Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jan and Annetje [Ackerman] Zabriskie-Steuben House


Built in 1752 by merchant Jan Zabriskie, this house witnessed the crossing of General George Washington and the American garrison of Fort Lee across the Hackensack River during their infamous November 20, 1776 retreat. 

Cornelius Matheus was the first to settle the area known as New Bridge Landing in 1682, when he purchased 420 acres of land on the Hackensack River. In 1695, his son deeded the property to David Ackerman, who erected the first gristmill on the estate on what is known today as Cole’s Brook. 

DavidSteuben House Mill’s grandson Nicolas sold the land and mill to Jan Zabriskie in 1745, shortly after construction of the first drawbridge at the narrows of the Hackensack River. This wooden span was called “New Bridge” to distinguish it from an older crossing several miles upstream. There Jan Zabriskie built  a five-room saltbox house in 1752. Jan’s home faced the river landing and bridge, allowing his merchant business to grow from the increasing amount of traffic on the waterway.

The building of the New Bridge across the Hackensack River in 1744 brought commercial traffic to the area, as it was the first river crossing above Newark Bay. Flour ground at the gristmill was shipped weekly to New York City via Jan Zabriskie’s sloop, which then returned with merchandise for his store trade. Pig and bar iron from the Ramapo Mountains were carted to the New Bridge Landing for shipment to market.

Jan and Annetje (Ackerman) Zabriskie had purchased the Ackerman mill and farm in September 1745 and, in 1752, Jan Zabriskie 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.

The wealth that Jan Zabriskie accumulated from his trade and store allowed him to enlarge his home in 1765 to the structure that still stands today: a sandstone house covered by a fashionable gambrel roof. At the time, the home was considered a mansion, as it had twelve rooms heated by seven large fireplaces.

Zabriskie's house at New Bridge Landing entered Revolutionary history on the fateful morning of November 20, 1776, when British and Hessian troops landed at Lower Closter Dock and scaled the Jersey Palisades. General Washington led the garrison of Fort Lee over the New Bridge and past the Zabriskie house to safety, whereby the soldiers narrowly escaped entrapment on the neck of land between the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers.  

Thomas Paine, who marched with the troops, noted that “Our first objective was to secure the bridge over the Hackensack…”  Paine would soon immortalized this darkest hour of the Revolution in his The American Crisis, with the refrain, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Today, New Bridge is often referred to as “the bridge that saved a nation” for its part during the Revolutionary War.

Colonel Jan Zabriskie, a Loyalist and the owner of the mansion at New Bridge, was arrested in July 1777 and later fled to British-held Manhattan. His property was confiscated by the State of New Jersey in 1781. Zabriskie’s estate at New Bridge served as a military headquarters, an encampment ground and the site of several skirmishes. 

In March 1780, Hackensack tavern keeper Archibald Campbell escaped from British capture by hiding in the root cellar. On May 30, 1780, British troops, hoping to trap Bergen militiamen asleep in the house, mistakenly killed eight of their own men and wounded several more. General Washington established headquarters at New Bridge on September 4, 1780.

Because of this strategic position on the banks of the river at the New Bridge, the house managed to survive throughout the American Revolution. The confiscated mansion was later presented to Major General Baron Friedrich von Steuben as thanks for his efforts during the War for Independence.  

Baron von Steuben had offered his services “as a Volunteer” to the American Congress in December 1777 and is best remembered for organizing and training the Continental Army at Valley Forge. He retired from military service in March 1784. Von Steuben died at Remsen, Oneida County, New York, on 28 Nov. 1794.

It now has become known as the Steuben House.  Listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, the Steuben House is administered by the Division of Parks & Forestry.

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