By Erik Weiselberg, Ph.D.
Principal Historian, Revolutionary Westchester 250, Village Historian, Irvington, New York–
This installment shines a spotlight on another unsung Westchester hero: John Peterson, a patriot of African descent. Peterson’s keen observation and quick thinking thwarted British spy John André’s passage to safety behind British lines, thus exposing Benedict Arnold’s treachery and saving the Revolution.
The three militiamen who captured John André and exposed Arnold’s treachery have received credit for saving the Revolution, and deservedly so. We need only visit the Captors’ Monument in Patriots Park in Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow to confirm this. However, other participants contributed to André’s capture in Tarrytown on September 23, 1780, and their actions have gone largely unrecognized or have been forgotten. One such unsung patriot is John “Jack” Peterson (1746-1850), whose brave actions set off an incredible chain of events that deprived André of safe passage back to British-occupied New York City and instead forced him to travel through the dangerous no-man’s land of Westchester County. Records on the life of John Peterson, often spelled Patterson or in other variants, are not comprehensive; nonetheless, an account of his wartime experiences can be pieced together from several sources.
John “Jack” Peterson was born in New Jersey, but he was brought up in the family of Job Sherwood (1724-1800), who lived along the Old Albany Post Road north of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. Peterson was described in contemporary sources as a man of color and as “mulatto,” but it is unclear whether his status before the war was that of free or enslaved. When Job’s son Isaac (1759-1777) entered the Continental Army as a Lieutenant in Peekskill in 1777, John Peterson asked to join with him, perhaps out of a desire to escape enslaved status or other condition of servitude, or perhaps out of attachment to Isaac or a belief in the Patriots’ cause. Thus, Peterson enlisted as a private for a term of three years in Captain Samuel Pell’s Company in the 2nd New York Regiment of the Continental Army, commanded by Philip Van Cortlandt, the eldest son of Lt. Gov. Pierre Van Cortlandt. With his three-year term of service in the 2nd New York Regiment, John Peterson saw action in several engagements, including in March 1777 when the British raided Peekskill, the Battle of Saratoga, Valley Forge, the Battle of Monmouth, and the Battle of Newtown, before his discharge at the end of his term of service.
By 1780 John Peterson returned to Westchester County and continued to serve in the militia. On the morning of September 21, 1780, Peterson was engaged in making cider at Barrett’s farm on Teller’s Point (Croton Point) along with nineteen-year-old Moses Sherwood (1761-1867), a cousin of Isaac Sherwood, who was at that time in the quartermaster’s department of the militia but had previously been in Capt. William Dutcher’s company. Just then the Vulture, the British warship that had brought British agent Major John André upriver for the meeting with the American traitor Benedict Arnold, anchored in the river.
At the cider mill, Moses Sherwood observed a landing craft filled with twenty or so armed British soldiers coming from the Vulture, accompanied by a gun boat, a small craft with a cannon at its bow. Sherwood and Peterson seized their firearms and ran down to the shore to repel the British party. Hiding behind rocks, they waited until the barge came into a clearer view. Peterson fired, causing an oar to fall from the hands of one of the men on board the landing craft, which led to great confusion amongst the soldiers on the boat. After Sherwood fired a shot, the barge returned to the Vulture while the gunboat fired cannon shot at Peterson and Sherwood, who were able to duck for cover and avoid injury.
Peterson and Sherwood dashed northward about 5 miles to Fort Lafayette at Verplanck’s Point, where they reported the incident. Col. James Livingston without delay sent several cannons back to Teller’s Point, and by the first light of morning on September 22, a cannon opened a two-hour bombardment on the Vulture. When the tide and winds had changed in its favor, the Vulture moved downriver to avoid harm or destruction from the cannon fire. André was now stranded and without safe transport to deliver the plans of West Point to British high command in New York City. He crossed into Westchester to travel by land, and as he approached Tarrytown on the morning of September 23, 1780, he was apprehended by John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams. On October 2 André was hanged as a spy.
John Peterson was later taken prisoner and held in a prison ship in New York harbor, but he escaped by crawling down the anchor chains and into the water. He also became involved in the brutal civil strife that raged in the no-man’s land of Westchester County, valiantly fighting in December of 1781 alongside his company of 20 militiamen against a raiding party of 45 Loyalist cavalry.
After the war, Peterson was respected by his contemporaries, but was living in poverty. Gen. Philip Van Cortlandt, in consideration of the high regard he entertained for Peterson’s military services, gave him a house and lot in Cortlandt town, where he lived until he moved to Peekskill. In 1818 at age 63, Peterson received a pension from the United States for his service in the 2nd New York Regiment. Having no other means of support besides his manual labor, he and his family, with wife and eleven children, remained poor. His poverty also meant that he could not vote, due to high property qualifications that New York State imposed on Blacks, but not whites, through 1870.
John Peterson died around 1850, aged 103 years old. He is buried in the Bethel Cemetery at Croton-on-Hudson. In 1914, a Dr. G. P. Wygant of Peekskill proposed, “We are going to raise a monument to one John Peterson,” but it is unclear what became of the proposal. A cannon discovered in 1924 on the site of Fort Lafayette was presented to the Peekskill Museum in 1952, and has relatively recently been set up on its grounds as a monument to the patriotism of John Peterson and Moses Sherwood.
John Peterson’s obituary in the Westchester Herald included this praise: “He maintained through long life the character of an honest man and a faithful soldier and was much esteemed by all who knew him.” If not for the quick and effective actions taken by John Peterson and Moses Sherwood – firing upon the British landing party at Croton Point and then arranging for the cannon that repelled the Vulture, it is more than probable that André would have returned to the Vulture in safety and delivered the plans to the British, upon which West Point, and possibly the war, would have been lost.
Our next installment will continue the theme of unsung heroes whose actions contributed to the capture of British spy Major John André by looking at the story of Frena Haarlager Romer, a woman at whose home the several militiamen breakfasted on the morning before the capture.
Teller’s Point (Croton Point Park).
At this location on September 21, 1780, John Peterson and Moses Sherwood fired upon a landing craft of the British warship Vulture, which had brought British spy John André to meet with traitor Benedict Arnold. Peterson and Sherwood had alerted the officer at Fort Lafayette at Verplanck’s Point and by the next morning a cannon from Fort Lafayette was brought to Tellers’ Point. The cannon fired on the Vulture, which moved downriver and abandoned John André, who was then forced to make his way on land behind American lines in Westchester. This led to his capture by three militiamen in Tarrytown on September 23.
Site number 1 on the map, at “Northwest Point,” indicates where Peterson and Sherwood fired on the landing craft on September 20th. Site number 15, at “South Point,” indicates where earthworks were set up from which the cannon was fired on September 21st. Edward Hagaman Hall, who drew the map, was Executive secretary for the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, and instrumental in early efforts to turn Croton Point into a public park.
“A Map of Teller’s Point or Croton Point, Drawn by Edward Hagaman Hall, 1898.” In Edward Hagaman Hall, “The Dominie’s Pilgrimage; From Fort Amsterdam to Fort Orange, Part IV,” The Spirit of ’76 (March 1898), 200-203; page 200.
D.A.R. Tablet Honoring Peterson and Sherwood, Croton Point Park.
On September 21, 1780, Moses Sherwood and John Peterson fired at a British landing party that had come from the warship Vulture. Hiding behind some rocks, they waited until the landing craft came into view before firing, preventing them from landing and setting off a chain of events that led to the capture of British spy John André. A tablet placed on this boulder at Croton Point Park in 1967 by the Mohegan – Pierre Van Cortlandt – Tarrytown Chapters, Daughters of the American Revolution, reads, “Commemorating the defense of Teller’s Point by George Sherwood and Jack Peterson who repulsed the landing of British troops from the ‘Vulture’ September 21, 1780, thus aiding in the capture of Major André.”
View looking south from Croton Point Park, from where the cannon was fired that sent the Vulture back downriver, stranding British spy John André. He was captured by patriot militiamen in Tarrytown on September 23, and then hanged as a spy in Tappan on October 2.
View of Teller’s Point (Croton Point Park) from Hi Tor in Rockland County.
On September 21, 1780, John Peterson and Moses Sherwood first spotted a British boat from the Vulture heading for the north end of the point (left side) and fired on it to prevent it from landing. The next day, a cannon was brought from Fort Lafayette at Verplanck’s Point and placed on the southern point (right side), where it forced the Vulture downriver and caused André to travel back to New York City by land across Westchester, where he was captured on September 23.
Gravesite of John Peterson, Bethel Cemetery, Croton-on-Hudson.
After the war, Gen. Philip Van Cortlandt gave John Peterson a house and lot in Cortlandt town, where he lived until he moved to Peekskill. The inscription reads, “The grave of John P. Peterson, Revolutionary War, Westchester Militia, 1746-1850.” John Peterson served in both the 2nd New York Regiment of the Continental Army, and the militia.
Gravesite of Moses Sherwood, Sparta Cemetery, Ossining, with War Service marker on the left
John Peterson joined the 2nd New York Regiment of the Continental Army along with Isaac Sherwood, 1st cousin of Moses, in 1777.
Cannon Memorial, Peekskill Museum, Peekskill.
A cannon discovered in 1924 on the site of Fort Lafayette. It was from Fort Lafayette where a cannon was sent to Teller’s Point (Croton Point) to repulse the Vulture. The cannon was presented to the Peekskill Museum in 1952, and in 1990 was set up as a monument to John Peterson and Moses Sherwood.
The memorial reads in part, “Patriot John Jacob Peterson, 1746-1850… Sept. 22, 1990, 210th anniversary, 1st Annual Peekskill Patriots Day. Cannon remounted by the Moshier Family of Peekskill, Descendants of John Jacob Peterson.”