Joseph Morris was an officer in the New Jersey Line from 1775-1778. While on detached service as Major of Morgan's Partisan (rifle) Corps, he was mortally wounded near Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania in the final engagement of the Philadelphia Campaign. I'll have more to say about his fascinating Revolutionary War service another time, for his military activity prior to the Independence struggle is the subject of this blog post.
According to an extensive 19th century biographical sketch published in the records of the 1st Presbyterian Church in Morristown, NJ, Joseph Morris was born near that place in 1732. His biographer offers this colorful description:
"he was fond of adventure, showing undaunted courage and unwavering determination, in the midst of dangers that would cause others to shrink. He had a fair education, and in disposition was unassuming and reticent in speech. He was a man of herculean frame, over six feet in height, and such facial characteristics, as would indicate clearly, the iron will that was the motor of all his actions. He had a double row of teeth, noted for their size and strength, and stories have been handed down, through his associates and descendants, of some marvelous performances with these, which, while possibly exaggerations, sufficiently attest the great physical strength with which nature had endowed him."
Morris seems a figure cut from the same cloth that garbed the long hunters and overmountain men of the frontier in tall tales and larger-than-life exploits. A man with all his teeth might well have been remarkable for that time, and one wonders what great weights he may have pulled or lifted with them to impress his associates. Joseph Morris was not so unattractive and tongue-tied, however, to prevent him from attracting a wife, for he married Hannah Ford on April 12, 1759 and she soon bore him a son, Jonathan Ford Morris, who would later serve under his father in the New Jersey Continentals.
Although his church biographer remembered seeing bloodstained military commissions that included his rank in the Colonial Wars as well as the Revolution, these had since been lost. Morris' only confirmed military service prior to the Revolution, therefore, occurred not during the French and Indian War but in the first Pennamite-Yankee war, a significant flair up in the boundary disputes that embroiled Pennsylvania and Connecticut in the decade before the Revolution and remained unresolved until the 1780s. Far from a mere legal contest, this was a hot conflict in which the agents of both colonies along with rival claimants and squatters shot it out on the frontier and even besieged one another with cannon.
Charles II of England granted overlapping charters to Connecticut in 1662 and Pennsylvania in 1681. Connecticut's claim extended across the upper third of the Pennsylvania colony and clear across the "Western Reserve" in the Ohio country to the Mississippi River. The Proprietors of Pennsylvania believed that they had claim far north into what is now central and western New York and had another long running dispute with Virginia about lands to the south and west of the Commonwealth. Each colony had its own system of land tenure, with the Penn family proprietors granting leases to tenants but retaining title and Connecticut granting freeholders private ownership. Not surprisingly, those on the frontier often felt entitled to occupy vacant land whether or not they had a legal right to do so. Where manorial systems of land tenure applied, such as in New York and Pennsylvania, conflicts between landlords and tenants became conflated with boundary disputes among colonies.
This conflict of land interests became acute after the French and Indian War, particularly with the official but unenforceable closing of the frontier to further settlement with the Proclamation of 1763. The disputed territory of the Wyoming Valley in what is now the Wilkes-Barre region of Northeastern Pennsylvania was coveted by settlers from both colonies. A treaty in November, 1768 opened up the valley for settlement and the rush was on, with those supporting the interests of the Penns becoming known as Pennamites and the Connecticut faction better known as the "Yankees".
In the last days of 1768, the Susquehanna Land Company of Connecticut resumed its effort to colonize the Wyoming Valley. The Connecticut proprietors held a prior Indian patent (which the New York Iroquois had subsequently sold to their Penn family rivals), and went about establishing five towns in the Wyoming Value that first year.
They also formed an alliance with the Scotch-Irish Paxtang Boys of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania who had already made a name for themselves for violence and mob action. In 1763 a group of Paxtang Boys had slaughtered a settlement of Christian Susquahannock Indians and were no friends of the proprietors of Pennsylvania. Under their leader, Lazarus Stewart, they joined with the Connecticut settlers under Zebulon Butler in 1770 and together attacked the Pennamite militia at Fort Durkee that February.
It is during this 1st phase of the Pennamite-Yankee War that we encounter Joseph Morris. Although born and raised in Morris County, NJ, he appears to have held a commission as Captain of a militia company in Pennsylvania. In late July, 1771, he followed another militia company under Captain John Dick to relieve besieged Pennamite Fort Wyoming. Morris stepped off from Easton with "a full uniformed company with banners and music" They marched by different routes but appear to have reached the fort together, which was unfortunate because the Dick/Morris advanced relief column was ambushed and lost its pack animals before hustling into the fort. According to a deposition made by Captain Morris on August 22nd;
"Having advanced to within about 200 yards of a block-house, a man posted as a sentinel presented his firelock and challenged the people with the deponent, calling out: 'Who goes there?' That they answered that they were friends; that the sentinel bid them stop, and threatened to fire if the advanced. Upon which John Dick, one of the party with the deponent, told him there were going peaceably to the block-house, and did not intend to hurt anyone, and desired him not to fire. But the sentinel persisted in his resolution to fire, and then Dick, raising up his gun, bid him fire at his peril. That the sentinel then stepped a little aside, and that a number of men - about eighteen or twenty - who lay concealed a small distance at the right hand, started up suddenly, fired upon the deponent and the party with him, who presently after received another fire from the left, and from the sentinel. That finding themselves attacking in this hostile manner they found it necessary to defend themselves, and being provided with arms, returned the fire on their assailants, and hastening to the block-house under a constant fire from several parties of the Connecticut men, twenty-two of them got in, the rest being driven back, with the loss of four horses, with their loading - having had one of their men, Gilbert Ogden, dangerously wounded, and two others slightly hurt."
Incidentally, the Gilbert Ogden mentioned above, along with others of that family who were involved in this affair on behalf of the Pennamites, were from a New York Branch of Ogdens and only distantly related to my ancestors from Elizabeth, New Jersey.
The Yankee besiegers, who now had a homemade wooden cannon that managed to get off a single discharge before bursting, consisted of Zebulon Butler's Yankees and Stewart's Paxtang Boys, and kept the Pennamite defenders under regular fire for the next two weeks. Another relief column was organized but had not yet reached the block-house by August 15th when the defenders ran out of provisions and capitulated. Joseph Morris was among those who signed the surrender terms on behalf of the party of the Penns and may even have drawn up the document. A couple of men were killed on either side and several more wounded during the duration of the siege.
Morris disappears from surviving military records until 1775, when he commenced his revolutionary service. By then, the Connecticut settlements in the Wyoming Valley had been incorporated into Litchfield County, Connecticut -b200 or more miles to the East - where I make my home today.