If there’s one thing that I think prompted my love of history, it was going to see historic homes with my parents when I was a kid. There’s something about walking the same floorboards as people who lived hundreds of years ago that helps bring the past back to life and make it relatable. I’ve been to countless historical homes in my life and, I have to admit, my favorite ones are not the enormous grand palaces, but the more modest structures. Today I’m taking you with me to New Jersey, to a home that George Washington slept in. No. Really. He did.
Here in the eastern US, some old establishments brag that our first president spent the night under their roof. For many years it’s been a marketing ploy to attract people to your inn or tavern. But the Dey Mansion in Wayne, New Jersey can actually state it for a fact. Not only did Washington spend countless nights there, twice he used the home as his headquarters during the American Revolution. And, if you are a fan of Alexander Hamilton, you might be interested to know that he was Washington’s aide-de-camp during this time and shared an “office” in this house. One thing I love about the Dey Mansion is that it seems like a hidden secret in the world of historic homes.
Let’s start at the front door. The Dey Mansion was built around 1770 for Theunis and Hester Dey. In 1764, Theunis inherited 600 acres from his father in an area that was then known as Preakness in Bergen County. At the time, he was a thirty-eight year old married father of nine children. A prominent member of society, he represented Bergen County in the State Council and was a charter trustee in Queen’s College, which is now Rutger’s University.
During the American Revolution, Theunis served as colonel of the Bergen County Militia, which brought him into frequent contact with Washington. Historian Isaac A. Serven has said that, “Besides sharing ideals of liberty and military secrets, Theunis and Washington had other interests in common. Both were nearly the same age, both were large land owners and agriculturalists, and both had served in a civil capacity in the governing bodies of their respective counties and states.” It would be natural for Washington to use Theunis’s home as his headquarters while his main army was encamped in the area along Totowa Heights from July 1 through the 29th of 1780 and then again from October 9th to November 27th.
One of my favorite things to do when I visit an old home like this, is to check out the front steps. Look at the top step. See the indentation in the stone? The wearing away of that stone was due to all the shoes and boots that brushed against it as people entered and left the Dey home over the years. That means the boots of Washington, Hamilton, and Lafayette contributed to that indentation.
This is the other side of the front door, known as the “Great Hall”. Its dimensions made it ideal for line dances which were popular in the 18th century. One of the the fun facts I’ve discovered while touring a number of historic homes in the US of this size is that it was common to use the Great Hall as a dance floor during balls and parties.
The Preakness Valley was a strategic and ideal location for the Continental Army. They could keep an eye on British occupied New York City and the local farmers offered supplies to feed them. The formal dining room, pictured above, served as George Washington’s office during his stay at the Dey Mansion. When he returned to the house in the fall, it was just after Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of West Point. The Dey’s house offered a safe refuge from the enemy, and I’d also like to believe he found comfort being with friends after that betrayal.
During Washington’s occupation of the east side of the house, the room above was used by his aide de camps: Alexander Hamilton, Tench Tilghman, Robert Harrison, David Humphrey, and James McHenry. Their job was to write many letters and reports issued by the Commander-in-Chief. I was tempted to call this the room where it happened, but I refrained. Ha!
This room was used by Washington and his staff for small meetings. During the July encampment here, this room would have been used by Washington when he over-saw Anthony Wayne’s attack of the blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry on the Palisades and received news that the French Allies had arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington also granted control of the southern section of the army to Nathaniel Green from here, setting the foundation for the victory at Yorktown.
This room served as Washington’s bedroom both times he was here. This was considered the best bedroom in the house due to its southern exposure. The bed is a typical rope bed of the period and the large wooden “key” resting on top of the coverlet was used to tighten the ropes that supported the mattress. If you are familiar with the phrase “Good Night. Sleep Tight”, this is what it means.
Many of Washington’s guests slept overnight in this room such as the Marquis de Lafayette, General Anthony Wayne, General Nathaniel Green, Lord Stirling, as well as on occasion Alexander Hamilton. The Dey family must have been gracious hosts since Hamilton described their home as “a house of great hospitality”. Some items of note in the room include the document box at the foot of the bed. This box was used for safekeeping important documents being carried by the room’s occupants. There’s a large linen press next to the fireplace that was the 18th century version of a closet. It would’ve been used to store clothing and other household items such as linens. The foot warmer near the fireplace is one of my favorite artifacts in the room. The small box is lined with tin and would have been filled with hot coals. There is a ball handle that made it easy to transport around a room, or to another room of the house. Foot warmers such as this could even be used in a cold carriage in the winter months.
Although the 600 acres the family once owned were sold off years ago, today, the Dey Mansion is nestled within the Preakness Valley Golf Course so you still get the feel of the open fields that once surrounded the home. The grounds, while not vast, are pretty with a number of scenic gardens that make for a picturesque place to spend a warm sunny day. If you have an interest in the American Revolutionary War or just love historic houses, I would highly recommend at visit if you’re in the area.
Information included in this article comes from a visit to the museum.