Lord Stirling-Is William Alexander Basking Ridge’s Most Famous Resident?

Lord Stirling - Washington's top general from Basking Ridge.
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William Alexander was considered male heir to the Scottish title of Earl of Stirling through Scottish lineage (being the senior male descendant of the paternal grandfather of the 1st Earl of Stirling, who had died in 1640), and he sought the title sometime after 1756. Raised on Broad Street in Lower Manhattan, he decided to move west to the country. He chose Baskinridge (Basking Ridge) and became what many feel is the area’s most famous resident. Let’s take a look.

Early Days

William Alexander (1726 – 1/15/1783) was the son of Secretary & lawyer James Alexander. His mother Mary Spratt Provoost was the widow of David Provoost, a wealthy New York merchant. Both James and Mary fled from Scotland in 1716 after participating in the Jacobite rising. James Alexander (May 27, 1691 – April 2, 1756) was a lawyer,statesman, Secretary and Surveyor in colonial New York. He served in the Colonial Assembly and as attorney general of the colony in 1721–1723.

At an early age, William longed to be an astronomer and loved mathematics as well. But he also longed for the title of “Lord”, something that his father never pursued, but a title his grandfather held as the 5th Earl of Stirling. You see, if you have a title of “Lord”, you also have the rights and privileges back at the House of Lords in England. And it was noted that the Stirlings held title to large tracts of land in America and Canada.

Lordship

The title of Lord was an important one to James’ son William even though his father James never pursued the title. The Earl of Stirling title would prove his aristocratic title back to Scotland and let the British know exactly who they were dealing with. William’s claim was initially granted by a Scottish court in 1759 at the age of 33. The goal was vast land holdings in America that the holder of the title was to enjoy. The sponsors were to receive money and land if William was successful. However, the House of Lords ultimately over-ruled Scottish law and denied the title in 1762. He continued to hold himself out as “Lord Stirling” regardless.

While hist birth name was William Alexander, document signatures prove that he really was “Lord Stirling.”

Lady Stirling

In 1747, William married Sarah Livingston (1725–1805), the daughter of Philip Livingston, 2nd Lord of Livingston Manor.Sarah was also the sister of Governor William Livingston. Together, William and Sarah had two daughters and one son, William, Mary, and Catherine (Kitty). Mary Alexander, would marry wealthy merchant, Robert Watts of New York. Kitty would marry William Duer. We know very little about William Jr.

War Efforts

Stirling was originally made a colonel in the New Jersey colonial militia. Because he was wealthy and willing to spend his own money in support of the Patriot cause he outfitted his unit, the 1st New Jersey Regiment, at his own expense. He distinguished himself early by leading a group of volunteers in the capture of an armed British naval transport.

The Second Continental Congress appointed him Brigadier General in the Continental Army in March 1776. Lord Stirling commanded the 1st Maryland Regiment that fought at the Battle of Long Island. 

Colonel Stirling at the Battle of Long Island

Stirling himself was taken prisoner but he had held the British forces occupied long enough to allow the main body of Washington’s army to escape to defensive positions at Brooklyn Heights.. Later, under the cover of a foggy night, Washington was able to get his remaining troops across the river to Manhattan.

Because of his actions at Long Island, one newspaper called Stirling “the bravest man in America”, and he was praised by both Washington and the British for his bravery and audacity. Later a commemorative monument was erected at the site of the military engagements and embattled retreat and the plot of land deeded to the State of Maryland near Prospect Park as a sacred parcel of “blood-soaked Maryland soil”.

Stirling was released in a prisoner exchange, in return for governor Montfort Browne, and promoted to the rank of major general. Stirling became one of Washington’s most able and trusted generals. Washington held him in such high regard that during the second Middlebrook encampment in 1779 (while Knox was in Pluckemin), he placed him, headquartered at the nearby Van Horne House, in command of the Continental Army for nearly two months, from 21 December 1778, even though he lived just six miles to the north in Basking Ridge.

Stirling Manor

Remember back in the 1700’s the rich typically held their wealth in land. Alexander wasn’t any different. As Alexander chose Basking Ridge, the English Manor was one of the finest in America. . It was typical to have an estate built along a river, similar to Washington’s Mount Vernon. Alexander chose his area along the Black Brook and the Passaic River (which borders the Great Swamp today).

One of the few artifacts found was this 1784 needlepoint from Katharine Wright depicting the Stirling Manor and “The Buildings”. The British architect John Edward Pryor began construction in 1761. Word was it took two years to complete.
Stirling Manor Basking Ridge
Stirling Manor was stated to be a English nobleman’s Georgian Palladian style estate along the Passiac and BlackBrook called “The Buildings” (also referred to as “The Sycamores”) with great lawns, gardens, vineyards, stables, coach houses, with a large paved court behind the mansion. The property covered about 700 acres. While the estate is gone this one in Marble Hill-Twickenham outside London is very similar to what Sycamores might have looked like. The estate was known as one of the greatest in the colonies at the time.

In 1761 Lord Stirling had just returned from abroad after petitioning the House of Lords for his title he decided to build his estate. The tract of land was about seven hundred acres was inherited in 1752 from his father, James Alexander, who was also the surveyor-general of New Jersey.

Lord-Stirling-Property-c1770 Mr Local History
Lord-Stirling-Property-c1770 Mr Local History. We’re still trying to identify a few of the named areas with a ? So if you read “Colonial” let us know your thoughts.

The seat of Lord Stirling, called by the country-people ‘The Buildings,’ was two miles distant. Designed to imitate the residence of an English nobleman, it was unfinished when the war began. The stables, coach-houses, and other offices, ornamented with cupolas and gilded vanes, were built behind a large paved court behind the mansion. A large hall extended through the able stream called the Black River. A large hall extended through the centre of the house. On one side was a drawing-room with painted walls and stuccoed ceiling. Being taken there as a child, my imagination was struck with a style and splendor so different from all around.

Mrs. Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, wife of Josiah Quincy of Boston who in her youth had a home near the Stirling Manor, has left us a description of it as she knew it then
Architect John Edward Pryor also built the Royal Governors house called the Proprietary House in Perth Amboy. which still stands today. Get an idea of what the Stirling Manor looked like from a similar home in New Jersey

The council of war met at Lord Stirling’s residence on May 2,1777. In attendance was George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox. They discussed a possible attack on New Brunswick, New Jersey but it was decided that the troops were not strong enough nor sufficiently trained to choose such course of action.

Biggest Event – Kitty Stirling Wedding

Out under tall old trees, heavy with July foliage, their wedding took place on July 27, 1779. Many of the guests, as did the hundreds of pieces of paduasoy, satin, laces, etc., which comprised the bride’s trousseau, had to find their way past sentinels and army lines to be present. Governor Livingston had occasion to issue many passes, – acts which he generally did with very poor grace. All of the neighboring gentry appeared on the scene. The Southards, Kennedys, Hatfields, Lotts, and Mortons. The presents to the bride were very fine for the period. The Duchess of Gordon, always the ardent friend of Lord Stirling, the Earl of Shelburne, and several other members of the British nobility remembered his favorite daughter. It is a sad story that many years after the bright wedding-day Lady Kitty Duer, then a decrepit old woman keeping a boardinghouse in New York City, was forced by poverty to part with the souvenirs of the happiest day of her life.

Catherine “Miss Kitty Stirling” and Col. William Duer (member of the Continental Congress) were married in Basking Ridge at the Stirling Manor on July 27, 1779.

From family tradition we learn that the bride was gowned in white, and made a beautiful picture as she stood by the commanding figure of General Washington, under a cypress-tree, awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. After the knot was tied, the’ ladies, escorted by the brilliantly uniformed officers, – army affairs were then in a better condition than earlier in the war, – trained their gay petticoats over the lawn to the manor, where one of those bounteous old-time collations was served. Lady Stirling was presented by George Washington as she awaited her future husband, Colonel William Duer.

Later, when the young people were deciding to play games, – “Langteraloo,” ” Kiss the Bride,” ” Put,” and all the forgotten merrymakings indulged in at weddings, – a clamor arose outside the house.

The guests, rushing to the windows, found the house surrounded by soldiers from a nearby camp, all shouting with lusty voices for a view of the bride. Then it is we obtain the prettiest picture of any scene in Lady Kitty’s career, as she steps out again upon the grass in her white satin slippers and all her wedding finery to receive the congratulations of her father’s fellow-campaigners. They gave them to her individually and then filed away with great satisfaction.

The fete for Lady Kitty’s marriage was the last entertainment ever given in the manor house by Lord Stirling. The private affairs which he had neglected for his sword gradually grew from bad to worse, and upon his death, at the close of the war in 1784, he left his family only an honored name. Lady Kitty Duer, through her wealthy marriage, continued to live in New York in all the luxury to which she had been accustomed at her father’s Jersey home.

Viticulture aka Winemaker

As Foreign Minister to France, Jefferson spent three months wine tasting In America, he was known and is still known today as one of America’s first winerys. What many don’t know is that Jefferson planted vineyards, but never actually made a wine.
Many didn’t know that Lord Stirling was also into winemaking.

It was known that Stirling was an accomplished mathematician and loved astronomy and horse breeding, Stirling was a devoted student of wine making. Like Jefferson, Stirling dedicated a large portion of his estate to the growing of grapes to produce locally produced vintage wine. It was said that the grapes originated in Italy.

The Royal Society of Arts wanted to see the colony grow to produce grapes. It was with some awareness of this background of failure that the Society in 1758 offered a premium of 100 pounds to the colonist who, within seven years, should be the first to produce five tuns of red or white wine of acceptable quality. 

Through his gardener, Thomas Burgie, he advised the society in 1767 that he had planted 2100 vines. Earlier, in 1763, he had explained to his friend, the Earl of Sherburne, the difficulties that confronted an American viticulturist and had made a plea for governmental encouragement of such projects.

“The making of wine [he wrote on 6th August], also, is worth the attention of Government. Without its aid, the cultivation of the vine will be very slow; for of all the vines in Europe, we do not yet know which of them will suit this climate; and until that is ascertained by experiment, our people will not plant vineyards; few of us are able, and a much less number willing, to make the experiment. I have lately imported about twenty different sorts, and have planted two vineyards, one in this Province [New York] and one in New Jersey; but I find the experiments tedious, expensive, and uncertain; for after eight or ten years’ cultivation I shall perhaps be obliged to reject nine tenths of them as unfit for the climate, and then begin new vineyards from the remainder. But, however tedious, I am determined to go through with it. Yet I could wish to be assisted in it, I would then try to a greater extent, and would the sooner be able to bring the cultivation of the grape into general use.”

In 1767, the Royal Society of Arts awarded Lord Stirling a gold medal for accepting the society’s challenge to establish viticulture and winemaking in the North American colonies by cultivating 2,100 grape (V. vinifera) vines on his New Jersey estate.

Side Note: Thee most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction was offered at Christie’s in London, on December 5, 1985. The bottle was handblown dark-green glass and capped with a nubby seal of thick black wax. It had no label, but etched into the glass in a spindly hand was the year 1787, the word “Lafitte,” and the letters “Th.J.”

It was rumored that the bottle was purchased by a member of the Forbes Family from Bedminster. Source: The New Yorker Magazine

What Happened to “The Buildings” at the Stirling Manor?

Shortly after Alexander’s death in 1783 the estate was unoccupied. Numerous attempts to gain funds to maintain the house were petitioned to Congress to no avail. It was to be hoped that Lady Kitty visit after she moved to New York but she didn’t. After years, as its glories soon departed. Before the advent of the next century it was a scene of ruin. The drawing-room, with its stuccoed ceiling and decorations of goddesses and cupids, where Lord Stirling and his daughters sang hymns to the accompaniment of a little London spinet, still in existence, was in total disrepair. The tiled courtyard, where many a lordly coach, had rumbled, was broken up, and the Stirling gilt coach, itself a reminder of Sir Charles Grandison’s day, was a roosting-place for fowl. The entire estate became a dreary picture of neglect and ruin.

For the next 40 years it was said that the manor fell into disrepair.

It was written that 10 years after staying as a winter resident, Nathaniel Green visited the Stirling Manor: “In faded majesty, as if to mourn the dissolution of an ancient race. It’s grand hall and decorated drawing room were being used as a “store-house” and piled with sacks of corn and wheat. Pigs and poultry roamed at will in the paved quadrangle, and its surrounding stables and coachhouse were fast going to ruin.”

Somerset Hills Historic Quartery Volume 2
This is a photo of the Lord Stirling home in 1911 (very different from the earlier version). The property encompassed over 200 acres. Published by the Temme Co., Newark, NJ, and was printed in Germany. Source: Rutgers University

Then in 1840, the estate changed hands and was remodeled in what is referred to as an Italianate architecture. The estate stayed as pictured until 1920 when a major fire destroyed the building. There is a home today on the original foundation. Each year during the Lord Stirling Festival in Basking Ridge, part of the original Stirling manor house foundation still exists under the house now occupying the site. On this day of the year, as part of the festival, the cellar is open to the public for tours.  You might call it one of America’s first wine cellars.

Two brick buildings are all that remain of the Lord Stirling/William Alexander estate.  Research has established these were auxiliary buildings related to farm life (granary, farm office, perhaps used by domestic servants). Archeological digs are ongoing on site which is owned by the Somerset County Park Commission.  Entered on State Register, 1976; National Register, 1977.

Lord Stirling Manor – Easterly Brick Outbuilding – Each is a 2 layer thick, rose brick structure, measuring 12 by 16 feet. The roofs are a low gable construction with slate shingles and are believed to be of a more recent period (19th century). ‘ The interior wood paneling and floors are in a decaying condition and have been extensively altered for storage purposes. While once referred to as a slave quarters, it was later determined to not be correct.

Final Days

Sadly, Stirling didn’t get to experience in the official end of the war in 1783. Known to embibe, Alexander was in poor health, suffering from severe gout and rheumatism, and died in Albany on the 15th of January 1783 just months before the Treaty of Paris was signed. He also died as a pauper, heavily in debt leaving noting to his children.

As they say, the rest is history.

How These Stories Fit Together

Basking Ridge plays an important role in the Revolution. With Stirling in the area, it’s interesting to note that Elias Boudinot, the President of Continental Congress lived just up the street. It’ was also noted that General Charles Lee, another Major General in the Continental Army was captured just a mile away at Widow White’s tavern on South Finley Avenue on December 13, 1777. Was he traveling from Morristown to meet Stirling? And just think about how many early american dignitaries visited Stirling at the Stirling Manor. George and Martha Washington for sure visited Basking Ridge. The New Jersey Governor Livingston certainly did considering his son married Stirling’s daughter. It’s such a great area for local historians. We’ll keep digging.

As you read some of the stories of our history, let's not forget just how young some of the players were during the Revolution: Source: Mr. Local History
As you read some of the stories of our history, let’s not forget just how young some of the players were during the Revolution: Source: Mr. Local History

Did you know

  • The 1636 deed to William Alexander, Earl of Stirling (Alexander’s grandfather) included New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island where it actually was called Stirling Island for a period.
  • In October 1641, William, Earl of Stirling, deeded the “Stirling Island” to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts Bay. Yes, Stirling owned Nantucket AND Martha’s Vineyard.
  • In 1767, the Royal Society of Arts awarded Alexander a gold medal for accepting the society’s challenge to establish viticulture and wine making in the North American colonies by cultivating 2,100 grape (V. vinifera) vines on his New Jersey estate.
  • At the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, he received the surrender of the Hessian German mercenary regiment.
  • When Washington and the French comte de Rochambeau took their conjoined armies south for the climactic Battle of Yorktown in 1781, Stirling was appointed commander of the elements of the Northern Army left behind to guard New York and was sent up the Hudson River to Albany where he died shortly thereafter in January 1783.
  • in 1779, General Greene removed his wife and staff from the Van der Vere house to Basking Ridge. In, and established his head-quarters at the Stirling Manor.
  • Stirling’s sister Elizabeth, he was the Uncle of John Stevens III (1749–1838), a lawyer, engineer, and inventor who constructed the first U.S. steam locomotive and first steam-powered ferry, and Mary Stevens (d. 1814), who married Chancellor Robert Livingston, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
  • A house is built upon the foundation of the 1825 farmhouse (this house was constructed in part on the Stirling Mansion foundations and burned down in 1920) has been converted into offices for the Park Commission.
  • Stirling, New Jersey is named after William Alexander.
  • The Lord Stirling Manor site was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 22, 1978.
  • Sterling, Machessuettes is named after William Alexander.

Additional Information

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5 Thoughts to “Lord Stirling-Is William Alexander Basking Ridge’s Most Famous Resident?”

  1. Bob Wong

    March 16, 2020
    I live in Basking Ridge and am a Revolutionary war enthusiast. I found this article very interesting with far more details than what I knew about William Alexander. I have several questions:
    1) Who wrote this article?
    2) When is the Lord Stirling festival this year? I would like to visit the wine cellar
    3) Does Basking Ridge sponsor a walking tour related to American Revolutionary War sites? (the only ones that I am aware of are Widow White’s Tavern (sign), Presbyterian Cemetery, Lord Stirling’s manor site, Boudinot estate, log hut hospital sign). I think that there would be some interest and generate some revenue for the town)
    Thanks- Bob Wong

  2. I did the research and wrote the article based on that research. The festival is typically the first Sunday in October and is run by Somerset County Parks Commission. No there’s not a walking tour currently, but I’ve written about most of the sites. The Basking Ridge Rev War hospital is a little dodgy on the facts but I might dig in at some point. Glad you liked the piece. I certainly learned a lot doing it. There’s a few good books on Stirling, who actually was quite a rascal with his lottery. But it is also sad he died heavily in debt and evidently had a bad drinking problem to boot.

  3. As we continue the research – the interactive map is a virtual tour of many of the stories we’ve documented that impacted Basking Ridge – Check out – https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/viewer?mid=1Tj7UqlX8ndW1ZIFL9C93sEX7K4PHhVRt&ll=40.73559179489243%2C-74.54386265000005&z=13

  4. BR

    Great article and I truly appreciate your efforts in gather insightful and important history about our local area. It amazes me that all of these important people who built our nation lived, worked and fought in our our backyards. Please keep it up! One thing of note, I think the compass bearing is off on the Stirling Estate map, as if you line it up with an online map of today, it would appear that E is where N should be.

  5. Thanks for writing. You’re going to have to prove it to me. We did have to add it to the map because it wasn’t on the original we photographed.

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