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James Canopus Sirrine

Voices of the Past Come Alive at Shrub Oak
 

By Carolyn Surine

An old Revolutionary War veteran, James “Canopus” Sirrine once lived at “Scrub Oak Plains,” not far from Capt. John Paulding, who was one of the captors of the traitor Major John André. In fact, Canopus and Paulding often shared a mug of cider together after the War.

What is the significance of the name Canopus? James Sirrine was born in 1758 in Canopus Hollow, in what was then Dutchess* County, and this location “identifier” serves to separate him from other men by the same name. None of them, however, have such a remarkable life story and service to the American cause that we can document. Canopus, in fact, is referred to with some reverence because he was a proud 102 years old when he executed his request for a pension based upon his War service.

The Sirrine family has other ties to Yorktown and the surrounding areas, including living just across the border in Putnam Valley and the Red Mills area. Some also lived in villages a little further north of the Westchester border, residing in hollows and near lakesides, while some settled in towns in Connecticut. Canopus’ mother Mary at one time lived on a farm on Stoney Street in Shrub Oak, which she purchased from Caleb Morgan, a Tory during the Revolution. She conveyed this property to her youngest son, Elisha, then bought a farm from Sylvenus Sillick, which Canopus had previously sold to him in Somerstown. Mary is buried in St. Peter’s churchyard at Van Cortlandtville. At the cemetery of the Methodist Church of Shrub Oak lie Canopus’ brothers John and Elisha and their wives, as well as other family members.

Pension File Sets the Scene

Canopus was able to request pension benefits, even at the late date of 1860, based upon provisions set in law by Congress in June, 1832. At the time of his request, Canopus was residing in Texas Township, Wayne County, Pennsylvania with a granddaughter and her family.

Canopus related in his affidavit how he was involved in regular scouting parties during the War under Capt. George Lane of Col. Hyatt’s regiment, and often went to the Hudson River to guard the chain that stretched across the river near West Point. His only battle involved a skirmish with the British, where many rounds were fired on both sides. There were several wounded, but none killed. The British surrendered and were housed as prisoners in a kind of log prison, on the line between Dutchess* and Westchester counties.

At Canopus Hollow the militia built shelters, some of logs and some of stones. Canopus further describes them: “The one in which I quartered was built of stones laid in common mortar, and was about ten feet square, more or less. The walls were about seven feet high, and the chimney was carried up outside. The roof was made of bark. The floor of hewn or split timber six or seven feet in width, was covered with straw. The fireplace was wide, and a log was laid on the floor in front of the fireplace to sit on and to keep the fire from the straw.” This encampment became known as Continental Village.

The War Deepens

A significant incident occurred which Canopus never forgot, nor has history. While Canopus’ unit was on a scouting party near Tarrytown, about four or five miles away Major André, who was a participant in Benedict Arnold’s plot to betray America, was captured by John Paulding, Isaac VanWart, and David Williams. André was tried and convicted of acting as a spy at Tappan. Canopus noted that he was present at André’s execution by hanging on October 2, 1780.

Most of the time there was little diversity in his duties, however, until it was announced that the militia was going to Manhattan Island. The entire force marched together about two days down the east side of the Hudson River, when they were joined by other troops at the southern tip of Manhattan. They spent several days digging entrenchments and constructing fortifications. It was apparent to all that they were preparing for battle. While there, Canopus stated he frequently saw General George Washington.

Some time after the tasks were complete, the men were ordered to build fires, making them as brisk as possible, lighting the way to the Hudson River. At the River, barges were ready and waiting to carry the men away. What Canopus did not know at the time, was that this action was part of Washington’s skillful retreat to save many lives while they were hidden by heavy morning mist, after the previous debacle and surrender of Long Island to General William Howe. Washington had deployed part of his troops under General John Sullivan to Brooklyn Heights and others, including Canopus, were on Manhattan.

Serious Injury

The barges with the troops that included Canopus landed in New Jersey, and as his vessel was about to land, he put out his foot to ward off another barge. He slipped so that his foot and thigh came down between the two barges, which jammed his thigh so badly that the doctor pronounced him unable to carry on. He received a paper allowing him to go home.

The injury Canopus sustained necessitated treatment for several weeks by a physician back in New York. He was able to procure a pair of crutches with which he made his way along short distances each day to Sing Sing (now Ossining) and the house of his uncle, Elisha Barton, a brother of his mother. He records that he was made welcome. Canopus learned that the rest of his force eventually proceeded to Yorktown, where the siege and surrender of the British under Cornwallis took place in October 1781. Meanwhile, Canopus learned his father had died shortly before the end of the War, so he headed for home, still hobbling on crutches after the news of peace.

 

After the War, a New Life

Having returned home, Canopus lived with his mother for several years in Philipstown** until the house burned, when she had to rent another one not far away. After about six years they moved to “Scrub Oak Plains.” In the same vicinity were his brothers John and Elisha and their families.

When Canopus was about 30 years old, he married Elizabeth Oakley from Sleepy Hollow, whose brother, Jared, served with him during the War. Both Canopus and his wife moved to New York City, as did his mother, who married Isaac Stagg. After about four years, however, Canopus and his family moved back to Somerstown where he drove the sawmill of Solomon Fowler. Then, after saving enough money, he bought a farm for £5 per acre from Daniel Requa, about a mile from the mill. This is the property he later sold to Sylvenus Sillick for $50 an acre.

Canopus’ mother, Mary, however, suffered the death of her second husband Isaac Stagg, who is buried at St. Peter’s in Van Cortlandtville. She married a third time, after 1803, to G. Patrick Cole. His demise was in New Orleans prior to 1829. Canopus did not allude to either of his mother’s marriages in his pension application papers.

Moving On

It was about 1816 when Canopus and his growing family left upper Westchester county and headed to the Port Jervis, Orange county area, where he purchased a 700 acre farm. Subsequently the family moved to Ten Mile River in Sullivan county and then, crossing the Delaware River, settled in Lackawaxen township, in Pike county, Pennsylvania. A small cemetery at Kimbles, in the area where he and his family lived, holds some of Canopus’ descendants. Throughout his life Canopus was able to support himself and his family, either by farming, selling off property at a profit, or working as a “driver” at others’ sawmills. He purchased a farm at Vanauken Eddy, about two miles below the Narrows of the Lackawaxen River, where he lived for 30 years. He did not record it, but his wife Elizabeth probably died here.

Although he did not use his inheritance from his mother’s estate to purchase this property in 1841, he repaid a loan for the balance due on it with between $6,000-$7,000 in 1843. Mary, his mother, died in September 1829. She stipulated that Canopus must come collect his inheritance within two years of her death, and he stated in his pension application that he did so at “Putnam Corners”. Mary also left legacies to her other children, namely: John, Hannah, Fanny, Sally, and Elisha; Elisha’s sons John, Benjamin, Solomon F. and Leonard; grandsons Absolom, James, and John Weeks; granddaughters Mary Pierce and Fanny Benedict; daughter-in-law Hetty (nee Hester Denike, Elisha’s second wife, and widow of John Paulding); sister Sarah Rush; and brother Gilbert Barton. Interestingly, she specifically excluded Canopus’ children from ever gaining Canopus’ portion of her estate.

Family Feud

In 1843 at the age of 85, Canopus sold this, his remaining property, to his daughter Fanny and her husband, Lyman Law. In the deed was this specific phrase: “upon the express condition that the said Lyman L. Law and Fanny M. Law their heirs and assigns shall and will furnish the said James Serine [sic] during his life comfortable maintenance and support and with expense money suitable to his situation and circumstances.”

Something went terribly wrong. Canopus states that his daughter and her husband “permitted the land to be sold for taxes...which they ought to have paid and neglected in great measure to perform the conditions of their said bond.” It was December, and Canopus had been living since October in the Honesdale, Wayne county area, with his granddaughter Roseanna and her husband, John Hocker. Apparently relations with Fanny and her husband had deteriorated irreconcilably. In Honesdale, we also find unresolved law suits over money between Fanny, defendant, and her brother, John, plaintiff.

Too Little, Too Late

Fanny provided written support for her father’s claim for a pension in January, 1861, however, the rift never healed. She set forth what she remembered of her early childhood and of her father’s Revolutionary War service. She related scouting parties, how his unit was engaged with the British in conflict, that he was present at the hanging of Major André, and of going to New York. She also related how Canopus received the injury to his thigh and that he often showed the deep indentation on his thigh as a result of the wound. She said that after the War and when she was nineteen, she accompanied her father to Putnam Corners to collect his share of his mother’s estate. While in Philipstown they visited family, and in Canopus Hollow they passed by the place of encampment and what her father called the remnants of their stone shelters. This was the last thing Fanny would do for her father.

The Final Plea

Canopus concluded his plea with this statement: “This brief history of my life and my private affairs will afford both the reason why I have not hitherto applied for a pension and why I now at this late day make the application I had served my country in my humble capacity and I knew long ago that I was entitled to a pension under the aforesaid act of congress but I determined never to apply for it while I could support myself and family- -Up to the time I parted with my last real estate I was able to procure a livelihood. By that act I parted with the power to help myself or control my destiny and am thus reduced to a state of want and dependence which leaves me no choice of alternatives.”

The government denied his claim. Already 102 years old, how much longer into 1861 Canopus lived under the care of the Hockers is unknown, and where he is buried is unknown. Somewhere, however, old Canopus is at rest far away from the area of his birth and where he once lived at Scrub Oak Plains.

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The author, Carolyn Surine, resides in Owego, New York, and is a family genealogist. Ms. Surine previously published The Surine-Sirrine Family New York Beginnings of an American Story, Vol. 1, 1987, and The Sarine Family Migrations to Mamakating, Montgomery, Deerpark, and Chemung, New York, Vol. 2, 1994. She is currently completing The Surine Family New York Beginnings of an American Story: The Road West, Vol. 3 2003.