Campus History to 1900
One of the first white settlers to come to Purchase was John Thomas, in 1734. John’s father, also named John Thomas, had been an Episcopalian minister from Hempstead, Long Island; his wife Abigail was a member of the prominent Sands family of Sands Point, Long Island. The Thomas’ Purchase property included a central part of which is now the college campus, and so the first permanent residency was established on these grounds.
John Thomas served the Colony of New York as an Assemblyman from 1743-1776. He was named a Judge for the Court of Common Pleas in Westchester from 1755-1776, and served as Muster-Master in 1759. Judge Thomas was an early patriot who fervently opposed the British, which must have antagonized many of his Tory neighbors. Bolton’s classic History of Westchester County maintains that “this distinguished gentleman was a warm whig, and took an active part in the scenes that proceeded the revolution on which account he was particularly obnoxious to the enemy. John Thomas had the great honor of giving the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in New York State on the steps of the courthouse in White Plains on July 11, 1776”.
Fearing John Thomas was raising troops, the British seized him from his bed on March 22, 1777, and imprisoned him in the so- called “Old Martyr’s Prison” in New York . According to some historians, he was tortured for 40 days and he subsequently died on May 2, 1777. His remains are in the historic cemetery at Trinity Church in Manhattan.
The Patriot cause was assumed by John Thomas’ two sons, John Thomas, Jr. and Thomas Thomas. Like their father, both sons were active in local government and the military. Thomas Thomas commanded the local military regiment which fought against the British, and protected the county from marauding “Cowboys and Skinners,” the local brigands. Brother John served on the Committee for Safety and looked out for the welfare of local residents. He also served as High Sheriff of Westchester County. Following the Revolutionary War both brothers settled back on their farms while they continued to serve the public. In 1777, they had inherited their father’s land which was west of the Blind Brook: Thomas received his father’s homestead and the south portion of the land, while John Jr. received the northern section.
Harrison Precinct’s first meeting in April of 1774; in 1784; he was elected Commissioner of the Roads; in 1794, he was elected to the position of Poor Master; and in 1817, he was elected Commissioner of Common Schools. By 1790, Westchester’s population had reached 24,000, Harrison had about 1,000 residents.
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These pages are from the Harrison Book of Records, and show some of the Colonel Thomas’ positions in town politics. This is a copy of the original records held by the Town of Harrison.
Westchester, like colonial America, was sparsely populated. The dire need for additional hands to till the soil and build infrastructure helped to promote the tragedy of slavery. Slavery had never been as extensive in the North as in the South; in the North, less than a third of the inhabitants had slaves, and very few of those owned more than a few. The Thomas family was typical of wealthy families in Colonial and Revolutionary America; in 1755 John Thomas owned four slaves and John Thomas Jr. owned two. By 1790, Thomas Thomas had eleven slaves; in 1810, he and brother John owned nine slaves.
New York State at an early stage was antagonistic to slavery. State law mandated gradual manumission in 1799, and by 1817, the law provided for the extinction of slavery. In his will Thomas Thomas provided for the few remaining slaves on his farm.
The Thomas family began a tradition common among Colonial American families of burying relatives on the main property site. This cemetery can be clearly seen today behind the Neuberger Museum, surrounded by the stone walls which Catherine Thomas ordered to be built according to the bequest in her husband’s will. The cemetery was used through the first half of the twentieth century, when the last burial took place. A tall, white stone obelisk commemorates Thomas Thomas and his family, and was erected by George Ferris, as Catherine requested in her will. One of the last interments, documented by the Charles Dawson Historical Center, was Robert B. Soffel, in 1934.
This cemetery is in poor condition due to years of neglect. Headstones and footstones have been dislodged and damaged, and are hard to read. In addition to family burials, there might be a section of slave interments, although there is no definitive historical evidence to back this up. There are allegedly remains of soldiers from the War of 1812 and World War I.
When Thomas Thomas died May 29, 1824 his wife Catherine inherited the estate, as this last will and testament shows. Thomas and Catherine had four children, all of whom died before their parents, a sad but all too common example of high infant mortality at this time. The laws of inheritance in 1824 provided that sons inherit the bulk of family wealth, but as often happened when children predeceased their parents, wives could inherit the entire estate.
This was one of the ways women could circumvent legal restrictions on their inheritances, and assert economic power and independence. This will specifies Thomas’ bequest to Catherine: 250 acres of land on the North side of King Street, ten acres on the South side of King Street, and the grist mill. His executors, Charles Ferris, William Barker and Health Floyd were to sell 250 acres on the south side of King Street, as well as thirty acres in the hills to pay for his funeral expenses and debts. An additional 100 acres in Tioga County were left to his close friends and neighbors, the Dusinberry family. A legacy of $20 a year was left to one Mary Wilson for the rest of her life.
Catherine outlived her husband by only six months, and died January 6, 1825, age 79. Her great nephew, Thomas Thomas Ferris, (the son of George Ferris her nephew), inherited the Westchester estate. Catherine’s Will reads “I give and devise unto Thomas Thomas Ferris, son of George Ferris, of the city New York, my homestead in the town Harrison, and the farm of land on which I now live, including the ten acres of land, and the mill theron being in the whole three-hundred and seventy or eighty acres.” The remainder of the family’s substantial land holdings, including 8,000 acres in Tioga County, was willed to nine other relatives.
One of the most specific, and in many ways, the most poignant requests in Catherine Thomas’ will concerned the half-acre family burial plot located on the Thomas farm. It reads:
I order and direct the said George Ferris to procure and erect suitable grave stones to the graves of my said husband, the children and my own. I also direct him to erect a decent and suitable fence around the said burying ground immediately after my decease and that my executors out of the first monies they may receive from the sale of my property the expenses of purchasing and erecting the said graves and fence.
The 19th CENTURY brought numerous changes to Harrison. As the population began to rise in Westchester County the large tracts of open farm land began to be subdivided into smaller lots to house its inhabitants. After the death of Catherine and Thomas Thomas, their farm land was also broken up into many lots and sold to different owners, as moving into the suburbs in the seconds half of the 19th century became increasingly attractive. The Thomas land was purchased by wealthy New Yorkers who wanted a second home in the country, as Manhattan was becoming denser and more developed.
These are the original papers showing specific economic activity of the estate of Catherine Thomas, kept by four executors named in her last will and testament. Executors of estates were required to keep accurate amounts of how monies were collected and dispersed. These are the original accounts kept by Catherine Thomas’s executors, William Barker, George Ferris, William Carpenter, and James Franklin Floyd. They show that most of Catherine’s possessions were sold at auction as part of the estate liquidation. Of particular interest is the large amount of money that was spent to fulfill Catherine’s wish that special attention be given to the family burial ground. The stone wall surrounding the burial ground cost $590, and combined with the costs of the monuments and miscellaneous other charges, the total spent was $1, 375.55. This was a considerable amount of money for the time.
Thomas Ferris Map
During the mid 19th century, Catherine Thomas’ estate was liquidated and the land was divided into parcels for auction. This map shows the division into seven lots and is indicative of rapid land development in Westchester County at the time.