The Sourland Mountain and Its People
No one knows when the first human beings set up settlements around the Sourlands. Lenni Lenape Native Americans may have had small villages on the Mountain’s flanks for ten thousand years. They did not live in the deep woods, but hunted for deer and squirrels there- and occasionally retreated into the woods to hide from more aggressive tribes passing through the area. As European settlers began to arrive, the Lenape population declined for a number of reasons, and by about 1800 the few remaining had “sold” or simply abandoned their lands and moved west. Their trails survive as County and local paved roads in this part of the state.
The AME Church on Hollow Road was constructed some time before 1850 on Zion Road atop Sourland Mountain. It was later moved to Skillman, at the base of the Mountain.
English kings claimed the area and in 1673 ordered a “province line” survey, going across the middle of the Sourlands, dividing what is now New Jersey into eastern and western jurisdictions. To this day parts of this line serve as the division between Somerset and Hunterdon Counties. The first European settlers to arrive were the Dutch, followed by the English, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Because of its ubiquitous rocks, dense forest, and clay soils, only a very few hardy souls ventured to take up residence in the Sourlands; villages such as Ringoes, Lambertville, and Hopewell slowly grew up around its edges. During the American Revolution more battles were fought in New Jersey than in any other colony. The higher elevations of the Sourlands served as a vantage point for American army scouts. It provided hiding places for at least one Signer, John Hart of Hopewell, and one pacifist, Hans Van Pelt. The summer of 1778 saw the largest gathering of Revolutionary military leaders, convened by George Washington at the “Hunt House” near Hopewell, as his troops bivouacked on the slopes of the Mountain.
Hunt House, with a commanding view of Hopewell Valley, was built in 1752. Here, in 1778, George Washington hosted a grand council of Revolutionary leaders
During the nineteenth century small settlements, such as Minnietown, Dutchtown, and Amwell , grew up in and around the Mountain while existing villages grew larger. Much of the deciduous Sourland forests had been cleared for ship timbers and charcoal for pottery kilns so that limited agriculture became possible. Towns such as Neshanic Station and Hopewell benefited from the coming of the railroad in midcentury, so that much of their architecture is Victorian rather than Colonial. In 1820 a turnpike, now County Route 518, was built and other roads were gradually improved. One-lane stone bridges were constructed at stream crossings. However, the roads that crossed over the Mountain were generally dreadful: muddy in winter, dusty in summer, always rocky and uneven. Many remained unpaved well into the twentieth century so that residents often found it easier to walk several miles to work or school than to try to navigate the roads with a wheeled vehicle. Small schoolhouses, some of which remain because they have been converted into houses, were built for the local children. Mountain churches suffered from uneven attendance due partly to the difficulties of getting there.
Between 1821 and 1850 New Jersey gradually passed laws prohibiting slavery; during this period the Sourlands played a part in providing hiding places for the Underground Railroad. There were already free blacks and whites living and working side by side here. Some worked in the clay pottery works and some in the peach orchards and related basket-making. Their AME church still stands on Hollow Road near where “camp meetings” were held, comprised of religious services and lots of socializing, attended by people of both races, participants from nearby towns arriving by train at the Stoutsberg station.
The Sourland Mountain, perhaps because of its relative inaccessibility, has had a longstanding reputation for being a dark and scary place. After the failure of the peach orchards around 1900 the forest began to grow back and the Mountain once again became dark and private. It has always had its assortment of ghosts and devil sightings. During Prohibition the woods were ideal for hiding moonshiners’s stills, remnants of which remain here and there. And of course there is the tragic story of Charles Lindbergh, who sought a private refuge for his young family deep in 400 acres of forest, only to have his dream shattered when his baby son was kidnapped in 1932. As recently as the 1950’s residents of surrounding communities took a dim view of Sourland residents as being lazy, rude, and sometimes downright criminal. However, gradually city people, many of them Italian- and German-Americans, bought up small parcels of land and built vacation cabins; after World War II small military housing units were dismantled and reconstructed here for the same purpose.
In 1931, Charles Lindbergh built Highfields in the secluded Sourlands. This estate is the site of the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping.
Development pressure continued to grow well into the 1980’s as people realized the beauty, privacy, and peace to be found here. Because of the rocky substructure of the Mountain nearly all homes rely on private wells and septic systems, and there is a limit to how many or how closely these can continue to function successfully. Headwater streams originating here feed the Delaware and Raritan Rivers and need to be kept pollution-free. Migratory birds from Central America, as well as a number of other rare or endangered species, rely on the Sourlands ecosystem, the largest contiguous forest in central New Jersey, for their continued success. In 1986 the “Sourland Regional Citizens Planning Council,” now the Sourland Conservancy, was formed by a group of local residents for the purpose of raising awareness of this very singular place. We have continued to work with, in addition to our sister environmental organizations, the governments of the five municipalities and three counties which share jurisdiction over sections of the Mountain, to protect the ecological integrity, historic resources, and special character of the Sourland Mountain region. Please join us!