A Brief History of the Morris-Jumel Mansion
The Morris-Jumel Mansion was built in 1765 as a summer villa, by Colonel Roger Morris and his wife, Mary Philipse. Roger was born in England and Mary was born and raised in the colony of New York. Their country estate was named “Mount Morris” and stretched over 130 acres from the Harlem to the Hudson Rivers. Mount Morris was one of the highest points in Manhattan and offered clear views of New Jersey, Connecticut, and all of New York harbor. With the help of their workers, the Morris family grew fruit trees and raised cows and sheep. At that time the island of Manhattan was mostly woods and farms. The roads were built on old trails made by the Native Americans.
At the time of the American Revolution, Mary and Roger had to leave their home because they were Tories (colonists loyal to Britain). After they left George Washington and his Patriot officers moved in and made the house their headquarters for five weeks in the autumn of 1776. It was a strategic location, because the house offered a great view of Manhattan and both the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
Washington occupied the Mansion from September 14 to October 21. From this strategic position, he planned his army’s first successful victory; The Battle of Harlem Heights. This victory showed that the American army could beat the British in battle, and brought hope to the soldiers of the Continental Army. But even though Washington’s troops were victorious at Harlem Heights, he and his men were soon forced off Manhattan Island by the British.
After Washington’s army abandoned Manhattan Island, the house served as headquarters to the British and their allies, the Hessians (hired German soldiers). When the war came to an end, the new government of the United States of America confiscated the Mansion and its property.
Twenty years after the Revolutionary War, in 1810, Stephen Jumel purchased the house. He had come to New York from southwestern France to make his fortune as a merchant. Favorable tariffs and faster sailing technology made Atlantic trade in raw materials and luxury products highly lucrative. In New York, Stephen married Eliza Bowen. Eliza Bowen had grown up in a very poor family from Rhode Island, but ended up becoming one of the wealthiest women in New York. At a moment when Stephen's business was foundering, Eliza applied herself to the real estate trade, buying and selling land and renting properties downtown. Her success made large profits for her husband and herself at a time when it was very unusual for a woman to be so active in business.
After Stephen Jumel died in 1832, Eliza married Aaron Burr. Burr ran for President in 1800, but lost the election to Thomas Jefferson. As the runner-up, he became the Vice President, a position which did not carry much political power at the time. He ran for Governor of New York in 1804 and lost this race as well. Burr blamed his political opponent Alexander Hamilton for both these defeats. He felt so wronged by Hamilton that he challenged him to a duel and killed him. Burr was tried and acquitted.
Eliza filed for divorce in 1833 , a lengthly process which wasn't finalized until 1836. Eliza lived in the house until her death at the age of 90 in 1865, exactly one hundred years after the Mansion was built. In 1904 the city of New York purchased the house and turned it into a museum.
Today, the Morris-Jumel Mansion is the oldest remaining house in Manhattan and is a museum highlighting over 200 years of New York history, art, and culture. The neighborhood surrounding the Mansion is known as the Jumel Terrace Historic District. This important area has been the home to many illustrious individuals. The hill that Roger Morris once called “Mount Morris” in the 18th century became better known as “Sugar Hill” during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Prominent African-Americans and great artists including Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall to name a few, lived in this area. The buildings in this district are protected by the New York Landmarks Commission and must be maintained by their owners to look as they did when they were new. Because of this, the appearance of the neighborhood has changed very little since the late 1800’s.