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New Jersey historic sites prepare for nation’s 250th anniversary

By Jay Watson

Each year at Christmas, New Jerseyans are reminded of our state’s key role in the American Revolution as historic re-enactors pile into wooden rowboats on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and paddle toward our shore.

The re-enactment commemorates Gen. George Washington’s bold Christmas night 1776 crossing of the Delaware with his ragtag Continental Army troops and their subsequent march south to Trenton to rout Hessian mercenary soldiers occupying the city.

Washington’s stunning victory over the Hessians turned the tide of the war, which the Americans had been losing badly.

With renewed energy and confidence, the Continental Army went on to win a second battle in Trenton, followed by the Battle of Princeton, during a period known as the Ten Crucial Days.

The Revolutionary War would continue for another six-and-a-half years, but the Ten Crucial Days proved to the British that the American revolt would not be extinguished easily.

Fast forward to present day New Jersey. In a little over three years, the United States will celebrate its “semiquincentennial,” or 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Work is already beginning to get New Jersey historic sites ready for the 2026 celebration.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently announced a $25 million investment in 10 New Jersey Revolutionary War historic sites to prepare them for an expected surge in visitors.

“As they say, every good party requires planning,” noted the governor at a ceremony at Washington Crossing State Park. “When that party is going to celebrate the 250th birthday of our nation, we need to start that planning a little sooner.”

With its strategic location between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey “was arguably more deeply involved in the cause of independence than any other state,” Murphy pointed out.

The $25 million will come from New Jersey’s share of federal American Rescue Plan funds.

Gov. Murphy said more funding will likely be added.

“We want to make sure New Jersey has its rightful place as we commemorate and celebrate the 250th birthday of our great nation,” he said.

Not surprisingly, George Washington figures prominently in many of the 10 historic sites to be restored. They are:

• Washington Crossing State Park in Hopewell Township – This park was established at the site where Washington and his troops landed at Johnson’s Ferry House after crossing the icy Delaware during the night of Dec. 25-26, 1776;

• The Old Barracks in Trenton – Now a museum, the building was constructed in 1758 as a French and Indian War military barracks. It housed British and American troops during the Revolutionary War;

• The Battle Monument in Trenton – This 150-foot-tall granite column, topped with a statue of George Washington, commemorates the Battle of Trenton in December 1776;

• Princeton Battlefield State Park in Princeton – This site is where American and British troops fought on Jan. 3, 1777 in the Battle of Princeton. The battle ended when British soldiers in Nassau Hall surrendered;

• Monmouth Battlefield State Park in Manalapan and Freehold Township – This park was the site of one of the longest battles of the Revolutionary War, on a blistering hot day in June 1778. The site is associated with the legend of Molly Pitcher, said to have carried water to soldiers and switched to firing a cannon after her husband was killed;

• The Proprietary House in Perth Amboy – This brick Georgian mansion was built in 1762 as the official residence for Royal Governor William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin. It is the only remaining official royal governor’s mansion still standing in any of the 13 original colonies;

• The Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield – This Colonial-era tavern, the first historic site purchased by the state, was where New Jersey completed its transition from colony to state. The New Jersey Legislature drafted its first laws there, including those that revised election procedures, created township governments and set up state courts;

• Wallace House in Somerville – Merchant John Wallace’s country home, the largest private dwelling built in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War, served as Washington’s winter headquarters during the 1778-79 Middlebrook encampment of the Continental Army;

• Boxwood Hall in Elizabeth – This circa 1750 home has a rich Revolutionary War history. Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress, was in residence in September 1773 when news arrived that the Treaty of Paris had been ratified to end the war. Washington visited for lunch in 1789 on his way to be inaugurated as the new nation’s first president;

• Rockingham in Kingston – This historic house served as Washington’s final Revolutionary War headquarters. It was at Rockingham that the general penned the letter resigning his command at the end of the Revolutionary War.

All New Jerseyans can be proud of the role this state we’re in played in the American Revolution. More than 200 battles and skirmishes were fought in New Jersey and Washington spent more time here than anywhere else during the war.

And as my sister, U.S. Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, points out, New Jerseyans of all races and backgrounds contributed to the fight for independence.

New Jersey’s story “includes the contributions of Black and indigenous soldiers during the war. It was an integrated regiment who ferried Washington across the Delaware on Christmas 1776,” she said. “By the end of the war a full quarter of the American soldiers marching to Yorktown were Black or indigenous. Their contributions must be remembered as we celebrate the 250-year history of the greatest nation on Earth.”

In 2008, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s State Park Service created and curated an excellent exhibit illustrating the contributions of people of color, those who fought on both sides of the Revolution in search of freedom.

We hope this traveling exhibit, known as “Oh Freedom,” will be polished up and put on display during the celebrations to come.

To learn more about New Jersey and the American Revolution, go to https://revolutionarynj.org/revolution-nj/ and https://www.nps.gov/places/crossroads-national-heritage-area.htm.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, including historic sites, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.

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