Last updated: September 27, 2022
Benches/Seating, First Aid Kit Available, Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits, Parking - Auto, Parking - Bus/RV, Restroom - Seasonal, Scenic View/Photo Spot
Before and after the Battles of Saratoga John Neilson farmed these heights, located at Stop #2 along the park's auto tour road. Today his restored home looks much as it did when Generals Arnold and Poor used it for quarters in 1777. This single-room house may be small, but the panoramic view from the porch is larger than life!
"On the summit of the height, three fourths of a mile northwest of Bemis’s, [John Neilson] owned a clearing of a few acres when the war broke out, and he had...a small dwelling...thereon. The dwelling...is still there."
- Benson Lossing, 1848
A young and ambitious John Neilson came to this area in 1772 from just outside Elizabeth, NJ. He went to work in the village of Stillwater, two miles south of this house, on the farm of Abner Quitterfield (behind you as you face the front of the house). Only three years later, in 1775, he leased 150 acres of land here, and ‘married the boss’s daughter,’ Lydia. Within a year or two, they built this small house on the lot he had leased.
But some time in 1777, they faced devastating news: a British army was invading southward from Canada into New York. Their route would take them basically through the Neilsons’ back yard.
Fortifying the High Ground
John took Lydia and their possessions to the safety of her parents’ home in Stillwater. He then exchanged his home for a tent, serving with his local militia regiment—some of whom would be encamped nearby.
American army officers moved into his empty house on September 12, 1777. About ten miles north, British forces steadily descended the Hudson River Valley as American troops hastily built menacing defenses 3/4 of a mile east on Bemus Heights—a ridge of bluffs overlooking the Hudson. Cannons on these heights, and fortifications on the flood plain below, commanded the river valley. The British choices were few: retreat, run the gauntlet, or go around. Knowing the terrain would force the British to move inland to the west, the Americans also built a long, ‘L-shaped’ fortified wall. From Bemus Heights, it ran northwest to a point just north of Neilson’s house, on what was then called “The Summit,” and then south and west another 3/4 of a mile. Such a massive barrier would surely thwart the British plans—or so the Americans hoped.
Use of the House
The American army used this house as a divisional and brigade headquarters. Ephraim Woodworth’s house, 1/2 mile south of Neilson’s, was headquarters for the American army commanding general, Horatio Gates.
Who were the ‘strangers’ staying in Neilson’s house? The only account from the time of the battles says General Enoch Poor of New Hampshire and General Benedict Arnold of Connecticut were quartered here.
Fighting came within about one mile of this house, but never made it to the American lines. As Gates’ army moved on, though, they left behind a farm in near-ruins.
After the Battles
John and Lydia returned shortly after the army’s departure and began restoring the farm. Their crops had been ravaged, and their fields torn up. John filed a damage claim in May 1778, in the amount of £100 (about three times a soldier’s annual salary), but he was not reimbursed.
The Neilsons continued with their family life as well, eventually having eight children. As the family grew, a small house would no longer do; the first U.S. Census from 1790 lists eleven people living here. Some time before 1830, they built a larger, two-story home.
By the 1890s, they had pushed back the original part of the house and added a carriage barn.