Jun 28 2017

Looking Back: The Rediscovery of the Tuccamirgan, Johan Philip Case Pipe

The bowl of the Tuccamirgan pipe.

(In anticipation of our Farmers’ Market’s upcoming History Day on July 9, we are sharing a few tales about the historic Case-Dvoor Farmstead we thought you might find interesting. This story is also part of HLT’s 20 Stories for 20 Years, where we share, through words, images and audio, information about HLT and the places we all love in the Hunterdon County area.)

First of two parts.

In the mid-1730s, Johan Philip Case arrived in the Flemington area from Germany, purchasing and farming the land that is now home to the Hunterdon Land Trust. Case was able to settle here thanks to the help of the chief of a local Native American village, Tuccamirgan. The two became great friends, and to honor that bond, the chief one day gave Case a pipe.

The pipe became a treasured artifact in the Case family, handed down from generation to generation until it was given to the Hunterdon County Historical Society in 1925.

Ninety-two years later, that pipe was giving Patricia Millen a massive headache.

Millen had been hearing about the pipe periodically since first taking the job of executive director of HCHS two years ago. But on this fateful January day in 2017, talk of the pipe seemed to be on the lips of quite a few people as she fielded phone calls and an inquiry from a researcher about it. No particular reason, sometimes coincidence works that way.

But there was one problem: The pipe had been missing for several years. (Exactly when is a matter of question.) It’s the rarest of occurrences for an organization with a massive collection of books, papers, artifacts, photographs and files – but it happened.

“I had such a headache when I went home that day because I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Millen said. “I was getting obsessed.”

The next day, Millen channeled her inner-Sherlock Holmes. A key clue was uncovered by librarian Pam Robinson when she discovered a vertical file with a letter and two newspaper articles from the 1920s about the pipe. The letter mentioned the pipe was actually a pipe bowl without a stem. Millen figured she had touched every box in the Hiram E. Deats collection – named after the HCHS’s librarian from 1891 until his death in 1963 — multiple times, except for one box she had found in an upstairs cupboard labeled “Fish Spears Found in Salem County.”

“I had handled the box when I was first hired, but set it aside because I wanted someone else to look at the spear points,” she said. Millen rushed to the box, opened it, and unrolled a crumpled old newspaper. “I put my hands on it and said ‘Oh my God, this has to be the pipe bowl.”

Hunterdon Land Trust, who now owns and stewards the farmstead that Case established, was excited to hear of the pipe bowl’s rediscovery.

“It’s an incredible artifact, but beyond that, the pipe is a symbol of the early influences that shaped local landscapes,” said Patricia Ruby, executive director of Hunterdon Land Trust. “It’s a reminder that many lived here before us, and we are responsible for caring for this land to ensure it can support future generations.”

A Most Unusual Piece

The pipe’s base.

The Tuccamirgan pipe is a particular form now known as a “Monitor” or platform pipe, named by Native American researcher George A. West, because the shape reminded him of the famous Civil War ironclad. The base of the pipe bowl is three inches long and the bowl itself is three inches high, and is made from soapstone or, more formally, steatite. These types of pipes are generally believed to date from the Middle Woodland period, roughly A.D 410-1180.

“This means that the pipe would have been quite old by the time Tuccamirgan acquired it,” said Dr. Richard Veit, who teaches anthropology and is chair of the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University.

The pipe’s base bears a startling resemblance to a fish, but Dr. Veit thinks this might be accidental. “I believe the two holes were drilled through it, perhaps to suspend feathers. One broke the pipe – the mouth, and the other looks like an eye. The notches around the bowl are also unusual.”

Dr. Veit said all this raises a number of interesting questions: Was it made more than a thousand years ago and then found and used in the historic period? Did people at different times try to improve the pipe by cutting the notches around the bowl and drill the two holes through the far end? Was the pipe handed down for centuries among Native Americans before Chief Tuccamirgan presented it to Case?

(This article is adapted from an article that appeared in the Hunterdon County Historical Society Newsletter, Summer 2017)

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