Widow Whites Tavern Basking Ridge Part 2

Widow Whites Tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey - Mr. Local History Archive #mrlocalhistory

Updated April 2017
Originally posted October 12, 2009

Widow White’s Tavern

The Event that Changed America FOREVER!

Often I like to post research in hopes that other researchers can see what’s been gathered and take the discussion to a new level. Please feel free to reach out if there are other items that get discovered.

At about noon time on December 13,1776, General Charles Lee (1731-1782), was alarmed by Major Wilkinson while he was writing a letter to General Gates about George Washington in an upstairs bedroom of the Widow White’s Tavern.

What became of the infamous Widow White’s Tavern?

Historical Names

What’s in a name? Almost everything!
Here’s what’s been documented so far as far as the name goes:

  • Brewster’s Tavern
  • Whites Tavern
  • Widow White’s Tavern
  • Lee Mansion (? – 1873?)
  • Lee Lodge (Franklin Conklin Sr.)
  • Lee House (Franklin Conklin Jr.)
  • Murphy House (Built 1962- 2006)

Samuel Brown was the noted owner of the Tavern before the Widow White took posession.Mary was evidently the daughter of Elizabeth Phoebe Whitaker and Eliphalet Jervis. stepdaughter of Jonathan Whitaker of Mine Brook.

It is not known if Jonathan Whitaker adopted these two children, but they are shown by some sources as Mary and Phoebe Whitaker. Both the wills of Jonathan Whitaker and Elizabeth Whitaker mention only Elizabeth, Jonathan, Jr., Nathaniel, and Eliphalet as heirs. It is possible that Sarah and Isaac Whitaker died young. I have been unable to find information to prove that Phoebe Whitaker was the daughter of Jonathan Whitaker.

Timeline

  • Mary Whitaker married Samuel Brown, who died in 1763 leaving property to his wife.
  • Mary Brown married Ebenezer White. The Taverns Name was known as White’s Tavern.
  • On Ebenezer White’s death (prior to 1776), Mary became the Widow White. If it weren’t for her remarrying, it might have been Widow Brown’s tavern. Hence the reference to the name Widow White’s Tavern.
  • Mary Whitaker White died on May 28, 1794 (Vorhees had a copy of her will in 1935)
  • Reference is given that when Franklin Conklin owned the property, it was called “Lee Lodge”(Oscar Vorhees- 1935)
    Quotes Looking to verify:If Mary was the noted innkeeper of the infamous night, she would have been 50.(Vorhees, 1935).
  • Incorrect, based on the reference below, she would have been 57. Whitaker Family “a manuscript from Dartmouth College records shows her birth year as 1719 and the names of her spouses as Samuel Brown and Edwin Whitaker. Click Here
  • If General Lee was 44 in 1776, and Widow White was 57 (13 years his senior), would you have been at the White’s Tavern looking for her friendly companionship?
  • Jonathan Whitaker’s other daughter Elizabeth, married Stephen Ogden and lived in a house directly across the street from White’s Tavern (Vorhees Paper)
  • Both Samuel Brown and Stephen Ogden died within a year of Jonathan Whitaker
  • Lore has it that some of Lee’s guards were killed outside tavern during capture and possibly buried across the street in Mary White’s sisters yard. (See Bernardsville Times article in 1902), also stated in (Vorhees piece as follows “An officer in a letter dated December 21, 1776 stated that when Colonel Harcourt approached the house with his men, they received a fire from a guard that was in the outhouse, that two sentinels were killed with sever. others -one account says seven or eight), without any loss on our side.)
  • Rumor has it that the last remaining part of the house was a fireplace that was demolished after Conklin’s death.
  • Lore has it that the actual mantle to the Widow White’s Tavern still exists today in a private residence.
  • Memoirs of General James Wilkinson mention that General Lee arrived at approximately 4am at White’s Tavern on December 13, 1776 (Vorhees 1935)
  • Wilkinson woke General Lee at 8am to discuss letter from Gen. Gates and went down for breakfast about 10am.

Owner Spotlights
Franklin Conklin Jr.

(Rutgers University Conklin Hall)

Franklin Conklin Jr. was the first president of the board of Rutgers(Newark’s predecessor, the University of Newark). Conklin was also a well-known civic leader in Newark. He attended Princeton from 1903-04 and later headed the Flood and Conklin Manufacturing Co. He was also a member and past president of the Essex County Park Commission, past president of The Newark Museum (1943 – 1964). He was founder and first president of the board of Newark University. Franklin Conklin Jr. had two children, Franklin Conklin III and Eleanor Frances Conklin (Demarest).

Current Neighborhood

  • Franklin Conklin Property – One room has been kept totally intact, a chamber on the second floor, where General Lee made his last breakfast in freedom. House was set back approx 100 yards from the road. None of the original barns or outhouses remained.
  • 1907 Mount Holly Herald, “The White Tavern is situated a hundred yards of so back from the road on a pretty know that overlooks the beautiful Somerset Hills and valleys to the east, north and west. None of the original outhouses or barns remain.
    1943-1950 caretaker, John Placko states that when he got to the Conklin Jr. property in May 1950, there was no house on the site but that there was a tremendous amount of scrap used lumber in the barn.
  • 1962- Donald and Margaret Brown, build the current house on the site. Colonial Drive was just being completed, along with Rankin Road.
  • Property was sold by Margaret Murphy, remarried after the passing of Donald Brown 12/12/1974, wife of Donald Murphy. Daniel Murphy Margaret’s second husband from 1978 till about 1997.
  • Martha Brown Heiner states that Conklin built two additional houses on the site for his two sons, Franklin Jr. and Ludolph.
  • While Franklin’s orig house no longer exists, the two houses of his sons flank the front left and rear of the current structure Block 78, Lot 11.
  • Frances Florio Secretary to PB/BOA (Planning Board/Board of Adjustments)  908-204-3026
  • Harry Demarest: Son of Elanor (Demarest) Conklin, wife to Franklin Conklin Jr. and grandson of Franklin Conklin. Memories of visiting Lee Lodge. “As a young man, I remember visiting Franklin Conklin Jr’s house for dinner, going for walks in the woods, eating cheese snacks on the porch. Family legend confirms your story that the tavern was destroyed shortly after Franklin Conklin’s death (to avoid property taxes).” harry@astro.us
    Harry Demarest
    Astro Data Services, Inc.
    974 NW Circle Blvd
    Corvallis, OR 97330
    541-758-1132
    (Bernards Twp Zoning office, suggested to contact Rick Axt, Twp Surveyor. look at page 17 and 23 of current zoning map). Look for oldest map and records of what Conklin did to property. Update: Bernards Township records are not kept prior to 1977 so no records are on file. Might consider checking Tax Records for property.
    Margaret Murphy sold the house and on July 26, 2006 moved to a condo in Lord Stirling Village.
  • John Placko of Colonial Drive noted:
    • “When I arrived here to work for Ludolf Conklin in May 1950, there was a lot of wood in the barn, with nails in it that might have been from a torn down house.” BHB interview on 8/28/2006. “But there was no house on the site. Only Ludolf’s house on the right, and Franklin Jr’s house on the left” (facing the current site from S. Finley).
  • John also mentioned a possible soldier grave across the street, possibly General Lee’s guards who were stabbed after surrendering General Lee to General Harcourt.
  • Mr Placko finally purchased the home he lives in today from Minetta Realty Company in 1960 for $12,000.
  • John Placko Jr., 94, formerly of the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township, died peacefully on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009, at Bryan Manor Assisted Living Facility in Chester Township. He celebrated his 94th birthday on Thursday, Sept. 24.  Born in Bernardsville, he moved to Basking Ridge in 1950 to become the caretaker of the Conklin estate. Later, he served as a rural mail carrier at the Basking Ridge Post Office, retiring in 1985 after 18 years of service. Mr. Placko was an avid beekeeper, with many hives throughout the area. He was known as “Honey Bee John,” and his honey won many awards and was sold at local shops. He pursued his hobby into his nineties, and was a member of the Morris County Beekeepers Association. He was the oldest living member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Basking Ridge
  • Neighbors- Don and Roxanne Rica lives behind the current structure. Noted that there was carriage material in their digging and it might have been an original garage.
  • Priscilla Bruno – North Finley Avenue. Lives up the road (Died 26 February 2013- Galloway)
  • Linda Suggested to contact Rick Axt in the Engineering Dept to discuss surveys or go to Somerville and search deeds.Rick Axt, P.L.S. http://www.bernards.org/Default1.aspx?Item=Engineering
    Township Surveyor
    204-3008

“Sent the pictures on to my Mom (Margaret (Brown) Murphy. We had an interesting chat about it this morning. She said that Finley used to aim right into the Astor estate (there is a second entrance in the fence that is roped off by fence now), and then take a very sharp dangerous right turn.

They moved Finley a little closer to Mom’s house and Lutz’s house in order to ease that turn. This must’ve been done in 1961 or 1962 because they were taking out dump trucks of dirt. Mom and her neighbor asked them to dump a load up by the parking area at Mom’s house to put some good dirt in there.

Mom’s driveway used to go in a little and then bend to the left, where the Lutz’s driveway is now. They were separating it into 2 driveways at the time.

She still believes the house was on her property. Close to where her house sits now. When they dug the foundation for her house, they dug up a long piece of cement foundation. When they finished building her house, they put it back in for fill, instead of hauling it away.”

8/24/2006 – Martha Brown Heiner noted:

Reference People/Articles

  • Priscilla Bruno
  • John Placko- (Working) Manager for Ludolf Conklin Jr.(1950)
  • Charlie Fortenbacker, Chief of Police- 43 Haas Rd Basking Ridge, NJ 07920-2601
    (908) 647-0745
  • Essay – Essays Historical and Literary, published by Macmillian in 1902. John Fiske- Title General Charles Lee, A Soldier of Fortune

Additional Quotes

‘December 13, 1776
My Dr. Gates: The ingenious maneuver of Fort Washington has unhinged the goodly fabrick we had been building- there never was so damned a stroke- entre nous, a certain great man is most damnably deficient. He has thrown me into a situation where I have my choices of difficulties. If I stay in this Province I risk myself and army, and if I do not stay the Province is lost forever. I have neither guard, cavalry, medicines, money, shoes, or stockings. I must act with the greatest circumspection. Tories are in my front, rear and on my flanks. The amass of the people is strangely contaminated- in sort unless something which I do not expect turns up we ar lost. Our counsels have been weak to the last degree. As to what relates to yourself in you think you can be in time to aid the General I would have you by all means go. You will at least save your army. It is said the Whigs are determined to set fire to Philadelphia. If they strike this decisive stroke the day will be our own, but unless it is done all chance of liberty in any part of the Globe is forever vanished. Adieu, my dear friend. God bless. you .Charles Lee.”

The General Lee Letter that he was writing to General Gates on the morning of his capture.

“What a lesson of caution is to be derived from this event, and how important the admonition furnished by it! What an evidence of the caprice of fortune, of the fallibility of ambitious projects, and the inscrutable ways of Heaven! The capture of General Lee was felt as a public calamity; it cast a gloom over the country, and excited general sorrow. This sympathy was honorable to the people, and due to the stranger who had embarked his fortune with theirs, and determined to share their fate, under circumstances of more than common peril. Although this misfortune deprived the country of its most experienced chief, I have ever considered the deprivation of a public blessing, ministered by the hand of Providence; for if General Lee had not abandoned caution for convenience, and taken quarters two miles from his army, on his exposed flank, he would have been safe; if a domestic traitor, who passed his quarters the same morning on private business, had not casually fallen in with Colonel Harcourt, on a reconnoitering party, the General’s quarters would not have been discovered; if my visit and the controversy with the Connecticut Light-horse had not spun out the morning unseasonably, the General would have been at his camp; if Colonel Harcourt had arrived an hour sooner, he would have found the guard under arms, and would have been repulsed, or resisted until succor could have arrived; if he had arrived half an hour later the General would have been with his corps; if the guard had paid ordinary attention to their duty, and had not abandoned their arms, the General’s quarters would have been defended; or if he had obeyed the peremptory and reiterated orders of General Washington, he would have been beyond the reach of the enemy. And shall we impute to blind chance such a chain of rare incidents? I conscientiously reply in the negative; because the combination was too intricate and perplexed for accidental causes, or the agency of man. It must have been destined.”

General Wilkinson wrote in his later memoirs
(about General Lee and the December 13th morning in Basking Ridge)

The Uneven Exchange

As a captive he gave Gen. William Howe a plan for defeating the Americans, but his treason was not discovered. In the end, General Lee was exchanged (May 9, 1778) back to the Continental Army for for British Maj. General Richard Prescott and at Valley Forge, General Washington restored his command.

At the Battle of Monmouth he received the rebuke of General Washington and subsequently was brought up on three charges for which Lee requested a Court Martial. He lost the court martial and was officially dismissed from the Continental Army.

Presiding over the Court Martial hearings was no other than Basking Ridge’s own Major General Lord Stirling (William Alexander), who convicted and removed Lee from his position and the Army in disgrace.Lee tried to get Congress to overturn the court-martial verdict, and when this failed he resorted to open attacks on Washington’s character. Lee’s popularity plummeted. Colonel John Laurens, an aide to Washington, challenged him to a duel, in which Lee was wounded in the side. He was released from duty on January 10, 1780.

In an ensuing encounter, Lee was slightly wounded in the initial exchange of shots and only the intercession of Laurens’ second, Alexander Hamilton, prevented further engagement. Lee’s injury, however, prevented him from accepting a similar challenge from Anthony Wayne.

On January 10, 1780 Lee leaves his Virginia estate to visit Philadelphia he was stricken with fever and dies alone and friendless at a tavern on October 2, 1782.

The former General Lee died a few years later on October 2, 1782 to which Lee wrote prior to his death in his will:

“I desire most earnestly that I may not be buried in any church yard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist meeting house; for since I reside in this country I have kept so much bad company when living, that I do not choose to continue it when dead.”

General Charles Lee

He was buried, however, in the cemetery of Christ Church in Philadelphia (Arch Street and 5th Street) with the inscription “Knight Errant of Liberty” (Same cemetery as Benjamin Franklin – 1790) , and his funeral was attended by George Washington and other dignitaries nonetheless.

Reference Materials

Lee Papers – The biography of Charles Lee has not yet been properly written. His essays and miscellaneous papers were edited, with an interesting biographical sketch, by Edward Langworthy, under the title “Memoirs of the late Charles Lee, Esq.” (London, 1792). The sketch by Jared Sparks (“American Biography,” 2d series, viii., Boston, 1846) is carefully written, but has little value to-day, because the author knew nothing of that treasonable correspondence with the Howe’s which modifies so profoundly our view of Lee’s whole career in America. George H. Moore announced in 1860 a biography and collection of essays, with documents never before published: but this much-needed book has not vet made its appearance. Dr. Moore’s monograph above cited contains much information not easily to be found elsewhere; the portrait which stands as its frontispiece is reduced from the folio print published in London during the Revolutionary war

Additional Information

Research Images

  • Lee Papers – The biography of Charles Lee has not yet been properly written. His essays and miscellaneous papers were edited, with an interesting biographical sketch, by Edward Langworthy, under the title “Memoirs of the late Charles Lee, Esq.” (London, 1792). The sketch by Jared Sparks (“American Biography,” 2d series, viii., Boston, 1846) is carefully written, but has little value to-day, because the author knew nothing of that treasonable correspondence with the Howe’s which modifies so profoundly our view of Lee’s whole career in America. George H. Moore announced in 1860 a biography and collection of essays, with documents never before published: but this much-needed book has not vet made its appearance. Dr. Moore’s monograph above cited contains much information not easily to be found elsewhere; the portrait which stands as its frontispiece is reduced from the folio print published in London during the Revolutionary war
  • Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson river, across from Fort Washington, was named for him.

Research Information:

Article:DateAuthorDescription
Lee Papers
1873By Charles Lee, Henry
Edward Bunbury
Entitled the “Lee Papers” An extract. The basis of the whole collection has been the mass of original papers left by General Lee to William Goddard, and still preserved in his family.”-
Amazon Books1860MOORE, George H.MOORE, George H. Treason of Charles Lee, Major General, Second in Command in the
MOORE, George H. The Treason of Charles Lee, Major General, Second in Command in the American Army of the Revolution. N.Y., 1860. 1st ed. Illus. with portrs. and folding facs. xii, 115pp.
Local Historian documents Widow White’s Tavern
1887Dr William PenningtonPaper documents historical ownership of Widow Whites Tavern (Bernardsville Spinning Files)
 Visit Bernards Twp Library   J.H. Van HornHistoric Somerset- Articles of the times
(Bernards Historical Room 974.914)
 Visit Bernards Twp Library1907 Mount Holly Herald article. (Frank Conklin discussed- on file at Bernards Twp library).
Hard Copy
(Not Scanned yet)
Feb. 18, 1933Oscar VoorheesPaper- General Charles Lee and his capture at Widow White’s Tavern, Basking Ridge NJ- (Bernards Twp Library)- by Oscar M. Voorhees. Feb. 18, 1933. on file at Bernards Twp library).
Library of Congress Digital Version1889Andrew D.Mellick Jr.“The Old Farm” from “The story of an Old Farm”. History of the famed Melicks of Bedminster.
Bernardsville News Recount of the Tavern
June 30, 1993Bernardsville News,
W. Jacob Perry
Bernardsville News historical piece on the History of the Widow Whites Tavern, General Lee, and Franklin Conklin Jr.
Star Ledger
2001Star Ledger General Lee capture recount with artwork from 2001. Love the ending. (Bit of poetic license).
Bernardsville Times Lee Article
April 26,1905Bernardsville Times,1905 recount of General Lee Capture
The scoundrel Memoirs of General James WilkinsonReferenced journals
Newark Call – General Lee
Dec 12, 1913Basking Ridge Home Reminded of General Lee’s Escapade in 1776.

A funny article about the 150th anniversary noted in the Newark Call on December 12, 1913.Quotes “A night of Gaiety” and General Lee’s interest in Widow White

Widow Whites Property Survey1961Survey DocumentSurvey of the original area in 1961 (Known then as the Donald R and Jane H Hagner property

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