The Pine Tree Robbers

Loyalist raiders in the Pine Barrens.


Loyalists fighting against the Americans (usually called Tories or Refugees), and Americans fighting Loyalists, were engaged in a bitter civil war. Murder and robbery were done by both sides, though I like to believe the Tories were worse. Many of the bands of Loyalists were hard to distinguish from robber bands. This is a tale about the "Pine Tree Robbers" in the Pinelands, sent to me by Pj.


Among those guilty of the most heinous of crimes in the annals of New Jersey history was a group known as the Tory Pine Tree Robbers. These men operated from the bogs and pine forests of the New Jersey coast and sallied forth at night to raid, plunder and terrorize her inhabitants.

In October of 1778 they paid a visit to the home of Hanna Little Dennis, daughter of John Little[2], in search of her husband, Capt. Dennis, on the pretext of reclaiming bounty captured by Dennis from a British vessel. This then is an abbreviated account of these events as given by their daughter (then 14 years. of age), Mrs. Amelia Dennis Coryell, in 1843. (New Jersey Historical Collection, pp.352,353, cf. Barber, 1845)

"On Monday, Fagan, Burke (Stephen Emmons),and Smith came to our house located south of the Manasquan River about four miles below what was then called the Howell Mills. Fagan was once a near neighbor, Smith a spy who had infilitrated the Robbers, and the other a thief of the worst kind. Smith, on the pretense of helping, bid them stay hidden while he entered the house. He quickly apprised mother of the danger. I hid a purse containing 80 dollars and ran with my little brother John to hide in a nearby swamp. The Robbers entered the house and after ascertaining that father wasn't to be found, they decided to kill her. They hung her from a cedar tree with a bed cord but was distracted by me. I saw John Holmes coming in my fathers wagon and ran to warn him. They fired at me but the bullet missed and hit the wagon instead. Holmes escaped and mother managed to free herself while they plundered the wagon, after which they left."

"The next day father moved us under armed guard to safety. That night Smith was able to get away from the Robbers long enough to warn father that they were going to plunder our house again on the next day (Wednesday) and they devised a signal."

"When the Robbers showed up they were attacked by father, and his Militia, who laid in wait and fired upon them. The Robbers disappeared but on Saturday the body of Fagan was found buried. On Sunday the location became known and Fagan was uncovered."

"So incensed were the inhabitants that they disinterred Fagan's remains and enveloped it in tar cloth and chains. The body hung from a chestnut tree on Colt's Neck near Monmouth Court House. Finally the birds picked the flesh from the skeleton and the bones fell to the ground." (New Jersey Archives, Second Series, Vol. II, p.466)

Capt. Dennis continued to pursue the Robbers, particularly Steven Emmons/Burke, whom he found with Stephen West and Ezekiel Williams and killed as well. Others brought up were doomed to be hanged in chains like Fagan. Dennis was promoted to the rank of Major by Governor Livingston and assigned the task of exterminating the remaining Robbers. In July of 1779, Major Benjamin Dennis was shot and killed by Pine Tree Robbers Lewis Fenton and Thomas Emmons/Burke while traveling between his plantation at Coryell Falls and Shrewsbury.


Written by:Pj.


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I recommend also Captain John Outwater's Co. of Bergen county Militia web page.


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