Head of the River

Head of the River Church is one of the oldest in the country and it is right here in Atlantic County.

Head of the River – Part 2 of a 3 Part Series on the History

By Nick Leonetti

Did you know there is a church in Estell Manor, NJ, that’s almost as old as the Declaration of Independence?  Head of the River Church, just down the road on Route 49, has been standing sentinel since 1792, which makes it the oldest standing church in Atlantic County and one of the oldest churches in the country.  

At least two Revolutionary War soldiers are buried on the property: Jeremiah Smith and William Smith, both brothers and both captains.  The cemetery in itself is a site to behold.  The sandstone grave markers have long been blackened by over two centuries of sunshine.  Walking through this burial ground, with the pine trees blowing in the wind and the birds chirping all around, brings a sense of peace to anyone traversing the area.  

The church was actually just one part of a prosperous village that utilized the Tuckahoe River for three of the major industries in early South Jersey history: bog iron, cranberries, and lumber.  The bog iron and the lumber were obviously used for the war effort, keeping pockets fat and businesses plentiful.  

Now, the property is only open a few times a year, mostly for weddings, funerals, and holiday celebrations.

More importantly, at least regarding this small series on the Estell family, two members of the family are buried at Head of the River: John C. Estell (1747 – 1793) and Joseph Estell (1745 – 1793).  Research on such obscure history can be frustrating, to say the least, for any burgeoning or aspiring historian.  The Internet and Google are great tools for the initial task, but aren’t nearly as sufficient in a case like this.

I did happen upon a John Estell who was brother to Daniel and had land grants given to him by George I and Queen Anne.  At one point, he owned more land in Atlantic County than any other person at the time.  This is all very interesting, but he’s not the person I was looking for.  John C. Estell actually owned his own ship and is thought to be a direct descendent of John of Langdale.  He died, making no will, in Salem County.   

Joseph Estell is an even harder individual to track down.  There is virtually nothing about him on the Internet, other than his cemetery listing on Findagrave.com.  I would like to think that he was just as important an individual as Daniel and John, but I cannot be sure.  There was a Joseph Estell appointed administrator after John C. Estell died, but there isn’t much else about this Estell offered.

Some may find all of these dead ends maddening, but I find them exciting.  It’s like piecing together two puzzles where all the pieces were packed away together in the same box.  Regardless, if you haven’t been to Head of the River Church, you should really check it out.  It’s a piece of our country’s earliest history, right in our back yard.

The final segment to this three-part series will be regarding Rebecca Estell Bourgeois Winston, the first female mayor in New Jersey.


  1. Hello Nick,
    My name is Diane Bassetti and I am the Registrar for the Estell Manor Historical Society which has its home in the Historic Risley Schoolhouse located at Cape May and Cumberland Aves in Estell Manor. I am very happy to see that you have written about the Estell family and would like you to know that we have a lot of information about them in our archives. If you are interested in visiting and checking out what we have in our collections, please contact me at 609-805-3528. Looking forward to Part 3.

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