New Jersey: Morristown Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Named for New Jersey’s first governor, Lewis Morris, Morristown was the site of two critical winter encampments of General George Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolution; it was also a key point of defense due to its proximity to major cities and iron mines. Morristown is the site of Speedwell Iron Works, where much of the SS Savannah (the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean) was built and where Samuel F. B. Morse and Alfred Vail debuted telegraph technology in 1838. It has a long history of well-to-do residents–at one time, Morristown claimed more millionaires than any comparably sized area in the world.

Site Office

Historic Morris Visitors Center

6 Court Street

Morristown, NJ 07960

ph.: (973) 631-5151

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Morristown holds a place of paramount distinction in the annals of the American Revolution. In terms of hardship and endurance, the winter encampments of General George Washington’s troops in Morristown rival those that took place in the more legendary Valley Forge. In Morristown, members of the Pennsylvania Line staged a near-disastrous mutiny to protest their wretched conditions. Also in Morristown, the court-martial of the traitorous General Benedict Arnold took place. Despite these obstacles, however, Morristown came to symbolize the determined efforts of the colonists to break with British rule. Near the war’s end, a successful defense of the site against Loyalist troops demoralized the British.

In the nineteenth century, Morristown developed a reputation as the home of an elite class. Iron-mining fortunes and an increasingly convenient commute to some of the East Coast’s busiest metropolitan areas combined to make Morristown a favorite bedroom community of the rich. The Speedwell Iron Works was instrumental in the preparation of the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and it was the site of the first demonstration of Samuel F. B. Morse’s and Alfred Vail’s telegraph system. Today, Morristown retains much of its colonial heritage and its industrial-era affluence in its preserved homes and federally supported historic parks and sites.

Early History

In 1710, groups of colonists from New Jersey and New England began to move westward from Newark toward the Watchung Mountains, enticed by the rich supply of iron ore that the region’s Lenni-Lenape Indians called “sucky-sunny.” One party settled at the foot of Mount Kemble, along the narrow Whippany River, in a small valley that came to be known as the Hollow. They named their village West Hanover, welcoming newcomers whose homes spread to the tablelands above the Hollow; this central area became the site of Morristown Green.

When the growing community around West Hanover saw fit to create its own body of government to eliminate the wearisome trek to Trenton, prominent figure Jacob Ford led a movement to secede from Hunterdon County and form a new county. Reassigned as Morris County, the area was named for New Jersey’s governor at the time, Lewis Morris, a popular leader who had been elected by a unified East and West New Jersey in 1738. Ford hosted the first meeting of Morris County court at his tavern, presiding as justice over a session that renamed his village Morristown and made it the seat of county government. By 1741, the township had a log church, and by 1755 the county court could move from Ford’s tavern into its own courthouse.

With an average of two settlers per square mile, Morris County stretched across the area that currently comprises Morris, Sussex, and Warren Counties. During the 1750’s, Sussex temporarily separated from Morris, but its courts returned in 1757 when they were disrupted by Indian uprisings along the Delaware Valley. Morristown was the center of commerce and public affairs for the hamlets of Bottle Hill (later Madison), Chatham, Chester, Dover, German Valley, Mendham, Pompton, Rockaway, and Whippany; however, its relatively small populace kept it from acquiring a seat in the New Jersey State Legislature until 1772.

In 1750, a British edict barring colonists from operating certain types of mills aroused Morris County’s ironmasters, who defied the mother county’s ordinance. The increasingly successful businessmen of the region were not willing to sacrifice their lucrative trade. Evidence suggests that this early act of rebellion toward the British was less ideological than financial: Some of the most flagrant violators of this British law later declared themselves Tories during the American Revolution.

Morristown During the Revolutionary War

The events that would make Morristown an important Revolutionary War site began early in 1777. Following his storied crossing of the Delaware River, Washington and his troops encountered a surprise attack at Princeton on January 3 from a small detachment of British soldiers. Nearly defeated by the ambush, the general rode to the front line to regroup his shaken men, and they killed, wounded, or captured four hundred of the British. The majority of British commander Lord Charles Cornwallis’s men had been asleep at Trenton awaiting battle there, unaware of Washington’s move toward Princeton. Unable to reach Princeton before the battle there had ended, Cornwallis assumed that Washington was en route to New Brunswick, where much of the American military cache was stored. Washington instead turned north and set out for Morristown, again outwitting his counterpart.

From January through May, 1777, Washington’s army camped at Morristown. Cornwallis predicted that Washington “cannot subsist long where he is,” correctly assessing the debilitating conditions the American general would face but not the perseverence of his corps. Morristown proved to be a stronghold for the Americans, naturally suited for defense in wartime with the fortress-like Watchung Mountains to the south and east and the nearly impenetrable Great Swamp to the south. Additionally, the hills to the north of the town were brimming with as many as eighty iron forges to equip the Continental army with shovels, axes, and cannonballs. This essential function of the forges allowed for exemption from military service for the forge workers. Finally, the taste for colonial rebellion among the region’s civilians was acute, and the army was welcomed.

Still, the winter months were difficult, as ranks were diminished by completed tours of duty, and an epidemic of smallpox gripped the town. Both of Morristown’s churches were converted to hospitals, and Washington was compelled to prescribe an unproven inoculation method in order to subdue the virus. Jacob Ford and his son, Jacob Jr., both died early in 1777, depriving the community of two important leaders at a time of crisis. Jacob Ford, Jr., had operated New Jersey’s first gunpowder mill.

Throughout this first winter in Morristown, Washington stayed at Jacob Arnold’s Tavern, while his troops occupied the Loantaka Valley. Fifty huts of log, woodchips, and mud were erected in the valley two and one-half miles from the center of Morristown, among farms without fences that would impede the soldiers’ movement.

Wartime inflation coupled with the damaging counterfeiting activities of the British led to exorbitant rates for goods in the colonies–beef was fifteen cents per pound and butter, forty-five cents. Garments, too, were costly, prohibitively so given the meager wages of the enlisted men. Washington lamented that “a wagonload of money will scarcely buy a wagonload of provisions.”

Washington’s Second Stay in Morristown

Washington and his four thousand troops ended their first stay in Morristown in May, 1777, when they moved twenty miles to the south, to Middlebrook, New Jersey, seven miles northwest of the British post at New Brunswick. Two years later, as the war dragged on, they returned to camp at Morristown. Arriving during December, 1779, regiments from Providence, Rhode Island, and Danbury, Connecticut, broke ground at Jockey Hollow on the outskirts of town; gradually joined by as many as twelve thousand men, they settled in for a winter that would prove to be even more grueling than the first.

With a total of twenty-eight snowfalls, that winter of 1779-1780 was recorded as the worst of the eighteenth century. A particularly devastating January blizzard killed scores of men who were temporarily housed in tents, burying them under drifts as high as six feet. Many of the destitute men reportedly had only a pair of trousers or a blanket to shield them from the elements.

Washington and his advisers were lodged three-quarters of a mile from the Morristown Green at the Ford Mansion, where Jacob Ford, Jr.’s widow and her four children moved into two rooms to accommodate the commander in chief and his party of fifteen. (The elegant Ford Mansion, begun in 1772 and standing today, has been restored for viewing and has a comprehensive historical museum on its grounds.) At the mansion, Martha Washington greeted the ladies of the town’s elite society while knitting a stocking, gently suggesting that “American ladies should be patterns of industry” to support the campaign for independence; one socialite wrote that she “never felt so ashamed and rebuked in my life.”

The court-martial of Washington’s trusted major general Benedict Arnold had taken place in December, at Morristown’s Dickerson Tavern. After an unsuccessful attempt to win command of West Point, Arnold had notified British lieutenant general Sir Henry Clinton of the impending arrival of French allies in the colonies. Arnold’s action was indicative of Washington’s ongoing difficulties in forging seamless support for the independence movement.

There were, however, bright spots during Washington’s second sojourn in Morristown. Colonel Alexander Hamilton successfully wooed his future bride, Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler. He often courted her at the house now designated the Schuyler-Hamilton House (built in 1760, located at 5 Olyphant Place, and today operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution as a museum). Noblemen from overseas who supported the colonists’ cause were feted at Morristown: The Marquis de Lafayette brought news of the imminent arrival of the French fleet and of the birth of his son–George Washington Lafayette. On April 28, 1780, the untimely death of Spain’s ambassador Don Juan de Miralles became an occasion to commemorate the bond between his country and the colonies. As he was buried among diamond-studded accessories, his lavish funeral required guardsmen to deter thievery.

Despite signs of unity across the colonies and in Europe, however, the men of the Continental army continued to suffer without proper rations or clothing, and their wages were paid in Continental currency, which was nearly worthless. At Jockey Hollow, the soldiers’ village was nearly complete by mid-February, but by then hundreds of men had already been lost to the weather. The sixteen-square-foot huts constructed by the Continental troops (re-created at the Jockey Hollow Visitors’ Center) were arranged in fours along the road to the Grand Parade Field, with officers’ huts lined to the rear. Southwest of town, on the northern crest of Mount Kemble, the men began construction of a fort to house military supplies. Because the fort faced the town, not the approaching valleys, subsequent generations came to believe that Washington’s men were ordered to build “Fort Nonsense” simply to keep their idle hands busy. Today, the site is marked by a granite monument.

In April, 1780, the detachment of Continental troops known as the Pennsylvania Line was stung by a surprise raid by the British. Their commander was mortally wounded, and several of Morristown’s homes were burned to the ground; of the fifty prisoners taken, five or six were officers. Throughout that spring, threats of other attacks by the British were commonplace, as Washington’s base in Morristown dwindled in numbers when several brigades were detached to help defend a ravaged South Carolina.

Dissension in the Continental Army

Desertion was rampant among the nearly starved soldiers, and on May 25, 1780, men of regiments from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York were ordered to dig graves for eleven captured deserters who had been condemned. That night, men of the Eighth Connecticut “Nutmeg” Regiment, part of the Second Connecticut Brigade, refused to disperse after the traditional evening parade, replying with sarcasm to their commanding officers’ threats. Legend has it that one enlisted man, expecting court-martial after an argument with a commander’s adjutant, banged the butt of his musket on the ground and cried, “Who will parade with me?” The First and Second Connecticut Brigades banded together to march in protest, doing so without a leader, in order to leave no one vulnerable to court-martial. Pennsylvania troops, nearly tricked in the dark into surrounding the Connecticut men, realized the ploy and declared an intention to join in the mutiny.

After a disorderly series of angry confrontations, the men were finally dissuaded by two popular officers, Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs and Lieutenant Colonel John Sumner. Appeased by promises–a slaughtered herd of cattle for their consumption, a sympathetic ear for their concerns, and four ounces of rum for each man–the disgruntled soldiers were brought back into the fold. The following day, ten of the eleven men scheduled for execution were granted reprieves: The eleventh, found guilty of forging one hundred discharges, was hanged.

Von Knyphausen’s Assault on Morristown

On June 6, 1780, following the British triumph at Charleston, South Carolina, Hessian lieutenant general Wilhelm von Knyphausen led an army of six thousand redcoats from Staten Island into New Jersey in a bid to put an end to the war. Men from General William Maxwell’s New Jersey Brigade and the Third New Jersey Militia faced Knyphausen’s troops near Connecticut Farms (now Union), determined to protect the Hobart Gap through the Watching Mountains toward Morristown. Though greatly outnumbered, the Continental forces undermined Knyphausen’s march from snipers’ cover behind trees and fences. In retreat, the British set fire to much of Connecticut Farms, and one of their riflemen fired through a window and killed the wife of the Reverend James Caldwell as she huddled with her baby. The British forces were chased back to Elizabethtown by the furious Continentals.

Seventeen days later, after Washington had ordered much of the military’s supplies removed from Morristown to Pennsylvania, Knyphausen again launched an assault toward Morristown. The Continental army, better prepared for this second attack, summoned five thousand members of the New Jersey militia to match the numbers of the British and their allies at Springfield. It was reported that the Americans were buoyed by the widower Reverend Caldwell, who passed out Watt’s Hymnals to use as cannon wadding, shouting, “Give ’em Watt’s boys!” Springfield burned, but Knyphausen was forced to retreat to Staten Island after suffering between four hundred and five hundred casualties.

For the rest of 1780, Washington’s men were spread out in a thin line from Morristown to West Point. At idle encampments, their attentions once again turned to their lack of sufficient supplies. Out of their frustrated deprivation comes the tale of Tempe Wick. Tempe, the teenaged daughter of a farmer in Jockey Hollow, was accosted by members of the Continental army, who attempted to confiscate her horse. In defiance, she fled for home, and hid her horse for three weeks in a bedroom to thwart ransacking troops. The Wick House, built in 1746, can be seen today at its site adjacent to the Jockey Hollow Visitor Center.

That act of mischief on the part of the colonial troops foreshadowed a much more troubling insubordination: In Morristown on New Year’s Day, 1781, the Pennsylvania Line turned on its officers in mutiny and set off for Philadelphia to lodge their grievances. Their woeful conditions seemed even worse in contrast with the prosperity in Morristown, which, according to one historian, flowed “with milk and honey, or more pertinently, hard cider and applejack.” Two thousand well-organized mutineers killed one officer and wounded many others, holding the well-respected General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the point of a bayonet. Met near Trenton by messengers of the British commander Clinton, who sought to enlist the mutinous Continentals, the Pennsylvanians hanged the messengers to deny the implication that they were traitorous. In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress did not hesitate to meet the mutineers’ demands for better conditions. Many men were granted early discharges, and in a show of faith, many more reenlisted. Not long thereafter, the army’s station in Morristown was abandoned for good, as Washington prepared for his final campaign to end the war.

After the Revolution

Morristown was considerably quieter after the war, and it was not until the first decade of the nineteenth century that the area’s economy received a boost, from the institution of toll roads that improved routes of trade. Morristown and Elizabethtown were connected by a toll road–which irked frugal residents so much that they paved a so-called shunpike along a parallel route. In 1806, another significant roadway, the Morristown-Phillipsburg turnpike, was chartered.

Although the iron industry was the backbone of the region, it seemed destined for collapse because of the depletion of forests–which provided wood needed to fire forges–and rising transportation costs. Morristown schoolteacher George P. Macculloch rescued the industry when he designed an ambitious canal linking Morris County to Pennsylvania’s abundant coal fields. By August, 1831, the canal–dug entirely by hand–was complete, incorporating lock systems to convey cargo ships over the mountains. (Today, the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum at 45 Macculloch Avenue is housed in a Federal-style mansion built around 1810 by its namesake.) Ironically, the New Jersey Iron Works in nearby Boonton effectively doomed the Morris Canal before it was completed, when that company began turning out parts for the railroad industry, which would render the canal obsolete.

Morristown’s Speedwell Iron Works, dating to the Revolution, enjoyed one of its finest moments in 1819 when the site produced the drive shaft and other major parts of the SS Savannah, which became the first ship to cross the Atlantic under steam power. Later, Speedwell earned a different place in history when it provided the grounds for the first electromagnetic telegraph transmission. Alfred Vail, the son of Speedwell owner Judge Stephen Vail, joined with his partner Samuel F. B. Morse to demonstrate their invention on January 6, 1838, at Speedwell. Alfred Vail, a student at New York University, had seen a rudimentary demonstration given by Morse at the school and had procured the financial backing of his father for the project. “A patient waiter is no loser” was the message Alfred Vail sent, in the dot-and-dash format known today as the Morse code, across two miles of wire laid around the mill.

The Vail family moved the iron works to Brooklyn, New York, in 1873: In 1908 the mill buildings at Speedwell were lost to fire. Remaining in the custody of the Vails’ descendants until 1955, the property was sold into years of neglect until a benevolent buyer resurrected the site. Today, Historic Speedwell, located at 333 Speedwell Avenue, consists of nine buildings, including the cotton factory where the telegraph was introduced and the Vail home (the latter featuring an early version of a central heating system). There are also three historic houses–the L’Hommedieu House, circa 1820; the Moses Estey House, circa 1787; and the Ford Cottage, circa 1800–which were relocated from the center of Morristown when they were threatened with demolition during the 1960’s. A few of the buildings are not currently open to the public, but Speedwell’s exhibits of nineteenth century instruments are numerous, and the factory is a National Historic Landmark.

Arrival of the Railroad

On January 29, 1835, the Morris and Essex Railroad began operation, reaching Morristown by New Year’s Day 1838. The train eventually won the nickname “The Millionaires’ Express,” as some of the wealthiest businessmen of the era took up residence in Morristown in part because the railroad made the commute to New York City convenient. By 1874 Morristown was being compared with Newport, Rhode Island, in terms of affluence; by the early twentieth century, as many as ninety-two millionaires (fourteen worth more than ten million dollars) dwelt within three miles of the Morristown Green, an astonishing figure given that the entire population of the town numbered 11,267.

Members of Morristown’s elite achieved their status in the life insurance business, in the stock market, and in railroading. Their opulent homes ranged from thirty-room “cottages” to veritable castles that imitated the styles of Europe, crowned by the one hundred-room Hamilton Twombly estate called Florham, a name derived from Florence and Hamilton. In 1899, Mr. and Mrs. Twombly, whose combined assets reportedly reached seventy million dollars, were granted their wish that the nearby village of Afton be renamed Florham Park. Fairleigh Dickinson University now occupies the estate.

In addition to the rich, artists and writers were attracted to Morristown’s beauty and luxuriance, among them the authors Bret Harte and Rudyard Kipling, the painter A. B. Frost, and the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created the political symbols of the Republicans’ elephant and the Democrats’ donkey.

Idyllic conditions, however, were not everlasting. The first country club operated by women, the Morris County Golf Club, was wrested from its founders by men two years after its inception in 1894. In 1903, many of Morristown’s most prominent socialites were embroiled in a highly publicized power struggle in the town, and in 1906 many more were implicated in an investigation into corruption in New York’s insurance industry.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The iron mines, which enjoyed a short revival during and immediately following World War II, now lie dormant. Many of the turn-of-the-century estates are no longer in existence, and others have been converted to other uses. In the early 1960’s, conservationists unsuccessfully protested against the proposed route of Interstate 287. The highway now runs adjacent to the historic Ford Mansion.

Conservationists won a dispute with New York’s Port Authority in 1959, when the authority sought to destroy the Great Swamp south of Morristown to make way for an airport. Three thousand acres of the swampland were purchased and donated to the federal government for use as a National Wildlife Refuge. Moreover, the sites of Washington’s Morristown encampments form the nation’s oldest designated National Historical Park, dedicated on July 4, 1933. Preserved estates like the Fosterfields Living Historical Farm (with its Gothic Revival mansion on Kahdena Road) and the Frelinghuysen Home and Arboretum (at 53 East Hanover Avenue) are testimonies to the enduring natural grace of the region.

For Further Information
  • Cunningham, John T. New Jersey: America’s Main Road. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.
  • _______. This Is New Jersey. 4th ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. Cunningham made a career of chronicling New Jersey’s history as the author of books such as these.
  • Federal Writers’ Project. New Jersey: A Guide to Its Present and Past. New York: Viking, 1939. This work by the Works Progress Administration is dated but nonetheless useful.
  • Fleming, Thomas. The Forgotten Victory: The Battle for New Jersey–1780. New York: Reader’s Digest Press, 1973. A comprehensive study concerning Morristown’s involvement in the American Revolution.
  • Miers, Earl Schenck. Crossroads of Freedom: The American Revolution and the Rise of a New Nation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1971. Another comprehensive study of Morristown and the American Revolution.
  • Stein, Alan. War Comes to Morristown: The Impact of the Revolutionary War upon a Small Village, 1775-1783. Morristown: Washington Association of New Jersey, 1998. The companion book to an exhibit that opened in 1995 in the museum of Morristown National Historical Park.
Categories: History