A Hard Land to Travel
America in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies was a hard land to travel. Most of America was still heavily forested and inland, rugged to mountainous terrain made any travel worth one's life, literally. But by the mid 1700's the coastal and tidewater regions were fairly developed. Here, a network of (usually bad) roads crisscrossed these regions connected by fords, bridges, and ferries crossing the waterways. Early American bridge construction was limited to short spans. Fords enabled travel across only shallow waters. But numerous ferries were established along rivers and tidal flows. They carried carts, wagons, livestock, and travelers on foot, horseback, or in carriages. But ferries in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies were not always reliable, and sometimes very dangerous. With weather forecasting non existent they were subject to sudden changes of weather, storms and shifting tides causing accidents that damaged property and injured passengers or livestock. Many ferries had unreliable schedules. Some ferries offered only part time service along. And sometimes not very reliable source of income. For that reason, many ferry operators had a second trade or occupation such as a farm, tavern, or store. Schedules were often non existent. The weary colonial traveller was at the mercy of the ferryman's other demands, causing delays and long waits for service.
|Dutch settlers used ferries to traverse the Hudson and cross to Long Island|
But they were critical to the transportation system of the time. Ferries connected America's burgeoning tidal cities to their surroundings, using a growing system of toll roads, pikes, and longer-range boats connected with them, allowing efficient if sometimes erratic transit of the mid Atlantic to distant points such as New York and Baltimore. North of Philadelphia, significant ferry enterprises linked Mercer County, New Jersey, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Between 1675 and the outbreak of the American Revolution, Trenton established the Lower, Middle, and Upper Ferry crossings over the Delaware. The Middle Ferry connected with a stagecoach line to New Brunswick and downriver service to Philadelphia.
Some ferries were merely small longboats rowed or sailed across a body of water. But most were purpose built and of simple design. Essentially a simple rectangular platform, with a flat bottom and flat, vertical sides. They were easy and cheap to build and the only requirement was that they float! The bottom at each end sloped upward, which reduced the water resistance, making it possible to move across the water with minimal effort. Most upriver ferries lacked landing docks, simply loading and and unloading onto a natural riverbank, sometimes modified to make a sloping earth ramp as the entry/exit point. In more sophisticated ferries, a movable ramp was attached at each end of the vessel, pivoting on hinges, and controlled by a long pole mounted. When crossing the water, both ramps were held in a raised position. The simplest and most dependable way to propel a ferry across a (usually shallow) river was through man power. That is, by poling. This is the same method used by most river boats, and the method of choice for the Durham boats used in the military transport across the Delaware in 1776. Others used oars, or winches pulling via rope.
|Photo of 19the century ferry - simple design little changed from 18th century|
this one powered by winch and rope
The Ferry to Freedom
The ferry played a major role in the American War for Independence. The movement of supplies relied on them. But most important was the ferry's role in the movement of armies. Some engagements, such as Stonos Ferry in South Carolina (1779), took place at or near ferries, and many others were facilitated by ferry travel.
The battles around New York in 1776 (setting for my first novel, The Patriot Spy) relied on ferry crossing points to move troops and supplies. Brooklyn was central to Washington's escape from Long Island in the face of overwhelming British forces. He used the Brooklyn ferry point as his point of debarkation. Most famously, the ferries between Pennsylvania and New Jersey played key roles in the American Revolution. As the war shifted across the Jerseys, other ferries played a role on the Delaware. Trenton’s Lower Ferry earned the nickname, the “Continental Ferry” as its proprietor, Elijah Bond, offered active American soldiers reduced rates. During the British occupation of Philadelphia (September 1777–June 1778), American spies disguised as farmers used ferries at the Schuylkill River (including Gray’s Ferry) to slip in and out of the city.The most celebrated ferry action of the war was George Washington and his army crossing the Delaware on Christmas night in 1776, at McConkey’s Ferry. This gallant action and events around are told in my second novel, The Cavalier Spy. But a lesser known ferry in the region also played a pivotal role in the struggle for independence.
|Washington's Crossing of Delaware on Durham boats December 1776|
A Lesser Known Ferry
Some ten miles up the Delaware River was an important ferry operated by one John Coryell, a tavern keeper and ferry operator. Coryell's Ferry operated on the Delaware River between what are now Lambertville, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. At that time, both places were also called Coryell's Ferry. Although less well known than McConkey's ferry, Coryell's ferry was an important crossing during the Revolutionary War. In early December 1776, Coryell denied British soldiers passage on his ferry as General Charles Cornwallis pursued the Continental Army into Pennsylvania. There was also some military activity at and around Coryell's Ferry at that time as Cornwallis troops pressured the retreating Americans and fended off the local militias. And in 1777, part of Washington's army camped near the ferry, which it used to cross into Pennsylvania in the ramp up to the Brandywine campaign.
|Coryell's Ferry 1776|
Mentioned in the Dispatches
Coryell's Ferry is mentioned in three of George Washington's papers from December 1776: “General Orders, 12 December 1776,” “From George Washington to John Hancock, 12 December 1776,”“General Orders, 29 December 1776,” Spelling tended to be inconsistent in 1700's America, and the name of the ferry is spelled differently in each document. ("Corells", "Corriels", and "Coryells").
Campaign of 1778
Coryell's Ferry figured large in the Monmouth campaign in June 1778, when the Continental Army crossed there in pursuit of the British into the Jerseys. The events which set that crossing in motion began the previous autumn.The British army occupied the American capital, Philadelphia, from 26 September , 1777 until 18 June, 1778. The occupation forced Congress to move to York, Pennsylvania, which had a demoralizing effect on many Americans. During that same winter of 1777, General George Washington camped his army some twenty miles from Philadelphia at Valley Forge, which provided a great venue for the "winter quarters." The forge offered good ground for a defense from British attack and a great strategic point from which to watch or block British movements. The British recalled General William Howe in early 1778, appointing his second in command, Sir Henry Clinton as the new commander in chief. Sensing his exposure and wanting to consolidate his forces for a new British strategy, Clinton decided to move the army back to new York. His forces moved out on 18 June, 1777, crossing the Delaware River at Cooper's Ferry into New Jersey. From there, they began a march northeast across the Jerseys.
|There were numerous ferries along the coastal and inland rivers|
of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania - as with all the colonies
By then, Washington had the Continental army on the move. Learning of the British evacuation of Philadelphia, Washington decided it was time to leave Valley Forge. On 20 June , the columns of dust ridden but eager soldiers arrived at the Pennsylvania side of Coryell's Ferry. The following day, Washington crossed to the New Jersey side (at today's Lambertville), and established his headquarters at the Holcombe house. The main body of the army soon followed the commander in chief into New Jersey. This was no surreptitious, cover-of-night crossing as at Brooklyn or McConkey's. Given a much larger army with 700 horses and 200 wagons, the 1778 crossing was a large scale and noisy event. By the morning of 21 June, they began their pursuit of the retreating British. From Coryell’s Ferry, the Army headed through today’s West Amwell (then simply called Amwell). The main body of Washington’s army camped for the night of June 22, 1778 near Ringoes.This would culminate on 28 June, when they clashed with the British near Monmouth Courthouse in the controversial battle of that name. Although a draw, the Continental Army met the British on even terms in open combat.
|The crossing at Coryell's Ferry led to the battle at Monmouth C.H.|
A Call for HelpAlthough the maneuver and actions of Monmouth took place in June, Washington had done much prior planning and clearly viewed Coryell and his ferry as central to his plans to prevent British use and to ensure its availability for the Continental army. The dispatches to and from Coryell shown below offer a window into the logistical side of Washington's war. A side that required early preparation of the area of operations. (Note: indifferent spelling was the norm for all classes during the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies.)
To John Coryell
Head Quarters Valley Forge 1st March 1778
I am very anxious to have all the continental flat Boats below Trenton carried up the River as far as Easton or near it, that they may be intirely out of the Enemy’s reach—I have desired the Gentlemen of the Navy Board to order Commodore Hazelwood to collect all those and carry them up as far as Trenton and when he has got them there to let you know it. I shall therefore be exceedingly obliged to you if you will collect a proper number of hands who are used to carry Boats thro’ the Falls and go down for them when you have notice. Or if you do not receive such notice in a few days, the Men may as well go down to Bordentown where the Boats are and bring them up from thence. There are a number of Cannon and some Stores there which I want carried to a place of safety. If you think the Boats can be taken thro’ the falls with the Cannon in them, it will save much expence and secure them perfectly. You are to apply to Messrs Hopkinson and Wharton of the Continental Navy Board at Bordentown for the Cannon if they can be carried up in the Boats.
I see by a letter of yours to Colo. Lutterloh that you want Money for these purposes. You may hire the Men for doing this service upon an assurance of their being paid the moment it is performed. And you will therefore make out the account when you have finished and apply directly to me for the Money when it shall be paid with thanks.
I am &c.
|Coryell's Landing Toll House|
Response to His Excellency
Coryells Ferry [Delaware River]
March the 6th 1778
I Recd yours of the 1st instant the third at night & am Determined to serve you according to your Directions If Possable the Badness of the weather has hindered me to proceed on with any more Boats since my Last1 but Expect to Start the Remainder in two or three Days that I now have at my Ferry & when they are gone I will go after the Rest I am afraid I cant Bring up any Cannon in the Fleet Boats If there should be any Dur[ha]m boats below as I Expect there is I kno I Can Bring up Canno[n] in them and Will I have ingaged a number of Brave watermen for the purpose & I am dr Sr your Humble sert
P.S. there was a number of peac eis of Duck Left at my place I had to press sleds to move them to Reading & I Kept one for the use of my self & men; If it Cant be spared it is not Cut I will send it on.
|Coryell's Landing today|