Van Doren Legends of the Revolution

I have been asked many times about the stories of the Van Doren ladies during the Revolution, so I finally have assembled all my notes, and am putting them down here for the family (and others) to enjoy.  We are descended from Christian Van Doren's youngest son, Benjamin who stayed on the original farm in Middlebush, and took care of his mother until she died.  After that, the farm was split between him and Cornelis.  John Van Doren and Martha Lott had a house just south of Millstone on River Road.  It is still there under private ownership.  It was used by General Washington after the Battle of Princeton as his headquarters on his march to Morristown.  There are still bayonnet marks on the doors where the British broke in and several musket bullet holes aroung the windows.  I have been at the place numerous times, as I grew up on a farm just down the road.
It is well documented that the Van Dorens were extreme supporters of the revolution, but the stories about John Van Doren's wife, Martha Lott are legend!  There are three stories told and documented in "Franklin Township, Somerset County, NJ. A History" by William B. Brahms:

     "The Americans encamped for the night in a field near John Van Doren's House south of Somerset Court House (Millstone).  Washington and his staff used the Van Doren home.  The structure is still standing; so is the barn where the horses were kept.  Here is how one author desribed the location-

            'Few regions could have proved a better choice.  Those Van Dorens were ardent patriots, whose ample supplies were wholly at the army's service.  Abraham Van Doren's gristmill, largest in central New Jersey bulged with flour; his feed mill had ample forage for the horses; his store contained great stocks of necessary goods.  John Van Doren's 700 acre farm owned a cooperage, sawmill and two blacksmith shops; he also had, much to the jubilation of the troops, a cider press and distillery.' page 129, Twin Rivers: The Raritan and the Passaic, by Harry Emerson Wildes.

It was at John Van Doren's house that Washington learned his friend General Hugh Mercer was still in Princeton, seriously injured from bayonet wounds.  Washington sent his nephew, Major George Lewis to Cornwallis with a letter requesting that every possible attention be given to Mercer.

Cornwallis is said to have ordered his staff surgeon to attend to Mercer at once. Lewis was permitted to stay with the general, and some say Washington's personal doctor even was called to Mercer's bedside.-Princeton Portraits by Menzies (1947 Princeton Press)

The Van Doren's are the subject of several versions of an old Revolutionary War legend.  Some parts of the old legend are probably true, but which ones? Two hundred years of storytelling have distorted what may have really happened.  Here are the legends:

One account of the story has the Van Doren farm being plundered by the Hessians while the Van Doren men are away with the militia.  In an attempt to get information from Mrs. Van Doren, Hessian soldiers string her up by her heels in the grape arbor.

A slight variation of the story has Cornwallis's men hanging her by the heels to force her to reveal information about Washington's location. -Revolutionary Scene in New Jersey by Robert V. Hoffman (1942)

Another telling of the story has Mrs. Van Doren concealing her husband in a large Dutch oven fireplace as the British approached.  She then places a butter tub in front of the oven and continues to churn butter.  A different interpretation has raiding soldiers making the bayonette  gashes in the door and threatening the Van Dorens.

Yet another story has the future wife of Abraham Van Doren pounding a Hessian officer's head to jelly when he "wished a merry time".

All accounts of the John Van Doren legend have Mrs. Van Doren (Martha Lott) saved in the nick of time and all the livestock killed in these foraging raids.   -Preliminary History of Millstone, by F.&E. Bucher.

Perhaps the most notorious rendition of the Van Doren legend is the one in which Washington is believed to have visited the Millstone farm "for more than business."  Washington was reputedly smitten with Mrs. Van Doren.:

"Lore has it that General Washington would send one of his officers to get Mr. VanDoren away from the house under the guise of taking part in scouting expeditions.  When Mr. Van  Doren was safely out of the house, the story goes, General Washington would step in."

    -Millstone An Historic Right to Peace by Paul J Sulla
                   -April 1986 Somerset Historical Society Newsletter.
                                        -Also reprinted in the Manville News, January 9, 1986.

The British are said to have caught on to this routine.  One evening, about 30 British soldiers stormed across the Millstone River.  But they were too late; the parson had warned Washington and Mrs. Van Doren of the approach, and the general left.  Mrs. Van Doren was not so lucky.  She was caught and "hung by her thumbs in the attic" until she revealed the general's whereabouts.  No further visits between the two were ever  reported."

Well, I hope the stories are of interest to you.  I lived in the Millstone area growing up and heard mostly the one about Mrs. Van Doren hung by her heels to reveal Washington's whereabouts, and the one about killing the Hessian officer with a candlestick.

-- Tom Van Doren,   Sanger,  Texas

April,  2012

Here are some photos of the john van doren house taken by a government photographer in 1937.
the photos are in the library of congress as part of a program to document historic places.

John Van Doren house 1937  
this is the front of the house as it sits on a hill overlooking the millstone river.

John Van Doren house side view
a side view of the house that faces the barns.

the fireplace in the main parlor.

the dutch doors into the kitchen.


this is from a local newspaper showing how the house looked in 1890,
 with John Van Doren, grandson of the patiots on the porch.

The following is a newspaper article from a princeton Newspaper telling of at least the most notorius of the legends: