Richard Veit, a historical archaeologist and associate professor of anthropology at Monmouth University, got a bit of a comeuppance after speaking in Trenton several years ago about some sites in New Jersey. A man approached him after the talk and, with what seemed like quite a bit of chutzpah, said, “That was very interesting, young man, but those sites aren’t really all that exciting.”
Veit was taken aback. “It sort of broke my heart that he would say that — I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, or run away.”
But the man wasn’t done. “I know of a much more interesting place where you should be digging,” he told Veit and then asked him, “Have you ever heard of Joseph Bonaparte and Point Breeze?”
Well, yes, he had — after all, Veit teaches New Jersey history at Monmouth University. So he told the gentleman, “I think it is owned by a missionary community, and I would be surprised if they allowed any sort of archaeology on their property — it would be tearing up their lawns.”
The man, who turned out to be Andy Cosentino, curator for the Divine Word Mission in Bordentown, concluded with a flourish. “I can make it happen,” he said, and he meant it.
“He was very much right, and I was wrong,” says Veit. “They were excited about doing archaeology and re-identifying the site of Joseph’s first house.” That site will be included in the tour led by Veit this Saturday, April 13, at 1 p.m.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Joseph Bonaparte, his older brother, fled to the United States, where he lived as an immigrant under an assumed name, Count de Survilliers, from 1816 to 1839. Previously, at the behest of his younger brother, he was appointed king of Naples, which worked out reasonably well, and later as king of Spain, which was a disaster. “The Spaniards don’t want him and the English army ultimately tosses him out of Spain,” says Veit.
But Joseph did not come to these shores empty-handed. “I think he absconded with quite a bit of art and jewelry, and some say the Spanish crown jewels, which helped him finance a pretty lavish lifestyle in America,” says Veit. The folklore has it that Joseph sent the longest-standing of his bilingual secretaries, Louis Maillard, back to France to dig up loot Joseph had buried on an estate in Switzerland.
The fortune Maillard returned with allowed Joseph to acquire an enormous property and build two grand houses, the first of which was destroyed by fire in January, 1820. “He was very entrepreneurial,” says Veit. “He owned property, had farmers on it, and he bought and sold land. He was a wheeler and dealer, and quite successful.”
Though New Jersey and Pennsylvania have many wonderful archaeological sites, Point Breeze is unique, suggests Veit, because Joseph was living a lifestyle that was different from everyone else in the Bordentown area — surrounded by great art, an enormous library, expensive dinnerware, and elegant furniture. When his first house burned down on January 4, 1820, many art objects were salvaged, but much was lost. “He and his servants were unable to save a lot of things, so we get a glimpse of the lives of the rich and famous in the 18-teens,” says Veit.
Veit first visited the spot the summer after he met Cosentino. He saw beautiful lawns, but nothing was visible above ground from Bonaparte’s first house, which had stood for about two years.
Veit decided to run his field methods in archaeology course that summer on the site, with the goal of finding Joseph’s first house. The first thing his team did was to lay out a grid of shovel test pits — small holes that enable archaeologists to retrieve data without disturbing the ground too much. These pits were a foot in diameter and three feet deep, set every 25 feet. “The hope was that some of the test pits, laid out on a grid like graph paper, would have artifacts that would tell where the house might be,” he says.
In fact in the very first pit students revealed fragments of wine bottles, ceramics, and broken pieces of brick and mortar. “We speculated that we might have found Joseph’s wine cellar — and of the 100 others dug over the next three years, many had wine bottles in them,” he says. He learned that one of Joseph’s nicknames was “Pepe Botellas,” or Joe Bottles, because he had quite a wine cellar.
Over the next couple of years, through two more field schools, Veit and his partner Michael Gall, who had been his student at Monmouth and then became a professional archaeologist, excavated a sample of a cellar hole. They found corners and dug a couple of five-foot excavation units, where they recovered 23,000 artifacts, each of which has to be washed and cataloged. “We are still living with them,” says Veit. “At some point they will be going back to the Divine Word Missionary, and some may move to the New Jersey State Museum.”
The tiny fragments of ornate picture frames they found attest to Joseph’s art collection, the largest in the United States at the time. He imported art and shared it publicly, sending it to Philadelphia to be exhibited, serving as an unofficial cultural ambassador. “He had a transformative effect on the cultural life of the Delaware Valley,” says Veit. “The paintings and sculpture he had were on a scale that folks living in rural Burlington and Bucks counties would not have had real familiarity with.”
Not only was the size and scope of his collection inspirational — ranging from Renaissance paintings to Jacques-Louis David’s enormous painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps on horseback — but the property itself drew artists who wanted to paint his home in its natural setting.
Joseph set his table with high-end ceramics, including very fine French pottery with images from the Roman Empire. “He was trying to associate himself with great ancient empires,” says Veit, “and beautiful hardware and furniture pieces speak to a house that was a showplace where he could play the role of king in exile.”
Veit and his students also dug up a lot of marble — probably fragments of fireplaces and bases of statues. “This was not something we had been expecting. It speaks to the lavish decoration that once would have been present,” he says. “In digging at other houses of fairly wealthy individuals, we hadn’t seen it.”
Both the first and second house sat amid a whole complex of structures — houses, kitchens, guest lodges, and a washhouse. Says Veit, “The separate laundry shows the number of people he entertained.”
Joseph also built tunnels connecting the different houses. “People locally liked to say this was so he could secretly bring his paramour into the house without anybody noticing, but he claimed that it kept the servants dry when moving from building to building,” says Veit.
Equally interesting is what Joseph did with the Point Breeze landscape, creating an enormous private park reminiscent of a king’s domain — much of it still standing. He created the property by purchasing dozens of farms in the area. “Once he did this, he started landscaping in new and different ways,” says Veit. “In North America and Europe, when they laid out parks, they did it in a formal, geometric way, but he and his workmen created hills where they hadn’t existed and dammed creeks so they had waterways.” The landscapes he created were in the “picturesque” style, which evolved primarily from mid-18th century British landscape design theory, with rolling hills, an excavated lake, pathways, little bridges, and statues hidden around corners.
By the end of this summer Veit and Gall hope to have the report on their work finished, and after that the two men will be writing a book about what they have learned.
Veit grew up in South Plainfield, and his father was a history teacher in Westfield. “I was sort of overexposed to history at a young age,” he says.
Veit’s mother worked in human resources. After his father died when Veit was a freshman in college, his mother did not respond the way others might have. “A lot of parents, if their son were majoring in anthropology, would say, ‘Maybe look at business, or dentistry, or accounting,’ but she did not,” says Veit. “She was wonderfully supportive of me doing what I was passionate about and still is. I owe her a big thanks.”
Interested in American history and North American archaeology, Veit was part of an archaeology field school that excavated a Native American pueblo just outside of Taos while he was at Drew University.
After returning to college in New Jersey, in what he describes as “serendipity,” he found a job advertisement for an archaeologist. He was hired by a small firm in Highland Park to do local history, a job he continued throughout college. “I decided this is what I wanted to spend my life doing,” he says. Veit earned a master’s degree in historical archaeology from the College of William and Mary in 1991 and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1997.
Veit’s dissertation was on the ceramics industry in 19th-century New Jersey, and he jokes, “Three people were interested in it besides myself.” But he is also the author of “Digging New Jersey’s Past: Historical Archaeology in the Garden State,” which many more people are likely to find intriguing.
So why is Point Breeze significant for New Jerseyans? Veit reels off a list: “Having a former king, the brother of Napoleon, living in New Jersey; lifestyles of the rich and famous in general; a forgotten episode in our state’s history.”
But for Veit, it is archaeology that has removed the cloaks of history to reveal the significance of Point Breeze. “It is a case where archaeology can serve as a way of creating interest in local history,” he says. “Archaeology has served as a catalyst for a new understanding of Point Breeze.”
Richard Veit Tour of Point Breeze, Divine Word Missionary, 101 Park Street, Bordentown. Saturday, April 13, 1 p.m. Free. Organized by Friends of the Hamilton Trenton Bordentown March. www.marsh-friends.org.
#b#Marsh Weekend Celebrates Homes and History#/b#
The Point Breeze tour site is just one of several historic tours during the annual Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh History Weekend, set for Saturday and Sunday, April 13 and 14. All events are free.
Saturday’s events start at 9 a.m. with a one-mile walking tour of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Lock 1. Barbara Ross and Vicki Chirco of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Watch are the tour guides. Participants meet at the northbound parking lot off Interstate 295, just north of Bordentown.
At 11 a.m. former mayor and state assemblyman Jack Rafferty will provide a personal walk-through of the late 18th century Isaac Pearson House, located at Hobson and Emeline avenues in Hamilton. Rafferty is responsible for saving the property and involved with efforts to restore the former home of the Revolutionary War-era political leader.
Saturday’s events conclude with the 1 p.m. tour of the Point Breeze site, located at Divine Word Missionaries, 101 Park Street, Bordentown.
On Sunday, two open houses and tours are on the schedule. The Watson House, built in 1708 and noted as the oldest house in Mercer County, will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. The house is located at 151 Westcott Avenue, at the entrance to Roebling Park, in Hamilton.
At 2 p.m. Bow Hill Mansion, the late-18th century building that served as home to prominent area families as well as Joseph Bonaparte’s mistress, Annette Savage, will be open for a presentation and tour. U.S. 1 arts editor Dan Aubrey will begin the session by reading from his novella “The Rooms,” based on Savage’s life in the rooms of the house. A tour follows immediately. The mansion is located at the end of Jeremiah Avenue (off Lalor Street) in Hamilton.
The project is coordinated by the Friends for the Marshlands, Delaware and Raritan Canal Watch, D&R State Park, and D&R Greenway Land Trust. For information call 609-924-2683 or go to www.marsh-friends.org (which will post weather related notices).