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Dutch Colonies

American Revolution battle recreation, c. 1890
Detroit Publishing Company, Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-D413-1-x
During the American Revolution, the small town of Kingston, New York, twice appears as a key location in numerous historical accounts; once as the meeting point for New York politicians, and once as the focal point of British retaliation. The first meeting resulted in Kingston's role as the birthplace of the State of New York. One month later, in retaliation for aiding the patriots, the British burned Kingston to the ground.

The British viewed New York City and the Hudson River Valley as key strategic locations. After evacuating the patriot stronghold of Boston in March of 1776, the British concentrated on New York as a base of operations. In July of 1776, shortly after the signing of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, a huge British fleet of nearly 500 ships and 35,000 men--the largest single armed force in America until the Civil War--appeared off New York. Under the command of General William Howe, the vastly larger British forces began pushing back the smaller and less-organized American Army under the command of George Washington almost immediately. By August, Washington had withdrawn from Long Island, pulling back to Manhattan. In September of that same year, Washington and his generals, convinced of the weakness of their position in New York City, debated whether they should burn the city upon retreat, or simply leave it to the British. Under instructions from the Continental Congress to not torch the city, Washington withdrew into New Jersey, where he successfully harassed the British and their mercenary soldiers. Washington's withdrawal from Manhattan, however, had other, non-military consequences.

After the Declaration of Independence was signed, the 13 American colonies found themselves adrift without any governmental institutions. To remedy this situation in New York, New York patriots chose delegates to a Provincial Congress, which first met in New York City, the old colonial capitol. As the British drew their noose around Manhattan, the New York Congress decided to move north up to White Plains, where in July, John Jay was named chairman of a committee to draw up a State constitution. Calling itself the "Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York," the group was forced to move farther north to safety when Washington's army fully abandoned New York City. Stopping in Fishkill, New York, the delegates decided that the town's lodging's were inadequate--and too close to British forces--and moved even farther up the Hudson River Valley to Kingston in February of 1777.

The delegates found Kingston to their liking. A "government on the run" for many months, the city welcomed the delegates, opening several public buildings for the Convention's use. For two months, the delegates met in the Ulster County Courthouse, working deliberately on a State constitution. On April 22, 1777, the bells of Kingston's churches announced approval of the State's first constitution. Largely the work of chairman John Jay, the new constitution provided for the election of a Governor, a Lieutenant Governor, and members of a Senate and Assembly. In June of 1777, the State held its first elections, and George Clinton, a well-known brigadier general of the militia was sworn in in Kingston as the State's first Governor on July 30.

Senate House State Historic Site
Photograph by John E. Reinhardt

In September of 1777, the new State government convened, still using Kingston as the State Capitol. The Ulster County Courthouse was once again put to use, this time for the first session of the New York Supreme Court. John Jay sat as the State's first chief justice, a position he would reprise later as first Chief Justice of the United States in 1789. The Supreme Court's use of the building, of course, forced the Legislature to find other meeting places. A local resident, Abraham VanGaasbeck, offered a room in his old stone house for use by the Senate, while the larger Assembly met in a local tavern. Known today as the Senate House, the building that held the initial meeting of the New York State Senate is administered as a State Historic Site.

The Supreme Court and the Legislature stayed in Kingston until October, when Kingston found itself a small player in much larger military events. Once again forced to flee, the new government hastily adjourned at word that a British force was slowly moving north, plundering the Hudson Valley.

Burgoyne's Invasion, May - October 1777

After George Washington had evacuated New York City almost a year earlier, General Howe had remained comfortable in the city, choosing not to campaign during the winter. In May of 1777, General Howe detached an army from Boston under the command of General John Burgoyne up to Canada. Burgoyne was to bring his troops, approximately 7,000 men, from Montreal down to Lake Champlain, capture the city of Saratoga, and then proceed from there down the Hudson River, meeting Howe's force of some 30,000 men, which was to come north up the Hudson River from New York City. In this manner, the British would secure the Hudson River Valley, which was serving a vital roll as a transportation and supply route for the American armies.

Unfortunately, Howe changed his plans after Burgoyne left for Canada. Trying to force Washington's army out into the open, the bulk of the British army marched on Philadelphia, leaving only a small force in New York City under the command of Brigadier General Henry Clinton. Howe would not be able to provide any support to Burgoyne's invasion, but instead vaguely instructed Clinton to "act offensively" and "if you can, make any diversion in favor of General Burgoyne's approaching Albany."

Burgoyne, however, needed far more help than Clinton could provide, for British plans vastly underestimated the difficulty of the terrain in Canada, as well as the ability of the Americans to gather dispersed armies together. Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga on July 5, 1777, but when the army began chopping its way south through the thick forests, Burgoyne's progress slowed considerably. Troops throughout New England and New York, sensing blood, gathered around Saratoga, picking at Burgoyne's army throughout September and October.

Reenactment of the burning of Kingston, 1998
Photograph by Bud Walker
In October, seeking to relieve some of the stress American armies were placing on Burgoyne's invasion force, General Clinton sent out an expedition force north up the Hudson from New York City. It is news of this force moving up the Hudson that forced the New York State Government to flee Kingston. On October 16, 1777, the British arrived in Kingston. Looking upon Kingston as a "hotbed of perfidy and sedulous disloyalty to King George the Third and His Majesty's Parliament," the British punished Kingston for hosting the revolutionary State government, and for generously providing Washington's army with wheat and other food supplies. Under the command of Major General John Vaughan, the British troops moved into Kingston's Stockade area and set fire to every building, largely succeeding in burning the city to the ground. After burning Kingston, Vaughan continued up the Hudson, coming with 45 miles of Albany before encountering an American army of around 5,000 men and returning to New York City.

Simultaneously, Burgoyne's position in northern New York was deteriorating rapidly. With reinforcements from all over New England and New York, an American army under the command of General Horatio Gates--led brilliantly on the field by General Benedict Arnold--managed to surround Burgoyne's army. On October 17, just a day after Vaughan's troops torched Kingston, British General Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to Gates at the Battle of Saratoga, easily one of the American army's greatest victories during the American Revolution.

Burgoyne's surrender at the Battle of Saratoga
Painting by John Trumbull, Detroit Publishing Company, Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-D434-5-234

Saratoga, and the events flowing around it, became a turning point in the American Revolution. Although Washington's army, which had been drawn to Philadelphia by British General Howe, would suffer numerous defeats in the following years, the American victory at Saratoga established the reputation of the American army. Benjamin Franklin, serving as the diplomat to France, convinced the French to form an alliance with the fledgling republic against France's enemy, Britain. With Britain fighting on two sides of the Atlantic, the country's resources were stretched to the limits. From 1778 to 1783, France provided the Americans with large sums of money, immense amounts of equipment, about one-half of America's armed forces, and a powerful navy. With newfound resources, the Americans carried on the revolution until the British were forced to simply give up. In essence, the Battle of Saratoga helped America become an independent country.

Kingston, however, paid a large price for its role in the American Revolution. With many of Kingston's Dutch buildings made of stone, numerous buildings were simply gutted and not completely destroyed by the fire, but reconstruction was slow and painful. As the years passed Kingston slowly rebuilt, and by the beginning of the 19th century was once again the largest, most dominant town in the Hudson River Valley area. It would not relinquish its dominance until the 1850s, when the Hudson River once again played a major role in the area's development.

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