The 1960’s British Invasion brought us The Beatles.
The 1770’s version bombed Piermont and the Nyacks.
by John Patrick Schutz
Each year on July 4th, we get to watch a re-enactment of similar events that occurred two centuries ago in the Hudson Valley. Today, Independence Day fireworks bring us joy and celebration. In the 1770’s, they brought pain and dread.
When people think of The American Revolution and Rockland County’s role in it, they usually think of The Battle of Stony Point and the famous trial and execution in Tappan of Benedict Arnold’s accomplice, Major John André. Both locations are proud of the roles they played in the American War for Independence. Tappan and Stony Point aren’t the only locations in Rockland where history was made.
The Nyacks, for instance, were attacked by the Redcoats several times – not by land, but from British war vessels. The bombs bursting in air would come from the guns of warships firing on the homes, farms and businesses of the Hudson shoreline. In fact, the very first naval battle of the American Revolution would take place right near where the Tappan Zee Bridge crosses the Hudson today. Later, the first ever acknowledgement of the United States of America as a sovereign nation would come as the guns of a British warship fired a seventeen-gun salute to General Washington, not far off shore from Nyack’s Memorial Park.
When the Dutch handed over Nieuw Netherland to the British in 1664, not a single shot was fired. Bloodshed was prevented with some shrewd bargaining on both sides. The British very much wanted the finest deep water port in North America. All acknowledged that control of Hudson’s River would be the key to opening the continent’s interior. Nieuw Amsterdam and Pavonia (today’s lower Manhattan and Jersey City/Hoboken) were already very busy free ports, with goods leaving the New World and heading to many European, Caribbean and African ports without the hindrance of the English King’s royal tariffs and the restrictions of the northern New England ports or the southern Virginia port.
Nieuw Netherland’s polyglot population, not just Dutch, but Walloon, Prussian, French Huguenot, Free West Africans and Caribs, Jewish Refugees, Irish, Moorish, and yes, Englishmen and women fleeing New England’s puritan regime made the young city and the northern Hudson Valley the finest mercantile trading post and port on the continent. Although the Duke of York wanted Nyack’s port, he also wanted to keep it profitable and paying taxes to the British Crown rather than the Dutch Republic. When Peter Stuyvesant realized New Amsterdam and the other communities of Nieuw Netherland were under the control of English warships, he understood that if a deal was not made a massacre would ensue.
The deal between the Duke and the Dutchman was called the “Articles of Capitulation.” The Articles transferred ownership of the colony to England and allowed the colony, now separated into New York and New Jersey, to maintain rights to freedom of religion (unlike New England), their system of courts (innocent until proven guilty), women’s right to own property (two of the major colonies that were part of Nieuw Netherland had been founded by women), manumission of slaves, and their continued status as a free Atlantic port. The two middle colonies wound up with a host of freedoms that the other 11 would not have until many years later.
New York colonists were mostly ambivalent about their new found independence from the Dutch. For almost 100 years, the Crown had left them alone, demanding only their taxes in return. While New England chafed under more and more crippling taxes and civil rights infringements, life was better and easier in New York. Only when King George III and Parliament began chipping away at the Articles did the residents of Orangetown feel that resistance was necessary.
Jost Mabie’s Tavern, which is now the ’76 House Restaurant in Tappan, was the site of a famous meeting on July 4, 1774 where local leaders drafted the Orangetown Resolutions –- two years to the day before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. The document addressed the King and Parliament, stating:
We cannot see the late Acts of Parliament imposing duties upon us, and the Act for shutting up the port of Boston, without declaring our abhorrence of measures so unconstitutional and big with destruction… That we are in duty bound to use every just and lawful measure, to obtain a repeal of Acts, not only destructive to us, but which of course must distress thousands in the mother country… That it is our unanimous opinion, that the stopping all exportation and importation to and from Great Britain and the West Indies, would be the most effectual method to obtain a speedy repeal.
This was not a call to separate from England. Rather, it was a reminder to the British government that their recent behavior had been abusive and disruptive to the colonies. However, King George and Parliament did not like to be criticized; they declared the document treasonous and the residents of Orangetown rebellious and inciters of sedition, pushing most of the population of modern day Rockland County into the Patriots’ camp. A few notable citizens such as ferry mistress Molly Sneden remained Tory throughout the coming conflict.
Once the hostilities began, the British realized that New York and the Hudson Valley were critical to their efforts to break the rebellion and re-exert their rule in the 13 colonies. By holding the Hudson, the British commanders felt they had effectively driven a wedge between New England and the Southern colonies.On August 3, 1776 the American Galleys Whiting, Lady Washington, Crown and Spitfire engaged the British ships Phoenix, Roebuck and Tartar in the Tappan Zee in the first naval skirmish of the Revolution. The Patriots succeeded in keeping the Redcoats from heading further up the Hudson, and they were assisted by the local Shore Patrol on land, with shots fired from the gun emplacements in Tappan Slote (today’s Piermont), Nyack and Upper Nyack. The British retaliated with cannon fire which inflicted on several homes along the shore, but the enemy ships were prevented from proceeding up the Hudson. Among the homes that were damage were the Haring Estate in Piermont (now called the Onderdonk House), the Cornelison home (a large colonial home where Salisbury Point Co-ops now stand) and the Hazzard Home (near Hook Mountain).
By the fall of 1776, the British were not only in control of the New York City, they had also gained control of Harlem, Bloomingdale and the other communities on Upper Manhattan and Fort Lee on the Jersey side. The Patriots firmly controlled the Hudson above West Point, but there was a struggle to keep the lower Hudson from coming under British control. Hay reported that the ships attempting to land in Nyack were prevented by the men under his command. Severe damage was done to the house and barn of Philip Sarvent, and though only a few men were injured in this encounter, there were additional attacks on the area in 1777 and 1780. Hay’s own home would be targeted by the British from the river and destroyed in one of these raids. Major John Smith’s house in Upper Nyack was destroyed in a separate raid. Incursions were not limited to the sea. Land incursions came as well. Horrified Patriots discovered the body of Mrs. Garret Myers on her farm near Rockland Lake, left to rot with her face smashed after attempting to protect herself and her farm from British soldiers. Another young and attractive woman named Mrs. Snyder was raped and left for dead on her nearby farm by the Hook.
Nyack was also the headquarters of the Whaling Fleet, a fleet of rugged ships and equally rugged men, who supported the Patriots and vigorously defended the Nyacks from a multitude of British attempts at landings. Between the Whaling Fleet, the very successful and accurate shore patrol and swivel guns and the efforts of a resident sea-captain named Henry Palmer, the British fleet grew to loathe Nyack and fired at will at any visible structure whenever possible.
Captain Palmer owned a large vessel, which carried goods for one of the largest mercantile firms in New York City prior to the hostilities. He turned down a considerable amount of money to serve in the King’s Navy. In fact, on his subsequent sailings he transported two cargos of ammunition, arms and supplies “acquired” by the Sons of Liberty from British supply depots in the city, to the camp of the Continental Army. For fear of his family’s safety, he moved them from Manhattan to Broadway, in Upper Nyack, near Old Mountain Road. From there, he continued to harry the British and was responsible for preventing numerous attempted landings.
In early July 1777, Palmer and the shore guard fended off two boats, killing three men. In late July they returned, plotting to destroy a sloop moored between the Palmer home and the Sarvent home. Palmer, Sarvent and the Shore Guard prevented three attempts at landing, killing nine British men. Later that year, the Upper Nyack swivel gun emplacement, close to his property, enabled the Nyackers to capture two landing boats and send their crews to Tappan as prisoners of war. A warship becalmed off Nyack’s shore, and subsequently lost 36 men to Palmer’s crew of expert gunners. The British retaliated with a constant barrage anytime a ship meandered far enough up the river. By 1781, Nyack’s defenders had, in addition to the Shore Patrol and gun emplacements, six whaleboats and 42 men, led by Captain Palmer. Major John L. Smith, Captain Aury Smith, and Corporal Philip Sarvent and three of our Revolutionary War heroes were laid to permanent rest in the Old Palmer Burial Ground on Old Mountain Road in Upper Nyack.
The British finally surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1782, though due to distance, travel time and red tape the peace treaty would not be signed by all parties until the following year. In May of 1783 General Washington met with Sir Guy Carleton in Tappan to confer the final evacuation of British troops in New York, a trip that would ride them back to the riverfront at Onderdonk House on May 7. During the war, the British destroyed much of the Onderdonk House, which at the time was owned by our own representative at the Continental Congress, John Haring.
When Carlton and Washington met at the Onderdonk House, they were feted and feasted before the H.M.S. Perseverance fired its 17 gun salute to honor Washington and to acknowledge, for the first time, our new sovereign nation.
John Patrick Schutz is the Nyack Village Historian and a realtor for Rand Realty in Nyack, NY. You can read his blog posts at AtHomeInNyack.
- Tappantown Historical Society
- Stony Point Over UK in Weekend Battle (Again), 6/5/2012
- Mollie Sneden, Wikipedia
- The old burial grounds, Historical Society of the Nyacks / Nyack Villager 8/3/2003
- Stony Point Search For American Revolution Remains, 8/23/2012