Perched at the end of a rolling lawn, in Vails Gate, is an often overlooked historic site that played a significant role in the American Revolution. This home not only hosted many notable officers during the Revolution, but it was also possibly where the famous Newburgh Letters originated. Once the home of a successful area merchant named John Ellison, it is today known as Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site.
The structure we view today was built in 1754, according to Ruttenber’s History of New Windsor, by William Bull and constructed in the Georgian style. It is important to point out that the clapboard structure adjoining the home was built later in 1799. Although the home was originally built by John’s father Thomas, for himself, it later became the residence of John and his wife Catherine. They were given the home as a wedding present. The newlyweds moved into the house in 1764.
The home which was located just off the King’s Highway allowed John, a successful area merchant, to closely manage the grist mill that his father had constructed in the 1740s. Ellison’s mill sat alongside the Silver Stream. John would grind primarily wheat into flour. Many visitors to the site do not realize that the region was well-known for its wheat until the Hessian Wheat Fly destroyed the viability of wheat in the region. The Ellison wheat was shipped to New York City where the Ellison family had docks. Once the wheat made it to New York City, Thomas, Jr., John’s brother, supervised operations. Unfortunately, the Ellison mill is long gone, but remnants of it can still be seen today.
Starting in 1779, John, his wife Catherine, and their slaves, were displaced by Continental Army officers wishing to use the home as a headquarters. It was from 1779 to 1782 that Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, and Baron von Stueben made the home their headquarters. This is even thought, as Janet Dempsey writes in her book Washington’s Last Cantonment, that the Ellison’s were known to have ”Tory leanings and connections: Thomas’s daughter Elizabeth was married to a notorious Tory Cadwallader Colden, Jr., but their prominence in the community saved them from harassment.” Perhaps the most disruptive stay to the family was the when Horatio Gates arrived in 1782 to oversee ”the 7,000 soldiers and 300 camp followers that made up the winter cantonment in New Windsor.” General Washington was also nearby in Newburgh at the Hasbrouck house. However, unlike with the Hasbrouck house where Tryntje and her family were forced to leave their home for Washington, the Ellison Family remained in their home while Gates used it as his headquarters.
While Gates was quartered in the home, it would become forever associated with the Newburgh Conspiracy. According to Michael Hattem, writing for Mount Vernon, on March 10, 1783, an inflammatory address written by Major John Armstrong, aide-de-camp to General Gates, was circulated at a meeting of officers. The issue revolved around pay owed to the officer by Congress. They were frustrated and feared that they would not receive the back pay owed to them. Armstrong’s “address implored the men to abandon the moderate tone of Washington’s entreaties to Congress in favor of a forceful ultimatum. If Congress did not comply, the army should threaten to either disband—leaving the country unprotected—or refuse to disband after a peace treaty ending the war was signed.” Some insist that Horatio Gates was behind the address, but it has never been proven. However, once Washington heard about the disgruntled officers, he made his way over to the New Windsor Cantonment on March 15. He addressed the officers and quieted the potential mutiny of his officers.
Once the war ended the home returned to the Ellison family. John Ellison died in 1814. The home eventually passed to his nephew Thomas because John and Catherine never had children. In 1917, fearing the destruction of the home, it was was purchased by the Knox Headquarters Association. Five years later, the Brundage Bill of March 1922, allowed the New York State Legislature to take possession of the home along with fifty acres. It was given to New York State as a historic site for the People of the State of New York to enjoy. A large scale restoration commenced that would not be completed until 1954.
Knox Headquarters is open for public tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Wednesdays through Sundays.
It is located at 289 Forge Hill Road, Vails Gate.
For more information call the site at 845-561-5498.
A.J. Schenkman, Historic Huguenot Street’s Consulting Historian, teaches history in the Lower Hudson Valley. He is the author of numerous books and articles. His most recent books include “Murder and Mayhem in Ulster County,” “Wicked Ulster County: Tales of Desperadoes, Gangs & More,” and “Washington’s Headquarters Newburgh: Home to a Revolution.” A.J. has columns in both The New York History Blog, and is a history blogger for The Times Herald Record. He is also a VIP for Teaching the Hudson Valley. He has been featured in numerous publications, venues , radio, and television.