Let’s start with an image:
John Dean was a farmer in the town of Mount Pleasant NY during the time of the American Revolution, and narrowly missed becoming one of the famous captors of Major Andre. On the morning of September 23, 1780 a group of six local militia men took to the country roads around Tarrytown NY in search of Tory loyalists and spies. The six men split into two groups, with one stationed on Broadway and the other high on a hill overlooking the town. The first group: John Paulding, Issac Van Wart, and David Williams would become famous for stopping Major John Andre, a British spy with detailed plans to the rebel’s stronghold at West Point hidden in his boot. Andre was headed for the British occupied city of New York, and if he hadn’t been stopped by Paulding, Van Wart, & Williams that morning the results would have been disastrous for the rebel cause.
(Major Andre, with his boot off, exposing the hidden documents)
The captors of Major Andre became heroes, and were celebrated with a monument marking the site.
John Dean, however, missed out on the fame and glory. He had been with the second group as they patrolled another country road nearby.
So, why does he have a large boulder named for him?
And where exactly is this “John Dean Rock”?
Well, that black & white photo was made in the 1890s, and is found in this souvenir booklet…
marking the dedication of this monument in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery…
which includes John Dean’s name among those who fought during the revolution.
But back to the rock in question: John Dean Rock is described as “a large rock on the west side of and near the Saw Mill River, on the Widow Yerk’s farm just adjoining his place, where he was wont to take his stand and on occasion secrete himself if necessary, and from which he would sally forth and attack the enemy, and which is called , “Dean Rock” until this day.”
Basically, John Dean would hideout behind the boulder and then ambush British troops as they travelled up and down the Saw Mill River Road.
The “Widow Yerk’s farm” is clue to the rock’s location. Using a map of revoluntion-era landowners we see that the Yerks farm was located on the east side of Buttermilk Hill near the present hamlet of Hawthorne. The Yerks family’s farm (sometimes spelled Yourx) is visible on this map (green arrow), with the Dean farm (red arrow) adjacent to the north.
There was still a Yerks family member living in the area by the time of this 1867 Atlas:
Looking at a modern satellite photo we can make a pretty good guess where the Yerks family farm had been:
So, last week my friend Patrick and I took a walk along the old Putnam Railroad (now the North County Trailway) north from Eastview. When knew the rock would be between the old railroad bed and the Saw Mill River.
After about 2 miles we found it:
This is a view of the east side of the rock, with the Saw Mill River behind it, whereas the 1890’s image is of the west side of the rock, with the river in front of it. Notice the distinctive shape.
The rock stands like a wall along the edge of the river, and is very narrow along it’s east/west axis, as evidenced by this photo looking south:
And here’s one more view, looking northeast:
The rock is also visible using Bing.com’s birdseye view:
And is visible using Google Maps’ Streetview:
Another interesting tidbit: John D. Rockefeller is said to have been fond of visiting John Dean Rock. In John D.: A Portrait in Oils, John Winkler writes:
“Not long ago, while on one of his daily afternoon motor drives, he [Rockefeller] directed his chauffeur, Phillips, to stop at John Dean Rock by the Nepperhan River [aka Saw Mill River] which flows through his estate… John D. walked to the rock, patted its rude surface and roguishly remarked to a companion: Our initials are the same, this rock and I? Wonder which will last the longer!”
For the record, Rockefeller lived to be 97 years old, and John Dean Rock is still around (although considerably less well-know than the other JDR).
But wait, how would Rockefeller have gotten to the rock? From this 1925 aerial photograph we can see that John Dean Rock (red arrow) is some distance from Saw Mill River Road, which is the black line on the right (blue arrow).
(The black line on the left marks the route of the Putnam Line railroad, which wasn’t built until 1930).
A closer look reveals a possible footbridge across the Saw Mill River (blue arrow) leading to the rock (red arrow).
A footbridge at this point would have made the rock easily accessible from Saw Mill River Road, and would explain how Rockefeller could have visited it.
Lastly, there’s also the mystery of the NY State Historic Marker at John Dean Rock. The New York State Museum manages an online list of Historic Markers; those blue & gold signs which mark the sites of events in New York State history. Here’s an example, the site of Major Andre’s capture.
The Historic Maker program started in 1926. Over 2800 makers were spread across the state from 1926 – 1939. The online list gives this information for John Dean Rock:
However, the blue & gold marker is missing. It was likely located on the shoulder of the Saw Mill River Parkway (which was built in the early 30s) directly across from the rock itself. This area is largely overgrown nowadays, but it’s possible the historic marker is still there.
This winter, when the underbrush thins out, I’ll be investigating the fate of the John Dean Rock historic marker.
UPDATE: July 22, 2011
Recently I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and came across John Dean’s flintlock rifle, which he carried during the American Revolution. Here’s a photo of the rifle on exhibit (it’s the really long one):
The wall label (apologies for the low resolution, these were taken with my phone):
Here’s a link to the catalog record for the rifle in the MMA’s collections database:
Also, I recently stopped by the Old Dutch Church & Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow and photographed the Dean family’s vault. The vault was constructed after the death of John Dean’s son Thomas. The family then had John Dean’s remains reinterred within the vault as well.