In August 1781, members of a New Jersey militia unit opened fire on British loyalists trying to take a ship on the Maurice River and escape the region for the safety of New York City.

Time has dulled many of the details of the Battle of Dallas’ Landing, an engagement that historians believe was the only Revolutionary War confrontation in Cumberland County that involved fatalities.

Now, county officials say they are racing against time to find not only the exact site of the skirmish, but the burial sites of the seven loyalists killed in the engagement.

The reason: Rising water levels caused by climate change.

“There will come a time, potentially, when the site is underwater,” said Matt Pisarski, who oversees farmland preservation and cultural and heritage affairs for the county’s Department of Planning and Development. “Depending on where it actually is, if the burial sites are low, we might have a limited number of years to figure this out.”

With no county money available for the work, officials hope to receive a $49,500 grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Preservation Program. The grant could be awarded in a few months.

According to the county’s plan, researchers would use devices such as metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar in a designated area on both banks of the Maurice River near Port Norris in Commercial Township. County historians believe that area, which includes a portion of Maurice River Township, is where the battle was fought.

Pisarski said he hopes the detection efforts will turn up enough artifacts to better pinpoint the location of the battle and graves.

County officials are working with sketchy information, much of which comes from a small report of the battle in a Philadelphia newspaper that came out after seven loyalists captured during the Dallas’ Landing battle were taken to Philadelphia.

Pisarski admits the battle site will not be easy to find. Among the problems researchers must deal with is how Maurice River tides have changed the area in the more than 230 years since the engagement.

But if the site is found, Pisarski said, it could lead to an even more extensive phase of the project: a full-scale archeological dig.

Should that happen, Pisarski said, the county will engage the community in the dig as much as possible, including having students go to the site to watch the work. The ultimate goal is to get the site on the National Register of Historic Places and build some kind of interpretive marker, he said.

One thing will not occur during the project, Pisarski said: “We are not going to exhume the bodies.”

Cumberland County’s most famous incident linked with the Revolutionary War is the Greenwich Tea Burning, which occurred in the small community of Greenwich, now part of Greenwich Township, in December 1774.

According to the Cumberland County website, about 40 patriots dressed as Native Americans carried boxes of tea from the home of a loyalist to a nearby field. The boxes, which were to be sent to Philadelphia, were piled up and burned. A stone monument was placed at an old market site on Ye Greate Street in 1908 to commemorate the event. The monument is still there.

Pisarski said there are other, unconfirmed reports of Revolutionary War engagements linked to the county. Those incidents supposedly involve skirmishes between British warships and American privateers near where the Maurice River meets the Delaware Bay, he said.

Cumberland County Cultural and Heritage Commission member Roy Kaneshiki said all references to sites linked to the revolution are important for the county. Those incidents help show the role the county played in creating a new nation, he said.

As for the Dallas’ Landing battle site, Kaneshiki said, it will give the county another attraction for history buffs and tourists to visit.

“That’s what we hope to do,” he said.

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197