Tricentennial Celebration of the German Reformed Church in America 1725 - 2025

Tricentennial Celebration of the German Reformed Church in America 1725 - 2025

Tricentennial Celebration of the German Reformed Church in America 1725 - 2025

Governor Joseph Hiester

When he staggered down the gangplank of the prison ship Jersey, Joseph Hiester had accomplished far more than the other Continental soldiers with whom he had been imprisoned – he had survived.  That was no small feat since the British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay in the New York harbor claimed more American lives than all the battles of the War for Independence.

According to Department of Defense records, there were 4,435 American battlefield deaths, yet, in a story that remains largely untold even today, more than 11,000 Americans died aboard 16 decrepit old converted prison ships, lined up side by side right off what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


Joseph Hiester Courtesy The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

They came from all 13 colonies, and even then, 13 different nationalities were represented among the American prisoners. Words can barely describe the horror of the prison ships, most notorious among them, the Jersey.

Built in 1735 as a 64-gun ship, the Jersey was converted to a prison ship in the winter of 1779-1780.  Virtually stripped except for a flagstaff and derrick for taking in supplies, the Jersey was floated rudderless in Wallabout Bay, about 100 yards offshore….Its portholes were closed and supplanted by a series of small holes, 20 inches square, crossed by two bars of iron.1

Into the hold, the British crammed more than 1,000 prisoners, subjecting them to unspeakable conditions that stain British maritime history to the present day. “Rebels, turn out your dead!” was the cry that rang out each morning, as the hatch was unsealed.  It was the first order of gruesome business, as the soldiers handed up the bodies of their compatriots who had died during the night. DeWan quotes a survivor, Christopher Vail of Southold, who was a prisoner aboard the Jersey in 1781: When a man died he was carrier on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o’clock when they were all lowered down the ship sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho’ they were beasts.  There were 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on the shore in heaps and hove out the boat on the wharf, then taken across a hand barrow, carried to the edge of the bank, where a hole was dug 1 or 2 feet deep and all hove in together.2


Image from The Pictorial Field-Book of The Revolution, 1850

Capt. Thomas Dring wrote 60 to 70 pages of notes about his experiences. After his death, fellow former prisoners compiled his notes and published them.  In the published manuscript, Dring relates that on the first day he was cast into the Jersey–the ship the prisoners referred to by the name “Hell”—he writes that “the next disgusting object which met my sight, was a man suffering with the small pox; and in a few minutes, I found myself surrounded by many others, laboring under the same disease in every stage of its progress.”3  Apparently quite familiar with the disease, he approached one victim “in the proper stage of the disease” and asked to rub a common pin over the sores.  He then used the pin to inoculate himself and writes that “the next morning I found that the wound had begun to fester; a sure sign that the application had taken effect.”

As late as the summer of 1782, with the war’s end in sight, DeWan tells about the summer of 1782, with the war almost over, how the American prisoners on July 4th hung a makeshift flag and began singing patriotic songs to celebrate independence. He quotes from Stiles “History of the City of Brooklyn” to describe what happened next when the British sent armed men below:

The helpless prisoners, retreating from the hatchways as far as their crowded condition would permit, were followed by the guards, who mercilessly hacked, cut and wounded every one within their reach; and then ascending again to the upper deck, fastened down the hatches upon the poor victims of their cruel rage, leaving them to languish through the long, sultry summer night, without water to cool their parched throats….”4

We can only stand in awe as we consider the bravery, courage and perseverance of such men.  Yet, in the providence of God, he used such experiences to unite the colonists and instill in them a hatred for the abuse of power.  Joseph Hiester would typify the attitude of many who survived the prison ships.

Joseph was born the son of John Hiester, a German Reformed Protestant who emigrated to the New World in search of land and a better future. The family settled in the Goshenhoppen region of Pennsylvania where the young lad would, in many ways, epitomize the attitudes, struggles, sacrifices and successes of the young nation of immigrants. The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania, published in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1911, records the following:

His father often told him that he was induced to leave the old county because the peasantry were kept perpetually poor and dependent by the burdens and taxation imposed by the government and the nobility, with no prospects of improvement.  Accounts reached them of prosperous settlements in the New World, gave them hope, and upon reaching the colonies sought in the wilds of Pennsylvania a habitation.

During the winter, Governor Hiester, received the rudiments of an English and German education. In 1771, in his nineteenth year, he married Elizabeth Whitman, daughter of Adam Whitman, a highly respectable citizen of Reading, then a village. Shortly after the marriage he went into the mercantile business with his father-in-law.  Representative of the Whig party, he was chosen a member of the State Conference which met in Philadelphia on 18 June 1776, which assumed the government of the Colony, called a convention to frame a new constitution, gave instructions for the guidance of its representatives in Congress, and authorized troops for the Continental army.

He was then a captain of militia, and upon adjournment of the Conference hastened home to arouse the young men to join the national standard, which at that time was feebly supported.  He convened about twenty-five or thirty men in Reading village and aroused their sympathies to march to the assistance of Washington.

He then pledged blankets and necessary funds for equipment plus offered forty dollars and the appointment of sergeant to the first man who subscribed to the articles of association to form a volunteer company to join the Commander-in-chief.  Matthias Babb, stepped forward, signed the articles and took the money.  By evening twenty men had signed and were given smaller sums.  At the end of ten days Captain Hiester had eighty men enrolled.  Upon the arrival of the Command at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, General Washington had moved to Long Island.  Many of the men did not wish to leave their home state.  After a speech by Captain Hiester, begging them not to turn their backs on Washington and their country, the men, except for three men, marched to Long Island.

His regiment joined the patriot army, and often came in conflict with the enemy, and many were wounded or killed.  Finally the Captain and his surviving men were taken prisoner and were confined on board the notorious prison-ship, the Jersey, where they were subjected to every indignity which refined cruelty could invent.

From this prison-ship Captain Hiester was taken, and confined in New York, where the want of food, and general harsh treatment of the captives, was scarcely a remove better than on board the Jersey.  He was attacked by a low fever, and became so feeble and emaciated that he was obliged, in passing up and stairs, to crawl on his hands and knees.  After several months he was exchanged and set at liberty, whereupon he made his way to Reading, regained his strength, and returned to the army.  He arrived in time to participate in the battle of Germantown, where he received a wound in the head, but not of a dangerous nature.  He remained in the army till the end of the war and then returned to the bosom of his family.

He was chosen a member of the convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, for the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, and in 1789 he was a member of the convention which framed the State Constitution of 1790. For several years he was a member of the Legislature. In 1799, after the removal of his Uncle Daniel Hiester, who represented the Berks district in Congress, to Maryland, he was elected a member of that body, for fourteen years. As governor his administration was charactized for promoting the growth and prosperity of the Commonwealth.

At the expiration of his term of office he withdrew altogether from public employments.  He died 10 Jun 1832, in his eightieth year, and was buried in the grounds of the German Reformed church at Reading.

Leben Magazine


1 DeWan, George, “The Wretched Prison Ships,” published December 5, 2008, Newsday. New York, NY.
2 Ibid.
3 Greene, Albert G.; Recollections of the Jersey Prison-Ship: Taken and Prepared for Publication for the Original Manuscript of the Late Captain Thomas Dring of Providence, R.I., one of the Prisoners; published by P.M. Davis, New York, 1834, p.36 ff.
4 Stiles, Henry R.; A History of the City of New York, published by subscription, 1862, Brooklyn, NY
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