it had any special application to America, cowboy was used
in England with the obvious meaning: "a boy who took care
of cows." Or he could have been a man, for boy implied not
only youth and boyish attitudes but also low status in society.
invented a new meaning for the term during the American Revolution.
Cowboy became the revolutionary patriots' term for pro-British
raiders who harassed and plundered the rural districts of
the boundary between American and British forces in Westchester
County, New York. Westchester County, was the so-called "Neutral
Ground" seeing the British were in the Bronx and the Americans
in Peekskill, New York.
has been said, the term cowboy was applied to these lawless
bands of raiders because they were known to tinkle cow-bells
to attract patriots hunting for lost cows into roadside thickets
where they'd ambush them. But it is more likely, that their
method of raising money by selling pilfered cattle to the
British army was the source of the namesake.
most famous of the "Cowboys" was James DeLancey, Jr. At the
start of the American Revolution, James was determined to
stay neutral; but the story is, that:
in 1776 while
at home one day, a group of Patriot soldiers paid him a
visit and one of the officers set about stealing one of
James' best horses and two sets of harness; well, that apparently
swung James DeLancey over to the British side.
joined up with his uncle, Oliver DeLancey, a wealthy New York
merchant who held high rank in a loyalist regiment that was
raised to fight for the British cause in the Revolution; it
would become known as "DeLancey's Brigade."
DeLancey's Brigade, was probably the largest organization
raised in New York, composed of three battalions of 500 men
each. They were raised from New York City, Long Island, Westchester
(NY) and Fairfield (CT) Counties.
DeLancey's Brigade included a "Troop of Light Horse," called
the Westchester Chasseurs, as the members of which came from
Westchester County. They were headed up by James DeLancey.
James was a suitable selection, as he was sheriff of Westchester
County prior to the Revolution and knew the countryside like
"the back of his hand".
Tryon of New York wrote of the Westchester Chasseurs,
"This troop is
truly the Elite of the Militia of Westchester County, and
their Captain Mr. James DeLancey, who is also Colonel of
the Militia of Westchester County; I have much confidence
in them for their spirited behavior."
Westchester Chasseurs became quite active in the business
of hindering the patriots' efforts in the revolution; they
had no problem riding into pro-independence villages to loot,
plunder and cause havoc.
typical raid was reported in the New York Gazette on the 16th
of October, 1777, a Tory paper supporting the British cause:
Colonel James DeLancey, with sixty of his Westchester Light
Horse went from Kingsbridge to the White Plains, where they
took from the rebels, 44 barrels of flour, and two ox teams,
near 100 head of black cattle, and 300 fat sheep and hogs."
American General George Washington knew of James DeLancey
and his mounted troops. He reported to Congress on May 17th,
Croton River by 60 Horse and 200 Foot under Colonel James
DeLancey ... 44 killed, wounded and missing ... attempted
to cut him off but he got away."
DeLancey's gang was often referred to as "DeLancey's Cowboys"
the hostilities coming to an end, James DeLancey knew that
he had to leave New York, the place of his birth. He sailed
for England on June the 8th, 1783, and there he remained for
a year while pressing his claims against the British government
for compensation. In the fall of 1784, he sailed for Halifax
and from there proceeded to Annapolis Royal where he would
live until his death in 1804.
the other side there were equally troublesome pro-Independence
raiders called skinners. Perhaps Major Skinner's Regiment
of Light Horse was the source of the namesake.
like the Cowboys were "land-going" raiders preying on enemy
civilian supplies. Though "Skinners" sympathized with the
Patriots, they were comprised largely of tramps and bandits,
serving their own interests more often than those of any cause.
Seldom did they legalize their depredations by accounting
for them to their superiors, and, worse than that, their forays
were as frequently on the stores of friendly civilians as
on those of their opponents.
should not be categorized with "sea going" privateers. However,
ill-mannered "sea-going" privateers were referred to as "skinners"
in some cases:
spy, Abraham Woodhull, in a letter of October 29, 1779, complained
to General Washington about useless looting of Tory homes
last a most horrid robbery was committed on the houses of
Col. Benj. Floyd and Mr. Seton by three skinner's whale
boats from your shore.... From the best judgment I can form,
they took to the value in money, household goods, Bonds
and Notes of three thousand pounds. They left nothing in
the house that was portable....
I cannot put
up with such a wanton waste of property, I know they are
the enemy's [sic] to our cause, but yet their property should
not go amongst such villains. I beg you would exert yourself
and bring them to justice."
Benjamin Tallmadge added his own comments about the looting
to Woodhull's complaint when he forwarded it to headquarters.
to the robbery lately committed at Setauket, as related
by *C. Senior, I have additional accounts of the same from
others. In addition to the crime of plundering the distressed
inhabitants of Long Island, the perpetrators of such villainy
never bring their goods before any court for trial and condemnation,
but proceed to vend them at option. This species of Privateering...is
attended with such numberless bad consequences, that to
a gentleman of your Excellency's feelings, I am confident
I need not state them.... "
Senior was Abraham Woodhull's code name.
the "Sea-going" Privateers
Colonies had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy
at the time of their Declaration of Independence. To add to
this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed
merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were
outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. The
merchant seamen who manned these privateer ships contributed
greatly to the Patriot cause.
aided the War of Independence in many ways but the most important
were as follows:
Because of British
policy regarding import of gunpowder, colonists did not
have enough to repel the third British charge at Bunker
Hill. A survey by George Washington at the time showed army
stockpiles were sufficient for 9 rounds per man. By 1777,
the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million
pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter.
During the American
Revolution nearly 800 vessels were commissioned as privateers
and are credited with capturing or destroying about 600
It is estimated
that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers
was about $18 million by the end of the war.
crews of these privateer ships were well paid for their hazardous
work, earning as much as $1,000 for one voyage, while average
pay at the time was $9 per month.
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