Local Hero Richard Somers: This Year, We Talked About The South Jersey He Grew Up In. An Exceptional Land of Liberty, Prosperity, and “Boundless Opportunities”– Even By Today’s “Woke Standards”!

Neither Richard Somers, nor anyone in his family owned slaves. South Jersey, along with Philadelphia and most of Pennsylvania, was mostly settled and run by Quakers guided by William Penn.   Quakers families who were the first to settle in what is now Atlantic County included Somers, Smith, Leeds, Scull, Conover, Risley, and Steelman.

The Quakers were among the first to forcefully oppose slavery in America.  Quakers who owned, traded in or supported slavery in any way were expelled or shunned.  Quakers could only buy slaves for the very limited purpose of setting them free or as a legal fiction to protect them.  (Free blacks were always in danger of being wrongfully captured and falsely accused of being runaway slaves.   Richard Stockton, the namesake of Stockton University, was part of a Quaker family that openly fought to end slavery.  If he legally owned any slaves, it was probably for that purpose.)

William Penns’s treaty with Native Americans in Pennsylvania, 1680s.

Neither Richard Somers, nor anyone in his family killed, cheated, or oppressed any Indians (Native Americans)  When English settlers first came to South Jersey after 1664, they met Native Americans called Leni Lenape (“original real people” in their language) or the Delaware (after a British colonial Governor Baron De La Warr who explored the area in 1610)

Although the Leni Lenape/Delaware fished, gathered berries,  and harvested clams in and around South Jersey, it appears that few if any had permanent settlements here.  William Penn gave strict orders that no settlers in South Jersey (then “West Jersey”) could legally own land unless they proved that it was not claimed by any Native Americans.  It appears that William Penn’s orders were followed.  In 1995, Mayor Fred Wager tried to open an Indian Casino in his town of Wildwood.  However, after years of litigation, he could not prove that any Native American had a claim to any land in New Jersey.

Richard Somers finished school at age 16.  He mastered the skilled trade of navigating and taking charge of sailing ships by age 17.  Had he not joined America’s new navy in 1798 at age 20, he probably would have been a prosperous sea captain, like those who lived in the large houses on Maple Avenue, in suburban Linwood, New Jersey.

The U.S.S. Nautilus.  Richard Somers was 23 years old when he took command of this ship and its 100 men and sailed it to Spain without incident.

When America went to war against the “Barbary Pirates” in 1801, Richard Somers was 23 years old.  He was given command of the Nautilus, a 160 ton warship with 20 cannons and a crew of 100 men.  Somers then sailed that ship across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea without any modern communication or navigation equipment.  Most other ship commanders of America’s new navy, including Somers’s high school friend, Stephen Decatur, were as young as Somers.

During the next three years, America’s navy won battle after battle against the most feared sea-fighters in the world.

After one battle in the summer of 1804, Pope Pius VII declared that “The American commander, with a small force, and in a short space of time, has done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages”.

By fighting and defeating the Barbary Pirates, America also ended the African slave trade.

That was because the same “Barbary Pirates” of North Africa who attacked American ships were also part of a massive slave industry.  Their “pirates” also captured and enslaved thousands of white Europeans and tens of thousands of black Africans each year.  They then worked either worked their slaves to deaths in farms, mines, or workshops—or behind the oars of their warships.  Or the Barbary Pirates sold their slaves in slave markets throughout the Arab world.

When Americans defeated the Barbary Pirates in 1805, and again in 1815, we effectively ended the African slave trade.  This also made more Americans aware of the horrors of slavery, and intensified efforts to end slavery in this country.

We cannot fully understand and appreciate  the story of Richard Somers without also knowing about America during that time.

America in general, and South Jersey in particular was a land of freedom, peace, safety, and “boundless opportunities”.  New Jersey’s motto, “Liberty and Prosperity”, had real meaning.   Liberty created prosperity.  Much of this is documented by the Somers Point Historical Society museum at 745 Shore Road in Somers Point, NJ.

Sally Hastings is President of the Somers Point Historical Society.  Its Museum is located at 745 Shore Road in Somers Point, and is open by appointment.  Here she shows one of several new exhibits acquired for its new maritime section.

Its documents and exhibits show how early settlers built ships and boats in Somers Point and along Patcong Creek in Egg Harbor Township.  They show how local residents then used those ships and boat to fish, and to transport goods to and from Philadelphia and New York and all cities and towns along the Atlantic Ocean., including the Caribbean.  They show how other families cleared land and set up prosperous farms—and supplemented their farm income with profits from other businesses.

Richard Somers great grandfather set up a ferry to connect the stagecoach road to Cape May with the road to New York.  Richard Somers’ father set up a store and tavern at what is now the corner of Shore and Bethel Roads.

Another family member, James Somers built a dam with a road (now Central Avenue) across the Patcong Creek between what is now Linwood and Egg Harbor Township.  The water current from that dam powered a grist (grain) mill on the Linwood side of the creek and a sawmill on the Egg Harbor Township side.  They also harvested ice from the pond in winter,  and stored it for use in summer.

According to “A History of the American People” (1997) by Paul Johnson at Page 108:

“Most men and women who lived there (America in the 1700s) enjoyed, by European standards, middle-class incomes once the frugalities and struggles of their youth were over.  The opportunities for the skilled, the enterprising, the energetic, and the commercially imaginative were limitless”.

It was during this time in New Jersey that only men and women who owned a certain amount of land could vote and hold public office.   The word for landowner used at the time was “freeholder”.   This was because there were no taxes other than the tax on real estate.  It seemed fair then that only people who paid taxes should have the right to vote as to how that tax money would be spent.

Few young men in their early twenties complained that they could not vote or hold public office because they did not own enough land.   They felt certain to have more than enough land, and wealth in just a few years.

This was because most American men, like Richard Somers, completed school by age 16, and mastered a useful trade by age 17.  Richard Somers took up the occupation of sailing and taking charge of ships.  By age 17, he was sailing ships between New York and Philadelphia.

This was normal for American men at that time.  George Washington was a master surveyor by that age, and Benjamin Franklin was a master printer.

At that time most women in America were married.  They did not demand individual rights, because they identified as partners in a family instead.   There were several reasons for this.

First,  there was a shortage of women in South Jersey and most of America until the Civil War in 1861.  This was partly because far more men than women took the long and dangerous voyage by sailing ship from Europe to America.  Also, before modern medicine, many women died in childbirth.

Second, most men and women at the time shared Benjamin Franklin’s opinion about marriage.   He said someone who was not married was like a “half a pair of scissors

(This changed after the Civil War in 1865.  The deaths of 600,000 young men left many American women unmarried and running farms, households, and businesses, by themselves.  Rapid improvements in sanitation and medicine greatly reduced the number of women dying in childbirth.)

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