Tory Pine Tree Robbers


Jul 20, 2003
millville nj
Has anyone ever heard of the Pine Tree Robbers? While doing my wifes geneaology I came across a story about some Pine barrens bandits fighting for the is an excer[pt from a much larger story

"This [Monmouth] County was more afflicted by these parties than all the rest of the state combined" (Historical Collections of NJ, Barber, 1845, pages 370-371). The Revolutionary War was for all practical purposes a preview of our Civil War (fought nearly 100 years later) in that it pitted neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, and split families asunder. It was a long and brutal war that caused every type of injustice known to be heaped upon the innocents. 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 its 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 Little, 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, and mother wasn't talking, 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 the Robbers 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 common knowledge 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.
Hanna later married John Lambert, Esq., a member of the Provincial Congress of New Jersey. This John Lambert was the acting Governor of New Jersey (1802-3); was elected to the Ninth and Tenth Congresses (1805-1809); and elected to the US Senate (1809 to 1815) before he died in 1823 (Biographical Directory of the American Congress: 1774-1927, p.1119). Hanna Little Dennis died twelve years later.
Finally these aggravated abuses aroused the passions (of its citizens) to a nearly super-human degree and little by little they succeeded in retaking New Jersey. In the process, they inspired the other colonies to increase their efforts. In 1783 the war ended with independence won.
The post-war years began with reclaiming the land and rebuilding homes, for, regardless of political sentiment, families still needed food and a place to live. The Littles had grist and saw mills, but they were, first and foremost, farmers. It was here that Thomas remained and sold products from the plantation until he moved to Pennsylvania with his parents. The second order of business was the much more daunting task of reuniting families. This was a very brutal war that was fueled in large part by loyalies to the crown. These same fierce loyalties divided families and churches, and it was years before many of their differences were settled.