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5/31/07: A "Brief" History of Camden County

PUBLISHED May 31, 2007

Historical Society, "Lenape" in the Unami dialect, meant "our men," "men of the same nation," or, "common people."  Names such as Delaware, Munsi, Lenape, Unami, etc., are 17th and 18th century appellations which did not exist at the time of European contact; as a matter of fact, Kraft states, the Lenape Indians "...were not a tribe in the political sense." To the explorers who encountered them along the Delaware River they simply became known as "the Delaware."

The Quakers had also been preceded by a small band of Dutch families sent by the Dutch West India Company to establish a minor trading and fur post on the Delaware River. Fort Nasau, probably established in 1626 near today's Gloucester City, continued in use however for only about 25 years; it was taken over in turn by the English and the Swedes and again came under the authority of the Dutch. Finally, it was ordered dismantled by Peter Stuyvesant in 1651. Thirteen years later the English again triumphed in New Jersey and the Dutch were forced to cede the entire colony.

Camden County institutions, municipalities, and streets still bear the names of many of those who made this area their new home. Elizabeth Haddon, immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Tales of a Wayside Inn, arrived alone in 1701 to look after her father's land claims, and gave the family name to "Haddon's Field."  She married John Estaugh, a Quaker minister with whom she had an acquaintance in England. Elizabeth, herself, was much esteemed by the Friends and minister in her own right.

Early settlers also included William and Benjamin Cooper, whose descendants founded Cooper Hospital and Coopers Ferry; The Kaighns, Gills, Stokes, Collings, Coles, Ellises, Zanes, Burroughs, Kays, Morgans, Matlacks, and many, many others.

A ferry operated as early as 1688 by William Royden, then by William Cooper and, after 1693, by Cooper's son, Daniel, provided the earliest means of communication and transportation between the two colonies on the Delaware River. For nearly a century the settlement which grew up around it was known as Coopers Ferry; it became a center of activity during the Revolutionary War period, 1777-78, while the British occupied Philadelphia. British troops often crossed the river, disembarking at the ferry landing near the Benjamin Cooper House (Point and Erie Streets) to forage for food supplies in the surrounding countryside.

Because Quakers opposed war and most would not bear arms for either side, many of the sect were harassed and imprisoned. Military skirmishes in the area involved such well-known figures as General "Mad" Anthony Wayne; the young Marquis de Lafayette, who earned a command for his attack on British forces near today's Gloucester City in November 1777; and the Polish count Casimir Pulaski.

Although in 1764 William Cooper's great-grandson, Jacob, purchased land for subdivision in what is today known as Camden, few homes were established there until well after the Revolutionary War. By the close of that period only three houses had been erected between Third Street and the Cooper river and all belonged to members of the Cooper family. The namesake of the new settlement was Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden, an English nobleman who supported the American cause in Parliament.

In 1803 additional lots were laid out north and south of Arch Street between Front and fifth Streets. In 1820 Edward Sharp, envisioning a bridge and ferry system between Camden and Philadelphia, broadened the enclave from the south side of Federal Street to just beyond today's Mickle Boulevard from the river to Fifty Street and called it Camden Village.

Nonetheless, the City did not really begin to grow until 1834; the coming of the Camden and Amboy Railroad helped spur its population growth to 9,500 by mid-century. In 1838 a canal had been cut through Windmill Island in the middle of the Delaware River, making ferry travel easier under all weather conditions. The shortened commuter time combined with an increasing number of businesses and services made Camden an attractive place to live.

During the period following Camden County's separation from Gloucester County in 1844, the county population, having expanded greatly, exceeded 25,000. In 1853 a new county courthouse designed by noted architect Samuel Sloan was erected halfway between Market and Federal Streets. That same year the Camden and Atlantic Railroad (later the Pennsylvania Railroad) began its first run from Camden to Haddonfield. The following year it was extended almost to Atlantic City.

Later, during the Civil War, many Camdenites supported and fought for the Union cause. The Zouaves, a volunteer company, was the first to apply for service in state regiments. They fought at Antietam, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancelorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and in the Wilderness Campaign; they marched with Sherman, fought in the Shenandoah Valley, and served under courageous officers such as General William Joyce Sewell. Those who died are memorialized at the Gettysburg Battlefield and by the Soldiers' Monument at Haddon Avenue and Mickle boulevard next to Cooper Hospital.

The postwar period brought the poet Walt Whitman to Camden where he first lived with his brother, George, on Stevens Street and later at 330 Mickle Street, Camden -- today a National Historic Landmark maintained by the State of New Jersey. Whitman prepared the final or "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass in the Mickle Street house.

Portions of "Specimen Days," a long essay on nature, in diary form, were written during the summer months Whitman spent convalescing at Laurel Springs. The poet's remains rest in a mausoleum of his own design in Camden's Harleigh Cemetery, a late-Victorian burial ground in the park-lawn style.

The end of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of Camden's emergence as a industrial and commercial leader. Eldridge Johnson's machine shop gave way to the Victor Talking Machine Company, predecessor of RCA, which ended its presence in the city in 1988.

In 1869 Joseph Campbell and Abram Anderson founded a preserving company that eventually became known as the Campbell Soup Company. The company flourished in the city of Camden during the next century, but will close it's processing facilities and gamble on Camden's future by erecting its corporate headquarters at the Waterfront Center.

The Esterbrook Pen and New York Shipbuilding Companies had established themselves in Camden before World War I. By then a popular saying was, "On Camden's supplies the world relies." Immigrant labor seeking economic opportunity helped increase the city population, providing a welcome source of abundant and cheap labor for the many industries which sprung up. Cigars, sausages, patent drugs, leather goods, iron products, ships, linoleum, carriage bodies, gas mantles, and terra cotta items were among the hundreds of products manufactured in the county.

In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the Delaware River Bridge, later renamed for Benjamin Franklin. It opened the way for commuters to work in Philadelphia and live in the Camden suburbs. A second bridge, the Walt Whitman, opened 31 years later, connecting Philadelphia and Gloucester City; in 1976 the Betsy Ross Bridge, linking Philadelphia and Pennsauken, opened to traffic.

These routes and the development of high-speed rail transportation between Camden and Philadelphia have helped to push the county's population over the half million mark. This, combined with a broad economic and industrial base, several centers for higher education, three major hospitals, and an excellent interstate road system and connections, offer a bright future for the county.

County Historian & Director, Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission

- This material is from "Know Your County", published by the League of Women Voters (1991).  More information about the history of Camden County is available at the Library or through the Camden County Historical Society.

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