Riots and rough justice in Colonial America: the great escape of Nehemiah Baldwin

07 September 2018

History | Politics

To celebrate the publication of module IV of Colonial America: Legislation and Politics in the Colonies earlier this week I wanted to highlight one of my favourite documents from the collection. The New Jersey: Minutes of Council in Assembly, January-February 1748 may not have the most intriguing of titles but, within “a brief state of facts concerning the riots and insurrections in New Jersey” three years earlier, dedicated readers are rewarded with dramatic details of Nehemiah Baldwin's hearing.

New Jersey: Minutes of Council in Assembly, January-February 1748. Image © The National Archives London, UK. To see this document in the collection click the image.

 On the 16th of January 1745 one of “twenty seven…known rioters and disturbers of the King’s Peace”, Nehemiah Baldwin, was brought before the Supreme Court in New Jersey to outline his involvement in New Jersey land riots and to request bail. But whilst the steady hand recording this hearing gives no indication of the dramatic events that came to pass, the minutes themselves capture all the action! 

January, 1748 entry in The New Jersey: Minutes of Council in Assembly, January-February 1748. Image © The National Archives London, UK. To see this document in the collection click the image.

After the accusations brought against Baldwin and his coconspirators are listed at some length, apparently out of nowhere, men carrying Baldwin before the Justice of the Supreme Court “were assaulted by a great number of men armed with clubs and other weapons, who, in a most violent manner, rescued and carried away the prisoner”.

New Jersey: Minutes of Council in Assembly, January-February 1748. Image © The National Archives London, UK. To see this document in the collection click the image.

But the violence does not end there as, Amos Roberts, the “principle leading man among the common disturbers” continues to cause chaos in the court house. But how, you might ask, was the ring-leader identified during all this commotion? He was on a horse of course! The author of this account records Roberts having “at that time mounted his horse and called out ‘Those who are on my list follow which all or the greatest part accordingly did, being then about three hundred in number”. Roberts and his accomplices then proceed “armed as before” to the goal in “a violent manner and having beat and broke through the guard and struck the Sheriff several blows, they broke open the goal doors, and took from thence the two prisoners [connected to Baldwin] and one other confined for debt”.

These ‘disturbers’ appear to get away with their great escape and it was two months before an Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies was eventually passed. But it was too little too late, and the colonists of New Jersey remained quite literally up-in-arms for several years, waging their war for land which, under English law, they could not own and was instead granted to the British gentry.

These minutes offer readers a glimpse into the riots and rough justice of the colonial court rooms in this period, and when explored alongside the series of correspondence, legal reports, and assembly papers also published in Colonial America: Legislation and Politics in the Colonies, build a comprehensive picture of the colonies’ legislative and political evolution.

Colonial America: Modules I-IV are available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

About the Author

Rebecca Baxter

Rebecca Baxter

Since joining Adam Matthew's editorial team in June 2015 I have had the opportunity to work on a range of interesting projects, including ‘Colonial America' and 'Frontier Life: Borderland Settlement & Colonial Encounters'. My own personal and academic interests lie in eighteenth century fiction and travel writing.

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