by Kevin W. Wright
The Zabriskie-Steuben House has long been esteemed a Revolutionary landmark. Its architecture and historic furnishings recall the Bergen Dutch, an agricultural community whose language and culture blended contributions from Dutch, Angolan African, German, English, French, Scotch and Scandinavian settlers.
At a place known originally as Aschatking (where the river narrows), about ten miles above the head of Newark Bay, a Swedish land-clearer named Cornelius Mattyse acquired 420 acres at the juncture of Tantaqua's Creek (Cole's Brook) and the Hackensack River, in 1682.
This was called Tantaqua's Plain, where a Hackensack sachem of that name resided with his kinfolk. David Ackerman, residing in the village of Hackensack, purchased the land from Matheus Corneliuson, son of Cornelius Matheus of Hackinsack River, in 1695. He devised that portion of this tract of land lying east of Kinderkamack Road to his son, Johannes Ackerman, who built a dwelling on the Steenrapie (Kinderkamack) Road at the time of his marriage to Jannetje Lozier in 1713. A tidal gristmill was built on the Hackensack River. This mill got its power from an artificial pond: the high tide was trapped in the mouth of Cole's Brook by a dam with a special drop-gate, suspended from a horizontal timber. When the tides flowed out of the Hackensack River, the tidal millpond was slowly released through the waterwheel. Sloops pulled alongside the mill at New Bridge Landing. On March 9, 1744, a road was surveyed from Kinderkamack Road to the chosen spot on the banks of the Hackensack River where a "New Bridge" was to be erected (forming was is now Main Street, River Edge.)
The survey reads:
Recorded at the Request of Nich: Ackerman. We [the] Underwritten Surveyors of the County of Bergen on application made unto us by the Inhabitants of New Barbadoes precinct to Lay out a Road which we hereby Layout on the Land of the Widdow of Johannis Ackerman, Deceased, Beginning at the Road of Stien Rabi [Steenrapie, now Kinderkamack Road] & on the Said Land along the house of the Deceased as the Road goes to the Mills of the deceased [that is, the present section of Main Street running from Kinderkamack Road east to the outlet of Cole's Brook on the Hackensack River], about an East Course and then Northerly along the [Hackensack] Creek about Ten yards, above an old stump where the Bridge is to be Built which Road we Lay out four Rodd wide. March 9th, 1743/4 - Jacob Ferdon, Aryea Blinkerhof, HA Hendrick van Alen, his mark, HH Hendrick Hopper, his mark, AR Allebart Romyen, his mark, IK Isaac Kip, his mark.
This Road Return shows that Johannis Ackerman lived near the present intersection of Kinderkamack Road and Main Street, River Edge, and not in any portion of the extant Zabriskie-Steuben House. The oldest portion of Main Street ran from Johannis' dwelling to his gristmill in the mouth of the Cole's Brook. The new section of road continued in a northerly direction (as does Main Street today) to the place chosen for the west abutment of the bridge. As the Steuben House stands along this stretch of road, no part of the house was likely standing here in 1744 when the road was surveyed.
Current photo of the Steuben House
Jan and Annetje (Ackerman) Zabriskie purchased the Johannes Ackerman mill and farm in September 1745, shortly after construction of the first draw-bridge at the narrows of the Hackensack River
This wooden span was called New Bridge to distinguish it from an older crossing several miles upstream. In 1752, the Zabriskies built the oldest part of the Steuben House. Its walls were built with blocks of sandstone cut from the Kinderkamack Ridge - dressed stone on the two sides of the building facing the roadway and coursed rubble on the other sides. The front door opened into a center-hall. The parlor, located on the north side of the hall, had a jambless Dutch fireplace. The large room on the south side of the hall was the Dwelling Room - here the family ate, worked and slept around the largest fireplace in the house. Three narrow rooms, under a shed extension of the roof at the back of the house, were used for a kitchen, a milk-room and a root-cellar (where food could be kept cold, much like in a modern refrigerator).
A winding staircase in the hall provided access into the garret. The ends of roof rafters were cut into interlocking "tongues" and slits, one fitting snugly into the other and fastened with a wooden pin. The rafters were covered with either bundles of river reeds (called thatch) or with cedar shingles. Since glass was hand-blown, window sashes had to be made up of many small panes fitted between wooden bars. Clay from the river bank was formed by hand into rectangular blocks and then baked into bricks. These old bricks, called "patties," often bear the marks of the fingers that shaped them. Requiring much work to shape a large number and much wood for fuel to bake them, bricks were usually used only in chimneys, although a very few people could afford to build a complete house of bricks. A diamond-shaped datestone with carved mill wheel, placed in the south wall, identifies the owners and the date of construction: JZ AZ Anno 1752.