Thursday, June 24, 2010
In Search of Dennis Kennedy: A Genealogical Detective Story
On Tuesday morning, January 16, 1979, that frightening call sounded in Montrose, N.Y., when neighbors noticed smoke pouring from the unoccupied Kennedy House at 185 King's Ferry Road. An alarm was sounded immediately, and fire companies from Montrose, Verplanck and Buchanan responded. For four hours they fought the stubborn blaze that gutted the building, one of the oldest in this part of Westchester.
Owned by James W. Henning, a local real estate and insurance agent, the imposingly large Kennedy House had been built in the 1750's, and contained 11 rooms and four fireplaces. It took its name from Dennis Kennedy, father-in-law of States Morris Dyckman, who had owned it and lived in it during the Revolution.
A devastating fire may have been inevitable. The timbers of the big old house were tinder-dry. Joseph Butler, arson investigator for the Westchester County district attorney, reported that the fire was not deemed to be suspicious. What remained of the house was demolished and trucked away. Local historians were dismayed.
"The past is a bucket of ashes," Carl Sandburg would write years later in his poem "Prairie," disparaging the uses of the past. The image is apt. Nothing survives today from the venerable house in Montrose, not even a bucket of ashes. The Hendrick Hudson Free Library occupies the site today. An overenthusuiastic 2002 article in a Westchester newspaper reported that a nearby pile of bricks was from the original Kennedy House. On inspection by this writer, they proved to be modern.
What Was Lost
Many Federal period architectural details went up in smoke with in the burning of the Kennedy house. In his monumental work on Westchester architecture, Frank E. Sanchis compared the house with the well-maintained Joseph Purdy House in North Salem and noted that while it was in poorer condition it had more specifically Federal architectural details:
"It incorporates, for example, a fully developed Federal door, with transom and sidelights, and features parallel lintels, with raised center blocks, on the second-floor windows. The end elevation, facing King's Ferry Road, contains quarter-round ‘quadrant windows’ at the attic level; these are more common in city houses, but are not often seen in Westchester buildings, where a single window, centrally located is more typical.
"The entablature [details in the upper portion of a building] of the front elevation appears to have been removed, as well as the roof overhang; while tight eaves, without overhang are used on building sides, the front and rear eaves are projected as a rule. The porch of the Kennedy House has been extended and enclosed at the ends."
In its life of more than two centuries, the Kennedy House knew many famous visitors. On July 18 and 19, 1778, two sessions of the court-martial of Gen. Charles Lee met "at the house of Mr. Kennedy at Peeks-Kill." General Lee was charged with disobedience, retreating before the enemy and disrespect.
After meeting earlier in New Brunswick and Paramus, N.J., sessions of the court were moved to the Kennedy House in order to interview witnesses now stationed in the area. The proceedings then moved to North Castle, where the verdict was rendered: guilty on all three counts. Despite the seriousness of the charges, Gen. Lee received a remarkably light sentence: suspension from command for 12 months.
George Washington was in the Cortlandt area on five occasions totaling 20 days between 1776 and 1781. He stayed at Peekskill's Birdsall House in 1780 when he met with Benedict Arnold; a week later, he would learn of Arnold's treason. On other visits, Washington made his headquarters at the Upper Manor House on Oregon Road. Going to and from the King's Ferry, however, he passed the Kennedy House and may have stopped there.
Returning from a mission to General Horatio Gates at Peekskill, while he lay ill of rheumatic fever at "Mr. Kennedy's House," Lt.Col. Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to Gen. Washington on November 15, 1777. He was nursed back to health at the Kennedy House before his return to Washington’s headquarters.
Not Built by William Dyckman
Published accounts of the Kennedy House are often replete with misinformation. It was sometimes called the Dyckman House in the mistaken belief that it had been built by William Dyckman, a Revolutionary War refugee from upper Manhattan.
An Ossining historical researcher, the late H. Dorothea Romer, offered an explanation for the association of the Dyckman name with the Kennedy House:” An old building on the King's Ferry Road has been pointed out as William Dyckman's stopping place, but there is no evidence that he remained there. The building may have been a tavern that merely offered temporary shelter. King's Ferry Road was a main thoroughfare leading to the Ferry to Stony Point, and was used by both armies. She wrote, "It is more probable that by the spring of 1777 William Dyckman found a safer refuge for his family. He was a farmer with slaves and agricultural tools and could have rented land and raised food for his household for the duration of the war."
William Dyckman's stay in Cortlandt was temporary at best. After the British quit New York City in 1783, he returned to upper Manhattan and the farmhouse between 208th and 209th streets and Ninth and Tenth avenues. The site is now covered by vast subway yards of the Independent System. He found the house in ruins and his orchards cut down for firewood by the British.
Before his death in 1787, William Dyckman built another house, still standing at 204th Street and Broadway, the new road the British had opened to the King's Bridge. With its low-pitched gambrel roof covering a full-length porch, lower walls of fieldstone and brick, and random-width chestnut floorboards, it is the last surviving Dutch colonial farmhouse in that borough. The house is today a museum of period furniture and artifacts.
Loyalists vs. Patriots
Because allegiances played such an important role in the lives of the colonists, it will be useful to pause here and explore the differences. Those who opposed the rebellion called themselves "Loyalists." To the opposition, who called themselves "Patriots" or "Whigs," they were referred to contemptuously as "Tories." Loyalists included conservatives of every stripe who resisted change or supported Parliament's right to tax the colonies, and royalists who believed in the right of kings to rule. Among these were public officials and judges who would lose jobs and income, Anglican clergymen and many church members [the Church of England was the official church of the Crown], professionals, such as lawyers, physicians and teachers, and prosperous farmers, merchants and innkeepers. Political animosities sometimes determined commitment. The De Lancey family in New York City became Loyalists to counter their influential upstate pollirtical rivals, the Livingston family, who were Whigs.
In 1775, the population of Great Britain numbered some 8 million. The 13 colonies had a population of only 2.26 million. Generations of America school children have been taught that nothing was more reprehensible than a native-born American who sided with the British during the American Revolution. The Revolution has been portrayed as an almost universally popular uprising opposed by a traitorous few. Not so. The number of those who actively backed the Revolution varied from colony to colony. In some communities Loyalists outnumbered Patriots by better than two to one.
New York was a veritable hotbed of Loyalist activity and the last state to agree to the Declaration of Independence. It furnished more recruits to George III than it did to George Washington, supplying 15,000 men to the British Army and more than 8,000 Loyalist militia. In all, Great Britain drew some 50,000 soldiers--regular or militia--from among its American Loyalist sympathizers. When the British evacuated New York City in 1783, they took with them 7,000 Loyalists. The number of Loyalists who left America during the Revolution, largely for Canada, may have been as large as 100,000. During and after the war, New York made $3.6 million from the sale of confiscated Tory property, and Maryland collected more than $2 million.
Loyalists eventually became a burden to British strategic planning.When Howe abandoned Boston for New York City, his ships first had to sail for Halifax with Tories evacuated from Boston. Howe became overextended and had to post garrisons in Trenton, Princeton, Bordentown and Brunswick on the winter of 1776 in order to protect the Tories of New Jersey.
Political scientists have long debated what would have happened to the patriots had the Revolution failed and Loyalists returned to power. Britain was firm in its determination to extinguish the colonial rebellion. Similarly, loyalists' were outspoken in their desire for vengeance and retaliation. Historian Sydney George Fisher concluded, "America would have become an enormous Ireland."
Over the years, the Kennedy House in Montrose house also has been known by the names of the successive families that owned it. It has been called the Henry House, the Tate House, the Mackey House and the Johnson House.
It should properly have been called the Corne House, having been built for Peter Corne, openly a loyalist during the Revolution, probably in the 1750's. The Corne name was pronounced locally as "Cor-ney" and sometimes written with an accented final letter--the French accent aigu (é).
Born in the English port city of Hull in 1722, Corne, already “a master mariner," came to New York as a young man and entered into partnership with merchants Anthony and Isaac Van Dam. Not content with the dull routines of commerce, Corne sailed the company's ships to the West African coast. Here he bought slaves and transported them to the island of St. Eustatius in the Dutch Antilles, a center for contraband. High mortality among the workers on sugar plantations made slaves a desirable cargo. Emptied of their human freight, his ships then loaded Caribbean sugar and rum for transport to the North American colonies.
Between 1740 and 1748, during the American phase of Britain's War of the Austrian Succession, with a commission from the colony of New York, Corne became part owner of several privateers. Armed with eight cannon, his brig Nebuchadnezzar wreaked havoc on Dutch and French merchant vessels.
Peter Corne was soon wealthy. He owned town houses in New York City, a summer mansion north of the city that he called Greenwich House (it lent its name to the neighborhood) and homes on Long Island and near the King's Ferry, where he had a farm and a gristmill near Peekskill.
In 1751, he married Elizabeth Henderson, affluent in her own right. Her mother, Thysie Benson, was the daughter of Derrick Benson, a well-to-do New Jersey landowner. Her Scottish-born father, wealthy physician and merchant Dr. James Henderson, owned houses and land in New York City and extensive acreage in the Mohawk Valley.
Peter and Elizabeth Henderson Corne had three daughters. Without her father's consent, on Sunday, June 23, 1773, Letitia, the eldest, married Dennis Kennedy, "a gentleman of New York," in Manhattan's Lutheran Church. Built in 1729 on Broadway at Rector Street, the church would be gutted in the disastrous fire that consumed a third of New York after American troops evacuated he city in 1776. As the father of States Morris Dyckman's wife, Dennis Kennedy is an important figure in the Dyckman family history and the Boscobel story.
The second Corne daughter, Elizabeth, married a lieutenant of artillery and deputy quartermaster general of Hessian troops with an imposing name: Baron Charles August de Girancourt de Vourecourt. Peter Corne roundly disliked the groom. The third, Margaret, married successful New York merchant George Douglas.
A stubborn, die-hard Tory, Peter Corne's name appears frequently in records during the Revolution. British headquarters files, conspiracy committee minutes and newspapers all contain references to him, including three jail sentences served because of his "passionate allegiance to George III in the faces of Rebel committeemen."
Family legend has it that Peter Corne once took the Kennedy children to the cellar of his home. Opening a curtain covering a portrait of British King George III, he commanded them, "Down on your knees to your Master!"
His wife Elizabeth Henderson Corne died in Bushwick, Long Island, on August 30, 1780. Five years later, Peter Corne married his partner Isaac Van Dam's widow, Sara. The relationship soon soured. Toward the end of his life he promised Sara anything in return for a legal separation. Peter Corne died in New York City on July 18, 1807.
Facts about Peter Corne's son-in law, States Morris Dyckman's father-in-law and Betsey Dyckman's father Dennis Kennedy are elusive, and he remains a person of interest but also a person of mystery. From public records of the years following his 1773 marriage to Letitia Corne Kennedy, however, we can glean a few details. We know that the couple had a daughter named Elizabeth, born May 1, 1776. She was called Betsey--although she always signed herself Elizabeth.
The Corne family brought Betsey with them when they left Westchester to take refuge behind the British lines, and she became the ward of Peter Corne. Dennis Kennedy remained behind. No further mention of Betsey's mother appears; she seems to have died within a few years.
There also may have been other Kennedy children, including at least one older brother. A male child named Peter Cornel Kennedy was baptized at Christ Church in Poughkeepsie on August 28, 1774, probably the son of Dennis and Letitia. His sponsors were listed as Peter Cornel, his wife, and John Barnes. Two infants were buried at New York's Trinity Church for P. or Capt. Corney: a child of 1 yr. 3 mos. in June of 1779 and another of 1 yr. 6 mos. on November 12, 1780. These appear to have been children of Dennis and Letitia Kennedy. Peter Corne and his wife were too old for them to be theirs, and their younger daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, had not yet married.
How Dennis Kennedy acquired the house that came to be known as the Kennedy House is unclear. By turning it over to his son-in-law, Peter Crone may have been attempting to keep his Westchester property from being confiscated under anti-Tory laws. Eventually, the Corne farm and mill were seized by the Commissioners of Sequestration and sold to a Patriot.
Was Dennis Kennedy a loyal Patriot? Or was he a covert Tory? We may never know the answers to these questions. He served in the American forces, yet he moved to Canada after the Revolution. On April 12, 1774, Dennis Kennedy subscribed 10 shillings toward a glebe farm and house for St. Philip's Episcopal Church in the Highlands in Garrison, N.Y., where Peter Corne was a vestryman. [A glebe farm was land donated to a parish, whose rent went to support the church.] The church strongly supported the Crown.
In White Plains, on April 13, 1775, Peter Corne and Dennis Kennedy joined 297 others in signing their names to a document protesting the selection of delegates to represent the colony of New York at the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They declared their "allegiance to their gracious and merciful sovereign, King George the Third." Paul Revere's fateful ride was only five days away.
Because Corne later refused to take the oath of allegiance to the revolutionary government, the Fishkill Committee on March 20, 1777, ordered him to go "with his Family, apparel & household furniture" behind the British lines within 20 days. Corne owned the large house near King's Ferry and asked that "his Son in Law Dennis Kennedy" be allowed to live on his [Corne's] farm to care for his property until its disposition could be decided.
By then Kennedy had taken the oath of allegiance and was grinding flour for the American army. The committee offered no objection. The Kennedy family, then living in Dutchess County, "moved down there," according to the minutes of the First Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York. What Dennis Kennedy found shocked him.
The Commissioners of Sequestration had sold "every moveable Thing," including the livestock Corne had left to Kennedy "by way of recompense for two years service I did him and never rec'd 6 pence before." This information comes from his petition to the Council of Safety, dated May 24, 1777, on file in the archives at Albany. It asks for the return of is personal effects and a Negro man named York.
Not only had Dennis Kennedy taken the oath of allegiance before moving to Corne's house in Cortlandt, he enlisted in the militia. On February 17, 1777, he joined Capt. James Stewart's Company of Col. Lewis Dubois's 5th New York Regiment of the Line for three years. His name remained on the muster rolls until November 3rd. On October 6 of that year, the record shows that military pay was due him. Under "Remarks" is the notation, "Prisn or dead." October 6 was the date British and Hessian troops seized lightly defended Forts Clinton and Montgomery near Bear Mountain in a surprise attack on American positions from which some defenders escaped across the Hudson. This diversionary attack by Sir Henry Clinton was intended to assist Burgoyne's thrust from the north toward Albany, but was already too little and too late.
He obviously survived that debacle. By 1778, Dennis Kennedy was serving as a sergeant in the 3rd Regiment of Westchester County Militia organized by Col. Samuel Drake of Bedford. On February 27, 1779, he was commissioned an ensign [an intermediate rank between sergeant and lieutenant] in the same regiment.
During this period, Kennedy continued to occupy the Corne house. In the New York Packet and Advertiser for June 4, 1777, he advertised for a button lost from his bearskin coat and noted that he was "living near Peekskill." As late as November 29, 1779, a small package was addressed to him and delivered at the house on King's Ferry Road frequented by Continental officers and known as the "Kennedy House."
Friend or Foe?
After 1779, Dennis Kennedy's trail grows faint. His name does not turn up again until after the Revolutionary War. Lorenzo Sabine's Loyalists of the American Revolution, published in Boston in 1864, lists him as having been a "Loyalist Associator" in 1782, and settling in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
But from other sources we learn that he and his family (one male, one female, two children, one servant) did not embark with the main body of loyalists. A search of Nova Scotia archives reveals no grant of land in Shelburne, although a Dennis Kennedy was reported as the joint owner of a 400-acre grant in Chester Township. Because he did not file a petition, however, the land reverted to the province.
Perhaps Kennedy had seen a letter published in the Boston Gazette for September 12, 1783, describing refugees in the Shelburne area as "the most miserable set of beings that it is possible to conceive of" and "cursing both King and Congress." Shelburne, a boomtown of ten thousand inhabitants in 1783, had dwindled to a few hundred only two or three years later. Shelburne had a good harbor but it froze in winter. The soil was infertile and not conducive to farming, and the land had to be cleared of trees.
By January 24, 1786, a Dennis Kennedy was in Ontario helping former Dutchess County farmers Daniel Hammel (or Haumel) and Thomas Robbler file their claims against the British Crown for compensation as Loyalists. Kennedy had known both men before the Revolution. In Hammel's claim, Kennedy is identified as a "witness from Ontario." Yet no record of any grant of land to Dennis Kennedy exists in that province's archives. Nor is he listed among the United Empire Loyalists in Ontario. The trail of Dennis Kennedy effectively ends here.
Betsey Kennedy Marries
The Daily Advertiser, a New York City newspaper, reported the marriage on February 1, 1794, of "States Morris Dyckman, Esq., of King's Grange, Westchester Co., to Miss Kennedy, grand daughter of Peter Corne, Esq., of Mansfield in the same Co." The bride, "Miss Kennedy," of course, was Elizabeth Kennedy, daughter of Dennis and Letitia Corne Kennedy. At the time, she was the ward of Peter Corne.
The ceremony was performed in Manhattan’s Trinity Church, the structure completed in 1790 as a replacement for the original building burned out in the huge fire of 1776. Officiating was the Rev. Benjamin Moore, whose wartime Loyalist leanings had initially prevented him from elevation to rector."He preached and prayed against us during the war," :recalled Robert Livingston. He was also the father of Clement Clark Moore, who would claim authorship of "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Witnesses included States Morris Dyckman's widowed sister, Mrs. John Vredenburgh, his sister Caty, her son William.
Peter Corne had not been pleased at the prospect of the marriage. Dyckman, a longtime bachelor, was 39 or 40 and suffered from severe bouts of gout. Betsey was not yet 18, maling him more than twice her age. Peter Corne did not want his young granddaughter to marry a much older man who was not only ailing but whose finances were shaky.
Corne and Dyckman had one quality in common: States Morris Dyckman had been an openly avowed Loyalist during the Revolution. Forced to seek refuge in New York City, he found work with the British as a trusted quartermaster's clerk there and in England.
In 1804, States Morris Dyckman began the construction of the Boscobel mansion located on what would later be the grounds of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Veterans Hospital. Built by William Vermilye, Dyckman's cousin, a builder by trade, no formal plans have been found.
Dyckman did not live to occupy Boscobel. Death came suddenly on August 11, 1806, while he was visiting his cousin Jacobus Dyckman at the Dyckman House in upper Manhattan. Jacobus was the oldest son of William Dyckman, who had fled to Cortlandt during the war.
The exquisite architectural gem that is Boscobel was completed under the direction of Betsey, Dennis Kennedy's daughter, who showed remarkable skill in managing her husband's properties. Betsey Kennedy Dyckman died in Boscobel June 20, 1823.
Like their 13-month-old daughter, Letitia Catalina, who died of scarlet fever July 20, 1800, States Morris Dyckman and Betsey were buried in the Nagle-Dyckman burial ground near the original Dyckman farm in upper Manhattan. They were later reinterred in the Cedar Hill Cemetery of the Reformed Church of Cortlandtown on the Albany Post Road, joining dozens of other Dyckman ancestors and descendants. Considered too expensive to repair, the original church, built between 1795 and 1799, was replaced with a modern structure in 1971.
With the decline of the family fortune, Boscobel fell into disrepair and was repeatedly threatened with destruction. Sold by the federal government to a house wrecker for $35, it was rescued dramatically from the wrecker's ball and carefully dismantled. The pieces were transported 15 miles to the north and painstakingly reassembled in Garrison, N.Y., where it stands today in all its glory, still overlooking the picturesque Hudson.
Dennis Kennedy's Descendants
Only one of Betsey's two children survived to adulthood: a son, Peter Corne Dyckman, born in 1797 and sickly as a youth. He married Susan Matilda Whetten in 1819 and died five years later at Boscobel, only 27 years old.
Their daughter, Elizabeth Letitia Corne Dyckman, was born at Boscobel September 10, 1822. Often called Eliza, a name she preferred, she was Dennis Kennedy's great-granddaughter and Betsey Kennedy's only granddaughter.
Peter Corne Dyckman's will left Boscobel to his widow, Betsey, and $10,000 to daughter Eliza when she reached 21--or upon her marriage. Not yet 16, Eliza was married to John Peach Cruger at Boscobel on Christmas Day in 1837. Between 1838 and 1869, she gave birth there to 15 children. Some Crugers buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery thus are descendants of Dennis Kennedy. Other descendants may be living in the area, unaware of the Kennedy connection.
The past guards its secrets well and yields them up reluctantly. Two nagging questions still remain: Where did Dennis Kennedy's loyalties really lie? And where did he end his years? Perhaps a lonely, moss-covered headstone in some forgotten Canadian graveyard holds the answer.