Shadows of History in My Backyard

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-Morgan House, Palmyra, NJ, originally built in 1761.
The Toy-Morgan House, Palmyra, NJ, originally built in 1761.

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.

This is the view from the Toy-Morgan House looking north at the Delaware River
This is the view from the Toy-Morgan House looking north at the Delaware River. That’s an abandoned Philadelphia factory to the left on the other side.

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?

Spring beckons as the sun sets over the Delaware River in Palmyra, NJ.
Spring beckons as the sun sets over the Delaware River in Palmyra.

[Written for the 71st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Local History.]


14 thoughts on “Shadows of History in My Backyard

  1. Donna,
    I think those of us who live in the older sections of our country and who are researching their families have come to
    see more of those “shadows of history” than we once did.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. This was very interesting! I know very little about the history on the “other side” of the river, thanks for sharing this.

  3. Donna,

    I must tell you that I love visiting Philadelphia. So much history there. Our daughter and son-in-law lived in Drexel Hill while she pursued her PhD at Temple University.

    I never missed an opportunity to visit the historic sites of Philly. I think I now know Philly better than I know Boston lol.

  4. Donna- If you are anyone is interested in Palmyra history- The PALMYRA HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL SOCIETY was founded in 1991 and is still going strong. This group saved the Spring Gardcen school complex in 1991 and recently andx successfully proposed to have a baseball field named after Lena Blackburne , a 68 year resident of Palmyra and professional ballplayer who discovered baseball’s magic mud. We presently have exhibit cases i n Palmyra’s Borough Hall filled with memoriblila and our archives house artifacts , and photographs of the Morgan family who lived in this famous house. We are always looking for financial support and new trustees with a love of geneology and history. I also pen a local history column in the TOWN NEWS you may want to check out. Go to, and click on “community” and go to “historical Society” for more info on us, or contact box 446 Palmyra NJ 08065

  5. We here in Palmyra have a HIstorical and Cultural Society small but interesting we sponcer interesting events and speakers. On our board are a prolific writer and researcher and a Professor of History. Please correspond and join us.

  6. Donna: Very interesting article. As a member of the board of the Palmyra Historical and Cultural Society, I invite you to come to one of our meetings. We would love to meet you.

  7. My brother and his fiance happen to live in this house.. It’s pretty cool inside and somewhat scary in the basement..

  8. Donna, Elias Toy was my GGGrandfather, Thank you for the story Amazing. beautiful house. would love to Visit it someday
    Cynthia Toy

  9. I have some Palmyra memorabilia from a Great uncle and aunt who lived there in the early 20th C.They left only one daughter, who did not marry. I would love to send the collection to you. I am also sharing some of it with the Morris Co., NJ Historical Society. Please let me know where to send this material…I am anxious to dispose of it to someone who will care for it.

  10. I have scanned and labeled all the photographs and other items. I think the best thing to do would be to bring the memorabilia to you at a convenient time, perhaps in December. I live in New Vernon, and it is about an hour and a half drive. I am so glad you are interested. The collection provides a “snapshot” of a Palmyra family of the 20’s. I am so glad I was able to pursue this…and sorry that it has taken me so long to organize and document it.

  11. I just came across this post. Thank you for writing and sharing. I grew up in Riverton, NJ. The picture of the tree in the river is taken from my parents’ front yard. I gave that bench to my parents when they bought the property! Also, my sister and her husband owned the Toy Morgan house in the early 2000’s, after purchasing it from a 102 year-old woman who had lived there since the 1940’s! She was an avid historian and wrote an impressive, detailed history of the house and land. I re-wrote and added to it, and shared it and her collection of historic photos with the Palmyra Historical Society back when my sister lived there. It is truly an amazing house that is remarkably well-preserved. (I hope that is still the case!)

    I am in the South now and still have history all around, but miss the breadth and depth of history found in the Triboro area and beyond. Thank you for “scratching that itch!”

  12. This is a wonderful piece of history I also am in the middle of research on my family and found that my relative James Hanson-Steelman married a Susannah Toy in Greater Egg harbor. The information will keep me looking I hope to visit this area soon deb

  13. The Elias Toy is a distance cousin ….so excited to have come across this information and thank you for sharing,

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