On the frigid night of November 17, 1777 a sixteen-year-old boy named Cornelius Van Tassel Jr. fled his family’s home in terror. Breaking through the ice of a frozen river and climbing the snowy slope of a nearby hill, young Cornelius took refuge in a nearby cave known as Farcus Hott.
(“Storm’s Bridge: A History of Elmsford, 1700-1976” by Lucille & Theodore Hutchinson, Bicentennial Committee, 1980, page 34)
From here, Cornelius would have watched as British soldiers burned his home, and wondered whether his father, mother, and little sister had been murdered.
During the Revolutionary War much of Westchester County NY was known as the ‘Neutral Ground’; that area between the lines of British troops occupying New York City and the rebel American army stationed in the Hudson Highlands. The home of Cornelius Van Tassel was precariously located in this neutral ground along a major north-south road known as the Saw Mill River Road (today’s Route 9A) in the hamlet of Storm’s Bridge (now Elmsford NY). That fateful night Cornelius Sr. and his brother Peter Van Tassel had been surprised by a group of British soldiers sent to raid the homes of American militia members. The two men were taken prisoner, and with their hands bound to the tails of their horses, were forced to walk to the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. Cornelius Sr.’s wife, Elizabeth Van Tassel, escaped with their two-year-old daughter Leah, and spent the night in a dirt cellar.
The next morning Elizabeth was surprised to find her pet horse returning home, and rode to a relative’s home, where she was reunited with her likely hypothermic son.
Cornelius and Peter Van Tassel remained imprisoned for 11 months before being released. Cornelius Jr. was said to never have regained his health after that terrible night at Farcus Hott, and died on January 3, 1780 at the age of 18.
After the war, the Van Tassel family rebuilt their home on the same foundation. Their daughter Leah would later marry Captain John Romer, and live in the rebuilt house until her death in 1843.(“Historical Sketches of the Romer, Van Tassel and Allied Families and Tales of the Neutral Ground” compiled by John Lockwood Romer, 1917, page 26-27)
This house still stands on Saw Mill River Road and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also marked by a Westchester County Tricentennial sign:
So where is this cave known as Farcus Hott? Does it still exist?
Let’s start with a little research. In Lucille & Theodore Hutchins’s local-history book on Elmsford, “Storm’s Bridge” we read:
“To protect their families and possessions, the farmers of the Elmsford area had a lookout station on ‘Sentinel Rock’, south of their farms and overlooking the road to New York. When the inhabitants heard a warning signal from the rock, they retreated to ‘Farcus Hott’ (sometimes known as Katy’s Cave) on Beaver Mountain. Driving their animals before them to safety in the woods, carrying their valuables in their arms, they remained at the rocky retreat until danger was past” (pg 33).
Farcus Hott is described further in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly of July 1897: “The patriots selected a rocky fastness on Beaver Mountain, west of the settlement, for a hiding place, to which they could resort for safety whenever the British came up the valley. Their watch tower was an enormous boulder, which is still known by its Revolutionary name, ‘Sentinel Rock’, from the summit of which the road running southward through the valley can be seen for miles. The men, arming themselves with the flintlock muskets of those days, escorted the women and children to their place of refuge on Beaver Mountain. Here, on a natural platform of rock, the fugitives pitched their camp. The inaccessibility of the place secured then from assault, and they partly protected from the weather by an overhanging precipice that towered above the platform on the western side”. (“Heroes of the Neutral Ground” by John P. Ritter, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, vol. XLIV, no.1, July 1897.)
In yet another source we find the story of Christina (Van Wormer) Romer, who “when conversing afterwards upon the scenes and events of the war, she would become greatly animated – too much so to express herself in the English language, so would take up the Dutch”, and “told of how a party of British troops taking possession for several days of her home, compelled her to bake bread for them, and how, several Americans having concealed themselves in the rocky fastness of Farcus Hott, nearby, her husband among them, she would, whenever opportunity offered, catch up a loaf under her short gown and run out throw it to her friends under the rock”. (“Historical Sketches of the Romer, Van Tassel and Allied Families, and Tales of the Neutral Ground”, compiled by John Lockwood Romer, 1917, pg 37.)
Where is Sentinel Rock, or Beaver Mountain? Why is there a second name for the cave? Who was Katy, and why was the cave named for her? Is ‘Farcus Hott’ a phrase in Dutch, as Christina Romer would have spoken while retelling stories from the war?
In “The Place Names of Historic Sleepy Hollow & Tarrytown” by Henry Steiner (official Village Historian), under Farcus Hott we find: “It is located on Beaver Hill, south of Route 119 and west of the Saw Mill River” (pg 51). And under the entry for “Beaver Hill” we find: “The hill stands north of Route 119, west of the Saw Mill Parkway and east of Glenville” and, “American Revolutionary militia forces established a picket station, or guard post, at Farcus Hott on Beaver Hill”. This information is consistent with USGS topographic maps.
(USGS, 7.5 Minute Series, White Plains Quadrangle, 1967. Beaver Hill is marked by a red arrow, and the Van Tassel House by a blue arrow.)
But it’s not that simple. Steiner cites a map in the collection of the Ossining Historical Society: “However, Beaver Hill may be an instance of a translocating place name. A map of the Revolutionary period, complied by Robert Erskine [George Washington’s cartographer] shows Beaver Hill to lie north of today’s Taxter Road and south of Tarrytown Road [Route 119], on the west side of the Saw Mill River” (pg 21). Did you notice the un-named 50o foot hill between the red and blue arrows in the map above? Could this have been Beaver Mountain during the 1700s?
I took a trip to Ossining to see the Erskine map, which it turns-out, is a photo-stat of an original dated 1778 at the New-York Historical Society:
Here’s the area between Tarrytown and Elmsford:
Let’s take a closer look:
It seems the hill south of Route 119 and west of the Saw Mill Parkway was in fact known as Beaver Hill during the 1700s. Also, notice that the Van Tassel house isn’t marked on the 1778 map, as it burned down the year before.
This hill is now the site of two condominium developments (Nob Hill & Avalon Green), as well as the NY State Thruway. If Farcus Hott was located there, it’s possible all this construction could have obliterated the site. Here’s a modern satellite view of the area:
Lucille & Ted Hutchins bring up the issue of modern development in their book, Storm’s Bridge: “It was thought that dynamiting for the NYS Thruway had closed Farcus Hott forever; Elmsfordian Emily Bayer reported later that she found the Revolutionary War hideout intact” (pg 175). It sounds like Farcus Hott survived the Thruway & condo construction, least until the late 1970s. This was encouraging news, if I was going to find Farcus Hott on this hillside.
However, the photo of Farcus Hott reproduced in Storm’s Bridge was originally published in 1917’s “Historical Sketches of the Romer…”. Notice the curly vine to the left of the cave in both photos.
(From: “Storm’s Bridge: A History of Elmsford, 1700-1976”, page 34.)
(From: Historical Sketches of the Romer, Van Tassel and Allied Families…, pg 46-47.)
If Emily Bayer did find Farcus Hott in the late 70s why wasn’t a newer image published in “Storm’s Bridge”? If you, dear reader, know Emily Bayer of Elmsford, I’d love to speak with her about finding Farcus Hott.
Speaking of other images of Farcus Hott, Patrick Raftery, Librarian at the Westchester County Historical Society, provided me with two images from the WCHS collection:
Although, the second image doesn’t really look like the same place we’ve seen in the photos so far:
This caption reads: “Katy’s Cave, Elmsford NY. This is where Cooper’s ‘The Spy’ was supposed to have lived when in hiding during the Revolution. Farcus Hott (?) (see card index)”. Of course! James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel “The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground” is set in Elmsford during the American Revolution and tells of fictional spy Harvey Birch and his fictional housemaid Katherine (Katy) Haynes. ‘Katy’s Cave’ as a place-name clearly dates to long after the Revolution, and was probably more popular during the late 19th century than ‘Farcus Hott’. But it’s not clear if the two names referred to the same place. Farcus Hott and Katy’s Cave could be completely different places; and I’m still undecided on this point. After all, can a fictional woman hideout in a real cave? For a fuller discussion of “The Spy” and Elmsford see the “Storm’s Bridge” book.
While we’re on the subject of place-name origins, I’ve tried putting ‘Farcus Hott’ into Google Translate with no results. I’ve also tried translating words like cave, rock, spot, hiding, etc. into Dutch, but the results are nowhere near ‘Farcus Hott’. Any speakers of 18th century Dutch-American slang out there? I could really use your help.
Yet another image of Farcus Hott is found in “Poverty and Patriotism of the Neutral Grounds” by John Cornelius Leon Hamilton:
(From: “Poverty and Patriotism of the Neutral Ground”, Westchester County Historical Society, 1900.)
Look closely, and you’ll see a man sitting on a ledge at the cave’s entrance:
Who could this be? My best guess is he’s the author of “Poverty and Patriotism…”, John Cornelius Leon Hamilton, a direct descendant of both Alexander Hamilton and the Van Tassel family. He was profiled in the NY Times and Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in the early 1900s, and celebrated as a local historian of the Elmsford area.
With the historical sources exhausted, there was only one thing left to do; I had to climb around on the hillside south of Route 119 and west of the Saw Mill Parkway. So, on January 16, 2012 I did just that. After an epic battle through overgrown thorny brambles what do you think I found?
Lo and behold:
Farcus Hott is less of a cave, and more of a rock ledge, overhung by a large flat boulder, with a deep crevice between the two. This is consistent with the description in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly: “an overhanging precipice that towered above the platform on the western side”.
The crevice leads into a space behind the lower boulder. Two or three people could easily crawl into this space:
Farcus Hott might not be as ‘forgotten’ as I’d assumed. The hillside around the cave is littered with garbage, and graffiti covers the overhanging boulder.
Well, 235 years after young Cornelius Van Tassel Jr. spent a freezing night at Farcus Hott, the cave still exists.
But I couldn’t have done it alone. I had a lot of help from fellow sleuthers, and a week later I brought them to Farcus Hott. See photos from this visit on Rob Yasinac’s blog: http://www.hudsonvalleyruins.org/rob/?p=541