TREASON!

So, very exciting — I found the exact site where the American traitor Benedict Arnold met the British Major John Andre to negotiate the surrender of West Point. Honestly, it shouldn’t have been that hard — if I’d only walked five more minutes up the trail the other day, PAST the switchbacked Treason Trail, I would have come upon this sign. But no matter — here it is. Now I can start planning a midnight re-creation of Andre’s rowboat trip from the HMS Vulture to the Rockland shore . . . Check back here in September.

I thought today was a good day to post about treason, because we’ve been throwing this word around a lot. However, I wonder how much we really understand what it means. So let’s talk treason and why Benedict Arnold’s name is still synonymous with it.

First, I think we all need to start on the same page when it comes to a definition of treason, and what better page than the Oxford English Dictionary? They define “High Treason” as “Violation by a subject of his allegiance to his sovereign or his state.” I think we can all agree that this means doing something that knowingly harms your country. So what did Benedict Arnold do? Read on, MacDuff . . .

Come back to the Revolutionary War with me, back to 1741 when the aforementioned Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut to a fairly wealthy, well-connected family. Private school and Yale were in the cards for him, but for his father’s drinking problem and business failures. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his engrossing historical novel, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, describes Benedict thusly:

He was short, solidly built (one acquaintance remembered that “there wasn’t any wasted timber in him”), and blessed with almost superhuman energy and endurance. He was handsome and charismatic, with black hair, gray eyes, and an aquiline nose, and carried himself with the lissome elegance of a natural athlete. A neighbor from Connecticut remembered that Benedict Arnold was “the most accomplished and graceful skater” he had ever seen.

First, may I recommend Mr. Philbrick’s book as an engaging, informative read about a complex, challenging and difficult man? To say Benedict Arnold was just a traitor not only oversimplifies the story, it also de-fangs it of some of its potency. Valiant Ambition gives a nuanced, in-depth look at what caused Arnold to do what he did, without excusing or defending him. Go read it.

I personally was surprised to learn what a courageous and successful general Arnold had been. George Washington thought him one of his most reliable officers in the Continental Army. Combining daring, skill and audacity, Benedict Arnold notched up significant triumphs over the British in battles such as Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Ridgefield, just to name a few. (Of course, he could also be accused of losing far too many of his men due to his risky strategies, an accusation that could also be levied against George Washington in the early years of the Revolution.)

Arnold was wounded badly several times — in one battle having two horses shot out from under him in as many days — and at one point John Adams suggested that the Continental Congress have a medal struck in Arnold’s honor to acknowledge his bravery and sacrifices for the Patriots’ cause.

But Arnold’s personality contained an arrogance and sense of entitlement that caused him to feel keenly any perceived slight or lack of respect. Perhaps it was his rather Dickensian childhood that fueled his zeal for money, accolades and flattery. Dogging his career were ongoing rumblings of war profiteering, the proceeds of which he used to finance a wildly extravagant lifestyle. Combine this with an increasing bitterness on his part for not being promoted as quickly as he felt he should have been, and you have the recipe for a traitor.

Around June of 1779, Benedict Arnold’s profiteering caught up with him, and a court martial was begun. In January of 1780, he was acquitted of all but two of the most minor charges. His punishment, it seems, was just a snarky letter from General Washington expressing his disappointment in Benedict’s “imprudent and improper” actions. Washington went on to give Arnold command of West Point almost as a consolation prize. Pretty light punishment I’d say, but it just served to wind Benedict up. By July of 1780 he was giving the British classified military information.

At last, let’s talk about that fateful night of September 22, 1780, shall we? West Point, which was just a fort then, not the famed military academy it is today, was key to the British strategy of splitting the colonies and ending their troublesome revolution. For several months, bitter, lame and juggling creditors, Arnold had been secretly corresponding with Major John Andre, head of the British Secret Service in America and Adjutant General to General Henry Clinton, hatching a plot to turn West Point over to the British in exchange for L20,000. (It should be mentioned here that Major Andre had briefly courted Arnold’s young, Loyalist second wife, the lovely Peggy Shippen, and continued corresponding with her after she married Arnold. She seems to have played a major role in connecting the two men.)

One of my favorite details about Arnold’s correspondence with Andre is that not only was it written in code AND invisible ink, but they used noms de guerre — Arnold was Gustavus and Andre was John Anderson.) Because of the uncertainty as to Gustavus’ actual identity, General Clinton insisted that Major Andre have a face to face meeting with this mysterious double agent before any deal was finalized.

After several missed connections with Arnold, Major Andre went up the Hudson River in the British sloop the HMS Vulture, which anchored right off Teller’s Point (aka Croton Point.) Two young patriots, Jack Peterson and George Sherwood, spied it and began shooting at it with their muskets. See this plaque commemorating their heroism that can be still found at Croton Point Park:

They ran out of ammunition, and headed off the Fort Lafayette in Verplanck to secure more. During the lull, Joshua Hett Smith and two oarsmen, commissioned by Arnold, silently rowed up to the Vulture to take Major Andre to the appointed meeting place. All three maintained they had no idea they were being used in service of treason, having only been told that Arnold was gathering intelligence about the British strategy.

So it was right here, on the west bank of the Hudson River, right in this very forest that Major Andre and Benedict Arnold negotiated the price and logistics of Arnold’s treason: For 20,000 British pounds sterling (which is over $3 million in today’s dollars), Arnold was not only going to give the British the plans to West Point, but, as its commander, he was also going to make sure that the majority of the fighting men weren’t there when the British made their assault. Even worse, George Washington had just indicated his plan to inspect West Point in the coming days, and Arnold was ready to sacrifice Washington as well.

As the night began to turn to day, Joshua Hett Smith became increasingly anxious about the tide and the light and feasibility of rowing Andre back to the Vulture without being seen. Arnold had anticipated that his negotiations would take time, and had arrived with two horses. He and Andre rode them the few miles back to Smith’s house and continued negotiating. Smith and oarsmen, I guess, retreated upstream to stow their boat.

Here’s an old photo of the so-called “Treason House” — it was demolished in the 1920s and the Helen Hayes Hospital sits on this site today:

However, soon after sunrise, our friends Jack Peterson and George Sherwood returned to Croton Point Park with a cannon and began shelling the Vulture. Seeing no sign of Andre, the sloop retreated down the Hudson, back to the British line. Andre is said to have watched in horror from an upstairs window in Smith’s house as he saw the boat disappear, leaving him alone behind enemy lines in his telltale red coat.

Arnold was unruffled, giving Andre a change of clothes, a passport, and instructions to hide the plans to West Point in his stockings. Joshua Hett Smith, the most oblivious man in history, was tasked with accompanying Andre back down to the British lines. They rode up what is now 9W to King’s Ferry, took said ferry across the Hudson to Verplanck, and rode down towards Tarrytown. Smith left Andre at the bridge in Croton, near Van Cortlandt manor, which was the southern border of the American lines at the time. Andre continued south until he was captured by “three honest militiamen” named John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams. Andre was frisked, the plans found, his disguise unmasked and he was hanged as a spy three days later in Tappan, NY.

And Arnold? Well, he had hotfooted it back to his house, and on September 23rd was waiting to breakfast with George Washington in advance of the General’s inspection of West Point. Right before Washington’s arrival, Arnold learned that Andre had been captured. He told his wife Peggy the gig was up, promised he’d send for her and their infant son, then dashed to the shore to be rowed down the Hudson to the Vulture. Peggy, upon Washington’s arrival, created a scene that both detained Washington and convinced him of her instability (and thus, the unlikelihood that she would have been involved with the plot of which Washington was soon to learn.)

The Arnolds eventually escaped to England, and despite the fact that Peggy was presented to the court and received a token of the Crown’s appreciation, to the tune of 100 pounds sterling per annum, the couple found themselves to be personae non gratae there. They moved to Canada, where Benedict continued his downward spiral with bad business deals and petty lawsuits. Finally, they returned to London where he fought duels to protect what honor he had left, and possibly spied for the British during the French Revolution. He died London, deep in debt, in 1801 and is buried there.

For a country that generally has a short historical memory, Benedict Arnold’s treachery lives on. In 1865, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon equating Arnold with Jefferson Davis, depicting them sharing a “treason toddy” in Hell.

To this day, Benedict Arnold’s name is one of the more recognizable ones from the Revolutionary War years. While we may not all remember the details of his treachery, we all seem to know that his name is synonymous with treason — which, according to Article III, section 3 of the US Constitution is defined as “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

Hiking along the Rockland Side of the Hudson River

Okay, so this is definitely NOT within the jurisdiction of OssiningHistoryontheRun because it is across the Hudson River. But I feel I can squeeze it in here because you can SEE Ossining clearly from this side of the river, so . .

There are several trails to choose from here – Google Hook Mountain, Nyack Beach, and or Rockland Lake Park and you will find one that suits you.  I parked at (more or less) the black and green dot below, at the intersection of Landing and Collyer Roads.  

From there you can take your choice of trails – a six-mile loop south down towards the Mario Cuomo Bridge along the river and then back by way of Hook Mountain, or north six miles along the river, up to the steep, switch backed Treason Trail, so-called because it is where the traitorous Benedict Arnold met British Major John Andre to complete the deal that would surrender West Point to the British, in exchange for £20,000. 

Both trails are about 6-mile loops

Check out the link from the NY/NJ Trail Conference here for more details. Go either way and you will pass the ruins of old quarries, beach houses, docks, ice houses, an inclined railroad and even a cemetery, plus see some spectacular views of New York City, the Hudson, Ossining and Croton Point Park.  So follow along for a little forensic hiking . . .

First, I think it’s important to note that all of these trails are within the Palisades Interstate Park Commission that was created by NYS Governor Theodore Roosevelt and NJ Governor Foster Voorhees in 1900 in response to the rampant quarrying activities that were seen to be destroying the Palisades.  We’ll be walking above and by many of these quarries – you decide . . .

Now, let’s start at the top, where the Knickerbocker Ice Company stored its ice and transported it down to the river.  

Note that Rockland Lake was originally called Quaspeck Lake by the Munsee-speaking Lenni Lenape Indians who were here first. Henry Hudson sailed past here in the Half Moon in 1609, and the first Europeans to settle here were the Dutch.  But by the 1660s, the Dutch had handed off the land to the British.

By 1831, the lake was renamed Rockland as the Lenni Lenape had been displaced (or Ramapough Mountain Indians, or Ramapo Lenape Nation or Ramapo Lenape Munsee Delaware Nation – no one seems to be able to agree on exactly who they were, probably because their land was stolen out from under them so long ago.) 

Hook Mountain, in fact, gets its name from the Dutch – they called this area of the Hudson Verdrietige Hoogte, or “Tedious Hook” because I guess it was tricky to navigate a boat past it due to unpredictable winds and currents.

Next, rock quarrying is much of the reason that the Palisades look the way they do, especially north of the Mario Cuomo Bridge.  Hook Mountain, in fact, jutted much farther towards the Hudson in the eighteenth century than it does today, thanks to decades of quarrying in the mid-1900s.

First accomplished through sheer manpower, then through steam-powered stone crushers and dynamite, today’s bucolic surroundings bear little resemblance to the bustling, noisy, dangerous areas they once were.  

In those years, instead of serene trails alongside the Hudson, 

Photo credit: Sharon Edmonds

there were docks and piers all along the riverbank – landings named Sneden’s, Tappan Slote (Piermont), Rockland Landing, Waldberg (or Snedeker’s) that received ferries and barges which took on rocks, ice and later people, conveying them either across the river or down to Manhattan. Check it out (and note that you will be walking right THROUGH where all of this once was):

Thanks to Scott Craven for this photo

This New York Times article from October 1899 gives a sense of the dangerous conditions the quarry workers faced:

The Rockland Lake Trap Company, mentioned in the above article, owned and quarried much of these riverside hills.  Can you imagine what it was like to hear the blasting of the rocks once at noon, and again at the end of the workday? Can you imagine what is was like to work in one of these quarries? Apparently work of this nature was going on all up the Rockland side of the Hudson from Piermont up through Nyack and as far as Haverstraw.  Here’s a postcard of the above stone crusher:

Thanks to Scott Craven

No wonder the locals started complaining.  Over thirty companies were blasting away at the mountains from about the 1870s until about 1920, when the Palisades Interstate Parks Commission bought up the final parcels of this land, under the watchful eye of Commissioner George Perkins and thanks to donations from the likes of the Harriman and the Rockefeller families. 

You can see the scars from these quarries as you walk along the riverside trails:

In addition to the quarries, whose products were used for macadam roads and for foundations for many New York City buildings, the Knickerbocker Ice Company was also a bustling and lucrative business.  

Back before the Revolutionary War, in 1711,  a man named John Slaughter had purchased land at Rockland Landing that extended up Trough Hollow and back to Rockland Lake.  He build a dock and pier there which was for years called Slaughter’s Landing before being renamed Rockland Landing in the early 1800s.  

By 1805, ice harvesting began on Rockland Lake and it proved so popular that by 1831 the Knickerbocker Ice Company formed.  Ice began to be harvested in a systematic and efficient fashion to serve New York City’s ice boxes and restaurants.  Rockland Lake, you see, was said to have the “cleanest and purest ice” in the area.  During the coldest months of winter, ice was sliced up into blocks, and stored in icehouses in the area. Check out this Edison film from about 1905 showing the horse-drawn ice cutters:

 By 1856 an incline railway was built in Trough Hollow, the ruins of which you can see as you start your hike (look for the crumbling stone walls to your right as you head down to the river.  Imagine small rail cars filled with blocks of ice rolling down to the river to be loaded onto barges and steam ships and transported to the most august eating establishments in New York City.)

Here’s the lower part of what’s left of the incline railway. There are still pier footings in the river below.

With the advent of refrigeration, ice harvesting ended here in 1926, but the land around the lake was developed, and bungalows, resorts, hotels and even casinos for New Yorkers took up the slack until the late 1950s when the entire area was purchased and converted into Rockland Lake State Park. Check out these drawings of the Rockland Hotel (also see here for more information.)

Once the quarries were stilled, beach side parks were developed and Hook Mountain Beach Park was quite elaborate.

Overview of Hook Mountain Beach Park, in use from about 1920 – 1941
Steamboats docking

Sadly, this delightful beach park was shut down in 1942 due to WWII (I don’t know what the connection was, but apparently there was one) and a hurricane in the late 1940s destroyed the park, never to be rebuilt again. By the 1950s, no one wanted to let their kids swim in the Hudson anyway because it was so polluted.

As you walk along, you’ll see ruins of old stone buildings – some of which were from the beach park era, some of which are from the quarry period and served as storage sheds for dynamite or offices.

Last but not least is a beauty shot of the spectacular view you will see when you climb to the top of Hook Mountain:

I’m glad Theodore Roosevelt et al had the foresight to protect this land. What do you think?