Coryell's Ferry History

The Controversal New Hope Crossing?

Lt. James Monroe’s special mission.


As a young man growing up in New Hope I was always excited to study the old technologies that abounded in the area and the stories associated with the people that worked those technologies.


One such technology was the ferry system to get across the river.  Overland travelers wore paths into roads that ended at the water’s edge.  At the waters edge entrepreneurs took over with their idea and effort to make a swift and safe crossing.  The more reliable the system the more frequently it was used.  As more and more travelers used a particular ferry crossing an infrastructure developed around the ferry landing.  The roads got better, food and lodging became available.  Entire towns developed around the idea of a safe place to cross the river.


In the American colonies the British Crown got into the act and imposed order onto the process.  Here on the Delaware you can see that the result of the “Patents” to operate a ferry called for a uniform distance between ferry landings usually three miles.  Eventually bridges sprang up where the ferries had been because the roads had become so well established.  Just for fun check the distances between towns on the river and you will see a pattern emerge.  The distances between ferries landings (Towns) is usually divided by a factor of three.  I.E. Three miles from Stockton to New Hope and New Hope to McKonkey’s Ferry 6 miles.


The two most famous ferries on our section of the river became Coryell’s and McKonKey’s  largely because of the patriotic duty that was displayed.  McKonkey’s Ferry hosted General Washington’s Army and was the Headquarters prior to the attack on Trenton.


While McKonkey’s Ferry had the first future president of the United States cross the river into the history books Coryell’s Ferry had the 5th future president.  Young Lt. James Monroe volunteered for a special mission created by the General himself.  Washington’s attack on Trenton depended on overwhelming force and surprise.  Should Cornwallis’ army stationed around Princeton and Pennington be alerted to the early morning goings on at Trenton they would investigate and ultimately reinforce the Hessians at Trenton.


Lt. James Monroe’s mission was to take Captain William Washington and 57 private soldiers, cross the Delaware on Coryell’s Ferry, take back roads and trails to a point where they could intercept any messengers from bringing news in either direction to or from Trenton.  After holding the intersection for a period of several hours their mission would be complete and they could head for home.  Such was the metal of Monroe and his men that they all voted to head to Trenton in an attempt to join up with Gen Washington and take part in the battle.


Monroe and Captain Washington did take part in the battle and were the surviving two of our four casualties in the battle.  The two non survivors froze to death in the blizzard while marching to Trenton.  Both Monroe and Capt. Washington were wounded in the chest and would have died but for the quick medical treatment of Hunterdon County physician Dr. Riker.  Monroe and Capt Washington were rushed back to Coryell’s Ferry for extended medical treatment before being sent to the regimental hospital in Newtown for rest and recovery.


The foregoing facts are from the Autobiography of James Monroe.  This complete story emerges from a careful reading of the footnotes in his autobiography.  Monroe recounts the story when Lewis Coryell stays for a White House dinner.  President Monroe expresses great gratitude to Dr. Riker and asks after him.


SO why then is there any controversey concerning this mission?


Monroe has demonstrated courage in the face of enemy fire,  his mission was a success which allowed General Washington’s Mission to be a success.  Huge successes in the face of great odds and personnel risk are what the adventurous spirit exalts.


I think that the controversy has been created by Emanuel Leutz.  In 1848 Leutz painted the action packed Iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware”.  He actually provided a key to explain who the historic figures are in the boat with the General.  According to the key the young man holding the “Betsy Ross” Flag is Lt. James Monroe.  This tableau mixes all of the heroic acts of that event and puts them all into one boat.


I love this painting.  But to rely on it for historic information is a mistake.  One example of anachronistic subject matter is the “Betsy Ross Flag”.  That flag didn’t become the nation’s standard until June 14th 1777 so it couldn’t have been in the boat with Monroe and if that is in error what else is in error.  Perhaps Monroe isn’t really in the boat either, he is only being memorialized for his heroic actions.


Personally I am willing to take the Gentleman at his word.  He says he crossed on Coryell’s Ferry and there is no evidence that he didn’t. 



Bob Gerenser

Coryell’s Ferry Militia