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The Hudson Valley Cowboys and Skinners: Separating Truth from Myth


The Hudson River Valley was home to many notable events throughout the Revolutionary War, such as the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the Battle of White Plains, and the Saratoga campaign. While these important historical milestones are well studied, there are other pieces of history in this area that have fallen victim to error and speculation. A perfect example is found in the study of the Cowboys and the Skinners, vigilante-like bands of militia with questionable loyalty who raided Westchester County. These guerilla forces harassed the local citizens and stole from both loyalists and patriots indiscriminately. While it was well known that the Cowboys were British marauders, it was largely believed for years that the Skinners were American marauders, but as a close analysis of history shows, this was a misconception that would not go away.


cortlandt skinner

Brigadier General Cortlandt Skinner

Following the fall of 1776, after the British had successfully routed the American forces from New York City, the Hudson Valley was largely divided between north and south for much of the war. In the south were the British, operating out of New York City and maintaining posts at Kingsbridge, Morrisania, and Westchester.[1] In the north were the Americans, operating from Peekskill and maintaining posts from the Croton River across to the Long Island Sound.[2] The land in the middle of these two sides, covering most of Westchester County, was called “The Neutral Ground.” It was given this name because neither the British nor the Americans regularly controlled the area, causing it to become a sort of buffer zone between the two opposing forces. This Neutral Ground would be subjected to raids by both the Cowboys and Skinners, as they took produce from farmers and robbed travelers, all in an attempt to help their side’s cause. Both used guerilla warfare tactics to achieve their lawless ends.

The Cowboys were a British light horse battalion under the command of Colonel James De Lancey. Their name came from American soldiers and farmers, as they often rounded up cattle for the British in their raids.[3] They were stationed near King’s Bridge in Westchester, mostly operating in this area until the end of the war.[4] The Skinners, on the other hand, were thought to be an American unit. The name is thought to have come from the practice of “skinning” farmers of their food and goods.[5] Stephen Jenkins wrote, “whence they came, or where they were recruited history does not state.”[6] The difficulty in analysis of the Skinners is that the validity of the claims about their origins are unreliable. The Cowboys have a clearer presence in Revolutionary War history, but what about the Skinners?

The most famous role that the Skinners played in Revolutionary War history is in the capture of Major John Andre on September 22, 1780. The credit of his capture goes to John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams, on the road to Tarrytown.[7] These militiamen were called Skinners by several writers, including Robert McConnell Hatch in Major John Andre: A Gallant in Spy’s Clothing.[8] Drawing a connection to the Skinners in the capture of Major Andre would make sense, as they were considered American marauders and this was a circumstance that happened by chance. However, Hatch’s assertion in far from definitive, and the Skinners may have not been affiliated with the capture at all.

Colton's map of Westchester County 1867

Green- American controlled Peekskill Blue- American zones of operation (from left to right: Croton river, Pine’s Bridge, and Armonk) Red- British zones of operation (Kingsbridge, Morrisania, and Westchester)

One source that offers a short and simple clarification of the Skinners comes from the Revolutionary War itself. Doctor James Thacher kept a journal of his time in the war and one entry makes specific reference to these raiders.

Those of the inhabitants of the neutral ground who were tories, have joined their friends in New York, and the whigs have retired into the interior of our country. Some of each side have taken up arms, and become the most cruel and deadly foes. There are-within the British lines-banditti consisting of lawless villains, who devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenceless inhabitants between the lines, many of whom they carry off to New York, after plundering their houses and farms. These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners.[9]

Thacher states that both the Cowboys and Skinners were from the British side. He calls them bandits, which may be true for some, if not all, of these men. Yet this entry demonstrates the wild and unregulated nature of these raiding parties. According to Lincoln Diamant, the Skinners were given their name because they were raised by Brigadier General Cortlandt Skinner.[10] Therefore, the Skinners could not have been responsible for the capture of Major Andre, unless they had switched sides for profit or recognition. While the Skinners were in fact American loyalist volunteers from New Jersey, they did not affiliate themselves with the Patriot cause. But where did this myth of origin as patriots come from and why has it been so persistent?

De Lancey’s Cowboy painting by Charles M. Lefferts Uniforms of the American, British, French, and German Armies in the War of the American Revolution 1775–1783.

“De Lancey’s Cowboy” painting by Charles M. Lefferts, appearing in “Uniforms of the American, British, French, and German Armies in the War of the American Revolution 1775–1783.”

The answer is found in The Spy, a novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was born in New Jersey six years after the end of the Revolutionary War and was eager to write a book about it.[11] He attributed the term Skinners to American vigilantes to create authentic villains in his novel.  No great attention or detail is given to them, but the damage had been done. Decades later, Washington Irving, the famous Hudson Valley writer, wanted to give new life to the myth. Following Cooper’s lead, he reinforced the Skinners as American marauders in his work, A Chronicle of Wolfert’s Roose.[12] Irving lent enough credibility to the myth for it to last into the 20th century. For the past 200 years, many historians have fallen victim to this alluring misconception of Skinners as marauding patriots without making a thorough investigation into the source of this information. This is how the myth endured: passed down through the years in worthy historical texts, slipping past all but the keenest observer. There is likely more ambiguity to the Cowboys and Skinners than we know now, but we can separate truth from fiction in regard to the identity of the Skinners. They were another militia of the British and not affiliated with the Continental Army.

By Gerard Foley

[1] Jenkins, Stephen. The Cowboys, the Skinners, and the Neutral Ground 1910.

[2] Ibid

[3] Diamant, Lincoln. Skinners: Patriot “Friends” or Loyalist Foes? 1987.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Jenkins, Neutral Grounds

[7] Cray, Robert. Major John Andre and the Three Captors: Class Dynamics and Revolutionary Memory Wars in the Early Republic, 1780-1831. 1997.

[8] Diamant, Skinners

[9] Thacher, James. A military journal during the American revolutionary war, 1775 to 1783

[10] Diamant, Skinners

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid


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