WHERE WASHINGTON ESCAPED FROM THE BRITISH BY A FIFTEEN MINUTE MARGIN
” A Pleasant situated Farm, on the Road leading to King’s Bridge, in the Township of Harlem, on York-Island, containing about 100 acres, near 30 acres of which is Wood-land, a fine piece of Meadow Ground, and more easily be made : and commands the finest Prospect in the whole Country : the Land runs from River to River : there is Fishing, Oystering, and Claming at either end. .. ”
When, in 1765, Roger Morris, whose city house was at the corner of Whitehall and Stone streets, saw this advertisement in the New York Mercury, he hungered for the country. So he bought the offered land, and by the summer of 1766 he had completed the sturdy Georgian house that, after a century and a half, looks
down on the city that has grown to it and beyond it.
In an advertisement published in 1792, in the New York Daily Advertiser, a pleasing description of the mansion of Roger Morris was given :
” On the premises is a large dwelling-house, built in modern style and taste and elegance. It has . . . a large hall through the centre; a spacious dining room on the right. . On the left is a handsome parlor and a large back room. . . . On the second floor are seven bedchambers. . . . On the upper floor are five lodging rooms . . . and at the top of the house is affixed an electric conducter. Underneath the building are a large, commodious kitchen and laundry and wine cellar, storeroom, kitchen pantry, sleeping apartments for servants, and a most complete dairy room. . .. ”
For nine years Roger Morris and his family lived in the mansion on the Heights. As a member of the Legislative Council much of his time was given to the interests of his fellow-citizens. But as time passed he found himself out of sympathy with his neighbors. They demanded war with Great Britain, and he felt that he could not join the revolt. Accordingly, in 1775, he sailed for England, leaving his large property in the care of Mrs. Morris.
Mrs. Morris kept the house open for a time, but finally, taking her children with her, she went to her sister-in-law at the Philipse Manor House at Yonkers.
On September 14, 1776, General Washington decided to abandon the city to the British. He planned to go to Harlem, to the fortification prepared in anticipation of just such an emergency. On September 15 he took possession of the Roger Morris house as headquarters. Two days later his Orderly Book shows the following message, referring to the battle of Harlem Heights :
” The General most heartily thanks the troops commanded yesterday by Major Leitch, who first advanced upon the enemy, and the others who so resolutely supported them. The behavior of yesterday was such a contrast to that of some troops the day before [at Kip's Bay] as must show what may be done when Officers and Soldiers exert themselves.”
During the weeks when the mansion remained Washington’s headquarters the curious early flag of the colonists waved above it. In the space now given to the stars was the British Union Jack, while the thirteen red and white stripes that were to become so familiar completed the design. This flag the English called ” the Rebellious Stripes.”
On November 16, 1776, Washington was at Fort Lee, on the New Jersey shore, opposite the present 160th Street. Desiring to view from the Heights the British operations in their attack on Fort Washington, he crossed over to the Morris house. Fifteen minutes after he left the Heights to return to New Jersey, four-teen thousand British and Hessian troops took possession of the Heights, the Morris Mansion, and Fort Washington.
The period of British occupation continued, at intervals, until near the close of the war. Since the owner was a Loyalist, the British Government paid rent for it.
After the Revolution the property was confiscated, as appears from an entry in Washington’s diary, dated July 10, 1790:
” Having formed a Party consisting of the Vice-President, his lady, Son & Miss Smith; the Secretaries of State, Treasury, & War, and the ladies of the two latter; with all the Gentlemen of my family, Mrs. Lear & the two Children, we visited the old position of Fort Washington, and afterwards dined on a dinner provided by a Mr. Mariner at the House lately Colo. Roger Morris, but confiscated and in the occupation of a common Farmer.”
For nearly thirty years after the Revolution the stately old house was occupied as a farmhouse or as a tavern. In 1810 it became the home of Stephen Jumel, a wealthy New York merchant, whose widow, Madam Jumel, later gave such wonderful entertainments in the house that the whole city talked about her. After many years of life alone in the mansion, in July, 1833, she married Aaron Burr. He was then seventy-two years old, while she was fifty-nine.
Madam Jumel-Burr lived until July 16, 1865. During her last years she was demented and did many strange things. For a time she maintained an armed garrison in the house, and she rode daily about the grounds at the head of fifteen or twenty men.
The mansion passed through a number of hands until, in 1903, title to it was taken by the City of New York, on payment of $235,000.
For three years the vacant house was at the mercy of souvenir hunters, but when, in 1906, it was turned over to the Daughters of the American Revolution, to be used as a Revolutionary Museum, twelve thousand dollars were appropriated for repairs and restoration. This amount was woefully inadequate, but it is hoped that further appropriation will make complete restoration possible.
The spacious grounds that once belonged to the mansion have been sold for building lots, but the house looks down proudly as ever from its lofty site almost opposite the intersection of Tenth Avenue and One Hundred and Sixty-first Street with St. Nicholas Avenue. The corner of its original dooryard is now Roger Morris Park.