Dunks Ferry in Pennsylvania

How did Dunks Ferry in Pennsylvania get it’s name? This page provides a brief history about the naming of Dunks Ferry in Pennsylvania, the people who settled it, and the industry rising within it.

The ferry at west side of “The Falls” was probably the first established on the river Delaware above Philadelphia. It is known to have been in existence in 1675. 1)Records of the Court at New Castle on Delaware, 1676-1681. Colonial Society of Pennsylvania ed., p. 47. The second was Dunks Ferry in Bensalem Township, four miles below Bristol. It is shown on the Holme Map of 1681-4 as the third property below the mouth of Neshaminy Creek. It took its name from Dunken Williams, or Dunck Williams, as it was often written. A little settlement around this landing is also called Dunks Ferry. The boats plied across the river between this settlement and a point on the New Jersey side, which, according to Davis’ History of Bucks County, was also known as Dunks Ferry until Beverly was founded in 1848. Very early it became a notable crossing of the Delaware and continued so to be until the necessity for ferries ceased. General Washington considered it an important strategic point at a critical period of the Revolution. From his Bucks County headquarters on December it, 1776, he wrote: “I think it highly necessary that the post at Dunks Ferry should be guarded.” Again, only a day later, in a letter to General Cadwalader, he cautions him to “pay particular attention to Dunks Ferry,” and orders “Col. Nixon’s Regiment to continue where it is at Dunks Ferry” and if necessary to “throw up some little Redoubts there and at different passes in the Meshaname (Neshaminy).” General Cadwalader and his wing of the Continental Army were to have crossed the river at Dunks Ferry on Christmas night, 1776, to cooperate with Washington in the attack on the British forces at Trenton, but the entire army was prevented by ice floes from reaching the Jersey shore. Needless confusion is found in various accounts of the movements of General Cadwalader’s army in Bristol and vicinity at the time of the Battle of Trenton. This confusion may have arisen from lack of definite information. The information, however, is now available. Among the intrepid young officers who were with General Cadwalader in that campaign was Thomas Rodney, captain of the militia company known as the Dover Light Infantry, afterwards colonel of the Eighth Regiment of Delaware militia, and still later occupying many positions of trust and honor. He was the youngest brother of General Caesar Rodney, of Delaware, signer of the Declaration of Independence. Captain Rodney kept a diary or journal of the daily movements of his company from the time he left Dover, December 14, 1776, until January 25, 1777, when he returned home. This journal was made available to the public when it was read in 1887 by Caesar A. Rodney, Captain Rodney’s great-grandson, before the Historical Society of Delaware and the following year was published in the proceedings of the Society. It was Captain Rodney’s intention when he left Dover to march to General Washington’s headquarters in Bucks County and offer the services of himself and his gallant company of stalwart Delawareans to his commander-in-chief for any service that might be assigned them, but when he reached General Cadwalader’s camp at Bristol on Sunday afternoon, December 22, the General explained to him that he had orders to allow no militia commands to pass at present. The company was then assigned to quarters at the premises of William Coxe and Andrew Allen on the banks of Neshaminy Creek, two miles from Bristol 2)In contrast to the gloomy feeling prevailing at that period of the war, both in the army and among civilians, Captain Rodney was openly optimistic in regard to the success of the American arms, and especially as to the outcome of the bold enterprise Washington was then putting through. General Cadwalader soon became much attached to the young Delaware enthusiast and within a few days appointed him to his staff as one of his aides. Only so much of Captain Rodney’s interesting diary as relates to Cadwalader’s army crossing the Delaware is quoted here.

December 25, 1776 – I waited on the General (Cadwalader at Bristol) this morning and was informed by him that he had obtained leave of General Washington to join my company to his Brigade and ordered that the company should be ready to receive marching orders tonight. . . . About dark I received orders to march immediately to Neshaminy ferry and await orders. We marched off immediately without the knowledge of the families where we were staying and met Col. Matlack at the ferry, he being the advance party of the brigade from Bristol. We soon received orders to march to Dunkers ferry on the Delaware, and after we arrived there the whole brigade came up, and also Col, Hitchcock Brigade of New England Regulars. Our light Infantry Battalion (the Dover company and four companies of Philadelphia militia under Capt. George Henry) were embarked in boats to cover the landing of the Brigade. When we reached the jersey shore we were obliged to land on ice, 150 yards from the shore; the River was also very full of floating ice, and the wind was blowing very hard, and the night was very dark and cold, and we had great difficulty in crossing, but the night was very favorable to the enterprise. We advanced about two hundred yards from the shore and formed in four columns of double files. About Goo of the light troops got over, but the boats with the artillery were carried away in the ice and could not be got over. After waiting about 3 hours we were informed that Gens. Cadwalader and Hitchcock had given up the expedition, and that the troops that were over were ordered back. This greatly irritated the troops that had crossed the River and they proposed making the attack without both the Generals and the artillery, but it was urged that if Gen. Washington should be unsuccessful, and we also, the cause would be lost, but if our force remained intact it would still keep up the spirit of America; therefore this course was abandoned. We had to wait about three hours more to cover the retreat, by which time the wind blew very hard and there was much rain and sleet, and there was so much floating ice in the River that we had the greatest difficulty to get over again, and some of our men did not get over that night. As soon as I reached the Pennsylvania shore I received orders to march to our quarters, when I arrived a little before daylight very wet and cold.

December 26 1776 – About 12 o’clock the remainder of my company came in and in the evening we heard of General Washingtons success at Trenton and that he had captured goo Hessians. . . . About dark notwithstanding our fatigue I received orders to appear at Bristol before Daybreak tomorrow morning.

December 27th 1776 – We got down to Bristol about Daylight, and the whole army under General Cadwalader began crossing about 10 o’clock, about one mile above Bristol. (no doubt at the Bloomsdale Ferry).

Dr. S. F. Hotchkin, noted Episcopal rector and writer on history, paid a visit to Dunks Ferry in 1893 and thus describes the appearance of the place in that year in his volume on “Bristol Pike” (pp. 334, 335):

“This ante-Revolutionary Ferry is a very picturesque spot. Here generations ago Pennsylvanians were ferried over to New Jersey when no steamboat furrowed the Delaware’s waters. Dunks Ferry Hotel is owned by John Vandegrift’s estate and conducted by G. W. Bintliff, who also carries on the ferry of rowboats to Beverly, N. J. This is a fishing resort. The long house is partly of stone, rough cast, colored white, and partly frame, with dormer windows in the attic. The hotel has been in existence for over 160 years. The woodwork has been done by hand. A new piazza replaces an old one.”

Dunks Ferry shad fishery was one of the most profitable and one of the oldest on the river. Prior to 1890 it was operated by John Vandegrift for a period of thirty-nine years. Some seasons his profits ran as high as $3,000 for a few weeks’ work. He employed seven hands and sold all the fish off the shore. In the period of its greatest prosperity Mr. Vandegrift valued the fishery property at $10,000. . . . Dunk Williams founded his ferry in 1678-9. The authority for this statement is found in the following minute in the Records of Upland Court: 3)Edward Armstrong’s copy, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, p. 106.

Att a Court held att Upland in Delaware River By his
Maytis authority November ye 12th, 1678.
Upon the Peticon of Dunk Williams desiering of this Court

a grant to take up 100 acres of Land on the Lower syde of Nieshambenies Creeke, 50 acres thereof at the River syde & the other 50 acres up in the woods,

The Cort doe grant the Peticonr Liberty to take up too acres of Land Weh heretofore is not granted taken up or Improved by others, hee seating & Improveing the same according to his honor the governors Regulacons & orders;

In the next move made by Dunken Williams, he appears in the light of what today would be called a pretty good politician. When it became necessary to have a road laid out from his landing to the King’s Highway, Williams, who doubtless had made the acquaintance of the Governor of New Jersey as a patron of his ferry, succeeded in having the Governor, instead of himself, initiate the movement for the road before the Provincial Council. The Council’s records for October 28, 1696, show that, at a meeting of that body in Philadelphia on that day, a memorial was presented from Andrew Hamilton, Esq., Governor of the Jerseys, representing that a ferry had been erected on the Jersey side, but “the way was not yet returned from the Landing on the Pennsilvania side to the king’s road, wch is about three Quarters of a mile & easily cleared.” Council ordered a warrant to be directed by the Governor to Thomas Fairman, surveyor, “To lay outt the king’s road from Dunck William’s Landing.. .. Into the king’s great road that Leads to philadelphia.” Surveyor Fairman’s return to the order, together with a draft of the road, was made in these words:

“By virtue of the Governor’s special warrant bearing date the 28th day of October, 1696, to me directed pursuant to an order of Court and Counsell granted upon the application of Andrew Hamilton, Esq, Goyim of the jersies and postmaster genl, I have surveyed and layed out the King’s Roade from the landing of Dunken Williams on the Delaware in the county of Bucks and Province of Pennsilvania Beginning theire at a Spanish oke at high water mark Thence sixty foote broade Extending north, northwest on each side of the line dividing betwixt the land of said Dunken Williams and Nathaniel Harden two hundred perches Thence in the sd Dunkens land north eighty one degrees westerly forty perch Thence north sixty five degrees westerly sixty two perches unto the old King’s Roade which leades to Philadelphia and hath been aintently surveyed and returned

Pr me Thos fairman Survr”

The Provincial Council’s minutes for October 31 note Fairman’s return of the survey. This road is one of the oldest in the State. The original draft and survey is in possession of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Library of The Bucks County Historical Society has a copy…. Dunken Williams is a problem to the genealogist and historian. As it is not positively known when, whence or how he came to America, his nationality is in doubt. He may have been Swedish, Dutch or Welsh. It is not likely that he was either Scotch or English, as many of his hundreds of descendants believe. In contemporary records his name appears as Dunken, Dunkin, Dunck or Dunk. Without authority therefor, he was called Duncan after his death, and this misconstruing of his name seems to be responsible for the tradition that he was a Scotchman. It appears that the first recorded use of the word Duncan is on the tombstone of Peter Williamson, a grandson, in the Williamson graveyard in Bensalem Township. This stone could not have been set up much earlier than 1825. Except in one branch of the family, Dunken Williams’ descendants changed the name to Williamson. One of his sons, William Williamson, kept the ferry after his father’s death. Owen Moon, Jr” of Trenton, N. J., a descendant of Dunken, makes out a very good case of Swedish ancestry in a very interesting “Sketch of Dunck Williams,” prepared for a meeting of the descendants at the Williamson or Johnson Burying Grounds in Bensalem on June 17, 1916. Upon his arrival on the Delaware, probably prior to 1666, Dunken Williams’ associates must have been mainly Swedes. In that year he was a petitioner for land, and the first known mention of his name is in a patent for 1,000 acres in Passayunk, granted to him (“Dunkin Williams”) by Governor Richard Nichols at Fort James, Manhattan Island, under date of January 1, 1667, However, this may have been a renewal of a patent granted by Dutch authority prior to 1664, as at that very time several such applications for renewals of land grants on the Delaware and Schuylkill were before the New York Governor. Later Dunken bought land in what is now known as Tacony, and then, as already noted, purchased the ferry tract (and later other land) in Bensalem. He was a prominent figure in the settlement. He served on what is supposed to have been the first court jury empaneled within the limits of Pennsylvania (1678). He died in 1699 and his remains are buried in the Williamson graveyard. His grave is not marked, but many years after the date of burial a memorial stone, not a tombstone or grave marker, was placed in the graveyard bearing the name Duncan Williamson.

Source: MacReynolds, George. Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania, 2nd Edition. Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1955.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1.Records of the Court at New Castle on Delaware, 1676-1681. Colonial Society of Pennsylvania ed., p. 47.
2.In contrast to the gloomy feeling prevailing at that period of the war, both in the army and among civilians, Captain Rodney was openly optimistic in regard to the success of the American arms, and especially as to the outcome of the bold enterprise Washington was then putting through. General Cadwalader soon became much attached to the young Delaware enthusiast and within a few days appointed him to his staff as one of his aides.
3.Edward Armstrong’s copy, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, p. 106.

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