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Forget about the pilgrims in Plymouth. The Jersey Shore has its own Thanksgiving story, and it’s astounding. It’s also shrouded in mystery.
Here is a quick version of the tale.
In the early 1640s, newlyweds Penelope Prince and John Kent sailed from Europe to New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). Their ship sank near Sandy Hook. They made it ashore but Kent was injured, and Penelope elected to stay with him while other survivors forged ahead into the wilderness.
The isolated couple was attacked by Native Americans, who killed Kent and badly wounded Penelope. In subsequent days, she hid in the hollow of what must have been a large tree. A compassionate Lenape chief took Penelope in; she recovered and eventually ended up in New Amsterdam. There she married an older fellow named Richard Stout.
The Stouts moved to the Bayshore, where they helped establish Middletown. Thanks to Penelope’s relationship with the Lenape, the fledgling village thrived while others struggled. She bore at least 10 children, spawning a family of 500, and lived to the age of 110.
“It’s an interesting story and it’s been around a long time,” said Richard Veit, chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. “It speaks to the conflicts and stresses of the initial interactions between native people and the Dutch and English settlers, and at the same time it also speaks to how they worked together.”
Yet it won’t be taught in New Jersey schools this week, alongside gauzy reckonings of black-hatted pilgrims breaking bread with Squanto and the Wampanoag in Massachusetts.
A plausible plot
Unlike with the pilgrim feast, there are no surviving firsthand accounts of Stout’s adventures. The story first appears in literature several decades after her death, which was believed to be in 1732 (even that seems hard to pinpoint).
“There is a woman named Penelope Stout who moves to Monmouth County with the first wave of European settlers,” Veit confirmed. “She survives and thrives, lives to a great age and has numerous children and grandchildren.”
As for the rest of it, “I cannot imagine any way of picking the fact from the tall tale as the presentation of the story seems so fanciful,” said Randall Gabriellan, former executive director of the Monmouth County Historical Commission.
Veit thinks the basic story line is plausible.
“In terms of a Thanksgiving theme, there are a number of cases not just here in New Jersey, but throughout the northeast, where Native Americans would adopt captive people and others into their communities,” he said. “Often those folks who joined a Native American community stayed, even when they had the opportunity to leave.”
No one knows how Stout went from Lenape captive to New Amsterdam bride, but a lot of folks are thankful she did. There is a Facebook community titled “Penelope Stout Descendants” that has 1,600 members.
“The Stout family goes on to be a primary Monmouth County family — even into western New Jersey as well,” Veit said. “It’s neat that 300-plus years later, folks are still tracing their lineage back to her.”
One of those folks lives in West Long Branch.
A descendant’s take
Claudia Wolfe, 61, has been hearing about her famed ancestor for as long as she can remember.
“It’s always been a fixture in the family lore,” Wolfe said. “My dad would regale us with stories of Penelope Stout’s triumph while he was cooking breakfast on Sundays: ‘She was so strong. They sliced her from stem to stern and she crawled into a log for three days until she was found.’”
Wolfe has a theory about Stout’s absence from the schoolbooks.
“Most stories about women are not told in schools,” she said. “Maybe things are changing now, but think of all the work women have done for millennia, and all it comes down to is guys hunting and bringing home the deer meat.”
Some slights, though, are self-inflicted. The so-called Penelope Stout House, which stood for 220 years on Crawfords Corner Road in Holmdel, was razed in 2006 despite efforts to preserve it. Records indicate the Hendrikson family, early Dutch settlers of Monmouth County, built the home after buying the land from the Stouts.
Multiple written accounts claim she is buried on or near the property, which is close to Holmdel Park. Alas, there is no headstone. A historic marker stood nearby for many years, noting that her resting place was in the area. That came down, too.
“The sign was removed because it was a road hazard — people were slowing down to read it,” Veit said. “It’s a shame, because this is a great story. Whether it’s 100 percent accurate or not, it speaks to the state’s past. And it’s powerful. People have been retelling the story since 1765 if not before. It’s a story worth telling.”
Especially to schoolkids on Thanksgiving week.
“These great stories from New Jersey history can really resonate with students and help make history come to life,” Veit said. “They’d probably remember it forever.”
Carino’s Corner appears Mondays in the Asbury Park Press. Contact Jerry at [email protected]
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