Local History & Interest

The Capture of John André

“In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air. It was connected with the tragical story of the unfortunate André, who had been taken prisoner hard by; and was universally known by the name of Major André’s tree.”

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving

Looming in the background of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is the true and historical event of the capture of Major John André. It would have been remiss of Mr. Irving to omit such a landmark happening and it likely pervaded the youth he spent in the village as those folks around him could recall it with clarity as if it had taken place not long ago. It’s referenced not once, but three separate times in the legend and the spot where Major Andre was apprehended is also nearly the spot where poor Ichabod Crane “beheld something huge, misshapen and towering”. It is a marked location where two men met their makes of their fates and since the two tales, one true and one not, are so entwined, it would be remiss of us to not recount the capture of John André.


Things had not gone quite to plan. Major General John André found himself standing on the western shore of the Hudson River when he was supposed to be back on board the British sloop the Vulture, but it had been chased down river by cannon fire from the Continentals. He was stranded.

André had completed his task in coming here, ironing out the details with the Continental turncoat Major General Benedict Arnold for the British Army to take control of the important military base at West Point, but first he had to return to his superiors. He likely held the key to the British succeeding in finally winning the war, but first he had to get through enemy territory. How hard could it be?

Major General John André was British born to Huguenot parents from Switzerland and France and like many wealthy young men at the time, he purchased a commission in the British Army. He made a name for himself amongst the British Officers during the early years of the American Revolution and was a charismatic, talented, and popular figure in Army and colonial society. He famously planned the Mischianza for General Howe in Philadelphia in 1777 and was General Clinton’s favorite aide-de-camp. His agreeable personality, attention to detail, and fluency in multiple languages led him to eventually becoming Adjutant General of the Army and head of the British Secret Service in America during the war. It was this latter appointment that allowed him to facilitate the fateful meeting with Benedict Arnold on the banks of the Hudson River on September 21st, 1780.

The plan was for André to ride back to British lines since the Vulture was unable to return. André’s successful return also meant fortune and fame Arnold who was still trusted in the region and he procured for André the essentials needed to move through enemy territory: civilian clothing, a passport, and a fake name: John Anderson. Donning the plain clothes, André stashed Arnold’s hand written and signed plans and instructions on how to capture West Point in his boot. There was no reason to believe anything further could go wrong.

On the night of September 22nd in North Salem, NY militia men Isaac Williams, John Paulding, John Yerkes, James Romer, Isaac See, and Isaac Van Wart decided to go on an armed patrol of the area. Along their route, they picked up an additional militiaman, David Williams, and the seven men made their way south.

Four of the men stopped at Davis’ Hill (possibly Battle Hill in today’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery), while David Williams, John Paulding, and Isaac Van Wart continued further south, eventually settling at Clark’s Kill (the previous name to the what we know today as Andre’s Brook in Patriot’s Park) near a large Tulip tree just north of Tarrytown.

At around 9 am, André was riding his horse towards Tarrytown. He had managed to cross the Hudson River and was calmly making his way towards British occupied New York City. He only had 20 or so miles to go, but suddenly there were three men on the road and they had seen him.

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Currier & Ives. The Capture of Andre. United States, ca. 1845. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Photograph.

It is here, under the shade of the Tulip tree in Tarrytown that André makes his tragic mistake. Seeing that one of the men is wearing a Hessian soldier’s coat, he greets them as if they are loyal and reveals that he is a British officer. Williams, Paulding, and Van Wart reveal they are Continentals and when André backpedals and proffer’s the passport from Arnold, the men are already highly suspicious, force André off his horse, and search him. The papers are found hidden in André ‘s boot and Paulding, the only member of the group who can read, recognizes the importance of the papers.

Arnold was alerted of the capture of André, the discovery of his treachery against his own army, and escaped. André was imprisoned at the Continental Army’s headquarters at Tappan, was found guilty of being a spy in disguise and under an assumed name, and on October 2nd, 1780 he was hanged.

Many of the Continental Officers at Tappan very much did not want to execute the charismatic André, but between the death of Nathan Hale as a spy by British General Howe in 1774 and Arnold’s treason, they had no choice.

The spot of André’s capture became a landmark in the area. Appearing on maps, in literature, and even altering the geography; Clark’s Kill would be renamed Andre’s Brook. The tree eventually was felled due to lightning, but the brook remains and a village park, Patriot’s Park, recognizes the three militia men who were in the right place at the right time.

In 1853, a monument was erected to the memory of the captor’s on the spot where the tree once stood and where the fated meeting took place. The inscription on the monument reads:

the 23rd day of September 1780 the spy
Adjutant General of the British Army
was captured by
all natives of this county.
History has told the rest.