Saturday, June 27, 2009


Each summer, my Monmouth University colleague Rich Veit takes his a class of archeology students on a “dig” somewhere in New Jersey. I first visited one of his dig sites four years ago, at the Abraham Staats House (which will be featured here in the coming weeks).

For the past three summers, his students have been tearing up the turf at the site of the original Joseph Bonaparte House in Bordentown. If that last name sounds familiar, it should. Joseph was Napolean’s elder brother and King of Naples and Spain, among other titles. However, when the “Little Corporal” was dethroned, Joseph went into exile in New Jersey. He bought some property at Point Breeze, overlooking the Crosswicks Creek, and built a grand home around 1817. It burned to the ground in a mysterious fire a couple of years later. Bonaparte built another home nearby where he lived for about 20 years before returning to Europe.

Rich’s team were digging on the original house’s site. On the day I visited, the dig had unearthed some delicate neoclassical pottery decorations. Even more interesting were the remnants of the tunnels leading from the house to the Delaware River – ostensibly for a quick escape should the British happen to show up. (The site is privately owned, so unfortunately not accessible to the public).

OK, I know the Bonaparte stuff is not Revolutionary War related. But it got me to Bordentown. So after visiting the dig, I decided to head downhill and explore the town first settled by Quakers from Burlington in the late 17th century.

Bordentown is a small, easily walkable, quiet town. It’s sort of been gentrified but not really. On the Saturday afternoon I visited, most everything was closed or privately owned. I spent most of my time peering in windows and taking pictures (which is why a police officer pulled over and asked me what I was up to – but he was very nice about it).

My first stop was the Friends Meeting House (1740). There’s a lot of Quaker influence in this part of the world and it’s great to see these places have been kept up and used throughout the past centuries. I decided to head up Crosswicks Road for a bit and then turned left on Second Street until it ended at Bank Street (nothing Revolutionary War here, but I appreciated the old town hall clock and some interesting residential architecture).

At this point, there’s a little park that overlooks the creek and an industrial building (but has some attractive late 19th century/early 20th century homes on the other side). You can also see the marina below Route 295 as it traverses Duck Island.

As I exited the park, I saw the back of a statue in the middle of the street. It turned out to be Thomas Paine! It seems the author of “Common Sense” lived in Bordentown for a while. In fact, it was the only place he ever owned property.

I continued down Farnsworth Street (the main drag) just a couple of blocks to the corner of Park, where a trio of Revolutionary War era houses sit. The most significant of these - in terms of the war - belonged to Francis Hopkinson, one of New Jersey’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and the designer of the Stars and Stripes. (Betsy Ross defenders beware – there is more evidence for the Hopkinson claim!) Generations of the Hopkinson family continued to live in Bordentown after the war, as I discovered when I explored Christ Church cemetary on Prince Street.

There is also a short hiking trail by an old mill run, which I happened to stumble on as I was leaving town (it’s at the bottom of a steep street that looks like a private road, but isn’t). There are also a few remains of the old rail terminal (which is down the tracks from the present station – at the back of the parking lot), which gives you an idea of what a hub this town must have been 150 years ago.

Bordentown has plenty of Revolutionary War history (e.g. 22 moored ships were destroyed by the British in a May 1778 raid). However, the history is not celebrated in quite the same way as downstream in Burlington City. This is probably because most of the 18th century properties here are privately owned. Still it is a very pleasant place to spend an hour or two walking around. It’s also a great place to park and take NJ Transit’s River Line train for an excursion through the Delaware river towns (which I have yet to do myself).

[You’ll note that I have finally remembered to take some pictures.]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Burlington City

Before we get to the historic stuff, I have to say that Burlington City should be nominated as one of the friendliest towns in New Jersey. I spent an entire afternoon walking nearly every street of this Delaware River town's compact historic core. Everyone I encountered, without exception, heatily greeted me and some even started a friendly conversation.

At one point, I spotted a punky looking teenager approaching me on the sidewalk. You know the type -- slouched shoulders, baggy low-hanging pants, oversized baseball cap covering his eyebrows, fuzzy facial hair. I thought confidently to myself that this one would definitely break the streak. But as he closed to within a few feet of me, he opened his mouth: "Hello, sir. How are you today?". Huh?

As I said, put Burlington City on the Garden State Welcome list.

And its historic sites definitely make Burlington a worthy destination for a day out. Much of the downtown area retains it's colonial character. It's kind of like Alexandria, Virginia, but without the pretension.

As a town, Burlington is probably not too much bigger than it was in 1776, so it's fairly easy to imagine what this important 18th century port looked like in both size and style.

For those in the know, New Jersey was originally split into two political entities -- East and West Jersey. Burlington was the capital of West Jersey. A highlight of the town is the Council of West Jersey Proprietors' records office.

Walking into the town Library was a real trip, with portraits of prominent residents through the ages hanging over the iron railings. But what's really great about the place is the room in back, where I saw a bunch of middle-schoolers working (?) on computer terminals. This building has been continuously helping generations of local students for 220 years!

A meaningful highlight for me was the Boudinot-Bradford House on the southern edge of the historic district. The house itself is not much to look at (it's privately owned, I believe), but it has a connection to one of the more compassionate, and rarely told, stories of the Revolutionary War.

I have been reading Forgotton Patriots by Pulitzer Prize-winner Edwin Burrows. It details the squalid conditions experienced by American prisoners of war (mainly in New York), at least 10,000 of whom died in captivity. The Continental Congress appointed a very reluctant Elias Boudinot to be Commissary of Prisoners. His job was to negotiate with the British on treatment of prisoners and to get extra provisions to the captured. When Congress would not appropriate enough money for the task, Boudinot raised the funds from friends and mainly his own resources. Within a year, he was bankrupt. In the book, Burrows calls Boudinot "a saint." Boudinot went on to become President of the Coninental Congress and director of the Mint. It's a reminder that there are New Jersey politicians who do the right thing. He is buried in the nearby St. Mary's churchyard.

Other sites worth seeing (and this is just scratching the surface):
--the house where, supposedly, a teen-age Ben Franklin bought gingerbread before hopping a ferry to Philadelphia and fame.
--while not necessarily Revolutionary War, the home Ulysses S. Grant rented for his family during the Civil War (and where he was headed the night Lincoln was shot, after refusing an invitation to join the Lincolns at Ford's Theater).
--the preserved bar from the old railroad hotel.
--and, perhaps most fascinating of all, a number of sites associated with the Underground Railroad.

I happened to be in Burlington today for a Crossroads of the American Revolution Association meeting at the old Friends Meeting House, which is still used for occasional Quaker services. We got a private tour from Carol Strawson, the director, before heading for lunch at the Birches Restaurant (in an old bank building decorated with fake Birch trees -- there's even a table for two in the old bank vault).

After lunch, I decided to wander the streets on my own (fortunately, I was able to get hold of this essential map). As it was a Thursday afternoon when I visited, many of the sites were closed. Even still, I was able to spend nearly three hours walking the streets and not see everything. I'll definitely be back with my family to take one of the guided walking tours offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

This place is definitely worth the drive (or take NJ Transit's River Line right to downtown). Burlington City is not so much a trip back in time, as it is a trip that connects time.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Miller-Cory House (Westfield)

Today is flag day. What better way to start my journey than at a site that advertised a Betsy Ross demonstration. So, my wife Allison, daughter Daphne, and I headed up to Westfield to the Miller-Cory House. We also wanted to check out the Trader Joe's up there (we have none in Central Jersey), so it would be a two-fer.

The house is maintained by a local friend's association, as many of these home are. The main part of the house was built in 1740. While it doesn't seem to have played any significant role in the Revolutionary War effort, it did bear silent witness to the conflict. It is likely that British troops marched past the house as they decamped from the West Fields of Elizabethtown.

The tour, led by one of the friends, was interesting, if a bit hard to follow. The Betsy Ross "demonstration" (which we expected to be a flag sewing demonstration) was actually a "lecture" on flag making given by one of the officers of the friends association.

The house itself has some interesting details. A plastered ceiling in the sitting room, and exposed part of the inner wall showing the posts. The highlights for us, though, were outside the main house. What looks to be a 19th century shed has been modified with a fireplace for 18th century cooking demonstrations. We just missed the home-made ice-cream by the time we got out there, but the spice cookies were a sufficient substitute for my 6 year old.

In the basement of the main house is a large working loom (that someone was operating) and a number of other farm implements on display - although "display" is a loose term here. It was like looking through someone's attic. That was neat.

The house is in a residential neighborhood. It's hard to imagine all the sprawling farmland that would have surrounded this house when it was built.

The Miller-Cory House is an interesting place to visit if you're in the area. The house is open to the public on Sunday afternoons, although I was told they shut down in summer because the docents can't wear the 18th century costumes in the heat (imagine how the Millers and Corys must have felt).

Westfield has a pleasant downtown with nice restaurants. And Trader Joe's wasn't bad either.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Jersey: The Crossroads of the American Revolution

For my initial post, I've taken the text from the Crossroads of the American Revolution guidebook. The guide is a good first step in identifying the major sites across New Jersey -- and I hope to visit all of them withing the year. The guide is online here, but you can also buy a convenient hard copy for $5.00 at pretty much any one of the sites I mention in this blog.

Located between the British base at New York and the rebel capital at Philadelphia, New Jersey was the most war-ravaged of the 13 original states. More than 600 skirmishes and battles were fought on its soil and more than 150 naval actions on its waters.
Then, as now, New Jersey straddled roads connecting north and south. In 1775 and 1776, state regiments marched north. During November and December 1776, the remnants of the main Continental Army fled south across New Jersey, pursued by a British army. Just a month later, they retraced part of their route to defeat German and British detachments in Trenton and Princeton and march on to Morristown. This was the first of three winters that the Continental Army spent in New Jersey.

From July 1776 until November 1783, a British, German and Loyalist army occupied Staten Island, western Long Island and Manhattan, launching expeditions to collect supplies, probe local defenses and attack the Continental Army. Between January and June of 1777, skirmishes were fought up and down the Raritan River, as Continentals sought to limit British foraging and the British attempted to lure the Continentals from the safety of the Watchung Mountains. When Washington eluded them, the British withdrew from the Raritan Valley to attack Philadelphia.

The September 1777, British occupation of Philadelphia brought the war to southern New Jersey. Fierce battles were fought for control of the Delaware River and surrounding countryside. On June 18, 1778, the British army evacuated Philadelphia and began marching toward New York, as Washington led the Continental Army eastward from Valley Forge. The resulting Battle of Monmouth was the last time the two armies met in New Jersey. In 1780, the British moved offensive operations to the south.

The war was not over for New Jersey even then. In June 1780, the New York garrison launched two large probes to test the Continentals at Morristown–probes that resulted in the burning of Springfield and Connecticut Farms. Along the coast, small British and Loyalist units continued pinpoint attacks. One of the American Revolution’s last skirmishes was fought December 27, 1782, at Cedar Bridge, Ocean County.

In August 1781, the French and Continental armies marched across New Jersey toward Yorktown and victory. Two years later, after a peace treaty was signed in Paris, word reached the Continental Congress, assembled in Princeton, on November 1, 1783.