“America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense…human rights invented America.”
A Quote from President Jimmy Carter’s Farewell Address
The birth of the American nation, especially in those turbulent years just before, during, and after the American Revolution, took place as much in Westchester as any other place in America. Prominent founding fathers from Washington, Hamilton, Jay, Franklin, Revere, and John and Abagail Adams passed through, lived, or fought both with and against prominent local citizens in Westchester County. Unlike places like Boston and Philadelphia, we have not adequately publicized Westchester’s contribution to the history of the United States.
In the late summer of 1776, 32,000 British troops along with 400 ships were gathered off the south shore of Long Island. By the early fall of 1776, the British had taken control of New York City. British forces under General William Howe were pursuing Washington’s bedraggled Continental Army as it retreated to White Plains. On October 18, 1776, Howe was prevented from splitting American forces in half at the Battle of Pelham. At the critical Battle of White Plains, Washington was successful at preventing Howe from routing his exhausted army.
With New York City under British control, its population shrunk from 25,000 to 5,000. Control of the Hudson River, Westchester County, and surrounding areas was the key to victory. It is believed that Westchester’s population of 20,000 remained relatively the same but was caught in a bloody no man’s land between British held New York City and patriot strongholds to the north. Roving bands of patriot and loyalists militia raged constant warfare accompanied by criminal groups called cowboys and skinners who threatened and tortured the local populace in search of food, clothes, livestock, and money. At this time Westchester looked more like Iraq and Syria today and portions of Korea and Vietnam during late 20th century wars.
With the intervention of the French at the end of the decade of 1770’s, the war would return to Westchester and the Hudson Valley. In the early fall of 1780, the American victory was saved when a group of 3 patriot militia men captured the British spy, Major Jeffrey Andre, at Tappan with plans to the fort at West Point that the traitor Benedict Arnold had given him. He was held in North Castle until his execution.
In the summer of 1781, Washington had to make one last desperate gamble. Parts of his ill fed and underpaid army were threatening to mutiny and without an imminent Patriot victory, French support was waning. With a combined army of French and American troops which gathered in Westchester, he marched his troops to Yorktown, Virginia in October, 1781, where the last major British army surrendered. The war went on for two more bloody years in Westchester County.
The historic significance of Westchester County to the American Revolution lies all around us, and with the 250th anniversary approaching in 2026, it is time to tell our story to each other and to the entire nation.