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Friday, August 14, 2009

The Briggs and the Hermit of Oak Island

I got an account of a 1968 visit to Oak Island from Phyllis and Sam Briggs a few days ago and thought I would share it here at the Blog. But first, a little background.

Oak Island was originally called Biddle's Island when it was purchased by the Great John Mathis and two friends, Moses Foreman and William Birdsall, in 1713. Great John bought out his friends interest in the land, and built the first house in the area known know as Bass River Township on the island. He developed the island into a thriving plantation where he raised seven children with his wife, Alice Andrews Higbee, daughter of Mordecai and Mary Andrews from Tuckerton and widow of John Higbee from the Galloway Township area. They were married in the Little Egg Harbor Meeting house.

Great John purchased additional land and built a second house close by, overlooking the Bass River in the area now occupied by Viking Yacht Company. See the August 2, 2009 Blog entry for photos of this second house built and occupied by John Mathis by clicking on the link below:

See the January, 1999 edition of the Bass River Gazette for additional background information on John Mathis, Oak Island, and the Mathis family influence on Bass River Township:

Great John eventually gave the Oak Island property to his son, Job, after whom Job's Creek, which passes nearby Oak Island, is named. The island stayed in the Mathis family for many generations. I don't know when it was sold outside the Mathis family. It's on my list to research one of these days. Perhaps, someone out in the Blog-O-Sphere will take on this task.

Today, Oak Island is part of the Forsythe National Wildlife Sanctuary, and no one is allowed on the island without authorization. The days of locals exploring the island, as did Phyllis and her daughter, Connie Sue, are over. Of course, a major incentive of visiting the island, its old buildings, is now gone as a result of their demise due to neglect and various fires that swept through parts of the island over the years.

National Wildlife Refuge sign along Route 9, near the Job's Creek bridge, prohibits entry on the meadowland property leading to Oak Island. (August 13, 2009 photo by Pete Stemmer.)

Oak Island is a patch of raised land in the middle of the meadows, not far from Job's Creek and the Bass River. It also has been called "Dan's Island" as a Dan, Dan Mathis Sr. and Jr., lived there for many years. Access was either by water from the Bass River side or overland by a raised causeway, labelled Mathis Island Rd. above, from present day Route 9. The causeway was built by Great John Mathis and maintained throughout the years by his descendants. It is now largely impassable. (Aerial photo by Google Maps.)

Now, on to Phyllis Briggs' account of a 1968 adventure on Oak Island:

Oak Island, one of our favorite places, holds mystery and memories for us.

I have 2 pictures of the Oak Island house in deteriorating condition taken May 1968. The color slide shows a front view of the house, windows & doors open to the elements, tree limbs & brush littering the roof. My daughter,Connie Sue Briggs Toce, and I are standing by the house.

Phyllis and Connie Sue Briggs standing in front of the old house on Oak Island in 1968. (Photo from colored slide courtesy of Phyllis Briggs.)

A black and white photo snapped a month earlier, April 1968, shows a side view of the Oak Island house. Two chimneys peek above the roof, a clump of distant cedar trees hide the path to the house. We were pistol shooting this cool spring day. I am standing in the winter-dead grass.

Phyllis Briggs target shooting near the big house on Oak Island. (Photo courtesy of Phyllis Briggs.)

The last time we saw the house, someone had cut out the old-fashioned corner cupboard which was common in 18th century homes.

A small cabin or maybe it was a shack was on the island east of the main house. A mysterious old man named Clint DeWitt lived there alone.

He went into New Gretna each week for groceries. Did he walk into town, if so, how did he carry heavy groceries home and across the rough muddy woods road? Some people said he paid for his supplies with gold. Alston Allen or Donald Maxwell might provide information that would make this an intriguing story.

Phyllis and Sam Briggs

Phyllis' mystery man, Clint Dewitt, was actually Dewitt Clinton Mathis, Jr. who was born in April 1847, a twin and one of 9 children. Known locally as "Clint Dewitt", he was the great-great-great-great grandson of Great John Mathis and the last of Great John's descendants to live on Oak Island.

Unmarried, he lived the life of a hermit. Local tradition says that he lived in a cave which Phyllis stated in her Oak Island account.

Shortly after Jackie and I moved to New Gretna, in the mid 1970's, Murray Harris took me on a trip to Oak Island. Murray parked his car just off the shoulder on Route 9, not far from Job's Creek. We walked through a narrow band of woods, adjacent to Route 9, then headed south-west over the meadows toward Oak Island. We basically followed the route of the old causeway road outlined in the aerial map above.

Jumping over various small ditches and crossing the crumbling remains of a bridge over Wolf Run, we eventually found ourselves on Oak Island. Unfortunately, we didn't have a camera with us to take photos, as Phyllis did in 1968, but I remember a large barn, the brick remains of a foundation left from an ancient house, a large wooden house, a cabin, and some smaller out buildings. I'm sure that none of these structures belonged to Great John, but had been built by his descendants over the years. I have no information regarding their age or who built them.

When we approached the dilapidated small cabin, Murray pointed to a hole near the floor where he said that Clint DeWitt slept in a pile of old matresses, newspapers, and rags. This was what I believe was Clint DeWitt's "Cave".

Clint's appearance reflected his hermit like existence on the island. His clothes were often dirty, and he was usually in need of a bath. It's a good bet that he had no inkling that it was improper to wear white after Labor Day.

It would be kind to say that Clint DeWitt's appearance appeared disheveled. (1946 photo courtesy of Norman and Ann Mathis.)
Clint rarely left the island. Norman and Ann Mathis, told me that Clint came to New Gretna on some Sunday mornings to get food from Clarence Mathis store just off the south-west corner of New York Road (Route 9) and South Maple Avenue. Norman was Clarence Mathis' son.

Clarence's store was closed on Sundays, so Clint would walk, early in the morning, to Clarence's house behind the store and bang on the siding with his large wooden staff, yelling "Clar-ance! Clar-ance!"

Clarence, usually awakened from a sleep, would open the store for Clint. The local tradition that Clint paid for his supplies in gold is suspect. In this case, it's likely that, more often than not, Clarence added the purchases to Clint's tab which probably was often forgotten.

Clarence Mathis' store was opened six days a week but closed on Sundays, the day Clint usually chose to stop by for his groceries. (1941 photo courtesy of Norman and Ann Mathis.)

Clint with Clarence (left) and Orval Mathis, Clarence's son, out front of Clarence's Store on a rare weekday visit. A Public Service Bus Stop Terminal sign can be seen over Clarence's shoulder. (Photo courtesy of Norman and Ann Mathis.)

Following is the line from DeWitt Clinton, Jr. back to Great John Mathis, for all you genealogy fans out in the Blog-O-Sphere. It was taken from Jean and Murray Harris' book, "The Mathis Family of Little Egg Harbor".

Dewitt Clinton Mathis, son of Daniel and Elizabeth (White) Mathis, born 1827, died December 25, 1902, married Hannah Allen, daughter of George and Abigail (French) Allen, born 1838. Children:

i Samuel H., born 1857, died August 18, 1932 at Dan's Island. He was a hunter and trapper

ii Daniel, born 1862

iii Catherine, born 1864, died 1937, married Paul Lonstein

iv Dewitt Clinton Jr., born April 1867, died March 20, 1947, unmarried, one of twins

v George A., one of twins, married Agnes E. Garrison(?)

vi Thomas S., born March 1, 1869, died September 18, 1951, married Ida Deacon, daughter of Ebenezer and Abigail (Cramer) Deacon, born September 13, 1868, died March 2, 1938, buried in Miller Cemetery.

vii William F., born 1872

viii Mary H., born 1876

ix Adra A., born 1879

Daniel Mathis Jr., son of Daniel and Phoebe (Smith) Mathis, born September 14, 1801, died January 14, 1890, married (a) Elizabeth White, daughter of Benjamin and Mary White, born May 20, 1803, died July 25, 1860, and (b) Sally Ann Cramer, born June 29,1816, died May 27, 1897, widow of Darius Cramer, who died September 13, 1858. Daniel lived on Oak ( or Dan's ) Island along the BassRiver. Children of Daniel and Elizabeth:

i Josephine Louisa, married Benjamin M.Butler

ii Dewitt Clinton, married Hannah Allen

iii Mary Ann, married Franklin Adams

iv Lewis Lane, married (a) Hannah Walton and (b) Anna Adair

v Benjamin Churchwood, married Mary Walton

vi Elizabeth H., married George Hickman

vii Daniel Edward, married (a) Charlotte A.Cramer and (b) Lois H.Eldridge

viii Sarah C., born 1846,( is this Cordelia who married Prentice Bugby son of Daniel Bugby of Barnegat on January 3, 1861 ?)

ix Watson S., (born 1856 ?)

Daniel Mathis, son of Job and Phoebe (Leek) Mathis, born July 21, 1761, died March 10, 1836, married 1786, Phoebe Smith, daughter of Micajah and Sara (Owen) Smith of Port Republic, born June 30, 1764, died September 1, 1836. They are buried in the Methodist Cemetery, Tuckerton. Children:

i Owen Mary, married Jonas Miller

iii Sarah, married James Downs

iv Aaron, married Margery Kirkbride

v Leah

vi Micajah Smith, married Nancy (Gamage) Mathis

vii Daniel Jr., married Elizabeth White

viii Phoebe S., married Captain William French

ix Anna Maria, married Francis French

Job Mathis, son of John and Alice (Andrews) Mathis, born May 13, 1719, died 1771, married May 15, 1760 Phoebe Leek, daughter of John and Phoebe (Deviney) Leek. He is buried at the Tuckerton Friends Meeting House with no stone. Children:

i Daniel, married Phoebe Smith

ii Enoch, married Nancy Gamage

iii Phoebe, married John Forman

iv Mary

I wonder how many of the Blog readers are descendants of the Great John Mathis and/or are related to Clint DeWitt. It would be interesting to hear from you.

Pete S.

PS- Just an aside. Murray Harris, who took me on my first trip to Oak Island, married Jean Shropshire the daughter of Walter Roy and Ethel Applegate Mathis. Walter Roy Mathis was the son of Lewis Lane Mathis who was the son of Daniel Mathis, Jr. who is Clint DeWitt's grandfather. That means that Jean Shropshire Harris, Murray's wife, is related to Clint DeWitt. Probabably a cousin several times removed. Strange that I don't see the family resemblance, and I'll have to say that Jean sure dresses better.

Murray, then, is also related to Clint, through marriage. There is some irony in that Murray took me to see Oak Island, the home of Clint DeWitt, and probably had no idea of his distant relationship to the eccentric hermit. Murray still may not have made the connection, in which case . . . SURPRISE !


  1. Me, Me! But, of course, you already knew that. So, I guess ol DeWitt is a distant cousin because my line drops off after Daniel Mathis son Aaron and daughter Nancy. Oh, what fun.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  2. Pete,

    Upon reading in the blog your story on Clint DeWitt Mathis, it brought back memories. He would come off the island occasionally for supplies or groceries which he always purchased at Clarance Mathis's store. He seemed to trust Cmore than any other person in town. Us kids would follow him around as he was an oddity, especially the way he dressed and the manner of his speech.

    You ask how he carried his groceries, always on the end of a stout stick slung over his shoulder tied in a colored wrap, looking something like a old tablecloth, dirty as sin. He always had tobacco juice all down the front of him. He was actually soaked in tobacco juice, as he was always chewing. He also liked to imbibe in alcoholic beverages, as he would from time to time get drunk as sin and sleep it off sometimes out back of Clarence's store. He always wore the same old coat as in the picture and always had a pair of cut off boots.

    I remembered one time I was in Clarance Mathis's store when he was in there getting groceries.He always paid for them in cash, the dirtiest paper money you ever saw. It was all wadded up and I noticed that Clarance and Helen were sort of reluctant to even touch it as they would slide it off the counter to a place by itself.

    This one day they were trying to talk Clint to sign into an old folks home located in Mt. Holly, telling him how much better it would be for him, but they couldn't convince him, and I remember him saying that he heard they would slip me a black pill and that would be the end.

    It wasn't a year or two after that that he was found dead over on the island. I think by Boot Mathis, as he owned that property at the time. He also trusted Boot Mathis, as I believe he would take him some supplies, and always looked after him.

    I remembered one time, I believe it was in 1963, Fred Kalm, Norman Cramer, my brother Jack, and I were deer hunting over on the island with Boot (We did good that day, killed several deer.) and Boot showed me where Clint lived and slept. It was like Murry Harris said, like a cave in the ground, and he just slid in and wrapped up in some old filthy bedding.

    Clint was quite a character around New Gretna in those days. I remember when the public service bus would stop in New Gretna going from Atlantic City to New York, and Clint would happen to be in town that day and would linger for a few minutes as the passengers would all crowd over on that side of the bus to catch a glimpse of him. What a character.

    Don Maxwell

  3. Don,

    It's great to hear from you. It's been quite a while.

    You mentioned that Clint's manner of speech was odd. Could you please elaborate on that.

    Pete S

  4. Mystery solved!! Fascinating story. Detective Pete you are the best! Sure wish we knew all this information years ago.

  5. All this makes me wish I had paid more attention to the stories that were told whenever we visited my grandparents in the summer. Many of the names mentioned always seem "sort of" familiar somehow. I'm sure my grandfather "Boot" would have had a lot to say about DeWitt. We can only assume he had some real mental/sociological problems.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  6. Pete,

    I just stumbled across this blog, and I have found it incredibly fascinating! I am a direct descendant of the Great John, via Job/Daniel/Aaron/Phineas K, and have always been intrigued with the Mathis history of the region.

    Sometime between '70 to '73 I think, my grandfather took a number of the family to Dan's Island. We traveled by small boat, must have been up the Bass River. I don't recall much; I was somewhere between 4-6 years old. But I do have a clear memory of seeing a foundation that my Grandfather thought was the original Great John homestead, as well as the house pictured above. We also heard stories about Clint DeWitt. This post, along with the photos, brought back these memories.

    Fascinating stuff, thank you so much for posting it!

    Don Mathis

  7. Don,

    Good to hear from you. Hope you become a regular viewer and contributor to the Blog.

    Just wondering - Who was your grandfather and do you have any old family photos that you would be willing to share?

    Pete S

  8. Pete,

    My grandfather was Harold Hilliard, married to Helen Parker. They are both buried in Miller's cemetery. Harold's father was Harry Clinton, who was in turn Joseph Kirkbride's son.

    I have some photos I need to scan ... there are more in the family I intend to track down. In the meantime, I have one .jpeg of my grandfather, WWII vintage, that I could post (let me know how best to get it to you).


  9. Don,

    It would be great if you could scan some of your old family photos. Unfortunately, I don't have much information on the Hilliard family.

    The best way to get photos to me is by email. Then I can post them to the Blog.

    Pete S

  10. Pete,

    Sorry, I was using middle names but not mentioning the last name: Mathis in every case! It is interesting to note, however, that many of the middle names used in my Mathis line during the 19th century came from a mother's maiden name (I assume this was common practice at the time). So, for example, my grandfather -- Harold Hilliard Mathis -- took his middle name from his mother, Emily Hilliard Johnson, whose own mother was Emily Hilliard. Similarly, my great great grandfather, Joseph Kirkbride Mathis, took his middle name from his father Phineas Kirkbride Mathis, whose mother was Marjorie Kirkbride.

    In any case, I will send the photos as I scan them... and if you have any info. on my particular Mathis line (residents of Bass River / Mathistown from Great John until my grandfather moved to Tuckerton!), I'd be very grateful.


  11. Don,

    I should have realized that. Anyway, I don't have any photos of that Mathis line either. Looking forward to seeing what you may have.

    Pete S

  12. Pete, you are not the only one looking forward to Don's photos. Sounds like some of them would be my ancestors, too, and I would be overjoyed to see pictures of anyone beyond my grandfather, Boot Mathis.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson

  13. Byron Mathis is my dad's father can you please track the family history for me. My Dad Ronald Lewis Mathis cut off his family an I don't know any of the Mathis Family from Tuckerton, Atlantic City and New Gretna

  14. Oh yeah my Great Great grandfather was the first cop in Tuckerton it might be another great don't know for sure only know he was the first.

  15. Anonymous,

    What was the name of your great grandfather who was the first policeman in Tuckerton?

    Pete S

  16. I to am part of the mathis clan