Fort Tryon Park, sixty-seven acres just north of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan, is a bucolic refuge among the skyscrapers of New York City. Children climb in the Javits’ playground; teens toss snowballs in the Heather Garden; tourists queue to visit the medieval art on display at the Cloisters museum; a bundle of black fluff leads an elderly woman past the snow-laden trees of Margaret Corbin Drive, named after the first woman known to bear arms in the Revolution. A rocky outcrop, Forest Hill, stands vigilance over the mighty Hudson River.
The Wiechquaesgeck tribe, part of the Algonquin-speaking Lenape nation, were the first known inhabitants of this land. They were considered expert botanists; many of their herbal remedies are still useful today. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch waged war to drive these Native Americans from their home, ultimately concluding the bloody affair with a financial settlement, supervised by Mr. Van Cortland, in 1715.
The Continental Army first constructed works on Forest Hill in the summer of 1776 as part of the outer ring of defenses of its main fortress, aptly named Fort Washington, a pentagon of earthen walls roughly a mile to the south. The entire strategic complex was positioned to repel an invasion of Manhattan, a mission in which it failed miserably on November 16 of that year. British forces killed fifty-nine patriots during the assault while capturing almost three thousand more, including Margaret Corbin who had taken her husband’s place manning a cannon after he was killed. While Corbin was paroled shortly thereafter, most other prisoners were essentially sentenced to a gruesome death, an extended stay aboard the notorious British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay off the coast of Brooklyn.
In 1777, Gen. William Howe, the British commander-in-chief, commissioned a fort on the hill to serve as his primary lookout in northern Manhattan. William Tryon, nominally the Royal Governor at the time but also a major general in the British Army, manned the outpost along with 1,500 troops under his command until 1780. The dedication monument standing in the park today highlights Tryon only as “the last English civil governor of New York.” There is much more to the man and his legacy.
William Tryon was born in 1729 in Surrey, England to parents of mid-tier nobility. Although no records exist of his formal schooling, his writings show that he was well-educated in the romantic languages, mathematics, history and science. In 1751, Tryon entered the Army as a lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, a commission likely purchased for him by his father, and was shortly promoted to captain. In 1757, Tryon married Margaret Wake, scion of a wealthy and well-connected family. Shortly afterward, his regiment was deployed to France to fight in the European theater of the Seven Years’ War. He was wounded in battle at St. Malo in 1758, returned to London later that year, and sired a daughter in 1761.
While Tryon’s bank account was amply stocked, his prospects for fame and glory in peacetime London were dim. Accordingly, he petitioned Lord Hillsborough, president of the Board of Trade and close friend of his wife’s family, for a governorship in North America in the hope that it would lead to a return to the military at higher rank. His efforts were rewarded in 1764 when Arthur Dobbs, governor of North Carolina, fell ill and requested to return home.
Although North Carolina was considered a “backwater,” Tryon achieved a reputation as a fair, honest and capable administrator. His signature accomplishment in this vein was the improvement of the colony’s postal service, a crucial link between the important commercial centers in South Carolina and Virginia. Upon taking office in 1765, Tryon declared, “I shall ever think it equally my duty to preserve the People in their constitutional liberty; as to maintain inviolate the Just and necessary Rights of the Crown.” The conflicts inherent in this statement would haunt Tryon for the rest of his life.
To conduct the business of the Crown, particularly with the prosperous merchants on the eastern coast, Tryon believed he needed a proper home and office. Accordingly he used taxpayer funds to construct a governor’s mansion in New Bern, quickly dubbed Tryon Palace (which still stands). The poor farmers near the western border of the colony formed the Regulators to protest both the taxes as well as the corrupt system to collect them. After efforts at reconciliation failed, Tryon led the colony’s militia to victory in the Battle of Alamance Creek in May 1771. Tryon then executed seven Regulator leaders for violation of North Carolina’s “Riot Act” which he had just elevated to a capital crime that year, while pardoning all other participants. With the spirit of rebellion now fermenting throughout the thirteen colonies, Tryon’s squelching of the Regulators earned him the sobriquet of “Billy the Butcher” in some quarters.
Tryon’s success in North Carolina also earned him a promotion. He became the Royal Governor of New York in July 1771, moving into the governor’s mansion in Fort George as well as renting the Mortier Mansion on Richmond Hill (just south of Greenwich Village) for his summer residence. Tryon’s deft administrative touch was cited by a Reverend Peters: “He was humane and polite; to him the injured had access without a fee; he would hear the poor man’s complaint, though it wanted the aid of a polished lawyer.”
Once again, however, the interests of the merchant class clashed with the rights of the common man, this time out in the “Hampshire Grants,” wilderness lands on the border of New York and New Hampshire (which later became the state of Vermont). Continuing the policy of previous royal governors, Tryon granted patents for mammoth tracts to the wealthy, pocketing their fees as well as a thirty thousand acre parcel for himself, noting that land should be owned by “gentlemen of weight and consideration.” These tracts included vastly smaller parcels purchased by locals from New Hampshire years earlier. Outraged, the locals formed the Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen, who tossed “Yorkers” from their newly acquired properties and burned their homes. Tryon issued arrest warrants and threatened to send the redcoats into the territories, but did not follow up.
In 1772, Tryon traveled to the Hudson River Valley, negotiating the purchase of one million acres from the Mohawk and Oneida tribes on behalf of aristocrats including Oliver DeLancey and Edmund Fanning, a Carolinian who had migrated northward. Tryon also secured an additional forty thousand acres for himself. These grants clearly violated the Crown’s mandate established in 1761 to limit grants to one thousand acres in order to protect the rights of Native Americans who had sided with the British in the Seven Years’ War, but the King offered to approve them if the grantees could persuade their fellow citizens not to oppose importation taxes (which they failed to do). In recognition of the governor’s service, the legislature created “Tryon County,” the largest county in the colony (renamed “Montgomery County” in 1784 in honor of patriot general Richard Montgomery, and later subdivided into smaller counties).
While exchanging pointed correspondence over these transactions with his superiors in London, Tryon ran New York City with a steady hand. Business boomed, benefitting working men as well as the upper class. Prosperity and peace lasted until late 1773 when the Crown’s tax on tea caused old divisions to erupt once again. To his credit, Tryon recognized that Parliament could not arbitrarily levy taxes on the colonies. He tried to steer a middle course, but common ground became increasingly hard to find. Mass protests, organized by the Sons of Liberty, convinced the governor to order the tea-carrying ship Nancyback to England, an action that he knew would not sit well in London.
On December 29, Tryon suffered a personal disaster as his house burned to the ground. While his family escaped the conflagration unharmed, the flames destroyed a fortune’s worth of personal property. After almost a full decade in the colonies, Tryon petitioned to return home, ostensibly to repair his health but also to insure that his career was still on track and he would be reimbursed for his financial losses. The Tryons set sail on April 7, 1774, receiving a grand send-off in the New York harbor.
While he was away, the colonies lurched towards outright war. The Hampshire Grants conflict culminated in the “Westminster Massacre” on March 13, 1775, when the town sheriff and a posse of Tories fired into a crowd of rioters, killing one and jailing seven. In the spirit of revolution that would lead shortly to the battles of Lexington and Concord, hundreds of angry New Hampshire men stormed the Westminster courthouse the next day, freeing the captives.
While New York City was not yet in full rebellion when Tryon returned on June 25, the political climate was as volatile as a tinderbox. The change in the air was readily apparent before Tryon’s ship even docked. He was asked to divert to New Jersey while the newly-appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, entered the city to a hero’s welcome, a slight the governor likely never forgot. The Sons of Liberty grew bolder by the day, forcing Tryon to send his wife and daughter back to London in October while he moved aboard the Royal Navy frigate Duchess. Ironically, the Washingtons settled into the Mortier home during their stay in the city.
Tryon remained off shore when Washington and the Continentals re-occupied the city in March 1776, fresh off their victory in the siege of Boston. Aboard ship, Tryon, along with New York’s mayor, David Matthews, masterminded the Hickey plot to kidnap (or more likely assassinate) General Washington as well as another scheme to flood the colonies with counterfeit currency. While the Hickey plot failed, Tryon was able to lure thousands of patriot soldiers to defect by promising cash bounties and grants of land when the war was over.
After Hickey’s treachery was discovered in June 1776, Matthews was jailed while Hickey, a member of Washington’s elite Life Guards, was executed. Late that year, Matthews escaped from prison in Connecticut, reclaimed his mayor’s office in now British-occupied New York, and led a corps of Loyalists. In addition, Governor Tryon appointed Matthews as registrar for the court of vice admiralty, a post ripe with opportunity for graft.
As General Howe placed New York under martial law in September 1776, Tryon had few duties of any consequence as governor. Accordingly, he petitioned for a return to active military duty. To promote his cause, he assisted in raising Loyalist forces for brigades led by Oliver DeLancey, Robert Rogers, John Graves Simcoe, Francis, Lord Rawdon, and others. In addition, Tryon was at Howe’s side during the Battle of Brooklyn in late August 1776 and the invasion of Manhattan at Kip’s Bay on September 15. Tasked with administering loyalty oaths to New Yorkers, Tryon was likely on Manhattan in November but there is no evidence that he participated in the capture of Fort Washington.
Over the winter, Tryon’s frustration with the conduct of the war grew. General Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, sought conciliation with the rebels, provided they lay down their arms; Tryon and others advocated a more aggressive approach. Perhaps reflecting his frustrations dealing from afar with the Green Mountain Boys in New Hampshire, Tryon wrote to William Knox, Secretary of the War Office in April: “I am exactly of opinion with Colonel La St. Luc [a French officer serving with the British in Canada] who says ‘il faut lacher les sauvages contre les miserables Rebels, pour imposer de terreur sur les frontiers’ [you have to unleash the savages against the miserable Rebels in order to impose terror on the frontiers].”
Recognizing Tryon’s discontent, Howe commissioned him as a major general in charge of provincial forces, not regulars, and only for the duration of the war. Since these limitations placed Tryon below other major generals in the military hierarchy, he was not entirely pleased but accepted the commission anyway. As further placation, Howe gave Tryon the honor of commanding the first attack of the 1777 campaign season.
On April 26, Tryon led a force of fifteen hundred troops, predominantly regulars, against Danbury, Connecticut, to destroy the patriot arsenal and supply depots there. The mission was successful, confiscating thousands of barrels of pork, beef, flour, shoes, tents and other supplies, as well as 100 hogsheads and 120 puncheons of rum. Most of these supplies were set to the torch. In addition, the British burned nineteen patriot homes, while leaving Tory residences, marked with a cross on the chimney, intact. The Connecticut militia, led by David Wooster and Benedict Arnold, battled Tryon’s men on their return to the shore, but the British broke through and disembarked with little further incident. Both sides suffered roughly one hundred casualties.
After his return to Manhattan, Tryon elected to reside with his men on Forest Hill to demonstrate his commitment to military, rather than civilian, life. Unfortunately, his long sought-after permanent commission was still not forthcoming.
British fortunes took a major turn for the worse in October 1777 when General Burgoyne and his army were defeated at Saratoga and forced to surrender. After this humiliation, Tryon wrote in a private letter to Gen. Samuel Parsons, “Much as I abhor every principle of inhumanity . . . I should burn every Committee [of Safety] man’s house.”
Over the course of the next eighteen months, Tryon led raids into Westchester County, New York, and into Connecticut and New Jersey. He grew increasingly vocal about the need to expand the scope of destruction to include civilian as well as military targets. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, who had replaced Howe as England’s commander-in-chief in North America, disapproved of war against civilians, but finally relented, giving Tryon approval to lead a large land and sea expedition against Connecticut coastal towns. Clinton hoped that Tryon’s forays would lure George Washington and the Continental Army out of their camps in the Hudson Highlands.
On July 3, 1779, Tryon, aboard the twenty-gun Camilla, commanded an amphibious force encompassing five thousand Regulars, Hessians, Loyalists, and marines aboard a flotilla of more than 100 sail, the largest fleet to ever navigate the Sound. As the ultimate destination of the armada was unknown, the patriots communicated its progress via signal flags and beacons.
At midnight on the 4th, the fleet anchored in New Haven harbor; the first wave of fifteen hundred men landed at dawn the next morning under the leadership of Brig. Gen. George Garth. A vanguard of fifty patriots resisted before falling back to the main earthworks on Beacon Hill. Garth’s force stormed the hill, while the landing craft returned to the ships to pick up Tryon and the second wave of British troops. Patriot militia flooded in from surrounding towns, but ultimately were forced to retreat. Adam Thorp refused to run, becoming the first patriot killed. Tryon’s force rendezvoused with Garth on Beacon Hill, then proceeded to take the town, reaping destruction in their wake. That evening, Tryon read an address to a handful of citizens: “The ungenerous and wanton insurrection against the sovereignty of Great Britain, into which this colony has been deluded by the artifices of designing men, for private purposes, might well justify in you every fear . . . respecting the intentions of the present armament.”
Garth, seconded by Edmund Fanning, who had assumed command of the King’s American Regiment, prevailed upon Tryon to spare New Haven, noting, “tis too pretty to burn.” As Patriot forces swelled in the evening, and British losses mounted, Tryon decided to abandon the town at daybreak. He settled into a home left standing for his use on Beacon Hill, while Garth camped with the troops on the green. They embarked the next morning with little incident, sailing westward towards their next victim, the town of Fairfield.
Tryon’s force spent two days looting and burning there before sailing across the Sound to the friendly confines of Huntington, Long Island for rest. On July 11-12, they sailed to Connecticut again, attacking Norwalk. Patriot resistance, now roughly two thousand men, grew more intense at each destination, resulting in both more casualties and property damage. Tryon returned to Huntington to prepare for yet more raids, but was ordered to cease operations by Clinton. He sailed back to New York on July 14.
Connecticut’s governor, Jonathan Trumbull, estimated that a total of four hundred homes and barns were destroyed. New Haven records noted twenty-three dead, fifteen wounded, and twelve taken prisoner. Several of the wounded died of bayonet wounds they received after being shot. George Washington caustically noted, “the conflagration of Fairfield, Norwalk, & New Haven by the intrepid & Magnanimous Tryon who in defiance of all the opposition that could be given by the Women & Children Inhabitants.”
Tryon estimated his total casualties at twenty-six killed, ninety wounded and thirty-two missing. In his report to Clinton, he did apologize for burning two churches in Fairfield, but noted, “I confess myself in the Sentiments of those who apprehend no mischief to the public to the irritation of a few in the Rebellion if a general Terror and Despondency can be awakened.”
Tryon’s raids did not yield any strategic benefits. Washington refused to take the bait, remaining in the Highlands. After the summer of 1779, Clinton refused to authorize any more forays against civilian targets. William Tryon returned to London in 1780 and died there in 1788 at fifty-eight years old.
The British abandoned Fort Tryon in 1783. The Tryon name lingered on. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Forest Hill and the surrounding woodlands were incorporated into several private estates, including Fort Tryon Terrace (Astor) and Tryon Hall (Billings).
In 1917, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. began accumulating property with the express purpose of donating it to New York City for a public park in recognition of the many happy times he had spent wandering here with his father. He officially made the gift in 1930, noting in a letter to Mayor Jimmy Walker: “It seems appropriate that the park should be named Fort Tryon Park, perpetuating the Fort Tryon of Revolutionary War days which was located within its borders.” Later that year, however, Reginald Pelham Bolton, a prominent archeologist and historian, noted to the Washington Heights Taxpayer Association that Mr. Rockefeller would prefer to have the park known as Forest Hill Park because the Tryon name was distasteful for patriotic and historical reasons. From 1931 through 1935, the well-known architectural firm of Olmsted Brothers constructed the park. Rockefeller spoke at the grand opening of Fort Tryon Park on October 13, 1935, attended by luminaries Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Robert Moses, but did not mention a name change.
The park rose to public awareness again in 1977 thanks to the efforts of Robert Hoffman, a local resident and furniture salesman. After hearing Austrian tourists guffaw at the origins of the Fort Tryon name, he started a movement to change it. A two-year effort resulted in a recommendation to name the park after Margaret Corbin but the proposal was allegedly blocked by the Cloisters Museum, also created by a Rockefeller grant, resulting in a compromise to name the main drive and entrance plaza after Corbin.
In 1983, New York City awarded landmark status to the park. Since 2009, the Fort Tryon Park Trust has spearheaded efforts to restore paths, playgrounds, plantings, and retaining walls.
As Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, wrote in 1779, Tryon’s memory should be “held in everlasting contempt.” Margaret Corbin would be a much more fitting namesake for a park that resides on hallowed ground. Alternatively, it could be named after its original inhabitants, the Wiechquaesgeck.
Native American Life in Washington Heights and Inwood; Washington Heights NYC; February 4, 2019, www.washington-heights.us/native-american-life-in-washington-heights-and-inwood/.
Evolution of Delaware County, New York; Delaware County Clerk’s office, sites.rootsweb.com/~nytryon/evolutio.html.
Arrest Warrant from a Secret Committee of the New York Provincial Congress– June 21,1776, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0042.
Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, www.connecticutsar.org/articles/danbury_raid.htm.
Charles Hervey Townsend,The British Invasion of New Haven, CT, together with some account of their landing and burning the towns of Fairfield and Norwalk, July 1779 (New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor, 1879), 2.
Ibid., 24; Tryon, read to his troops on board HMS Camilla, July 4, 1779; read again to the inhabitants of New Haven on July 5, 1779, archive.org/stream/britishinvasiono00towniala/britishinvasiono00towniala_djvu.txt;
also London Gazette, October 6, 1779.
George Washington to Lafayette, September 12, 1779, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0331.
William Tryon to Sir Henry Clinton, July 20, 1779, The correspondence of William Tryon and other selected papers, ed. William S. Powell (Raleigh, NC: Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources, 1981), 866.
New York Times, June 7, 1930, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1930/06/07/96146504.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.
New York Times, September 11, 1930, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1930/09/11/issue.html.
New York Times, October 13, 1935, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1935/10/13/93492821.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.
New York Times, July 8, 1777, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1977/07/08/76431580.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0.
Henry Laurens to Lt. Col John Laurens, July 17,1779, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg013256)).