There are many inconsistencies and factual errors entered into the history of Phillipsburg since George Wycoff Cummins published his History of Warren County in 1911, a couple of which made it into the application for the National Register of Historic Places which was granted in 1972. One fact is clear, howeverâ€”John Roseberry did not build the house that bears his name.
The National Register application notes that John Roseberry, Sr. purchased the land on August 14, 1787 at a sheriff’s sale. Cummins says Roseberry settled in the Phillipsburg area about 1740, and that he owned some 1,500 acres. Cummins notes that in 1772 the Coxe heirs sold 200 acres to John Roseberry and 228 acres to his brother Michael Roseberry. (I cannot confirm any of those assertions.) John Roseberry’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Anderson, who inherited the property from her father (Joseph Roseberry) several times remarked that her family did not erect the house; that they purchased the property with the house already on it. Other evidence suggests the building was erected before 1780, perhaps as early as 1750. The published record, as well as a survey done in 1948 shows a break in the chain of ownership between 1715 when Col. Daniel Coxe of Trenton held title to 1,250 acres of land in the immediate area, and the sheriff’s sale of 1787. Who, then, built the house?
The building is a very large Georgian house built of rough-faced quarried limestone. Its proportions are exceptional, indicating an experienced master builder, perhaps even an architect was involved in its design. Such a stylish residence would not have been out of place in Elizabeth or Morristown in the 1760s, but in Phillipsburg it would certainly have been considered a mansion. One of the several curious aspects of the question is that we have found no references to it in contemporary accounts.
Among the inferences we can draw are that the house was erected by someone with moneyâ€”not a simple local farmer growing wheat and corn for the market. Another inference that seems reasonable is that the individual was a person of some culture who was part of a social and political stratum that knew and expected a residence to exhibit a certain level of taste and refinement, even if erected in the country. That would seem to rule out most, but not all, the local families. (The Phillips and Feit families, for example, owned substantial acreage and both came with pedigrees that suggests the possibility of social contact with the elite of the region.) A third inference that suggests itselfâ€”one corroborated by the public recordâ€”is that the sheriff’s sale was of land that had been confiscated from loyalists during the Revolution. Daniel Coxe III was one of those loyalists whose land was taken and sold, and so was his brother-in-law, John Tabor Kempe.
Kempe was Attorney General for New York from 1759 to 1776. In the unrest in New York following the battle at Bunker Hill, he fled with other crown officials to the safety of a British ship in the harbor. Kempe married Grace Coxe, granddaughter of Col. Daniel Coxe in 1766. She inherited at least two parcels of lands totaling several hundred acres in and near Phillipsburg, and shortly after her marriage, those parcels were transferred to Kempe. These properties were confiscated in 1778, and sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1787 or 1789. Together with his property in New York and Vermont, and some claims to land in the Carolinas, he was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in New York. He corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, and his clients included numerous members of the most illustrious families of New Jersey.
Who built the Roseberry homesteadâ€”John Tabor Kempe is the most likely candidate. There are still a number of ambiguities to be resolved, and even if we solve the land ownership question in his favor (which is likely) there is still the matter of construction of the house, and its occupants between 1776 and 1787. On those issues, we are not much closer to an answer. If Kempe had it built, it would date between 1766 ,when he married Grace Coxe, and 1775, when political unrest would have made it imprudent in the highest degree for a loyalist to invest in a potentially hostile country.
I am hoping the records of the trial or the sheriff’s sale will provide an answer to the question, and perhaps we shall find something in his papers at the New York Historical Societyâ€”he was reputed to be meticulous in his note-taking and record-keeping. If we can determine that he was, indeed, the builder, then we have a connection between the Roseberry homestead and a very significant figure, albeit a loyalist, at the time of the Revolution. Not incidentally, Grace Coxe was captured by patriots and exchanged for the wife of Francis Lewis, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And there is one more connection of interestâ€”when his widow sued to recover the property in 1808, the opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court denying her claim was written by John Marshall.
So the Roseberry homestead may have a great deal more significance than simply being the oldest building in Phillipsburg; it might well be emblematic of the region’s significant loyalist sentiment in the early days of the Revolution.
If you are interested in more information about this question, here’s a three-page PDF file who-built-the-roseberry-house that explores the chronology of purchases and the reasoning supporting our belief in Kempe’s responsibility for the house.