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 Benedict Arnold

-by Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian/RMO - Nov, 2007

Benedict Arnold

Want to hear a good ghost story? How about that Benedict Arnold rises at night from his grave in Green Hill Cemetery to walk about the streets of Amsterdam. What? Benedict Arnold is buried in Montgomery County? Yes, he is – but not the Benedict Arnold that first comes to mind (by the way, neither Benedict Arnold rises from the grave to roam around Amsterdam at night, that was just an attention grabber – or is it…??).

A few weeks ago, crews were at Old Fort Johnson filming for an upcoming movie about the notorious Revolutionary War “turncoat” who, as a military commander in Washington’s Continental Army, provided strategic information and conspired to turn over his command to the British at West Point. Lauded by military experts as a hero for his pivotal role in the Battle of Saratoga and thus, altering the outcome of the War for Independence, Benedict Arnold has conversely gone down in history as the traitor who sold out his country.

Montgomery County’s Benedict Arnold did not follow the same path as his namesake. Our Benedict Arnold, although most local residents today are not familiar with him, occupies a prominent place in early Amsterdam history.

According to the records of the Dutch Reformed Church, Elisha Arnold and his wife Sarah Francisco bore nine children, the youngest being Benedict Arnold born on 5 October 1780 in Schaghticoke, Rensselaer County. Incidentally, just for keeping things straight, this Benedict Arnold’s birth occurred just over two weeks prior to the Revolutionary War raids that ravaged the Mohawk Valley.

It appears that “Benedict” was a traditional family name going back to William Arnold who emigrated from England in 1635. Accompanied by his eldest son, Benedict, William Arnold assisted Roger Williams in the founding of Rhode Island. As it turns out, King Charles II of England named William Arnold’s son Benedict the first governor of Rhode Island, holding that office for seven terms until his 1678 death. From there, his descendants spread out over the country and carried on his given name of Benedict including ours and the more famous one.

At what point Arnold’s family moved to the Amsterdam area is not clear. He married Mary, daughter of Jacob Bovee, in 1806. That marriage and the births of nine of their eleven children were recorded in the records of the First Dutch Reformed Church of Amsterdam at Manny’s Corners. Like others before, Benedict’s given name continued on with his own son born in 1820.

Having been one of Amsterdam’s early settlers, Arnold’s life was one of prominence and success. He got into the mercantile business operating a general store at the corner of Main and Bridge Streets. Later known as McClumpha’s Corner, this location in early Amsterdam is no more.

Like his namesake, Amsterdam’s Benedict Arnold served in the New York State Militia as a Cornet in the 9th Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Tiffany during the War of 1812. A cornet was the lowest grade of a commissioned officer in the cavalry, after captain and lieutenant, equivalent to the infantry’s rank of ensign. Arnold was promoted to the rank of captain by 1818.

Amsterdam’s Benedict Arnold also led a very active life as a public servant. Arnold’s political career led him to not only the state’s capital but to the nation’s capital as well. He served as the supervisor for the town of Amsterdam from 1813 to 1816 when he, then sat in the New York State Legislature for the next two years as a member of the Assembly.

In 1828, Arnold was elected to serve his country in the Anti-Jacksonian or National Republican party in the 21st Congress (1829-1831) during the first two years of President Andrew Jackson’s first term. The major legislation enacted during this congress was the much-debated Indian Removal Act of 1830 that sought to relocate Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river.

Upon his return to Amsterdam, Arnold was a key proponent for obtaining a charter to incorporate Amsterdam as a village. He became the village’s second President of the Board of Trustees.

Water supply to Amsterdam residents can be traced back to Benedict Arnold. In 1820, he, along with Marcus T. Reynolds and Welcome U. Chase were granted a charter by the New York State Legislature to organize the Amsterdam Aqueduct Company for the purposes of supplying water, via a spring in the Van Derveer woods opposite Milton Avenue, for domestic use. According to Hugh Donlon’s Annals of a Milltown, “wooden pipes were laid from Bunn Creek to Downtown,” however, in this attempt at primitive water supply “there was dissatisfaction with the smallness of the hollowed carriers that lacked durability and frequently froze during the winter months.”

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress 1774-2005 depicts Benedict Arnold as an extensive landowner and philanthropist. In the years after his death, Arnold was memorialized when a street and a school were named in his honor.

Along with a number of early families, including the Sanfords, Benedict Arnold resided in the heart of the City of Amsterdam’s present downtown business section. I am certain that when he established his home in the burgeoning settlement, he did not foresee all of the changes that take place in future. Namely, that the business district would surround his home.

The Arnold residence attained the reputation as one of early Amsterdam’s finer homes. The two-story edifice occupied a lot on the west side of Market between East Main and Division Streets. The arched, double-door main entrance provided a stately, picturesque quality to the home.

Benedict Arnold passed away on 3 March 1849. His remains were likely initially buried at the cemetery established on Market Hill. When village growth encroached upon the burial lot, however, Arnold’s remains, as with others, were later re-interred at Green Hill Cemetery.

As the years of the nineteenth century passed and Amsterdam’s bustling commercial center prospered hotels, banks, groceries, and multi-storied business blocks overtook the early residential neighborhoods. The “mansions” were dwarfed or replaced by the surrounding structures. A part of the Arnold home was converted into a fruit stand adjacent to the Central Hotel. Trolley tracks of the FJ&G ran in front of Benedict Arnold’s former residence on Market Street and up the hill.

The turn of the century set the stage for some major alterations to the business district. By 1910 the Arnold home was demolished to make way for the construction of the four-story Blood building, a primary structure for offices and stores. A victim of urban renewal in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Blood building formerly housed Wagenheim’s Clothing Store and the Morrison and Putman Music Store. Today, the lodging establishment known as America’s Best Value Inn occupies the site of Benedict Arnold’s home.

The next time you are in Amsterdam be reminded that despite the fact that the moniker “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous with “traitor” there was an honorable fellow of the same name – and he was an Amsterdamian.