Sunday, September 15, 2013

Gold, Alexander Cartwright and Newark Base Ball

In December of 1848, John Shaff, a young Newark man, learned of an exciting opportunity for fame and fortune.  Gold had been discovered in far off California and easy riches awaited those bold enough to seize the once in a lifetime opportunity. There was no time to lose and companies of prospective prospectors sprung up throughout New Jersey while the Newark Daily Advertiser began running ads offering supplies and transportation for those on the way to gold and glory.

It was only natural, therefore, that Newark, as New Jersey's largest city, would sponsor an expedition and  the Newark Overland Company was formed  in early 1849.  The leader was General John Darcy, prominent Newark physician and political leader.  For Shaff, it was an opportunity too good to miss so he signed on as one of the 26 Newark men in the total party of 37.

Unlike other New Jersey expeditions which traveled by ship, the Newark contingent opted for the overland route.  Their quest for gold began on March 1, 1849 when the adventurers boarded the train for Philadelphia, the first leg of a railroad, stagecoach  and steamboat journey bound for Independence, Missouri, the jumping off point for wagon trains headed to California.  After about a month on the road and river, they reached Independence, but had to wait another month before the wagon train headed west.  While in Independence,  a dispute over whether mules or oxen should be used to pull their wagons, led 13 members to head out on their own.  Favoring oxen was General Darcy and John Shaff must have agreed as he too stayed with the main party now numbering about 25.

Newark Daily Advertiser - January 9, 1849

During the hiatus, the company was divided into "messes," smaller groups assigned to specific wagons, who would eat, sleep and travel together.  Although most of the remaining Overland Company members were from Newark, John Shaff found himself in a "mess" with one man from Jersey City and three New Yorkers, including a young man named Alexander Joy Cartwright.  With such a long wait, the men had a lot of time to kill and quickly got bored.  One day, to break the monotony, Cartwright took a ball out of his luggage, told the group about base ball, and organized an impromptu game.  Later around the campfire, Cartwright told the others that he had been a member of the prestigious Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York and had helped establish the "new" game.

Newark Daily Advertiser - April 27, 1849

No matter how much they enjoyed the game, everyone was relieved on May 1st, when the wagon train got underway.  The Newark Overland Company finally arrived in California in July where, as originally planned, the men split up, each to "work on his own hook."  Shaff stayed in California for a few years, but returned to Newark by 1854 to work as a bookkeeper.  Although he apparently didn't bring back great riches, Shaff had fond memories of base ball and Cartwright's stories of the Knickerbocker Club.  Now and then Shaff saw accounts of the club's Elysian Field matches and discussed them with friends, not omitting that he himself had actually played the game out west with one of the club's founding members.  Their interest piqued, the young men formed their own base ball club, proudly called it the Newark Club and elected John Shaff, Vice President in gratitude for his encouragement and advice.  And so, thanks to Alexander Cartwright (not to mention John Shaff), base ball came to Newark and shortly thereafter the rest of New Jersey.

Pierson's Newark Directory for 1851-52

If the above sounds like an attempt at a creation myth for base ball in New Jersey, it's because that's exactly what it is.  A myth, however, which is based on documented facts.  Alexander Cartwright was indeed a member of the Newark Overland Company as was John Shaff (Newark Daily Advertiser, April 27, 1849) and they were part of the same "mess" (Alexander Cartwright by Monica Nucciarone, p.185).  Shaff did return to Newark and was, in fact, both a founding member and the first Vice President of the Newark Club ( Newark Daily Advertiser, August 11, 1855  ).  Furthermore while no proof exists that the men on the Overland Company played base ball, one of Monica Nucciarone's sources believes it is plausible they did so, especially during the long layover in Independence.

Alexander Cartwright

Linking these facts together into a creation myth for base ball in New Jersey is, of course, another matter and not what I'm about here.  However, the fact that Cartwright and Shaff were in the same "mess" documents they knew one another and I think it's fair to say that at one time or another Cartwright talked about base ball and the Knickerbocker Club.  Whether Cartwright actually started a base ball game on the trip is conjectural, but if he did bring a ball with him, as he said he did, it's more than probable that at some point Cartwright and the others at least played a little catch.

Whether any of this was a determining factor  in the founding of the Newark Club is unlikely.  Had Shaff been the prime mover, he most likely would have been the President, not William Dodd.  But his status as a charter member and officer suggests he was more than just a mere follower.  Shaff's accidental relationship with a member of the Knickerbockers also illustrates the many different ways a young man from New Jersey could have been exposed to base ball.  In addition, it demonstrates that there was more mobility in that society than we tend to believe or at least, I tend to believe.  If nothing else I should have learned this from one of my English ancestors where a long gap in his life was ultimately explained by the fact he spent 15 years in the India in the British Army!

Newark Daily Advertiser - August 11, 1855

As New Jersey's first base ball club (or at least the first to play a match), the Newark Club is important and merits detailed investigation.  I've managed to identify a fairly high percentage of the charter members which is how I learned of Shaff's California expedition.  While finding the specific details of the club's founding is very unlikely, I'm hoping to find enough information about these young men that will shed at least some further light on the story of base ball's beginnings in New Jersey.

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