Running through history

Yearly race honors Revolutionary War hero who lived in Deptford

Albert J. Countryman Jr./The Sun
A marker at Kings Highway and Mechanic Street in Haddonfield honors Jonas Cattell, whose history-making run took him through woods he knew from childhood.

This year’s 55th annual Jonas Cattell Memorial 10-mile run is scheduled for Oct. 22.

As they run, participants can think of the brave 18-year-old who ran that distance in record time to change the course of the Revolutionary War.

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Jonas Cattell was 18 years old on Oct. 21, 1777 and an apprentice blacksmith learning the trade at Gibbs Tavern and Smithy on Mechanic Street in Haddonfield, at the intersection of Kings Highway.

The very same day, some 1,200 Hessian troops crossed the Delaware River from Philadelphia and set up camp in the town. They arrested Cattell that evening for violating curfew, and promised to release him first thing in the morning.

During his night in jail, Cattell overheard the Hessian soldiers talking about a surprise attack they would launch against Fort Mercer, along the Delaware River in National Park and controlled by the Continental Army. As soon as he was freed at first light, Cattell started running that 10 miles to the fort to warn American soldiers, traveling through woods he knew from growing up on a farm in what is now Deptford.

Meanwhile, the Hessians were delayed because the bridge over the Big Timber Creek in Brooklawn had been dismantled by the patriots – forcing the troops to travel nine more miles to another bridge to cross the creek, according to the Revolutionary War New Jersey website.

This gave Cattell a huge head start and he arrived at Fort Mercer in plenty of time to warn Col. Christopher Green and his Rhode Island regiment about the impending attack. Green then rearranged cannons in the fort to repel a land-based attack instead of one expected by sea against British naval ships.

Although outnumbered by 3 to 1, the American soldiers crushed the Hessians with their well-placed firepower during what is called the Battle of Red Bank – thanks to Cattell’s warning. When the smoke cleared, 377 Hessian mercenaries hired by England lay dead and another 20 were reported captured or missing. The patriots reported 14 Americans killed and 27 wounded.

After the battle, Cattell decided to enlist in the Continental Army and served to the end of the war that gave America its freedom. He then returned to his Deptford home and enjoyed hunting and hiking in the woods. He was the Gloucester Fox Hunting Club “master of hounds” around 1800, recognized by many South Jersey residents.

According to the Friends of the Red Bank Battlefield website, “He was said to wear a red flannel shirt, a heavy overcoat, fisherman’s boots, and canvas leggings, and to always carry a gun and a tomahawk.”

Cattell died at 91 on Sept. 18, 1849 and is buried in the Cattell family plot, a tiny wooded grove in Deptford. His grave is located on Melvin Avenue, one block south of Caulfield Avenue.

The 10-mile Jonas Cattell Run started in 1969 and takes place each year during Red Bank Battlefield’s 18th-century field day in October. It begins at King’s Court in Haddonfield and finishes at Fort Mercer in National Park. The Haddonfield Daughters of the American Revolution chapter presents a plaque to the first teenage runner to reach the finish line.

The top three finishers in 2023 came in under an hour, from 57 minutes to 59 minutes. The final runner came in at two hours and 58 minutes.

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