[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of three articles that appeared in Volumes 19, 20, and 21 of the OCHS Journal between 1989 and 1991. These articles will be presented in several installments sections over the next few years.]
The Country and Precinct
It was a long valley through the Highlands of the Hudson, twenty-three miles in length from mouth to mouth, where the western Highlands merged into the Ramapos and into hills receding into the land of Goshen. In the annals of the War for American Independence, it was known as Smith's Clove. A New England officer on duty there in 1779 described it with the disdain only a Yankee of his day could reserve for detested Yorker country beyond the pale of New England civilization:
"... This is a most villainous country, Rough, Rocky and a bad climate. Rattle snakes & Robbers are plenty. It was an infringement on the rights of the wild Beasts for man ever to enter this Clove, it ought to have remained as Nature certainly intended for it for the sole use of snakes, adders, & Beasts of prey."
But the tall Virginian who commanded the Continental Army could be more dispassionate in appraising this same country when, hearing of an army presence at the Clove and taking into consideration the pragmatics of military expediency, he wrote: "... That pass is so exceedingly important that they should never be suffered to possess it."
George Washington's rationale was apt. N0 battle was ever fought in the Clove and it lay in a geographical backwater, but, despite robbers, snakes, and wild beasts, its very existence made it a vital adjunct of the Highland defense system. For eight years it served the army as a major communication link between New Jersey and the Highlands and mid-Hudson. The most important officers of the army traveled through it; Washington and his generals were there time and again either on station or in transit, and with them appeared the soldiery of thirteen states passing to and from the forts and camps and on the marches of the campaigns.
lts usefulness was also evident when winter ice or contrary winds blocked or hindered navigation of the Hudson River, fifteen miles to the east, and travel of necessity turned to land; and its natural advantages were such that in the 19th-century it was selected as the only direct route through the mountains (mountain-wise, they are only hills) for the pioneer Erie Railroad and in the 20th- for the New York Thruway.
Geography makes history. It has directed routes of exploration, paths of invasion, and determined the course of empires; and so, too, it was with the Hudson. From the very beginning of the American conflict in 1775, military and political strategists on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to realize that control of the river was an absolute necessity. It was the key to the continent. Campaigns were fought elsewhere, but to the Americans who tenaciously retained it against enemy counterthrusts the security of the Hudson and the Highland stronghold remained paramount.
It is not generally realized how important a role the topography of northern New Jersey and the Highlands played in the history of the nation. Many of Washington's most strategic manoeuvers were staged here, and their success was largely dependent upon the peculiar formation of the terrain. In this, Smith's Clove was a key element.