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First Published:  16 February 2019
Revised (substantive):  21 April 2019

The Fragrant Coastline of Seventeenth-Century New Jersey

As John Evelyn documented in 1661, 17th-century travelers approaching the coast of Spain by boat were treated to a unique olfactory experience, as particular atmospheric currents mixed with the heady aroma of

... Rosemary, the Flowers whereof are credibly reported to give their sent [scent] above thirty Leagues off at Sea, upon the coasts of Spain: ....

(John Evelyn, Fumifugium: or, the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, 1st edn., 1661, 24; click/tap here for the full passage, as transcribed on the calling page for this second-window aside)

Areas of the north-African coast were similarly pungent, welcoming sea-going visitors with the smell of spice blends unique to that region.

Descriptions of the climatic scent of foreign lands were so central to early-modern travelers’ tales that Margaret Cavendish played with the theme in her imaginary West-Indian voyage to the Kingdom of Fancy (as relayed in Cavendish’s protofeminist romance, “Assaulted and Pursued Chastity”). After being shipwrecked by a hurricane and sailing for six days in a little “Cock-boat,” Cavendish’s fictional travelers “at last were thrust through a Point into a large River, which for the greatness might be called a large Sea; for though it was fresh water, yet it was of that longitude and latitude, that they could not perceive land for four dayes.” The new-found-land discovered by Cavendish’s transgender hero, Travelia, at the end of that four-days’ journey included a governor’s house

built with Spices; the roof and beams as big as any house need to have, made of Cynamon [cinnamon], and the walls were plastered with the flakes of Mace, which flakes were a foot square; the planches [slabs] were cut thick, like bricks, or square marble peices, out of nutmegs; the long planches out of Ginger, for their nutmegs and races of Ginger were as great as men could carry; the House was covered on the top, some with Pomegranats rines [rinds], others of Oranges and Citrons, but the Pomegranats last the longer, but the other smelt the sweeter, and looked the more pleasanter to the eye; they never have rain there, nor in any part of the Kingdome, for the air is alwayes serene and clear; nor no higher winds than what fans the heat; their exercise was hunting, where the women hunted the females, the men the males.

(Margaret Cavendish, Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, 1st edn., 1656, 232–33)

Such exotic perfumes are not normally linked with the Anglo-American colonies at their founding in the 17th century, but the fragrant air of the so-called middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania was legendary. Upon entering Delaware Bay in two little ships, the Kalmar Nyckel and the Fogel Grip, the first Swedish settlers to occupy the region, under the reign of Queen Christina of Sweden, were so impressed by the sweet-smelling odor that greeted them as they turned ashore that they named the captivating spot where they landed, about 15 March 1638, Paradisudden (Paradise Point). Three decades later, the Englishman Daniel Denton (1626–1703) — a local government official and early resident of Piscataway, New Jersey, and Jamaica, New York — is on record admiring the 1660s scent of our mid-Atlantic coastline:

... But that which adds happiness to all the rest, is the Healthfulness of the place, where many people in twenty years time never know what sickness is: where they look upon it as a great mortality if two or three die out of a town in a years time; where besides the sweetness of the Air, the Countrey it self sends forth such a fragrant smell, that it may be perceived at Sea before they can make the Land: where no evil fog or vapour doth no sooner appear, but a North-west or Westerly winde doth immediately dissolve it, and drive it away: ....

(Daniel Denton, A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New-Netherlands, 1670, 19)

Denton is here describing the province of New Jersey, where he owned land and lived, having purchased in 1664, with two others (John Baily and Luke Watson), the title to land that would be developed into Elizabethtown:

one parcel of land bounded on the south by a river commonly called the Raritons [Raritan] river, and on the east by the river which parts Staten Island and the main, and to run northward up after Cull Bay, till we come at the first river which sets westwards up after Cull Bay, aforesaid, and to run west into the country twice the length as it is broad from the north to the south of the aforemention’d bounds; together with the lands, meadows, woods, waters, fields, fences, fishings, fowlings, with all and singular the appurtenances with all gains profits and advantages arising upon the said lands, and all other the premises and appurtenances.

(The Grants, Concessions, and Original Constitutions of the Province of New-Jersey, compiled by Aaron Leaming and Jacob Spicer, 1758; 2nd edn., 1881, 670)

The grantees for this Indian deed of purchase were Mattano, Manamowaone, and Cowescomen, of Staten Island, who

covenant, promise, grant and agree ... to keep [Denton et al.] safe in the enjoyments of the said lands from all expulsion and incumbrances whatsoever, may arise of the said land, by any person or persons by reason of any title had or growing before the date of these presents: For which bargain and sale, covenants, grants and agreements ... the aforesaid parties are at their entry upon the said land, to pay to the said Mattano, Manamowaone, and Cowescomen, twenty fathom of trading cloth, two made coats, two guns, two kettles, ten barrs of lead, twenty handfuls of powder. And ... four hundred fathom of white wampum after a years expiration from the day of [Denton et al.’s] entry upon the said lands.

(The Grants, Concessions, and Original Constitutions of the Province of New-Jersey, compiled by Aaron Leaming and Jacob Spicer, 1758; 2nd edn., 1881, 670–71)

with the goods of purchase being valued by the English at £36 14s. total. (Denton would later sell his interest in this parcel of land to Capt. John Baker of New York and John Ogden, of Northampton, for an amount unknown to me, but no doubt, more than he paid the indigenous grantees for it.)

In 1684, Daniel Denton left New Jersey, returning to Jamaica (on Long Island), New York, where he continued to be active in local government (serving first as a commissioner of Jamaica, and then as town clerk, before becoming clerk of Queens County in 1689). But his memorable description of the New Jersey proprietary sending “forth such a fragrant smell, that it may be perceived at Sea before they can make the Land” lived on. Of note, travelers were still remarking on this fragrant strip of coastline in the mid-19th century:

On my return passage from Europe to America, in May, 1840, on board the packet-ship Philadelphia, commanded by the good Captain Morgan. During the whole of the day on the evening of which we made land, we were most anxiously expecting a sight of terra-firma once more. To our no small joy, some time after dark, we espied the revolving light that is placed upon the highlands of Neversink [i.e., Navesink, New Jersey]. And strange to relate, our olfactory organs were the second sense, that intimated to us our near approach to land. The fragrance of blooming flowers, green meadows, and budding vegetation of every kind, was truly delicious, and brought to our recollections the odoriferous sensation experienced on entering a hot-house in winter. An Italian gentleman, one of the passengers, who had heard much of America, and was now for the first time about visiting it, on experiencing this sensation, exclaimed in the soft poetical language of his country, “Bellissimo, bellissimo, tre bellissimo Italiá nuôvo!
     This was no doubt, in a considerable degree, caused by the great change in the temperature of the atmosphere. The thermometer during the whole voyage having never reached a higher point than 60, but often fell much lower; whereas now it had risen to 88 with the breeze coming from land, which made us more sensible to impressions, particularly of this kind.

(W. Gowans’ Western Memorabilia, qtd. in Gabriel Furman, A Brief Description of New York, Formerly Called New Netherlands ... by Daniel Denton, new edn., 1845, 55n15)

I have never sailed into New Jersey, so I have no idea what the atmospheric scent of the region is these days. But I would be very surprised to learn that floral tones still dominate!


NOTE:  Daniel Denton’s “character” of an Elysian New Jersey in the late 1660s, including the passage concerning the proprietorship’s fragrant coastline, was excerpted by John Ogilby for his popular and influential America (1st issue, 1670–1). Significantly, Ogilby did not identify Denton’s A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New-Netherlands (1670) as his source, stating only in his ambiguous introduction to the quoted material that “We shall conclude our Discourse of this Countrey with a notable Character given thereof by a late Writer.” Denton, who died in 1703 (and was by then a resident of Long Island), was still very much alive in 1670–1 when Ogilby republished the excerpt from his “late” (i.e., recently-published) A Brief Description of New-York (1670).
   For the full text of Ogilby’s plagiarism, see the digital reissue (2018) of Ogilby’s A 17th-Century Portrait of New Jersey (1670–1), appended to the Editor’s Introduction for a digital reissue (2014) of Thomas Tryon’s 1684 treatise, The Planter’s Speech to his Neighbours & Country-Men of Pennsylvania, East & West-Jersey ..., at the subdomain known as Roses.