January 11, 2005

Behind the Curtain: Claudius Smith, "the Cowboy of the Ramapos"

I was thumbing through a local guide book this weekend, waiting for inspiration to strike and help me pick a fun activity to do with the family, when I came across a reference to the "infamous outlaw, Claudius Smith" in Orange County, NY. Infamous? Really? I'd never heard of him and I'd never seen a reference to him before in any of the many books on local history I have the misfortune to own. Sounds like maybe someone history has forgotten about and I resolved to make him the next, Behind the Curtain profile. Turns out, he was the pretty fierce leader of a band of robbers during the Revolutionary War and a pretty interesting sounding guy, although I'm glad I never met him on a dark road in Orange County. Click Extended Entry below for the rest of it.

First, by way of background, Orange County today is best known as the home of: the United States Military Academy at West Point, Storm King Mountain Art Center (a fabulous destination to view outdoor modern sculpture), and Woodbury Common Outlet Mall, all worth a visit, although for different reasons. Orange County is part of the Hudson River Highlands and is blessed with terrific natural beauty. It is a very peaceful place to visit, replete with lovely vistas, mountains, woods, and water. Indeed, even Henry Hudson reportedly liked the place since he anchored his ship, the Half Moon in Cornwall Bay and became, I suppose, the first European tourist in 1609. But as you look at the various sites related to Orange County tourism, there isn't really a mention of Mr. Smith. Even when you go to the site for Harriman State Park (go look at the pictures, they are beautiful), you see no mention of the fact that the Park contains the Smith gang's hideout or that you can hike in to see it still today. No, for information about Smith and his gang, we have to do some excavating.

Back in 1776, Orange County was not so peaceful. Orange County straddled important trade routes and the main line of land communication between Canada and New York. The Hudson Valley generally was the scene of a lot of revolutionary activity:

As the center of the colonies at the time of the American Revolution, the Hudson River Valley provided a nexus for the conflict and hosted many key figures, battles, and political events throughout the eight years of war. The Sons of Liberty, as active in New York as they were in Massachusetts, printed broadsides, encouraged boycotts, rallied, rioted, and dumped British tea into the New York Harbor even as Patriots’ housewives throughout the Valley threw their own "tea parties" at the expense of merchants and Loyalist neighbors.

The New York Provincial Congress established itself at the White Plains Courthouse in July 1776, creating the State of New York with its acceptance of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. New York adopted its Constitution in Kingston on April 20, 1777. Battles raged from Manhattan through the Mid-Hudson, including White Plains (1776), Forts Clinton and Montgomery (1777), Kingston (1777), and Stony Point (1779). In October 1777 Patriots watched helplessly as the British burned sites as far north as Clermont before turning back toward New York City. General Horatio Gates would right some of the wrongs when he accepted the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s British army at Saratoga on October 17, 1777, marking the turning point in the war. Starting in January 1778 the Americans would follow up on this victory by turning their attention to building Fortress West Point with its famous chain across the Hudson.

In addition to the prominent roles played by the likes of New York’s first Governor, George Clinton, unsung heroes of the Hudson Valley did their duty as well. Sybil Ludington, New York’s own sixteen-year-old female Paul Revere, rode out of Carmel to raise the militia in defense of the burning Danbury, Connecticut. Chief Daniel Nimham of the Wappingers, a Native American member of the Sons of Liberty and a captain in the American militia lost his life in battle for the cause of liberty.

The American Revolution played out along the Hudson’s banks –from the first riots protesting the British Quartering Act on Golden Hill in Lower Manhattan, to the chaining of the Hudson and Benedict Arnold’s attempted betrayal of West Point in the Highlands, to the Battle of Saratoga along its northern shores where Arnold played the role not of traitor, but of hero. The Hudson River Valley and this site contain the essential aspects to the study of birth of our Nation.


Claudius Smith was right smack dab in the middle of all of this tumult. But he was not a Son of Liberty, he was a Tory, a loyal supporter of the King. Or, perhaps, an opportunist who saw his chance to loot homes, steal horses, and rob others in exchange for payment from the British troops. This is how Elizabeth Oakes Smith saw him, in the 1800's:

New Jersey has often been called the Flanders of America, and it certainly earned the name by the number of battles fought upon its soil, and by the expenditure of life and money in the great war of the Revolution. Ramapo Valley suffered more than any other locality. Three years the American army encamped therein, and its fastnesses were often in the hands of the enemy, or usurped by marauders, who killed and pillaged either army without principle and without mercy.

This historic and most picturesque region was at that time placed upon a bad eminence, as being the arena of the terrible exploits and cruel devastations of a class of men popularly known as the "Cowboys." These marauders belonged to neither of the parties which divided the country—they were neither patriots nor loyalists, but preyed alike upon either, as it best served their interest or malignity. The leader had been, for a long period, one Claudius Smith, a bold, handsome man, around whom secretly clustered all those unprincipled and daring men, to be found in all communities when its peace is disturbed by the presence of conflicting armies.

Smith was from a good family, which had a right to expect better things of him; but this only goes to verify the old proverb, that every flock has one black sheep. He had a mixture of generosity, craft, cruelty, and unflinching courage in his composition, which made him a hero in the eyes of that class which discards all moral questions of right and truth from the scale of judgment.

At length he was taken prisoner and hanged for his crimes; but he left a son, Richard, a cruel, fiery youth, who swore to be revenged upon the patriots for the death of his father; and for a long time he was the terror of the whole region; and from his well-known characteristics, had earned for himself the familiar name of Black Dick.

Smith and his gang were known to swoop down out of the hills and steal horses for sale to the British troops, who protected Smith from sometimes hot pursuit. Eventually, they became such a scourge that the Governor of New York put a price on his head:



Claudius Smith

COWBOY OF THE RAMAPOS - TORY LOYALIST TO THE CROWN, a fierce looking man nearly 7 ft. tall, wearing a suit of rich broadcloth adorned with silver buttons Notorious leader of a lawless band of men who've been terrorizing the good citizens of Orange County.
$1,200 REWARD by proclamation of: Govenor Clinton, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.


money, pewter & silver plate, saddles, guns, oxen, cattle & horses from the American colonists and turning them over to the British in New York City.
John McLean, messenger to General Washington at Newburgh from Montgomery, stealing his dispatch, beating and tying him to a tree by the side of the road. McLean reported that it was very cold that night and feared he might freeze. but did not. The following morning he was found by a passerby and released.
Oct. 6, 1778 of Major Nathaniel Strong who was found "Lying Dead" with two projectiles in his neck and head. According to his wife and the testimony of 13 Orange County citizens, a band of men led by Claudius Smith broke into Major Strong's home late that night & while burglarizing the contents shot and killed the Major.
from Colonel Jesse Woodhull, a beautiful mare in broad daylight. Smith entered the house while the family was upstairs having afternoon tea and from a cellar stall saddled the horse & rode away laughing. Later that same day another horse belonging to Luther Conklin was stolen by Smith from a meadow near his home.
the homes of Captain Woodhull at Oxford. William Bell of Goshen and Ebenezer Woodhull of Blooming Grove.


TRAVELLERS BEWARE: The Wild, "Tory Infested Clove", The Ramapo Valley, a 16 mile stretch of main road along which pass all communications between Canada & N.Y.C. has placed the Smith Hideout somewhere in the mountains east of Tuxedo along this route. Consistent reports of travellers being detained at pistol point & looted of all valuable by these hoodlums is common throughout this region.

ESCAPED FROM JAIL: Smith and a certain Mr. Brown had been arrested for stealing oxen from the Colonial Army and were jailed in Goshen on July 18, 1777 by Orange County Sheriff Dumont. An unknown number of Smith's followers converged on Goshen seizing the Sheriff and threatening his life if he did not release Smith and his accomplice immediately. Smith and his Gang road our of Goshen in triumph. Hence:
$600.00 REWARD for the capture of Claudius Smith's 2 sons, James & Richard,gangmembers


This text was copied from a facsimile printed at the Monroe Museum Village in Monroe, N.Y. The errors in punctuation and spelling were left as they exist. Claudius Smith terrorized both northern New Jersey and southern New York state. The Ramapo Valley referred to above is the area of the present-day intersection of Routes 17, 287, and the Thruway. It has always been a natural pass and in Revolutionary War times it was one of two possible routes from New York City to the north (the other was the Hudson River itself). His cave is nearby in Harriman State Park.


I think that wanted poster gives a better summary of his activities than I could hope to do.

I did find this small book on the web devoted to his exploits and I recommend it for further viewing as it tells the story of his capture and eventual execution.

Smith's mother, reportedly, told her son that he would die with his boots on, meaning that he would come to a bad end. At his execution, again reportedly, Smith removed his boots so as to make a liar out of his mother and he died barefoot, hung from a rope by the neck.

Interesting, no? I enjoyed researching this and I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Posted by Random Penseur at January 11, 2005 09:40 AM

Neat! I love these Behind the Curtains posts.

This guy was quite the character. I wonder how accurately he is portrayed. If he was a true Crown Loyalist his activities take on an almost honorable tone, at least for his time. If, as conjectured, he was a simple opportunist he was immensely loathsome.

With all of the crap coming out of Hollywood these days you'd think they could just open up a history book or two and find some gems like this. Smith is a ready to write blockbuster.

Posted by: Jim at January 11, 2005 10:43 AM

Splendid! What a character!!! Never heard of him either, thanks for writing about him.

Posted by: Mick at January 11, 2005 10:52 AM

If you're interested in New Jersey history, you should definitely do a search on Amazon for Henry Charlton Beck. They can get his books used very reasonably. Beck does cover this fellow and a great deal else. For a time, New Jersey was sort of the California of the colonies and the early US, since it seems to have been a place where misfits went who were unhappy in other colonies/states, so you had various kinds of social innovation taking place there. Beck is very good on this kind of stuff.

Posted by: John Bruce at January 11, 2005 02:22 PM

Claudius is a GGGG for me. He has long fascinated me - most of our relations are not as controversial. I have done a lot of research on Claudius and would be happy to share. I have far more information collected than I have analysed. Nearly every family in the immediate area was somehow affected and most have included their experiences in their family tales. How accurate these stories are is questionable - suffice it to say there are too many to assume Claudius a sterling character. I believe, as does this author, it seems, that he was at best an opportunist. Please feel free to contact me.

Posted by: Lil heselton at February 7, 2005 02:26 AM

My father's name was Claudis Smith. My Grandfather's name was Claudis Smith. His Grandfather was named William Claudis Smith. See a pattern? I am trying to find William Claudis's ancestors. When I "googled" him, it asked me if I meant "Claudius" and when I told it "yes", then I learned all about Claudius Smith and his misdeeds. I don't yet know if I'm his decendent or not. I don't see a parent naming their child (William C. was born 1781) after someone so imfamous unless it was a family name, and maybe that's why they dropped the "u"? Well, anyway, your research was wonderful. Thank you so much for educating me. :)

Posted by: Kristal at August 12, 2005 01:58 PM
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