Most 845LIFE subjects are about living people. This one, however, is not.
Claudius Smith has been dead for almost 238 years, hanged in front of a crowd at the original Orange County Courthouse on Jan. 22, 1779.
Last week, the Orange County Historian’s Office unveiled a “Legend and Lore” marker in front of the 1841 courthouse – which replaced the original courthouse on the same site.
“There are lots of rumors and myths about Claudius Smith,” says Johanna Yaun, county historian.
“Which is why it’s a Legend and Lore marker and not a historical marker. Because everybody has a different story about him.”
Known as “The Cowboy of the Ramapos,” Smith and his gang, which apparently included his three sons, were sympathetic to the British cause during the Revolutionary War. So they stole horses and cattle and sold them to British troops.
“Cowboys,” back then, were sympathetic to the British cause while “Skinners” were sympathetic to the Patriot cause. Horses, cattle and supplies were plundered by both sides.
With the British in control of New York City and Washington and his army in Newburgh, Patriot materials and information moved along Orange Turnpike and through the gap near Tuxedo, which made them targets for ambush.
The area was considered to be neutral ground or “no-man’s” land.
“Even though he was on the side of the British, the local Patriots did respect him,” says Sal LaBruna, local history author.
“People today don’t appreciate how much the Revolutionary War was actually a civil war, because locals were on both sides of the fight.”
“But the area around Tuxedo was really lawless back then,” LaBruna says.
Smith’s hidden “den” was a natural formation in a stone cliff high up in the Ramapo mountains, east of the Village of Tuxedo.
Almost assuredly, it was a Native American shelter long before Smith used it. There was an upper chamber for sleeping and a bottom section for his horses.
Smith was first captured in 1777, but as the sheriff escorted him to the jailhouse in Goshen, a band of Smith’s followers attacked and set him free.
But when Major Nathaniel Strong was murdered on Oct. 6, 1778, Smith’s name was mentioned as a possible suspect, and New York Gov. George Clinton placed a $1,200 bounty on his head.
So the Cowboy of the Ramapos went from being a local nuisance to a suspected murderer.
By Oct. 28 he was captured on Long Island and brought back to Orange County to stand trial. He was convicted of three burglaries and sentenced to hang.
“Smith was brought across the street from the courthouse,” says Yaun. “And an improvised gallows was quickly erected.”
A noose was placed over his head and the cart on which he was standing pulled away.
Many stories grew about the legend of Claudius Smith.
The most persistent was that his skull was embedded in concrete above the front door of the 1841 courthouse.
Others tell of treasures that are hidden in caves in the mountains, still waiting to be discovered.
But to Goshen’s Jeanne Krish, the story is more personal.
“I am Claudius Smith’s great, great, great, great, great-granddaughter,” says Krish, 81. “That’s five greats in there.”
“When I found out, I said ‘Neat-o,’ because it got my children interested in genealogy,” she says.
“It’s not every day that you find out you are related to somebody who is famous. Even if he was a horse thief.”
John DeSanto is a freelance photojournalist. Find more of his 845LIFE stories, photos and videos at recordonline.com. Reach John at email@example.com