Hope and Deceit In

Hopewell, New Jersey


"The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes."


-Thomas Hardy

About the time William Merrill arrived on Staten Island in 1680, machinations were already beginning to swirl around the ownership of the lands in western New Jersey.  These get-rich schemes altered the fate of many of his descendants.  After Britain had seized control of all of the Dutch territories in 1664, King Charles II gave ownership and the right to govern eastern New Jersey to Lord Carteret and the same to rights for western New Jersey to Lord Berkeley.  Carteret’s part was more developed, being nearer to the coast and to New York. 


In 1673, Berkeley sold his interests to John Fenwicke and Edward Byllynge who planned a Quaker Refuge similar to the one in Pennsylvania.  In 1677, two boatloads of settlers were brought in through the Delaware River and started the town of Burlington.  The West Jersey Society in England became the proprietors and a Council of Proprietors was established.  Around 1680, surveys were made in western New Jersey, including the Hopewell area, in order to sell lands and issue deeds.


In 1685, Dr. Daniel Coxe, Queen Anne’s physician, became the largest shareholder of the group.  He wrote the Council: “The government of West Jersey is legally in me as full as Pennsylvania is in Penn … I therefore assume the title of Governor, and lay claim to the powers and authority therein annexed”.  It was a bold move, but Dr. Coxe had powerful allies in the royal court.  He never left England, but through his agent Adlord Bowle, negotiated with the eleven chiefs of various Indian tribes.  These tribes sold their rights to the Hopewell lands for hatchets, knives, needles, tobacco, rum, beer, kettles, 30 guns, shot and lead.  The land was subdivided and sold over the rights of the Quakers, who were disenfranchised by the Council.

All deeds issued by Edward Byllynge were deemed insufficient.



Short of cash in 1691, Dr. Coxe sold most of his land holdings and rights of government back to the West Jersey Society of England, with Thomas Revel as the leader. This 1691 agreement omitted the Hopewell sections, but between 1692 and 1694, Coxe made a second agreement transferring the Hopewell tract.  Unfortunately, the Society never executed a deed, but Revel continued selling and developing the area.  Many settlers opted for the land in the Hopewell tract.


Meanwhile, our William and Grace Merrill who had come to Staten Island in 1680 became restless to be out on his own.  They sold land they owned on Staten Island and purchased 120 acres from Richard Stout in Middletown, New Jersey.


William and Grace lived in Middletown until 1704.  While residing in Middletown, sons William (1686), Benjamin (1702) and Joseph (1704) were born, along with daughter Elsje Alice (1690).  In 1704, the Merrill family moved to the Hopewell area with a group led by Jonathan and David Stout, sons of the Richard Stout from whom William and Grace had purchased the Middletown acreage.




The Stout family is very important to the Merrill family.  Richard Stout had come to New Amsterdam around 1655 from Nottinghamshire in England after feuding with his father over the girl he wanted to marry.  He left England, signing on a ship of war for seven years service.  When his time was served, he embarked at New Amsterdam to start a new life.  He and other settlers started the village of Gravesend in what is now Brooklyn.  In 1661, he was the largest landowner in Gravesend and grew mostly tobacco. Fate would have him meeting Penelope Prince and they soon wed.  Penelope has gained legendary status over the years. The saga tells that around 1640, she and her husband were sailing from Holland on the ship “Kath” with a group of settlers when it shipwrecked on the coast at a place know as Sandy Hook.  Her husband was mortally wounded and the others in the party decided to abandon him, as hostile Indians were approaching.  Penelope stayed behind with her husband.  The band of Indians made certain her husband was dead and severely injured her.  They left her for dead and pursued the main group.  Penelope crawled into a hollow of a tree to die.  Her injuries were such that her intestines spilled out onto her stomach and her head was bleeding from the blows she had received.  For several days she clung to life, until a canine companion of a passing friendly Indian found her.  This Indian took her to his wigwam and cared for her.  After she had healed considerably, the Indian took her to New Amsterdam, where he gave her to the Dutchmen there, expecting a large reward.  It is not recorded what he may have received.


Penelope and Richard Stout married around 1644.  In 1663, Richard and Penelope moved from Gravesend to New Jersey, close to where she had nearly met her death.  They were among the first settlers of the Monmouth County area and the village of Middletown.  In all, Penelope and Richard had seven sons and three daughters. 


Jonathan Stout, son of Richard and Penelope, enjoyed scouting the New Jersey woodlands and living among the Indians.  In particular, the Lenapes Indians living in the Hopewell area welcomed him.   Jonathan, his brothers David and John, William and Grace Merrill and other families eventually moved to Hopewell in 1704.


Other Stout descendants married Merrills, as will be covered later in this chapter.




William and Grace remained in Hopewell for the rest of their lives.  He was listed as town constable in 1709.  In 1722, he was assessed taxes for 300 acres of land, 24 cattle and horses, and other holdings.  William died in May, 1724.   His will left to wife Grace "all moveable estate, including 40 cattle, two negro men, 16 horses and all my sheep." After her death all to go to "all my children by an equal division.....all the lands in my possession being about 350 acres to be equally divided between my two sons Benjamin and Joseph....if they cannot agree on dividing then it is my will that my son William Merrell and Joseph Stout shall divide the land for them equally as they can." Crop of winter corn to be equally divided between sons Benjamin and Joseph. The will was signed in a shaky hand "William Merrel."


Grace lived on until about 1740.


Location of Hopewell Valley


William and Grace had five sons and two daughters.  Daughter Ann and son Thomas have no records other than their names.  The first child on record is Elsje Alice, born about 1690 in Monmouth County, New Jersey.  Two years after the family moved to Hopewell, she married Thomas Curtis.  He was born in Burlington, New Jersey.  His family had come from Northhampton, England in the 17th century and settled in New Jersey a few miles up and across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.  Thomas and Alice were charter members of the Baptist Church in Hopewell.  Around 1738, they moved to Baptistown in the Kingwood Township where he became the pastor at Kingwood Baptist Church.  Alice and Thomas are buried at that church’s cemetery.


Old Baptist Church – Hopewell, New Jersey (1909)


The second child on record of William Merrill and Grace was William Merrill, Jr. who married Ann Parke in 1697, probably in Monmouth County, New Jersey.  Anne Parke was the daughter of Roger Parke and was born in Northamptonshire, England.  They had four children named William Merrill (1700), Ann Merrill (1707), Margaret (1711) and Rachel (1715).  Ann married David Stout and Rachel married John Stout.  Ann Parke died around 1728.


Following Ann’s death, William Merrill, Jr. married Penelope Stout.  She was the grand-daughter of Richard Stout and Penelope Van Princes.  Her first marriage was to Thomas Jewell, who died in 1727.  She and William married in Hopewell in 1729.  They had five children: William (1729), Benjamin (1730), Thomas (1732), Penelope Rachel (1734), and Ann (1735).  William and Benjamin would relocate to North Carolina (more about them leaving Hopewell later in this chapter), while the other children remained in New Jersey. 


Thomas Stout Merrill (April 19, 1732 – May 12, 1798) married Dorothy Theodocia Morgan (1732 – 1812).  Together they raised eight children in Hopewell: Penelope, Andrew, Sarah, Mary, Rachel, William, Isaac, and John.  Andrew married Elizabeth Stout and they settled in Illinois.  Sons Isaac and John settled in New York State.


Penelope Rachel Merrill (1734 – 1782) married Thomas Anderson in Hopewell in 1750.  They reared four children, all in Hopewell.


William Merrill, Jr. died on June 25, 1739 in Hopewell after being struck by lightning.  His wife Penelope was apparently not thrilled with the financial state of his affairs.  She refused to administer his will, stating: I am informed by my brother Benj'n Stout that you desire me to take an inventory of ye estate of Will'm Merrill deceased - which I do refuse to do or concern myself about that Estate which will only be a profitless trouble for me which I am not able to undergo…”.  She married for the third time to Isaac Herrin, who left her a three-time widow in 1756.  She lived on in Hopewell until she died at age 74 on July 11, 1776.


The third child on record of William Merrill and Grace was Benjamin Merrill, who was born about 1702 in Hopewell.  He married Mary Waters.  They had a son named John. 


The fourth child on record of William Merrill and Grace was Joseph, born about 1704.  He married an unknown Ann and lived all his life near Hopewell.  He died and is buried in Kingwood Township, New Jersey.  The fifth child was named Richard and he also lived and died in the Hopewell area.


Farmland in Hopewell

Wheat was the crop most produced in the 18th Century


In 1731 events came to a head concerning the ownership of property in the Hopewell Township.  The son and heir of Dr. Daniel Coxe, also named Daniel, had become one the new “Enlightened” elite of English society.  This unofficial group was comprised of well educated young men who believed the world was their oyster and owning great tracts of land was their pearl.  They saw themselves as the new aristocracy and that their “gentleman” lifestyle would be financed by collecting rents and taxes from their tenants living on their vast holdings.  Their vision was the old-style feudal system without calling the inhabitants ‘serfs’.  In contrast, the yeoman settlers of the New Jersey backwoods had already developed a clear belief in their own rights, responsibilities and attitudes.  By the time Daniel Coxe filed suit in the courts of New Jersey to evict a 100 or so families in Hopewell, the second generation of the original 0settlers were the “owners” cited in the suit and bitterly resented the Coxe family.

Location of Disputed Property in 18th Century New Jersey


The settlers named in the suit could pay for their land (which, with the improvements that had been made and the increasing population had escalated the price), or leave.  The suit called them “tenants” and “trespassers”.  50 men of Hopewell filed a counter-suit against Daniel Coxe and formed a compact to support each other.  Included in the list of names were Benjamin Merrill and John Merrill, as well as Parkes, Stouts and Smiths.  Others that were sued by Coxe decided not to join the compact.  There were still others in Hopewell not affected by the suit and counter-suit because their land had originally been purchased from the Coxe family and their property ownership was not challenged. 


By exercising his considerable political clout, Daniel Coxe’s claim was upheld in a long a tedious trial. The 50-Man Compact appealed to the leading judicial officer in New Jersey, but Chancellor William Cosby had a personal hatred of some of those involved with the suit and refused to overturn the verdict.  The Compact could not appeal any further because Daniel Coxe was the Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.


The verdict caused a great deal of consternation in Hopewell.  Some abandoned their property immediately, but most stayed on. The judgment against them allowed the Coxe enterprise to collect rent if purchase or abandonment was not forthcoming. Many families were impoverished because they sold all they could to meet the new costs incurred.  However, most of the 50-man Compact refused to pay or move.  When the first evictions occurred, they included two of the oldest families in Hopewell,  Parke and Smith.  These two exacted their revenge (with the help of others) on the new tenants in the style of old English peasant revolts.  In July, 1735 they tarred and feathered them and ran them out of town.  Afterwards, Thomas Smith and John Parke left New Jersey as outlaws.  This event was not a lone incident concerning properties in New Jersey.  Violence was a commonplace reaction against the great land holders.  This continued up until the Revolutionary War.  Many New Jersey yeomen removed their families from this atmosphere and headed south, the majority to North Carolina.  This group included some of the Merrill family members, and their fate in North Carolina will be the subject of the next chapter.


“Colonel” Daniel Coxe


People like Daniel Coxe remained in New Jersey during the war.  While nominally supporting the King during this period, these smooth operators also gave the impression of helping the rebel cause.  The estate home of Daniel Coxe was burned during this time, but it is unsure if the Colonials or the British did it.  In any case, Daniel Coxe was forced to return to England after the war, but after a short time, he and his family were back in New Jersey pressing their claims of land ownership.  His descendants fared quite well in the new American society, winding up owning land in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that contained iron ore.  In some circles, due largely to Daniel Coxe’s Masonic ties, the Coxe family is hailed as one of the founding patriots of America.



Excerpts from two 18th century documents illustrate the quagmire of property squabbles in New Jersey:

Excerpts from an anonymous letter to the New York Weekly Post Boy, June, 1746:

“No man is naturally entitled to a greater proportion of the earth than another, but though it was made for the use of all, it may be appropriated by every individual. This is done by the improvement of any part of it laying vacant, which is thereby . . . made the property of that man who bestowed his labor on it, from whom it cannot afterwards be taken without breaking through the rules of natural justice; for thereby he could be actually deprived of the fruits of his industry.

Yet if Mankind, who were designed by the Almighty to be tenants in common of the habitable globe should agree to divide it among themselves into certain shares or parts the contract will be binding by the laws of nature and ought therefore to be inviolably observed. Such a division has been attempted by the treaties made between several princes and states of Europe with regard to the vast desert of America. But each prince stipulated, or ought to be understood to have stipulated, for the general benefit of the people under his government and not for his particular profit. . . . But the mischief of it was that the best parts. . . have been granted to a few particulars in such exorbitant quantities that the rest of the subjects have been obliged to buy it for their use at an extravagant price: a hardship, that seems as great as if they had been put under the necessity of buying the waters of the rivers.”

Message of Governor Jonathan Belcher to the Council and Assembly of New Jersey, 1747:

“I have received sundry complaints from numbers of persons who say they are unjustly disturbed in the possession of their lands. . . . I wish both houses would so far reconsider the matter as to . . . be able to report what may be proper to be done by the legislature to bring an end to the disorders and confusion that have so long subsisted in the province . . . to the dishonor of God, in high contempt for the King's authority and of the good and wholesome laws of the province. As it well becomes rulers to encourage and support them that do well so it is their indispensable duty to be a terror to evil doers. . . . Assaults and batteries, breaking open the king's jails . . . must soon bring things to this question: whether his Majesty's authority shall be supported in this province of New Jersey or whether a number of rioters shall take the government into their own hands. If any persons think themselves hardly treated as to any lands they possess their recourse must be to the laws, and having gone through the whole course of law here and yet unsatisfied, they have a dernier* to his Majesty in council, where they will find . . . their case heard with great patience and finally closed according to the strictest rules of reason, law and equity. For the King always delights in the happiness of his subjects and esteems Righteousness the greatest stability of his throne.”

* An abbreviated form of the French term dernier ressort, which means "a last resort."

By the 1750’s, two of the Merrill families decided to leave New Jersey for good.  They realized that they had to find a place where the ownership of the land would not be in question.  The back country of western North Carolina beckoned to them, as well as many other displaced people from New Jersey.  

William Merrill, son of William, Jr. and Penelope Stout, left during this time.  Prior to his journey, he married Mary Cornell, also from Hopewell, New Jersey.  They had five children before going south.

Benjamin Merrill, also a son of William, Jr. and Penelope, married Jemima Smith on Dec 11, 1750.  After the wedding they left for North Carolina.  Jemima was a descendant of the Smith family that had been in the thick of the fray in the initial violence against the great land owners in Hopewell.

The next chapter will detail these Merrills and their descendants in North Carolina.

Satellite View of 21st Century Hopewell, New Jersey

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