There’s no doubt that Thomas Bull was a Loyalist.
In June of 1778, in the midst of the Revolutionary War and under the threat of exile from his home, he refused to take an oath of allegiance to New York State.
There’s also evidence that Thomas Bull and his neighbor, Fletcher Matthews, had close ties to Fletcher’s brother, David Matthews, New York City’s Loyalist mayor who was actively plotting to destabilize the Patriot Army’s operations. Local historical advocate James Flannery cites a letter that “George Washington wrote to George Clinton in 1781 advising Clinton that there was a plot afoot to kidnap him by a group led by Richard Smith, son of Claudius, and that Fletcher Mathews’ property – a few miles from the Clinton farmstead – was one place where the would-be kidnappers may be hiding.” Plot or no plot, it’s clear that Thomas Bull and his friends were feared by the Patriot Army for their insurgent knowledge of lands throughout Orange County and for their fervent opposition to the Patriot cause.
So when descendants of Thomas Bull donated 189 acres of land to Orange County in 1965 to establish a public park in his name, it seems that his Loyalist ties were not widely discussed. Thomas Bull the Loyalist was remembered instead as “one of the earliest settlers in the County” and progenitor of generations of respected and influential citizens. The Bull land was combined with that of four neighboring dairy farms to create a 719-acre recreation center where residents can ice skate, ski, play tennis, boat, fish, and ride horses. Notably, the County hosts patriotic events each year in the park, such as a salute to veterans and a 4th of July fireworks in celebration of America’s Declaration of Independence.
Some local residents, upon becoming aware of Thomas Bull’s wartime alliances, feel uncomfortable with that fact that he is honored so prominently in Orange County. Many others find delight in the poetic justice that is served every time the 4th of July is celebrated on Bull’s land. The truth is that Bull’s Loyalist sympathies were never concealed and not enough effort has been put towards illuminating the history and engaging park visitors to contemplate the precarious place that Thomas Bull holds in our nation’s founding.
The story peels back the layers of much larger debates. Does the legacy of loyalism during the Revolutionary War have no place in how we remember our local past? And more broadly, should commemoration of local figures be restricted to those who can be classified as heroes? The historiographical answer to both of these questions is no.
It’s certain that no study of Orange County’s incredibly rich Revolutionary War history would be complete without taking into account the disharmony that existed within the local community even while most of the territory was occupied by Patriot forces. The region saw constant movement of troops, large encampments, and the presence of important figures including George Washington. But it was also known for large population of Loyalists, historian Kieran O’Keefe writes: “In Orange County, Claudius Smith’s Gang of Loyalists used guerilla tactics, ambushing Patriots, and stealing supplies.”
At the time, the village of Newburgh was the seat of an Anglican congregation, and with the church influence came a higher population of Loyalists than neighboring communities. It is estimated that the Loyalist population in Newburgh was 23 to 25 percent at the onset of the war. According to O’Keefe’s research, “More residents of Newburgh refused to sign the [Patriot’s Pledge] than the rest of Ulster County combined.”
It’s also significant that right up the road, the small hamlet of Coldenham is named for the Colden Family, Revolutionary War residents who were prominent Loyalists. Cadwallader Colden had served as a Royal Governor of the Province of New York and his children refused to pledge allegiance with the Patriots along with Thomas Bull in 1778. Yet locally, we tend to remember the family’s contributions to our shared heritage, such as Alexander Colden’s early ferry service across the Hudson River from Newburgh to Fishkill and Jane Colden’s influence on the field of botany.
Throughout the war, these families fled to British-controlled Manhattan. When the Patriots reclaimed New York in 1783, many fled again to Canada. The church and other institutions in the Town of Maugerville in New Brunswick were founded by prominent Orange and Ulster County Loyalists who never came back. But some families did return to their homes in the region and became influential to shaping the new United States of America.
Many members of the Bull Family are still living in the Hudson Valley today. Nearly 233 years after peace was declared, I hope that we can not only use Thomas Bull’s legacy as a reason to learn more about the circumstances that divided the community, but also to admire that when the war was over, there was a chance for his family to contribute to the new nation.
"I wasn't made for the great light that devours; a dim lamp was all I had been given, and patience without end to shine it on the empty shadows."