Cape May County Department of Tourism
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A History of Cape May County

Indians, Explorers and Pirates, Too

During the last few centuries, Indians, explorers, pirates, whalers, farmers, tourists and residents have all enjoyed the abundance and natural beauty of this area's waters and the peninsula known today as Cape May County.

Lenni Lenape Indians made their summer camps on these shores before the European explorers arrived. Two of these Indian bands were the Tuckahoes, who lived along the Tuckahoe River in what is now the county's northern section, and the Kechemeches, who ruled from what is today Cape May Court House south to Cape May Point. Some of our 20th Century roads were originally paths cleared by these Native Americans.

Henry Hudson sailed the Delaware Bay in 1609 aboard the Half Moon, anchoring near Cape May Point. His exploration did not result in any settlement. In the 1620's, the Dutch West India Company sent Cornelius Jacobsen Mey with three ships to the Delaware Bay and New York region. During this voyage, he named the Bay's south cape, Cape Cornelius and the north, Cape Mey. The south is now Delaware's Cape Henlopen, while the north still bears his name, although later English settlers altered the spelling.

Captain Kidd's treasure? Maybe...

Did Captain Kidd really bury some of his treasure on Cape May County beaches? No one has ever found any of it if he did. At least, no one has ever admitted that they have found any of it. but that hasn't stopped the legends from being told and retold about secret treasure chests lying somewhere beneath the sands. Documented reports note that there was, indeed, pirate activity here. In one instance, at least, a Governor Bass claimed to have "been credibly informed that Captain Kidd...had been seen and spoken to..." aboard a large sloop near Cape May. The Governor allegedly "saw the sloop himself when he went down to the Cape after other pirates" and would have attempted to capture it had it not "outsailed his vessel."

At another time, a Captain Eli Barnett, keeper of the life-saving station at the north end of Wildwood - Holly Beach (today's North Wildwood on Five Mile Beach) witnessed an interesting excursion. Through his telescope, he spied a sailing vessel that dropped anchor offshore to allow some men to lower a boat and row ashore. Once landed and having gotten their bearings, these men "disappeared among the dunes. Sometime later, they reappeared on the beach, carrying a chest which they stowed in the yawl boat and returned to the ship. When they reached the ship, they hoisted the chest on board and sailed away." Captain Kidd's treasure? Maybe. Stories like this one led to much digging being done at Sea Grove (Cape May Point) many years ago. It was rumored that pirates' buried treasure could be found there.

Thar She Blows! (Or Does She?)

Can you really see whales off the shore of Cape May County? That question would have seemed absurd to early area settlers who made their living through whaling in the Delaware Bay. Many of them came from New England and Long Island, New York. Among them was Hannah Gorham. She was a granddaughter of John Howland. He had sailed to the New World in 1620 on the Mayflower. The first settlement in the County was established by these whalers in about 1685 on the Bay's southern banks. They called it Portsmouth, or New England Village, and later Cape May Town and Town Bank.

Too many whales were killed in too short a time, causing the destruction of the Bay's whaling industry. Tides, storms and erosion eventually washed the village into the Bay, so that today's Town Bank is a namesake, and not the original settlement. The cemetery at "Old Brick" Presbyterian Church on Seashore Road in Cold Spring is the resting place for many of the descendants of the first settlers.

As the county's whaling industry diminished, farming became more popular, and more necessary as a means of survival. Many whalers who had been seasonal farmers during those months when the whales were not in the Bay now depended entirely on the land for their living. Greater numbers of settlers came. Cape May County was formally created in 1692 from land held by the West Jersey Society. In 1726, the first census showed a population of 668. Increased trade between Cape May, Philadelphia and Burlington, along with improved transportation, led to the establishment of new towns and villages. The County was divided into three precincts in 1723: Upper, Middle and Lower (three of today's townships). In 1745, Cape May Court House became the County seat.

Calls to Arms

The first Cape May County Militia was formed in 1775, with a second company formed two years later. While they saw no local action, they did participate in the Battle of Germantown and several other skirmishes. Horseback riders carried local reports to the Board of War, Continental Congress, and the Council of Safety in Philadelphia. A lookout at Cape May was maintained to observe the British naval movements. A naval skirmish occurred in June, 1776 at Turtle Gut Inlet (now Wildwood Crest). Two British warships sighted the brigantine Nancy off of Cape May. She was carrying arms and gunpowder from the Virgin Islands to Philadelphia. Her skipper ran her aground, unloaded her cargo, and set a trap for the British who boarded her. It is believed that nearly fifty British soldiers died from the explosion.

The War of 1812 saw the British warships return to blockade the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Raiding parties came ashore for provisions from local farms and fresh water from Lily Lake in Cape May Point. The frequently struck and escaped before the local militia could be mustered. To thwart the British, patriotic residents dug a ditch from the lake to the sea, spoiling the lake water for drinking.

The Civil War saw the formation of the Cape Island Home Guards and the Seaville Rangers, as well as a company from Cape May Court House. "Long Tom," the only cannon in the County, had seen service in the War of 1812 and needed repairs for its carriage. The County Board of Freeholders, not sympathizing with President Lincoln, refused to make the repairs. Later events along the border states "turned their sympathies toward the Union cause," however.

 

 



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