Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dey Mansion - Washington slept here, too

One of these days I'm going to put together a "Washington slept here" map of all of the locations where the General stayed in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. Some say that he spent more time in the state than anywhere else during the fight for independence, and if our recent travels are any indication, that assertion is totally correct.

Dey Mansion in Wayne is a case in point. An impressive brick Georgian mansion with Dutch influences, the home was Washington's headquarters for much of the months of July, October and November 1780. To put that into context, the first stay was just a few weeks after the battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield which, repelled the British from capturing the General at Morristown. The second stay was just after Major General Benedict Arnold and his accomplice Major John Andre were revealed to be traitors.

When we visited the Hermitage a few weeks ago, we learned that Theodosia Prevost offered her home as a battle headquarters in the hopes of currying favor with Continental military leaders. That led me to wonder how the Dey mansion came to host Washington. Was the family sympathetic to the cause, or did they have more pragmatic reasons for offering up their house?

Family background indicates the former. The Dey family had been in North America for well over a century before the Revolution. Dirck Janszen Siecken Dey came to New Amsterdam from the Netherlands around 1641 as part of the Dutch West Indies Company, and his descendants arrived in the Preakness Valley of New Jersey in the early 1700s. The mansion we see in Wayne was built sometime between 1745 and 1775, either by Theunis Dey or his father, who was named Dirck, like the original New World settler.

Theunis was a prominent citizen, acting as a freeholder in what was a much larger Bergen County, representing the county in the State Assembly, and serving as a trustee of the very young Queen's College (or as we know it now, Rutgers University). He was also a colonel in the Bergen County militia, and thus was in close contact with military leaders, including the Commander in Chief himself. Not far from the Passaic Falls, the mansion's location was deemed a suitable place for Washington to both set up headquarters and be sheltered from repeated British kidnap attempts.

Ivan and I visited the mansion on a hot, sunny day, and the docent warned us that the house was warm and stuffy, so we'd be skipping the third floor portion of the tour (they'll be adding climate control later this year during a major restoration effort). I rationalized that we'd get a sense of the conditions during Washington's stay, without the heavy uniforms, of course.

The mansion is laid out in classic Georgian fashion, with each floor boasting a generous center hall and two decent-sized rooms on each side. However, the Dutch influence is revealed in the placement of the stairs, which start at the back-end of the house and rise to the top of the next floor, all concealed from view. After Ivan noted that the stairs seemed especially sturdy and level, the docent explained that one of the Deys was an accomplished carpenter who'd made sure to use strong oak beams to support the floors.

Washington and his staff used two rooms on each floor, leaving Theunis Dey and likely more than a dozen family members to the remaining two. The center halls on both floors are wide enough to serve as rooms themselves, and likely were used as dining areas. Though bathing and toilet facilities were understandably not part of the layout, it's not hard to imagine a modern-day family living there comfortably.

While there are no artifacts used by Washington himself, the furniture, housewares and personal items reflect the items that were likely in the house during his stay. It's not hard to imagine various officers gathering in the downstairs sitting rooms, reading dispatches that had just been delivered by couriers at the side door of the house. Our docent noted that the General had written prodigiously during his stay, penning nearly 600 pages of correspondence and orders.

It's a bit more challenging to visualize how the Dey family managed with so many guests and so much activity going on around them. On one hand, it must have been exciting to host Washington and other luminaries like the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton. On the other hand, the presence of even the quietest of houseguests can grow tedious the longer they're around. Battle for independence or not, some folks wouldn't be very well suited to give up half their house to a bunch of relative strangers.

Regardless, our visit exposed us to another dimension of life in New Jersey during wartime and the various machinations Washington went through to avoid capture. It's really fascinating how the more I wander around the state, the more complex and interesting our role in the Revolution becomes.

One more non-historic note: admission to the Dey Mansion is a more than fair $1 per person. Yes, a Washington will get you in to see Washington's headquarters. It's a real bargain! Be sure to check it out before it closes for renovation in the fall.


2 comments:

  1. I like the story about the Kitchen which is located in the small building to the right of the main house. It was built as a separate building because the fear of fire.In those days the kitchen apparently was prone to do that and if I remember the kitchen here burnt down and was rebuilt.

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    1. Yes, that's right. Many families took that approach to make sure a kitchen fire wouldn't take down an entire house. Others were built with the kitchen as a lean-to that could be collapsed to separate the cooking area from the rest of the house, as was done at the Drake house in Plainfield. (You can find our visit there at http://www.hiddennj.com/2012/10/washington-damn-torpedoes-and-hitting.html .)

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