Charles Abbott Monument
Riverview Cemetery
Trenton, New Jersey

Abbott, Charles 

A visit to Riverview Cemetery in Trenton, New Jersey drew my attention to a modest sized boulder tombstone sitting amidst a closely spaced row of more traditional granite and marble monuments.  Upon investigation I found an attached weathered bronze plaque indicating the grave site to be that of Charles and Julia Abbott.  I recognized the name immediately as Charles Abbott was a colorful personality from the cemetery’s neighborhood in the last quarter of the 19th century and focused much attention on the city of Trenton in what was known locally as "The Abbott Farm Controversy".

A doctor by training Abbott owned a large farm named Three Beeches on Trenton’s south side near White Horse Circle between present day Broad Street and the Delaware River.  Abbott enjoyed the outdoors observing and studying animal and plant life throughout his farm and soon lost interest in practicing medicine.  He by now could best be described as a part-time naturalist and archaeologist spending his days in nature walks and in writing short papers and periodical articles detailing his daily findings.

Abbott was soon finding Native American artifacts consisting mostly of pottery shards and arrow and spear points which led him to expand his exploring to the nearby Delaware River channel and banks where soil above gravel beds produced additional artifacts and crude tools.  Believing the gravel beds to be Pleistocene era and some of the tools resembling European discoveries linked conclusively to Stone Age man, Abbott became convinced that right here on his own farm he had proof of human habitation in North America dating back some 10,000 years to near the end of the Ice Age.  Abbott then undertook the publication of a small book titled The Stone Age in New Jersey to advance his hypothesis.  It was a theory not yet universally accepted by the scientific and academic communities.

The scientific and academic response was quickly forthcoming.  Chief among the naysayers was William Henry Holmes who enjoyed a national reputation with the Smithsonian Institution.  In his own writings and correspondence Holmes heaped almost non-stop vitriolic condemnation upon Abbott and his “amateur theories”.

Abbott was by nature a stubborn man with a combative disposition.  He fumed over the rebukes and soon turned to Harvard University to help validate his claims.  His frequent correspondence with Harvard professors soon brought him to the attention of Frederic Putnam, then Curator of Harvard’s prestigious Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology.  Seeing some possible merit to Abbott’s findings Putnam sent a Harvard geologist to Trenton to assist in evaluating the site.  Initial reports back to Harvard confirmed that the gravel beds were glacial in origin and dated back at least 10,000 years.  Putnam now used his own standing in the academic community to secure Harvard funding for Abbott and hired a professional archaeologist named Ernest Volk to assist.  In return, all recovered artifacts would become the property of the Peabody Museum.

The collaboration between Abbott and Volk lasted some thirty years.  Abbott continued his own writings.  In 1911 Volk published his own research which interestingly seemed to undermine Abbott’s original claims about the origins of prehistoric man in New Jersey.

In 1913 a fire destroyed the Abbott farm and all of its outbuildings including many research notes and papers.  Abbott then more or less retired across the river to Pennsylvania and eventually passed away in 1919.  Two months later Volk was killed in an auto accident “upthewoods” while passing through Tunkhannock.  With both main figures in the continuing debate now deceased the controversy ended and scientific interest faded.

It was revived somewhat in the 1930’s when New Jersey received some WPA monies and funded a state archaeologist named Dr. Dorothy Cross for another archaeological excavation in and around Three Beeches.  Cross’s conclusions after ten years of work and another 20,000 artifacts largely supported the findings of Volk.  The main conclusion was that while there were signs of human activity Abbott was incorrect in his claims concerning early man in New Jersey dating back 10,000 years to the Pleistocene Ice Age.  Cross placed human habitation at 5,000 – 6,000 years ago in age.  Perhaps, fortunately for Abbott, he did not live to experience this refutation of his work.

But the controversy lingered in academic circles and in 1976 Abbott’s property and 2000 adjoining acres were deemed unique and received federal protection through the awarding of national historic landmark status.  In the 1980’s New Jersey began long awaited highway construction projects for present day I-195, I-295, NJ-29 and NJ-129 that centered on or near Abbott’s property.  With federal protection in place a third archaeological excavation was ordered.  Over thirteen miles of planned highway infrastructure was excavated and analyzed.  Little additional artifacts were uncovered but it was concluded through the use of modern technologies that not only was Abbott incorrect, so was Cross.  While there was some evidence of transient use dating back to Cross’s timeline, permanent settlement occurred 500 B.C. – 500 A.D.   The Abbott Farm Controversy and its contradictory arguments have finally been put to rest.

Today, most of the excavated lands are either in the public domain under control of local governments or lie under the lanes and ramps of the completed highway system.  A very small portion remains in private hands.  As for Abbott, his remains were returned to Trenton from Pennsylvania and he and his wife are now buried under the simple stone boulder at Riverview located a short distance from his Three Beeches property.  With Abbott never swerving in his beliefs as to the validity of his theories, the family appropriately chose a glacial boulder from the nearby river bank for his tombstone and attached the plaque that in addition to Charles and Julia’s names reads “In this neighborhood Dr. Charles C. Abbott discovered the remains of Paleolithic Man in America.”

It is now believed that Asians crossed a Bering Sea land bridge into North America while the Ice Age was still intact somewhere between 15,000 – 20,000 years ago.  Eventually the migration spread beyond Alaska and into the lower 48 states including New Jersey.  It is now certain that this migration reached New Jersey at least 10,000 years ago.  Whatever tools and weapons they possessed bear no connection to those found by Abbott but provides confirmation that Abbott was correct in his hypothesis about the timeline for Stone Age man in New Jersey albeit for the wrong reasons.

Scorned and ridiculed by some, applauded by others, Abbott’s life and career brought little personal satisfaction and the recognition he craved but in the context of the late 19th century it did serve to secure in American academia the importance of testing theories before developing conclusions and established archaeology as a member of the scientific community.  Perhaps that is Conrad’s real triumph and contribution and worthy of remembrance.