Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Account of the Revolutionary War Battle of Westchester Creek, Leading Up to the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776

The Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 during the early months of the Revolutionary War was a seminal event in the history of Pelham.  That battle, of course, was preceded by a host of troop movements and a skirmish on nearby Throgg's Neck on October 12, 1776.  That skirmish often is referenced as the "Battle of Westchester" since it occurred at the causeway between Throgg's Neck and the mainland where the Village of Westchester stood. 

I have written frequently about the Battle of Pelham.  A list of numerous such examples appears at the end of today's Historic Pelham Blog posting.

I have written less frequently about the events in the week before the Battle of Pelham including the Battle of Westchester.  Today's posting transcribes a lovely article published in 1915 that recounts not only the events of the battle, but also a number of the legends and traditions surrounding that battle.

Detail from the 1776 Charles Blaskowitz Map Depicting
Events Leading Up to and Including the Battle of Westchester.
Source:  Library of Congress American Memory Collection,
Digital Image of Blaskowitz, Charles, A Survey of Frog's Neck and the
Rout[e] of the British Army to the 24th of October 1776, Under
the Command of His Excellency the Honorable William Howe,
General and Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Forces,
&ca, &ca, &ca. (1776).

"Marching to the Battle of Westchester Creek.
Retracing the Steps of British and American Armies -- How Charity Ferris Helped Save the Day for the Americans -- Reviewing Revolutionary History.

The following article taken from The New York Times of July fourth and sent to Mrs. John H. Magee of the town of Conesus relates to her great grandparents on her father's side, her son James Ferris Magee having the name from four generations.  The second house mentioned on the Middletown road was where she resided at the time of her marriage and was a member of St. Peter's church spoken of.  The first Ferris came from England and settled in Boston.  One of his sons went from there to Connecticut and then to Westchester, he being the grandfather of the James Ferris of the Revolutionary times.  Originally they are French.

Think of the women who played their parts in our great war for independence!  How their ghosts come trooping, fair and loyal, and gallant and liberty-loving!  All the way from grimy, freckled, saucy Molly Pitcher, face to face with the enemy in the very front of Monmouth's battlefield, to the subtle, aristocratic Mrs. Lindley Murray of Murray Hill, with her suave entertainment of cake and wine, beguiling the unwary British officers -- what a company they are, as varied as the mingled throngs of the American soldiers themselves.

Some of them are well known to our national tradition.  But among the valiant ones whose names are less familiar in history is Charity Ferris.  Her memory haunts a rare old mansion which stands today within the limits of our own Greater New York, and her story is inseparably linked with that of the battle of Westchester Creek.

The first bright afternoon which comes your way is just the afternoon for a little landmark trip -- a mere triplet, but a delightful one -- to the old, old village of Westchester, of which many a Manhattanite knows just about as much as he knows of an Alaskan Indian hamlet.

It is a vague region, somewhere up in the Bronx -- to be sure, we have passed through it many a time -- but how many of us can point out the spot where the battle centered?  Who can trace the landing and advance of the confident Lord Howe?  Who remembers the gallantry of Heath and Hand, our loyal officers?  Oh, these memories must be taken down from the shelf, and shaken and brushed and hung in the sun, or they will ere long be moth-eaten memories indeed!

If rare good fortune should be yours you might possibly be able to visit Throgs Neck with a permit to go on the Government boat which leaves Pier 12, East River, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.  It sails for Fort Totten, on Long Island's north shore; not so long ago it used to cross from Fort Totten to Fort Schuyler at the tip of Throgs Neck, and there its passengers might land near where the British landed on that eventful 12th of October, 1776.  But the boat now seldom visits the disused Fort Schuyler and the traveler must probably content himself with an approach by land.  

Otherwise, take the Bronx Park Subway to the 177th street station, and there you will find a trolley which will carry you directly to the centre of Westchester village.  The entire time from downtown New York is about one hour.

If you are ready to enjoy several miles of glorious rambling over this old-time district then start betimes in the morning and give a whole summer day to the pilgrimage.  But if a 'livery righ' is to be your conveyance, or if you omit the long walk to the end of the Neck, then an afternoon will be ample time to taste both the history and the snappy air of this Bronx section.

Leaving the trolley you see just beyond the old causeway.  It is known to the native as 'the old bridge,' near it passes a new road, crossing Westchester Creek just above, but the original one remains for the history-lover to see.

Here Gen. Wm. Heath and his officers played their valorous part.  Washington perceived, early in October, 1776, that British plans was to land on the north Shore of the Sound and cut off the Americans in the rear, and he chose Heath to ward off the advance in Westchester.

He had made a wise choice.  Heath was from Roxbury, Mass., of sturdy New England stock.  His ability had advanced him to the rank of Major General, and although he was not favored by fortune with dramatic opportunities, he did much for the liberty of his country.  

In 'Heath's Memoirs' we read that as early as Oct. 3, the General made an inspection of the causeway and its surroundings with a view to checking the British.  A tide-mill stood beside it; as the western end of the causeway, the side of the American army, was a range of cordwood, which was 'as advantageously situated' to cover a party to defend the pass as if constructed for the very purpose.

Here, then, lay the Americans' chance to wreck the British plans.  That little Westchester creek was to aid and abet them.  It marked a line of defense, Providentially arranged for 'impertinent rebels,' as the British styled them, and these same rebels did not mean to lose the advantage.

Orders were accordingly given to Col. Hand that he choose a subaltern officer of ability, and twenty-five picked men, and assign them this pass, 'as their alarm post at all times.'  If the British landed, as was expected, at Throgs Pint, at the end of the peninsula, the planks of the bridge were to be torn up and, in case of absolute necessity, the mills was to be burned.

And now, if you're ready for a long and glorious tramp on one of the best roads anywhere near Manhattan, go down to the end of the Neck to meet the British upon their arrival.  The Throgs Neck trolley will carry you as far as Eastern Boulevard, but beyond that point you must foot it between green, wind-swept meadows, past luxurious country estates, under giant trees which have seen history unfold under their branches.  The walk out to Fort Schuyler is a treat that no pedestrian ought to miss.  The old fortifications are worth the trip in themselves -- huge stone walls, old guns, the lighthouse, the deserted parade ground of other years.

Near the end of the Neck stretches the great Haveymeyer estate.  It was here, on this very ground, that the British made their aggressive landing on the morning of Oct. 12.  Howe had determined to break up the passivity of the conditions, which made him restless.  He had given Earl Perry command to take charge of New York, and he himself had taken eighty or ninety floatboats, loaded them with men, protected them with several ships of war, and started Soundward, sailing through Hell Gate and East river.  On the way his fleet had merrily shelled a stone farmhouse which used to stand beside the water on Clason's Point.  The poor little farmhouse fell, but some of its immortal stones are now built into the walls of Clason's Point Inn.

We have records to the effect that it was about 9 in the morning when Howe arrived here and landed where you stand, on the Havemeyer property.  Likewise we have records that the Ferris family, in their fine mansion near the upper end of the Neck, were breakfasting.  Hence we see that they were a family of luxurious habits for that period, when 'early-to-bed-early to rise' customs were building the substantial foundation of our nation.  

This long point of land, thrusting a gaunt finger out into the blue waters of the Sound, looked to Howe, no doubt, a simple solution of his problem.  All he had to do was to march with his ninety boatloads of redcoats straight up the long Neck and on into Westchester county.  As easy as rolling off a log!  To be sure, the rebels might pepper his troops a bit -- one could hardly expect them to be sleeping -- but what of a trifle like that?

That he might have a suitable headquarters while completing his occupancy of Throg's Neck, the British General set out for the house of Jas. Ferris.  

Now when you have completed your inspection of his landing place you, too, may betake yourself to the self-same mansion.  The Ferris family has long since vanished from it, but the house is in excellent preservation today, one of the finest of our historical dwellings.

It may be reached by retracing those three miles of beautiful Fort Schuyler road to Eastern Boulevard, and continuing a bit further up the Neck to Bradford avenue.  Turn to your right -- eastward, in a general direction -- and this street, continued by a crosscut through a field, will lead you to the house.  It is almost obscured by the high hedge surrounding it, but a glimpse of its yellowish walls and dark green, old-time shutters identifies it.  It is owned by the Ellis family, the elder Mrs. Ellis having lived here; at present it is occupied by the Rollins family, and by their name it is best known to the neighbors.  It is within the grounds of the Westchester Country Club.

Look at this ample, restful old colonial dwelling and picture the Ferris family at their breakfast that October morning.  Beyond their windows stretched a broad lawn, beyond that; to the east, blue glimpses of the Sound's waters could be caught just as they are today.  The same broad-limbed trees shaded the hospitable doorway, the shingled walls.  In the seventeen hundreds the house was much isolated.

They were fairly launched on the morning meal when the report of a gun in the British flagship sounded, announcing the disembarkation of the troops at the point.  At once came another report; the reply was made by the British shipping which lay anchored  in the waters toward City Island.  On the instant excitement reigned in the quiet homestead.

Lord Howe and his officers arrived at the door, arrogantly demanding full occupancy.  In fact, to make sure that the Americans understood what British domination was, one of the officers rode horseback directly through the length of the hall, in at the front door and out at the back.  For many years the scars made by hoofs on the floor were distinctly visible, but repairs in the floor have at last obliterated them.  Nevertheless, you can see the same hall today and follow precisely the arrogant ride of the officer, past the little white stair-railing of Colonial pattern.

Tradition has it yet that Charity Ferris saved the house from a bombardment by remaining on the veranda, walking back and forth, until the British vessels lying outside gave up their aim.  The presence of mind of this remarkable woman is shown in more ways than one.  During the occupancy of the house she contrived to get her daughters out of harm's way, sending a negro slave with them, to row them across the Sound in the night.  A member of the Floyd family, their uncle, received them in safety.  

Nor did her cleverness confine itself to her own household.  She remained at home during the invasion, cooking for the British officers, and she offered them a colored boy, one of her slaves, to wait upon their table.  They readily accepted this service, never dreaming that Mrs. Ferris had carefully instructed this boy to listen to every word the Englishmen uttered, to commit their words to memory, and to be ready to repeat them exactly.  So faithfully did he accomplish this feat that Mrs. Ferris soon found herself in possession of important secrets.

She now told the officers that this same boy would willingly perform errands for them in the village, and he was sent back and forth to wait upon their every whim.  They were easily caught in her clever net.  Not a trip did the boy make to the village without turning over a message to American officers there, which messages were promptly transmitted to Washington.

Valuable secrets of the British were thus laid bare to the Americans by Charity Ferris' fearless efforts.  It is said that Lord Howe could never cease wondering how Washington understood his plan so thoroughly.

Charity's husband, Jas. Ferris, was captured later on by the enemy and was so long held in the old Sugar House Prison of New York that his health was permanently wrecked and he lived only a short time after his release.  

The Ferris property covered vast tracts of land hereabout.  The grandfather of this James was the first James, one of the ten promoters of Throgs Neck.  He was descended from the house of Feriers, whose first member in England obtained large grants of English land from the Conqueror.  Many branches of the family spread through the Westchester region, and another old house once belonging to them can be seen today.

Upon leaving the house occupied by Howe, go out through the main entrance of the Country Club grounds, leading into Country Club Avenue.  This route will give you a bit of a walk and take you through some of the loveliest land anywhere to be found.  Delightful homes are scattered over the flawlessly groomed land.  Nature here is dressed in her best Sunday-go-to-meeting garb the whole week through.  

You arrive at Middleton road.  Follow this toward the village, and close to it, on Mayflower Avenue, you will find the other Ferris house with large pillars.  It is unoccupied and used only by a moving picture firm, a fine background for old-time romances.

And now to the village centre once more and the causeway.  Toward it marched Lord Howe, while the picked Americans awaited him and another group too, at the head of the creek.  At a given signal the planks of the bridge were taken up, and Howe arrived to find himself upon an island.

He raged furiously and moved toward the head of the creek, there to be abruptly checked again.  The Americans opened fire upon his troops at the causeway.  They were sheltered by the tide-mill, and from this point they poured forth their heavy rifle fire upon the British.  Nowhere could the enemy force a way past the determined patriots.

Howe retreated and the day was won.  So enraged was the British General that he summoned his guides before a board of officers and charged them with having deceived him, for he believed that they had landed him upon an island.  How dared they?, he demanded, striking the table with a resounding blow with his sword.  Although the situation was explained to him he still raged, and he vowed he would hang every man of them unless they conducted him safely from the trap he was in.  At last the British retreat was completed by boats, which carried the forces on to Pell's Point.

Before you leave the village, which, by the way, is the oldest in all Westchester county, you must glance at the old village store, just west of the causeway.  Across the causeway is a hill occupied by the Presbyterian church, the same spot where the British set up a breastwork to defend themselves in that fight of '76.

For old times' sake you may want to walk out the Pelham Road a little way, or take the Pelham Bay Park trolley in that direction, to see what remains of the famous 'Spy Oak.'  It is a tragedy to see this monarch among trees decapitated now; its wonderful height, gained proudly in its life of centuries, has been hewn so that its old friends almost weep at the sight.  It is said to measure 30 feet in girth at the ground where its roots spread.

A British spy, caught by vigilant Americans, was hanged to its branches, says tradition; and furthermore, strange wailings of that British ghost were said to be audible after dusk. 
Walking west from the village square a short distance you come to old St. Peter's church, the fourth house of worship erected on this site.  In its yard are headstones dating back as far as 1713.  Upon the tombstone of Philip Honeywell, who was active during the Revolution, this inscription was placed:

Look on this stone and you will find
My journey's o'er, and yours behind; 
Think, then, before you turn away,
That yours may end before this day.

This was one of the early churches upon which Queen Anne bestowed gifts.  In her day its chime of bells was given it.  The old bells have since been melted and made into a new one which rings Sabbath day pilgrims to service as of old.

Across the street stands the parish house.  The building, says Dr. Clendenin the rector, was the one used for two weeks as the Colonial capitol of the state of New York when an epidemic of fever prompted a sudden move.

A few blocks further west you come upon the picturesque rectory, standing quite alone on a green knoll.  Its surrounding land was part of the 'ancient glebe' given by the town in 1703.  Records state that it was found necessary to lay out parsonage lands, and twenty acres were made up by taking 'four acres where Edward Collier's old lot was,' 'the eight acre division of land in the old lot fronting the sheep pasture,' and so on.

From 1683 to 1759 Westchester was the shire town.  The village was settled in 1642 by Throckmorton, (for whom Throgs Neck was named,) who arrived from Massachusetts with a group drives thence along with Roger Williams.  They procured permission to make their homes at Westchester, settling thirty-five families there.  The Dutch had called the spot Vredeland, meaning Land of Peace, and perhaps the name had something to do with attracting these weary worshipers."

Source:  Marching to the Battle of Wetchester Creek, The Dansville Express [New York], Oct. 14, 1915, Vol. 51, No. 17, p. 1, cols. 5-7.
*          *          *          *          *
I have written extensively about the Battle of Pelham fought on October 18, 1776.  See, for example, the following 30 articles:

Bell, Blake A., The Battle of Pelham: October 18, 1776, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 41, Oct. 15, 2004, p. 10, col. 1.

Mon., May 19, 2014: 
Biography of British Officer Who Fought in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Bell, Blake, History of the Village of Pelham:  Revolutionary War, HistoricPelham.com Archive (visited May 9, 2014).

Mon., Feb. 28, 2005:  Glover's Rock on Orchard Beach Road Does Not Mark the Site of the Battle of Pelham.

Mon., Apr. 18, 2005:  Restored Battle of Pelham Memorial Plaque Is Unveiled at Glover Field.

Fri., May 27, 2005:  1776, A New Book By Pulitzer Prize Winner David McCullough, Touches on the Battle of Pelham.

Thu., Jul. 14, 2005:  Pelham's 1926 Pageant Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Pelham.

Wed., Oct. 26, 2005:  Remnants of the Battlefield on Which the Battle of Pelham Was Fought on October 18, 1776

Fri., May 19, 2006:  Possible Remains of a Soldier Killed in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Found in 1921.

Fri., Aug. 11, 2006:  Article by William Abbatt on the Battle of Pelham Published in 1910.

Thu., Sep. 21, 2006:  A Paper Addressing the Battle of Pelham, Among Other Things, Presented in 1903.

Mon., Oct. 30, 2006:  Brief Biographical Data About Sir Thomas Musgrave, British Lieutenant Colonel Wounded at the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Wed., Nov. 1, 2006:  Two British Military Unit Histories that Note Participation in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Tue., Jan. 16, 2007:  Brief Biography of British Officer Who Served During the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Fri., Feb. 09, 2007:  Extract of October 23, 1776 Letter Describing British Troops in Eastchester After the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Mon., Feb. 12, 2007:  Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site Opens New Exhibition:  "Overlooked Hero:  John Glover and the American Revolution."

Thu., Jan. 18, 2007:  Three More British Military Unit Histories that Note Participation in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Mon., Jul. 16, 2007:  Mention of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 in Revolutionary War Diary of David How.

Tue., Jul. 17, 2007:  Mention of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 in Writings of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Aide-de-Camp to British General Clinton

Wed., Jul. 18, 2007:  Another British Military Unit History that Notes Participation in the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776

Tue., Aug. 7, 2007:  An Account of the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776 Contained in the McDonald Papers Published in 1926.

Wed., Aug. 8, 2007:  A Description of an Eyewitness Account of the Interior of St. Paul's Church in Eastchester During the Revolutionary War.

Thu., Sep. 6, 2007:  Information About St. Paul's Church, the Battle of Pelham and Other Revolutionary War Events Near Pelham Contained in an Account Published in 1940.

Mon., Oct. 8, 2007:  American Troops Who Guarded Pelham's Shores in October 1776.

Fri., Oct. 12, 2007:  Images of The Lord Howe Chestnut that Once Stood in the Manor of Pelham.

Fri., Oct. 27, 2006:  Orders Issued by British Major General The Honourable William Howe While Encamped in Pelham After the Battle of Pelham on October 18, 1776.

Thu., Jan. 22, 2009:  Another Brief Biography of Sir Thomas Musgrave, a British Officer Wounded at the Battle of Pelham on October 18 1776.

Wed., Feb. 17, 2010:  British Report on Killed, Wounded and Missing Soldiers During the Period the Battle of Pelham Was Fought on October 18, 1776.

Fri., Apr. 23, 2010:  Charles Blaskowitz, Surveyor Who Created Important Map Reflecting the Battle of Pelham.

Thu., Feb. 06, 2014:  A Description of the Revolutionary War Battle of Pelham Published in 1926 for the Sesquicentennial Celebration.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home