By Larry Randolph
The intersection of Sampton and Clinton Avenues is not unlike many other intersections in South Plainfield. It is burdened by traffic and given little consideration by residents who hurry through it on their daily routines. But it is different in one respect: at this intersection there was once a town. Its name was Samptown and while most of its two hundred year existence was non-descript, for a brief few months Samptown played a role in the founding of our nation. No one is quite sure when Samptown was settled. Sometimes referred to in early records as Waterville, it was near here that two men, Benjamin Clarke and Daniel McDaniel were engaged in operating a sawmill by 1683. By 1690, two mills were said to be operating near Samptown, probably a sawmill and a gristmill.
It is uncertain where the name Samptown came from. Legend has it that a wagon load of ground corn meal, known by its Indian name samp, broke down while passing through the town. The wagon spilled its load all over the road and, from that incident; the town received its name. While this may be true, what is known is that by the year 1776, Samptown contained, perhaps, eight to ten houses, a cemetery, and a tavern. Located on the main road from Elizabeth to New Brunswick, it was a regular rest stop on the route of the Swift-Sure Stage Line running between those two cities.
Like other residents of the colony, the people of Samptown followed the growing rift between Great Britain and her American colonies. Although the signing of the Declaration of Independence was a cause for celebration, the joy turned to concern when a British army landed on Staten Island and Samptowns men were among those called up for militia duty and ordered to Perth Amboy and Woodbridge to guard the coast.
But the war did not really strike home until that fall when the American army, badly defeated in the battles around New York, began its retreat across New Jersey. On Nov. 30, 1776, that army, beaten and demoralized, marched through Samptown in a cold rain. The next day, the British arrived. A column composed of the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry and elements of the 16th Regiment of Dragoons and a company of Hessian Kessel Jagers marched into town. They did not stay long. Ordered to join the main body of the British army at New Brunswick, Major Maitland, their commander, hurried his men forward toward the sound of cannon fire coming from New Brunswick.
As Washington retreated toward Trenton, the local men, their militia enlistments having expired, returned home to protect their families. Although it appeared that the revolution might be over, Washington surprised the British at Trenton and Princeton and the Americans once more took heart. From Princeton, Washington fled with his army to the safety of the mountains surrounding Morristown, while the British settled into Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, and the villages of Bonhamtown and Piscatawaytown. To protect the approaches to Morristown, General Washington saw the need to establish a defensive line on the flatlands before the Watchung Mountains. The Bound Brook, rising in the Dismal Swamp north of Metuchen, and flowing west to join the Green Brook and empty into the Raritan River at Bound Brook provided such a line. Along the length of these streams, the only bridges between Metuchen and Bound Brook were at Samptown and its neighboring village of Quibbletown (New Market) one mile to the west. Whoever controlled these bridges, controlled all movement through the area.
Although British patrols moved through the area during the first two weeks of Jan. 1777, no resistance was met by American troops who occupied Samptown and Quibbletown on Jan. 13. Composed of some six hundred infantry from the 1st Connecticut Militia and the 8th Virginia Continentals, these troops wasted no time in sending out patrols to harass the British outposts along the Raritan River. Their commander, Colonel Charles Scott, was a tough, no nonsense officer who had orders to strip all the farms between the mountains and the Raritan River of food, forage, livestock and wagons. The American army desperately needed these items and the British were determined to seize these items before the Americans could get them. On a daily basis, patrols from both armies moved through the area, exchanging gunfire.But the Americans were successful in gathering supplies. Short of transport, the garrison began to stockpile them in and near the two villages.
On Jan. 27, 600 British infantry, 50 Calvary, and the Hessian Grenadier Battalion Linsing, marched from Raritan Landing. Led by 50 Hessians from the Kessel Co. of Jagers, their orders were to seize supplies stored in the vicinity of Samptown. Under command of British Gen. Leslie and Hessian Col. von Donop, these troops looted farms along present day New Brunswick Ave. and New Market Rd. The Americans put up a strong defense but were unable to stop the British column. Gen. Leslie reported that several men were killed and wounded on both sides.
On Feb. 8, the British returned. Over 6,000 men, almost one quarter of all British troops in New Jersey, were ordered to attack Quibbletown and capture the supplies the Americans had gathered and storeed there. Under the command of Lord Cornwallis, these troops fought their way into the village against
heavy American resistance. To relieve pressure on the attackers, Cornwallis ordered British Gen. Grant to drive toward Samptown with two regiments. Although Scotts men fought bravely, the British destroyed or carried off all the supplies that the Americans had managed to gather. 30 British Soldiers were killed and 30 were wounded. The Americans lost six killed, 20 wounded and six captured.
With the farms in the area stripped bare, both sides turned their attention to harassing each others outposts. With the coming of spring Gen. Washington issued orders for his army to regroup. On the 16th of May, Col. Warner's men abandoned Samptown and Quibbletown. A British patrol made up of troops from the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment (Black Watch) and the 52nd Regiment of Foot entered Samptown on June 1, 1777 only to find the village deserted, its houses abandoned.
In an effort to draw Washington out of the mountains and into battle , Gen. Howe thrust the British army west of New Brunswick. Realizing the danger to his flank, he ordered Samptown be occupied. This was done by a company of the Coldstream Guards on or sometime after June 10. On June 20, a company of the Hessian Kessel Jagers reinforced with a light cannon relieved the Guards. It was the misfortune of these German mercenaries that at the time that they were marching into Samptown, Washington was issuing orders for its capture.
On the 21st of June, the Germans came under fire from riflemen in the surrounding fields and woods. This sniping lasted all day and through the night. The next day Americans from the division of General William Alexander, Lord Sterling attacked. The Hessians, under the command of Captain Johann Ewald, fought them off at a cost of two men badly wounded. But orders had been issued for a withdrawal to Perth Amboy. At dawn on the 23rd the Hessians marched off to Bonhamtown.Washington wasted little time in moving forward with his army. In the days that followed, the main body moved into camp north of Quibbletown while some 8,000 soldiers from the divisions of Lord Sterling and General John Sullivan, under the overall command of Lord Sterling, moved through Samptown to take up positions in the eastern part of what is now South Plainfield. Intent on harassing the British retreat to Staten Island, Washington ordered units toward Perth Amboy.
On June 28, 1777, 16,000 British soldiers emerged from Perth Amboy and began marching in the direction of Samptown. At the junction of the Oak Tree and New Dover Roads in present day Edison Township, they turned north and smashed into the American left flank. Orders were given for a general retreat to the safety of the mountains near Bound Brook. All through that afternoon American units marched through Samptown going west to new positions at Middlebrook.They were never to return. Although the war would go on for another six years, events had passed Samptown by. Gunfire was occasionally heard in the distance and on one occasion the local militia fought British cavalry at Quibbletown, but the armies would never again fight over Samptown.Residents returned, repaired the damage to their property, and life went on. By 1834 Samptown could boast of containing ten or twelve houses, a Baptist church, a tavern, and a general store. It was not to last. The stage line stopped running in the early 1800's and the tavern and general store closed before the middle of the century.
In 1872, the railroad by-passed Samptown and built its station in the neighboring village of New Brooklyn. In 1879, the Baptists did the same with their new church. As people moved away, houses were torn down. But the memory of the war was preserved in generations of South Plainfield children who were
put to bed with the admonition: Close your eyes, lie real still, and you can hear the soldiers marching on the Samptown Road. Today, all that remains of Samptown is the old tavern; now a dwelling, the
cemetery, and the occasional musket ball found on one of the old battlefields. Even the Samptown Road has had its name corrupted to Sampton Avenue.
It was Samptown's misfortune to have become part of a community that has little or no interest in its past. For that reason, its memory has been consigned to a few pages in a dusty history book and the ghosts of the soldiers who fought and died there. Pity.
"Our Special thanks to Larry Randolph and the South Plainfield Observer for this content"