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Baron von Steuben’s Jersey Estate at New Bridge
by Kevin Wright
The Zabriskie-Steuben House is a memorial to Major-General Baron von Steuben, Inspector-General of the Continental troops, who received it as a gift from the State of New Jersey in 1783 and who, by his own advertisement, thoroughly rebuilt the dwelling during his six years of ownership. This iconic sandstone mansion still graces the tide-lapped wharf on the Hackensack River at New Bridge largely because of its rather vague (but very real) association with its namesake, the legendary Prussian Inspector-General of the Continental troops. The image of him gruffly instructing a dispirited and tattered citizen-soldiery on the snowy wastes of Valley Forge has filtered through the imagination of many a schoolchild and become engraved in our national iconography. Regrettably Steuben’s association with this historic property cannot be neatly encapsulated easy “sound-bites,” because the history has been hopelessly muddled by both wishful thinking and by dour skepticism. How many times has it been said that the Baron “never took possession of the property’ or even worse, that he “turned his nose up at it?” But does the Steuben House represent Steuben’s best and perhaps only true reward for services rendered during our Revolutionary struggle?
William Alexander Linn read a paper devoted to this topic at the Society’s annual dinner on Washington’s Birthday 1904, first expressing the Bergen County Historical Society’s interest in the Baron’s estate at New Bridge. Linn’s research is entirely honest and his text well worth reading today. Matters took a turn for the worse, however, in January of 1931, when Mrs. Frances A. Westervelt, dean of local historians and curator of the Bergen County Historical Society, publicly proclaimed that the “Steuben House Was Not Steuben’s.” It was her solemn opinion that the old Zabriskie homestead at New-Bridge was not built until after Steuben’s death in 1794 and therefore had no association with him. She called a bill pending in the NJ legislature to provide $75,000 for the reconstruction and maintenance of the Steuben House “a ridiculous waste of money.” One of Mrs. Westervelt’s claims was that the gambrel roof did not appear in Bergen County until the early nineteenth century. Fortunately, Miss Saretta Demarest of Teaneck contested and thoroughly refuted Westervelt’s opinion, offering “masses of historical documents for proof as well as citing various features in the construction of the building which, she said, leaves no doubt as to the date of its erection.” Her refutation was printed in the Bergen Evening Record on 31 March 1931.
So what are the historical facts? Discouraged in his hopes of securing a profitable military commission in Europe at the end of the American Revolution, Major-General von Steuben informed the New Jersey legislature that he was “anxiously desirous to become a citizen of the State of New Jersey.” In recognition of his “many and signal services to the United States of America,” state legislators responded on December 23, 1783, presenting him with the use and emoluments of the confiscated estate of Jan Zabriskie at New-Bridge, provided the Baron would “hold, occupy and enjoy the said estate in person, and not by tenant.” Accordingly, General Philemon Dickinson, of the New Jersey State Troops, informed the Baron of this legislative gift and related his knowledge of the estate based upon recent inquiries: “there are on the premises an exceeding good House, an excellent barn, together with many useful outbuildings, all of which I am told, want some repairs...there is ...a Grist-mill; a good Orchard, some meadow Ground, & plenty of Wood. The distance from N York by land 15 miles, but you may keep a boat & go from your own door to N York by water Oysters, Fish & wild fowl in abundance Possession will be given to you in the Spring, when you will take a view of the premises.”
General Philemon Dickinson regretted the legislature had only vested Steuben with life-rights and not outright title to the property, saying: “This not, my dear Baron, equal either to my wishes & your mind, but tis the best I could probably obtain You’ll observe by the Act, that you are to possess it, but not tenant it out, I am ashamed of this clause but it could not be avoided This may easily be obviated, by keeping a bed & Servants there & visiting the premises now & then but I flatter myself, from the representation which has been made to me, that it will be your permanent residence; its vicinity to N York, must render it agreeable to you.”
The story got muddled in the nineteenth-century hagiography by authors who either did not bother to check the deeds, or who assumed the Zabriskies had retained ownership of the property simply because a cousin surnamed Zobriskie purchased the house in 1813 and his descendants retained ownerhip until 1909. Writing in 1859, Steuben’s biographer Friedrich Kapp wrongly concluded, “Steuben, when informed that Zabriskie, in consequence of that confiscation, was left without means, did not accept the gift, and interposed in behalf of Zabriskie.”
Unfortunately, the documented facts do not square with this kindly interpretation. On 24 January 1784, John J. Zabriskie, “now a refugee in the City of New York,” filed a claim for compensation from the British government for the loss of his former homestead at New Bridge, which had been “possessed under this Confiscation Law.” He described his estate as: “One large Mansion House, seventy feet long and forty feet wide, containing twelve rooms built with stone, with Outhouses consisting of a bake House, Smoke House, Coach House, and two large Barns, and a Garden, situated at a place called New Bridge (value 850 Pounds); also One large gristmill containing two pair of stones adjoining said Mansion House (1200 Pounds); Forty Acres of Land adjoining said Mansion House consisting of Meadow Land and two orchards.”
Zabriskie’s 1784 account clearly describes the well-known sandstone mansion, which yet stands at this location. Whatever the conflicting sentiments of the Revolutionary general and dispossessed Loyalist may have been, one fact was equally evident to both: The Zabriskie mansion was not some sleepy country-estate that needed only the fires stoked and the slip-covers lifted to make it cozy. It had served repeatedly as a fort, military headquarters, an intelligence-gathering post, an encampment-ground and the scene of numerous skirmishes. Undoubtedly the abuses of war had rendered the dwelling house uninhabitable, stripped of its furnishings. The old and impecunious German soldier was hardly able to restore its former grandeur. Besides, the legislature had not given him title to the property, but only a right to life-tenancy. It would hardly have been worthwhile for him to invest any large sum in the renovation of a property, which he did not own.
To comprehend Baron Steuben’s predicament we must appreciate that the conduct of the war had left the national Confederation virtually bankrupt. Unable to directly levy taxes, it depended upon the voluntary support of the States to meet its obligations. Its paper currency was considered as plentiful and as worthless as “oak leaves.” As early as 4 July 1779, General von Steuben had written to a friend in Hohenzollern that Congress had promised him “estates in the best parts of Jersey and Pennsylvania.” The various States were better able to compensate Revolutionary veterans by awards of confiscated Loyalist estates or of vast tracts of unsurveyed lands in the unsettled interior of the country. During the war, Virginia granted 15,000 acres in the present State of Ohio to General Steuben and Pennsylvania granted him 2,000 acres lying west of the Allegheny Mountains. While the Baron thus became a considerable landowner, he was in effect “land-poor” as these properties lay in an inaccessible and unsettled wilderness.
During the spring of 1784, General Steuben took temporary lodgings in Philadelphia where he performed his final duties as Inspector-General. On 24 March 1784, he submitted his resignation to Congress. According to his biographers, a Congressional audit made in the winter of 1781-82 showed that Major-General Baron von Steuben was owed $8,500 for services renderedhe received only $1,700 and a 6% Treasury certificate for $6,800. Steuben was later unsuccessful in selling this Treasury note for 10 cents on the dollar. Congress accepted his resignation on 15 April 1784, and decided to present him with a gold hilted sword. Congress then moved to present the Baron with $10,000. The motion was defeated but the Inspector-General was most generously allowed to draw from arrears in pay and expenses that were owed him. Steuben expended part of this income on renting a house in Jones’s Woodsin the vicinity of present-day 57th Streetfrom “ready-money Provost, who had built it and named it the “Louvre.” He first occupied his rented quarters in the city in May of 1784. Further sums, however, were apparently invested in the purchase and rehabilitation of his NewBridge estate as is evidenced by his own correspondence. We can only explain this behavior by suggesting Steuben contemplated his removal to the Dutch-speaking environs of Hackensack. On 4 July 1784, Jan Zabriskie hosted General Steuben and his entourage at New Bridge. Unawares, the Baron paid for his own entertainment as Mr. Zabriskie’s servants charged refreshments obtained from the New Bridge Inn to the General’s account.
But before investing in his estate at New-Bridge, General Steuben first intended to acquire title to the property in fee simple. On 24 December 1784, the New Jersey legislature responded to his overtures by passing a supplement to its previous act (which had only awarded use of the Zabriskie estate to General Steuben) by authorizing the agent for forfeited estates to sell the property to the highest bidder and deposit the money in the State treasury. Interest upon the sum was to be paid to the Baron during his lifetime. Accordingly, the Zabriskie estate at New-Bridge was sold on 1 April 1785, but its purchaser was none other than the Baron himself acting through his agent Captain Benjamin Walker. The purchase price was £1,500. The General’s personal interest and familiarity with his Jersey estate was outlined in a letter addressed from New York to Governor Livingston on November 13, 1785:
Sir, Having become the purchaser of that part of the estate of John Zabriskie, lying at the New-Bridge, near Hackensack, and the term of payment being arrived, an order from the commissioners of the continental treasury on the treasury of New Jersey lies ready for the agent whenever he shall please to call for it.
Before I take the deeds for this place, I have to request the favor of your Excellency to represent to the legislature, that the only lot of wood belonging to the place was withheld by the agent at the sale on a doubt of its being included in the law because it is at the distance of three quarters of a mile from the house, and therefore could not, he supposed, be considered as “lying at the New-Bridge,” though on enquiry I find it was an appendage to the estate, and indeed is the only part of it on which there is a stick of wood; and it was bequeathed to J. Zabriskie by his father along with the house and mill; the lot consists of about 13 acres, it was left unsold with the house and mill, though every other part of J. Zabriskie’s estate was sold some years since, and being now unpossessed, great part of the wood is cut off, and the destruction daily increases. If the legislature meant to include it in the law, I must request that directions may be given to the agent to include it in the deed. If otherwise, as it is essential to the other part of the estate, I have to request that I may be permitted to purchase it at such valuation as may be thought just.
Your Excellency will, I flatter myself, excuse the liberty I take in requesting you to represent this matter to the legislature, and to obtain their decision on it so soon as the business before them will permit.
I have the honor to be, with great respect, sir, your Excellency’s most obed’t humble servant,
His Excellency, Governor Livingston.
Between 1783 and 1785, General Steuben withdrew $26,000 from the national treasury including the sum that he used to purchase the former Zabriskie homestead at public vendue. He apparently also spent funds to renovate his prized Jersey estate and to revive its trade. But his improvident lifestyle and poor management of personal finances outstripped his income and daily increased the number of his creditors. On 28 February 1786, the New Jersey legislature passed a further act, which provided that, if payments on the property were not met by the following March (1787), then the Baron should have the use and benefit of the estate even though he resided in another state. Thus it wasn’t until 1786 three years after the initial presentation of the property to Steuben that the legislature abandoned its stipulation that he occupy or personally use the property in order to receive its profits. With this encouragement, Steuben apparently leased at least the mansion and mill back to Jan Zabriskie and so enjoyed the rental fees. But that is not the end of the story or his close association with the property: As Steuben’s business agent, Captain Walker (and perhaps the Baron himself) occupied rooms in the house while managing the domestic renovation and commercial renaissance of this valuable site. Arndt Von Steuben claimed Steuben spent winters in New York, but retired to his country home in summer. Receipts from New-Bridge Landing have survived issued under the style of the partnership of Walker & Zabriskie. There is also at least one letter (circa 1788) addressed by Senator William North to Benjamin Walker at Hackensack. But, by 1786, Steuben’s sights turned northward to a grant of 16,000 acres in Oneida County, New York, which he received from the legislature of that state on 27 June 1786.
By 1787, Steuben’s finances were at low ebb. Bankrupt, he placed his affairs under the administration of Ben Walker. In 1788, he moved into rooms in the house of his friends, Benjamin and Polly Walker, on King Street. In May 1788, he set out for his vast estate in the Mohawk country. To pay off his debts and to gain some much needed capital, Baron Steuben wrote to Captain Walker on 23 May 1788, giving him full authority to sell his Jersey estate at New-Bridge. At about this time, his close friend and advisor William North confided: “The Jersey Estate must be sold and the proceeds sacredly appropriated to paying his debts and with the remainder he must live a recluse till the new Government [then forming under the Constitution] decides his affairs…”
Accordingly, on 5 September 1788, the New Jersey legislature repealed its previous acts and invested Baron von Steuben with full title to the former Zabriskie estate. Recognizing his predicament and hoping to save himself from further financial embarrassment, Steuben wrote to North in October of 1788, saying: “The Jersey Estate must and is to be sold. Walker is my administrator, all debts are to be paid out of it.” On 6 November 1788, Steuben again wrote to William North at his new home in Duanesburg, noting, “My Jersey Estate is Advertised but not yet Sold, from this Walker Shall immediately pay to you the money, you so generously lend me and all my debts in New-York will be payed. I support my present poverty with more heroism than I Expected. All Clubs and parties are renounced, I seldom leave the House.”
Steuben advertised his Jersey estate for sale in the New Jersey Journal on 3 December 1788:
“...long-noted as the best stand for trade in the state of New Jersey. Large well-built stone house, thoroughly rebuilt lately, a gristmill with two run of stone; excellent new kiln for drying grain for export built lately; other outbuildings, and 40 acres of land, one-half of which is excellent meadow. Situated on the bank of the river by which produce can be conveyed to New York in a few hours, and sloops of 40 tons burthern may load and discharge along side of the mill.”
This remarkable statement shows that General Steuben and his agent, Benjamin Walker, made a considerable investment in his New-Bridge estate, reviving and modernizing its commercial operations and rehabilitating the mansion-house. The very day after this advertisement appeared, Jan Zabriskie (1767-1793), the son and namesake of the Loyalist who had lost the property, purchased the old family homestead. Steuben happily reported in a letter dated December 12th: “My Jersey Estate is sold for twelve honored Pounds N.Y. Monney [about $3,000]. Walker and Hammilton are my Administrators.”
Steuben had hoped that the proceeds from the sale would more than satisfy his creditors and thus stave off the threatened forced sale of his Oneida tract. His hopes for a fresh start in the Mohawk valley were frustrated by the inaccessibility of the vast undeveloped estate and his perennial lack of capital and credit. Contrary to his original expectations, the New York grant was isolated from the Mohawk River by several perilous waterfalls on one of its tributaries, which made water transport of agricultural products virtually impossible. On 4 June 1790, Congress finally granted him an annual pension of $2,500 but declined to award him an additional $10,000 bonus. Thus, we can say that the proceeds from the sale of his property at New-Bridge were the most valuable compensation for his war service to the Nation. In 1794, the Baron von Steuben died in poverty while resident in a crude log-house erected in the midst of an untamed wilderness. He was buried without ceremony in a plain pine coffin, wrapped in his military cloak and attended by his old friend and former aide-de-camp, Ben Walker.
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