Captain William Harrison

1720-1787

Gloucester County farmer, miller, and militia captain

I was born about 1720 in Gloucester County, New Jersey to a farmer and miller. In 1759, I married Abigail Thorne who died before we had any children. When I built a brick addition to my farmhouse in 1764, I had no wife’s initials to set in the gable end, so I only put the date. In 1769, I married Martha Bowlsby. When the Revolution broke out, I was elected captain of the Gloucestertown Township militia company, part of Colonel Joseph Ellis’ 2nd Battalion of Gloucester County Militia. I was with Ellis in battles at Mt. Holly and Petticoat Bridge in December 1776 and was stationed with him at the Morristown winter encampment in January 1777. The war came to Gloucester County when the British occupied Philadelphia in September 1777 and we had to help defend the Delaware River forts. During the fighting in our area, British sailors burned a house that I owned. We were not allowed to sell our crops, cattle, or lumber in Philadelphia, because this would help the British. Although honored as a militia commander, I could not pay all my debts and in September 1783 the sheriff seized our lands and began selling parcels. In April 1787, I became very sick and died before writing my will.

Learn More About Captain William Harrison

I was born about 1720 in Gloucester County, New Jersey, the only boy of six children.  My father was a farmer and miller who in middle age served as sheriff, a judge, and a member of the Assembly.  All my life I worked hard to be as successful as he had been.

In 1759, I married a neighbor, Abigail Thorne.  When my parents moved to Greenwich Township, dad let us have his big farm and mill on Little Timber Creek.  Abigail died before we had any children, and when I built an elegant brick addition to the farmhouse in 1764, I had no wife’s initials to set in the gable end so I only put the date. In 1769, I married Martha Bowlsby, a Philadelphia lady, and we started having children, seven in all.

For several years, Martha and I did well.  I had 619 acres of land and the mill, and had purchased the lease on the toll bridge over Newton Creek.  When the Revolution broke out I was elected captain of the Gloucestertown Township (today’s Bellmawr, Gloucester City, Haddon Township, and Mount Ephraim) militia company. We were part of Colonel Joseph Ellis’ 2nd Battalion of Gloucester County Militia, containing men from the area of modern Camden County.  My militia duties were so demanding that I never had enough time to concentrate on my own affairs.  I was with Ellis in the December 1776 battles at Mt. Holly and Petticoat Bridge and was stationed with him at the Morristown winter encampment in January 1777.

The war came to Gloucester County when the British occupied Philadelphia in September 1777.  To get their ships to Philadelphia, the British had to capture our Delaware River forts.  On October 21, four regiments of Hessians landed at Cooper’s Ferry and the next day marched for Fort Mercer at Red Bank.  Warned by Colonel Ellis’s horsemen, we blocked the King’s Highway by taking up the floor planks of the bridge over Big Timber Creek.  But the enemies’ spies led them on a detour that crossed Little Timber Creek on my mill dam.  Their attack on the fort was a bloody failure.

In November, British Lord Cornwallis returned with 6,000 men and the Continental Army abandoned Fort Mercer.  After destroying the fort, the British marched to Gloucester Town and began shipping to Philadelphia the cattle and sheep they had stolen.  Our General Greene wanted to attack Cornwallis, but discovered that the enemy was too well protected by creeks and naval artillery.  However, he let the brave young Frenchman, the Marquis de Lafayette, attack a strong Hessian outpost on the King’s Highway.  The marquis had only 300 or 350 men, consisting of militiamen under Colonel Ellis, 150 Continental riflemen, and 10 Continental light dragoons (horsemen).  There were just as many Germans, but we hit them hard and fast, firing from behind trees, and racing to cut them off.  The riflemen could run like deer and I thought that my heart would burst from trying to keep up.  When we came to some open fields, our dragoons threatened to get behind the enemy and made them run even faster.  We captured several Germans who could not keep up.  Before long, the dragoons were riding through my fields south of the highway.  We pushed the enemy three miles, almost to Gloucester Town. When the British left Gloucester Town, British sailors burned a house that I owned.

During 1777-1778, the war was very hard on everyone in Gloucester County.  We were not allowed to sell our crops, cattle, or lumber in Philadelphia, because this would help the British.  I was not collecting any rent from our burned Gloucester Town house and few people were paying tolls at my bridge.  In March, most of the men of the Woodbury militia battalion mutinied, built a fort, and began selling to the enemy in Philadelphia.  Only a few of my men would agree to fight their neighbors, but I joined Colonel Ellis at Haddonfield with those that would. This is just one example of how the war for independence was also a civil war.

In June 1778, the British left Philadelphia and marched across the State for New York. That was the last of the War in Gloucester County. But until the British evacuated New York in 1783, either I or my lieutenant led detachments of our militia company north to defend New Jersey from the British troops stationed there.

Although honored for my work as a militia commander, I could not pay my debts that grew during the war.  In September 1783, the sheriff seized our lands and began selling parcels.  In 1785 we had to move from our brick home to the little wooden house near my mill.  I leased some land and was able to make more money farming, but in April 1787 I became very sick and did not even have time to write a will before I died.

Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, Carte de l’action de Gloucester (Manuscript map, Cornell University).

Paul W. Schopp, “The Plantation Yclept Bromley,” Jerseyman-historynowandthenblogspot.com, 7 November 2010.

Paul W. Schopp and Garry Wheeler Stone, Bellmawr in the American Revolution, MS, 1 March 2016, digital copies filed with the historical societies of Camden and Gloucester Counties.

George Washington, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), vol. 12, pp. 408-411, 417-22.

Jason Wickersty, transcriptions of Revolutionary War soldier pension applications furnished Garry Stone, Stephan Wooley (W.11,820), John A. Auten (S.945), Robert Leeds (S.18489), and Richard Sayres (S.4660).

Sheriff’s sale advertisement: The Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), 6 September 1783, p. 3.

Deeds: Gloucester County Clerk’s Office, Woodbury, New Jersey.

Mortgages: Gloucester County Historical Society, Woodbury, New Jersey

Tax Lists: New Jersey State Archives, Trenton.

Newspapers: New Jersey Archives, 2nd Series, vol. III, Newspaper Extracts, vol. III, 1779, p. 130 and Ancestry.com

Genealogical records: Ancestry.com.

Architectural records: Library of Congress, Historic American Building Survey NJ-380.

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