Here to return to
to the Previous Chapter
THE LAND OF IRVING
TO a very large degree the peculiar sentiment and romance that are associated with the Hudson are due to Washington Irving. The river may almost be said to have been discovered by him. He found a stream of wonderful beauty and of much fascination in its historic and legendary lore; but the beauty was uncelebrated, and the history and the legends unrecorded. It was his pen which popularized the romantic interest of “the river that he loved and glorified.” Whether he was writing fiction or simply interpreting facts, in either case his lively imagination and gentle humor imparted an atmosphere that will always color the public impression of the region. He was born in 1783 on the banks of the river, in the then small city which was gradually expanding northward from the lower end of Manhattan Island, and he died in 1859 at “Sunnyside,” as he called the home he had established on the shores of the Tappan Sea. Sunnyside is rather less than a mile from the village of Irvington, which was so named in his honor a few years before his death.
Irving bought the place in 1835. He had returned from a sojourn of many years abroad with a desire to indulge in the pleasures of a real home of his own, where he could have quiet and enjoy the companionship of some of his near relatives. The place he chose was merely a ten-acre farm on which stood a small stone house. It had formerly belonged to a man named Wolfert Acker and was known as “Wolfert’s Roost,” the latter word meaning rest. Irving’s original intention was that the place should be nothing more than a summer retreat, inexpensive and simply furnished; but he did much more than he at first had in mind doing, and it became his permanent residence. He remodeled the cottage and it acquired a tower, and a whimsical weathervane said to have come from a windmill at the gate of Rotterdam in Holland. But whatever changes were made its quaint Dutch characteristics were carefully preserved and, as the author observed, it continued to be “as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat.” He made it one of the snuggest and most picturesque residences on the river. With its sheltering groves and secluded walks and grassy glades and its wide-reaching view of the river it was an ideal home for such a man of letters as Irving. In a short time it had become the dearest spot on earth to him, and he always left it with reluctance and returned to it with eager delight.
Since Irving’s time the house has been greatly enlarged, but the most characteristic portion of the old residence has been retained, and the newer part is in the rear, so that Sunnyside in its general aspect is the same as Irving left it. The coziness and retirement of the house are delightful. It is like a human bird’s nest. The grounds are ample, with many old and lofty trees, and include a brook that courses down a rocky hollow and then lingers through the lush weeds and grasses of a little meadow. Between the knoll on which the house stands and the river, the railroad intervenes, but is for the most part screened from sight by a thick growth of trees.
In telling the story of Wolfert’s Roost, Irving says that the builder of the house, Wolfert Acker, “was a man whose aim through life had been to live in peace and quiet. For this he had emigrated from Holland, driven abroad by family feuds and wrangling neighbors. It was his doom, in fact, to meet a head-wind at every turn, and to be kept in a constant fume and fret by the perverseness of mankind. Had he served on a modern jury, he would have been sure to have eleven unreasonable men opposed to him. Wolfert retired to this fastness in the wilderness, and inscribed over his door his favorite motto, “Lust in Rust” (pleasure in quiet). The mansion was thence called Wolfert’s Rust, but by the uneducated who did not understand Dutch, Wolfert’s Roost, probably from its having a weathercock perched on every gable.
“Wolfert had brought with him a wife, and it soon passed into a proverb throughout the neighborhood that the cock of the Roost was the most henpecked bird in the country. His house, too, was reputed to be harassed by Yankee witchcraft. When the weather was quiet everywhere else, the wind, it was said, would howl about the gables; witches and warlocks would whirl on the weathercocks and scream down the chimneys; nay, it was even hinted that Wolfert’s wife was in league with the enemy, and used to ride on a broomstick to a witches’ Sabbath in Sleepy Hollow.
This, however, was all mere scandal, founded perhaps on her occasionally flourishing a broomstick in the course of a curtain lecture, or raising a storm within doors, as termagant wives are apt to do.”
During the troublous time of the Revolutionary War the Roost was the stronghold of Jacob Van Tassel. It stood between the British and American lines in the very heart of the debatable ground, which was much infested by bandits. To make matters worse the Tappan Sea was domineered over by the foe. “British ships of war were anchored here and there in the wide expanses of the river. Stout galleys armed with eighteen pounders, and navigated with sails and oars, cruised about like hawks, while rowboats made descents on the land, and foraged the country bordering the shore.
“It was a sore grievance to the yeomanry along the Tappan Sea to behold that little Mediterranean ploughed by hostile prows, and the noble river of which they were so proud reduced to a state of thraldom. Councils of war were held to devise ways and means of dislodging the enemy. Here and there on a point of land, a mud-work would be thrown up, and an old fieldpiece mounted, with which a knot of rustic artillerymen would fire away for a long summer’s day at some frigate dozing at anchor far out of reach.
“Jacob Van Tassel, stout of frame and bold of heart, was a prominent man in these operations. On a row of hooks above the fireplace of the Roost reposed a goose-gun of unparalleled longitude, with which it was said he could kill a wild goose half way across the Tappan Sea. When the belligerent feeling was strong on Jacob, he would take down his gun and prowl along the shore, dodging behind rocks and trees, watching for hours together any ship or galley at anchor or becalmed, as a valorous mouser will watch a rat hole. So sure as a boat approached the shore, bang went the great goose-gun, sending on board a shower of slugs and buck-shot, and away scuttled Jacob Van Tassel through some woody ravine. As the Roost stood in a lonely situation, and might be attacked, he guarded against surprise by making loop-holes in the stone walls. His wife was as stout-hearted as himself, and could load as fast as he could fire; and his sister, a redoubtable widow, was a match, as he said, for the stoutest man in the country. Thus garrisoned, his little castle was fitted to stand a siege, and Jacob was the man to defend it to the last charge of powder.
“In the process of time the Roost became one of the secret stations of the Water Guard. This was an aquatic corps organized to range the waters of the Hudson, and keep watch on the movements of the enemy. It was composed of nautical men of the river, and hardy youngsters of the adjacent country, expert at pulling an oar or handling a musket. They were provided with whale boats, long and sharp, and formed to lie lightly on the water, and be rowed with great rapidity. In these they would lurk out of sight by day, in nooks and bays, and behind points of land, keeping a sharp lookout on the British ships. At night they rowed about in pairs, pulling quietly along with muffled oars, under the shadow of land, or gliding like specters about frigates and guard ships to cut off any boat that might be sent to shore.
“At length Jacob Van Tassel in the course of one of his forays fell into the hands of the enemy and the Roost, as a pestilent rebel nest, was marked out for signal punishment. An armed vessel came to anchor in front; a boat full of men paddled to shore. The garrison flew to arms, that is to say, to mops, broomsticks, shovels, tongs, and all kinds of domestic weapons — for unluckily the great goose-gun was absent with its owner. Above all, a vigorous defense was made with that most potent of female weapons, the tongue. Never did invaded hen roost make a more vociferous outcry. It was all in vain. The house was plundered, fire was set to each corner, and in a few moments its blaze shed a baleful light far over the Tappan Sea.
“Jacob was detained a prisoner in New York for the greater part of the war. In the meantime the Roost remained a melancholy ruin, its stone walls and brick chimneys alone standing, the resort of bats and owls. When the war was over Jacob Van Tassel sought the scenes of his former triumphs and mishaps, rebuilt the Roost, restored his goose-gun to the hooks over the fireplace, and reared once more on high the glittering weathercocks.
“The Roost still exists. The stout Jacob Van Tassel, it is true, sleeps with his fathers, yet his stronghold still bears the impress of its Dutch origin. Odd rumors have gathered about it as they are apt to do about old mansions, like moss and weather stains. The shade of Wolfert Acker walks unquiet rounds at night in the orchard; and a white figure has now and then been seen seated at a window and gazing at the moon, from a room in which a young lady is said to have died of love and green apples.”
Tarrytown, which formerly included Sunnyside within its boundaries is two miles to the north. It is a beautiful and long established place with considerable trade and manufacturing. The first two syllables of the name are said to have been metamorphosed from a Dutch word meaning wheat, which was a leading product of the district. Irving, however, fancies the name to have been bestowed by the housewives of the adjacent region because their husbands were prone to linger at the village tavern on market days.
During the War of the Revolution, Tarrytown, like other hamlets within the neutral territory was overridden and pillaged, and property and life were in constant hazard. One exciting episode has to do with two sloops that were going down the Hudson loaded with powder and arms for the American army. They discovered several British warships approaching from the opposite direction and hastily put into Tarrytown where they were cornered by the enemy. A few American soldiers who were in the town worked with great spirit to help unload the stores from the sloops, in spite of a galling fire from the British frigates. Even when two of the enemy’s gunboats and four barges crept in to destroy the fugitive vessels Captain Hurlburt with twelve of his brave troopers armed only with swords and pistols, resisted till the last possible moment. But in the end they were driven away. The British had no sooner set the sloops on fire and retired, however, than the intrepid Hurlburt and his men swam out to the burning vessels and extinguished the flames. Their superlative heroism is evident when the nature of the cargoes is remembered and the risk of explosion.
The most notable of all historic events in this part of the Hudson Valley was the capture of Major André — a capture which was a tragic climax both in his life and in that of Benedict Arnold. Incidents began to take a trend that led to the melancholy involving of these two back in the summer of 1778. Arnold was at that time placed in command of Philadelphia, where his blunt and self-willed methods created a good deal of irritation, and where his extravagant style of living was an offence in view of the distressed condition of the country. No one in that city kept a finer stable of horses or gave more costly dinners than General Arnold. He also engaged in commercial speculations and ran in debt. At the same time he courted and afterward married the reigning belle in the city, one of the most beautiful and fascinating women in America. She was scarcely twenty and he was a widower of thirty-five, with three sons, but his reputation, his gallant bearing and handsome face won the lady. Her father was a prominent Tory. This had an influence in making Arnold less warm in the patriot cause. Besides, his treatment by Congress had been far from generous and his manner of life had led to his being in great need of money. So in April, 1779, he wrote under an assumed name to the English General Clinton describing himself as an American officer of high rank, who through disgust at recent proceedings of Congress might be persuaded to go over to the British, provided he was indemnified for any losses he might incur by so doing. Clinton responded, and the correspondence continued for some time until Arnold gradually determined to obtain the command of an important post, by the surrender of which the country would be
carried back to its old allegiance. The result was that he sought and obtained from Washington, who had always been his warm friend, the command of West Point. Could this vital position be delivered to Clinton the British would gain what Burgoyne failed to get — the control of the Hudson. Thus Arnold, the hero of Saratoga, planned to undo the good work he had done for the American cause on that famous battlefield scarcely more than a hundred miles distant.
A portion of the British army in New York at length embarked ready to go up the Hudson, and the sloop-of-war Vulture was sent on ahead bearing Major André for a personal conference with Arnold. On September twenty-first, toward midnight, a boat, rowed by two men with muffled oars, came gliding silently to the side of the Vulture. In the stern sat Joshua Hett Smith, a local inhabitant whom Arnold had prevailed on to go to the British vessel and “get a person who was coming from New York with important intelligence.” He returned to the shore with André, and in the still starlight they landed at the foot of a shadowy mountain called the Long Clove — a solitary place, the haunt of the owl and the whip-poor-will.
Arnold was in waiting among the thickets. He had come thither on horseback accompanied by a mounted servant from Smith’s house, which was about two miles below Stony Point on the upland overlooking Haverstraw Bay. While Arnold and André were conferring, Smith remained in the boat and the servant withdrew to a distance with the horses. Hour after hour passed, and at length Smith approached the place of conference and gave warning that it was near daybreak, and the boat would soon be in danger of detection. As the bargain was not yet completed, it was arranged that André should remain on shore till the following night, and the boat was sent to a creek higher up the river. André mounted the servant’s horse and set off with Arnold for Smith’s house. They had scarcely entered it when they were startled by the booming of cannon. The Vulture was being fired on from the opposite shore, and André was dismayed to see the vessel retire down the stream. However, it was certain that she would not go far, and negotiations with Arnold were presently resumed in an upper chamber. It was agreed that immediately on André’s return to New York the British were to ascend the river in force.
To obstruct such hostile approach an enormous chain had been stretched across the river; but under pretence of repairs, one link was to be taken out for a few days and its place supplied by a rope which would easily break. The defendant forces were to be so distributed that they could be captured in detail, until Arnold, taking advantage of the apparent defeat, was to surrender the works and his entire command of three thousand men.
Arnold gave André six papers, all but one of them in his own handwriting, containing descriptions of the fortresses and the disposal of the troops. André concealed them between his stockings and the soles of his feet, and about noon Arnold departed to go in his barge ten miles upstream to his headquarters at a mansion across the river from West Point. As evening approached André prepared to return to the Vulture. He expected Smith to take him in the boat, but Smith had been alarmed by the firing in the morning and thought this would entail more risk than to try to reach the British lines by land. So the young officer partially disguised himself in some of Smith’s clothes, and the two crossed the river at King’s Ferry, and pursued their journey on horseback. This region between the opposing forces, with its forest-clad hills, fertile vales and abundant streams, was naturally very beautiful and prosperous; but it was now much infested by robbers, one set of whom was known as the “Cowboys” because they were partial to carrying off cattle, and another set as “Skinners,” because they took everything they could find. The former fought, or rather marauded, under the Americans; the latter, under the British banner. In the zeal of service, both were apt to make blunders and confound the property of friend and foe. Neither of them in the heat and hurry of a foray had time to ascertain the politics of a horse or a cow which they were driving off; nor when they wrung the neck of a rooster, did they concern themselves whether he crowed for Congress or King George. By these the country had been desolated, houses were plundered and dismantled, and inclosures broken down, so that the fields lay waste and the roads were grass-grown.
To check the enormities of the marauders a confederacy was formed among the yeomanry who had suffered from them. It was composed for the most part of farmers’ sons, bold, hard-riding lads, well-armed and well-mounted, and they undertook to clear the region of “Skinners” and “Cowboys” and all other border vermin.
The more André’s guide meditated on the state of affairs roundabout, the more fearful he became of trouble, and he presently obliged his impatient companion to stop for the night at a farmhouse. Before dawn they were on their way again, and when they reached the Croton River which marked the upper boundary of the neutral ground between the contestants, Smith left André to go on alone while he made his way back to Arnold’s headquarters and reported that he had escorted his charge to a point whence he could reach the British lines with ease and safety.
André struck into a road that led through Tarrytown, but it happened that certain local residents had set out that morning to waylay a party of “Cowboys,” and as André approached the village and came to a place where a small stream crossed the road and ran into a woody dell, a man stepped forth from the bushes and confronted him with a leveled musket. Two other men-similarly armed also showed themselves, prepared to second their comrade.
The leader of the three was John Paulding. His career of late had abounded in excitement.
Not long before, while calling on a young woman to whom he was attentive, he had been attacked by a number of Tories, including the lady’s brother. He took refuge in a barn from which he fired on his assailants, wounding some of them. That made them keep their distance and parley for his surrender. He finally gave himself up and was turned over to the British and imprisoned in New York. But he managed to escape, and, aided by a negress who disguised him in the green coat of a Hessian soldier, he reached the American lines. A few days later, still wearing the same conspicuous garment, he and his two comrades halted Major André. This they did because he was a stranger about whose purposes they had doubts. The Hessian coat led André to think they were friends of the cause he represented, and he avowed himself to be a British officer travelling on important business. To his dismay, Paulding said that they were Americans, and seizing the bridle of his horse ordered him to dismount. André, who had now recovered his self-possession, endeavored to pass off his previous account of himself as a subterfuge. He declared himself to be a messenger from General Arnold and showed them a pass written by that officer. But his captors insisted on searching his person and obliged him to take off his coat and vest. They found nothing of any consequence, and would have let him proceed had not Paulding said, “Boys, I am not satisfied — his boots must come off.”
At this André changed color and protested that his boots came off with difficulty and begged that he might not be subjected to such inconvenience and delay. His remonstrances were in vain. He was obliged to sit down, his boots were removed, and the concealed papers discovered. Paulding looked them over and exclaimed, “He is a spy!”
André offered ten guineas to be allowed to pursue his journey but Paulding responded, “If you offered ten thousand guineas you could not stir one step.”
The young men took him up the river and delivered him to Colonel Jameson in command at North Castle. This officer did not clearly comprehend the entire purport of the papers, and not only sent word of the capture to Washington but also to Arnold. The latter was at the breakfast table with Alexander Hamilton and other members of Washington’s staff when the courier entered and handed him Jameson’s letter. With astonishing presence of mind he glanced at the letter, put it in his pocket and finished the remark he had been making. Then, rising, he said that he was suddenly called across the river to West Point, and ordered his barge to be manned. His wife detected something unusual in his manner, and as he left the room she hurried after him to their chamber. He told her he was a ruined man and must fly for his life; and when she screamed and fainted in his arms he laid her on the bed, kissed his baby boy sleeping in the cradle, ran to the yard, leaped on the horse of the messenger which stood saddled at the door, and galloped down a bypath to his six-oared barge. The oarsmen were soon pulling him down the river. It seemed probable that the Vulture would still be waiting for André somewhere below, and a brisk row of eighteen miles brought him to that vessel. The commander was wondering at André’s long absence. When he understood what had happened he weighed anchor and sailed for New York.
A few days later André was taken across the river to Tappan where he was tried by a military commission who sentenced him to death as a spy. He was a man of varied and graceful talents — a poet, a musician, an artist — and his engaging manners made him universally liked, but on October second he was hanged. His remains were buried at Tappan near the spot where he was executed, and there remained until 1821 when they were disinterred and removed to Westminster Abbey. His fate appeals strongly to the sympathies, yet it appears doubtful if either his career or his melancholy death called for this final distinction.
Arnold’s reward for his treachery was six thousand pounds and a brigadiership in the British army. Within three months he was sent on a marauding expedition into Virginia where he one day asked a captain whom he had captured, “What do you think would be my fate if my misguided countrymen were to take me prisoner?”
“They would cut off the leg that was wounded at Saratoga and bury it with the honors of war, and the rest of you they would hang on a gibbet,” was the reply.
After the war ended Arnold and his wife made England their home. Their descendants have since won for themselves an honorable place there, but Arnold himself, disgraced and almost friendless, died miserably in London in 1801. It is said that he had always kept the uniform he wore at the time he escaped to the Vulture and that when he felt his last moments coming he put it on and said, “Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for wearing any other!”
The monument that marks the vicinity of André’s capture is on Broadway, a continuation of the same Broadway that starts at the lower end of New York City. It is in the fine residence section of Tarrytown, and its surroundings have lost all rustic simplicity and are no aid to the imagination in conjuring up the scene as it was when the spy was captured. This capture took place beneath a great whitewood which afterward was known as the André tree, and on the very day that Arnold died this tree is said to have been struck by lightning.
A short walk farther on is the famous Sleepy Hollow, described by Irving as, “a little valley or rather a lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose, and the occasional whistle of a quail, or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in on the uniform tranquillity.
“Here were small farms, each having its little portion of meadow and cornfield; its orchard of gnarled and sprawling apple trees; its garden in which the rose, the marigold, and hollyhock, grew sociably with the cabbage, the pea and the pumpkin; each had its low-eaved mansion redundant with children, with an old hat nailed against the wall for the housekeeping wren, and a coop on the grass plot where the motherly hen clucked to her vagrant broods; each had its stone well, with a moss-covered bucket suspended from the long balancing pole, while within doors resounded the eternal hum of the spinning wheel.”
The valley is now suburban, and the placid old Dutch homesteads have disappeared. The bridge where Ichabod Crane came to grief when pursued by the headless horseman is no longer a rude wooden structure in a deep ravine overhung by trees and vines, but is a substantial arch of stone, across which runs a broad, exposed highway. Down the stream are the ruins of a mill and the ancient Philipse manor-house, but the most satisfying relic of the past is the little Dutch church on a knoll above the bridge. This was erected about 1690, and is now the oldest church building in use in New York State, and one of the quaintest and best preserved historic buildings on this continent. Its walls are two feet thick. They are partly of the rough country stone and partly of brick brought from Holland. Not till after the Revolution was English substituted for Dutch in the services.
“A weathercock graced each end of the church,” says Irving, in recording his early memories of the building, “one perched over the belfry, the other over the chancel. As usual with ecclesiastical weathercocks, each pointed a different way; and there was a perpetual contradiction between them on all points of windy doctrine.
“The congregation was of a truly rural character. Dutch sunbonnets and honest homespun still prevailed. Everything was in primitive style, even to the bucket of water and tin cup near the door in summer to assuage the thirst caused by the heat of the weather and the drought of the sermon.
“The drowsy influence of Sleepy Hollow was apt to breathe into this sacred edifice; and now and then an elder might be seen with his handkerchief over his face to keep off the flies, and apparently listening to the dominie; but really sunk into a summer slumber, lulled by the sultry notes of the locusts in the neighboring trees.”
The church is surrounded by the graves of many generations — those of the early settlers clustering thickly about the edifice, while the newer graves overspread the long slope rising beyond. One grave with a peculiar interest is that of Captain John Buckout, who with his wife Sarah, could count two hundred and forty children and grandchildren — a statement graven large on his tombstone. Near the summit of the hill is Irving’s grave, and a well-beaten path leads from the church to where he rests amid the scenes which his magic pen has made famous.