by Bill Batson
If not for the self-titled “Skirmish Krew,” we would not remember the heroics of our local ancestors who defended this land from the British during the Revolutionary War. What started as an effort to find cannonballs fired at the six original farms of Upper Nyack, resulted in an historic marker unveiled on North Broadway, last Tuesday, April 20, 2021.
In a manner similar to the ancients, where events were shared orally from generation to generation, Nyack High School science teacher Tom Perry learned about the local Revolutionary battles from his father, Upper Nyack Historian Win Perry.
“Ever since I was a little kid, my dad would tell me that there were these fights that occurred during the Revolutionary War between the Americans and the British. We would keep our boats down on the beach and generous property owners would let us come down. And so we got to see this old the remains of this old quarry. It spanned three properties. A huge sandstone quarry that people used to build their houses from. And my dad told me all this was a place where the patriots defended themselves against the British. The quarry wall would give them protection from the cannonballs. I always thought that was so cool and there was no historical marker or anything. Nobody ever seemed to talk about it. So I figured that I’d get together a crew and see what they could do”
Krew first visits the Quarry
Perry organized a group of teens in 2020 interested in local history to visit the quarry that his father had told him about. A photo from that day shows Krew members searching for one or more of the cannons fired at the early Nyackers from the British war ships.
“Brianna had a metal detector and everybody else had dangerous looking tools. We marked some spots where we thought there might be cannonballs. We knew that the British ships were firing in and they would hit that wall of earth. There has been quite a bit of excavation down there. We haven’t found any any cannonballs, but we had a lot of fun looking for them,” Perry said.
Those Usurped and Enslaved by the colonists stood on the front line of Revolutionary battles as well
Native Americans and free and enslaved black Americans played pivotal roles in defeating the British
The military record of the Revolution is not complete without acknowledging the critical roles played by Native Americans and free and enslaved Africans. Tragically, these contributions have been often gone unheralded. Fortunately, through the determination of the leadership of the Ramapough Lunaape and the historic record created by the Village of Upper Nyack, two powerful testimonials persist.
Cannons made from Lunaape Iron
According to current Ramapough Lunaape Chief Dwaine Perry, the first 900 hundred canon balls used in the American Revolution were produced from the Lunaape Mines in Ringwood. as well as the fabled Chain across the Hudson.
“When George Washington was a Captain and Alexander Hamilton was a lieutenant working in the Ramapo Pass; our ancestors allowed them the use of the strategic route, which was then a choke point and the only way into the colonies from the North with any meaningful troop levels,” Chief Perry said.
“Yet those who have created the greatest nation on Earth have failed to acknowledge the people who have made this grand experiment possible.”
Black Women Gave Strategic Disinformation Near Mount Moor
In 1776, British troops, in force, proceeded from the English Woods (Englewood, New Jersey) towards West Point, halting at Mount Moor (West Nyack). With less than one hundred men north of the British encampment, Upper Nyack’s Major John L. Smith was at a loss as to how to stop the superior force.
According to a story from the 1972 centennial journal from the Village of Upper Nyack, Smith observed, “a Black woman came down the road nearby walking in the direction of the British. Smith warned her of the danger ahead but she was determined to continue and reach her family in Tappan. The Major then told her, if she should be stopped and questioned by the enemy, to inform them carefully that, ‘General..forces are on the one hill to the north, and that General…forces are on another.’
The account in the centennial journal recounts that “she gave this information when apprehended, and added that “the soldiers are as thick as hair on a dog.”
Fearing an amush, The British Commander ordered a retreat to Englewood. The advance of hostile forces were reversed, without a shot fired.
Battle Rages on the Hudson River
The strategic importance of the Hudson River Valley in the victory over the British in the Revolutionary War can not be overstated. When 32,000 British regulars, 10 ships, 20 frigates, and 170 transports defeated Washington’s troops at Kip’s Bay and invaded Manhattan Island in August of 1776, their goal was to control the Hudson River and cut the American colonies in half. After capturing Fort Washington in upper Manhattan and Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, the British sought to pacify the colonists on their march north.
According to local historian, Mike Hays, “The lower Hudson River Valley was a hot spot early in the Revolutionary War. The British Navy, along with land troops, pursued Washington’s retreating army north after the loss of New York City. The last pitched battle occurred at White Plains on October 28, 1776. The powerful British Navy made numerous forays up the Hudson River, landing at many places to get water and food for troops and for Loyalists in New York City. They shelled homes along the western side of the river and sent marauding parties seeking retribution against citizens who supported the colonial cause.
The arrival of war pitted neighbor against neighbor, with those supporting the American Revolution called Patriots and those who remained loyal to the British were known as Torries. “Residents chose sides and sometimes switched back and forth. Henry Palmer, a sloop owner living in New York City, was offered substantial sums to work for the British. He refused, and was known to have smuggled out munitions from the New York Armory to Continental troops.”
Palmer moved his family to North Broadway in Upper Nyack near the foot of Old Mountain Road. This move did not provide the escape from danger that Palmer sought. His Upper Nyack residence became a British cannon target. “Shelling Nyack was a sport for the British, an outsized response to what was then a village of only a dozen or so homes, but an indication of what a nuisance Nyack had become to the fleet,” Hays reports. The homes of Palmer, Sarvent, Smith, and Cornelison were also regular targets for the British cannons.
Recognized on the marker that Krew just erected is Colonel Hawkes Hay, who commanded the local militia. On July 25, 1776, Col. Hay reported to George Washington about the actions of HMS Phoenix and HMS Rose in the Haverstraw bay. In a letter written on October 15, 1776, Hawkes describes an assault by British vessels on Upper Nyack.
“The ships attempted a landing at Nyack on Sunday last, but was prevented by a party of men under my command,” the letter reads. “Some damage was done to the house and barn of Philip Sarvent; two of the cutters fired several shot through them, but none of my men were hurt, though one of shot from the cutters passed so near my head as to carry away a piece of my hat.”
A General Green reported to General Washington, stationed at the time in Tappan that:
The enemy landed a small party in Nyack this morning from one of their ships and attempted to fire the houses. I detached a guard to the place last evening which obligated them to retire immediately, after having set fire to the house of Major Smith, which was consumed.
A map drawn by Tom’s father Win in 1972, shows that what is now the Village of Upper Nyack consisted of six farms in 1776. The farm farthest South belonged to Philip Sarvent. The farm to the North, which is now the site of River Hook, the Hester Haring Preserve, was owned by Major Smith.
Nyack beats back British Attacks
“Nyack seems to have been quite successful in turning back British marauders,” according to Hays. The British also landed at Piermont, Rockland Lake, and Hay’s home town Haverstraw. During these raids, plunder of war, such as cattle and provisions were taken, homes were burned (including Hays’ home), and lives were lost.
“Two batteries were set up in Nyack, one near the landing dock in what is now downtown Nyack and one with a swivel gun at the Smith house on a point of land near Hook Mountain, visible today from Nyack Beach State Park. Nyack’s riverside quarries became excellent places to defend. In fact, in September, 1776, ten tons of lead from military stores left behind by Washington’s retreat were hidden in the quarry on Major Smith’s property.”
Marker for Centuries Old Cannon Fire a half mile from combatants Cemetery
You can visit The Old Palmer Burial Cemetery in Upper Nyack on Old Mountain Road, named after Henry Palmer, who lived next door. Three other Revolutionary War veterans are buried at the cemetery: John L. Smith, Aurey Smith and Philip Sarvent.
And now, thanks to a group of intrepid teenagers, you can visit a marker near the point where rather than flee, and abandon the romantic notions of self-government that Washington’s army sought to establish on these shores, some risked everything and fought back
The Skrimish Krew came out of Servant’s quarry with the knowledge of epic local events that changed the course of world history and a determination to share their story of local valor with others.
In their own words, here is how the skirmishers feel about their journey:
We wanted to commemorate this historical event that occurred in our own back yard, so we made it happen. – Gabe Buchholz
Our goal is to get a historical marker near the property and educate people on what happened on the property. – Lily Anton
I wanted to learn about what had happened in the past in the town I grew up in. – Briana Sinnott
We heard that there was a battle that nobody knew about, and we wanted people to know some important history from Nyack. – Sam Gunther
I think if this gets done, I think it would encourage other people to try and do the same for other historical events. Michael Kim.
The Skirmish Krew appeared before the Upper Nyack Village Board in January, 2020 to discuss their plan for a marker. The Board and Mayor Tarapata endorsed the project. Appearing at the marker unveiling on Tuesday, April 20, 2021, Mayor Karen Tarapata said:
“I am so proud of these kids. It was such a pleasure when they came to the Village board, to talk about the project and to talk about the research they were doing and the money they would raise. So congratulation and thank you. When you drive by in the future you’ll be able to say. I did that.”
Hopefully, Skirmisher Michael Kim is right and others will be encouraged to preserve local history, leaving behind something that we can all point to with pride.
This week’s Nyack Sketch Log illustration is of the HMS Rose, one of the British warships that fired cannonballs at Upper Nyack in 1776 and 1777.
Once Lost, Now Found: The Old Mountain Road Cemetery, by Owen Voutsinas-Klose
Nyack Sketch Log: Two Row Wampum Flotilla Nearing United Nations, by Bill Batson
Nyack Sketch Log: Our Segregated Cemetery, by Bill Batson
Nyack People & Places: Skirmish Krew Relives Revolutionary War in Upper Nyack, by Mike Hays
An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” Krew Keeps Revolutionary Skirmish History Alive” © 2021 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.