Thomas Hopkins was a Quaker. He and his son, Robert, both worked at the Friendship Salt Works in Great Egg Harbor, on the New Jersey coast, where Thomas oversaw operations. Although his permanent residence was in Philadelphia, Hopkins had living quarters at the salt works, where he stayed for days and weeks at a time. In addition to his role as supervisor at the salt works, Hopkins provided food and clothing to beleaguered prisoners during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
Before the American Revolution, the mid-Atlantic colonies received most of their salt from salt works in Massachusetts and Virginia. The British naval blockade isolated the middle colonies shortly after the war began, forcing the colonies to create their own supply of salt, which was essential for food preservation in the eighteenth century. The Continental Congress encouraged the individual colonies to devise their own methods of procuring salt, and in the late 1770s the governments of Pennsylvania and New Jersey passed several acts to promote the creation of salt works along the Jersey shore. Indeed, the entire Jersey Shore soon became peppered with salt works from Shrewsbury to Cape May. Most of these salt works were operated by individuals, although the Pennsylvania Salt Works was overseen by the Pennsylvania Council of Safety.
Salt extraction was a relatively simple process that offered a quick profit during the war. The technique involved running seawater into large reservoirs by way of sluice gates, which were then closed. Some plants used windmill-powered pumps to move the saltwater into the reservoirs. The trapped water evaporated and turned into brine. The brine was dried in huge iron pans, or the water boiled off. Boiling off the water, the technique employed at the Friendship operation, required a constant supply of firewood and manpower, for which Hopkins was responsible. Friendship Salt Works, including its salt house, stables, cistern, pump, and living quarters, was put up for public vendue on September 20, 1780. The date of its sale is not known.
Scope and content
Thomas Hopkins's twenty-three-page journal spans the period from August 11 to October 24, 1780, and describes daily operations and his supervision of the Friendship Salt Works. Although Hopkins's journal does not provide a location for the salt works, the distance that he traveled from Philadelphia and the route that he took to the plant indicate that it was located somewhere in the vicinity of what is now Atlantic City.
Thomas Hopkins lived in Philadelphia, roughly a fifteen-hour journey from the salt works. Several journal entries describe his travel to and from his home, including crossing the river at Cooper's Ferry and paying the ferry fee. He usually made his way to Haddonfield next, where he stopped for food and provisions. His next stop was Blue Anchor, where he sometimes spent the night before the last leg of his journey to the salt works. Hopkins recorded most of his travel expenses, which included food and lodging. He usually traveled by horse, but his October 16 entry describes an ambitious trek: "Morning set off from Moss's & breakfasted at Willis's & had a fatiguing walk to the ferry, got to Jaffet Leads. Rest little & set off for the works & arriv'd at dusk, having walked near 30 miles. Hopkins occasionally seems to have traveled with a companion . His son, Robert, also worked at the salt works and may have joined his father on trips to and from their home.
Thomas Hopkins's journal entries are succinct, yet provide an overview of his tasks as the manager of the salt works. He was responsible for keeping his men working steadily, ensuring that they were well-provisioned, and keeping the pumps and fires going at all times to maximize salt production. There was a small and steady work force at the salt works, and workers stayed in a common house on the property. The main body of workers was at times supplemented by other temporary workers, including "Capt Stephens's Negros." Hopkins mentioned advertising for a housekeeper for the house, and he noted that workers often did their own crabbing, fishing, and cooking. Journal entries also describe trading and butchering livestock to feed the workers.
In order to keep the fires burning to dry the salt, the salt works required a steady supply of dry wood. Wood had to be hauled and split before it could be added to the fires, tasks that seem to have been dreaded by most of the workers. One day Hopkins discovered that three of the woodcutters had "elopd before Day & stole an Ax & a Loaf of Bread." In addition to the demanding physical strain of hauling and chopping wood and the tremendous discomfort of tending the fires in the summer, Hopkins and his men were plagued by a relentless assault by mosquitoes and other pests. On a particularly unbearable day, Hopkins wrote, "Musquetoes & flies Exceeding plenty so that I can scarce write." Not only did Hopkins worry about having enough wood for the fires, he was also concerned about the quality of the wood. It was occasionally so green that it didn't burn well, which resulted in less efficient salt production. Nonetheless, the salt works seems to have averaged about ten baskets of salt per day.
In addition to the constant struggle to keep the fires burning, Hopkins also had to contend with a group of workers who were tired and sometimes troublesome. One worker in particular was very problematic. Martin Nelson, part of the core gang of workers at the salt works, was drunk nearly every day and was an endless source of grief to Hopkins. Nelson failed to relieve fellow workers, was often idle, and was constantly "cursing & Damning" and being "abusive." Hopkins gave Nelson several warnings about his behavior and in exasperation stated, "Martin so very quarrelsome with Cursing & Daming that I could hardly keep my hands of[f] him."
In addition to problems with his workers, neighbors also caused problems periodically. The Friendship operation relied on pumps to draw in salt water, then the water was boiled over the fires until it evaporated. On October 18, a neighbor undermined their efforts by cutting a ditch from the bay, which was the plant's water source. Hopkins wrote, "I told him that if he let out the watter, I thought he was in a fair way to bring trouble on them & that the owners would sue them for every day the works were stopped." Two days later Hopkins discovered the new ditch. "Went to set the pumps to work & found a ditch cut through by the damn so that we cant pump." After several months of almost daily entries, Hopkins's journal stops abruptly near the end of October.
The last four pages of Hopkins's journal contain an undated statement of his role feeding and clothing American prisoners during the British occupation of Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-1778. Most American soldiers who were taken prisoner lived in Philadelphia jails until the British left. A friend told Hopkins about some soldiers who were "without Provision for five days, that they had been seen to pull up the grass and eat the roots." Hopkins had the story verified, then traveled to Frankford to see a Captain Craig of the Light Horse, and told him he "desired he would acquaint Gen. Washington of their situation, which he did," but the British would not allow any provisions to be delivered to the prisoners until Christmas. Every week thereafter, Hopkins and Thomas Franklin, the provision agent, distributed food and clothing to the prisoners "for which neither of us received any pay." Hopkins took most of this burden on himself: "Laid out all my hard Cash for Cloathing, firewood & Provision."
Two years later, Hopkins had still heard nothing about reimbursement for his troubles. He then decided to contact Elias Boudinot, commissioner of prisoners. Boudinot told Hopkins that he had settled accounts with Thomas Franklin earlier, but had forgotten about Hopkins's involvement and expenditures. He promised to speak with members of the Treasury Board. The Board did nothing, however, and recommended that Hopkins apply to Congress. Hopkins was bitter about not being recognized or recompensed and stated that he would have fared better if he'd chosen to use his bake houses for the British, instead of supplying American prisoners. Even more disturbing to Hopkins was the attitude of the bureaucrats: "I am of opinion from their Behaviour they would have been well pleas'd that the Prissoners had all Died in Jail."
The collection is open for research.
Cite as: [Indicate cited page(s) here], Thomas Hopkins Journal (Collection 292), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Processed by Leslie Hunt, with assistance from Monica Crystal, 2003. Processing made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
A transcription of the journal was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 47 (1918), pp. 46-61.
Braddock-Rogers, K. "Saltworks of New Jersey during the American Revolution." Easton, Penn.: American Chemical Society, 1938.