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Stories from Hopewell Valley's Past
Answering the Call 
The Story of Joab Houghton

Join, or Die,  The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1754, Benjamin Franklin, Library Company of Philadelphia
Lord Stirling at the Battle of Long Island ,1859
Courtesy New York Public Library
The Joab Houghton monument in Hopewell's Old School Baptist cemetery was dedicated July 4,1896. The stone atop the monument (shown here) was in front of the church at the time Joab Houghton stood on it to make his stirring speech. photo by Jack Davis
Joab Houghton, a farmer who owned 125 acres, had resided in Hopewell since his birth in about 1725. In 1771, Joab and twelve of his Hopewell neighbors had signed a petition that showed the growing distrust that they and many other New Jerseyans felt toward the Redcoats. Their petition to the New Jersey legislature argued against the idea of maintaining British troops in the county (probably in the barracks at Trenton). The first of five points in the petition asked: Whether to have the King's troops stationed among us in Time of Peace is Constitutional and Agreeable to our Rights and Privi-ledges (2)

By June of 1776, Joab Houghton was elected Captain of one of three Hopewell Valley companies in the First Regiment of the Hunterdon County Militia. The men in his company had signed up for the five month service, which would begin in July and end in November. In July, fifty-six men under Houghton received a three pound bounty for volunteering to serve. (3)
The "Shot Heard Round the World" was fired in Massachusetts on April 15, 1775 by rebellious New England farmers. The American colonies had been chafing under British authority since the 1760's. The news that this discontent had turned to open rebellion, at least in Massachusetts, was carried swiftly through the colonies by messengers on horseback. When the news reached Hopewell, we are told that 50-year-old Joab Houghton stood atop the horse mounting block outside the Baptist Church and called for volunteer soldiers to join the fight against the British. He is supposed to have said "Men of New Jersey, the red coats are murdering our brethren of New England !"..."Who follows me to Boston?" The response: every man of that audience stepped out into line, and answered, I ."(1)
The American Army had succeeded in ejecting the British from Boston in March, 1776. In late June a large British fleet had arrived in New York Harbor and was now threatening New York City. General Washington made plans to defend the city. In early July 1776, while the Declaration of Independence was still being ratified and yet to be signed, Captain Houghton's company began their long march to New York to join in the city's defense. 

On August 27, Houghton's company fought in the Battle of Long Island, where the American army suffered a devastating defeat. Significant numbers of American soldiers were killed and captured, though most were able to escape. James Merrill of Hopewell was among those killed as a result of wounds suffered in the battle. The records of the Baptist Church state that he was slain in ye field of Battle contending for our just Rights. Captain Houghton's men were evacuated to Manhattan Island with most of the American army, and for several weeks they worked on the fortifications at Fort Washington, at the northern end of the island. (4)

On October 28, Houghton's men fought the Battle of White Plains, in the Bronx. The battle was considered rather inconclusive. The company appears to have remained in that vicinity after the fighting. On November 14, the British conquered Fort Washington, capturing nearly 3,000 men inside, and forcing the Americans to finally abandon New York. Washington's devastated army, including the men from Hopewell, began a long retreat through New Jersey, pursued by British forces.The five month tour of Houghton's company ended on November 30, during the retreat. Most of his men were eager to return home to their families and their farms. Along with much of the New Jersey militia whose terms were also expiring, many went home. Within two weeks, central New Jersey would be teeming with British and Hessian forces. (5)
On December 2, the remnants of the American army arrived in Trenton. Washington called for his men to cross over to the Pennsylvania side. The crossing of men and equipment continued until December 8. The British and Hessians were arriving at the Delaware as the last of the Americans escaped to Pennsylvania. Joab Houghton's lieutenant, Ralph Guild, was in charge of Houghton's company on the Pennsylvania side. At the lower ferry in Trenton, they helped to ferry the troops over, while apparently Houghton himself was on duty in Hopewell (6)

Colonel Houghton's home in Hopewell was mentioned as a rendezvous point for troops at this time. Enemy soldiers in small groups, bent on plunder and worse, were roving the area. At one point, he along with several men, interrupted a party of Hessians engaged in plundering a house in the vicinity of Moore's Mill. Houghton's group captured 13 Hessians who had left their arms outside and were imbibing Metheglin in the cellar. They conveyed the prisoners to an American detachment in Lambertville. (7)

The Battles of Trenton and Princeton ended the British occupation of central New Jersey. Lieutenant Guild's men, still stationed on the Pennsylvania side at Howell's Ferry (Yardley) after the battle at Trenton, assisted in transporting the captured Hessians across the river on their journey to Philadelphia. (8)

In the spring of 1777, Joab Houghton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Hunterdon County Militia, while Ralph Guild became the Captain of Houghton's old company. For most of the rest of the war, the focus of battle shifted away from New Jersey. However, northern New Jersey was constantly under threat from the British forces on Staten Island. Captain Guild's company was frequently engaged in one month tours in Elizabethtown to help prevent British incursions and repel plundering parties. In 1780, they were at the Battles of Springfield and Connecticut Farms. The other important action in New Jersey, the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, saw Guild's troops providing support on the outer flanks of the Continental Army during the fighting. (9)
As a senior officer in the army, Joab Houghton served on military juries involving such matters as loyalist inquisitions and courts martial, undoubtedly in addition to various other strategic councils. At war's end in 1783, Lt. Col. Houghton would have been a highly respected figure. (10) 

In 1785, 1786, and 1787, the citizens of Hunterdon County sent Joab Houghton to the New Jersey Assembly as one of the county's three re-presentatives. This is the body where his old neighbor, John Hart, had served at the beginning of the war. As an Assemblyman, Lt. Col. Houghton certainly must have spoken out forcefully on issues that affected his fellow veterans. In later years, the Colonel's house was a favorite place for the old veterans to gather around the fireplace telling stories of their military adventures. Joab Houghton died in 1799, leaving behind his widow Catherine (Runyon) Houghton, several children including Aaron and William, who had served under him, and the grateful people of his community. (11)

Jack Davis 


(1) The Life of Spencer Houghton Cone - A Baptist Preacher In America. NEW YORK: Livermore & Rudd, 1856
(2) New Jersey Archives, Colonial Records, 10:273
(3) Compiled RevWar Service Records NJ State Archives Joab Houghton
(4) Hopewell Town Records, p. 140; also RevWar Pension Application for John James, (S5603)
(5) RevWar Pension Application for John James (S5603)
(6) Dwyer, William M., The Day Is Ours; also RevWar pension application of Benjamin Morrell (S2871)
(7) A History of East Amwell 1700-1800, p.180; also Barber & Howe, Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey, 1846, p. 262 and Ege, Pioneers of Old Hopewell, p.18
(8) RevWar Pension application of Gideon Lyon (R6555)
(9) Compiled RevWar service records at NJ State Archives; also RevWar pension app of Henry Simmons (S4838)
(10) Autrechy, Phyllis, Hunterdon County Records 1701-1838, pp. 261, 265; also NJ newspaper extracts
(11) Ege, Ralph, Pioneers of Old Hopewell, p.20