By Paul Hicks
The campus of Purchase College was once the estate of John Thomas, whose family were among the first settlers in what is now the Purchase area of Harrison. In 1739, the family’s property was located in Rye Woods, which was in Rye Township, as Harrison did not become a separate township until 1788.
John Thomas served as a member of the colonial legislature for many years and was a Judge on the Court of Common Pleas from 1755 to 1776. According to Baird’s “History of Rye”, Judge Thomas was “the most prominent personage in the northern part of the town, and his estate in Rye Woods was large and furnished with a goodly number of slaves. This family, with the Jays in the lower part of the town, held a commanding position among the inhabitants, both families espousing the patriot side in the contest of the Revolution…His patriotism was intense, but as a large number of the inhabitants remained loyal to the Crown, he, like many other brave men of his time, frequently found himself in trouble and his life in danger.”
In 1775, some Tories in Rye Neck failed in a plot to capture Judge Thomas at his home, but he remained an active Patriot. On July 11, 1776, Judge Thomas gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in New York State on the steps of the courthouse in White Plains. British troops made a number of attempts to capture him and finally succeeded in March 1777. They seized him at his house in Rye Woods and took him to New York, where he was put in prison in the old Sugar House, and died there May 2, 1777.
The Patriot cause was joined by the judge’s two sons, who were both active in local government and the military. Colonel Thomas Thomas commanded a Westchester regiment that fought the British and protected the county from marauders, called “Cowboys” and “Skinners”. John Thomas Jr. served in his brother’s regiment and was also High Sheriff of Westchester County.
British military foraging parties continued to scour the country. As reported by Baird: “In November, 1778, the house of Colonel Thomas, at ‘Rye Woods’, was again surprised, this time by a party of the Rangers under Simcoe. Colonel Thomas, CUT? the son of Judge Thomas, who had been captured in the same way the year before, was, like his father very active and fearless in his support of the American cause, and was bitterly hated by the enemy. The Rangers marched all night and surrounded the house by daybreak. Colonel Thomas had not for some time passed the night at home but as the British troops were reported to have gone into winter quarters thought himself comparatively safe.
“As the party approached the house, Colonel Thomas leaped out of a window, and came near escaping, but was taken by one of the hussars. He was taken to General Tryon, who was then at ‘Ward’s house’ in East Chester, and who ‘was much pleased at this mischievous partizan’s being taken.’” From there he was shipped across the Sound and held in a British prison until he was released, probably in an exchange of prisoners.
Following the Revolutionary War, both brothers returned to their farms, which they had inherited from their father. Thomas, who had been promoted to Major General, received the family homestead and the south portion of the land, while John Jr. received the northern section. Information about the Thomas family on the Purchase College website mentions that by 1790 Thomas had eleven slaves and, in 1810, he and John together owned nine slaves. It also notes that, “New York State…law mandated gradual manumission in 1799, and by 1817, the law provided for the extinction of slavery. In his will, Thomas Thomas provided for the few remaining slaves on his farm.”
The Thomas family cemetery can be clearly seen today behind the Neuberger Art Museum. It is surrounded by stonewalls, which Catherine Thomas ordered to be built according to the bequest in the will of her husband Thomas. Long neglected, the cemetery was restored in recent years by the Town of Harrison. The State of New York erected a monolith in honor of Thomas Thomas that has the following inscription:
<“Sacred to the memory of Major General Thomas Thomas, who died on the 29th of May A.D. 1824 in the 79th year of his age. As a soldier of the Revolution of 1776, he aided in achieving the independence of the United States. As a member of the Legislature of the State of New York he assisted in laying the foundation of the Constitution that is intended to perpetuate the republic.”>
When you visit Purchase College, look for the Thomas family cemetery, a reminder of those who made this country possible.