Daily, thousands of citizens drive north or south into or out of the venerable Princeton, New Jersey, on a road that was built in 1807 through the Quaker Settlement farms of William Clarke and his brother, Thomas. On a rise to the west of the road is a colonnade. On the eastern side, close to the road, is a lonely tree surrounded by a split rail fence and an historical marker. Upon the rise near the woods is a decaying white clapboard house. New Jersey’s dense population is primarily in the northern section of the state. Here, in the serene south, open space is not rare, but this site is special. Few who drive by each day even know the significance of these landmarks or that this is hallowed ground.
A mere 30 years before the road that dissects these farms was built, General George Washington led about 5,000 men from Trenton to Princeton and rousted a garrison of British soldiers, setting off a series of events that would deny the Crown’s occupation of this middle colony, the crossroads of the revolution, ever again. What happened on this tranquil field on that frigid morning of January 3, 1777, would be the apex of what Frederick the Great called the “…most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.” What transpired on what is now called the Princeton Battlefield changed the course of history. And yet the Department of Environmental Protection, the governmental stewards of the Princeton Battlefield State Park, has let the Thomas Clarke Farm House fall into disrepair and deems this site not worthy of even one full-time staffer to welcome visitors and tell the story of what happened here.
The Thomas Clarke House, built in 1772, was one of a number of Quaker Settlement farm houses in the area that morning. One of the few remaining witness structures to Revolutionary War battles in the nation, the civilians of that community were left to clean up the field that day. The dead, the wounded — both British and American boys from far off places — clashed on the field in a meeting engagement that resulted in a rare victory for the “Father of our Country,” his third within ten days that began with his legendary crossing of the Delaware into New Jersey. Certainly, there is history to be told. But the State of New Jersey is missing an opportunity here.
As the nation begins to prepare for the Semiquincentenial, our 250th birthday, other Revolutionary War sites: Ticonderoga, Lexington, Saratoga, Brandywine, Cowpens, Yorktown, and the nearby Washington Crossing State Park in Pennsylvania are all preparing and polishing their image. These sites are fixing their structures, adding services, gearing up, and taking advantage of the boom in heritage tourism. Princeton Battlefield lies dormant and in decay. The walls and ceilings of the Thomas Clarke House are crumbling. There are leaks in the roof and the foundation is in trouble.
The part-time state employee who is tasked only two-and-a-half days a week at the site has tried to sound the alarm, but no one up the chain of command seems to be listening. And now, this part-time state employee’s hours have diminished and there will be no one at the battlefield to highlight the significance of this hallowed ground. Letters have been sent to New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, Catherine McCabe, but there has been no response.
We, the proud sisters and brothers of the Princeton Chapters of the Daughters and the Sons of the American Revolution, call on Governor Murphy, Commissioner McCabe, and state legislators to respect the responsibility we as New Jerseyians have as stewards of the land that launched our nation. The state is fumbling an opportunity to teach our children who we are and why we are here. The investment in the park will generate heritage tourism revenue throughout the region.
Repairing the Thomas Clarke Farm House is not just about our vanity, it is about our heritage. Staffing the Princeton Battlefield State Park with a full-time resource interpreter is not a difficult human resource challenge, but to leave this hallowed ground crumbling and vacant is a national disgrace.
— Joanne Shypula
Shypula is regent of the Princeton Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She can be reached at DAR.JoanneShypula@gmail.com.
— Roger S. Williams
Williams is president of the Princeton Cranbury Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, and co-founder of TenCrucialDays.org. He can be reached at Roger@PrincetonSAR.org.