Early in the winter of 2011 I met up with fellow Irvingtonian Steve Colucci for some hikes around the woods of East Irvington, much of which is now officially known as Taxter Ridge Park Preserve (Town of Greenburgh). We visited an old mink farm and some other locations that might be familiar to most kids from Irvington who hiked, rode bikes, or had some other reason to hang around the woods.
During our hikes, Steve mentioned something he remembered from his youth, an old cave with Revolutionary War connections. It went by the name of Farcus Hott, also referenced as Katy’s Cave. Local lore held that this cave was a hideout for colonial farmers seeking refuge from British soldiers. Perhaps mythical in proportion, the cave was even said to be large enough for farmers to hide their cattle from the hungry and marauding Redcoats, and may even have been part of a tunnel that stretched all the way to White Plains.
We never followed up that winter and left Farcus Hott on the back burner as the foliage appeared in the woods in the spring – heavy overgrowth limits one’s chances of finding something in the forest. But word of this legendary cave spread among local historian types, and Jim Logan revived the idea of looking for it over Christmas break in 2011.
Our source materials were sparse, and none of them provided an exact location for the cave. One source of information was Storm’s Bridge, a History of Elmsford, N.Y. 1700-1976, by Lucille and Ted Hutchinson. Farcus Hott first appears on page 33 in the context of Revolutionary War skirmishes that occurred in the area.
Westchester County in the time of the Revolution is referred to as the Neutral Ground, having been located between the British-occupied New York City and the colonial holdings upriver. At the time, a good portion of the Westchester County riverfront was owned by Colonel Frederick Philipse III, a Loyalist. Although British warships sailed up the Hudson to increase British presence in the area, residents of Philipsburgh Manor did not give in to threats of attack to declare an oath to the British king.
Westchester may have been neutral but it was not uncontested. Actually, both colonial and British troops raided county farms. British “cowboys” stole cattle from farmers; the name also seems to have applied to anyone who “robbed and pillaged in the name of the King.” Continental soldiers who did the same were known as “skinners,” and “both groups caused much hardship and suffering in the county.”
The Hutchinsons went on to state that, “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.”
This passage seems to confirm the rumor of a cave large enough to hold many people and even scores of livestock. At the very least, it is easy to see where the contemporary rumor could have been born.
The Hutchinsons’s accounts of the Revolutionary War period borrow heavily from one or two earlier historical accounts. Historical Sketches of the Romer, Van Tassel and Allied Families and Tales of the Neutral Ground by John Lockwood Romer (1917) told of a raid on the Van Tassel farm, located east of the Saw Mill River and south of present-day Route 119.
Before the Revolutionary War, many men in Westchester were enrolled in the British Militia. In wartime, an act was passed that required “all persons resident therein sixteen years of age and upwards, should be enrolled as being subject to military duty” in what was known as the South Battalion of Westchester County Patriots. Those in charge of enforcing this Colonial act were known as the Committee of Safety. The British Governor Tryon formed a company known as the Rangers for the purpose of capturing members of the Committee of Safety and the patriot militia members, who were considered to be deserters of the British Army.
On November 17, 1777, Governor Tryon sent Captains Emerick and Barnes to lead a mission to capture committee members and deserters. The British captured Committeeman Peter van Tassel and Lieutenant Cornelius van Tassel at the family farm one mile south of Elmsford and forced them to lead their own horses to the British post at King’s Bridge. Barnes’s command, “the houses are both owned by damned rebels, burn them,” was carried out too. Elizabeth van Tassel and her baby daughter were spared and they took refuge in a dirt cellar; the next morning her favorite horse returned to the ruined scene and Elizabeth and her young child escaped to her father’s house.
Accounts of what happened to Elizabeth’s teenage son Cornelius van Tassel Jr. vary. John Romer simply stated that young Cornelius leapt out of the burning house and escaped but, being half naked, did not survive the night – it was one of the coldest nights of the fall. In another retelling in John Lockwood Romer’s book, Cornelius Jr. escaped the British band and fled across the frozen Saw Mill River “on his way toward the Farcus Hott, the patriots’ place of shelter on the brow of the hill, now called Beaver Mountain, overlooking the Van Tassel home.” Seeing the broken ice, the British decided to not chase after Cornelius Jr., having already captured his father who they had set out for in the first place.
Along with this account, Romer’s book gave us the only image of Farcus Hott known at the time of our initial research, as the same image was reproduced in Storm’s Bridge.
Romer’s accounts may well have been taken from Poverty and Patriotism of the Neutral Grounds, a paper that John Cornelius Leon Hamilton delivered to the Westchester County Historical Society in 1900. A third, and perhaps the earliest known record of Farcus Hott, Souvenir of the Revolutionary Soldiers’ Monument Dedication at Tarrytown, N.Y. (October 19, 1894, compiled by Marcius D. Raymond) tells the tale much the same, but states that Cornelius Jr. died on January 3, 1780 “as a result of exposure at the time of his father’s capture.”
Poverty and Patriotism gave us another view of Farcus Hott, this time nearly obscured by heavy foliage.
But, closer examination reveals a human figure, finally providing a true sense of the size of the cave.
So where was/is Farcus Hott? Our clues so far are that it was on Beaver Hill and overlooking the Saw Mill River. The Place Names of Historic Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown by Henry Steiner (1998) located Beaver Hill “north of Route 119, west of the Saw Mill Parkway and east of Glenville.” Google Maps puts Beaver Hill in that spot, now the Glenville Woods Park Preserve.
Storm’s Bridge also mentioned one other clue that guided us in our search for Farcus Hott. The Hutchinsons stated (page 175) that the New York State Thruway was almost planned to go through downtown Elmsford, but it missed that crucial location by a few hundred feet. “It was thought at one time that dynamiting for the Thruway had closed Farcus Hott forever; however, Elmsfordian Emily Bayer reported later that she had found the Revolutionary War hideout and that it was intact.”
On December 26, 2011, our initial band of historians set out in search of Farcus Hott. We went with what seemed like the obvious first choice, present-day Beaver Hill and the ridge line near the interchange of the Saw Mill Parkway and the New York State Thruway, since some dynamiting obviously occurred in that area. We hiked over some terrain that Lucas Buresch explored earlier in 2011. We saw the remnants of the Emergency Work Bureau Trail, old stone walls, some nice-sized rock outcrops, but no caves. After a few hours of circling, we broke for lunch at Demeter’s Tavern, a roadside establishment that’s sort of in the basement of an old house on Old Tarrytown Road. A rare sports bar with a decent food menu. Most of our group broke off after lunch, but Lucas and I went on to explore the hillside below (east of) the Saw Mill Parkway. No luck there either.
Henry Steiner stated in his Place Names book that “Beaver Hill may be an instance of translocating a place name.” Steiner located a map by Robert Erskine, a copy of which resides at the Ossining Historical Society, which indicated that Beaver Hill was west of the Saw Mill River but south of today’s Route 119. Having pretty much ruled out the north side of Route 119, we turned our attention to what must really be old Beaver Hill south of Route 119. (However, we also held some fear that, if the cave was near the Saw Mill Parkway and the New York State Thruway, that it may have been obliterated by the more recent reconfigurations of that area.)
Above: Erskine-Dewitt Survey #JI 1778. Original courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York City. Copy at the Ossining Historical Society, Ossining, NY.
Above: Detail of Erskine Dewitt Survey. The squiggly line running more-or-less north-south is the Saw Mill River and/or Saw Mill River Road, and the line running from the upper-left to the to lower-right is the White Plains-Tarrytown Road (present-day Route 119)
Above: Bing.com aerial showing the area of the Saw Mill and the Thruway. Approximating the extent of Beaver Hill based on the Erskine map, the New York State Thruway blasted out a huge piece of old Beaver Hill. The southern extent of Beaver Hill is present-day Mountain Road in Irvington.
Feeling more confident that the cave was South of Route 119 and adjacent to the Thruway, Jim Logan and I walked the Taxter Ridge woods on January 7, 2012, keeping close to the edge of west side of the Thruway. We found more stone walls and interesting rocks and imposing cliffs, but nothing like a cave. A week or so later, Steve Colucci and I met at the East Irvington Nature Preserve and hiked down to Mountain Road on the high side of the ridge and up along the Thruway on the low side of the slope of old Beaver Hill. No cave, but we did find a spot that could have served as a lookout post, a flat area right on the edge of the ridge with a great view to the east. At the north side of this flat clearing was a stone wall running east-west, with an opening where a wooden gate must once have swung.
Above: Entry to clearing/lookout point at East Irvington Nature Preserve.
Above: View of the gateway from the clearing.
Above: View overlooking the eastern end of Mountain Road, where it meets the Saw Mill Parkway. Was this a colonial lookout?
So, with most of Beaver Hill scouted by our group, the last section to look was its northeast corner, a wedge of land east of the New York State Thruway. For the last year or more, apartments known as Avalon Green have been under construction there. One set of units is clustered along the Taxter Road entrance, while a newer set of units was built at the top of the hill. Actually, the top of the hill is still being cleared away for even more units. Having not found Farcus Hott yet, we feared it may have succumbed to an ignorant bulldozer or a blast of dynamite. Some of us took a look around the hilltop earlier but, noticing the steep slope and masses of thorny brambles, put off a thorough exploration until after we examined other likely spots.
Now, seriously on a mission and having pretty much narrowed down our focus, Lucas Buresch finally found that recognizable jumble of rocks known as Farcus Hott on the hillside below Avalon Green in mid-January. A week later, our band of historians, including myself, Lucas Buresch, Jim Logan, Henry Steiner, and Patrick Raftery finally made the pilgrimage to this colonial landmark.
It seems that the cave was not nearly as forgotten as we thought. Some graffiti, some beer cans and plastic chairs indicated others had certainly been here since Emily Bayer last reported on Farcus Hott. The land around the cave has been clear-cut, eliminating the forest that existed in the early 20th-century photographs. It is, however, surrounded by a dense thicket of brambles. But that the cave escaped destruction from the New York State Thruway and two apartment developments (Avalon Green, and Nob Hill on the east) is something of a small miracle.
And it turns out that Farcus Hott is not a cave at all. It appears to be a pile of boulders massed together in some great natural calamity, all tossed about in disarray around a small mouth-shaped opening under a ledge. Its crevices and nooks certainly did not hold room for a few local farm families and their scores of animals. And it is definitely not part of any underground network that connects to other parts of Westchester County. But one can easily imagine the sixteen-year-old Cornelius van Tassel, half-dressed and shivering throughout the coldest night of November 1777, hiding among the rocks at Farcus Hott.
So, without further delay, here is Farcus Hott.
Looking out of the cave toward the Saw Mill River Valley on the east.
Myself and Lucas for scale and comparison to the Poverty and Patriotism image.
Our visit was made late in the afternoon of of a heavily overcast day, resulting in less-than-quality images. I hope to return soon, and may post images of that trip if they turn out better.
For a parallel account of the “re-discovery” of Farcus Hott, including further information and more historic photographs, please visit Lucas Buresch’s blog the Archive Sleuth. Lucas photographed the Erskine map at the Ossining Historical Society and, along with Jim Logan, found the few books online that mention Farcus Hott.
PS – The meaning of the name “Farcus Hott” and the identity of Katy of “Katy’s Cave,” are not explained in any of the historical accounts. Contemporary searches yield no clues. But perhaps someday, like Farcus Hott was once (or twice!) thought to be lost by some, we will uncover the full story.
UPDATE: FEBRUARY 6, 2012
here are two more sources that refer to Farcus Hott:
New-York Tribune – May 11, 1896, Page 15, Image 15 (Library of Congress)
Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly – Volume XLIV, No. , July 1897. Facrus Hott is not mentioned by name, but it is referenced in this article, “Heroes of the Neutral Ground” by John P. Ritter.
While perusing Storm’s Bridge, you may see a familiar name throughout the book. That’s my grandfather John Yasinsac.
And to be fair, here is a photo that represents the other side of my family. That is my grandmother Edith Stein Downing, posed in the mill at Philipsburg Manor, a place I know well.