By Rick Geffken
Remote and barren for much of its history, Sandy Hook hardly seems a welcoming place for refugees of any kind. Yet, during the Revolutionary War, it was home to a garrison of British troops, as well as Monmouth County Loyalists fleeing what was, in effect, a Monmouth County civil war.
Speaking at an event sponsored by the Monmouth County Historical Association on Thursday, March 2 at the Thompson Park Visitors Center in Lincroft, Richard Veit, Ph.D., explained what happened near the famous Sandy Hook Lighthouse before and during the American Revolution. Veit, chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University, has been part of its West Long Branch faculty for almost two decades. During the summer of 2016 he supervised an archaeological field school of 21 undergraduate and graduate archaeology students and 75 alumni, volunteers and friends. The work was conducted on the two-parcel of sandy soil in the shadow of the lighthouse.
Veit addressed an over flow crowd of almost 120 people. Sandy Hook, he noted, “has served to inspire artists, New Jerseyans, and regional residents for over two centuries. Indeed, its lighthouse is one of our state’s most famous and most recognizable historic landmarks, even featured on a U.S. postage stamp.”
The Sandy Hook peninsula had been owned by the Hartshorne family of Middletown for almost 80 years by the time the lighthouse was built in 1764. Its strategic location warned
mariners of the treacherous approaches to New York Harbor.
A frequent guest speaker at many Two River area venues, Veit was as engaging as his students were eager to participate in the lighthouse project. Those future archaeologists enjoyed working in the outdoor field school. “I couldn’t have picked a better team to work with,” said Veit.
Glad to be out of a classroom and on an actual dig – on the beach in the summer no less – the Monmouth University students learned to uncover, clean, catalog, identify, preserve, and interpret the roughly 5,000 artifacts left by temporary and permanent Sandy Hook residents on the long, narrow spit of land. Putting the uncovered fragments of pottery and metal objects into real context personalized and explained their intended actual use for the mostly young excavators and budding historians.
Veit is as spirited as he is knowledgeable. He fills his talks with sly humor; the audience chor tled when Veit said written repor ts of early Europeans sailing along our coast mention the native inhabitants on shore once greeted the explorers by “yelling obscenities at them and then turning around and exposing their bare rear ends.”
“I suspect,” a wry Veit added, “that this means that those native folks had previous experiences with European sailors and they hadn’t been positive ones.”
British troops and partisans captured Sandy Hook early in the Revolutionary War and, despite repeated raids by Continental forces, retained control of it until the end of the conflict in 1783.
Civilian Loyalists, many of African descent, built a refugee town near the relatively new lighthouse. From that safe refuge and base of operations, they conducted raiding parties against the civilian populations in towns throughout Monmouth County, notably in Tinton Falls and Shrewsbury. A former slave to a Shrewsbury Quaker, the infamous Colonel Tye, was the most prominent perpetrator of these raids.
When talking about the talented Isaac Conro, who designed and built the now 253-year old Sandy Hook Lighthouse, Veit told the group, “If you’re looking for a builder, Isaac may be your man.”
The two-month archaeology project, funded by a grant from the National Park Service, involved teams who dug carefully delineated 5-by-5 feet or 2-by-10 feet “shovel test pits.” They uncovered objects from many different eras of occupation on Sandy Hook and several stone foundations of buildings once at the base of the lighthouse. Musket balls from British Army muzzle-loading “Brown Bess” muskets, canister shot, pieces of stoneware and red-ware indigenous to New Jersey, and even a part of a musket handle were all unearthed, not to mention fish bones and scales, and shells of all shapes and sizes.
Veit drew more laughter as he told about how he previewed his presentation slides for his wife. Showing her the slide of the many sea shells his students found, she suggested he shouldn’t show that particular image, casually pointing out the obvious: “You are digging on Sandy Hook. It’s in the ocean.”
Veit concluded his hour and a half talk, conceding that though his team found ample evidence of Revolutionary War activity on Sandy Hook, the artifacts found and evaluated so far “don’t clearly tie to the refugee town we hoped to find.” The test pits were backfilled during the last few days of the summer dig. An ongoing analysis of all the materials found and a final report are currently in process. Future excavations of the ground around the Sandy Hook Lighthouse may someday find the elusive quarters of the British refugees.
Veit finished by saying he and his archaeological team “found our time on Sandy Hook much more pleasant than the lighthouse keepers did, one of whom described it ‘a waste of sand dunes, bristling with the bones of lost ships and men, a god-forsaken strand.’ ” For Richard Veit, “Sandy Hook remains an intriguing and significant historic site.”
The Monmouth County Historical Association, located at 70 Court St., Freehold, is a private nonprofit organization working to preserve history and provide educational opportunities. Currently on view at the MCHA Museum in Freehold is “Hartshorne: Eight Generations and Their Highlands Estate Called Portland,” an exhibition on the Hartshorne Family over the course of a 276-year period.
This article was first published in the March 16-23 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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