Princeton’s First Family

The Stocktons, 1900s, dressed as their Colonial-era ancestors.

Every clan has its stories. The Stocktons’ take us from the founding of our nation to the arts and culture of today.

By Ilene Dube | Family photos courtesy of Lisa Stockton Wilson

On a Zoom call in early December, when the end-of-the-year light was ebbing low, Lisa Stockton Wilson brought a spark to my computer screen. The actress, goth opera singer, composer, and independent filmmaker was clad in a black Moroccan tunic with a white lacy placket and a turban atop her blond pageboy. Images on her website, showcasing both her music and film careers, present her in everything from frilly Victorian gowns to a velvet dress suggestive of the silent film era.

“I have all these costumes from my performances and like to wear them around the house,” says Wilson. “We Stocktons like to get dressed up.”

Wilson — her stage name is Lisa Hammer — is a descendant of Richard Stockton (1730-1781), signer of the Declaration of Independence. Along with his wife Annis Boudinot Stockton (1736-1801), one of the first published female poets in the U.S., Stockton built a residence and farm in Princeton. They named it “Morven,” from the mythical Scottish kingdom of Fingal. (In recent years Morven has been turned into a museum.)

“Grandma Nannie always said, ‘don’t leave the house without lipstick,’” Wilson continues. “Grandma Nannie” was Anne Strobhar Stockton, married to Bayard Stockton III. The story goes that if she used her initials to monogram her towels, it would not look proper and thus she changed Anne to Nannie.

Although Wilson grew up in Massachusetts, she summered in Princeton with Grandma Nannie, where the attic was filled with the kind of period costumes children of a certain passion love to dress up in. Among the accoutrements, Wilson remembers the sword that belonged to Commodore Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866), now on display in a case at Morven Museum & Garden.
“Lisa was the oldest of the grandchildren, and she would write a play and get everyone in costume to enact it,” says Marty Stockton, Wilson’s aunt and the daughter of Nannie and Bayard III, from her office at Stockton Real Estate in Princeton, the firm founded by her mother.

Nannie Stockton in front of Stockton Real Estate.

Voices from the Past

While a student — Wilson earned a bachelor’s in filmmaking from Emerson College — she restored turn-of-the-century footage recovered from a family member’s basement. “The original was so old and cracked that it broke in the projector,” Wilson recounts from her home in Riverdale, New York. The film, about Morven history, is shown on a loop in the first floor galleries at Morven Museum & Garden and confirms Wilson’s remarks that the family did indeed love to dress up.

Morven During the Revolution: A Story as Told by Bayard Stockton to his Great Nephew, was first created in 1926. Helen Hamilton Shields Stockton (1860-1949), the second wife of Bayard Stockton (1853-1928), had the film made for what she believed to be Morven’s 225th anniversary and, according to museum literature, the production sums up the early 20th century understanding of the property’s history. Morven Museum acknowledges that aspects of the film, such as actors in black face, are racist, and that while Richard Stockton built Morven in the 1750s, the land had belonged to the Lenni-Lenape.

Frequenters to Morven will recognize architectural details in the movie. The costumes were based on ancestral portraits painted by John Singleton Copley and Charles Wilson Peale. The silent film begins with a title card about Richard Stockton the Settler (1652-1709, father of Richard the Signer) getting the deed for the land for Morven from William Penn circa 1700.

During the Battle of Princeton, we see the family packing up to leave Morven as British General Cornwallis and his troops take it as headquarters. Men in tricornered hats and white wigs are shown yucking it up over libations in steins. When they learn that the battle is not going well for their side, they ransack the property. Richard Stockton was imprisoned and tortured, and subsequently developed cancer and died four years later.

Lisa Stockton Wilson with her husband, Levi Wilson.

A Love Story Retold

Wilson made a whimsical coda to the film, toning it a vintage-spoofing sepia and fabricating a character, a present-day Stockton heir searching the Gothic buildings of Princeton University for the silver her ancestors allegedly buried during their flight. As this character digs in the dirt at Morven, interns from Isles Youth Institute are shown laughing at the ridiculousness of her plight.

Lisa and her husband, Levi Wilson, who is also her partner in film production, are working on a screenplay about Richard and Annis. “Descended from French Huguenots, Annis was an intellectual and a free spirit,” Wilson says admiringly of her ancestor. “It was love at first sight when she met Richard. They were said to be perfectly matched in spirit, kindness, and intellect, and both were quite handsome. When he died, she was haunted by him and thought she saw him coming down the path to Morven.” Wilson intends to tell the story through Annis’ own words, using her poetry:

And Still as my guardian he waits
I See him through Yon Lucid Cloud
He passes through the crystalline gates
My walk from all danger to shroud
In beauty celestial array’d
With youth Ever blooming and new
No more of the tyrant afraid
His smileing appears to my view
In accents as gentle and soft
as dewdrops descending in May
He bears my Sunk Spirit aloft
And points to the regions of day.

After the property was looted, burned, and defaced by the British, Annis returned to Morven and rescued what she could of the house and papers, and continued on after her husband’s death, raising their six children and hosting the likes of General George, to whom she wrote odes, and Martha Washington.

Morven Leaves the Family

The Stockton family resided at Morven through the early 20th century before the property was leased to General Robert Wood Johnson by Helen Hamilton Shields Stockton, following the death of her husband Bayard.

“We have a copy of the (1928) Johnson lease for $7,500 annually, which would make it $625 a month, fully furnished,” says Morven Museum Executive Director Jill Barry. “Helen had it written into the lease that (Johnson) would pay all the taxes and make at least $5,000 worth of improvements, not including, but allowing, a tennis or squash court be built. He also had to keep up the garden, with any changes to be approved by Helen in advance.”

After the Johnsons left, Helen sold the property to Governor Walter Edge stipulating that Morven become the “Executive Mansion for the use of successive governors of the state of New Jersey, or if its use as such … should for any reason become inappropriate or be abandoned, then for the uses of a state museum or historic site.” Governor Edge later sold it to the state of New Jersey for $1.

“Quiet Evening at Bayard’s,” by Dudley Morris.

Stockton Legacy

Richard Stockton the Second (with a catch) was assistant attorney general of New Jersey.

“Aunt Roberta” — sister to Bayard III — told many family stories that Lisa and Marty cherish. Among Marty’s favorite ancestors was Richard Stockton (1824-1876) who served as president of the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company. “I think about him every day when I walk on the D&R Canal towpath,” she says. Her grandfather Richard Stockton (1885-1944), grandson of the above-named Richard, was New Jersey assistant district attorney and served on the prosecution side in the Lindbergh trial; family lore has it that he died young (age 59) because of the stress.

The wilder side of the Stockton family can be seen in a Dudley Morris painting, “Quiet Evening at Bayard’s,” hanging in Marty Stockton’s home. Her family lived on Van Dyke Road and her father Bayard III, who coached football for Princeton University, turned the barn on their property into a party space with a dance floor, a bar, and a champagne fountain. In the painting, which dates from the 1940s, a woman is dancing on a liquor-strewn table, one shoe on and one shoe off, as a man, holding her other shoe, watches. Another man is being pulled from the floor under the table, and a man with a rather large belly reclines on the lap of a woman who is emptying a bottle into his mouth. A robust man in a kilt holds a skinny man up by the collar of his jacket as a basketball makes its way toward a hoop on the wall.

Marty demurs from identifying any of these revelers, except for her parents — her mother carries her infant siblings in a papoose on her back, while her father sits reading a book. The artist, too, can be seen amid the fray, working on his canvas.

Bayard III owned Cousins Liquor Store in Princeton, and he and his sister Roberta would travel to France to sample the wines. Princeton Reunions was a major client, according to Marty, and the store made a delivery to Albert Einstein’s house every day, she says (a story she heard from the delivery man). Bayard made a good amount of money from uranium mining in the 1940s, and in 1958 he sold the liquor store and left his family for the Bahamas, where he established a resort. “A hurricane would come along every few years and he’d have to rebuild it. It was his mid-life crisis,” says Marty.

Stockton Reunion, 1980s.

The Name Continues

The Stocktons of yore continue to intrigue to this day. Retired Princeton High School history teacher John Baxter, who has lectured about Richard Stockton at Morven, is at work on two books, “one a history, the second historical fiction,” says Baxter. The non-fiction book focuses on the life of Richard Stockton during the American Revolution. “The historical fiction is broader in scope, looking at the Stocktons from the Revolution to the Civil War, from Richard the Signer to his great-grandsons.” Like many writers in the throes of it, Baxter is reluctant to reveal too much.

“I am drawn to creative nonfiction as a way of putting forth a narrative that explores possible answers when no complete record exists,” he says. “The historian in me wants to keep searching for the most complete record.

“In certain important respects, I see the Stocktons of the 1765 -1870 period as a quintessential American family, touched by the various issues that shaped the nation, but also actively involved in ways that make the family extraordinary.”

Extraordinary indeed, begetting attorneys general and U.S. senators. The name Stockton has been applied generously. Four U.S. Navy ships have been named USS Stockton in honor of Robert Field Stockton, as have the cities of Stockton, California; Stockton, Missouri; Fort Stockton, Texas; and the borough of Stockton, New Jersey.

Stockton University is named for Richard the Signer. Stockton Street in Princeton is the address for, among others, Morven Museum & Garden. And there’s even the Richard Stockton rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, at mile 58 near Hamilton.

Nannie and Bayard Stockton dining.

Forgotten Stocktons Remembered

But you don’t have to go to a rest stop to learn about the family. Morven, established as a museum after four decades as governors’ residence, has devoted its first floor galleries to the history of the family. The gallery was recently re-installed to include important information about enslaved people who lived in the mansion, as well as the sometimes racist proclivities of its residents. “As wealthy lawyers, the first two generations of Stocktons at Morven owned enslaved men, women, and children,” says the museum’s website.

When Marcus Marsh, born into slavery at Morven in 1765, was separated from his mother, Annis Stockton served as his wet nurse. She ultimately freed Marcus to live and work with her son-in-law Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, whom she wrote a letter to stating that she “almost brought up” Marcus like a son.

Upon the gallery’s reinstallation, Curator and Deputy Director Elizabeth Allan said of this history “we are not celebrating it but want to acknowledge it, rather than whitewash it. It’s definitely a shock.”

Betsey Stockton (1798-1865) was born to a woman enslaved in the household of the Commodore. Her father was likely white, identity unknown. As a young child Betsey was taken from her mother and placed in the Philadelphia household of the Commodore’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Ashbel Green, a Princeton University president in the early 1800s. (The University has recently named a garden fronting on Nassau Street for Betsey Stockton as part of a campus initiative to recognize and honor a more inclusive set of people who make up the University’s history.)

After emancipation, Betsey became the first African American and first unmarried female missionary to Hawaii and became a founder of the First Presbyterian Church of Colour of Princeton, now known as Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, and the segregated school for Black children.

Stocktons, c 1930.

Family Members Find Morven

In 2006, Morven exhibited “Capturing the Spirit: Virginia Snedeker and the American Scene.” Snedeker (1909-2000), an urban realist who, among other things, painted covers for The New Yorker and a post office mural, was the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Richard and Annis (her mother was also an Annis). Her oeuvre was brought to the attention of Morven by Snedeker’s son, Robert, and brother, Richard (Dick) of West Windsor (1927-2020). Retired from a career in aeronautical engineering (he earned his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University) with five U.S. patents, Dick was a devoted docent at Morven and volunteered his fine woodworking skills to build furniture. Something of a Renaissance man, his volunteer leadership extended to the West Windsor Arts Council where he was a founding board member. He painted in the shadows of his more well-known sister, but a painting in the permanent collection of the arts council is evidence of his prodigious talents as a visual artist.

Morven continues to attract visitors from Stockton family members, both local and out of town. Debi Lampert-Rudman, curator of education and public programs, recounts a time when a family came in with a boy who might have been 8 or 9 years old. “He was glued to the wall in the Garden Room, which lists all the inhabitants (of Morven). It’s rare for a young child to want to stare at a list of names, but his name was on the wall and that fascinated him. He was named for (an ancestor) he had no idea about until coming to Morven.”