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The Burning of Kingston, New York

by Mary Isabella Forsyth

Published in The Journal of American History, in Fall of 1913

IT HAS BEEN STATED that the burning of Kingston, New York, by the British in 1777 was due to the firing from the redoubt at the mouth of the Rondout Creek. This redoubt was located on or near the site of the trading post of 1610, where tradition states a fort was erected in 1614, as authorized by the States General.

The Senate House at Kingston

But while this firing, at a time when the British commander was stung by reports of repeated disasters to Burgoyne’s army, may have led to the landing of troops and the overpowering of the garrison, the real causes of the burning of the town lie farther back. They can be found in brave little Holland, whose standards and principles were those of the inhabitants of Kingston from its settlement in 1652 until long after the American Revolution. Indeed, these remain still, to some extent.

The first English settler, Thomas Chambers, and a Norwegian, Jacobus Bruyn, proved to be in thorough sympathy with the Dutch colonists; while the Huguenots coming later blended with them to such a degree that language, customs, mode of thought were those of Holland. Church services were held in the Dutch language until i8o8. And the standards of civil and religious liberty for which Holland had fought-and won-so long before, were those of her descendants in New Netherland.

Where the Dutch Settlers of Kingston Worshiped

“Taxation only by consent,” established in Holland even in the Fifteenth Century, was claimed as a right in Esopus, as the region about Kingston was called, when the English rule brought in new and trying conditions. This right was guaranteed in 1683. When England’s failure to recognize it led to an appeal to arms, there was no hesitation here!

Descendants of Hasbroucks, who had borne the standard of their family in the Crusades, of Norsemen who knew no fear, kindred of the De Witts martyred at The Hague, and of many other heroes, sprang to arms almost as an entire community. The story has come down through succeeding generations that every able-bodied man promptly served the patriot cause. Records show that the sentiment was practically unanimous. Some were serving in councils of the State, some in the Continental army, some in the militia.

Jacobus Severyn Bruyn, a student at Princeton College, promptly raised a Company at Kingston, equipped it at his own expense, and led it as Captain to the storming of Quebec, where, when Montgomery fell, he was by his side. He was among the first and last defenders of Fort Montgomery, and was there taken prisoner, sword in hand.

The Old Academy, Kingston, New York

A New Yorker, Lefferts by name, temporarily residing at wait still known as Komoxon (its Indian name), was known to be a Tory. But from Kingston and the surrounding region, out through Htirley, New Paltz, Marbletown, Mamakating (now in Sullivan County), New Marlborough, and Rochester, came signatures to what is still known as the “Ulster County Roll of Honor,” pledging allegiance “under all the ties of religion, honor and love to our country” to “whatever measures may be recommended by the Continental Congress, or resolved upon by our Provincial Convention.” And from these same townships came many to join those at Kingston, prepared to lay down their lives, if need be, for the patriot cause.

The Dutch Reformed Church, Kingston, New York

It was not alone, then, the firing from the redoubt that called forth the vengeance of the British commander. He sought the town where, only three months before, the inauguration of Governor Clinton had taken place, and had been followed by the shout of “God save the people!” instead of “God save the King!”

In one of the buildings he was about to fire, the State Constitution had been framed. In Kingston had convened the first Senate and the first Court of this daring new State. It was, therefore, as a fierce retaliation for this whole heroic record that the capital of the State was fired. General Vaughan’s own words corroborate this, when he called Kingston “a nest of rebels, a nursery for almost every villain in the country.”

Until after the surrender of the forts in the Highlands and the severing of the chain and bombs, Kingston was regarded as exceptionally secure from attack.

Still, in the summer of i777, it was realized that, with the number of its troops at distant posts, no adequate protection remained, in case any attack should occur. In August, a letter from the Council of Safety stated this,-showing that levies were nearly all completed here, and in the service of the government,” none of our sister States having yet completed the levies directed by Congress.” The letter closes with a thrilling assurance that they would “‘neglect no measures (however burdensome), if within our reach, but that if no aid could be given all would do their utmost and make the best possible defense.”

Orders were given by the Council to load vessels with flour, wheat, or any other provisions, near the shores of the river and send the loaded vessels to Albany, also directing the driving away or killing of live stock, to guard it against falling into the hands of the enemy.

The confident expectation of General Vaughan is shown by the opening sentence of a letter to General Burgoyne, dated October 8th: “Nous y voici, and nothing now between us but Gates.”

On October 15th the Governor wrote to the Council of Safety: “The enemy’s fleet, consisting of thirty sail, has passed Newburgh and with crowded sail and fair wind is moving quickly up the river. The front of them is already at the Danskamer-There are eight large square rigged vessels among them and all appear to have troops on board. My troops are parading to Kingston.

Let the militia be drawn out, ready to oppose the enemy. I will be with you if nothing extra happens before day, though my troops cannot.”

The troops reached the hill overlooking Kingston, and still called Keykout “Lookout,” only to see the smoke and flames rising from the desolate village, and the invaders on their way to the river.

On the 15th, at five p. m., the alarm sounded, giving notice that the enemy’s fleet had appeared off Esopus Island.

About nine on the morning of the 16th the enemy began cannonading the Lady Washington galley and the batteries on the heights at Ponkliockie. Five pieces of cannon were in the earthworks, a thirty-two-pounder in the galley. But the firing had little effect except to delay the landing of the enemy. At about one o’clock a division of these, or four hundred men, landed and charged the small garrison with the bayonet. The defenders remained until the last possible moment, then spiked their guns and with a few wounded men withdrew tip the creek, firing as they retreated.

Three houses were burned, also the prison ships and some sloops. A quantity of powder on one vessel exploded and injured one officer and some of his men. The Lady Washington was run up the creek and scuttled.

The main body of troops landed at Columbus Point, meeting the other division at the junction of what is now Broadway and Delaware Avenue, to join in attacking the old town.

Tradition says that Lefferts, the Tory, met General Vaughan in this vicinity and told him of the surrender of Burgoyne. It also states that a slave was impressed as a guide along the wooded road, from what is still known as Wiltwyck, to the doomed Capital.

About where the City Hall now stands a little band had gathered as defenders. Whether they fired or not was of no moment-onward marched the enemy. The estimate of their number ran es from one thousand one hundred to three thousand. Word of their approach was hurried through the streets: “Lope, younge, lope-die Roye komme! Lope bei Hurley out!” [Run children, run the royalists come! Run to Hurley!] (Hurley lies three miles back, and was alluded to in 1663 as the new “dorp” or village, when, at that date, it was burned by Indians.)

Hurriedly, wagons were filled with women and children, and men too old for active service, and a sad and helpless procession began to move. Some took time to bury a few treasures before starting on that solemn exit from what has been called “a town of homes.”

From the garden of the Bruyn homestead, at the corner of Crown and North Front Streets, was dug up long afterwards an “Apostle’s spoon,” apparently of Norwegian metal.

In a Loan Exhibit at the Daughters of the American Revolution Chapter House at Kingston were shown a large china dish,-buried to save it from destruction by the British; also a cannon ball, fired by the enemy upon a quaint stone house on Pearl Street. It was found in the walls when taken down some years ago. This speaks for itself of the violence of the attack upon the defenceless village.

Not far away is still to be found what was the tavern of Conrad Elmendorf, where the convention to guard the town had been sitting, up to the last possible moment. This was fired, as was also the Bogardus tavern, on the opposite corner -long since taken down- where the State Constitution was framed. It stood, as restored, for about three-quarters of a century, and was spoken of as the “Constitution House.”

On a neighboring corner was the home of Judge Dirck Wynkoop, where were kept the county papers. This was only partially burned, and is, as rebuilt, the home of the Misses Forsyth. The papers were rescued by young Mr. Bancker, and presumably thus was saved the wampun belt given by the Indians as a token of friendship, and now in the County Clerk’s office.

The Home of Johannis Sleight, When Kingston was Burned in 1777
Here, in later generations, lived descendants of Christopher Tappen and his wife, the latter of whom saved the New York State Records from Flames

Across what is now Fair Street, near the church, was the large stone house of the Widow Mary Crooke Elmendorph. She had hoped to appease the enemy by having a substantial meal ready for them. They ate it, it is said, and then burned the house. When this word reached Mrs. Elmendorph in Hurley, a slave said this could not be, for she had the key in her pocket. Strange to say, in this connection, this ruin was never restored, as were most of the houses, the stone of which they were built to some extent resisting the flames. It was, however, so far repaired that the family of Cornelius Wynkoop took refuge there after the burning. One of his children handed down the story to later generations that when terrible noises would startle the Household on a windy night, the mother would say: “Don’t be frightened, children. It is only part of the house falling down.”

Then came the fine old stone church, with its stained-glass windows, decorated with Coats- of-Arms, and its Baptistry in front, signifying the reception of the new-born infant, as “a baptized member of the Church.” This, too, was ruthlessly fired, as was the ancient Court House, on the site of the present building.

The Old Kingston Court House

Opposite the Court House was a stone house, belonging to Benjamin Low, whose wife had taken in, out of pity, a stranger, who asked for shelter on the ground of illness. Mr. Low suspected him at once as being a British spy. When the sick man had been cured, this suspicion became a certainty, and would have led to his capture had not Mrs. Low’s compassion prevailed. She allowed the stranger to escape, refusing a proffered bag of gold, but pleading that Kingston should not be burned. Later, she saw the stranger at the head of the troops engaged in firing the town. She always believed, however, that he had kept his promise to protect her house and that it had caught from the general conflagration. Mrs. Low had prepared to leave by having her silver spoons close at hand while ironing. But when she left in haste her spoons were forgotten.

Another Mrs. Low left her silver in the custody of a lady who was boarding with her and who claimed to be able-as the wife of a British officer-to protect what was left in her charge. On the contrary, the soldiers, in reply to her plea, shouted out: “You will all claim to be British officers’ wives now!” They threw her chest in the street, took all of value it contained, and carried the daughter with them as far as the Academy, the mother following, screaming. There they tore out the daughter’s earrings and let her go.

The Academy then had ninety pupils for the higher branches of education. It stands still, as restored, with houses opposite that shared with it the common fate. In one of these, the home of the late judge Schoonmaker, charred beams were still found when repairs were made some years ago.

The State Records were in the home of Christopher Tappen, a delegate to the Provincial Congress and a member of the Committee of Safety. In his absence, these valuable records were saved by his wife, who carried them out in the skirt of her dress, leaving important family papers to burn. This dress of Mrs. Tappen was in the Loan Exhibit at the Daughters of the American Revolution Chapter House. This house is one of the oldest in the town, and is shown on a map of the place drawn in 1695.

The Hoffman house (now owned by the Salvation Army) was one of the first houses built in “Esopus,” and stood at the hornwork of the stockade erected in 1658. It will be remembered that, up to that time, relations with the Indians, from whom the Dutch invariably bought the land, had been so friendly that no such protection had been needed. It was only the use of the “fire water,” which was wholly new to their race, that led to trouble with the original owners of “the Esopus.”

Every house except one within the limits of the stockade was left uninhabitable,-the massive stone walls roofless and partially crumbled, the wood work burned away almost entirely. The one exception still stands marked with a tablet by Wiltwyck Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. One tradition as to its being saved, although fired-and probably the correct one-is that it was fired just before the recall for the troops sounded, and that the slaves, hidden near, returned and extinguished the fire.

Another theory is that the presence in the house of a charming young lady who had met the British commander when in New York, served as a protection.

In all there were burned, so far as records show, one hundred and sixteen houses, one hundred and three barns, two school houses, the academy, forty-six barracks, seventeen store houses or shops, besides the Court House and the church.

Forty-one of these stone houses still stand as rebuilt on their ruins. And in the old churchyard are found over fifty graves of soldiers of the American Revolution, the markers in some cases showing the heroic record, where the headstones have almost crumbled away.

No words can fittingly express the devastation wrought in two hours on that bright October afternoon! And this, too, when the brilliant hues of the foliage, the crisp air told that winter was at hand.

It is no wonder that sympathy was widely felt and generously shown. Every house in the vicinity was thrown open to the sufferers. Chancellor Livingston donated for them, when his own house was burned, five thousand acres of land. And far-away Charleston, South Carolina, when suffering from the effects of a terrible fire, sent, “to alleviate the distresses of the now indigent inhabitants of the town of Kingston, who by the ravages of the enemy were reduced to poverty and want,” a sum equal in New York currency to £ 927,17,6. This has made South Carolina for all time, indeed, a sister State.

Perhaps the most vivid account of that afternoon of agony is given in the journal of Colonel Abraham Hasbrouck, which also shows the spirit and the ardent faith of his Huguenot father, one of the patentees of New Paltz.

“October 16, 1777. Then the enemy under the command of General Henry Clinton and General Vaughan came to Kingston in Esopus, and burnt my dwelling-house, barn, cider- house or storehouse, and another barn and wagon house at my late dwelling house, and also a small out-kitchen which was left standing when my dwelling house was burnt down the 23rd of October, 1776. And the enemy burnt all the houses, barns (except one house and barn) in the town, church and county house, likewise laid everything in rubbish of ashes-fences and everything they came to. And they carried away with them one negro man named Harry, two negro wenches, jenny and Flora, and destroyed all my household goods and furniture and my library of books. My loss I sustained this time, I compute no less than five thousand pounds at least-and the house I had in New York burnt by, the enemy last year, or in the year I776. My house was worth one thousand pounds and the house I lost by accident by fire the 23rd of October, 1776, merchandise of several sorts, household goods and furniture, tools and utensils and farmers’ implements, I lost then at least between three thousand pounds and four thousand pounds. I have lost since the fire in New York, I776, until this time, between nine thousand and ten thousand pounds. Thanks be to God for his great goodness, 1, my wife and children escaped and unhurt out of the enemy’s hands. Yet my sons Jacobus, Abraham and Daniel were in the opposing of the enemy from landing, and to oppose them to come to Kingston, and showers of shot flew on every side of them. I pray the Lord will support me under so heavy a trial and must say with job “The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken-the Lord’s name may be praised.”

We end this record of desolation by the closing lines of a ballad that tells the story of Kingston’s heroic struggle, beginning to quote at the place where the homeless inhal5itants are described when moving towards Hurley.

“The last who turned a backward glance saw through the sunny air
The gleam of British bayonets, a sudden. awful glare.
The assailants marched with torch in hand, black smoke in volumes rose
From homes for generations dear, the prey of ruthless foes.

“In one rude cellar-still the house stands solidly today-
In sorest pangs of motherhood a youthful matron lay.
Above her, burning beams crashed down, and sounds of trampling feet
Were mingled with tumultuous shouts, the uproar of the street.

“That day was kindled such a flame as nothing can assuage.
Upon the town a martyr’s crown doth rest from age to age.
This, this, the climax-winter’s snows already chilled the air–
Yet ‘neath accumulated woes none yielded to despair.

“The homes in Hurley opened wide, and all the country round
Received the homeless fugitives with sympathy profound.
E’en welcome, succor, human aid were secondary things,
The patriot hearts were calmly stayed beneath Almighty wings.

“It may be, when October brings its glowing, gladdening days,
When town and hillside seem aflame, bright hued ‘midst tender haze,
One watching ere the sad sixteenth, expectant through the night,
In Kingston’s churchyard might behold a weird, mysterious sight.

“Dim forms of earlier times seem there, a shadowy, ghostly throng
(Too rarely do their names appear in history or song),
A common impulse bringing all, the mistress and the slave,
The dead from ancient battlefields, fair maidens, statesmen grave-

“Who bore so gallantly their part, the simple as the great,
In brave old Kingston-This they plead, “We helped to make the State.”
(We hear it not with outward ear,-it thrills the silence through)-
‘Remember, this has cost us dear-its future rests with you.’

The Old Stone Church at Kingston, as Rebuilt after the Revolution