Westchester’s Rich History
By Jan Kelsey
Did you ever wonder when your spade hits yet another rock as you dig in your garden or you listen to the seemingly endless drilling at the construction site down the street, where did all these rocks come from? Well, the Pleistocene Era, and that is where “Westchester County: A History” by Field Horne, the richly illustrated new history of the County recently published by the Westchester County Historical Society, begins. The retreating glaciers gouged out the Hudson River channel and the Saw Mill, Bronx, and Croton Rivers creating the topography that we know today and leaving such geologic wonders as the Balanced Rock in North Salem and the Cobbling Stone in Somers, huge granite boulders precariously balanced on small limestone points.
“Westchester County: A History”, with over 225 illustrations (110 in full color), is the first comprehensive story of the County to be published in 40 years. Horne, a resident of Saratoga Springs, grew up in Mount Pleasant and was the eleventh generation of his family in Westchester. He has written a dozen books on American history and culture including histories of Greene County and Saratoga Springs. In this 257-page work he traces the history of Westchester County from its early native peoples, the Munsees whose bands included the Manhattans, the Sint Sincks, and the Siwanoy, to today.
Horne introduces many of the fascinating characters who settled Westchester after the first European contact in 1609, including Adriaen van der Donck, Anne Hutchinson, Frederick Philipse, Caleb Heathcote, and John Pell. In 1664 the English took control of the colony from the Dutch. To promote settlement, they offered large land grants creating manors and patents including Philipsburg Manor, Van Cortlandt Manor, and Pelham Manor. The large landowners rented land to tenant farmers or sold parcels for small farms establishing Westchester’s agricultural economy.
Westchester County’s pivotal role in the Revolutionary War is vividly described by Horne through maps and first-hand accounts. The Battle of White Plains in October 1776, although technically a defeat for the Americans, stopped the British advance when General Howe withdrew to New York City. For the remaining seven years of the war Westchester remained a no-man’s land called the Neutral Ground between the British forces in New York City and the Americans farther north. Those residents that remained suffered at the hands of foraging soldiers and bands of outlaws called Cowboys (Loyalists) and Skinners (Rebels) who pillaged local towns and farms. Horne recounts other lesser known military actions. In 1779 the notorious Banastre Tarleton led a raid, burning Pound Ridge and Bedford Village. Several African-American soldiers of the First Rhode Island Regiment were killed at the 1781 Battle of Pines Bridge in present day Yorktown when their encampment was overrun by British troops. In the summer of 1781 General Rochambeau of the French Army made his headquarters at the Odell House in Hartsdale. There he met with Washington and, together, they devised the southern strategy which eventually resulted in the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown. Currently the Friends of the Odell- Rochambeau House are working to preserve this historic property.
The capture of Major John André by three Westchester militiamen, Isaac Van Wart, John Paulding, and David Williams, in Tarrytown in September 1780 was arguably the most important act to take place in the Revolutionary War in Westchester County. Caught carrying the plans for West Point, André exposed the treason of Benedict Arnold before he could surrender West Point to the British, perhaps changing the course of history.
Making extensive use of archival photographs, Horne deftly weaves the story of Westchester’s growth and development through the next 200 plus years. Farming, manufacturing, development of villages and suburbs, the contributions of African-Americans and the waves of immigrants are all chronicled. In the nineteenth century, dairy farming was the County’s major industry — producing over 13 million gallons of milk in 1890. The arrival of the railroads beginning in the 1840s spurred this growth as well as bringing Westchester’s shoreline and rolling hills within easy reach of vacationers and, eventually, providing daily commutation into New York City. The two major projects that dramatically shaped Westchester County into what we know today were the construction of the reservoirs and aqueducts including the Kensico Dam (1909) for New York City’s water supply and the coming of the parkways beginning with the Bronx River Parkway which opened in 1925.
The narrative of Westchester County’s long and varied history is beautifully told through words and illustrations in this softcover coffee table book. It is a great reference and an enjoyable read. Perfect for new and longtime residents, and new graduates, “Westchester County: A History” can be purchased directly from the Westchester County Historical Society’s website, www.westchesterhistory.com, or at Arcade Booksellers in Rye.