Amsterdam Historic District
The Amsterdam Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Amsterdam possesses significance in the areas of settlement pattern and architecture. The hamlet exemplifies the smallest of the agglomerate settlements that developed during the 18th and 19th centuries to serve the region's dispersed agricultural population, but whose growth was arrested when bypassed by 19th century transportation innovations. The Amsterdan Historic District has architectural significance as an assemblage of mostly 19th century buildings whose construction, form, detailing, and spatial organization are representative of the rural region's vernacular architecture in that era. Archaeological resources relating to the area's 19th-century material culture also may be present in the environs of district buildings.
While the neighborhood around what became Amsterdam was settled in the first half of the 18th century, the hamlet evidently did not coalesce until the middle of the 19th century by which time the location had attracted several artisans and acquired a general store and its place name. At a time when the movement of people and goods was largely limited to horse-drawn conveyances, such small communities provided the region's isolated rural population with almost its only centers for commercial and social activity. Bypassed by the Belvidere Delaware railroad which was construction along the east bank of Delaware River in the 1850s, Amsterdam experienced almost no development in subsequent decades. Overshadowed by nearby communities more favored with transportation connections or with water power resources, it continued as a small, service center for several decades thereafter and remained a stable agricultural community into the early 20th century. While scattered residential construction has occurred in its environs in recent years, the hamlet has grown little since the 19th century.
Amsterdam consequently has managed to preserve much of its 19th-century rural character. A majority of the Amsterdan Historic District's buildings date to the middle decades of the 19th century, although a few may be earlier in part and several others are later. The distinctive historical character of the hamlet results from the survival of these buildings, their scattered spacing and varied setback, and their juxtaposition with the surrounding open countryside. These resources — almost without exception dwellings with attendant outbuildings — are generally well-preserved and exhibit relatively few modern alterations. Their form, construction, detailing, and siting provide a representative illustration of the rural region's vernacular architecture in the middle decades of the 19th century. The predominance of single-pile, 2-story dwellings and bank barns in the district, for example, is indicative of the popularity of traditional building types strongly associated with Delaware Valley material culture with the region's 19th century rural builders. As is the case with most of the region's modest rural dwellings in the 19th century, the influence of popular architectural styles on Amsterdan Historic District houses is largely confined to simple decorative embellishments.
While the hamlet of Amsterdam did not develop until the 19th century, European settlement in the neighborhood began in the first half of the 18th century. The pioneer agriculturalists of northwestern Hunterdon County were mostly squatters on the vast tracts of land in the region acquired by absentee owners through New Jersey's system of proprietorial landholding. The site of Amsterdam lies within the boundaries of a 16,565-acre property which was surveyed for Colonel Thomas Byerly, a West Jersey proprietor, in 1714. After Byerly's death in 1725, his will having devised half of his landholdings to Robert Barker of Middlesex, England, the property devolved to the latter's grandson and heir, Sir Robert Barker, an English soldier who served many years in India, but to satisfy a claim against Byerly's estate, it was divided in half and the L-shaped southeastern portion was sold at a court-ordered sale in 1749. Despite various legal and managerial difficulties, the 7,308-acre remainder, which came to be known as the Alexandria tract and encompassed the west half of what is now Holland Township, was retained by Sir Robert until his death in 1789.
Settlement on the Alexandria tract evidently occurred some years before Sir Robert began to exercise control over the property in the 1760s. When Barker's agent (New York City merchant William McAdams who was engaged in 1764) first visited the Alexandria tract he found forty families residing there who not only questioned Barker's title to the land but as squatters "had no object in view besides getting whatever they could by constant plowing where they had any prospect of reaping and by cutting down the Timber to convert it into Charcoal for the two Neighbouring Forges."
The recalcitrant settlers, after some effort by McAdams, were brought under lease. Although there was considerable change in the makeup of Sir Robert's tenantry over the years, some names appeared repeatedly on his rent roles and more than a few 19th century residents of the area could trace their descent from early settlers on the Alexandria tract. Names on the tenant lists suggest that the settlers had varied ethnic backgrounds and included many of German origins.
Several months before his death in September 1789, Sir Robert conveyed the title of his New Jersey landholdings to three trustees to avoid possible legal difficulties over the transfer of the property to his heirs. Trustee James Parker, a large New Jersey landowner and businessman who had served as Barker's agent and power-of-attorney since 1784, was given sole authority to arrange for the sale of the lands and receive all monies. Parker, who had recently won a protracted legal struggle with the tenants over Sir Robert's right to the property, had the Alexandria tract resurveyed into thirty farms in the spring of 1789, the new lines evidently corresponding generally to pre-existing boundaries, and attempted unsuccessfully to dispose of it as two lots at public auction in the fall of that year. Over the course of the next decade, however, he was able to sell most of the farms separately to various individuals, some of them former tenants.
Amsterdam's site straddles the boundary between two of the farms resurveyed in 1789 and sold in the 1790s. The land west of Crab Apple Hill Road (called "the road that leads to New Holland" in a c.1789 boundary description) belonged to a farm on a 231-acre tract which was sold to James Burson in 1795 for 577 pounds; another farm with a 296-acre lot sold to Henry Mettler and James Davis for 540 pounds in 1797 included the land east of the road. An important early road, the road to Durham Ferry, crossed both farms along the course of what is now Church Road. The two parcels were among the eight farms on the Alexandria tract rented to two or three tenants in 1789, and both may have been divided into two farmsteads many years earlier. A map purportedly antedating the Revolutionary War, which was examined by a local historian in the mid-19th century, depicted two houses on each lot.
Perhaps in response to demand for smaller properties, the new owners (one of whom, Henry Mettler, had been a co-tenant of a farm in 1790-92) proceeded to subdivide the two farms into parcels ranging from about 25 to 150 acres in size, and by the early 1800s several small freeholds had been established at what became Amsterdam. While most of the freeholders presumably were agriculturalists, one of them James Smith, who acquired a 49-acre lot from James Burson in 1796, was described in the deed of conveyance as a "potter." Some buyers, like Smith and John Sinclair, who purchased an 88-acre parcel from James Davis in 1803, were Alexandria Township residents (Sinclair was a former Barker tenant, as was his father, Peter Cincleare, with whom, according to family history, he emigrated from Germany in 1750); others like Philip Rapp, who bought a 48-acre tract in 1806, and Philip Burgstresser, who acquired a 26-acre lot in the same year, had recently moved across the river from Pennsylvania. The latter evidently were part of the migration into northwestern New Jersey, occurring before and after 1800, of Pennsylvania Germans attracted by the availability of cheap, worn-out lands, a market which James Parker sought to capture by having his local agent chiefly post advertisements for the sale of his lands in Pennsylvania and at river crossings. Rapp and Burgstresser 's acquisitions remained in hands of their descendants for several generations, as did the parcel purchased by Sinclair. Sinclair, who evidently lived on a nearby farm (bought from Parker in 1792), may have intended his 1803 acquisition to provide for two of his sons to whom he conveyed it some years thereafter.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century further subdivision of the two farms occurred such as the 5.5-acre lot which John Sinclair conveyed to his son Peter in 1817 and the 10-acre lot acquired by John Kooker in 1840. Non-agriculturalists were attracted to the locality during the period. John Kooker was a carpenter, Jacob Ulmer who purchased Peter Sinclair's "house and lot" in 1840 was a shoemaker, and John Snyder who bought a 1.5-acre lot next to Kooker in 1850 was a blacksmith. By 1850 the settlement also had two merchants, John H. Sinclair and Peter Snyder. "Sinclair & Snyder's store" is depicted on the 1851 Hunterdon County map at the intersection of Church and Crab Apple Hill Roads; it presumably stood on the 50-acre property which John H. Sinclair had inherited from his father William in 1838, part of the 80-acres which the latter had received from his father John in 1817.
The 1851 county map also provides the first documented use of the name Amsterdam in reference to the settlement. When the place name first became current is unknown; the early association of the name Holland with the area to the south, however, no doubt has something to do with its origins. A c.1789 inventory of Sir Robert Barker's farms not only refers to the "road that leads to New Holland" (Crab Apple Hill Road), as previously mentioned, but also notes the "Holland wood lots" on Gravel Hill.
By the 1850s the physical and social character of Amsterdam was firmly established. The 1860 Alexandria Township farm map documents the community's physical layout which remains basically unchanged today. The map depicts approximately 29 buildings, many of which have survived, spread along what are now Amsterdam and Church Roads. Despite its artisans and merchants, Amsterdam was essentially an agricultural community. The 1850 census reveals that over half of the hamlet's households were headed by farmers or laborers, and it is likely those of the non-farmers with sufficient acreage (like merchant Sinclair and carpenter Kooker) also engaged in agricultural pursuits. Furthermore, Sinclair and Snyder's store was a short-lived enterprise. Upon the financial embarrassment of the two partners, Sinclair lost the farm on which the store was located at a court-ordered sheriff sale in 1855. While depicted on the 1860 Lake and Beers map, the store may well have been closed at that time, as the 1860 census includes no merchants among the Amsterdam residents (Jacob Welsh, the new owner of the property, was listed as a farmer), and by 1873 the building itself had apparently disappeared since it is not depicted on the county atlas of that year.
After losing its store, Amsterdam continued to provide limited services to the rural neighborhood for some years and remained a small stable agricultural community into the early 20th century. The 1873 atlas reveals that members of the Rapp, Burgstresser and Sinclair families, descendants of the community's early settlers, still resided there, and the 1880 census reveals that farming still was the livelihood of nearly all households. Although almost no building occurred except for modest agricultural structures, the construction of two substantial, stylishly detailed dwellings in the post-Civil War years attests to some degree of prosperity. While the blacksmith shop evidently had closed by 1881, the county history of that year noted that the hamlet retained its carpenter and shoemaker and listed a saw mill as a third enterprise (the latter, however, probably referred to the saw mill on the Delaware at nearby Holland Station). Sometime thereafter, the carpenter and shoe shops ceased operations, and by the early 20th century a local historian could describe Amsterdam, along with two other Holland Township neighborhoods, Mount Joy and Spring Mills, as only "place names under which small hamlets are, or have been, known."
The same source also noted that improved roads were "somewhat of (a) scarcity" in Holland Township, and Amsterdam, isolated by poor roads and a remote, hilly location, coupled with changes in agriculture which resulted in the abandonment of marginal farmland, experienced little growth throughout much of this century. Two projects affecting its landscape did occur in the middle of the century. Upon the completion of the Gilbert electrical generation plant on the Delaware River nearby in 1930 two transmission lines were erected passing east and west of the hamlet, and around 1940 as part of improvements made to the old road from Spring Mills to Durham Ferry, the section of the road passing through Amsterdam was bypassed between Crab Apple Hill and Alfalfa Hill Roads.
In recent decades Amsterdam, along with other remote rural neighborhoods in northwestern New Jersey, has attracted new residential development as paved roads and new highways have allowed urban and suburban families to establish their homes there and commute to work. Old farmsteads have been renovated and new dwellings built on large lots subdivided from abandoned hill farms. In Amsterdam, renovations to older buildings have generally been sympathetic to their historic architectural character, and a number of farms in and around the hamlet remain in operation, thus preserving its historic agricultural setting. Both township residents and officials have recognized the special qualities of the community's architecture and landscape which make it a worthy candidate for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and the desirability of preserving that heritage.
Books & Reports
Barber, John W. and Henry Howe. Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey. Newark, NJ: Benjamin Olds, 1844.
Honeyman, A. Van Doren, (ed.). Northwestern New Jersey: A History of Somerset, Morris, Hunterdon, Warren, and Sussex Counties. 5 vols. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1927.
Hunterdon County Master Plan, Sites of Historic Interest. Flemington, NJ: Hunterdon County Planning Board, November 1979.
Kay, John L. and Chester M. Smith, Jr., New Jersey Postal History, Lawrence, Massachusetts: Quarterman Publications, Inc. 1976.
Lee, Warren F. Down Along the Old Bel-Del. Albuquerque, NM: Bel-Del Enterprises, Ltd., 1987.
Morrow, D. H, (ed.). Traditions of Hunterdon County. Flemington, NJ: D. H. Morrow, 1957, (originally published as a series of articles entitles "Traditions of Our Ancestors" in the Hunterdon Republican in 1869-70 and believed to have been written by John W. Lequear.
Schmidt, Hubert G. Rural Hunterdon: An Agricultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1945.
Snell, James P. (ed.). History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties, New Jersey. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1881.
Wacker, Peter. Land and People. A Cultural Geography of Preindustrial New Jersey: Origins and Settlement Patterns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975.
Wacker, Peter. Musconetcong Valley of New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968.
Maps and Atlases
Beers, F. W. County Atlas of Hunterdon, New Jersey. New York: F.W. Beers & Co., 1873.
Cornell, Samuel C. Map of Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Philadelphia: S.C. Cornell and Lloyd Vanderveer, 1851.
Hammond, D. Stanton. Hunterdon County. New Jersey. Sheet C. Map Series #4. Genealogical Society of New Jersey, 1965.
Hughes, Michael. Farm Map of Alexandria Township. Hunterdon Co., N.J. Philadelphia: Michael Hughes, 1860.
Lake, J. D. and S. N. Beers, Map of the Vicinity of Philadelphia and Trenton. Philadelphia: C.K. Stone and A. Pomeroy, 1860.
Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick, NJ. James Parker Papers.
Hunterdon County Historical Society, Flemington, NJ. John Emley Papers.
Pamphlets and Periodicals
Hunterdon Democrat. Flemington, New Jersey, 1838-1866.
McCormick, Richard P. "The West Jersey Estate of Sir Robert Barker," Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society. LXIV (July, 1946).
"Some Historical Facts about Holland Township." (no date).
Hunterdon County Court House, Flemington, NJ. Hunterdon County Deed Books. Hunterdon County Road Returns. Hunterdon County Will Books.
United States Census. Population Schedules, Alexandria Township, 1850-1870. Population Schedules, Holland Township, 1880-1900. Industrial Schedules, Alexandria Township, 1850-1870.
†Dennis N. Bertland, Bertland Associates, Amsterdam Historic District, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, nomination document, 1994, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.