The Other Bonaparte
BY GAYLE KECK
When the British exiled Napoleon to Saint Helena, his brother Joseph fled to the United States, where he purchased an estate in New Jersey and lived a kingly life, Researchers from Monmouth University have been investigating his estate to learn more about Joseph’s life in exile NAPOLEON SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO HIS BROTHER. Joseph Bonaparte, the defeated emperor’s older sibling, had offered to trade places as the English closed in on them in 1815, hoping their captors would mistake him for Napoleon.The two did look remarkably similar. Joseph had organized a ship to the U.S., but Napoleon chose not to trade places, believing the British would simply exile him to an estate in the English countryside. As we now know, Napoleon would have fared far better by accepting the offer of the loyal brother he’d cajoled, controlled, and made a king of Naples and Spain.
So Joseph took that ship, along with an entourage including his interpreter, chef, and secretary, who had sewn emergency cash into his clothes. Napoleon ended up on the remote island of Saint 1–lelena— “this cursed rock,” as he called it—in a damp, leaky house infested with rats and buffeted by relentless winds. Joseph, on the other hand, soon acquired a country estate near Bordentown, New Jersey.The estate, known as Point Breeze, included a house that was purportedly removed so that he could build a mansion. He bought more and more land, until his property sprawled over roughly 2,200 acres.
Point Breeze is the subject of an investigation by Monmouth University archaeologist Richard Veit, who conducted field schools there from 2006 to 2008. “Our project was to see if anything had remained of his grand estate,” Veit said, “the most famous landscape in the early nineteenth-century Mid-Atlantic region.” The project’s co-director, Michael Gall, added, “We wanted to know how the king was living in New Jersey, particularly in an area that was Quaker-dominated.”
The original Point Breeze manor house sat high atop a bluff, overlooking a creek that fed into the nearby Delaware River. Landscape studies reveal the house could be seen for two miles up- or down-river, standing “as a grand advertisement of his wealth, creativity, and sophistication,” Veit said. It was also a vantage point to spot attackers (most likely the British as well as agents of the restored Bourbon monarchy) who might be headed that way.
The estate is now a retirement community for Catholic missionaries, and only a gardener’s house remains intact on the property from Joseph’s days. “There are acres of lawn american archaeology and no one was entirely sure where the buildings were or if anything survived archaeologically,” Veit said. So the team employed ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry, and soil resistivity to identify subsurface features and guide their excavations.
DURING HIS TIME AT POINT BREEZE, JOSEPH ACTUALLY built two different homes on the property, constructing a second house after his first burned. “The fact that Joseph’s first house burned in 1820 is great archaeologically,” Veit he said. “That means the site was virtually untouched for 200 years.” For that reason, the team decided to focus their excavations there. Helpful clues to its location came from historical maps and period paintings, as well as tunnels that still exist in various states on the property.
“Both houses had tunnels,”Veit explained. “One survives from the first house. It’s pretty tall—you could easily walk through it even today—with stone walls and a nice brick arch.” Though local lore claimed Joseph used the tunnel to whisk his lovers up from a dock by the creek, it was more likely a behind-the-scenes route to bring supplies into the house. “We used that tunnel as an arrow when we began our project,” he said. “We lined our project grid up on it, assuming it would lead to the house.”
Over several seasons of field work, Veit, Gall, and their students identified the site of Joseph’s first house, which had incorporated the foundation and cellar of the house that stood on Point Breeze prior to Joseph’s acquisition of the estate. That eighteen-inch-thick cut-stone foundation extended at least six and a half feet below the current ground surface. However, Gall noted, after the fire, “they had removed the top portion of the foundation walls.They were robbing-out portions that could be reused elsewhere.” Veit added, “They did some sort of salvage. They clustered the materials, as if a foreman said, ‘Put all the marble over there; put all the good bricks over there,’ and then they filled in the cellar with the stuff they didn’t use” on the second house. The team encountered four to five feet of building rubble, including brick, marble fragments, and thousands of nails. To furnish his first mansion, Joseph had luxury goods shipped over from Europe, including mirrors, clocks, furniture, rugs, candelabra, paintings, kitchenware, and wine. His art collection was the most impressive in the U.S.; it included the famous David painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps, canvases by Titian and Rubens, plus a number of Canova sculptures. His library of 8,000 volumes was bigger by far than the Library of Congress.
That lavish lifestyle was reflected in the team’s finds. “There was quite a bit of marble and fragments of mirror glass, neither of which you typically see in an early New Jersey archaeological assemblage,” Veit noted. “The mirror pieces bring to mind Versailles. Mirrors were expensive and hard to come by in the early nineteenth century.” Gall added, “The extraordinary amount of marble gave us a sense of the expense of constructing this mansion that was essentially the size of the White House.” The marble discoveries included pieces of a black-and-white checkerboard floor, fireplace mantelpiece fragments, and part of a statue.
“One of the most exciting finds,” Veit said, “is a compo picture frame fragment.”The term “compo” is short for composition ornamentation, a piece of ornate, molded picture frame. “Many of the pictures that hung in Joseph’s house were rescued, but this indicates that not everything was saved,” he explained. They also discovered “beautiful pieces” of decorative bronze appliqués, likely “very high-end empire furniture hardware,” he said, as well as carbonized pieces of cloth that may have been tapestries.
There was also evidence ofJoseph’s entertainment style. “The prodigious quantity of wine-bottle glass was mindboggling,” Veit said. “This was a fellow who was entertaining in a major way.” Nearly two thirds of the artifacts found were bottle glass, proving Joseph lived up to the nickname he’d earned in Spain—”Joe Bottles.” “He was affable, sociable, and charming,” said Patricia Stroud, author of the book The Man Who Had Been King: The American Exile of Napoleon’s Brother Joseph. “He wasn’t a political person, and definitely not a military person. He was quite opposite from Napoleon. So interesting, two brothers who were close, but so different.” Just as modern tourists like to peer at celebrities’ homes, early nineteenth-century visitors—from curious Quaker neighbors, to French exiles, to luminaries of literature, politics, and science—came to ogle the ex-king’s estate. His acquaintances included Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Nicholas Biddle, and the Marquis de Lafayette.Joseph entertained them in high style, and enjoyed showing off his art collection (though depictions of semi-nude women shocked more conservative visitors).
Joseph also loaned artwork to exhibitions in Philadelphia, THE ARCHAEOLOGISTS AND THEIR STUDENTS RECOVERED a total of about 20,000 items, but they didn’t stop there. “We also did several years of landscape archaeology,” Gall said, “where we mapped out landscape features to the extent we could.” Joseph had created a spectacular landscape in the picturesque style popular in Europe at the time. As opposed to a formal geometric garden, picturesque gardens were meant to look like enhanced nature, resembling scenes painted by landscape artists. Carriageways, paths, bridges, and secluded nooks where one might discover a statue were all part of the effect. Joseph even dammed a waterway to create an artificial lake where visitors could float about on swan boats. “It was certainly impressive,” Stroud commented. “At the time no one in the U.S. had an estate anything like it.” Joseph financed much of it with a cache of diamonds, recovered in 1817 by his secretary from Joseph’s Swiss estate, where the two had buried them before fleeing.
The Monmouth team’s sub-surface testing revealed the two wings Joseph had added to his first house, each about forty-five feet by 100 feet. They were able to map two tunnels, plus the remains of the dam and its shallow lake. “We also have outlines of a very Georgian-style circular drive at the front of the house, a several-hundred-foot-long boardwalk that wrapped around the border of the property, and pleasure paths that wound through the property,” Gall said, “as well as other buried features, including numerous foundations and wells.”
The researchers also found earlier material in areas that were not affected by Joseph’s construction projects, proving “that Point Breeze was a very attractive location for people to live, long before Joseph arrived,” according to Veit. Those items included a King George Ill mug and rich Native American deposits from the Lenape and their ancestors. “We have a number of Fox Creek blades made from local argillite stone, dating from the Early Middle Woodlands period, used mostly for processing fish,” he said.
Told of Joseph’s new lifestyle, Napoleon groused from St. Helena, “He will be a bourgeois American and spend his fortune making gardens.” Stroud noted, “That is basically what he did do when he came to the U.S.— but he did have quite an influence on American taste, which was primitive compared to that of Europe, with its great artists and centuries of culture.”
Aside from a couple of trips to England, Joseph lived at Point Breeze until 1839, when he returned to Europe.At his death, in 1844,Joseph’s grandson-and-heir sold some of the U) contents of the house in 1845, and again in 1847. The house itself was sold the following year.
The story of Point Breeze con- z tinues to evolve, however. “As we’ve done more presentations and tours of the site, people are coming forward with items that relate back to the estate,” said Veit, “from paintings of Point Breeze to a trunk full of documents. This is one of the most intriguing historic sites in the Delaware Valley. It’s really a special place, the sort of site you dream about working on.”
The team is eager to finish analyzing and cataloging the thousands of artifacts and continue their excavation. “We’ve only scratched the surface,” Gall said. “We’ve identified things that speak to his skill as an entertainer, hosting international dignitaries and prestigious members of the national community. He had the ability to recreate this European-style palatial mansion in New Jersey. In every facet, this is what we’re seeing—it’s like a piece of France in the U.S.”
“The items they found confirmed the life that an elegant well-to-do Frenchman would have lived,” Stroud concurred. “He was quite a fellow. He enjoyed life, shall we say, and he got away with it all.”
GAYLE KECK is a frequent contributor to American Archaeology. She also writes about food and travel, and recently tried her hand at cooking recipes from ancient Rome.