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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The History of West Point

Edward C. Boynton

published by
D. Van Nostrand,
New York, 1864

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p9  Chapter I

Early grants of the Lands at West Point. — Title acquired by the United States by Purchase. — Commissioners Settle the Boundaries. — Further Purchase by the United States. — Jurisdiction ceded by the State of New York. — Early importance of the Control of the Hudson during the Revolution. — Resolutions of the Continental Congress, May 25, 1775. — Appointment of Committee by the Provincial Congress, and Resolutions of the latter, August 18, 1775.

The United States tract at West Point includes 2,105 acres of land, the title to which was secured by purchase, as herein described.

West Point proper was originally granted to Captain John Evans; but, having been vacated by him, it was afterwards reassumed and held by the English Crown.

On May 17, 1723, by Royal Letters-Patent, a tract, including the northern portion of the Point, and embracing 1,463 acres of land, was granted to Charles Congreve, upon the condition that, within three years, he or his heirs or assigns should settle and cultivate at least three acres for every fifty acres of land described in the grant. The first settlement at West Point may therefore date from this period. On March 25, 1747, another portion of the Evans grant, adjoining the southwest corner of the Congreve patent, and embracing 332  p10 acres of land, was patented to John Moore, on like condition of settlement within three years.

The patent of Congreve having been purchased in later years by Moore, was conveyed by will, together with the Moore patent, to his son, Stephen Moore, merchant, of Caswell County, N. C.

It appears that a petition was presented to Congress by the latter, praying that the United States would purchase West Point, which had already been so long occupied for public purposes. On this petition General Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, made a favorable report, June 10, 1790.

He quoted the opinion of General Knox, the Secretary of War, as set forth by him in a report to Congress, dated July 31, 1786, that West Point is of the most decisive importance to the defence of the Hudson River, for the following reasons:

First. "The distance across the river is only about fourteen hundred feet, a less distance by far than at any other part.

Second. The peculiar bend, or turn of the river, forming almost a re-entering angle.

Third. The high banks on both sides of the river, favorable for the construction of formidable batteries.

Fourth. The demonstrated practicability of fixing across the river a chain or chains, at a spot where vessels in turning the Point invariably lose their rapidity, and, of course, their force, by which a chain at any other part of the river would be liable to be broken."

These considerations, together with the difficulty [at that time] of taking West Point by siege; its being within a single night's sail of New York, and its importance  p11 in preserving communications between the Eastern and Middle States, induced General Hamilton to recommend its purchase by the United States, as a permanent military post.​1 Accordingly, both the patents held by Stephen Moore were deeded to the United States, on the payment of the sum of $11,085, September 10, 1790, in compliance with the act of Congress of July 4, of the same year.

A controversy having arisen in relation to the boundary of the public lands in after years, a commission was appointed by the Hon. Secretary of War, under an act approved January 22, 1811, to ascertain and settle the exterior lines of the Government property at West Point. This commission surveyed the tract, and submitted a report with map, dated January 22, 1812, establishing the boundary.

Which report was accepted and approved by act of Congress, dated January 5, 1813.

The tract adjoining Congreve's patent, immediately on the south, was one of the six tracts originally granted to Gabriel and William Ludlow, October 18, 1731, under the same condition of early settlement in the three years before referred to.

It was successively owned and afterwards occupied by Richard Williams, of Cornwall, N. Y., and Robert Armstrong, of Sussex County, N. J., by whom it was deeded to Benjamin Rose, December 1, 1785; by Ross to John Dunlap, of Ulster County, N. Y., September 6, 1788, and by Dunlap to Thomas North, of Cornwall, November 22, 1794. North also purchased a tract lying south of the  p12 one under consideration, from Isaiah Smith, June 3, 1796, and on the 28th December, 1819, he deeded both tracts to Oliver Gridley, of Bergen County, N. J.

On the 13th of May, 1824, Gridley deeded them to the United States for the sum of $10,000, in accordance with the act of Congress, approved March 10, of the same year.

Vexatious claims having in later years arisen between the Government and citizens who resided on the lands, application was made to the legislature of the State of New York, to transfer to the United States a portion of the territory in question.

Accordingly, on March 2, 1826, an act passed the senate and Assembly, ceding jurisdiction over the tract here described:​2 Beginning at the mouth of a small brook or creek, northwest of the present Engineer Barracks, and the Powder Magazine; thence up said creek to its intersection with the road leading west to the Cemetery; thence easterly along the northern brow of the bank bounding the road, to its intersection with the road near the west gate leading to Fort Putnam; thence due south until the line intersects a line beginning thirty-one chains south of Gee's Point, and running westerly, seven chains south of the east piazza of the Academic Building.

The number of acres of land is not known precisely.

All was ceded that was deemed desirable or necessary.

The State reserved the right to execute any process, civil or criminal, wherein the real or personal property of the United States was not affected.

Taxes have never been claimed by the State authorities  p13 but once (in 1828), and then only the road-tax was demanded; but, in consideration of liberal repairs habitually made by the Government, it was relinquished.3

A portion of the Moore patent having been offered for sale by the State of New York, for the payment of quit-rents, was purchased by William S. Watkins in 1828, and sold by him, in 1833, to Timothy Mahoney. A suit for trespass having been instituted against the latter, and the illegality and impossibility of his holding the land having been made manifest, in 1839, Mahoney determined to avoid trouble by giving a quit-claim to the United States.

When the Moore and Congreve patents were purchased by the United States, Hugh McClellan, a Revolutionary soldier, occupied a small house on the patent first named; and in consequence of distinguished services, the soldier was permitted by General Knox, then Secretary of War, to remain in occupancy and cultivate a garden. McClellan accordingly lived and died on the spot undisturbed, leaving a widow and daughter. The latter, having married, remained on the premises to aid and assist her aged mother. After the lapse of a few years, her husband claimed the whole of Moore's patent as the property of his wife, on the plea that, under the laws of the State of New York, McClellan had acquired a title to the land by years of undisputed possession, and that his own wife was the only lawful heiress.

A suit for ejectment was instituted, and a judgment, rendered in 1839, decided in favor of the United States.

A third suit for trespass, brought against Andrew  p14 Swim, for the recovery of a portion of the Ludlow patent, which had also been sold for the payment of quit-rents, resulted in the removal and ejectment of the trespasser, in 1840.4

The annoyances caused by these parties led to a new survey of the boundaries of the public lands in April, 1839, and the lines as then established have remained unchanged to the present day.

The intervals between the granting of the patents and the transfer of the titles, before described, down to the period at which the American Revolution commenced, are blanks in historical literature.

No traditions even of early settlers are extant, and the probabilities are, that beyond a settlement made to secure a title or grant, West Point — being in a region of primary stratified rocks, heavily covered with drift deposits, and without a suitable soil for cultivation — remained a mere wood-land tract, possessing no higher value than attaches to similar adjoining posts in the Highlands, which have remained unsettled and uncultivated to the present day.

Even after hostilities commenced, its importance as a key to the passage of the Hudson remained, for a period of nearly three years, practically of no interest to the Provincial or Continental authorities.

5The student of American history is familiar with the fact, that to obtain control of the navigation of the Hudson River, was a favorite project with the British Government, during the whole progress of the War of Independence.

 p15  In order to acquireº a proper understanding of the reasons on which this project was based, we should examine with some attention the topography of the river, not simply as limited to the section of country through which its waters flow, but taking a broader view, and regarding its connection with those more remote and wide-spread regions, that find through it their most direct and natural channel to the seaboard.

Even at the present day, when the skilled enterprise of a numerous and commercial people has linked the interior to the coast, by many and various artificial channels, the great thoroughfare of the State of New York holds a pre-eminent position, mainly due to its unrivalled natural advantages. But these advantages were of paramount importance, both before and during the Revolutionary struggle, when the canoe of the Indian, or the bateau of the voyageur, furnished the most convenient and speedy transportation, for purposes either of commerce or of war. Then, to the north, at the head of boat navigation, the Hudson was connected by an easy portage with Lakes George and Champlain, and through them with the St. Lawrence, the great river of the Canadas; whilst, towards the west, its principal affluent, the Mohawk, gave easy access, scarcely interrupted by a few short portages, to the basin of the great lakes, and to the magnificent river system of the Mississippi.

Thus established by nature as the main artery, connecting a vast network of interior water communications with the Atlantic, and draining the resources of almost half a continent, the Hudson occupied a position of the highest strategic importance.

The British Government had been taught this fact in  p16 the course of the long struggle between England and France, then but recently terminated. They knew that by the possession of the Hudson they could separate the eastern part of the Province of New York and the Provinces of New England from the remainder of the Confederacy, and thus, by cutting off communication between these points, speedily reduce the patriots to subjection. Hence, in a letter dated London, July 31st, 1775, conveying to the colonists the plan of operations decided upon by the British Government, it is said that their design is: "to get possession of New York and Albany; to fill both of these cities with very strong garrisons; to command the Hudson and East rivers with a number of small men-of‑war, and cutters, stationed in different parts of it, so as to cut off all communication by water between New York and the Provinces to the northward of it, and between New York and Albany, except for the King's service; and to prevent also all communication between the city of New York and the Provinces of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and those to the southward of them. By these means," continues the letter, "the Administration and their friends fancy that they shall soon either starve out or retake the garrisons of Crown Point and Ticonderoga, and open and maintain a safe intercourse and correspondence between Quebec, Albany, and New York, and thereby afford the fairest opportunity to their soldiery and the Canadians, in conjunction with the Indians, to be procured by G. J.,​6 to make continual irruptions into New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, and so  p17 distract and divide the Provincial forces as to render it easy for British Army at Boston to defeat them, break the spirits of the Massachusetts people, depopulate their country, and compel an absolute subjection to Great Britain."7

But the colonists were equally familiar with the importance of maintaining possession of the river. In a report submitted by the Provincial Congress of New York to the Continental Congress, early in 1775, the subject is thus treated: "If the enemy persist in their plan of subjugating these States to the yoke of Great Britain, they must, in proportion to their knowledge of the country, be more and more convinced of the necessity of their becoming masters of the Hudson river, which will give them the entire command of the water communication with the Indian nations, effectually prevent all intercourse between the eastern and southern Confederates, divide our strength, and enfeeble every effort for our common preservation and security. That this was their original plan, and that General Gordon and General Howe flattered themselves with the delusive hope of uniting their forces at Albany, every intelligence confirms, and it appears to the Committee that they will not give up this grand object until they shall finally relinquish the project of enslaving America."8

With this brief explanation of the natural causes which gave to the Hudson river its importance in the struggle for Independence, and of the plans adopted by the British Government to secure its control, we come to consider some of the means employed by the colonists to defeat  p18 the efforts of the English. The general operations of the Continental forces are amply detailed in our histories. Still, there are many facts of interest which have not been recorded, especially in regard to the Fortifications in the Highlands, and the character of the obstruction to the navigation of the river. To supply details in reference to these subjects, will constitute an interesting section in this history.

The plan of operations adopted by the British government, while aiming at general results, immediately involved the Province of New York; and hence the Congress of that Province took early steps to prevent its consummation. Prior to the reception of the letter of July 31st, already quoted, the Provincial Congress had taken action upon the subject of fortifying the Highlands and obstructing the navigation of the river, and had invited the prompt action of the Continental Congress.

On the 25th May, 1775, the latter body communicated to the former a series of resolutions in reference to the defence of New York, one of which is as follows:

"Resolved, That a post be taken in the Highlands, on each side of the Hudson river, and batteries erected; and that experienced persons be immediately sent to examine said river, in order to discover where it will be most advisable and proper to obstruct the navigation."​9

This Resolution received the action of the Provincial Congress at its session held May 30th, 1775, when the following order was passed:

"Ordered, That Col. Clinton and Mr. Tappan be a Committee (and that they take to their assistance such persons as they shall think necessary) to go to the Highlands  p19 and view the banks of the Hudson River there; and report to this Congress the most proper place for erecting one or more fortifications, and likewise an estimate of the expense of erecting the same."​10

This Committee made a report on the 13th of June, 1775, in which they suggested the erection of what were afterwards known as Forts Constitution, Clinton, and Montgomery. In their report they also say:

"Your Committee begs leave to observe, that they are informed that by means of four or five Booms, chained together on one side of the river, ready to be drawn across, the passage can be closed up to prevent any vessel passing or repassing."​11

On the 18th of August, 1775, the Provincial Congress passed the following resolution:

"Resolved and ordered, That the Fortifications formerly ordered by the Continental Congress [May 25, 1775], and reported by a Committee of this Congress, as proper to be built on the banks of Hudson's River, in the Highlands, be immediately erected. Mr. Walton dissents. And that Mr. Isaac Sears, Mr. John Berrien, Colonel Edward Flemming, Mr. Anthony Rutgers and Mr. Christopher Miller, be Commissioners to manage the erecting and finishing the fortifications. That any three or more of them be empowered to act, manage, and direct the building and finishing thereof."

The Author's Notes:

1 Am. State Papers — Claims — 19.

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2 Official Records, U. S. M. A.

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3 Pub. Doc., 1848.

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4 Official Records, U. S. M. A.

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5 Munsell's Historical Series, No. V.

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6 Col. Guy Johnson, a son-in‑law of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian affairs of the Province of New York.

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7 Jour. of the Prov. Cong. of N. Y., 172.

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8 Jour. Prov. Cong. of N. Y., 723.

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9 Jour. Prov. Cong., 16.

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10 Jour. Prov. Cong., 20.

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11 Ibid., 41.

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