By John Kuhl
Those of us in our society who have been involved in answering such correspondence are always amazed at the volume of requests we receive from all over the country as people write to search out their Hunterdon County ancestors. From 1713 the county embraced all the land in West Jersey north of the middle of Trenton on up to the New York state border. Morris County was split off in 1738 and from this in 1753 was taken Sussex County-from which, in turn, Warren County was created in 1824. Finally, Mercer and with it Trenton, was set off in 1838. Even given its final diminished area, thousands of families can claim Hunterdon origins from within its present borders.
Of these, the rich and the famous achieved success in many categories, the military, civil pursuits, the arts, and of course, business. In the Larison’s Corner cemetery is a huge monument erected by the John D. Rockefeller Association to honor the family origins of that magnate of the Standard Oil Company and many other related endeavors. The original immigrant ancestor, Johann Peter Rockefeller, settled in southern Hunterdon by about 1723 and is buried on his old farm near Rocktown in West Amwell Twp. Another Palatinate German, Henry Wanamaker, settled in Kingwood Twp. Among his great, great grandchildren was the eminent retail merchant, John Wanamaker, whose name is still recognizable to today’s department store shoppers. Although maybe not quite so well known to us today, another man from Hunterdon, George Opdyke, made it big in the commercial, financial and political fields. This Dutch family emigrated to New York in 1663. Branches of the Opdykes later moved to Hunterdon where George was born in Kingwood Twp. the sixth of nine children to George and Mary (Stout) Opdyke on 7 December 1805. Young George grew up on his father’s farm at Baptistown and by determined effort at age 16 had gained his certificate to teach in a local district school. Described as decisive, prompt, and fearless in the discharge of his duties, he had no trouble keeping discipline (sometimes by physical means) in his school classes, even with students older than himself. Two years later he was clerking in the town’s general store and finding that he had a knack for business. Soon coming to the opinion that local opportunities in no way matched the size of his ambition, he relocated in 1825 to Cleveland, Ohio when that city was still nothing but an outpost settlement. He and his partner in the frontier trading post there each cleared $500 their first year but Opdyke said: “This place is too slow, let us try elsewhere”. They searched along the banks of the Mississippi as they floated downstream in a flat boat but found nothing to suit them until reaching New Orleans. There in the dry goods business he established the foundation of his fortune and there too, he acquired that “finished Southern courtesy of manner” for which he was known throughout the remainder of his life.
George made a trip back to New Jersey in 1829 seeking to marry Elizabeth Hall Stryker, the daughter of Peter Stryker and Keziah Davis. George was described as 5′ 11″ tall, thin and tough with handsome features. Though they were farmers of Hunterdon County, the Strykers were an old, prominent Dutch family with aristocratic and social pretensions. The same age as her prospective husband, Elizabeth had twice before refused George’s advances but given his new success, finally accepted and the two were married on 26 September 1829. She became a loving, helpful wife who bore him six children:
- Emeline in 1833 (married Edw. Strobell of N.Y.C),
- Mary E. in 1834 (married Geo. Farlee of N.Y.C.),
- William S. in 1836,
- Charles W. in 1838,
- George F. in 1840, and
- Henry B. in 1841.
All lived at one time in New York City but the latter three sons eventually removed to Plainfield, N.J. New York City became the focus of Opdyke’s operations in 1832 when he entered the dry goods and clothing business there. He was a partner in the house of W.I.Peake & Co. and in the clothing firms of Henry & John Paret and Carhart, Whitford & Co. He expanded his operations by becoming a director in one of the largest banks in New York City and was also appointed presiding officer of an insurance company. In the Fall of 1868 he formed his own banking company, George Opdyke & Co. Surviving the scare of the business panic of 1873 by sheer determination and honorable principles, he covered the accounts and notes of his customers and was ever thereafter successful in all his commercial ventures.
The family had moved from New York City to Newark, NJ. in 1837 when the first railroad was opened between those two cities. It was said that no matter how busy, George invariably left his work behind at the end of the day. On arriving home he would devote most of the evening hours to his family, discussing with them, aspects of the children’s education and experiences. It was at this time that on his own, he expanded his classical knowledge, becoming a deep thinker on many topics. A number of his highly regarded works were published and his thinking on theories of political economy was especially sought by many of his contemporaries. Though up to now, a lifelong Democrat he especially opposed slavery, bringing him into conflict with fellow party members. In 1848 he became a delegate from New Jersey to the Buffalo convention that organized the Free Soil Party and he thus became one of the first pioneers of the Republican Party. He ran that year as a candidate for Congress from New Jersey under the banner of the Free Soil Party but was defeated in his heavily Democratic home state. In 1853 he moved his residence back to New York City. Continuing his support of the Republicans, he campaigned for General Fremont in the 1856 presidential election and two years later was himself elected to the New York State Assembly. In 1859 he ran for Mayor of New York but was defeated by Fernando Wood and the majority Democrats.
Undaunted, he became one of the delegates to the Republican National Convention at Chicago where both his political and financial support were instrumental in gaining the nomination for Abraham Lincoln. When Civil War broke out in 1861 his resolutions proposed to the New York Chamber of Commerce of which he was an officer, were the first public action taken in that city in support of the national government. George would continue throughout the war to aid as best he could, the war efforts of the federals. His stance on the war is epitomized in a front page cartoon from an 1862 issue of New York’s Vanity Fair. At the same time, he gained powerful enemies by opposing as much as he could, the corrupt political machine of the Democrats within the city. It was in spite of this that he was elected Mayor in late 1861 and served as such during 1862 and 1863, including the time of the disastrous draft riots in July of 1863.
These draft riots were triggered up front by reaction to a new Federal draft levy for troops from New York but they were every bit as much a function of politics, economics and racial hatred as they were about just opposing the government’s efforts to draft soldiers into the army. It was class warfare at its worst that erupted into a cruel and vicious struggle. Starting on 13 July mobs rampaged through the city, looting and burning homes and stores, destroying offending newspapers, killing policemen and soldiers, lynching blacks from lamp posts, and destroying armories and government offices, especially those involved in the draft process. Opdyke refused to leave the city, calling together what local police, militia, and Federal forces he could gather. His own home at 79 5th Avenue was attacked twice and Mrs. Opdyke escaped only by fleeing through an adjoining house. At the height of the riot, the Board of Alderman unanimously voted $2,500,000 to appease the mob but Opdyke refused to approve the ordinance, saying that the rioters must be suppressed, not conciliated. Chaos reigned on for three days until Union ships streamed into the harbor and trained their guns down open streets. Two brigades of army soldiers arrived fromAa south-to relieve exhaustedpolice-and militia,- Only point blank fire into the mobs put them down and relative peace was finally restored. Hundreds on both sides had been killed and the financial losses ran into the millions. But Union efforts had prevailed.
His interest in politics continued after the war when George was a delegate to the New York Constitutional Convention of 1867-8 and the subsequent Constitutional Commission of 1872-3. His special interest was work on canals, public education, and in efforts to reduce political graft and plundering. As he aged he gradually backed away from his financial interests, leaving that field of operations to his sons. His interest in public questions though, continued to the end. Weakened by an attack of pneumonia, his health gradually failed with what his obituary called disorders of the stomach, and he finally died at his home, #1 East 47th St. in the city on 12 June 1880 at the age of 75. By conviction a Unitarian, he had long attended the Reformed Church of which his wife was a member. His funeral services were held from the Collegiate Reformed Church, 5th Ave & 48th St. Never an extreme church proponent, his view was that nevertheless, “you or I cannot do better than to follow the teachings of Christ”. His wife would live on until 1891 when she died at the home of her son, Henry B. Opdyke on Farragut Road in Plainfield,N.J.
Son Charles would write of him with ample justification in The Opdyke Genealogy printed in New York in 1889:
‘in our time and country, “self made men” are not rare among merchants, scholars, or statesmen. George Opydke was a notable instance of eminence in all three of these classes at once. That at the same time he excelled also in simplicity, in purity, and in humanity, made him a marvel to all who knew him.’
Not many, if any, home-town boys from Hunterdon ever achieved a wider range of success or contributed more to their country.
- The Op Dyek-Ge-neaoiogyChas. W: Opdyek; NY 1889
- Srope Scrapbooks Vol. 3-144 & 58-441 Hunterdon Co. Hist. Soc.
- History of Hunterdon & Somerset Counties James Snell 1881
- New York Times 13 June 1880
- National Encyclopedia of American Biography NY 1897.
- The Gangs of New York Herbert Asbury 1928/1998