Cornelia Beekman Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.

    Cornelia Beekman.


      A memoir of the long and eventful life of Mrs. Beekman, describing scenes in which those connected with her were prominent actors, would form a valuable contribution to American history. But it is not possible, at this distant day, without the materials afforded by letters or contemporaneous details, to give an adequate idea of the influence she exercised. There are many who retain a deep impression of her talents and noble qualities; but no record has preserved the memory of what she did for America, and her character can be but imperfectly illustrated by the anecdotes remembered by those who knew her most intimately. The active part she sustained in the contest, her trials and the spirit exhibited under them, her claims for substantial service to the gratitude of her country, and a name in its annals, cannot now be appreciated as they deserve. But it may be seen that hers was no ordinary character, that she was a true patriot, and that her part must have been a very important one in directing the judgment and movements of others.

      Her family was one of distinction, from which numerous branches have proceeded. The ancestor, Oloff Stevenson Van Cortlandt, died in this country about 1683, leaving seven children; and in 1685, his eldest son obtained from Governor Dongan a patent for large tracts of land purchased from the Indians in Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. For many years preceding the Revolution, the family resided in the Cortlandt manor house, an old-fashioned stone mansion situated upon the banks of the Croton River. It was here that Cornelia, the second daughter of Pierre Van Cortlandt and Joanna Livingston, was born in 1752. Her father, who was Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York under George Clinton, from 1777 to 1795, was distinguished for his zealous maintenance of American rights. From him she imbibed the principles to which, in after life, she was so ardently devoted.

      The childhood and youth of Cornelia passed in peace and happiness in her pleasant home. On her marriage, about the age of seventeen, with Gerard G. Beekman, she removed to the city of New York, where her residence was in the street which bears her name. Her husband was in mind, education, and character, worthy of her choice. Not many years of her married life had passed, when the storm of war burst upon the land, and, taught to share in aspirations for freedom, she entered into the feelings of the people with all the warmth of her generous nature. She often spoke with enthusiasm of an imposing ceremonial procession she witnessed, of the mechanics of the city, who brought their tools and deposited them in a large coffin made for the purpose – marched to the solemn music of a funeral dirge, and buried the coffin in Potter’s Field; returning to present themselves, each with musket in hand, in readiness for military service.

      Finding a residence in New York not agreeable in the state of popular excitement, she returned with her husband and family to the home of her childhood at Croton, till the Peekskill Manor House could be completed. This was a large brick building situated on a flat about two miles north of Peekskill, at the foot of Regular Hill, the place of encampment for the American army. The top of Anthony’s Nose can be seen from its rear. Here she resided during the war, marked out as an object of aggression and insult by the royalists, on account of the part taken by her relatives and friends, and her own ardent attachment to the American cause. At intervals of the struggle, when portions of the British army were ranging through Westchester, she was particularly exposed to their injuries. But her high spirit and strong will contributed to her safety, and supported her through many scenes of trial. Only once was she prevailed upon to leave her residence, being persuaded by her brother, Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt, to retire with her family some miles back in the country for safety from a scouting party on their way from Verplanck’s Point. She yielded to the counsel, contrary to her own judgment and wishes; and after being absent a day and night, not hearing of any depredations committed, returned to the manor house. She found it a scene of desolation! Not an article of furniture was left, except a bedstead; a single glass bottle was the only drinking utensil; and one ham was all that remained of the provisions, having, by good fortune, been hung in an obscure part of the cellar. This disaster, and the inconveniences to which she was obliged to submit in consequence, were borne with fortitude, and even formed a subject of merriment. Soon after, she was called upon by two of the American officers – Putnam and Webb – who asked how she had fared, not supposing she had been visited with annoyance, and were much surprised at her description of the state of the house on her return. The General promised, if she would be satisfied with army conveniences, to send her the next day a complete outfit to recommence housekeeping. On the morrow a horseman arrived, carrying a bag on either side, filled with all kinds of woodenware – a welcome and useful present, for such things were not at that time easy to be obtained. Some of these articles were still in the house at the time of Mrs. Beekman’s decease.

      The leading officers of the American army were often received and entertained at her hospitable mansion. General Patterson was at one time quartered there; and the room is still called “Washington’s,” in which that beloved Chief was accustomed to repose. He visited her frequently, their acquaintance being of long standing, and while his troops were stationed in the neighborhood, made her house his quarters. The chairs used by his aids as beds are still in the possession of her descendants. Her hospitality was not limited to persons of distinction; she was at all times ready to aid the distressed, and administer to the necessities of those who needed attention. Nor were her acts of humanity and benevolence confined to such as were friendly to the cause in which her warmest feelings were enlisted, many in the enemy’s ranks experiencing her kindness, and that in return for grievance and outrage. Of this she had more than her share, and sometimes the most daring robberies were committed before her eyes. On one occasion the favorite saddle-horse which she always rode was driven off with the others by marauders. The next day Colonel Bayard, mounted upon the prize, stopping at the gate, Mr. Beekman claimed the animal as belonging to his wife, and demanded that it should be restored. The insolent reply was, that he must hereafter look upon his property as British artillery horses; and the officer added, as he rode away, “I am going now to burn down your rebel father’s paper mill! ”

      At another time, in broad day, and in sight of the family, a horse was brought up with baskets fastened on either side, and a deliberate ransacking of the poultry yard commenced. The baskets were presently filled with the fowls, and the turkeygobbler, a noisy patriarch, was placed astride the horse, the bridle being thrown over his head. His uneasiness when the whip was used, -testified by clamorous complaints, made the whole scene so amusing that the depredators were allowed to depart without a word of remonstrance. One day when the British were in the neighborhood, a soldier entered the house, and walked unceremoniously towards the closet. Mrs. Beekman asked what he wanted; “Some brandy;” was his reply. When she reproved him for the intrusion, he presented his bayonet at her breast, and calling her a rebel, with many harsh epithets, swore he would kill her on the spot. Though alone in the house, except an old black servant, she felt no alarm at the threats of the cowardly assailant; but told him she would call her husband, and send information to his officer of his conduct. Her resolution triumphed over his audacity; for seeing that she showed no fear, he was not long in obeying her command to leave the house. Upon another occasion she was writing a letter to her father when, looking out, she saw the enemy approaching. There was only time to secrete the paper behind the frame-work of the mantel-piece; where it was discovered when the house was repaired after the war.

      The story of Mrs. Beekman’s contemptuous repulse of the enemy under Bayard and Fanning is related by herself, in a letter written in 1777. A party of royalists, commanded by those two colonels, paid a visit to her house, demeaning themselves with the arrogance and insolence she was accustomed to witness. One of them insultingly said to her: “Are you not the daughter of that old rebel, Pierre Van Cortlandt ?” She replied with dignity: “I am the daughter of Pierre Van Cortlandt – but it becomes not such as you to call my father a rebel !” The tory raised his musket, when she, with perfect calmness, reproved him for his insolence and bade him begone. He finally turned away abashed.

      The persecutors of Mrs. Beekman were sometimes disappointed in their plundering expeditions. One day the miller came to her with the news that the enemy had been taking a dozen barrels of flour from the mill. “But when they arrive at the Point,” he added, they will find their cakes not quite so good as they expect; as they have taken the lime provided for finishing the walls, and left us the flour.” Often, however, the depredators left nothing for those who came after them.

      One morning a captain serving in the British army rode up to the house, and asked for Mrs. Beekman. When she appeared, he told her he was much in want of something to eat. She left the room, and soon returning, brought a loaf of bread and a knife. This, she assured him, was all she had in the house, the soldiers of his army having taken away every thing else. “But I will divide this,” she said: “you shall have one-half, and I will keep the other for my family.” This magnanimity so struck the officer, that he thanked her cordially, and requested her to let him know if in future any of his men ventured to annoy her, promising that the offence should not be repeated. It is not known that this promise was of any avail.

      In one instance the firmness and prudence displayed by Mrs. Beekman were of essential service. John Webb, familiarly known as “Lieutenant Jack,” who occasionally served as an acting aid in the staff of the Commander-in- chief, was much at her house, as well as the other officers, during the operations of the army on the banks of the Hudson. On one occasion, passing through Peekskill, he rode up and requested her to oblige him by taking charge of his valise, which contained his new suit of uniform and a quantity of gold. He added, “I will send for it whenever I want it; but do not deliver it without a written order from me or brother Sam.” He threw in the valise at the door, from his horse, and rode on to the tavern at Peekskill, where he stopped to dine. A fortnight or so after his departure, Mrs. Beekman saw an acquaintance – Smith – whose fidelity to the whig cause had been suspected, ride rapidly up to the house. She heard him ask her husband for “Lieutenant Jack’s” valise, Which he directed a servant to bring and hand to Smith. Mrs. Beekman called out to ask if the messenger had a written order from either of the brothers. Smith replied that he had no written order, the officer having had no time to write one; but added: “You know me very well, Mrs. Beekman; and when I assure you that Lieutenant Jack sent me for the valise, you will not refuse to deliver it to me, as he is greatly in want of his uniform.” Mrs. Beekman often said she had an instinctive antipathy to Smith, and, by an intuition for which it is difficult to account, felt convinced that he had not been authorized to call for the article she had in trust. She answered: “I do know you very well – too well to give you up the valise without a written order from the owner or the colonel.” Smith was angry at her doubts, and appealed to her husband, urging that the fact of his knowing the valise was there, and that it contained Lieutenant Jack’s uniform, should be sufficient evidence that he came by authority; but his representations had no effect upon her resolution. Although even her husband was displeased at this treatment of the messenger, she remained firm in her denial, and the disappointed horseman rode away as rapidly as he came. The result proved that he had no authority to make the application; and it was subsequently ascertained that at the very time of this attempt Major Andrè was in Smith’s house. How he knew that the uniform had been left at Mrs. Beekman’s was a matter of uncertainty; but another account of the incident-given by the accomplished lady who furnished these anecdotes of Mrs. Beekman, states that Lieutenant Webb, dining at the tavern the same day, had mentioned that she had taken charge of his valise, and what were its contents. He thanked Mrs. Beekman, on his return, for the prudence that had saved his property, and had also prevented an occurrence which might have caused a train of disasters. He and Major Andrè were of the same stature and form; “and beyond all doubt,” says one who heard the particulars from the parties interested, “had Smith obtained possession of the uniform, Andrè would have made his escape through the American lines.” The experience that teaches in every page of the world’s history what vast results depend on things apparently trivial, favors the supposition, in dwelling on this simple incident, that under the Providence that disposes all human events, the fate of a nation may here have been suspended upon a woman’s judgment.

      Many of Mrs. Beekman’s letters written during the war breathe the most ardent spirit of patriotism. The wrongs she was compelled to suffer in person, and the aggressions she witnessed on every side, roused her just indignation; and her feelings were expressed in severe reproaches against the enemy, and in frequent prayers for the success of the American arms. But although surrounded by peril and disaster, she would not consent to leave her home; her zeal for the honor of her family and her country inspiring her with a courage that never faltered, and causing her to disregard the evils she had so continually to bear.

      Years rolled on, and peace came at last to smile upon those who had shed their blood, or sacrificed their possessions for the achievement of national independence. The lands in the manor of Philipsburgh having become vested in the State of New York by the attainder of Frederick Philipse, were parcelled out and sold; and Mr. Beekman purchased the tract in the vicinity of Tarrytown, on which the old manor-house is situated. To this he removed with his family in 1785. Historical recollections, and the classic creations of genius, combine to shed a romance and a glory around this spot. The manorhouse – Castle Philipse – the ancient residence of the lords of Philipsburgh – was strongly fortified in the early days of the colony, being built for defence against the Indians. The embrasures or portholes now form the cellar windows. Rodolphus Philipse made additions to this fort to render it suitable for a place of residence. It faces the east, and looks upon the old Dutch church, which stands at a little distance, with its time-honored walls and antique belfry – a fit memorial of the past. This church was built about 1699 by Frederick Philipse and Catharina Van Cortlandt his wife, who, according to tradition, was in the habit of riding up from the city of New York on horseback, upon moonlight nights mounted on a pillion behind her brother, Jacobus Van Cortlandt, for the purpose of superintending its erection. It was struck by lightning some years since, and was in part rebuilt, with modern improvements. Many readers will remember the description of this church in the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with the wide woody dell beside it, and the bridge over the stream shaded by overhanging trees; for it was there that the Yankee pedagogue Ichabod Crane met with the adventure so renowned in story. The ravine on the other side of the hill forms the dreamy region of Sleepy Hollow. This locality bore a reputation more than equivocal – less, however, on account of its haunting goblins than its human inhabitants; and often did our heroine express her regret and indignation that Mr. Irving’s description had given the name to a spot so near her own residence. The Pocanteco – or Mill river – wanders hereabouts in a region of romantic beauty; winding through dark woodlands, or grassy meadows, or stealing along beneath rugged heights, replenished by a thousand crystal rills that glide murmuring down to mingle with the stream. The venerable manor-house is seen to advantage from the bridge, the trees intercepting the view in other directions. The stately trees that surrounded a silver sheet of water before the door have been felled, and the old mill with its moss-covered roof, where in its balmy days so many bushels of grain were ground free of toll for the neighboring poor, exhibits tokens of decay. All is, however, in mellow keeping with the surrounding scenery. A picturesque view is presented from the windows of the manor-house, of the stream flowing in its serpentine windings to lose itself in the bosom of the majestic Hudson.

      It was here that Mrs. Beekman resided to the day of her death, enjoying life among the friends she loved, and contributing to the improvement and happiness of those who had the advantage of her society. She was one of the company who welcomed the arrival of La Fayette, and conversed with the veteran general of times gone by. Mr. Beekman died in 1822, at the age of seventy-six; and on the 14th of March, 1847, in her ninety-fifth year, did she too “like tired breezes fall asleep.” The day on which her remains were borne to the family burial ground is described by one who was present as not soon to be forgotten. At an early hour the inhabitants for miles around began to assemble, until the crowd became so great, that as far as the view extended, the space seemed alive with carriages, and persons on foot and on horseback. After the funeral services, “the coffin was placed in the hall, and not a dry eye beheld the loved relics. Domestics who had grown gray in her service sobbed to part with their kind mistress; and when the hoary-headed pall-bearers had placed the coffin in the sable hearse, before which were two milk white horses with black trappings, the solemn silence was broken by the tolling of the old church bell, and one sentiment of grief seemed to pervade the assemblage.

      Mrs. Beekman is described as an accomplished lady of the old school. She was remarkable for force of will, resolution, and a lofty sense of honor. Steadfast in her principles, she had a mind of uncommon vigor, and a heart alive to all kindly and noble feelings. In the prime of life she possessed a great share of personal beauty, while her manners were courteous, dignified and refined. Her conversation, brilliant and interesting, was enlivened by stores of anecdote supplied by a memory unusually retentive, and many were the thrilling tales of the olden time heard from her lips. Her sight failed during the last three or four years; but her mental faculties continued clear and unimpaired in strength to the close of her almost century of existence. She could dwell with minuteness of detail on the scenes her childhood had witnessed, while the realities she described were fading traditions to those who listened. Thus was she a faithful type of a past generation, on few of which any can look again.

      The energy of mind which had characterized her through life, was evinced on her death-bed. With her usual disinterestedness, she refused to summon those among her nearest relatives whose age and infirmities rendered their separation inevitable, to behold the progress of disease they could not alleviate. Calmly and quietly, bearing much suffering, but disturbed by no apprehension, she awaited, with her accustomed fortitude, the coming of that last enemy, whose nearer and yet nearer approach she announced unshrinkingly to those about her. When it was necessary to affix her signature to an important paper, and being supposed too weak to write, she was told that her mark would be sufficient, she immediately asked to be raised, called for a pen, and placing her left hand on the pulse of her right, wrote her name as distinctly as ever. It was the last act of her life. Literally counting, it is said, the failing beats of her pulse, she ” looked death in the face with the same high resolve and strong will with which she had been wont, in her life-time, to encounter less powerful enemies.” It was the strength of Christian faith, which thus gave her victory over the king of terrors.

      Of her brothers and sisters, only Mrs. Van Rensselaer and General Pierre Van Cortlandt survived her. The latter died recently at Peekskill. Her daughter, Mrs. De Peyster, resides in New York; and her son, Dr. S. D. Beekman, at Tarrytown on a part of the old place.

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