New Historic Marker features the legend of Claudius Smith "Cowboy of the Ramapos"
Why "legend and lore?"
One of the challenges faced by public historians is to develop an understanding of a local historical story well enough to distinguish between fact and fiction. But even when the facts are available, making these distinctions is an art rather than a science because often times a local story has taken on cultural meanings that complicate the narrative. Other times an unsubstantiated story has been repeated so fervently that it is a perfect gateway to entice the public to thirst for the "real" story.
In recent years, the William G. Pomeroy Foundation has given public historians a tool to better address these fascinating but sometimes far-fetched local narratives. In partnership with the New York Folklore Society, the Foundation created a historic marker program to commemorate legends and folklore as part of New York State's history. This grant program extends funds to local historians to research, write and install markers that look similar to a traditional roadside markers but painted in maroon coloring to set them apart.
The need for this sort of validation of local folklore as an essential part of what makes a community unique is particularly relevant to the Hudson Valley villages and hamlets where so many layers of the past interact in one space. The Pomeroy Foundation asserts, "Folklore is an expression of our common past, yet it draws attention to what is unique about our community. Passed from person to person over time, there is often historical truth at the heart of every legend." Here in Orange County this is certainly true and many readers would easily be able to draw up a list of dozens of legends from our past that had an impact on the way we view our communities.
The first "Legend and Lore" historic marker that was created for Orange County was due to the initiative of Deerpark Historian Lynn Burns who received the grant in 2015. This sign explains a story associated with Joseph Brant's raid in on the settlers in 1779 that has been passed down through the generations as oral tradition.
Soon after the unveiling in Deerpark, the County Historian's office was approached by Goshen Historian Ed Connor and local history author Sal LaBruna to collaborate in applying to the Pomeroy Foundation for a marker to share the local legend about Claudius Smith. The grant was awarded and funds were approved by the Orange County Legislators on the Education and Economic Development Committee.
Who was Claudius Smith?
During the American Revolution the British forces controlled New York City and prevented safe passage along much of the Atlantic coast. Patriot transportation and communication lines ran through the Hudson Highlands and crossed the Hudson River at several points north of Stony Point. The Continental Army officers headquartered in rented houses in the valley and encampments of soldiers were spread from Fort Montgomery to New Windsor and Fishkill.
There was neutral ground in between the two armies but it was occupied by refugees in alliance with either side. Among the bands of marauders were "cowboys" sympathetic to the British cause and "skinners" sympathetic to the Patriot cause. The outlaws plundered cattle and stole supplies from those who lived in this region making it a lawless struggle to survive. A contemporary writer Joshua Hett Smith described the loyalist plunderers stating, the "composition of these predatory gangs of Cowboys was loose, including confirmed Tories, British deserters, runaway slaves, and Indians; their number was indeterminate; and their tastes in thievery were undiscriminating." No one crossing these hills, including Washington's messengers, was safe from their ambushes.
The leader of the band of cowboys was known to be Claudius Smith who operated out of Smith's Clove (now Monroe) and sheltered his men and their stolen goods in the Ramapo Mountains around Tuxedo. He was captured in 1777 but as the Sheriff escorted Smith to the jailhouse in Goshen, a band of his followers assaulted the Sheriff and released their leader.
In 1778 the death of a patriot Major in his home during one of the cowboy raids brought forth testimony from local citizens who claimed that Claudius Smith was the murderer. Governor Clinton offered a bounty to anyone who could apprehend Smith and by October 20, 1778, he was in custody. Smith stood trial at the Goshen Courthouse and was convicted of three burglaries, which carried a sentence of death, by hanging.
On January 22, 1779, Claudius Smith was brought outside to an improvised gallows of a noose tied on a tree limb. It is said that he fixed his eyes to the east towards Slate Hill hoping to spot a ground of friends on their way to stage a rescue. No rescuers came forth. Without a word from Smith, the cart was pulled away and he was hanged that day in front of a crowd.
Many stories emerged about Claudius Smith over the years. Until the 1920's locals would point to a tree in the churchyard and claim it was where Smith was hanged. Others tell tales of the caves where his treasures are still waiting to be uncovered. The most persistent legend about Claudius Smith is that his skull was placed over the doorway of the Goshen Courthouse when it was erected in 1841.