[Editor's Note: Richard J. Koke authored a series of five articles that appeared in Volumes 19 -23 of the OCHS Journal between 1990 and 1994. These articles will be presented in multiple sections over the next few years.]
A Time for Thieves and Villains
Chapter 4: Villains and Robbers
Smith's Clove had already taken on a troubled identity that summer. The vociferous espousal of the King's cause manifest when the royal troops entered Bergen in 1776 had become mute after the British were driven out, but in the third year of the war the region was still riven with the disaffected and a growing pattern of lawlessness. The rugged terrain alone made the country ideal for subterfuge activity. Tories and spies roamed the mountains. Enemy couriers on the line of communication between New York and Niagara made their devious ways across northern New Jersey into the Sussex mountains and through the Indian country along the Delaware and Susquehanna on the Orange and Ulster frontier. The theft of horses for sale to the enemy, already under way in 1777, increased, and with the abandonment of the Sidman fortifications and the absence of surveillance the way lay open for the easy passage of thieves through the corridor on their journeys in and out of New York.
MAP OF WEST POINT AND THE COUNTRY WEST OF THE HUDSON RIVER 1778-79. Detail of a manuscript map drawn by Robert Erskine (1735-1780), Geographer General of the Continental Army, owned in 1933 by Erskine Hewitt of Ringwood, New Jersey. An identical map is in the Division of Maps, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. This chart delineates the Highland country between the Hudson River, at the right, and the Clove Road, at the left, which passes through the Clove from Suffern's tavern above the New Jersey line to Murderers (now Moodna) Creek below New Windsor. Erskine shows the locations of six of the seven Revolutionary War taverns which stood along the Clove highway.
Even more worrisome was the infestation of robber gangs operating within a network of sympathizers and informers that extended from Bergen into Kakiat and through the Clove into the fringes of Ulster, who provided places of rendezvous and concealment and furnished guides for passage through the country.
The names of many associated with the so-called Clove gang have vanished with time, but the identities of others are known from depositions taken when some were apprehended, which identify among denizens “in the Clove” the names of Thomas Ward as a robber and Edward Roblin, Benjamin Kelley (Kelly), Powles Rettan (Retan), William Fitz Giles and one Boutin as “noted villains” who harbored robbers “in the Execution of their designs against the Inhabitants.” Roblin and Kelley, especially, were characterized as “chief informers” and their homes as “great rendezvous” for the thieves.
The neighborhood of Eagle Valley and the Sterling Iron Works on the twisting road running west from Slot's tavern was an especially virulent center for the predators – for among the harborers were noted James Babcock (Badcock) “at Sterling”, Nathaniel Biggs “near Sterling Iron Works”, Peter Nail (alias Neal) “on the road from Sterling to Clove” and Henry McManus (McMany) “who generally has his haunts at or near Sterling”. Of the many in Orange thus tainted, none has been longer remembered or given the status of legend than Claudius Smith, whose father had settled at Monroe at the western edge of the Clove in 1747 and whose taking ways were already evident in the summer of 1777 when he was imprisoned at Kingston for stealing oxen and ordered transferred to Goshen gaol.
Much of the plundering that went on and “distressing” of rebels by those termed by the British as “friends of government” was with the implicit knowledge and countenance of British headquarters and the officers and civilian authorities in New York. That the Clove was also well regarded as a useful espionage route was obvious in instructions recommended by British intelligence that spies sent into the country west of the Hudson should land at Fort Lee and proceed by way of Kakiat to Suffern's and then return if they secured important information; but otherwise, they should proceed through the Clove to West Point in search of intelligence from up the river and from Indians and tories. And they were, in addition, to bring in rebel newspapers and leave instructions with “one or two trust inhabitants on the Smith's Clove Communication” that whoever brought in “useful & Critical intelligence” would be well rewarded.
The absence of Woodhull's and other militia on the western frontier in the summer of seventy-eight or below the mountains during the British forage, left much of Cornwall precinct and lower Ulster unprotected, and within one week's time in early August three burglaries took place – first, on August 3 when “a number of armed men”, otherwise unidentified, broke into the home of Abimael Youngs at Wallkill after midnight and, “after using the most threatening language”, plundered him of silver and goldware, clothing, linens, bedding, personal belongings and papers, English gold guineas, Portuguese gold johannes and halfjohannes, about six hundred silver dollars and Continental and New York paper currency.
On the next day Claudius Smith and two of his sons robbed William Bell of a gun and two bayonets, a spear and a couple of swords, bills of credit and the copper head of a still; and four days later, about 1:00 in the morning, broke into the house of John Earl (Earle) at Highland Mills – either the innkeeper or his son of the same name - and robbed him of twenty copper pence, personal belongings, bills of credit, a saddle and bridle and some fifteen yards of homespun cloth.
The marauders quickly unsettled the region and forced Woodhull to withdraw militia from the frontier to apprehend “a Party of Robbers that has Plundered Several houses” (though one of the Ulster colonels caustically remarked that only one of Woodhull's men was actually on the ground). Search parties scoured the country and even the Haverstraw militia was called on to assist when Captain Garret Ackerson (Eckerson) and a detachment of two lieutenants and twenty-seven privates from Hay's regiment spent two fruitless days from August 12 to 14, as the old records said, in “pursuit of Claudius Smith and a party of tories and Robbers Expected to Come through the Mountains from Smith's Clove.”
A plea for protection even went to Colonel Malcom at West Point, who had taken command in July, and in consequence a party of troops was sent across the mountains to give the Clove a degree of security for a couple of months until Malcom found it necessary to order the soldiers back into garrison. Sometime that fall, one of the search parties luckily cornered Smith's eldest son, William, in the Clove and shot him in company of several other villains.
After that, things went of the extreme. On October 6, the Smith gang entered the Blooming Grove home of Captain Ebenezer Woodhull of the Cornwall militia while he was away and robbed it of a silver tankard and spoons, clothing, a pair of pistols and two horses and a saddle, and as they left swore to his wife they would soon have her husband, dead or alive. Two hours later, they forced their way into the home of Major Nathaniel Strong at Oxford and cold-bloodedly murdered him.
The “atrocious robberies” and the major's murder aroused a countryside in which rattlesnakes were a good part of the population. Abimael Youngs and fifty-one others petitioned the legislature that the Smiths' be declared outlaws, and on October 31 the governor issued a proclamation offering a reward for the apprehension of Claudius and his sons and twelve other culprits. With a price on his head, Smith managed to elude the searchers and made his way into the enemy lines and out onto Long Island from where the family had come.
Even more audacious was the robbery of the Ringwood home of the iron master and geographer Robert Erskine by an eleven-man gang led by John Mason that left New York in the late fall and made its way through Bergen to Slot's tavern in the lower Clove and turned west into the Eagle Valley Road leading both to Sterling and Ringwood. One of the band became “somewhat indisposed” on the way and stopped at the home of Edward Roblin while Mason and the remaining nine continued on and on November 11, between 9:00 and 10:00 at night, approached the darkened ironworks.
Erskine was with Washington in Dutchess and the only people in the main house and in the adjacent counting house were his wife and nephew, a friend, two clerks and two boys. According to a lengthy and chilling account left by Ebenezer Erskine, the nephew, the gang gained entrance on a pretext that they were a small party of Continentals on their way to Morristown and sought lodging, and when the door was unwittingly opened forced their way in with cocked pistols and overpowered and seized the men in his Majesty's name, so they said, with a warning that if they resisted they would blow their brains out, and Mason further cowed them with a threat that Goshen had been put to the torch and was in ashes, and the house was surrounded by forty men and that three hundred Indians were in the mountains whom he could bring down at the firing of a gun.
The raiders were in the buildings and on the grounds for three or four hours, and it was obvious they had been well informed beforehand of what was going on at Ringwood. Elizabeth Erskine was treated decently enough considering the terror of the occasion. Mason told her they had come to search for treasonable papers belonging to her husband and demanded all the letters she had received from him, and they were particularly interested in a chest of hard money belonging to Colonel Malcom that they had “certain information” was on the premises.
She handed Mason the last letter received from Robert, but repeatedly denied knowing anything about money belonging to Malcom, even though they threatened to burn the house; and all the while, they continued to plunder the building of plate, jewelry, personal property, papers and arms, but managed to miss 3,000 Continental dollars in a trunk that held Elizabeth's clothing. About 1:00 in the morning, locking the men in the cellar and taking the key and smashing the locks of muskets they did not take, the thieves departed with their plunder laden on six horses taken from the stable.
Several hours went by before half a dozen armed neighbors and a party of light horse from Pompton could gather at the ironworks and set off in pursuit, and when they reached Sidman's were informed that the thieves had also stopped and robbed the tavern but were gone at daybreak. The chase continued into Jersey but nothing more could be learned until the afternoon when the searchers found the six horses straggling on the road four miles below Suffern's on what is now the Franklin Turnpike at Ramsey. Mason and his men made their way back to New York, where Mason presented Erskine's rifle to Lord Cathcart and Mrs. Erskine's gold watch was given to Mayor David Mathews. As for Mason: twenty-seven months later he will die at the end of a hangman's rope on the bank of the Delaware.
Erskine arrived home three days after the robbery and a vigorous search for culprits continued for several weeks and a number of people were taken up on suspicion but to no effect. To safeguard against further attempts against the geographer and his maps, a sergeant's guard of twelve men was furnished him within days and was posted at the ironworks by Colonel Daniel Morgan, who was then in acting command of Woodford's brigade at Pompton.
The prevailing danger was further emphasized when fifty-seven inhabitants “of Orange County in Smith's Clove” petitioned Governor Clinton on November 14, two days after the robbery, and begged him to use his influence with Washington to establish a military post in the Clove during the coming winter “which we are perswaded will have a salutary effect.” They pointed out that for "a Considerable time past” a great part of the county was “infested by a Banditti of Villains, who have Committ'd many Robberies & Murder," and notwithstanding “some exertion” to suppress them continue to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants and endanger travelers.
Joined by deserters and “too many" of the inhabitants, facilitated by the mountainous region which afforded concealment and operating within easy reach of New York, the predators had become “formidable”, the supplicants said, and the most dangerous consequences to the public and ruin to the country could be anticipated unless spirited measures were speedily taken to apprehend them. They explained that they could find no fault with Colonel Malcom's decision to remove the troops he had stationed “at the Clove” for two months, but reiterated that the country was again exposed “to the insults and depredations of these Lawless banditti." Among the many signatures were the names of well-known local landowners such as Reynolds, Miller, Earl, Lamoureux, Galloway, Florance and the innkeepers David June and Francis Smith.
The apprehensions of the petitioners were no less acute than was the concern of General Greene for his wife in cautioning her against travelling through the Clove where, he wrote from Washington's camp, “there have been several robberies committed lately by Tories and other villains," and suggested, instead, that she journey from Rhode Island to New Jersey by way of King's Ferry where a small escort of light horse could be provided to guard her on the road to Paramus or Pompton.
It did not take George Clinton's influence with the commander-in-chief to suggest the establishment of a post, for the matter had already been taken under consideration at Continental headquarters even before the petition went from the valley. On October 16, one day after the departure of the last forager from Bergen, Washington requested the opinions of his officers on the distribution of troops in winter quarters, and one suggestion, given by Brigadier-General Samuel Parsons, recommended that about 3,000 men be posted “at or near the Clove” who could also provide guards to protect "the passage” across southern Orange leading to King's Ferry. Thirteen days later, while the winter stations were still under consideration, Washington informed Greene that a regiment or two would probably be “thrown directly into the Clove near Sufferan where there are Barracks already built."
The immediate impetus that brought the Continentals back into the corridor was not the activity of thieves and murderers but the arrival at the Hudson of Burgoyne's captive Convention army on its march from Massachusetts under military escort to a new prison camp in Virginia. Moving in six divisions one day apart, the prisoners began arriving at Fishkill in the last week of November and for nine days into early December were ferried across the river to Newburgh to continue their journey along the northern road to the Delaware by way of Little Britain, Otter Kill, Goshen, Florida and Warwick and into New Jersey. At the same time, Washington's army was crossing King's Ferry on its way to Middlebrook.
On November 18, barely days before the captives arrived, the commander-in-chief ordered Colonel Thomas Clark of the 1st North Carolina Regiment to proceed immediately from King's Ferry to Suffern's with the two regiments of the North Carolina brigade and take position “at the entrance of the Clove" to prevent deserters from using that pass to reach the British lines. Many of the prisoners, however, eluded their guards and escaped into the mountains and, aided and piloted by the disaffected, made their ways into Bergen and by mid-December some forty reached New York in safety. Others hid in the woods and joined the robber gangs.
The question of winter quarters in the Clove was still somewhat unclear, but Washington, to keep the men helpfully busy, added in his letter to Clark: “You may in the mean time be repairing and enlarging if necessary, the Barracks at Sydman's near Sufferan’s as you may probably winter there.” Mention of the empty buildings could well bring to mind the shades of Colonels Huntington and Tyler and the collapsing cause of 1776 when the barracks were being erected in the midst of the tories. What is interesting, though, is that the buildings still existed. Writing to Congress on the twenty-seventh, the commander-in-chief mentioned that the positioning of Clark's brigade was intended “for the security of that pass” and as a reinforcement for West Point if necessary.
The Carolina presence, contrary to expectation, was brief and lasted barely more than two weeks. With the prisoners well on their way, Washington wrote again and informed Clark on December 4 that as “the object of your Station at the Clove will have been effected”, he was to move to Paramus – a deployment prompted, as he explained to Greene, by fear that the King's Ferry line of communication would be too much endangered by leaving Paramus exposed. At the same time, Clark was also to replace Morgan's guard at Ringwood with a sergeant's detail of twelve of his own men who were to remain at the ironworks during the winter “as Mr. Erskine will be compleating some valuable surveys for the public."
The letter, however, was held at headquarters for three days because of a brief flurry of excitement and movement of troops brought on by an unexpected enemy foray up the Hudson and a landing at King's Ferry. Clark was sent towards Haverstraw to oppose the British, but on the following day, December 7, after the enemy was gone, he was ordered to proceed to Paramus in accordance with his early instructions, and he remained there until the following spring with standing orders that if the enemy moved up the Hudson in force he was to fall back with his men to Suffern's at the entrance of the Clove.
The region was still plagued with enemy agents and predators. Fifteen days after Mason's descent on Ringwood, the same gang kidnapped the Muster Master General of the Continental Army and his deputy at Kakiat and spirited both off to New York. Robberies and horse stealing continued and another murder took place. In late April 1779, John Suffern and ten others were complaining to the governor that no less than twenty horses had been stolen in one night, a gentlemen had been robbed near Widow Sidman's of more that £11,000 in New York currency, and Squire Nathaniel Satterly of more that £2,000 in tax money, and no less than nine different "scouts” of these “most atrocious wretches” were in the mountains.
American efforts to curb the gangs continued as best as possible. In November 1778, Claudius Smith, captured on Long Island, was brought back to Goshen in irons and in January 1779 was hanged. In February his son James was apprehended at the house of Nathan Miller in the Clove and in June he, too, was executed at Goshen, along with three others, for robbery and murder. In May a simultaneous and careful coordinated sweep of suspect persons was carried out by the military and civilian authorities and many of "the noted Clove gang of villains” were taken and no less than seventeen were sent “from the Clove” to West Point for examination before military court.
The New York Journal at Poughkeepsie, reporting the arrests, informed the public that it was hoped that the “neighborhoods of Kakiat and the Clove, that have for many months past been so dreadfully infested with daring gangs of villains and their abettors, will find a considerable relief” from the odious crimes of horse stealing, robbery, burglary and murder.