Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883

Volume I, Page 596

Fortifications in the Highland of the Hudson

An Error in History.--Several early writers have stated that skillful engineers were sent out by the King of France, to explore the passage of the river through the Highlands, and locate suitable defenses; and that they there superintended the erection of forts and obstructions to the navigation, for which service they were never paid. This is untrue. When the valley of the Hudson was being cared for in a military way, the King of France had manifested no sympathy with the patriotic cause. May 25, 1775, the Continental Congress passed resolutions recommending immediate measures to be taken to fortify the river at different points; and four days after, those resolves appear on the Journal of the Provincial Congress of New York. May 30, committees were appointed by that body, one to view the river at King's Bridge-a structure about 60 feet long over the Spuyten Duyvel, or Harlem river-and the other to visit the Highlands and report a proper place for erecting one or more fortifications. That for the latter consisted of Col. James Clinton and Christopher Tappen, both delegates in the State Convention from Ulster county. They associated with them Captains Samuel Bayard and Erasmus Williams, and June 10 they reported progress. They assigned good reasons for selecting West Point as the most desirable place on which to erect fortifications.

June 16, the Provincial Congress ordered that a committee inquire into the depth of the Hudson from New York to New Windsor, and on the 17 of August, it resolved, that the fortifications formerly ordered by the Continental Congress, to be built in the Highlands, be immediately erected. Those works were on the east side of the river at West Point, and not at Poplopins Kill on the west side of the river some six miles below, as is erroneously stated on pages eight and nine of Mr. Ruttenber's, Hudson River Obstructions. The erection of Forts Montgomery and Clinton at that point was an after consideration.

August 30, six commissioners were appointed to take charge of the works in the Highlands. Bernard Romans, then a pensioner under the British crown, came to West Point about the first of September, 1775, to act as engineer; but he was so constantly at loggerheads with the commissioners whose counsel he ignored, that they complained of his action September 28, to the State convention. The Continental Congress having desired an examination of the Hudson by the engineer, with reference to its defense and obstructions at other points, Mr. Romans made a report to the State convention, October 16, sanctioned by Messrs. Bayard and Bedlow of the commission; in which he suggested fortifications at Poplopins Kill, nearly opposite to Anthony's Nose.

October 17, the State convention wrote to the Continental Congress, that they expected in about six weeks to have the cannon mounted, in the fort then constructing in the Highlands. This became known as Fort Constitution, and was situated on "Martelair's Rock Island," afterwards called Constitution Island.

The difficulties continuing between the construction commission and Mr. Romans, the State convention sent a committee of three of its members, Messrs. Nicoll, Drake, and Palmer to West Point, if possible to restore harmony and report progress. December 14, they reported in substance, that Mr. Romans had either mistaken the charge committed to him, or had assumed powers with which he was not intrusted. Works the commissioners objected to he completed, and those they suggested he refused to erect. They said that from Fort Constitution, which he had planned, erected and nearly finished, the cannon could not be effectually used upon a vessel ascending the river, until she was 100 yards past the West Point. Other intended works they considered impracticable and too expensive. They recommended the erection of a battery on a gravel hill, to control the river at the point. They closed a lengthy report by recommending a fortification at Poplopins ki1l, on the west bank of the river some miles below that Point.

Romans continued about Fort Constitution-much of the time unemployed-until February, and about the 20th of that month he was fina11y settled with and took his departure.

Several batteries were erected during the war on the hills at West Point, and one of them erected by Thomas Grennell, on an eminence 714 yards from the Point, completed in January 1776, was ca1led Fort Grennell.

Capt. William Smith, an engineer under Gen. Lee, was sent into the Highlands late in February, to succeed Mr. Romans, and on the first of March he reported progress. He suggested other batteries on thc hills commanding West Point; and then directed attention to the contemplated works at Poplopins kill. This kill was a mill stream falling into the Hudson upon its west side, about six miles below West Point, and was there the dividing line between the counties of Orange and Rockland. As stated by Engineer Smith, in his report of March 1st, he had surveyed the ground at this kill, and staked out an intended fortification. This was the one erected on the north estuary of the stream in Orange county, and became known as Fort Montgomery. Subsequently another fort was built less than a mile distant, upon an eminence on the south side of the kill, known until destroyed as Fort Clinton. The construction of this post began on the 14 day of March, the men at work being quartered on vessels near by. This work was completed some time in the summer; but like its fellow across the kill, was built more with reference to a river than a land attack.

Engineer Smith is not mentioned as having had any connection with the works in the Highlands, after the early part of March, 1776. The winter following we find he had left the army and was engaged in moving merchandise. The commissioners got along as best they could with the works they had laid out, and their own judgment had devised, until Gen. Washington sent Capt. Thomas Machin,* to their assistance. Owing to the skillful manner in which he had discharged the important duty of

*Mr. Machin received his first commission in the American service, as second lieutenant in the regiment of artillery, commanded by Cot. Henry Knox, which was dated January 18th, 1776. That the patriots of Massachusetts were not only acquainted with Lieut. Machin's skill as an engineer, but actually called it into requisition in laying out the fortifications for the American camp around Boston, the following papers will show:

"BOSTON, June 19, l776-Wednesday evening.

"To Lieut. Machin, at Nantasket:
"Sir-I informed the committee that you could go to Sandwich on the survey if it could be taken this week; in consequence of which, we agreed that you might set out a8 800n as you thought proper, and b.gin the survey, and that we would follow, and he there next Tuesday. 1 beg you would let me see you to-morrow evening, that the committee my hear what to depend on.
"Sir, your most humble serv't.,

"Lieut. Machin, the bearer hereof, being employed in ye Colony service, it is desired he may pass from hence to Sandwich and back without interruption.
"BOSTON, June 20, 29, 1778" JAMES BOWDOIN,"

" CAMP AT WHITE PLAINS, August 9, 1778.
"These are to certify, that the subscriber, being Aid-de-Camp to Maj.-Gen'l Ward, in the year 1776, while station ell at Boston: General Ward directed Lieut Thomas Machin, of the Artillery, to act as Engineer to erect fortifications for the defense of the Town and Harbor of Boston, from the first of April, 1776, to the month of June following, which service he faithfully performed. "JOSEPH WARD."

Capt. Machin's commission subsequently dated his rank as Captain Lieutenant of U. S. Artillery, on the first day of January, 1777, although it did not pass the office of the Board of war, until April 21, 1780.

laying out fortifications around Boston earlier in that season, he was selected by the Commander-in-Chief for the arduous duty of securing the passage of the Hudson against the foe through the Highlands. The following letter carefully preserved by this engineer with other papers, first published in my History of Schoharie County, etc., in 1845, will show at what time his labors there began:

" HEAD-QUARTERS, NEW YORK, 21st July, 1776.

" To Lieut. Machin:
"SIR-You are without delay to proceed to Fort Montgomery, or Constitution, in the Highlands, on Hudson's river, and put yourself under command of Col. George Clinton, or the commanding officer there-to act as engineer in completing such works as are already laid out-and such others as you, with the advice of Col. Clinton, may think necessary: 'Tis expected and required of you, that you pay close attention to this business, and drive on the works with all possible despatch. In case of an attack from the enemy, or in any action with them, you are to join and act with the Artillery on that station; and to return to your duty in the regiment as soon as you can be spared from the works.
"I am, sir, your most humble serv't.

Fac-simile of George Clinton's signature


To the letter of instructions we find wafered the following paper:

" FORT MONTGOMERY, August 9th., 1776.
" A list of the carpenters that have entered into the Continental service under Capt. Burns: Stephen Concklin, Joseph Halsted, Joshua Sager, Silas White, John Young, John Homan, Gilbert Roberts, Barzilla Tuthill, Cornelius Van Vlack, James Scoldfield. "

"Capt. Burns-The above persons belonging to your company, being Artificers employed in the works here, you are therefore to have them at this place to be employed by and under the direction of Mr. Machin, the Engineer.
"GEO. CLINTON, Brig'r Gen'l."

Gov. Clinton was promoted about the time Gen. Washington's directions to Lieut. Machin were dated, and having occasion to leave the works, he placed his brother, Col. James Clinton, in temporary command to oversee them, as the following paper will show:

"To Lieut Machin--As I am now ordered to march with the new levies to Kings Bridge, and as you will want many necessaries for completing the new works we have begun on the south side of Poplopin's kill, and the works to be erected for securing the pass of Anthony's Nose. You are to use you best endeavors by all means in your power, (applying to Col. Clinton from time to time for his aid and advice) to purchase and procure such articles as may be wanted, of which the clerk of the Check is to keep a correct account. The artificers already employed and such others as may be wanted, are (in the erecting of these works) to be under your directions, for which purpose Col. Clinton will be given the necessary orders.

" I am your humble Serv't,
"GEO. CLINTON, Brig. Gen."

Gen. Schuyler early saw the necessity of obstructing the navigation of the Hudson in the Highlands, to prevent the passage of British shipping to Albany; and communicated to the New York Council of Safety, Nov. 3, 1776, a wish to have the river's depth surveyed with reference to its obstruction; and as the papers relating to it are preserved with his own, Capt. Machin no doubt made that survey.

Col. Rufus Putnam, an officer of merit, commanded the 5th Massachusetts regiment, and was promoted to Brig. Gen. near the close of the war. He was wall-eyed. The following paper from Col. Putnam* no doubt refers to the survey of the Hudson made agreeable to Gen. Schuyler's request.

" PEEKSKILL, December 13th, 1776.
"SIR-I beg you will not delay sending a sketch of the North river through the Highlands, with a geographical description of the country on the west side; as I am going in a few days to wait on His Excellency with the best account of this part of the country that, without an actual survey, I am able to give. If you cannot send to me in two days, you must send it to His Excellency as soon as possible, for I can wait no longer. " Sir, your humble servant,

" To Lieut. Machin, Engineer."

*While Co1. Putnam was on duty in the neighborhood of West Point, he ascended Butter Hill with a party of his troops, and with their aid succeeded in prying off from its summit a rock which weighed many tons. Started from such an eminence, the immense mass came thundering down the mountain crushing the forest trees which impeded its onward course, and dashed into the Hudson. Sloops navigating the river sometimes pass it inland. Its course upon the mountain side was long visible from the water to the summit of the Hill, and was called PUTNAM'S PATH. The rock is called PUTNAM'S ROCK to this day. Some writers have fallen into the error of supposing the rock and its path called after Gen. Israel Putnam.-Capt. Eben Williams.

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