Throughout history, transportation networks have always been the cornerstone of any successful settlement. Middletown was no different, as the colonial road known as the “King’s Highway” was the baseline around which the town was laid out. The town of Middletown, first settled in 1664, consisted of 36 “lotts” bifurcated by the Kings Highway, which was actually an old American Indian path known as the Minisink Path. In fact, many of the first New Jersey towns were laid out more or less within the loose frameworks of surviving American Indian features. Routes traversed by American Indians were favored by the colonists because of their proximity to higher ground surfaces away from ravines, steep slopes, bogs, streams, and marshy ground. One of the consequences however, of a sparse indigenous population was that many of these roads fell into disuse, as exemplified by stretches of trees and brush that had grown over the pathways by the time of colonial settlement. As a result, one of the first tasks of the new settlers was to clear and upgrade the path to meet the demands of the 17th-century colonists. Kings Highway upon completion was six rods, or 99 feet in width.
The design of Middletown, with individual lots fronting the main road followed the New England system, whereby landowners resided on lots in the village, with most of their land situated on outlying lots. Many of the structures/sites built on the village lots along Kings Highway during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries still stand today. These include Christ Church (ca. 1836 on a ca. 1670 foundation), Old First Church (ca. 1832 on a ca. 1688 footprint), Dutch Reformed Church (ca. 1836), Old Presbyterian Burying Ground (ca. 1684), Truex Blacksmith Shop (ca. 1825), Marlpit Hall (ca. 1686), Taylor-Butler House (ca. 1853) and over a dozen, privately owned 17th, 18th and 19th-century dwellings.
While Kings Highway formed the nucleus of a settlement borne of honest, hard-working men and women, it was also the scene of nefarious acts committed by some of the most notorious outlaws in the colonies. Around the turn of the 18th century Moses Butterworth, a resident of Middletown and associate of the famed pirate Captain Kidd, escaped imprisonment and eventual execution from a blockhouse located on the site of Christ Church by traveling along Kings Highway toward Raritan Bay. In the early 18th century another pirate, Blackbeard and his band were in the process of raiding the town for supplies. They were met by an angry mob of townspeople in a bloody confrontation on Kings Highway in front of Christ Church near the present-day Church Street intersection.
Kings Highway was also a major thoroughfare during the colonial period, even serving as the retreat route for British soldiers on their way to Sandy Hook Bay following the Battle of Monmouth. Along the way, they occupied the Old First Church building on Kings Highway for use as a barracks/hospital before leaving for Sandy Hook. The Anonymous Spy Map of Monmouth County, a fascinating document from the Revolutionary War that still survives, depicts King’s Highway among other local roads complete with distances between houses to assist the local Tories (loyalists to King George) in their provisional raids. Many of these Tories were direct descendants of the first settlers who owned lots along Kings Highway. During the Civil War, Colonel William Truex drilled troops along Kings Highway in front of the blacksmith shop that still bears his name. These troops would eventually see action in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.
In 1919, Kings Highway underwent a fairly significant realignment. As part of an upgrade to several area roads, a section of Kings Highway was shifted northward in the vicinity of Middletown Village School. As a result, Marlpit Hall was moved fifty feet north of its original location, to where it stands today.
Traveling down Kings Highway today is simply following in the footsteps of where our Middletown ancestors have walked for thousands of years. The numerous buildings, intersections and sites that still remain provide tangible reminders of the way Middletown used to be, and hopefully will continue to be for generations to come.
Gerry Scharfenberger is the mayor of Middletown Township and a professional archaeologist.