Historian: Greg Ricci
Phone & Fax: 914-948-2550
HARRISON LEGENDS AND FACTS
The Beginnings of Harrison's Purchase
legend has it that in 1695, an Indian chief named Pathungo
sold John Harrison as much land as he could cover in a day
on horseback. Not wanting to get his horse's feet wet, he
marked the boundaries for a future landlocked Harrison,
which is the only community close to Long Island Sound
without access to the water. Another legend has it that the
uneven boundaries of the town were paced out by a drunken
Indian while selling it to a colonist for a handful of
beads, bright cloth and "white man's wampum."
It is possible that the land was sold
more than once, as Indians did not understand sales contracts, that
under white man's law, once he had bought the land, it was his. They
thought they were merely selling the white man the right to live,
hunt, and farm on the land.
According to Charles Dawson,
Harrison's first town historian, the true story began with the
Siwanoy Indians who sold land to Peter Disbrow in 1662 and to John
Budd in 1666, and again in 1695 to John Harrison. Unfortunately for
Mr. Disbrow and Mr. Budd, neither had filed claims with the
provincial government of New York. John Harrison, however, did file,
and when his claim was disputed, it was upheld. Eventually, he and
four others who were involved with him in the purchase, known as
"Harrison's Purchase," sold the land, it is thought, to the first
Harrison settlers who appeared around 1724.
The new owners were Quakers who settled in Purchase where they built
their first Meeting House in 1727. This was later destroyed by fire,
but a replica was erected on the same foundation, also to be
destroyed by fire on January 1, 1973. The Friends now meet in
another building near the site, which has been cleared. An old
newspaper was found in the Harrison Public Library dated Saturday,
April 29, 1911. It is a Souvenir Edition of the Harrison Observer,
edited by the Ladies of the Presbyterian Church. And from it comes
this piece about the early days of Purchase:
"Nearly everyone has heard of Haviland China, yet very few know that
the first Haviland China was made in Harrison.
"A Frenchman by the name of Havreland, driven from France by
religious troubles, crossed the Atlantic and settled at Flushing,
Long Island. It was but a step for him to cross the Long Island
Sound and make Purchase his home.
"Here he found a fair quality of felspar, one of the necessities in
the manufacture of china. Probably for the sake of euphony, Mr.
Havreland had changed his name to Haviland, and in Purchase he made
and sold many Haviland China dishes.
"The religious troubles of France having ended, Mr. Haviland
returned to France, leaving his sons in America. In his old home
there was a better quality of felspar than America had yet produced.
As a result, the famous Haviland China factory was established
there, which now employs 7,000 people."
Major General Thomas Thomas, a
Revolutionary patriot, lived in Purchase. On November 13, 1778, his
house was surrendered to the British. He was captured and taken to
Long Island, but escaped. He was Harrison's first Supervisor, and
the Thomas estate comprised of all the land where the State
University and Pepsico are now located. The main house was on what
is now Lincoln Avenue, north of Anderson Hill Road, and the Thomas
family lived there until the land was sold and subdivided in 1850.
Major General Thomas died in 1824 and was buried in the Thomas
cemetery behind the Neuberger Museum on the State University campus.
The state of New York erected a handsome monolith over his grave.
The inscription in part reads: "He assisted in laying foundations of
those institutions that are intended to perpetuate the Republic."
Judge John Thomas, his father, read the Declaration of Independence
from the steps of the Courthouse in White Plains on July 11, 1776.
The old records of meetings held in Harrison are stored in the
Municipal Building on Heineman Place and date back to April 5, 1774.
On that day, the Freeholders and inhabitants of Harrison's' precinct
met to elect their officials: as supervisor, Major General Thomas
Thomas; as town clerk, William Miller, as constable and collector,
W. Dusinbury; as assessors, Stephan Fields and Job Haddon Jr.: as
pounder, Thomas Park; as fence and damage viewers, Samuel Haviland
and Thomas Park; and a highway master for each road - seven in all.
This was the first annual meeting in the town of Harrison.
Although the town of Harrison had a supervisor and master of the
roads, fences and pound, a municipal form of government was not
established until the middle of the 1800's. During much of this
intervening period, most court actions, legal transfers of land, and
other similar matters were taken care of by the town of Rye, and a
close relationship existed between the two.
As in all parts of the colonies in pre-revolutionary days, Harrison
had its share of Loyalists and Patriots, and although the rural
areas were not as much affected as the towns by the tax imposed by
England, they did suffer embargoes on scarce goods as the war
progressed. So in 1775, when the Continental Congress called for
four regiments from New York, one company was raised from Harrison
and two from Rye, as part of the Second Battalion of Westchester
County, performing excellent service in the war.
Harrison also had its share of battles.
There is a little-known story of a two-day skirmish that took place
between the Colonists and the Redcoats at the Horton Grist Mill, off
Lake Street. It is recounted in a diary kept by a Colonial soldier,
one Isaac Bates. The diary is stored in the Shaker Museum in North
Chatham, New York and related to the engagement that took place when
British soldiers attempted to raid George Washington's supplies
stored in the Mill. Bates was a fifer in charge of ammunition and
attached to the Flying Corps, and tells that during the battle, Mr.
Horton, owner of the Mill, was felled by a cannon shot, but Mrs.
Horton continued to fire cannon shots until her husband recovered
sufficiently to help man the gun.
The hills and dales of historic West Harrison were covered with
hiding places suitable for the storage of ammunition which Colonial
soldiers ferried by boat up the Hudson River to Tarrytown and across
the county by ox cart. People have found buttons, bullets and
cannonballs on these sites. Some evidence of the Mill foundations
may still be seen at the south end of St. Mary's Lake where Lake
Street crosses over the White Plains City Line.
It was during October 1776 that one of the final engagements of the
Battle of White Plains took place on Merritt's Hill bordering on
Lake Street in West Harrison, re-enacted for many years by the
Battle of White Plains Monument Committee, when charges and
counter-charges are made between Colonial and British troops,
authentically costumed and armed for combat. The blast of cannon,
popping of muskets and acrid odor are often part of the scene.
Directly across Lake Street from the encounter is the site of the
Field Tavern, an important stop for stagecoaches traveling between
New York and Connecticut. Today, one can still follow the old
stagecoach route from White Plains, through Harrison, Armonk,
Bedford Village and eventually to Danbury Connecticut.
On Old Lake Street in West Harrison, there is a milestone which
marked this old stagecoach route. At the base is a bronze marker
which reads "Preserved by Benjamin I. Taylor, Supervisor, Town of
Harrison, July 4th 1926." Unfortunately the marker is in a state of
deterioration and should be covered and enclosed. There are only a
few known such markers in the Country.
THE OLD MILL
Harrison was originally a farming community, and people worked in
weaving shops, saw mills or grist mills. One such relic of the past
is unique to Harrison. Built circa 1700 by a Mr. Griffin, it is the
only pre-Revolutionary grist mill in Westchester, and stands on the
banks of the Mamaroneck River at West Street, adjacent to the
Hutchinson River Parkway between Mamaroneck and Harrison, on a site
steeped in Indian legend.
Known as the Old Mill Farm, at one time it knew the bustle and
clamor of a busy commercial enterprise as farmers from the area
brought their wheat and corn to be ground into flour and meal.
Before the coming of the white man, the site was the home of the
Mamaro tribe. Legend claimed that a Great White Deer visited the
falls in the river at a certain time of the year when the moon was
full, bringing good fortune and success to the lucky Indian who saw
it and Indians came from as far away as the Great Lakes in hope of
Although the Indians departed after the arrival of the white man,
they continued to seek out the Great White Deer, the last one being
called "Indian Dan" who faithfully returned once a year for several
months from 1805 to 1866. No one knew where he came from or where he
went, but the owners of the mill always made him feel welcome. Did
he see the Great White Deer? It is not recorded, and we do not know.
|In the early
1700's, most of West Harrison, then known as Silver Lake,
was owned by Daniel Merritt, who sold out to John Horton (of
Horton's Grist Mill) in 1732. The following century, the
Horton family sold property to a Mr. Underhill in 1833, who
again sold to a Mr. Gainsborg in the 1890's. Mr. Gainsborg
developed early West Harrison into a resort area, and many
old-timers remember that before World War II, West Harrison
had a hotel, a casino and an internationally known ski jump.
A large, beautiful map hanging in the
West Harrison Branch of the Bank of New York (it used to be the
County Trust), shows many houses around Silver Lake (then known as
St. Mary's Lake) which were later moved to other sites in West
Harrison. Why? Presumably to leave a clean waterfront for the
parkland that was sold by Harrison to the county in 1926. As for the
hotel and casino, Charles Dawson was not sure if they moved or
As for other landmarks that have disappeared such as the ice house
which divided West Harrison and Purchase near Anderson Hill Road,
owned by the Rubel Ice Company on Croker's Pond, it was abandoned
when the ice box bowed to the supremacy of the refrigerator, and
again, Charles Dawson was not sure when.
Slavery also existed in early
Harrison. An old New York newspaper advertisement dated 6th August,
1772 (sic) reads:
"Runaway from Nathan Field of Harrison's Purchase in the Township of
Rye, a negro called "Plato." Twenty shillings reward." The slaves
were freed by the Quakers between 1773 and 1783 and were given land
to farm in the Stony Hill area in West Harrison by one of the
friends, Frederick Stephens. An old church and a cemetery existed
While Harrison's Purchase and Silver Lake saw early settlement,
Harrison's downtown section did not develop until after the coming
of the railroad in 1848.
beginning, people had to flag down the train to get aboard,
be after the station was built in 1870 and it became more
comfortable to commute, the opening of the railroad in this
fashion dramatically changed the character and center of
activity in Harrison. Although there were farms in the
southern end of town, wealthy business people from New York
City bought the land for their country homes and many large
estates were developed.
The station was actually erected and
given to the town by William Matthews, who owned property in the
area. He also built a large hotel called the Mansion House at the
corner of Halstead and Purdy Avenue, as the railroad would not
permit a Station House in town unless there was a hotel to
accommodate passengers. The Mansion House, later known as the
Harrison Hotel, is now the location of the Dime Savings Bank.
One lovely residential area that was established was on Sunnyridge
Farm, purchased in 1853 by Josiah Macy, a retired sea captain, whose
home stood on North Street from which elevation he claimed he could
see all the way to the Sound. "...When evening comes, I have the
cheerful view of the lights from five lighthouses which are placed
there to guide the mariner on his way...Since I left business in New
York, I have passed most of my time on my farm; the quiet rural
retirement has been very congenial to my feelings; it is what I
often thought of in years that are gone..."
This beautiful 165 acre estate was later sub-divided and sold and is
now the Sunnyridge section we know today with its many attractive
streets and homes.
developing in another way as well for the railroad brought
in many Italian immigrants who bought plots to farm in
Brentwood and Silver Lake. Today their descendants are part
of the strength of our diverse community, as gradually there
evolved the distinctive neighborhoods of Harrison and West
Harrison that make up our unique town/village.
In the first U.S. Census
Report of the year 1790, the Township of Harrison was listed
as having a population of 1,156, including 54 slaves. In
1880, it had increased to only 1,494.
The town has retained its rural
character to a greater degree than some of the other communities
within a comparable distance from New York.
On March 7, 1788, New York passed
legislation which divided its counties into towns numbering more
than 100. "...and that all that part of said County of Westchester
called and known by the name of Harrison's Purchase, shall be and
hereby is erected into a town, by the name of Harrison."
A real estate brochure of 1906 stated "Harrison is a good place to
live. There are over 50 trains daily between Harrison and New York
City with a commutation of 10 cents a trip." It was known as the New
York, Westchester and Boston Railroad. Since 1927, when it became
the New Haven Line, it has changed little, and is said to have been
more efficient then!
Access by road improved when the Hutchinson River Parkway reached
Harrison in 1929. Few know that 60 years ago, another parkway was
planned which would extend from White Plains to Port Chester along
the present day route of Westchester Avenue. Land was sold and many
houses were built by enthusiastic developers, but the plan was never
completed. Today, Parkway Knolls extends from Westchester Avenue
north two blocks to Parkview Avenue, and between Underhill Avenue
and Croker's Pond, also known as Spring Lake.
The Harrison Historical Society has its
home in West Harrison on the corner of Lake Street and Park Lane in
the Charles Dawson History Center. The site is the location of a one
room school house known as District No. 5 which was originally
established further up Park Lane in 1817.
Taken from "Harrison Highlights and Anecdotes" Published by
the Charles Dawson History Center, 1989.