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Unearthing the North American refuge of an exiled Bonaparte

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Monmouth University archaeologist Richard Veit (far left) supervises the excavation of an outbuilding at Point Breeze. (Photo by Eric A. Powell)

Driving north on Park Street out of Bordentown, New Jersey (population 3,953), I catch glimpses of the Delaware River on the left, beyond thick stands of trees. Not quite a mile out of town, the biggest cranberry processing plant in the Ocean Spray empire spreads out to the right. Across the road is the 150-acre campus of the Society of the Divine Word, a retirement community for Catholic missionary priests.

The campus is on the edge of a vast Native American site known today as the Abbott Farm National Landmark. Archaeological investigations in the area since the late 19th century have shown that beginning 8,000 years ago this section of the Delaware has been a magnet for settlement. A little north is one of the largest known Middle Woodland period (A.D. 1–1000) villages on the East Coast.

But as I turn into Divine Word, a two-story, early-19th-century house is a reminder that the Middle Woodland isn’t the only time period that interests archaeologists in these parts.

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Veit and his team found pieces of marble, likely from a mantle, among the ruins of the first mansion at Point Breeze. (Courtesy Richard Veit)

The house was once part of the 1,800-acre estate of Point Breeze, owned by the French Count de Survilliers from 1816 to 1844. His estate manager lived in this house, which was standing here on January 4, 1820, perhaps the most dramatic night in Bordentown’s history.

That night, the count arrived in his carriage from Trenton to a horrific sight. His mansion, which he had spent many thousands of dollars building and decorating according to the latest European fashions, was engulfed in flames. The greatest private art collection in North America was in danger of going up in smoke. Just as he reached the mansion, the roof collapsed, but the count must have been heartened by the sight of dozens of Bordentown locals rescuing paintings, furniture, jewels, books, and anything else they could carry.

That night, the youth of Bordentown even formed a guard to protect the count’s belongings. Miraculously, all of his art was saved, and not a single valuable was stolen. One of the paintings the residents of Bordentown probably rescued was Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the Great St. Bernard (1815), painted by Jacques-Louis David, which today hangs in the Château de Malmaison outside Paris. This majestic painting, showing a heroic Napoleon leading his troops over the Alps in 1800, was in the count’s collection. It had a special place in his heart, since it is one of the most famous depictions of his younger brother. For as everyone from Bordentown knew, the Count de Survilliers was just a minor title of Joseph Bonaparte, former king of both Naples and Spain, now in exile and reduced in status to an ordinary, if extraordinarily wealthy, resident of the state of New Jersey.

The remains of Joseph Bonaparte’s mansion are now the focus of archaeologists, led by Richard Veit of Monmouth University, who have excavated at Point Breeze for the past three years. After driving onto the sleepy Divine Word campus, I see Veit and his crew at work in a shallow trench near the banks of the Delaware. To reach them I have to walk past a vegetable garden carefully tended by retired priests, who are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Point Breeze archaeology.

Slender and gray-haired, the soft-spoken Veit is examining a piece of pottery that has just been excavated by his Monmouth students. It is among some 20,000 artifacts found so far. “We’re digging an outbuilding,” he says, and points to an expanse of grass closer to the river. “That’s where Joseph’s house was.” After three years of working at Point Breeze, Veit is comfortable calling the king by his first name.

Eric A. Powell is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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