Six Terrible Years as No Man’s Land
When the Continental Army was in retreat through Hackensack, a patriot asked General George Washington whether he should abandon his family and property and go with him. Washington said, “No. Stay, and remain neutral.”
That was difficult. New Jersey was of strategic importance to both the British and the colonists. Bergen County residents found themselves in a no-man’s land forced to make an irrevocable choice between the colonists and the Crown.
Following the closing of the Port of Boston in the spring of 1774, Committees of Safety and Correspondence were appointed by town and county meetings. Feelings ran high on both sides. Everyone was related to everyone else, either by blood or by marriage. Many close friends became bitter enemies. Families split up. Some changed their names, taking the name of their occupation, home town or a nearby landmark.
When plans were made in June 1775 to set up the Continental Congress, the meeting held in Hackensack was led by Peter Zabriskie. Peter, Theunis Dey, John Demarest, Cornelius Van Vorst and John Zabriskie. Jr., were chosen to go to New Brunswick to elect New Jersey’s delegates. Peter was the son of John Zabriskie, the loyalist whose house was confiscated at the end of the war and given to Baron Von Steuben.
Most of those elected in Bergen County were moderates. Many looked upon the Colonists’ struggle as hopeless and chose to remain loyal to the King. All of the patriots were defeated in an election held in September 1775
Some of the loyalists accepted commissions in British service, becoming the unscrupulous, vindictive leaders of bands of marauding Refugees who plundered and murdered their neighbors.
General Howe recruited an entire regiment of Tory militia in Bergen County under Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk. They became known as Greencoats to distinguish them from the regular,
red-coated British troops.
Tory bases at Paulus Hook and Hoboken were so close that Bergen County farmers were frequently raided by British foraging expeditions. Loyalists supplied intelligence and served as guides. Organized counter-attacks on the raiding parties were practically impossible.
Patriots never knew when a neighbor’s barn might be hiding a party of Tories waiting for the cover of darkness to attack them. Homesteads and barns were burned by the Refugees. The Greencoats carried men off to the dreaded Sugar House Prison in New York. Hardly a patriot family had not seen a son or father seized.
New Jersey’s patriot militiamen, who became known as “minutemen,” farmed by day and stood sentinel guard duty at night. They were obliged to try to defend every friendly farm from Newark to Tappan, but managed to keep up a persistent resistance. By October 1776, after the evacuation of New York City, almost every Whig house was offering sanctuary to one or more patriots from New York.
On November 20, 1776, the British crossed the Hudson and landed at Closter Dock. It was unguarded because the Colonists thought it unsuitable for landing a large body of troops and supplies. Taken by surprise, they had no time to burn crops or drive off cattle. The Redcoats inherited a plentitude of food and fuel.
The British left Bergen County to be guarded by local Tories under Andrew Van Buskirk, brother of the Greencoat commander and operator of a twice weekly stage wagon between New Bridge and Paulus Hook (Jersey City).
The war appeared over. General Howe offered pardons to patriots who would take an oath of allegiance to the King. Almost 3,000 did. Two men, William Christie and Peter Zabriskie, still furnished the Continental Army with intelligence.
British troops were spread too thinly throughout New Jersey, making possible the successful raid at Trenton on Christmas Eve in 1776 and the victory at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Howe abandoned Hackensack and headed back to New York.
The tide had turned, but local residents were no better off. General Washington, disappointed that so many preferred selling their produce to the British for gold instead of supplying Continental troops, sent troops, not to protect the area, but to confiscate whatever stores the British had left.
The New Jersey militia, headquartered in Bergen County, had become an effective fighting force by May 1777. Gone were secret sympathizers of King George and lukewarm patriots. The new militia man had endured the specter of war and was determined to protect his home and family from its terror. Bergen County had one company of militia under the command of Colonel Theunis Dey and four companies of minutemen. Major Richard Dey was in charge of the area east of Hackensack.
Gradually, Van Buskirk’s Greencoats were to discover that an attack on a patriot farm would very likely be met, not by a solitary, terrified farmer and his wife, but by a resolute band of farmer-soldiers who were more than eager to engage in musket fire or hand-to hand combat.
Patriots elected rebel legislators and rebel judges, although in one election only seven voters showed up. Five of these were the candidates themselves. Openly serving as patriot officials were Abraham and Lawrence Ackerman and Andrew Hopper.
Early in the morning of March 23, 1780, a fresh attack was launched on Hackensack by the British. Hessians noisily looted and pillaged. At Red Mill, they were met by a hundred minutemen who chased them back across New Bridge.
The British attempted no serious operations in New Jersey after losing the Battle of Springfield in June 1780. Toward the end of the year, the Continental Army moved out, leaving the militia to guard landings and patrol roads.
Until the spring of 1781, however, the British continued to hold New York, and the Hackensack Valley remained a place of espionage, partisan warfare and foraging raids by both sides. At last, on October 31, 1781, a patriot cannon fired from the Jersey shore signaled the news that Yorktown had fallen. The war was over.
Notorious Tories were banished, their property confiscated. Others left voluntarily, fearing violence at the hands of their neighbors; however, most stayed on, keeping their property and living in peace within the United States. Those who had served the patriot cause were rewarded with their long-sought independence. Gradually the people of Bergen County began to think of themselves as citizens of a new country called the United States of America.