Ford’s Secret and a Revolutionary Discovery

by Amy Curry, Executive Director
March 30, 2021

In 2018, MCHS and the Morris County Park Commission partnered on a grant for the development of New Jersey & National Register Nominations as well as an Archeological Management Plan for a small, unassuming spot along the Whippany River located just behind Acorn Hall. On that spot once stood what might have been the reason George Washington chose to camp at Ford Mansion in December, 1779: the oldest remaining Revolutionary-Era powder mill with inextricable links to our first military training academy, the Pluckemin Cantonment. If your mind is blown, you are not alone; Washington, Colonel Jacob Ford Jr.’s Powder Mill (top image), and Colonel Henry Knox’s Cantonment all share an incredible moment together in America’s fight for independence.

Only known rendering of the Pluckemin Cantonment

The Pluckemin Catonment was a highly sophisticated, temporary, winter military installation that included, among other things, an officer’s training academy – the precursor to West Point. Constructed over several weeks during the winter of early 1779, it was abandoned by the following summer. The following winter, Washington camped at Morristown just a stone’s throw from the mill.  Archeological investigations at Pluckemin took over a decade and uncovered over a million artifacts, many still being analyzed.

Archeologists at powder mill site in 2019.

Investigations at Ford Jr.’s mill will be far less cumbersome, but archeological evidence, both in 1972 and 2019, already indicate that Ford Jr.’s site included only a relatively small wooden structure with a dirt/rock-lined floor as opposed to the multiple, generally stone, structures often required in the gunpowder-making process. Research into recently digitized historic materials has yielded an exciting explanation for this discrepancy. Ford Jr.’s mill was used for the critical remanufacture of damaged powder, rather than the creation of new powder as initially thought, and thus required only one structure. The remanufactured powder was then sent to the Pluckemin Cantonment to be disbursed and used for both training and combat. We may never know for certain if the protection of Ford Jr.’s powder mill was the reason Washington moved his army to Morristown, but recent research have definitively linked the two sites together and their impact on NJ’s role in the Revolution is just starting to be uncovered.