Bordentown City, like so many 328-year-old towns in the northeast, began with a Quaker. In 1682 Thomas Farnsworth moved upriver from Burlington and established Farnsworth’s Landing. Thanks to its calm, wide riverfront, the town became a center of trade.
Joseph Borden moved in a few decades later and the town took his name after he established a freight and transport line from the city to New York and Pennsylvania.
Bordentown’s richest historical heritage centers on the Revolutionary War. In the 1770s the city was a hotbed of anti-British sentiment, embodied best by the country’s most criminally neglected Founding Father, Thomas Paine, author of “Common Sense” and “The Age of Reason.” Benjamin Franklin is known to have visited Paine’s home, and the man’s rabble-rouser friends, such as Francis Hopkinson (signer of the Declaration of Independence), Oakey Hoagland, and Joseph Kirkbride, incensed the British so much that His Majesty’s Army occupied and pillaged the city in the late 1770s.
Today there is a statue of Paine near the bluffs on Prince Street. Bordentown City is the only place in the world in which Paine ever owned property, and though his house is gone, its foundation remains; 2 West Church Street is a recognized landmark.
After the war Bordentown developed a reputation for progressive thinking. St. Mary’s Hall, an all-girls’ Episcopal school founded in 1837, was the country’s first school to offer classical education in Greek, Latin, and French to girls. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, established the state’s first public school here, and the city was home to the Manual Training and Industrial School, a school for blacks founded after the Civil War and one of the few elite boarding schools for black youth in the late 19th century.
Bordentown also became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. A house on Burlington Street (no longer standing) was a pivotal stop for slaves heading north to New York.
Perhaps the city’s most unusual claim to fame is as the home of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, whom Napoleon had once named the king of Spain, Naples, Sicily, and the Indies. Joseph, though no longer royalty, was a host extraordinaire in the early 19th century. His Pointe Breeze home (the grounds of which now host the Divine Word Seminary and parts of the Pointe Breeze apartments) was a playground for Daniel Webster and President John Quincy Adams, among others.
Churches and religious orders dominated the 1900s in Bordentown City. Today the estate of Poor Clare nuns on Crosswicks Street now serves as a retirement home for the general public. Poor Clare’s sits just a few yards from the home of Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century, a late 19th-century progressive magazine that championed no end of social reforms.
Though Bordentown went through several down decades following World War II, the city bounced back in the late 1990s and early 2000s as hub of bookstores (there were five within three blocks just a few years ago), antiques, and fine dining. These days most visitors associate the city as the new home for top-notch Italian dining, now that Trenton has lost the claim. It remains a progressive town, possessive of its history, and friendly to artists and creative brains.