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Cow-boys and Skinners  

Before it had any special application to America, cowboy was used in England with the obvious meaning: "a boy who took care of cows." Or he could have been a man, for boy implied not only youth and boyish attitudes but also low status in society.

Americans invented a new meaning for the term during the American Revolution. Cowboy became the revolutionary patriots' term for pro-British raiders who harassed and plundered the rural districts of the boundary between American and British forces in Westchester County, New York. Westchester County, was the so-called "Neutral Ground" seeing the British were in the Bronx and the Americans in Peekskill, New York.

It has been said, the term cowboy was applied to these lawless bands of raiders because they were known to tinkle cow-bells to attract patriots hunting for lost cows into roadside thickets where they'd ambush them. But it is more likely, that their method of raising money by selling pilfered cattle to the British army was the source of the namesake.

The most famous of the "Cowboys" was James DeLancey, Jr. At the start of the American Revolution, James was determined to stay neutral; but the story is, that:

in 1776 while at home one day, a group of Patriot soldiers paid him a visit and one of the officers set about stealing one of James' best horses and two sets of harness; well, that apparently swung James DeLancey over to the British side.

James joined up with his uncle, Oliver DeLancey, a wealthy New York merchant who held high rank in a loyalist regiment that was raised to fight for the British cause in the Revolution; it would become known as "DeLancey's Brigade."

Oliver DeLancey's Brigade, was probably the largest organization raised in New York, composed of three battalions of 500 men each. They were raised from New York City, Long Island, Westchester (NY) and Fairfield (CT) Counties.

Oliver DeLancey's Brigade included a "Troop of Light Horse," called the Westchester Chasseurs, as the members of which came from Westchester County. They were headed up by James DeLancey. James was a suitable selection, as he was sheriff of Westchester County prior to the Revolution and knew the countryside like "the back of his hand".

Governor Tryon of New York wrote of the Westchester Chasseurs,

"This troop is truly the Elite of the Militia of Westchester County, and their Captain Mr. James DeLancey, who is also Colonel of the Militia of Westchester County; I have much confidence in them for their spirited behavior."

The Westchester Chasseurs became quite active in the business of hindering the patriots' efforts in the revolution; they had no problem riding into pro-independence villages to loot, plunder and cause havoc.

A typical raid was reported in the New York Gazette on the 16th of October, 1777, a Tory paper supporting the British cause:

"Last Sunday Colonel James DeLancey, with sixty of his Westchester Light Horse went from Kingsbridge to the White Plains, where they took from the rebels, 44 barrels of flour, and two ox teams, near 100 head of black cattle, and 300 fat sheep and hogs."

Even American General George Washington knew of James DeLancey and his mounted troops. He reported to Congress on May 17th, 1781:

"Surprised near Croton River by 60 Horse and 200 Foot under Colonel James DeLancey ... 44 killed, wounded and missing ... attempted to cut him off but he got away."

James DeLancey's gang was often referred to as "DeLancey's Cowboys"

With the hostilities coming to an end, James DeLancey knew that he had to leave New York, the place of his birth. He sailed for England on June the 8th, 1783, and there he remained for a year while pressing his claims against the British government for compensation. In the fall of 1784, he sailed for Halifax and from there proceeded to Annapolis Royal where he would live until his death in 1804.


On the other side there were equally troublesome pro-Independence raiders called skinners. Perhaps Major Skinner's Regiment of Light Horse was the source of the namesake.

Skinners, like the Cowboys were "land-going" raiders preying on enemy civilian supplies. Though "Skinners" sympathized with the Patriots, they were comprised largely of tramps and bandits, serving their own interests more often than those of any cause. Seldom did they legalize their depredations by accounting for them to their superiors, and, worse than that, their forays were as frequently on the stores of friendly civilians as on those of their opponents.

Skinners, should not be categorized with "sea going" privateers. However, ill-mannered "sea-going" privateers were referred to as "skinners" in some cases:

American spy, Abraham Woodhull, in a letter of October 29, 1779, complained to General Washington about useless looting of Tory homes by Skinners.

"Night before last a most horrid robbery was committed on the houses of Col. Benj. Floyd and Mr. Seton by three skinner's whale boats from your shore.... From the best judgment I can form, they took to the value in money, household goods, Bonds and Notes of three thousand pounds. They left nothing in the house that was portable....

I cannot put up with such a wanton waste of property, I know they are the enemy's [sic] to our cause, but yet their property should not go amongst such villains. I beg you would exert yourself and bring them to justice."

Major Benjamin Tallmadge added his own comments about the looting to Woodhull's complaint when he forwarded it to headquarters.

"With respect to the robbery lately committed at Setauket, as related by *C. Senior, I have additional accounts of the same from others. In addition to the crime of plundering the distressed inhabitants of Long Island, the perpetrators of such villainy never bring their goods before any court for trial and condemnation, but proceed to vend them at option. This species of Privateering...is attended with such numberless bad consequences, that to a gentleman of your Excellency's feelings, I am confident I need not state them.... "

*C. Senior was Abraham Woodhull's code name.

About the "Sea-going" Privateers

The Colonies had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy at the time of their Declaration of Independence. To add to this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. The merchant seamen who manned these privateer ships contributed greatly to the Patriot cause.

They aided the War of Independence in many ways but the most important were as follows:

Because of British policy regarding import of gunpowder, colonists did not have enough to repel the third British charge at Bunker Hill. A survey by George Washington at the time showed army stockpiles were sufficient for 9 rounds per man. By 1777, the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter.

During the American Revolution nearly 800 vessels were commissioned as privateers and are credited with capturing or destroying about 600 British ships.

It is estimated that the total damage to British shipping by American privateers was about $18 million by the end of the war.

The crews of these privateer ships were well paid for their hazardous work, earning as much as $1,000 for one voyage, while average pay at the time was $9 per month.

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