Burlington Island was the site of New Jersey’s first capital crime


My daughter from a young age always wondered about the island across the Delaware River on family visits to Bristol. She’s like me: curious and up for an outdoor adventure.

The wooded island looked several kilometers long, densely forested and uninhabited from our perspective in the borough’s waterfront park. Known as “Matinicunk” (Isle of Pines) in the Lenni Lenape Indian language, it is all of these things and isolated by two forks in the river between Bristol and Burlington City, New Jersey.

The mystery of what is today called Burlington Island persisted until Geneviève graduated from college. On a home visit, she challenged me. “Let’s go paddling to the island, daddy!” ” Sure! So we left, in his blue canoe.

We crossed from Bristol, paddling against the tide while avoiding the pleasure craft that raced through the 40ft deep shipping channel. We disembarked on a pristine beach in the middle of the island, then carried the canoe over a high embankment draped in brush and more than a few cobwebs. To our surprise, the berm enclosed a very large sloping lagoon much higher than the river.

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We set out to make the tour of the inner sanctum amidst thousands of butterflies floating above the flowering bushes. Coming ashore here and there, we marveled at an old whaling boat with a tree growing through its keel, campsites, a hammock strung between towering hemlock trees, bizarre depressions and a network of roads.

We discovered what we thought was the basis of a great merry-go-round. Logic. In the distant past, the island was home to one of the largest theme parks on the east coast. A maddening roller coaster known as the Greyhound flourished before the lake blanketed the site. Visitors arrived on dozens of steamboats daily from 1917 to 1934, when a fire reduced half the way to rubble. After the complex collapsed, a mining company bought the site and dredged the soil under the complex for sand, creating the lake we were floating on.

Ancient whaling ship aground on the island with a tree growing from its keel.

Continuing our paddle, I mentioned that New Jersey’s first recorded murder happened on the island. “Tell me more,” urged Genevieve as we glided along. “Let me go back a bit to set the scene,” I replied.

Burlington Island has been inhabited by the Mantas (“Leaping Frog”) tribe of the Lenapes for eons. This changed when foreigners arrived on long boats in the early 17th century. In the early 1600s, a large Swedish colony took root. Also arriving were the Walloons, people of southern Belgium of Celtic Catholic origin. Around 1624, they built an island trading post where they traded with the natives.

The Dutch took over soon after and built a fort on the lower tip of the island, commanding the two branches of the river. A Dutch official brought with him African slaves, the first to inhabit New Jersey. Dutch domination was short-lived, however. The British seized the island in 1664, clearing the way for English Quakers to settle and negotiate a purchase of the island and mainland from the natives in exchange for gunpowder, pipes, hooks, fabrics. , kettles and other goods.

The author's daughter, Geneviève, paddles the lagoon on Burlington Island.

Tensions between the Lenape and the Quakers intensified in 1671 when two Dutchmen employed by the English killed an Indian woman. It was the first recorded murder in New Jersey history. The young girl’s grieving brother, Tashiowycan, and her brave compatriot Wyannattamo retaliated by killing her attacker. The grizzly bear’s death shook the community, threatening to disrupt coexistence with Indigenous peoples. The Lenapes were worried, not wanting to lose the friendship and favorable business relationship with the newcomers.

To appease the situation, the tribal chiefs swore to kill Tashiowycan and Wyannatamo. The chiefs said they would hold a dance to get them out, get them drunk, and then hit them on the head. This settled things for the settlers.

With Geneviève doing a few heavy paddles in the bow of her canoe, I explained a nuisance of the early colonization of the island and the mainland known to the Indians as “Techichohocki” (“the oldest planted land”). On March 3, 1677, the island government authorized the future city of Burlington City to become the capital of western New Jersey. The leaders drafted a constitution to protect civil and religious freedom, separate executive and legislative branches, an elected assembly, freedom of speech and due process. own words, “We put power in the people.” One hundred years later, the Constitution of the United States began: “We the people …”

Visitors arrived by steamboat between 1917 and 1934 to enjoy trips like this one to Burlington Island.

It is not known whether the document inspired Thomas Jefferson and others in Philadelphia. However, the manuscript titled “The Landlords, Landowners, and Residents of West New Jersey Concessions and Agreements” was displayed alongside the Magna Carta at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

In the years to come, Geneviève and I had stories to tell after the birth of her children Dashiell and Margaux while wondering what the future held for the mysterious Isle of Pines.

Sources include “Archeology Services” by Roger W. Moeller published in 1985 in the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archeology; “The Founding of the Quaker Colony of West Jersey” found on the web at www.ushistory.org/penn/pennnj.htm, and a history of the island at www.burlingtonnj.us/History. html

Contact Carl LaVO at [email protected]


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