Jersey Reflections: Camden, NJ

By: Vince Farinaccio

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Walt Whitman grew up in Brooklyn but spent the last two decades of his life in Camden. 

This being the bicentennial of poet Walt Whitman’s birth, it’s a good opportunity to examine his life in Camden, where he spent the final 19 years of his life while earning recognition and fame for his published works.

According to online sources, Camden’s history dates back to 1626 when the territory from which it developed was known as Fort Nassau, established by the Dutch West India Company. Its location along the Delaware River attracted European settlers, including British nobles who took control of the territory and, by 1673, sold it to a group of Quakers. With Philadelphia, another Quaker colony, directly across the Delaware from Camden, a ferry system was established by William Royden to facilitate trade with its Pennsylvania neighbor. 

Three families, the Coopers, Kaighns and Mickles, are credited with developing the Fort Nassau area into what became Camden over the next century, but sources acknowledge that the Coopers played the biggest role. In his book South Jersey Towns, William McMahon credits Jacob Cooper as being “perhaps the first man to realize the possibilities of building a town at the present site of Camden…” Jacob procured 100 acres of land from his father in 1764, dividing less than half of it into lots. 

Over the next 10 years, every lot would be sold to individuals wishing to build a home in the newly christened town of Camden, which Jacob had named in honor of Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden, who McMahon describes as “a champion of constitutional rights for the colonies at a time when such thinking bordered on treason in Britain.” Jacob’s great-nephew provided the first expansion of Camden by dividing territory south of the original town into lots in 1803. 

Camden’s population included a number of workers affiliated with a variety of trades,

and the city’s proximity to the Delaware River and Philadelphia afforded plenty of outlets at which goods could be sold. This gave the town an economic advantage. 

With the passage of time, however, rail systems would open another means of transportation. By 1834, the Camden and Amboy Railroad was established, providing more opportunity for the city’s merchants. But the biggest change would be unleashed just as Whitman was settling in South Jersey.

Born on May 31, 1819 in Huntingdon, Long Island, Whitman grew up in Brooklyn, working for New York City newspapers, even establishing his own at one point. His poetry and fiction appeared in various newspapers throughout the 1840s, sometimes under pseudonyms. He published the first of nine editions of his masterwork Leaves of Grass in 1855, revising and expanding it over the next 36 years. 

The start of the Civil War in 1861 would draw Whitman into this bloody conflict not on a battlefield but in the service of wounded soldiers. Traveling to the war zone in search of his brother George, a Union soldier reportedly shot at Fredericksburg, he witnessed the carnage wrought by battle. Discovering his brother had suffered only a superficial wound, Whitman originally planned on returning to New York to escape what he had seen but instead sought a job in Washington in the Army paymaster’s office in order to spend his free time volunteering at hospitals to care for soldiers. 

 Moving through a series of government jobs, Whitman remained in Washington after the war, unlike his brother George who, after being captured by the Confederates, eventually released because of ill health and subsequently discharged, moved back to New York. According to David S. Reynolds, in his well-researched Walt Whitman’s America, George soon became the chief engineer for the Brooklyn Water Works. By 1871, he had married Louisa Orr Haslam, relocated to Camden, having found employment at the Iron Works, and settled at 322 Stevens Street.

In January 1873, having recently been reassigned to work in the Treasury Department, Walt Whitman returned to his apartment on a blustery winter evening and suffered a stroke, which left him bedridden for several months. His health would force him to make a crucial decision. In June, he packed his bags and left Washington, arriving at his brother’s Stevens Street home where he would reside on the second floor.

Next Week: The Poet and the City