by Mike Hays
It’s not an iconic “one if by land, two if by sea” Paul Revere midnight ride story. But Upper Nyack’s Major John Smith’s ride in the Revolutionary War was actually a bit more dangerous. Horses jumping fences, pistol balls whizzing nearby, saber slashings. Smith’s ride started with an ambush by British troops on Strawtown Road and ended in a mad dash to escape via Long Clove Road.
But let’s back up: Smith was a successful Upper Nyack farmer and quarry owner on property bordering Hook Mountain. As a trusted leader, he was named Major in the Nyack Shore Militia, an undermanned and underfunded group that often bested superior British forces while protecting the river towns. Smith’s home, located just a few feet from the river, was a favorite target for British Naval cannons during the War for Independence. Years after, cannonballs were found on neighboring properties.
Smith’s farm, once some of the best farmland in Upper Nyack, today includes a sizeable portion of Upper Nyack. The 11-acre Village of Upper Nyack preserve River Hook, the 10-acre Marydell Faith and Life Center, and a 6.5-acre parcel at 641 N. Broadway where Smith’s quarry and house were once located that sold for $5.2 million in 2019 all inhabit the former Smith farm. But it is Smith’s patriotism that is remembered: how he risked his life protecting his home, the village of Nyack, and the surrounding river communities
The Smiths of Upper Nyack
Major Smith’s ancestors were early Dutch settlers in Rockland County. His great-great and great grandfathers were both born in Holland and immigrated in 1663 to Flatbush, then moved to the Bowery, and in 1683 became some of the first settlers in Rockland County, landing in Tappan.
Smith and his brother Aury each inherited half of their father’s 340-acre farm in Upper Nyack, John the northern part near Hook Mountain, and Aury next south. John married Catherine Remsen in Manhattan in 1764 and they had their first child shortly after the beginning of hostilities in 1778. Together John and Aury established one of the first quarries in Nyack, mining sandstone from the cliffs behind John’s house and shipping it to New York City.
The Shore Militia
Almost immediately upon outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the British took control of the Hudson River, even before they forced Washington out of New York City. British ships in the main channel near Tarrytown could easily shell Nyack from a distance of several miles. Small barges of men would row toward the western shore looking for anything they could steal, be it prisoners, food, money, or cattle. Inland, British regulars made incursions up Kings Highway from New Jersey. British troops were aided by Tory sympathizers and “cowboys,” local irregular partisans who aligned with the British for personal gain and were opposed by the local militia and “skinners” (irregulars who abetted the Patriots).
To counter incursions by the British, a militia was established under Colonel Ann Hawks Hay. John L. Smith became major of the Shore Militia, his brother Aury became captain for the Pond (Rockland Lake) division. While mostly stationed in Nyack, the Shore Militia ranged from Haverstraw to a small fort at Dobb’s Ferry, landing in Palisades, NY. A system of signals was set up at watch stations on mountain tops like Hook Mt. whereby notice of British activity could be made up and down the river, signaled by fires at night or smoke by day.
According to orders written by Hay, guards were to be mounted daily at 4 or 5p, no one was to fire unless a boat was hailed 3 times, and upon alarm, 20 hands were to report to the commanding officer. No person was to pass, no craft to be taken without approval of commanding officer, and no liquor to be sold after 7p except to a traveler. No sentry was to leave a post until relieved.
Nyack a Favorite British Target
Nyack contained only 10 farms at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, yet it earned a special enmity of the British. On July 12, 1776, the British made 2 attempts to forage in Nyack but were easily fought off by Colonel Hay’s men, even as they were running low on powder. The British did land in Haverstraw, burning one house and stealing pigs.
Nyack was hated by the British. British foraging parties were rarely successful and achieved more casualties than captured cattle. The British observed paroling Patriot whale boats rendezvous near Nyack. As a final insult, the British knew that Henry Palmer, a successful New York City merchant, had fled to Upper Nyack. Recruited heavily by the British at the outbreak of hostilities, Palmer threw in his lot with the Patriots, taking a storehouse of arms and ammunitions with him. The British took to shelling Nyack from across the river whenever they traveled up and down the Hudson.
Hay set up 2 shore works, one at the foot of Burd St. near the pubic dock and the other at Major Smith’s home that was defended by a swivel gun. In September 1776, when Washington was retreating upstate, 10 tons of lead were moved from Tappan and hidden at Smith’s quarry.
Skirmishes at Sarvent’s Quarry
In October 1776, a landing was attempted near Sarvent’s house and quarry in Upper Nyack. Cannonballs struck the house, but the invaders were repulsed. In December, they gained a foothold, looted a house, and stole cattle.
In July of 1777, a British galley and sloop attacked Sarvent’s quarry, near Broadway and Highmount Ave. Major Smith, Sarvent, Palmer, Cornelius Cuyper (grandson of the original settler), and others opposed the landing. The patriots waited behind quarry tailings near the river and opened fire when the British were about to land. The British were repulsed twice, later bombarding the nearby Palmer house. Mrs. Palmer had to flee with a child in her arms up Old Mountain Road. Historian Frank Green mentions that 9 British sailors were found floating ashore the next day.
“Hell, don’t shoot my legs off.”
On another occasion, Smith’s swivel gun was important in warding off boats. The gun had a range of ½ mile, not far enough to bother the main British fleet that traveled the main channel off Tarrytown. But the swivel gun did help fend off the attempted landing of 2 British boats with one boat being captured. During one artillery duel, a ball knocked the swivel gun off its mount and hit a stone wall upon which Cornelius Cuyper was standing. “Hell, don’t shoot my legs off,” people heard him shout.
Incursions were regularly made starting and ending at Slaughter’s Landing, leading to Rockland Lake since it was at a remote location. Some attribute the landing name to the British practice of slaughtering stolen cattle at the landing. Others attribute the name to an Englishman named John Slaughter who moved there in 1711.
Backward Marching with the “Other” Major John Smith
In 1800, there were more Smiths than any other family in Clarkstown and probably all of Rockland County. The Rockland County Smiths came from Holland; 3 of them descend from the group of 16 who obtained the Tappan Patent in the 1680s. Further confounding genealogists is that John was the most common name among the Smiths. To make matters even more complicated, another Major John Smith (distinct from our John L. Smith) lived in a stone house on Germonds Road. But wait. Things get more confusing: The “other” John Smith also reported to Ann Hawks Hay.
There was a story that the “other” John Smith, unfamiliar with military commands, would practice at home. One day in his garret, he gave himself the command, “Smith, step backwards, march.” Obeying his own command, he stepped backwards and fell down the stairs with a loud crash. His wife rushed to see what the matter was. Smith said, “Wife, wife you know not matters of war.”
The “other” Major Smith was listed as captured in war records.
The Daylight Ride of Major John Smith
Upon hearing that a British foraging party had landed at Rockland Lake and was headed west, Major Smith assembled a small party of militia and went looking for them. They rode north on Strawtown Road directly into a British ambush. The British fired and Smith’s men were able to turn tail and escape. Smith, being in front, was surrounded and unable to retreat with comrades. Rather than surrender, Smith took the initiative by jumping a nearby fence and heading cross country under a hail of musket fire. Unwounded, he crossed the Hackensack River (now flooded by Lake Deforest) with the intention of making his way to Long Clove Road in Haverstraw via Kings Highway, a segment that is today still called Kings Highway running from Valley Cottage to Route 304. Assuming the British were now south of him, he made his way to the an intersection with the Kings Highway near Waldberg Church. Suddenly, as he was passing a nearby house, the British appeared. They fired at him, and as he galloped away several Brits went after him on stolen horses. Pistols firing. One British soldier was shot. The opponents came so close that a saber slash nearly severed Smith’s sword hand. By the time Smith reached Long Clove Road, the British had given up the chase. He avoided capture that might have meant time in the disease-ridden prisoner ships in New York harbor.
In 1780, Major Smith ran out of luck. As mentioned in a letter from General Green to George Washington, the British attacked Smith’s home, which was said to be one of the finest mansions in all of Rockland County, carrying off anything of value and firing the house in several places. At least one account mentioned that Smith was carried away as a prisoner. It’s more likely that he escaped to rebuild his home after the war.
After the War
Major Smith died in 1897. Both John Smith and his brother Aury are buried in the Old Palmer Burying Grounds on Old Mountain Road. The small, tight-knit community of Upper Nyack farmers who were so successful fending off the British carried on into the next generation. Smith’s son, Lambert, sold the farm in 1804 to a son of his Shore Guard colleague, Henry Palmer, and Lambert himself married a Palmer daughter.
Major John Smith’s daylight country ride against an overwhelming force is but one example of how brave, patriotic farmers helped shape a new nation.
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.