Three Dates, One Action? The Demarests at New Bridge, 1781

The War Years (1775-1783)

October 7, 2014
by Todd W. Braisted Also by this Author


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One of the finest sources for anecdotal, first-hand accounts of the Revolution is the U.S. Pension & Bounty Land Applications in the National Archives. They contain vivid snippets of military service, actions, genealogical information, social culture, and many other matters of 18th Century life. They can also be highly confusing and misleading when taken completely at face value.

The United States passed a series of pension laws for the veterans of the Revolution beginning in 1818, but this initial act only covered destitute survivors of the Continental Army. A broader act, which included the militia was passed on 7 June 1832, nearly fifty years after the end of the war, making the youngest applicants around seventy years old. Some were much older. Memories faded over the years, the order of events became confused, names sometimes changed, and most particularly, dates became jumbled. Many confused the two different British forages in Bergen County, New Jersey, between 1777 and 1778; others wrote that the actions at Fort Lee in May 1781 happened in 1782. The larger actions can be easily put in their proper place by cross-referencing documents from the war. The smaller events, the petite guerre, can be somewhat trickier.

The Demarest family of Bergen County provided soldiers to both sides of the conflict. At least thirty five are known to have served, two dozen on the Congressional side with another eleven fighting for the Crown. One of the leading county militia officers was Captain Samuel Demarest, who lived on what is now River Road in New Milford. At the time, it was simply lumped into the “New Bridge” general area. Guards of militia were generally kept in the area, usually in houses and barns of the inhabitants. Hackensack to the south was garrisoned by state troops and some New Jersey Continentals.[1]

Map of Paulus Hook to New Bridge. Source: Library of Congress
Map of Paulus Hook to New Bridge. Source: Library of Congress

The middle part of the year 1781 had been eventful in the county. No large armies maneuvered for battle or even foraged for grain. The British still occupied the lower part of Bergen Neck, modern Hudson County, with the fortifications of Paulus Hook garrisoned by British Regulars and Fort DeLancey at Bergen Point garrisoned by around 300 men of the Loyal Refugee Volunteers commanded by Major Thomas Ward. The force under Ward had attempted to establish a new post on the ruins of Fort Lee, prompting three major engagements with the militia in May. The British, not wanting to be in the position of having to support a post they deemed untenable, ordered Ward to return to his old post, which he and his corps did.

Which leads us to our friends the Demarests at New Bridge. Amongst the various pension applications made out by members of the family in the 19th Century, three record being taken prisoner in 1781. Gilliam Demarest had passed away in 1811, but his widow Bridget applied for a pension under an act providing for wives of deceased veterans. Gilliam was the son of David G. Demarest, who in May 1779 joined the British and was at that time serving in the Refugees under Thomas Ward.[2] Benjamin Romaine, a fellow veteran, testified on behalf of Bridget “That the said Gilliam Demarests father David Demarest deserted his countrys cause, and eloped to the enemy services to the City of New York, and contain’d there during the war, and his farm was confiscated…. The said father repeatedly requested, and demanded his said Son Gilliam to join him in New York, but the son held to his integrity to the end of the war. That he was taken a prisiner, and exchanged, nevertheless his fathers commands, and again went into military Service – was severely Wounded in individual contest in the hand in a personal contest with an enemy refugee, who sought to capture him, as I have full and satisfactory information of this fact.” Philip Demarest, in 1841, likewise testified: “…in the year 1781, this deponant & the aforesaid Gilliam Demorest was again Called out in the Service under Capt. Samuel Demorest and that on or about the first of April in the year aforesaid this deponent & the aforesaid Gilliam Demorest at the Hackinsack new Bridge, while on duty was Supprised and taken Prisoners of War by the Enemy and taken from thence to the City of New York and Confined in the Shuger House & this deponant remained there Six months & was then Exchanged and this deponent further Says when he left for home the aforesaid Gilliam Demorest yet remained there as a Prisoner of War.”[3] This set the date of capture at 1 April 1781.

Philip Demarest, a resident of Barbadoes Township, New Jersey, and the person who related Gilliam’s story above, told his own tale in 1832: “That he again entered the service about the first of April 1781, under the aforesaid field Officers and under Captain Demarest, and Lieutenant Campbell. That he was taken prisoner in a little Skirmish near Hackensack New-bridge on or about the tenth of April and carried to New York where he remained a prisoner untill the first of October following, he was then individually exchanged through the intersession or management of his friends…” Two years later, still seeking his pension, Philip added more detail to his capture: “this deponent further saith in relation to his having been taken prison[er] by the enemy, that himself and two others belonging to Captain Samuel Demarests Company went out that day to pilot a party of Regular Troops, under the command of a Lieutenant that were sent from Perhamus to discover the movement of the enemy, that they went into the vicinity of Fort Lee and returned in the evening to the house of one John Sobriskie, near Hackensack near [New] Bridge, where they were surprised by the enemy and himself and the most of the party made prisoner and immediately carried to New York as set forth in his declaration. The name of the Lieutenant commanding the party he does not recollect if he ever knew.”[4] This gives the number of men taken prisoner as three, but gives the date of the encounter as 10 April 1781. Now we have two dates.

Commission of Samuel Demarest as captain in the Bergen County Militia. Source: National Archives and Records Administration
Commission of Samuel Demarest as captain in the Bergen County Militia. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Last of the Demarests was sixteen year old John, a militiaman nonetheless at that young age. He testified in his application: “That in the Year 1781, early in the month of September, he was taken a Prisoner of war, by surprise, at the New Bridge aforesaid, by a party of British New-Corps, or Refugees, commonly called ‘Ward’s Green-Coats;’ and that he was conveyed thence down to their Head Quarters at Parnespough, a place bordering upon New York Bay, in the Township of Bergen, in the County and State aforesaid, and that he remained a Prisoner of war for the space of seven Months, (as near as he can now recollect) part of this time in confinement, and part of it, he was permitted to return home, on parole of honour, (together with his Father, an old man, also a Prisoner of war,) at the Instance of Captain Samuel Demarest, together with another Officer of the Guard, stationed at the New Bridge aforesaid, as a Flag of Truce; on condition, that he should not take up Arms against them as long as he was their Prisoner, and that he should appear and report himself once in every Month; which he observed for about three months.” He later concluded: “I was taken a Prisoner of war, in the night season while at the Village of Hackensack, but on a visit to my Parents at the New Bridge, being indisposed and lame…”[5] John stated his date of capture as early September. Three dates.

Three Demarest family members, all taken prisoner at New Bridge, all giving different dates. Which one was correct? Perhaps none of them. Looking at this mystery from the other side of the conflict, we may have found our answer.

The raison d’être of Thomas Ward’s corps was to cut wood, which in turn they had an exclusive contract to sell to the Barrack Master General’s Department in New York City for the use of the British military. Their usefulness to the British, however, extended well beyond providing fuel. Gathering intelligence and collecting information on Washington’s Army was of vital importance, and in July 1781 the Continental Army and their French allies appeared ready to besiege the British in New York. On 29 July 1781, Major Oliver DeLancey, Jr, the British Adjutant General, sent orders to Thomas Ward to help accomplish that: “You are requested to send out patroles on the road to Sneathings Ferry[6] as far as they can go with prudence in order to find out what troops are on your side the Water & you will also be good enough to send out some people to gain intelligence of the Situation & motions of the Enemy with certainty, you will enjoin secrecy. I will pay any of them you Employ.”[7] Ward dutifully complied, reporting two days later:

I immediately on receipt of your Letter on Sunday last set off to Bergen, and sent two Men into the Country towards Kings Ferry and directly proceeded after them myself, with a party of about One hundred and Fifty Horse and foot with a Brass Field piece as far as the liberty Pole.

I then Detached Captn. Miller[8] with twenty Horsemen to the House of Captn. Demarea– but he had taken Flight. he Captured three Notorious Rebels and afterwards Joined the foot without a Shot fired at him or the party— I have intelligence that there is at Closter, at and abt. their Block House, three hundred of their Standing Army and Militia— I sent for a very intelligent person who had I understood been to Kings Ferry, and he says when he Crossed the river on Saturday Night last, there were no Troops there nor had there been any for some time past— he had been to their Army and says he saw hauling down to White Plains Sundry pieces heavy Cannon & Mortars which is said came from West Point— and his Horses which he went after was employed in that Service he further adds he was not allowed to Cross at Dobbs Ferry but must go to Kings Ferry— report Strongly Prevails in the Country of raising Militia and laying Seige to New York– but for his part he saw no Militia preparing– it is also said that as soon as they can raise the Militia of this Province a Brigade with the Militia to Join them is to lay at Fort Lee— Genl. Washington reconnoitered the Ground in disguise last Friday at Fort Lee– which gives this intelligence more weight– this respecting Fort Lee except what relates to GW my informant had from Colo. Dayton— the two men who I sent out expect back tonight or in the Morning—[9]

The New York newspapers touted Captain Miller’s exploits, while obviously staying mum on the intelligence portion of the expedition: “On Sunday evening last a party of Loyal Refugees under the Command of Major Thomas Ward, went out from Bergen Neck, as far as the Liberty Pole. Major Ward detached Capt. John Miller with a party of twenty horse, who penetrated as far as the New Bridge, near Hackensac, and captured three notorious rebels by the names of Demareas, drove off their stock, and returned to the party without firing a shot.”[10] Three Demareas, a variation of Demarest, captured at New Bridge. Sounds very much like Gilliam, Philip and John.

No movements of troops or reported actions for the period of April 1781, the time Philip mentioned as when he and Gilliam were taken prisoner, are known to have occurred. John Demarest’s statement saying early September for his capture does correspond with a raid on Closter by Captain William Harding of the Refugees, who surprised six men of a guard serving under Captain Thomas Blanch.[11] This action, which occurred on 6 September 1781, is well documented though, particularly through the pension application of Benjamin Romaine, one of those taken prisoner. Ward himself led a raid with fifty men four days previously, but this was in the neighborhood of Newark, where they took off thirteen prisoners.[12] Closer to home, Ward personally led a party on 11 August that captured a guard of fifteen men “from the neighbourhood of Hackensack” but those prisoners appear to have been Continental or State Troops, not the militia that Gilliam, Philip or John served in.[13]

Studying history is much like piecing together a puzzle. Individual pieces sometimes don’t make sense, but put together they create a vivid picture. It would appear that the capture of the three Demarest militiamen did indeed occur on 29 July 1781, a date none of them stated. First hand accounts are a wonderful resource, but the old adage “Trust, but Verify” refers to them as much as any other source.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Photo of Zabriskie-Steuben House at Historic New Bridge Landing, by Deborah Powell.]


[1] Samuel Seely to Colonel Elias Dayton, Hackensack, 27 July 1781. MG 14, Edwin A. Ely Autograph Collection, Box 1, Folder 39, The New Jersey Historical Society.

[2] Demarest probably joined the British when the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, occupied New Bridge on 17-18 May 1779. Petition of Jane Demarest to Governor William Livingston & the New Jersey Assembly, Hackensack, 13 September 1779. Department of Defense, Military Records, Revolutionary War, Revolutionary Manuscripts Numbered, Document No. 10667, New Jersey State Archives. See also Subsistence Roll of the Refugees stationed on Bergen Neck under the command of Major Thomas Ward…Twenty Three March 1782. Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 190, item 37, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library, hereafter cited as CL. Two other David Demarests were Loyalists, both joining the British in 1776, one on the King’s Orange Rangers commanded by Lt. Col. John Bayard and the other in the New Jersey Volunteers.

[3] Pension Application of Gilliam Demerest. Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. W16952, Guilliam Demerest, New Jersey, National Archives and Records Administration, hereafter cited as NARA.

[4] Pension Application of Philip Demarest. Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S29114, Philip Demarest, New Jersey, NARA.

[5] Pension Application of John Demarest. Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, Reel 791, No. R2860, John Demarest, New Jersey, NARA. John was unique amongst these three men in that his application was rejected by the government.

[6] Sneden’s Ferry, opposite Dobbs Ferry, was the lowest crossing point on the Hudson held by Washington’s troops.

[7] DeLancey to Ward, 29 July 1781. Clinton Papers 167:21, CL.

[8] Captain John Miller was one of the more experienced officers serving under Ward, having served previously as a lieutenant in the Loyal American Regiment. In 1780, he raised a troop of light horse for the Refugees.

[9] Ward to DeLancey, New York, 31 July 1781. Clinton Papers, 167:34, CL.

[10] The Royal Gazette (New York), 1 August 1781.

[11] The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, 17 September 1781.

[12] Ward to DeLancey, Bergen Neck, 3 September 1781. Clinton Papers 173:29, CL. See also The New York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, 10 September 1781.

[13] The Royal Gazette (New York), 19 August 1781. Three days later, Captain William Harding with forty men made a raid on Newark, capturing four or five men and taking off some cattle. The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, 20 August 1781.

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