Local History: Bugged in South Orange, Circa 1745
Mosquitoes and fireflies make an impression on an Englishman traveling in the area.
This has been a busy summer for fireflies, also known as lightning bugs. When evening arrives on Flood’s Hill, the green lawn is dotted with their tiny lights and the many children in pursuit of them. Such has been the landscape since the mid-1700s, according to “A Letter from New Jersey in America, Giving Some Account and Description of that Province.” The author of this work was known only as “A Gentleman, late of Christ’s College, Cambridge University.”
Published in London, the “Gentleman” described his 1745 visit to our area. His description of our insect life figures largely in the three pages of his letter. “The pleasantest spots that you see here are but homely beauties,” says the gentleman. “One finds none of the landscapes which our island of Great Britain affords. Almost, wherever you pass upon the roads, you are either in woods, or have woods on one side of you … The woods … are the dullest of all sylvan scenes.”
No wonder he noticed the mosquitoes and commented upon them, describing them as an evil pestilence. His letter continues with a description of the ways New Jersey folk cooked and ate bear, wolves and opossum, and then returns to the subject of our “multitudes” of bugs that anger the local folk. I wonder if his goal was to entice more English settlers to our town, or to keep them at bay. A meal of wolf, consumed among insects, probably didn’t sound attractive to a cosmopolitan Londoner.
On the brighter side, as the Gentleman traveled our area, he noted a few positive elements in the landscape. “The country is well watered with fine streams and rivers, and every house has a draw-well,” he writes, perhaps not understanding that some of the same mosquitoes probably found home in that same water. He concludes, however, by remarking on a natural wonder that remains visible in our town.
He writes, “In summer time, for about two months, the sky is bespangled every night with a kind of flies which they call fireflies. They are very much in swamps and woods of a wet soil, and in those gloomy places make an extraordinary appearance. Their light is not steady;—and in the silent night, hovering about in their bright form, they almost give the mind an impression of being haunted there.”
While much of what the English gentleman noted is commonplace to us, or even a vanished part of our wilderness, this “extraordinary appearance” is with us still. Our “bespangled” sky, so clearly visible from our parks and backyards, is a sight worth writing home about.