John Fell Full Biography
I was born on February 5, 1721, in New York City. I studied the law and learned the business of international trade. A partner in Fell & Graham, I oversaw a fleet of armed cargo vessels that operated as privateers during the French and Indian War. I made many business contacts throughout Europe. I met widow Susanna (Marschalk) MacIntosh and we were wed at Trinity Church on December 2, 1749. I bought a house on Beaver Street and by 1759 I had my own shipping business, John Fell & Company.
Susannah and I, with our children, relocated to Bergen County, New Jersey in 1766 where I had purchased 220 acres near Paramus in what is now Allendale. I built a fine home there, calling it Petersfield, in honor of our son, Peter. After retiring from shipping, I was soon appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, handling cases concerning debt and trespass. I also became involved with the growing movement for independence from British rule. In June 1774, I led a large group of 328 citizens to Hackensack’s Courthouse to pledge our combined allegiance to that cause.
I was then appointed to the local Committee of Correspondence and named chairman of the Bergen County Committee of Safety. I pursued those who opposed our fight for liberty and earned a reputation as “the Great Tory Hunter.” I was elected to the Provincial Congress, a revolutionary legislature operating parallel to the Colonial Assembly, which met in Trenton in 1775 and early 1776. When that Congress was replaced by the New Jersey State government after independence was declared in 1776, I was elected to the upper house of the legislature. My son, Peter, also joined the patriot cause and became Lieutenant Colonel of the Bergen County militia regiment in March 1778.
All of this made me a target for the British and loyalists. After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, the British retreated to New York during the winter and spring of 1777. The local loyalists took out their anger on patriots and on April 22, 1777, some 25 armed loyalists raided my home and took me as a prisoner to Loyalist Colonel Abraham van Buskirk’s at Bergen Point. I knew Abraham well and when he saw me he remarked, “Times have changes since we last met.” I could only reply, “So I perceive.” From Bergen Point I was taken to New York City and confined in the Provost Jail. Abraham gave me a letter to give to British General Robertson at the Provost, implying it would insure I received proper treatment. However, when I was able to give it to him, Robertson read it and handed it back to me with a curious smile. The letter read, “John Fell was a great rebel and a notorious rascal.” I shared the despicable prison conditions with 21 other patriots, including Colonel Ethan Allen who had been captured in 1775 during the night attack on Montreal. We were not allowed any writing materials, but unbeknown to my British captors, I kept a secret journal in a tiny bound book about three by five inches describing my experiences and information about other captives. Had the British found my journal it would have brought brutal punishment on me.
Colonel Allen wrote a letter to General Robertson telling him that the unhealthy prison conditions had brought me near the point of death and seeking relief for me. When Allen showed me the letter I forbade him to send it, telling him the enemy knew full well what my condition was and that to ask a favor would allow the merciless enemy to triumph over me in my final moments. I resigned myself to die. However, Allen did send the letter and in early January 1778, General Robertson humanely released me to a nearby private home where I slowly recovered. I was able to secretly bring out my journal when I left the prison.
I was finally released in May 1778 and returned home. When fully recovered I was appointed as a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress. Because of my prior experience with shipping and foreign trade, I assisted the work of the marine and commerce committees in securing vital war supplies. I often lodged with John Adams and dined with John Jay (future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.) I served in Congress until 1780. After the war, I served on the New Jersey Convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1787.
In 1793, I sold my estate at Paramus and my wife and I moved to Coldenham, New York to live with our son Peter and his family. I died in 1798, at the age of 77 while Susanna outlived me by two years, passing in 1800.
Note: The John Fell House still exists and is located at 475 Franklin Turnpike in Allendale, New Jersey. The house is located on the route taken by Rochambeau’s army, on its way in 1781 to Yorktown, Virginia, and the capture of General Lord Cornwallis’s army. The Concerned Citizens of Allendale purchased the house in 2010 and are in the process of restoring it and making it available for educational purposes.
Dandridge, Danske, American Prisoners of the Revolution, Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1911, pages 112-122 (Available online at Archive.org) Contains a transcript of his Provost Prison secret journal.
Whisenhunt, Donald W., ed., Delegate from New Jersey: The Journal of John Fell. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1973. (For a short biography and his journal as a member of the Continental Congress.)
Wright, Jim. “John Fell: Patriot, POW, Diarist Extraordinaire.” in Barbara Z. Marchant, ed. Revolutionary Bergen County: The Road to Independence Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.