My 2017 article “An Island Adventure in New Jersey’s Capital,” about three Delaware River islands within the city of Trenton’s borders, has generated a continuous ripple of interest and information regarding the islands’ history — especially the one now known as Rotary Island.
It started a few months after the story first appeared with a telephone call from Len Pope, the son of the last caretaker of the island that had become a summer camp for Trenton children with various illnesses or health conditions.
And now we have a personal account by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill biology professor Peter White, a descendant of one of region’s original families and former owners of that same island.
During a telephone conversation, White says though he never lived in the Trenton area he has been investigating and documenting some of the island’s history.
He says he also hopes to learn more about his family history and connect with family members through a story he shares at the end of this article — one he hopes that others may have heard before.
White’s statement is as follows, starting with a quote from one of my story sources, Herbert B. Butcher’s “History of the Trenton Rotary Club”:
‘Before the Revolution, it is said, the island was first used as a common pasture for cattle of various farmers. By the year 1755, a man named William Logan occupied the island and then Joseph White lived there and farmed it. After he died about 1816, various owners cultivated ‘White’s island’ eking out an existence here, probably aided by the abundance of fish in the Delaware, and braved the flood waters which, on one or two occasions, just covered the island.”
I am a descendant of the Joseph White that Herbert B. Butcher mentions, and not many folks would know the facts that he states.
Joseph’s son Nathan, who inherited White’s Island about 1816 (and seems to have sold it to John Hough in 1829), had 11 children who lived in Bucks County and Trenton, but I have yet to discover any Whites there that I am related to.
In my searches, I found out about a report printed in 1999 by a professional genealogist, Frances Waite, on the White families of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that makes reference to White’s Island.
Eventually, I hired Waite to look for more records concerning the island.
White’s Island is located in the Delaware River close to the shore of Lower Makefield, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just below Yardley. Though close to Pennsylvania, it is in Trenton Township, New Jersey.
This land was previously part of Pennsylvania, acquired from William Penn, and most likely part of the 2,500 acres of George White (1630-1688) that were purchased prior to George’s departure from England.
Waite reports that a Supreme Court Case of April 26, 1783, clarified the agreement of New Jersey and Pennsylvania over who owns the islands in the Delaware above the falls at Trenton.
White’s Island was originally part of Hunterdon County, New Jersey, but became part of Mercer County either when the first boundaries of the county were established in 1837 or when additional land was moved to Mercer County in 1838.
This island was once known as Gould’s Island (after James Gould, a mariner from Boston, who purchased the island on March 10, 1719, from Joseph and Hannah Frost of Massachusetts). A Google book, “American Ancestry Volume IX,” 1894, has a brief reference to Ann Gould, born in 1780 in Trenton, who is said to be the granddaughter of a lawyer who lived on the island before being lost at sea when returning home to Wales.
It became known as White’s Island starting by the mid-1700s and continuing into at least the first decades of the 1900s (I have found maps dated between 1817 and 1850 that label the island as White’s Island).
At least three generations of Whites lived on the island covering the period from approximately 1730 to 1829: John White, his son Joseph White, and his grandson, Nathan White, Sr.
Joseph White, a Quaker, and his wife, Eunice, lived on the island but held additional land in the area. Joseph’s holdings included one house, one tenement, one barn, one orchard, one garden, 100 acres of pasture land, 100 acres of meadowland, 100 acres of woodland, and 100 acres covered with water, situated in the Township of Trenton.
Waite writes: “Joseph White inherited his father’s (John’s) island in the Delaware, with the house where he lived. He was to share it [the access to fishing and the house], during fishing season with his siblings and brother-in-law Vanhorn.”
The island was clearly owned by Nathan White, Sr., when Joseph died in about 1817.
Nathan White, Sr., died in 1845. In the 1850 federal census, his widow Hannah is living in Ewing Township, and in 1860 and in 1870 she is living in Trenton (she died in 1871). Her assets in these census records are listed at about $2,000 — which is the same price White’s Island was sold to John Hough for in 1829.
In 1918 the Trenton Rotary Club bought Park Island (named by a canoe club that had eventually purchased what had been White’s Island) for the “children of this vicinity” and the league moved its “Kamp” there. In 1919 Mayor Frederick Donnelly started a drive for a permanent “Kamp,” and the first dormitory was built.
From a web history of the Rotary Club in Trenton we learn: The “Rotary has been interested in many worthwhile projects, but none has won such popular approval as the purchase of Rotary Island. During the administration of William B. Maddock, the club began its fine work for anemic children. The Trenton Times started the purchase fund with a gift of $1,000, and Rotarians raised the balance needed for the acquisition of the island. The buildings were all erected through the generosity of material men of Trenton and the trade unionists, who gave their labor without cost.
“The Mercer County Health League each year conducts a fresh air camp on the island, where ill and anemic children, recommended by school authorities and physicians, are taken for vacations to recover their health.”
The Rotary Club asked the town to change the name to Rotary Island in 1929.
I first heard of White’s island from my half-sister Sissy (Gulielma Penn-Gaskell White Krook). As we looked at old family photos that she had (which I now have), she said there was an island in the Delaware on which lived our White ancestors and it was then known as “White’s Island.”
Further, she said, an early ancestor, an elderly woman, was so pious that she waded flood waters in the Delaware and subsequently got pneumonia and died.
This pious woman could not have been Hannah Henry White, who likely lived on the island with her husband Nathan White (son of Joseph) because she died in Philadelphia in 1871.
In terms of possible other candidates for the women who waded in the Delaware River to get to church, that leaves Hannah’s mother, Esther Henry, who died in 1837, or Hannah’s mother-in-law Unis (her name also appears as Eunice, Unice, and Unity) White (the wife of Joseph White, who also lived on White’s Island).
It is amazing that Sissy’s story had survived from the late 1700s or early 1800s — through at least six generations to the present.
And it is amazing that the stories from the Trenton islands continue to be retold. If anyone has any information regarding the White family in the region, please contact Dan Aubrey at firstname.lastname@example.org.