Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hessians in the Ice Box: the hidden history of one of Newark's oldest homes

People sometimes tend to forget that New Jersey's largest cities are among our oldest. Take, for example, Newark. Gleaming new buildings are being constructed along Broad Street downtown, but if you look carefully around the city, you'll also see sandstone structures that were built before the American Revolution. One of the oldest, if not the oldest, stands precariously between an Episcopal church and an overpass for Interstate 280.

Built around 1710, the Plume house is remarkable for more than its age. Originally, I stopped by to track down its 19th century acclaim as the birthplace of an new technology that spurred the development of the entertainment industry. Then I discovered that it has the distinction of playing a small but telling role in the American Revolution. Today, we'll focus on that part of its history.

The land on which the sandstone house sits was deeded to early Newarker Samuel Plum in 1673 as part of the original partition of the region. A large farm with orchards, it was then well outside the heart of Newark, which was far smaller than it is today.

Annetje Van Wagenen Plume came to live at the house after her marriage to Samuel's grandson, Isaac Plume, in the mid 1700s. Together with Isaac's children and their mutual offspring, the pair kept the farm going until 1776, when Isaac joined the patriot cause as part of the Essex County Militia.

Ann and the children were on their own during the winter of 1777, when Hessian troops made their way to Newark after the Battle of Long Island. Located on the northern edge of town, the Plume farm and homestead was an easy and quick target. Hungry from the march, the enemy troops pushed their way into the house, demanding food for themselves and their horses.

Washington's troops had already retreated westward, leaving the area undefended and the Hessians emboldened. Figuring they'd encounter little resistance, they rummaged about the house, but when they started chopping her furniture for firewood in the main room, Ann had had enough. According to legend, her demands that they stop were countered by an officer's threat that he'd shoot her unless she shut up and left them alone. Angered, she let loose what was then a raunchy phrase for what might have been termed a proper woman: "Ram's horn if I die for it." The officer laughed in surprise and relented, telling his troops to move out to the yard.

Ann's frustration grew the longer the Hessians stayed on her property. A few days after the wood chopping incident, she saw a chance for revenge. Noticing one of the soldiers venturing into the ice house for some fresh milk, she quickly shut the door behind him and barricaded it. Muffled by the thick walls of the ice house, the soldier's protests and cries for help went unanswered by his comrades, who left in haste the next day when rumor spread that Continental soldiers were on the way. As the story goes, she turned the milk thief over to the Jersey Blues a few hours later, receiving his metal helmet as a reward.

Even without her daring during the Revolution, Ann was a remarkable woman for her time, having inherited substantial land holdings from her father. All of the properties became Isaac's at their marriage due to estate laws of the time, but she regained them all after his death in 1799. As a property-owning widow, she was entitled to vote before the right was taken away from women in New Jersey in 1807. By the time of her death in 1816, she was worth more than $100,000, a significant sum for the day regardless of one's gender.

As for the house, there's much more to be said, both of further history and of an uncertain future. Stay tuned for more...


  1. This is great! And from now on, I'll be muttering "ram's horn" at NJ drivers rather than my usual epithets.

    1. Thanks, Rick! Hope it doesn't get you into trouble!


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