Point Breeze (Bonaparte Estate)


Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze estate was one of the finest country houses in the Delaware Valley. Similar grand houses once graced the Delaware Valley, especially upriver from Philadelphia and along the Schuylkill. The first was likely Pennsbury Manor, the American home of William Penn (1644-1718). Many of these country houses still stand, including the Woodlands, Andalusia, Lemon Hill, and others. Country estates provided the elite with refuge from the heat and disease of the city during the summer months and provided wealthy Philadelphians with showplaces for their gardens and architecture.

a black and white engraving of Joseph Bonaparte
Joseph Bonaparte, older brother of Napoleon, resided in Bordentown, New Jersey, after his exile from Spain. He built a grand estate named Point Breeze, where he collected art, cultivated sprawling gardens, and hosted some of the area’s most prominent citizens for social events. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Although only traces of the original Point Breeze estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, remain, extensive archaeological deposits survive to reveal the grandeur of the home occupied by Joseph Bonaparte during his American sojourn (1815-39). Famous for its picturesque landscape, wonderful gardens, extensive art collection, and large library, it was a center of social life in the Delaware Valley. Here Joseph entertained French emigres and Philadelphia elites, played host to visiting diplomats, artists, and naturalists, and stayed abreast of the latest political news from Europe. Indeed, everyone from American politicians to the Marquis de Lafayette and Mexican revolutionaries visited Joseph and solicited his counsel.

Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), the elder brother of Napoleon, immigrated to the United States at the close of the Napoleonic Wars and settled in the Delaware Valley. Known as the Comte de Survilliers, Joseph was a patron of the arts and sciences and owned a townhouse in Philadelphia. However, he was best known for his lavish country estate at Point Breeze in Bordentown. Joseph, who had owned fine estates in Europe, chose to live in Bordentown because of its location on the main route between Philadelphia and New York and because of the property’s exceptional setting. At Point Breeze he constructed a pair of palatial houses. The first was destroyed by a fire in 1820, the second stood into the mid-nineteenth century. He also laid out one of the finest picturesque gardens in North America.

Bonaparte’s Park

Joseph’s country estate, sometimes called Bonaparte’s Park, attracted many luminaries who commented on it widely. It was one of the sights to see in the Delaware Valley. After Joseph’s return to Europe, the property remained a private estate/park owned by the Richards, Beckett, and Hammond families. In 1941 Divine Word Missionaries, a Roman Catholic religious community, acquired the property. Divine Word employed the property first as a seminary and subsequently as a retirement community. In 2007, archaeology, both below and above ground, provided a wealth of new information about the layout of the site and especially Joseph’s use of the landscape as a stage for enacting his role as a king in exile.

Born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Joseph Bonaparte trained as a lawyer and served as a member of the Council of 500, the lower house of the French legislature during the French Revolution. A distinguished diplomat, he helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase (1803). After his brother became emperor, Joseph was made King of Naples and Sicily (1806-08). In this role, he was seen as a democratically inclined monarch. Later, Napoleon made him King of Spain (1808-13). This proved considerably more challenging, and during the Peninsular Wars he was driven out of Spain. A close confidante of his brother, he supported his brother’s return from exile in Elba in 1815, and following his brother’s defeat at Waterloo, encouraged him to flee to America. Napoleon chose not to, but Joseph escaped to the United States to begin a new life.

A black and white map of the Point Breeze site during Bonaparte's residence showing house and grounds
Joseph Bonaparte’s estate included vast gardens, an artificial lake, and miles of winding roads. The beauty of the estate grounds attracted artists, naturalists, and other prominent residents of the area. The grand house is in the lower right corner of this map. (Library of Congress)

Joseph wanted to live between Philadelphia and New York, where he could rapidly receive the latest news from Europe. In 1816, he purchased Point Breeze, the country home of Stephen Sayre (1736-1818), an American diplomat and adventurer. Point Breeze soon became renowned as one of the finest houses in the United States. The home consisted of a main block, three stories tall, with flanking wings, and a tower providing a view of the surrounding countryside, the Belvedere. It resembled Joseph’s European estates Prangins and Mortefontaine and was built with funds secretly removed from France by his trusted secretary Louis Mailliard (1795-1872). It contained an extensive collection of art, including statues by Canova and paintings by David including Napoleon Crossing the Alps. In 1820 a fire of unknown cause destroyed the house. Joseph was not home at the time. However, the residents of Bordentown and his servants were able to save many of his possessions, including much of his art collection.

New House Built on Site

Joseph quickly rebuilt, employing his former stables as the core of his new home. This second house was also known for its galleries and was connected by a series of tunnels to outbuildings and a home, the Lake House, occupied by his daughter Zenaïde and her husband Charles-Lucien-Bonaparte, a noted naturalist.

At Point Breeze Joseph also created a private park. He laid out several miles of roads, bridged streams, created an artificial lake, built docks and landings, and installed an array of statuary. His property soon became well known as a center of social life in the Delaware Valley. It was also the heart of a considerable French expatriate community. Joseph opened his property to the public and was often seen working on the grounds. His home was the subject of numerous artists. They emphasize the scenic nature of the property with winding roads, beautiful plantings, and pleasing vistas.

In 1832, Joseph returned to Europe, living in London until 1838, then returning to Point Breeze. In 1839 he left Point Breeze and again returned to Europe where he reunited with his wife, Julie Clary. He suffered a major stroke in 1840 and passed away in Florence four years later. The property passed to his grandson, who quickly auctioned off the household contents, including the library and artwork. In 1850 the property was acquired by Henry Beckett, a British diplomat, who tore down the second Bonaparte house, likely because of the great expense needed to maintain it. After a succession of owners, the core of Point Breeze became the property of Divine Word Missionaries.

A color photograph of a partial plate unearthed in the 2007 archaeological dig on the Point Breeze estate
A 2007 archaeological dig on the Point Breeze estate unearthed many relics of the site’s glory days. This fine work of French earthenware gives a glimpse of the opulence visitors to Point Breeze once encountered. (Photograph by Richard Veit)

In 2007, at the request of Divine Word Missionaries and in an attempt to better document the history of this exceptional property, Monmouth University began an archaeological study of the property. Fieldwork was directed by Monmouth University archaeologists Richard Veit and Michael Gall, assisted by Gerard Scharfenberger and William Schindler. Even a century and a half after Joseph’s return to Europe, traces of his estate remained, including one original building, the Gardener’s Cottage, and ruins from the Lake House and the lodge. Some plantings likely dated from his occupation, as well as traces of his manmade lake, docks, and landings. Moreover, archaeological deposits associated with the earlier colonial and prehistoric occupations of the site were still present.

At Point Breeze, historical archaeology has proven to be a powerful tool for understanding one of the Delaware Valley’s finest country estates. It has also served to focus public and scholarly interest on an otherwise overlooked historic site. The destruction of Joseph’s first house by fire resulted in the creation of an extraordinary archaeological deposit that provided an unparalleled material record of the lifestyles of early American elites. Careful mapping of the remaining features of the estate illuminates how Joseph transformed his property into a new private park where he could play the role of king in exile. Even today, Point Breeze is an evocative reminder of a time when Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley were central to American intellectual and cultural life.

Richard Veit, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. He teaches courses on archaeology, New Jersey history, Native Americans, and historic preservation. He has authored or co-authored numerous articles and reviews and five books including Digging New Jersey’s Past: Historical Archaeology in the Garden State (Rutgers Press, 2002), New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones History in the Landscape (co-authored by Mark Nonestied, Rutgers Press, 2008), and New Jersey: A History of the Garden State (co-authored with Maxine Lurie, Rutgers Press, 2012). He also regularly presents on topics relating to historical archaeology and New Jersey history and has been a TED speaker.

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Joseph Bonaparte

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Though his younger brother Napoleon had a larger impact on history, Joseph Bonaparte was also an important figure. He was born in the Corsican Republic, which was conquered by the French a year later, and served as a lawyer and diplomat for the French in his early years. During the Directory period of the French Revolution, Bonaparte served as member of the Council of Ancients, part of the legislative body of the Directory. It was through this position that Bonaparte was able to aid Napoleon in overthrowing the Directory and thus his rise to power. Napoleon returned the favor as emperor by making his brother king of Spain in 1808. Bonaparte's brief tenure as king featured some popular reforms, including ending the Spanish Inquisition, but he failed to gain popular support among Spanish citizens and was heavily criticized in print media. He abdicated in 1813 after the British invasion of Spain during the Peninsular Wars.

In 1816, Bonaparte fled to America where he settled in Bordentown, New Jersey. At Point Breeze he built his first estate, which resembled his previous châteaus in Europe, shortly after purchasing the land and moved his extensive art collection into the new buildings. The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1820 and quickly rebuilt into an even more magnificent estate, complete with a private park, artificial lake, and tunnels between outbuildings. Upon his death in 1844, the property was auctioned off. It was razed in 1850 and only vestiges of its former glory remain today. The site, with new buildings constructed by British diplomat Henry Beckett, was owned in 2015 by the Divine Word Missionaries.

Map of the Point Breeze Estate During Bonaparte's Residence

Library of Congress

Point Breeze was not merely a house but a formal country estate, complete with a private park. Bonaparte's mansion was home not only him, but also his son-in-law, Charles Lucien Bonaparte. The younger Bonaparte was a noted biologist and naturalist and perhaps inspired the estate's sprawling park. It included an artificial lake, formal gardens, and miles of winding roads. Point Breeze became an important site in social life for the Delaware Valley and was the subject of numerous artistic works of the time. This map shows the property as it existed in 1817, shortly after Bonaparte's purchase. The main house is in the lower right portion of the map, symbolized by an elliptical carriageway with a single tree in the center.

Plate found in the Point Breeze Excavation

Point Breeze passed through numerous owners during the years after Joseph Bonaparte's death and eventually was purchased by the Divine Word Ministries, the largest missionary organization of the Catholic Church. In 2007, at the request of Divine Word Ministries, an archaeological survey was conducted on the site. Sponsored by Monmouth University, the survey consisted of radar, magnetometry, and electromagnetic resistivity surveys to show the buried foundations of buildings prior to excavation. During excavation, the team unearthed vast quantities of wine bottles and French ceramics, including this earthenware plate. It is inscribed with the words “Histoire Romaine” and depicts a woman leaning against a furled sail. This plate and other similar items recovered during the excavation of Point Breeze show that Joseph Bonaparte maintained an extravagant lifestyle during his years in New Jersey. (Photograph by Richard Veit)

Point Breeze Dig Map

In archaeological work conducted in 2007, aboveground remains were carefully mapped and a bevy of scientific techniques employed to identify subsurface deposits. Radar, magnetometry, and electromagnetic resistivity surveys of the property allowed archaeologists to see foundations and other below-ground features before excavation began. Fieldwork consisted of the excavation of seventy-two shovel test pits and twenty-four excavation units. The excavations revealed portions of the first mansion’s cellar and rich artifact deposits. Particularly noteworthy were the large quantities of wine bottles; fragments of hardware from Empire Style furniture; marble fragments from floors, statue bases, and mantelpieces; and expensive French ceramics. These artifacts illuminated Bonaparte’s lavish lifestyle and provide physical evidence about the construction and layout of his house. (Map by Tim Horsley)

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Related Reading

Stroud, Patricia Tyson. The Emperor of Nature: Charles Lucien Bonaparte and His World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

——–. The Man who had been King: The American Exile of Napoleon’s Brother Joseph. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Veit, Richard and Michael Gall. “‘He Will Be a Bourgeois American and Spend His Fortune in Making Gardens’: An Archaeological Examination of Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze Estate,” in Historical Archaeology of the Delaware Valley, 1600-1850, edited by Richard Veit and David Orr, 297-322. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Webber, Constance, “Bonaparte’s Park: A French Picturesque Garden in America.” Journal of Garden History 6(4) (1986): 330-347.

Woodward, Evan Morrison, Bonaparte’s Park and the Murats. Trenton, N.J.: MacCrellish and Quigley, 1879.

Related Collections

Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 219 S. Sixth Street, Philadelphia, contains a significant collection of decorative arts pieces from Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze.

The New Jersey State Museum, 205 W. State Street, Trenton, N.J., holds several important paintings of Point Breeze.

The Mailliard Family Papers at the Yale University Library, 344 Winchester Avenue, New Haven, Conn., are the largest intact collection of correspondence relating to Point Breeze and Joseph Bonaparte in the United States.

Related Places

Divine Word Missionaries, 101 Park Street, Bordentown, N.J.

Joseph Bonaparte historical marker, 280 South Ninth Street, Philadelphia.


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