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Monday, April 6, 2009

Slyvester Mathis and the Walking Fish

I was relaxing on my recliner the other day, surfing through the 150 or so channels that we get on our cable TV, thinking "How can so many channels have so little that I am interested in?" Getting discouraged about finding something to watch, I was ready to put the remote down and give up the search, when I clicked on the Discovery Channel. Finally, success! I just caught the end of a program that dealt with the inadvertent introduction of species into new environments and the, often, damaging consequences. I saw killer bees, armies of invading fire ants, and a walking, air breathing fish. Each of these wonders became a danger to their immediate environment, wrecking havoc as they travelled about.

As I was contemplating the concept of a walking fish, suddenly, my mind flashed back to Sylvestor Mathis and a small article I had read a few years ago while researching the Mathis family of Bass River and Tuckerton. Seems that we had an early episode of an unfortunate species introduction right in our own backyard. Not quite walking fish, but noteworthy none the less.

As I watched the story of the walking fish on the Discovery Chanel, my mind flashed back to Sylvester Mathis and his unwitting introduction of a new species to the Tuckerton area.

Sylvestor Mathis was in Illinois in May 1867, probably visiting relatives, when he saw a pair of gray gophers. Intrigued by the sight of this interesting animal that was not present in New Jersey, he placed the pair in a cage and brought them back to Tuckerton. Apparently, not enjoying the confinement of their new home, the gophers gnawed their way out of the cage and escaped into the surrounding woods and fields of Tuckerton. Suddenly, these cute little animals became the scourge of farmers and gardeners in the area. They were Tuckerton's own "walking fish" that quickly spread throughout the area.

The following except from a 1903 article that I found in my files documents the story.

"This species [gophers or gray ground squirrels] also occurs in New Jersey, where it is rapidly increasing in numbers. I learned of its introduction there through Mr. Samuel Jillson, who first wrote me about it some three or four years since. Writing him recently about it for further information respecting the date and manner of its introduction, as well as for information respecting its present numbers and the area of its range, he has kindly replied as follows, under date of' Tuckerton, New Jersey, May 6, 1877': ' The date of its introduction is May, 1867, when a single pair was brought here by Mr. Sylvester Mathis from Illinois. This pair soon gnawed out of their cage and escaped. This was in the village of Tuckerton. They are now found in Manahawken, nine miles north of Tuckerton, and also four miles south of Tuckerton and very likely farther. They are very common on all the farms about here, three miles from the village [of Tuckerton]. They seem to always keep in the fields, as I have never seen them in the woods. I find very little dirt at the mouth of their burrows, sometimes none. From one to two buckets of water poured into their holes will bring them out. We kill all we can on our farm. They destroy young chickens and turkeys, and the dogs dig large holes in our fields trying to get at the Gophers. I once found one in a salt hay stack in spring, dead, coiled up in the smallest ball possible. I also found one dead in my barn well. I think many of them winter in stacks and under outbuildings, for I never could drown out any late in the fall, in the flat fields. They are never seen here in winter, and no doubt are then dormant.' "
From The Mammals of Pennsylvania and New Jersey by Samuel N. Rhodes, Privately Published, Philadelphia, 1903.

N. H. Bishop, in the January 4, 1877 edition of "Forest and Stream," magazine also commented on Sylvester Mathis' species blunder and reported that the gophers appeared to be spreading out in the area 25 years later.

 I made a trip to Tuckerton in 1893, visiting the Messrs. Jillson and others in the surrounding country. This was during the fall season and the animals were hibernating. I secured no specimens except one mounted several years before by Mr. Jillson. Three or four burrows known to have been inhabited were visited without securing any. It was the general opinion that they were much diminished, though still present around Tuckerton  .  .  .  Since that date I have frequently endeavored, by the offer of 50 cents or even $1 each, to secure specimens without success. This indicates  .   .   .   the difficulty of catching them, which the natives complain about.

Mr. G. H. Van Note, of Barnegat, wrote me, in 1899 : " I think a few are left." Mr. T. P. Price, of Tuckerton, writes, under date of Dec., 1900 : " I have twice seen them within the past year and Joseph Webb (barber) told me he saw one last 'dove season.'" Mr. James A. G. Rehn, of Philadelphia, tells me that in a recent zoological trip through the "Plains" of south central Burlington Co. he had conversation with a Mr. Wills, of Speedwell, regarding animals of that region. Wills told him of a squirrel, evidently of this species, which within a year or two had damaged cornfields near Eagle, 1 mile west of Speedwell, undermining the hills of corn. He had in former years captured them in cornfields near Speedwell.

For those of you out there who may feel that this story is frivolous for a history blog, I'll attempt to put it in a context that might satisfy the interests of more serious historians and genealogists out there. Sylvester Mathis was the great, great grandson of the Great John Mathis, the first white settler, in Bass River. His connection is through Great John's fifth son, Jeremiah. 

There are many Sylvesters in this Mathis  line. In fact, I am acquainted with a present day Sylvester Mathis, originally from Tuckerton,  who married Alice Shropshire from New Gretna. They now live in Florida, but I see them, occasionally, when they venture north to visit Alice's sister, Jean Shropshire Harris and her husband, Murray, two of my best friends. 

Sylvestor Mathis and Alice Shropshire, in 1944, during their school days at Tuckerton High School. (Photo courtesy of Jean Shropshire Harris.)

Ironically, the gopher toting Sylvester was four generations removed from the Great John Mathis, and, also, four generations removed from the Sylvester that I know.

The Great John Mathis settled in the Bass River area in 1714.
Jeremiah Mathis (1726-1762)
Hezekiah Mathis (1749-1835)
Aden Mathis (1803-1851)
Sylvester Mathis (1826-1871) INTRODUCED GOPHERS TO TUCKERTON
Aden Mathis (1848-1887)
Sylvester Orlando Mathis (1872-1953)
Sylvester Benjamin Mathis, Sr. (1903-1955)
Sylvester Benjamin Mathis, Jr. (b1927) married Alice Shropshire

This means that anyone who is a descendant of the Great John Mathis is related to Sylvester Mathis, the "gopher man" of Tuckerton. Many people can proudly claim a horse thief in their family, but few can claim a "gopher man". Now, that's really unique!

I'm not a biologist and know little about animal species, but every time I find myself in a battle of trying to keep ground hogs out of my vegetable patch, I'm going to think about Sylvester Mathis and raise up a few choice words in his memory, even though ground hogs may have nothing to do with gophers. Somehow; however, I have a feeling that they may be kissing cousins.

Pete S


  1. Now, whoa up there Pete. I am a descendent of Great John by his son Job. Sylvester may be a distant cousin but I am not his descendent. Introducing non native species, however, is a national sport. What about that guy who imported every bird Shakespeare mentioned including Starlings. Here in Texas we are plagued with Armadillos and fire ants. Well, I guess they aren't imports, they are merely illegal immigrants. ;)
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  2. Beverly,

    I stand corrected! I wrote . . . "
    This means that anyone who is a descendant of the Great John Mathis is also a descendent of Sylvester Mathis, the "gopher man" of Tuckerton.

    I should have written . . . "This means that anyone who is a descendant of the Great John Mathis is related to Sylvester Mathis, the "gopher man" of Tuckerton. "

    I've made the appropriate change in the above text.

    Pete S

  3. Sylvester and Alice's youngest daughter, Jane, is my mother. I found your site by accident while looking for information on my grandfather's mother and the Native American tribe of her origin.

    I still get to see Aunt Jean and Uncle Murray once a year when they visit, but usually we meet in Virginia now.

    Small world!

  4. Hi Rachel. I'm Bob your, cousin. Your grandmother Alice is my first cousin. I live in New Gretna. Bob Mathis