John Ramsay has caused a bit of a stir in Westchester County, New York. After discovering the plaque on the front lawn of the Neebor Lee property with his name stamped on it, I sent an email to a historian who wrote about a “Ramsay Mill” on “Mill Brook” in “Oscawana” in a 2012 blog. I asked him whether he had any further information on the mill or John Ramsay. The historian acknowledged his receipt of my email, noted that he had no further information, but then forwarded my email, along with a photo of the plaque that I provided, to a group of other historians who are involved in the preservation/restoration of a 19th-20th Century estate located in “Oscawana” (now Cortlandt Township). What followed was a flurry of emails between these historians, all suggesting that there was something significant about this little plaque. One historian wrote,
“We’ve been concentrating on the mid 1800’s-1960’s, as we’ve been limited to accessible documentation of anything older. I always had a hunch though, the area history goes back much further. There is a mostly intact, well constructed dam, on once was called “Mill Brook”. I have maps from the 1800’s calling the dam “old”! I suspect this may have been a mill.
Now what’s really interesting is, I have somewhere an old document that infers that a mill in the area supplied food (i.e. flour) to American Revolutionary soldiers. If in fact, this was the Ramsay Mill, it’d be very historically significant.”
This obviously piqued my interest as well as the interest of the other historians on the email chain. To these gentlemen, the important question was whether “Ramsay Mill”, owned and operated by John Ramsay on Mill Brook in Oscawana, was a mill that was put in service to supply flour to Washington’s Army during the American Revolutionary War. If is was, then my little plaque would be of historical importance to them. These historians then spent the next two days digging deep into their records to find the answer to that question. I contributed what I could, even if limited, by conducting a little bit of research on John Ramsay himself.
What I found was interesting and promising. Apparently, John Ramsay was a well-educated Scotsman who was running a successful indigo and tobacco business in New York City on the eve of the American Revolution. And, as it turns out, it appears that he was sympathetic to the rebel cause. The Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, published in 1922, describes John Ramsay’s life leading up to and during the war as follows:
“John Ramsay was a son of James Ramsay of Perthshire and was born there in 1731. John was a native of Dundee. After receiving a liberal education in the professions of law and physic, he left his home in Scotland, and in companionship with his young friend Robert Mercer went up to London, where they entered a counting-house together. When John became twenty-one the two friends emigrated to New York, and forming a co-partnership under the firm name of Mercer & Ramsay, entered into the business of importing dry goods at “the Sign of the Cross Keys near the Fly Market.” In 1762 their store was in Wall Street. He married in 1766 Elizabeth Cox, “late widow Marshal,” and by her had one son Charles, and five daughters. The widow had two daughters by her first husband, Janet, who married Alexander Macomb, and Margaret, who married Col. William Armstrong, member 1791. In 1771 he became a member of the Chamber of Commerce. At the breaking out of the war Mercer took the Royalist side and the partnership was dissolved. When the British took possession of the City he removed to Millbrook, Cortlandtown, New York, where he remained on his farm till the close of the war.”
Another passage in this document which separately describes the life of Robert Mercer, John Ramsay’s business partner, is more direct in describing Ramsay’s sympathies during the war. It states that, “Mercer took the side of the Crown at the Revolution, while Ramsay espoused the American cause and went into exile.”
John Ramsay exiled himself to a mill in Oscawana when the British occupied New York City in the October-November 1776 timeframe. Thus, he had the inclination and the opportunity to supply flour to Washington’s troops still remaining in Westchester County, New York, after the British occupation. The important question was whether his mill did supply flour to the troops. This was the question that the historians were attempting to answer through their research. The answer was ultimately found by one of the historians. Unfortunately, his findings threw a little shade on the historical significance of Ramsay’s mill and my little plaque. The historian wrote,
“The October 24, 1776 Committee of Safety resolution says “Resolved, That Henry Schenck, Esquire, be directed to use the utmost expedition in sending down the above Wheat to the Mills of Colonel Van Cortlandt, at Peek’s Kills and Croton River. Resolved, That Colonel Van Cortlandt be directed to keep both his Mills constantly at work night and day in making Flour for the Continental Army.”
Five days later Pierre Van Cortlandt wrote from Fishkill (October 29, 1776) “We have been loudly called upon by his Excellency General Washington to forward a supply of flour for the use of the Army at the White Plains. We have devised all the means we can think of to prevent the Army from suffering from the want of that article.”
If there was a mill at a third location at that time I think it would have been mentioned in the resolution.”
In other words, flour was provided from Oscawana but it was provided by mills owned by Colonel Van Cortlandt by order of George Washington. The third mill in that area, Ramsay’s mill, was not mentioned in this historical record which certainly confirms that it was not part of Washington’s order (which makes sense when you consider that John Ramsay was a civilian). That is not to say that John Ramsay, with his pro-rebel sympathies, did not provide supplies to the troops. As the historian noted later in his email, Ramsey’s mill could have provided supplies to Washington’s troops later in the war. However, in the absence of any documentation, this is speculation.
So, what happened to John Ramsay after the war? The Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York (1922) states that he moved back to New York City. It further states that,
“In 1784 he was re-elected to the Chamber of commerce, and started business again with his brother-in-law John Florentine Cox as Ramsay & Cox, at No. 51 Wall Street, opposite Pitt’s Statue. In 1787 he opened, on his own account, as an auctioneer and commission merchant at 221 Queen Street, near the upper end of the Fly Market. The name of the street was afterwards changed to Pearl Street. In 1797 he was located at 135 Greenwich Street and shortly thereafter he must have retired to his farm at Cortlandtown. His wife Elizabeth died there April 13th, 1812, and his only son Charles “after a lingering illness,” on September 16th following. Mr. Ramsay died December 1st, 1816, aged eighty-five years.”
Such was the life of John Ramsay who we would have never have known if not for his name being stamped on a small copper plaque on my front lawn.