[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.]
Finally, A Dreary Blockhouse
Chapter 8: The Intercepted Messenger
Legends do not die easily. In 1850, when Smith's Clove was better known as the Ramapo Pass and every nook and shaded glen was legend-ridden and haunted with the ghosts of Claudius Smith and his merciless followers, the historian Benson John Lossing (1815-1891) journeyed there in search of vestiges and recollections of the Revolutionary War for his memorable Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution which was published in 1851-52; and during a two-day stopover conversed with Jeremiah Halsey Pierson (1766-1855), the octogenarian founder of the Ramapo Works who had come to the Clove in 1795. Pierson related to Lossing an intriguing story he had heard years earlier from a “Baptist clergyman named Montagnie” before his death in 1825, who, according to the minister's tale, became a victim of Washington's strategic planning for the Yorktown march and was deliberately sacrificed by the commander-in-chief into enemy hands in Smith's Clove in 1781 with deceptive letters written for interception to mislead the British into thinking that an attack on New York was imminent to conceal the true purpose of the march. The clergyman's story was given to Pierson, and by Pierson to Lossing. He, it turn, put it in his Field Book, and this is what it said:
“One of the bearers of these letters was a young Baptist clergyman named Montagnie [Montanye), an ardent Whig who was directed by Washington to carry a dispatch to Morristown. He directed the messenger to cross the river at King's Ferry, proceed by Haverstraw to the Ramapo Clove and through the Pass to Morristown. Montagnie, knowing the Ramapo Pass to be in possession of the Cow-boys and other friends of the enemy, ventured to suggest to the commander-in-chief that the upper road would be the safest. 'I shall be taken,' he said, 'if I go through the Clove.' 'Your duty, young man, is not to talk, but to obey!' replied Washington sternly, enforcing his words by a vigorous stamp of his foot. Montagnie proceeded as directed, and near the Ramapo Pass was caught. A few days afterwards he was sent to New York, where he was confined in the Sugar House, one of the famous provost prisons in the city. The day after his arrival, the contents of the dispatches taken from him were published in Rivington's Gazette with great parade, for they indicated a plan of an attack upon the city. The enemy was alarmed thereby and active preparations were put in motion for receiving the besiegers. Montagnie now perceived why he was so positively instructed to go through the Ramapo Pass, where himself and dispatches were quite sure to be seized. When they appeared in Rivington's Gazette, the allied armies were far on their way to the Delaware. Montagnie admired the wisdom of Washington, but disliked himself to be the victim. Mr. Jeremiah H. Pierson, from whom I obtained the narrative, received it from the lips of Montagnie himself."
Nor was Lossing the only person who recorded the story. Another, was the authoress Elizabeth Oakes (Prince) Smith (1806-1893), who also recalled it in her now-rare little volume Hugo: A Legend of Rockland Lake, published in 1851, in which the contents were noted as “found amongst the papers of the late Ernest Helfenstein." The subject was still of sufficient interest as late as 1922 when Everett Titsworth Tomlinson (1859-1951) of Elizabeth, New Jersey, put out his fictitious Mystery of the Ramapo Pass: A story of the American Revolution wherein he vouched for the veracity of the tale and that the events were “historically correct," and though “Dominie Montagnie” remained ignorant of the true intent of his role, “the part he played was a vital factor in winning the final victory."
But while the story of the captured mail and its association with the Clove is well known, the identity of the “Baptist clergyman named Montagnie" was long elusive. Washington's biographer Rupert Hughes, making a stab at identification in 1930, came up with the name of Thomas B. Montanye (1789-1829), a well-known Baptist clergyman and the only one of that name upon whom this questionable legend could have been fashioned; admitting, however, that Thomas was only twelve at the time of the mail interception and did not become a Baptist until 1788. Hughes was mistaken, but he came close. The man in question, actually, was his father Benjamin Montanye (1745-1825), New York born and descended from one of the early settlers of the Dutch village of Nieuw Haerlem. A blacksmith by trade, he performed service early in the war as a messenger for the New York Convention and when the city was taken by the British in 1776 removed to Fishkill, and continued to be employed as a post rider by Samuel Loudon, the Fishkill printer who also served as the army postmaster in the mid-Hudson region. A glimpse of him was had in April 1780 in a notice in Loudon's newspaper, which advertised for sale the house and ground "whereon Mr. Benj. Montanye now lives” about two miles from the village on the main road leading to Fishkill Landing.