Explore America / Explore The Parks

Morristown National Historical Park: Visit Where George Washington Spent the Historic Winter of 1779-1780

If you’re a history buff, especially of the American Revolution, this national park site should be on your travel list. About 30 minutes from Newark Airport is Morristown National Historical Park. It’s where General George Washington and the Continental army wintered from December 1779 to June 1780 in one of the harshest and coldest winters on record when it started snowing around November 10th and continued almost everyday until mid-March. It was winter misery with 28 snowstorms, including six in March. While visiting my friend Jennifer, we went to Washington’s Headquarters section of the park. First stop was the visitors center and a quick tour of the museum before going on a tour of the Ford Mansion restored and furnished like it would have been during Washington’s stay.

It’s free to visit Morristown National Historical Park and free to go on a guided tour of Ford Mansion, which is the only way to see inside. Our guide Fred was a wealth of knowledge about the mansion and the 1779-1780 winter encampment. In 1779 about 250 people lived in Morristown until about 10,000 soldiers came in to winter. Ford Mansion was built by Jacob Ford, Jr., a wealthy iron manufacturer, in the early 1770s on the 200 acres given to him and his wife as a wedding present. While serving as a colonel in the Morris County Militia, he contracted pneumonia and died in January 1777. He was survived by his wife Theodosia, three sons, and a daughter. Theodosia Ford agreed to rent rooms to General Washington and his five secretaries, including Alexander Hamilton, and 18 servants. Martha Washington joined her husband during the stay. On any given night during that winter there were 30+ people sleeping in the house. The exterior of the Georgian-style home is impressive. I was amazed at how much of the house is original including the front door and elaborate detailed molding of the expansive entry hallway.

On the first room on the left is the parlor room that was used as a conference and dining room during Washington’s stay. Traditionally the parlor room is a receiving room and one of the best rooms in a home. Washington’s men use this room as their work and meeting room. The room was also the dining room for George and Martha Washington, military staff, and visitors. The antique secretary belonged to Theodosia Ford. In the back of the first floor is the study. It was originally Theodosia’s study but turned into Washington’s office during the winter encampment. The small room is plain but does have a fireplace. Just outside of Washington’s office is a staircase. It is the only structural change to the home. It was originally a steep 45° staircase. It’s now a double staircase with a small landing between two sets of stairs. Next we walked through what would have been the Fords’ sitting room that was turned into a bedroom for 3 Ford boys – 17-year-old Timothy, 15-year-old Gabriel, and 8-year-old Jacob.

The kitchen with its stunning hearth was my favorite room of the home. While looking at it and the pantry, I imagined how busy the space would have been with Mrs. Ford’s cook and Washington’s three cooks preparing meals, along with servants eating in the room and trying to stay warm as they crowded around the fire. The first floor dining room was turned into a bedroom for Mrs. Ford and her 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth. There’s also a dining table in the room as it was also used as the Fords’ dining and sitting room.

Upstairs there are four bedrooms. One was for servants and likely where cooks and housekeepers slept. Two of the rooms where for aides. One is similar to the Ford boys’ room downstairs and two aides slept on camp beds in this room. Three aides slept in another room. The bed without an awning is original. The beds are collapsible to easily transport on a wagon. I tried to pick up the demonstration camp bed and it was heavy.

Where “George (and Martha) Washington slept here,” is a grand bed with a canopy to match the draperies. Several pieces of furniture in the room are original including the dressing table on the right side and mirror on the left. In the corner with the mirror is a table and chair. That was called “Martha’s Corner.”

After Washington’s six month stay, the Ford family lived in the house until the 1870s. It was sold to four prominent New Jersey men at an auction. They created the Washington Association of New Jersey to preserve the house, making it one of the earliest house museums in America. The Washington Association donated the house to the National Park Service in 1933. In addition to Washington’s Headquarters, you can also visit Jockey Hollow. Guided tours of the Wick Farm House start from there. There are roughly 27 miles of hiking trails, a 3-mile bike path on the paved Tour Road, and about 10.5 miles for horseback riding. It’s also an excellent area for bird watching.

Author Jennifer Broome has traveled to all 50 states and is on a quest to visit all 423 National Park Service sites. For more interesting places in the United States, check out the Explore America and Explore the Parks sections.