Joseph Ellis Full Biography
I was born about 1730 into a family of prosperous Quaker farmers in northern Gloucester County, now Cherry Hill Township, Camden County. When New Jersey raised a new regiment in 1758 during the French and Indian War I volunteered and was made a captain. We were engaged in the unsuccessful attack on Fort Ticonderoga. My military service violated my family’s and friend’s pacifist beliefs and I was expelled from the Society of Friends. Over the next few years I purchased land in Gloucester Town on the Delaware River, worked as a tanner, and married. When my wife died I volunteered again for the army and led a company to fight Native Americans on the northern frontier. When I returned, I concentrated on farming and fishing, and in 1776 I remarried.
When the Revolution broke out I was a leader in the protests against the acts of Parliament. I became a delegate to the rebel Provincial Congress and served on military committees. Curiously, I was appointed High Sheriff of Gloucester County by Royal Governor William Franklin in May 1775. Serving both governments was not unusual at this time when we all hoped that the differences between us and Parliament could be resolved. However, when the Provincial Congress passed a new constitution on July 2, 1776 I was not happy that it contained a clause stating the document would become void if there was reconciliation with Great Britain. By that time I was dedicated to the cause of complete independence.
I became colonel of the Second Gloucester County militia regiment and was flattered that my peers appointed me brigadier-general of the South Jersey militias; but I declined the appointment to concentrate on my work as regimental commander, county sheriff, farmer, and fisherman. I was elected sheriff under the new constitution in August 1776 and served until October 1779. As sheriff I tried to be fair and understanding. In January 1777 when Quaker Thomas Redman and his brother-in-law were imprisoned in Gloucester jail for treason – reading a letter on peace sent by the Philadelphia Friends meeting – I visited them and upon finding their cell was damp and had no glass in the window, I insisted they have supper and spend the night at my home. I fed them again the next day and local Quakers made improvements to their cell. I made at least five more visits to them over the next eight weeks. When the Quarterly Court met on March 18 they were only assessed a token fine of five shillings each. However, they could not pay the fines “for conscience sake.” Before they could be taken back to jail I walked to the front of the courtroom and announced to the court that I had received payment of the fine.
In September 1777 with the British army in Philadelphia there was a lot of military activity in my area and for the next eight months I was constantly engaged in collecting supplies for our army while defending against British incursions. I had to deal with many Gloucester County residents who did not support the rebellion and were angered by my enforcement of rebel policies. I had to fine men who did not turn out for militia duty, stop illegal shipping of farm produce to Philadelphia, and move livestock away from the Delaware, out of reach of British foraging parties. My actions earned the commendation of the Marquis de Lafayette. In March 1778 four British regiments began foraging in Salem County and a number of Loyalists turned on our militia and began openly shipping food to Philadelphia. I was unable to stop this activity because I had so few men who turned out under arms in the militia.
While Washington was encamped at Valley Forge he sent Colonel Israel Shreve’s Second New Jersey Regiment to assist me in subduing the Loyalists. The British countered by sending 600 light infantry to attack us at Haddonfield. One of my mounted sentries warned us just in time and we got out ten minutes before the British arrived. A militia paymaster, who had slept through the alarm, had to jump out of a back window of Hugh Creighton’s tavern. The British force returned to Philadelphia, but the Loyalists terrorized the Whigs around Woodbury and our patrols occasionally clashed with them. I helped reconnoiter the British preparations to evacuate Philadelphia in June 1778. After the British left Philadelphia I continued as colonel-commandant of the South Jersey militia brigade and, except for guarding the port at Egg Harbor, my main challenge was to find recruits for New Jersey’s Continental Army regiments.
I served several terms in the New Jersey Assembly between 1781 and 1785 and the Legislative Council between 1787 and 1794. After the war I also served for eleven years as judge of the Gloucester County Court of Common Pleas. I was named Major-General of the south Jersey militia but my health was declining by 1794. I died in 1796 at about age 66.
Gloucester County Surrogate’s Office, Woodbury, NJ: Divisions of Lands, Vol. 4, pp. 1305-1334
New Jersey State Archives, Trenton:
Auditors’ Book B (Microfilmed Military Records, Roll 186) Revolutionary War Slips for Joseph Ellis Wilson, Thomas B., Compiler, Records of John Stevens Regarding the New Jersey Regiment in the French & Indian War.
Archives of the State of New Jersey [Newspaper Extracts], 1st Series, volumes IX, XIX, XX, XXV, XXVI, XXIX, XXXI; 2nd Series, volume I-IV.
Cushing, Thomas and Charles E. Sheppard, History of the Counties of Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland, New Jersey (Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1883.
McCormick, Richard P., Experiment in Independence: New Jersey in the Critical Period, 1781- 1789. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1950.
Peebles, John, John Peebles American War, Ira D. Gruber, editor. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.
Redman, Thomas, “Journal of Thomas Redman,” 1890 newspaper clipping in the files of the Gloucester County Historical Society
Washington, George, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, volumes 12-15. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002-2006