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Bordentown, NJ – Patriots, Revolutionaries and a King
By Lynn Whitney
In January of 1776, a revolution was brewing in the tiny river front town of Bordentown, NJ. Tension in the Colonies was high and the spirit of rebellion was growing following the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord. Yet, another sense was developing – a feeling among the Colonists that they were no longer fighting for their rights as British subjects. They were fighting for their independence. It was Thomas Paines’s belief that the Colonies had the right to revolt against a government that imposed taxation without representation. In his opinion there was no reason for the Colonies to stay dependent on England. From his simple home in Bordentown, Paine penned what one historian stated, “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary era,” - Common Sense. In fiery unadorned language , he argued for a full scale revolt and freedom from British rule, pushing the generally still undecided American Colonists away from British loyalty to declared rebellion. He is credited with turning the tide of popular opinion and convincing many Americans that the war for independence was their only option and they had to take it now. More than any other publication, Common Sense paved the way for the Declaration Of Independence.
But Bordentown’s story begins before Thomas Paine. It was originally settled by Thomas Farnsworth in 1682 with a log cabin on the riverbank and the name Farnsworth Landing. In 1717 Joseph Borden bought up a large portion of the land, named it Borden’s Town, and started a packet line from Philadelphia to Bordentown. Travelers could ride the Borden Stage to Perth Amboy, then board a ferry to New York. With its central location on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and New York, it was natural that most of the Founding Fathers passed through the town.
Bordentown’s strategic location also made it a prime target for British forces, who occupied it on several occasions. The first occupation came in December 1776, as British forces pushed General Washington across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. A British post was established and one thousand British and German troops were stationed there. The troops were immediately evacuated following Washington’s attack on Trenton.
In January 1777, a Revolutionary episode, aptly named, “The Battle of the Kegs” occurred. The kegs were floating torpedoes, built in Bordentown, and outfitted with a triggering mechanism fashioned by Mr. Miles in his gun shop on Farnsworth Ave. The kegs were floated down the river on a swift, outgoing tide to Philadelphia Harbor, where the British fleet was anchored. One keg struck a British barge killing four men. Although no British war ships were damaged, the explosions created so much commotion that the British spent most of the day shooting at nothing. Rumor ran through the city that Continental soldiers were hiding in barrels and popping out intent on murder. The embarrassing over reaction by the British was immortalized in a drinking song penned by Francis Hopkins, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Bordentown resident. The ballad titled, The Battle of the Kegs, was sung in taverns around the area, immortalizing the unyielding nature of the American rebel army.
This tiny town’s historical significance continues beyond the Colonial Period. The John Bull, the first steam engine in the country, was shipped from England and assembled in Bordentown. Rails were laid and Bordentown once again, became an important stop on the line between Philadelphia and New York. The John Bull now resides at the Smithsonian Institute.
In 1816, the natural beauty of the bluffs overlooking the Delaware River, attracted Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon , to Bordentown. Installed unwillingly by Napoleon as King of Naples and Spain, Joseph abdicated after five years, following a string of defeats at the hands of the Spanish regular army. Taking the title of Comte de Survilliers, he built himself a mansion worthy of a King, and named it Point Breeze. There he hosted dignitaries such as John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette and Steven Girard, the richest man in the U.S. Since Joseph’s wife did not accompany him to America, he took up the acquaintance of Annette Savage, with whom he had two daughters. In January 1820, the mansion burned to the ground, rumored to have been set by a Russian woman immigrant as revenge for Napoleon’s invasion of her homeland.
Bonaparte rebuilt his mansion and remained there until his return to Europe in 1839. He died in 1844, leaving Point Breeze to his grandson, who sold most of its contents. Some of the furnishings and art now reside in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Another notable resident of Bordentown, was Clara Barton, who started the first free public school in New Jersey and later went on to found the American Red Cross. A recreation of her school house can be seen at the corner of Crosswick and Burlington Sts.
Today, self- guided walking tours can be taken, where the homes of many of Bordentown’s notables can be seen, as well as a variety of architecture from Bungalows to Victorians. Complete your day with some shopping at the eclectic variety of shops, from antiques to art to apparel. Dine at a fine restaurant or a quaint café. Enjoy your visit to “the little city with a lot of charm.”
“I’d rather see my horse Buttons eating the grass of Bordentown, than all the pomp and show of Europe.” – Joseph Bonaparte
John Bull Thomas Paine