I was born and raised in Philadelphia, one of the most historic cities in the U.S. Even so, my neighborhood was far removed from the main historic sites like the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house, or Independence Hall. So far removed that the neighborhood is usually called the Far Northeast. As the name implies, it is to the far northeast of the city bordering Bucks County, Pennsylvania and it was not fully incorporated into the city limits until 1854.
Since this area of the city was mostly “settled” in the late 1950′s and early 1960′s, we never knew that it even had a history. But local streams had exotic Indian names like Neshaminy and Poquessing so we could only imagine what that history may have been. I eventually learned that the area was once the land of the Lenape. The Lenape land became farm land for English and Swedish settlers, then summer homes for Philadelphia’s wealthy elite, then the sprawling middle class pseudo-suburb that it remains today. Within all of those various uses for the land lies a rich history. A saint played in my backyard. A Founding Father was born just a few miles away. William Penn’s surveyor, who planned the city of Philadelphia, chose this area to live. And perhaps most exciting of all, George Washington’s army camped a mile away on their way to Yorktown and marched down what is now called Frankford Avenue.
When the time came to purchase a home, I decided to leave my old neighborhood and I set my sights on “East Philadelphia” – otherwise known as New Jersey. I used to drive through the area of Palmyra and Riverton, and I liked the old houses and charming vibe. But could these sleepy towns compete with Philadelphia’s history? I soon learned that history is all around us – sometimes even in our own backyard.
Palmyra, my new hometown, was only officially formed in 1894. But the history of the land itself was as fascinating as my old neighborhood’s history! Originally this area was also the land of the Lenape and served as a vast hunting area for the community. In 1689, the first settlers showed up – the Swedes – and it became the northern portion of New Sweden.
About three generations later, descendants of one of those first Swedish settlers, Elias Toy, built a stone farmhouse in 1761. That house, slightly modified in the ensuing years, still serves as a residence — about 100 yards from my backyard! It is the oldest house in Palmyra and the surrounding area. The view of it from my backyard is blocked by trees, but here’s a view from the road on its other side.
The Toy family had about 300 acres of farmland and orchards, and most of this area forms the town of Palmyra today, most notably my own property and street! According to Life on the Delaware: A History of Palmyra, “legend has it that Benjamin Franklin paused here more than once while on his voyages to visit his son.” The house remained in the possession of the Toy family until 1848, when it was sold to the Morgan’s – another family that had lived in the area for many generations. He expanded the size of the house in 1853 to its present form. You can read more about the house in a recent article or see a rather historic drawing of the house that looks remarkably like today’s photo.
The area surrounding this house changed over the years. In the 1830s the railroad tracks were laid and the Camden & Amboy Railroad made the area more town-like than farmland. Then it was referred to as “Texas” – and perhaps there was a bit of a wild west feel with horses and farms. But in 1849, the name Palmyra first appears on a map of Burlington County, reportedly christened by another Toy family descendant.
What I find interesting about the Palmyra, Riverton, and Cinnaminson area in New Jersey is that you can still see remnants of several eras of the area’s history – the shadows of history left behind. These shadows create some remarkable juxtapositions. For example, the Toy-Morgan house reminds us of the early settlers, but its view of the river is now partially blocked by condominiums. The local produce market, Hunter’s Farm in Cinnaminson, has a sign announcing “Settled 1760″, but there is a Wal-mart and a highway about a mile down the road. In Riverton and in some sections of Palmyra, there are brightly colored Victorian houses that have been gracing the streets for 150 years with newer homes mixed in between. The new “light rail” uses the old railroad tracks from the 1830′s. Along the river, some of the magnificent summer mansions of wealthy Philadelphians mingle with newer, more modest, modern homes. And, though the median income for the town was $51,000 according to the 2000 census, it’s the home of a car dearlership where you can buy a Bentley or an Aston-Martin. If you look beyond the new and the modern, you’ll see a fragment or a shadow of history from one time period or another.
I have taken great pride in researching the places my ancestors lived and worked. Some of the town histories from Poland and Bavaria go back to the middle ages! Back when their hometowns were established, mine was wilderness whose history remains hidden. Who would have thought there could be so much history in my own backyard?
[Written for the 71st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Local History.]