Faculty Housing: Historical Context

The Institute for Advanced Study is very fortunate to have a campus set adjacent to nearly 600 acres of preserved woodlands and farmlands, and close by the Princeton Battlefield Park, which commemorates the battle between British and American forces on January 3, 1777. Its favorable setting is no accident, however, since the Institute itself preserved the Institute Woods through the Green Acres easement and played a key role in the founding and expansion of the Princeton Battlefield State Park.

The Institute’s plan to build homes for its faculty in the field west of its central campus and east of the Park is critical to maintaining the residential character of its scholarly community—one of the Institute’s defining characteristics. Like any property owner in Princeton, the Institute must comply with the public regulatory framework that protects the community from inappropriate development, including projects which may negatively affect structures or land whose historical value has been recognized in the Township’s zoning ordinances. In line with its long history of support for the Princeton Battlefield Park, the Institute has been particularly attentive to these concerns in the final location and design of the project. The actual project site of seven-and- a-half acres sits entirely outside and to the east of the 200-foot-wide historical buffer zone where development activity would trigger a regulatory concern with historical preservation.

For half a century, the Institute has been committed to the Park as a means to commemorate and interpret the significance of the Battle of Princeton. Indeed, the Park boundary, whose adjacency to the field containing the project site has been a point of concern for the Princeton Battlefield Society, exists only because the Institute and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection were successful in the early 1970s in agreeing to the sale by the Institute to the State of two large parcels of land, including the tract inside this eastern boundary of the Park.

The Battle of Princeton, of course, ranged over much of the town, and the subsequent development of the farmland surrounding the town center, including the Institute and the residential neighborhood in which it sits, has created an overlay of new activity—its own history still being enacted. In this setting, the natural and appropriate goal when establishing a historic park is the commemoration and interpretation of the Battle to new generations, rather than the freezing of development as an end in itself.

It is certainly likely that during the Battle troops moved across the Institute’s field to the east of the Park, as they may have done elsewhere on Institute property and did all the way into Princeton. This was the conclusion reached by the Louis Berger Group in summarizing their own archaeological investigations and those of other historians and archaeologists. Their report, commissioned by the Institute for an assessment of the project at an early stage of the State’s review in 2007, also concluded that “if the archaeological record is an accurate reflection of the conflict between the British and the American troops, then the amount of fighting that may have occurred within the IAS project area appears to have been very limited.”

Report Commissioned by the Princeton Battlefield Society
A report commissioned by the Princeton Battlefield Society, using funds granted to them under the American Battlefield Protection Act, contains a decidedly different set of comments and conclusions regarding the significance of the events that occurred in the field east of the Park. Prepared by Milner Associates of Philadelphia, the report, especially as summarized by the Princeton Battlefield Society, claims that the central events of the Battle occurred on the Institute’s project site. It offers itself as a definitive new interpretation of the chronology and distribution of the forces in the Battle, relying on new first person accounts, the “discovery” of the Saw Mill Road, and the first systematic application of computer-aided battlefield analytic methodologies, including geo-referencing and line-of-vision analyses.

Because of these claims, which the Princeton Battlefield Society apparently seeks to use to influence the regulatory review of the project, the report’s conjectures and conclusions should meet a high standard of proof. The Institute has read the report carefully, listened to public presentations of its findings by the authors, consulted with leading historians to assess its contribution to the scholarly understanding of the Battle, and reviewed a number of the report’s specific assertions and conclusions with archaeologists familiar with 18th century rural landscapes.

In many respects, the report is a valuable and full summary of the known evidence regarding the conduct of the Battle, and it has drawn on initial data from new sources, including accounts of the Battle recorded in American and British pension records, to aid in its reconstruction. The scholars consulted by the Institute generally agreed that the report’s presentation did not alter the general outline of the Battle confirmed by recent scholarship. However, in one major respect that is particularly relevant to the Princeton Battlefield Society’s opposition to the project, the report makes a novel claim—that it has located the Sawmill Road, the back road over which the main American force advanced towards Princeton, and, with it, the true location of the key engagements of those troops.

Mark Peterson, a specialist in the American Revolution and early American History at the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the historians who prepared a written review of the report for the Institute (the full text of which may be accessed here), described this part of the report in these terms:

The essential claim that the Milner Report hopes to substantiate in order to argue that the IAS property should not be developed is that the Saw Mill Road… crossed directly over the IAS property, a claim that none of the earlier accounts of the battle has made. But this is exactly where the Milner Report is least convincing, where the open-ended questions and inquisitive logic of its other sections fail to materialize, where conjectures are asserted as fact and then repeated again and again as though they were definitely true …

Two examples can illustrate the report’s weakness in testing its own assumptions. Presenting their findings at a symposium organized by the Princeton Battlefield Society in winter 2011, the authors of the report stated that the two most important grounds for their conclusions about the path taken by the Road were the discovery of a stone marker linked in an 18th century deed to the Road and the determination through viewscape and terrain analysis that the first sighting of each other by the British and American forces must have occurred as the Americans climbed a short slope on the western edge of what is now the Institute’s central campus. According to one of the authors, once the marker was located, further efforts to corroborate their hypothesis stopped.

Here are just a few of the obstacles to uncritically accepting the Milner Report’s claims about these two pieces of evidence:

  • There is no basis for assuming that the marker stone found is the one cited in the deed or that, if it is the original stone, it is currently in its original position. The metes and bounds of the deed do not provide a clear chain of currently identifiable reference points on either side of the marker’s position, and the current location of the marker, on the edge of the old trolley line cut on the edge of the Institute Woods, could easily be the result of disturbance during the construction of the trolley.
  • The location of the Americans’ first sighting of the British was, according to several of the sources relied upon by the report, at a distance of a mile and a half from the town; the location claimed in the report is little more than half that distance. The “little river” just crossed by the Americans before the sighting was probably not the unnamed stream that now runs in a ditch near the Institute, but the Stony Brook by Quaker Road. The claimed “trace” of the Sawmill Road crossing the Institute’s field towards the little stream has none of the features described in the Report: there is no double row of trees nor is there a central depression between two rows.

Fred Anderson of the University of Colorado at Boulder, a recipient of the Francis Parkman Prize who also wrote an assessment of the Milner report (available in its entirety here), described the author’s elaboration of their hypothesis regarding the path of the Sawmill Road from a “trace” near the marker:

Having made that connection in the absence of conclusive documentary or archaeological evidence, apparently without entertaining alternative hypotheses concerning the trace of the road, they built increasingly elaborate assertions on what was never more than an assumption. The effect of constructing a narrative in this way is of course to weaken it; with every step taken away from verifiable evidence the underlying argument grows more fragile, tenuous and unstable. Thus, in my view the authors have made valuable corrections to the received narrative without also having proven their principal contention about the location of the action.

Contrary to its own claims or those made on its behalf by the Princeton Battlefield Society, the Milner Report fails, by a wide margin, to revise the consensus of earlier scholarship with respect to the location of events of the Battle of Princeton in the vicinity of the Battlefield Park. The dean of American military historians, John W. Shy, has gone on record with respect to the report and its location of the events of the Battle:

I have seen a copy of the Milner report, and found nothing in it to refute the carefully done monograph by Samuel Stelle Smith, The Battle of Princeton (1967)…The battle proper was about fifteen minutes of intense fighting in the area of the present park. After that there was a running fight all the way to Nassau hall. It seems unreasonable to claim that any of this latter territory, which would include most of southwestern Princeton and the central building on the University campus, should become part of the battlefield park.

Fred Anderson, a Professor of History and Director of the Arts and Sciences Honors Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, specializes in early North American history. Anderson received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1981, and taught at Harvard before coming to the University of Colorado. Anderson has authored or edited five books, including Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf; London: Faber and Faber, 2000), which won the Mark Lynton History Prize and the 2001 Francis Parkman Prize as best book in American history. Together with Andrew Cayton of Miami University, he published The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (New York: Viking; London: Atlantic Books, 2005), and his newest book, The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (Viking, 2006) is a companion to the four-hour PBS series “The War that Made America,” which was broadcast in 2006.

Mark Peterson is a Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, and specializes in the American Revolution and early American history. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1993, and taught at Harvard, Boston University, and the University of Iowa before coming to Berkeley in 1997. He is author of The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), and has a book in progress, The City-State of Boston: The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic World, 1630-1865. He is serving as editor of The Winthrop Papers, Volume 7, 1655-1660, a scholarly edition of primary source material to be published by the Massachusetts Historical Society, and will be coediting, with David Hancock of the University of Michigan, The Collected Writings of John Hull, 1650-1685, to be published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.