From skirmishes to military battles, espionage to terrorism, the Philipse family and Westchester County were in the thick of the American Revolution from the beginning. As the rebellion in Massachusetts grew into a war for independence, the Philipse family remained united in their support for Great Britain. In the spring of 1775, a week before any blood was shed at Lexington and Concord, Frederick Philipse III and a number of Westchester residents marched to the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains to protest the illegal election of delegates for the upcoming Provincial Congress. Philipse confirmed his allegiance to the King and pledged only to recognize the lawfully elected leaders of New York’s General Assembly.
The second half of 1776 was particularly intense for both Frederick Philipse III and Westchester County. In October of that year, British forces landed 4,000 men at Pelham, on the Long Island Sound side of Westchester in an attempt to crush George Washington’s forces in Harlem. The British army was met by 750 American soldiers under the command of Colonel John Glover. Positioning his troops behind a series of stone walls, Glover’s outnumbered forces attacked the British advance units. As the British overran each position, the American soldiers fell back and reorganized behind the next wall. After several such attacks, the British broke off, and the Americans retreated. Glover’s attacks delayed British movements long enough for Washington to move the main army to White Plains and escape being trapped in Harlem.
Ten days later, the two armies clashed in White Plains. With British and Hessian forces outnumbering Washington’s Continental Army by more than two to one, Washington lost the battle, but succeeded in escaping and retreating into northern Westchester County. The British chose not to pursue, returning to Manhattan and turning their attention to Forts Washington and Lee.
Fort Washington was a hastily built fortification on the northern tip of Manhattan. It was on high ground overlooking the Hudson River and only a short distance away from Philipse’s land at Kingsbridge. Fort Lee was on the opposite side of the Hudson River, on the New Jersey Palisades. With Washington’s Continental Army 30 miles north in Peekskill, both forts were isolated from any reinforcements. The British took Fort Washington on November 16.
With the lower Hudson River under control of the British Navy, the invasion of New Jersey at Fort Lee began on the night of November 19. Five thousand British troops encamped along the Saw Mill River in and around Philipse Manor Hall. In a rainstorm, the men were ferried across the Hudson on barges and marched up the steep cliffs of the Palisades. Washington was able to get word to General Nathaneal Greene at the Fort, and Greene quickly evacuated the soldiers on the morning of November 20, leaving Fort Lee to the British but escaping capture.
By the end of 1776, Westchester County became neutral territory between British forces holding Manhattan and American forces stationed in Peekskill. The farms, towns, and Manor lands between the opposing forces faced constant harassment by militia from both sides as soldiers foraged for food, supplies, and news of the enemy.
At Philipse Manor Hall, war was never more than a few miles away. The Philipse family and the enslaved community endured the battles over the summer and fall of 1776, and by November, the British were encamped nearby. Frederick Philipse III, however, was not with his family during these tumultuous times. In early August, under orders from George Washington, Philipse was arrested for his loyalty to the crown and held under guard in Connecticut. He would not be released until late December, after the Continental Army had moved into New Jersey. In return for his freedom, Philipse agreed not to “bear arms, nor excite, nor encourage others to bear Arms against the United States of America… and to give no intelligence to the Enemies of the said States.” [An American Loyalist: The Ordeal of Frederick Philipse III, 1976. p. 24]
Only a few months after his return to Philipse Manor Hall, Frederick Philipse III attempted to provide intelligence to a nearby British outpost, warning them of an impending raid. His messenger was captured and Philipse was charged with treason against the newly formed New York state government. Philipse knew that treason carried a death sentence, so he hastily packed and took his family to the safety of British-held Manhattan, where they remained for the rest of the war.
From April 1777 until the end of the war, Philipse Manor Hall was abandoned by the Philipse family and, at various times, in the hands of both British and American forces. In the spring of 1778, the British moved up the Hudson River and attacked the American supply magazine at Peekskill. By August, American forces retaliated, moving against the British post at Kingsbridge. The British were committed to holding Manhattan, leaving what is now the Bronx as a no man’s land. It was there, on land owned by the Van Cortlandt and Philipse families, that the Stockbridge Munsee fought their last battle for General Washington.
The battle of Kingsbridge was a small skirmish in the war for independence, but it had a major impact on the Stockbridge Munsee. During the French and Indian War, the Stockbridge Munsee fought with the British against the French. By the time of the American Revolution, the Stockbridge Munsee, under the leadership of sachem Daniel Nimham, had switched their allegiance to General Washington’s Continental Army. Numbering around 60 men, the Stockbridge Munsee fought at Bunker Hill and Saratoga and, by the summer of 1778, they were patrolling the neutral zone in lower Westchester County. On August 31, 1778, Daniel Nimham, his son, Abraham, and about 45-50 Stockbridge Munsee were patrolling an area between Kingsbridge and the Van Cortlandt House in what is now the Bronx. They were ambushed and encircled by the Queen’s Rangers led by Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe. Simcoe's Rangers had a ten-to-one advantage over Nimham’s small patrol. Although they fought bravely, nearly all of Ninham's men were killed or severely wounded in the battle, including Nimham himself and his son.
One unexpected benefit that came from the near constant harassment between Loyalist and American sympathizers in Westchester was the capture of British agent Major John André, who had been in contact with Benedict Arnold, the commander of the American fortifications at West Point. On September 24, 1780, a party of local militia out tracking the movements of British militiamen came upon André, dressed in civilian clothes, passing through Tarrytown. André had met with Arnold a few days earlier and was heading back to Manhattan to deliver the plans for taking West Point. The men searched him and found the letters and plans. This action exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor prevented the fall of West Point to the British. André was sent to Tappan, New York, where he was hastily tried as a spy and hanged.
Throughout the war, American troops stationed in upper Westchester County were ordered to secure a critical crossing of the Croton River at Pine's Bridge. Despite the defensive plans and the presence of American troops, a band of men loyal to the British crown were able to penetrate the area and launch an attack in the early hours of May 14, 1781. Officers and soldiers at the American headquarters at Davenport House were ambushed. Several were killed in what became known as the Massacre at Pines Bridge.
Although major hostilities in the American Revolution ended with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in the fall of 1781, the war itself did not end until the Treaty of Paris in the fall of 1783. New York City remained under British control until the British formally evacuated on November 25, 1783. Thousands of soldiers, civilians, and formerly enslaved individuals left New York in the weeks leading up to evacuation day. The Philipse family remained in New York City until the end of the war in 1783. When British troops evacuated, Frederick Philipse III and his family sailed with other Loyalists to Great Britain, a place Philipse had never seen. Philipse died in England in 1786 at age 65.
The manor lands of Philipsburg and Philipse Manor Hall were confiscated by New York state in 1779 and auctioned off between 1784 and 1785 to nearly 300 separate buyers, mainly former tenants. The sale of Philipse’s land brought in more than 28 million dollars by today’s standards, making it the largest confiscated estate sold in New York. The money raised was used to pay off war debts.
Thousands of enslaved individuals also left with the British in 1783, largely due to promises made by the British army to free those enslaved by rebel families. In New York, General Samuel Birch recorded information on more than 3000 formerly enslaved individuals who left after the war ended in what was called the “Book of Negroes.” Many were transported to Nova Scotia and other British colonies.
A close read of Birch’s book shows that at least ten people enslaved by former tenants of Philipse Manor left New York at this time, fleeing bondage by the Odell, Van Wart, and Hunt families. Eleanor Fleming, a 21-year-old woman enslaved by William Pugsley, who leased the Philipse’s Upper Mills, also appears in the book. Peter Robertson was a man enslaved by Frederick Jay, a cousin of Frederick Philipse and the younger brother of Founding Father John Jay.