark for many years. In 1750, Acrelius, pastor of the Old Swede Church, Philadelphia, wrote in his diary, “Nassau is still standing two and a half miles north of Mantas Hook (Mantaes hoeck).”
History shows that the Dutch, Swedes, and English vied for possession of the settlement along the Delaware. Eventually the Swedes submitted to the rule of the Dutch and the Dutch submitted to the rule of the English. With each change of ruler the Delaware was renamed having the following names before it finally received the name it still has: Zudt river, Nassau River, Prince Hendrick River, Charles River and the De La Warr.
When the English gained control of this new land, King Charles II gave the title of title of New Jersey to his friends, Lord Berkley and Sir George Carteret. In 1674, Berkley sold his interest to two Quakers who, in turn in 1676, sold part of the land to William Penn. From here on, that part known as West Jersey became the original Gloucester City. At that time, Gloucester County extended from the river to the ocean and included parts of what are now Camden, Gloucester, and Atlantic Counties, Gloucester County became separated from Camden County in 1844.
Historic for years have recounted the fact that New Jersey was the real crossroads between Fort Nassau and New Amsterdam and later between New Stockholm and New Amsterdam. This resulted in the building of a road from the Ocean across New Jersey and then south through Gloucester County.