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Claudius Smith and His Band of Cowboys

Claudius Smith’s exploits are the perfect subject matter for me to share here at History Is Elementary.  He’s a true figure in American history yet he is wrapped in many myths.  For every story you find out about him there are naysayers.  What most agree upon is he lived, he died and somewhere in the middle he robbed a few folks.  Another reason why he’s a perfect candidate for me to write about is he represents a segment of history that is mentioned but rarely examined closely.

Smith lived in Smith’s Clove…an area of New York more than likely named for his family.  The area is known  for its ponds, streams and mountain gorges making up what is also referred to as the Ramapo Valley.  Today the area falls under the jurisdiction of Orange County, New York and the county seat is Monroe – named for President Monroe.  The area also has the distinction of being the birthplace of Velveeta cheese.

No joke.

During the American Revolution the Smith’s Clove area was bisected by important trade routes.  It was the perfect place for Claudius Smith to conduct guerilla warfare, but instead of helping the Patriots, Smith helped the British.

Yes, Claudius Smith was a Tory, and his actions built up quite a reputation stealing livestock and ambushing travelers on the Orange Turnpike between Canada and New York.  His exploits earned him the nickname “Cowboy of the Ramapos” since he stole so many cattle.  His band of men – including three of his four sons – were known as “The Cowboys.”

To some, Smith was just a Robin Hood type targeting the wealthy while being generous to the poor, but it is documented he comitted acts of banditry, burglary, horse stealing and the murder of American Army major, Nathaniel Strong.

The governor of New York, George Clinton issued a warrant for his arrest.  The wanted poster stated Claudius Smith was “accused of stealing money, pewter and silver plate, saddles, guns, oxen, cattle and horses.”   Often these items and livestock were sold to the British.

The warrant went on to state Smith ambushed John McLean, a messenger being sent to George Washington along the road and stole his dispatch, beat him and tied him to a tree by the side of the road.

The murder charge arose when Major Nathaniel Strong was found lying dead with two projectiles in his neck and head on October 6, 1778.  Witnesses including Strong’s wife testified that Claudius Smith and his band of Cowboys broke into Strong’s home to burglarize it and ended up killing the major in the process.

Smith was eventually captured on Long Island and hung in 1779 in Goshen, New York.  His last request was to remove his boots because he wanted to prove his mother wrong.  She had always told him his activities would cause him to die with his boots on.

Smith’s son, James, was executed at Goshen soon after his father.  It is also reported that a  second son named William was killed prior to his father’s hanging and the youngest son was actually able to escape with other members of the band to Nova Scotia after peace was finally declared.

Most of the booty Smith and his Cowboys stole were stored in various caves throughout Smith’s Clove.  One cave in particular has been identified as his hide-out and is known as “Claudius Smith’s Den”.   It’s located in Harriman State Park and is pictured with this post.  Legend has it that Smith’s spirit guards the cave’s entrance.

Claudius Smith was buried in what is now known as Presbyterian Church Park.  Rumor has it that at some point in 1842 the church made some changes to the grade level in the cemetery and some graves were disturbed.   Because of his rumored height (some said he was nearly seven feet tall) Smith’s bones were easily identified and certain members of the town took them as their own.  Apparently his skull was treated as a trophy and stored in a meat market until the new courthouse was completed.  The skull was filled with cement and walled up about the main entrance to the courthouse.  The town’s leading blacksmith also took Smith’s wrist bone as a trophy.   Apparently it was passed down for years to other family members.

I’m thinking that would be an inheritance I would like to avoid.  What about you?

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