Gloucester County First Running Legend: Jonas Cattell

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Running a race without athletic gear is inappropriate. Running a race dressed in colonial garb is on a totally, different level. But when Jim Serry of Clarksboro dressed in stockings, a cotton blouse and calf length breeches, it felt more than fitting. Then again nothing could be more appropriate for the 46th annual Jonas Cattell Run.

If you live in the area, you may know this little piece of history. If not, you may be surprised to learn that south Jersey has a Paul-Revere-style legend of its own, and as I found out at the 10 mile race, he’s kind of a big deal.

Warming my hands with a cup of coffee on a particularly cold morning at the Red Bank Battlefield, I wonder what this place this place would have look like 238 years ago on October 22, 1777. It was on day Jonas Cattell made a heroic 10 mile run from Haddonfield to Fort Mercer, located in modern day Red Bank Battlefield, to warn of the Hessian’s impending attack. Then again, watching Sery in his colonial getup fly past the finish line in first place certainly helped put me in the right frame of mind.

Jim Sery in his full costume
Jim Sery in his full costume

“From What I know, He ran so fast that he gave the Americans more than three hours to prepare,” I heard a spectator say.

“Apparently, he was such a good runner that he ran 20 miles to and from his apprenticeship every day,” said another.

“I heard he once ran 160 miles to deliver a message, and did it in two days!” chirped in a third.

With all this buzz, it brings up a good question; who is this legend, and why is there a race thrown in his honor?

At the time of the revolution, Cattell was a blacksmith’s apprentice in Haddonfield, New Jersey. No older than 20 years of age, Cattell lived in Deptford. He made a 10 mile journey every day to Haddonfield through the area’s trails and back roads. Here he worked in the stables behind modern day Gibbs tavern on Kings Highway. Then the Hessians arrived.

Cattell, who was in Haddonfield on the night of October 21, was detained by hessian forces for being out after curfew. The occupying army, under the command of Colonel Carl von Donop, had the intention of attacking Fort Mercer. The fort was built overlooking the river and was crucial in the American’s effort of preventing the British navy from resupplying troops further north. While Detained, Cattell caught wind of hessian’s plan to attack the fort. When he was released the next morning, Cattell did what he felt was right; he started running.

Using his vast knowledge of the area, Cattell  ran from Haddonfield to Fort Mercer to warn of the attack. Thanks to Cattell’s warning, the 400 Americans that held the fort had about three hours to rearrange defenses aimed at the water, and allowed them to prepare for a land bound attack. As a consequence, the fort was able to fend off the attack with very few causalities. In doing so, Cattell cemented his legacy in the annual Jonas Cattell run. The race, taking place in mid-October every year, retraces the 10 mile run from Haddonfield to Fort Mercer.

Talking to a few runners, I discover that most faithfully complete the 10 mile race every year. Mike Wileczek, for example, has competed in the race every year for over 13 year. Although a running-related injury kept him from it this year, Wileczek spoke fondly of the race. “It’s great course, flat towards the end, and to make it better, it’s historic.”

Wileczek and I watch as Sery comes in first with a time of 1:03:52. “I knew watching them go out that it wasn’t gonna be a fast race this year,” says Tom Thomasson from TNT Timing. Even though the race, with a course record of 53.2, was much slower than usual, the overall performance was good. Especially that of 4th place and overall finisher, Julie Cattell. And yes, her 7th great grandfather is Jonas himself. And also yes, it appears she must have inherited some of Jonas’s running ability. Despite living in San Diego, Julie makes the trip home every year to run the race. “I feel a connection to this race. I don’t mind making the trip for this,” Julie tells me after the race. Even though Julie was the only Cattell to run the race this year, other members of the Cattell family came out to cheer her on.

Shorty following the race is a reenactment of the battle of Red Bank. True to form, the Americans once again fend off the Hessian invaders. But along with all the all the smoke and gunpowder, vendors set up on the site of the old fort and many of the municipality’s residents come out, giving the day a very festive feel. “I look foward to reenactment day”, says National Park native, Sydney Wallace. “It’s a nice day that brings the whole town together.”

And there’s reason to celebrate. The Americans truly had the odds against them when the more professional, and more numerous, Hessian army came bearing down on them. The Hessian forces, looking to catch the America’s unawares, numbered over 1,200. The American’s only had a total of 400 soldiers. The advantage was a very fast young man with nothing but his own two feet. Had Jonas decided not to seize the opportunity to help in the American’s fight for sovereignty, the Battle of Red Bank may have been lost and countless american’s lives along with it. But he did what he felt was right, and in doing so, gave us south Jersey’s very first running legend.

Sign located on Hessian Ave, National Park,
Sign located on Hessian Ave, National Park,

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