The Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern

The Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern

I extend my heartfelt gratitude and sincere appreciation to Robert Treadway and North Salem Town Historian Susan Thompson. This article owes its existence to their unwavering dedication and tireless efforts to unravel the layers of history surrounding the Yerks Tavern. Their years of meticulous research and passionate pursuit of the truth have illuminated the path to a clearer understanding of this historical myth.

It was with great generosity that they welcomed me into their world of knowledge, sharing invaluable insights and captivating stories. Without their invaluable guidance, this article would remain incomplete. Their commitment to preserving and disseminating the authentic history of Yerks Tavern is truly commendable, and their contributions have enriched the narrative immeasurably.

In the annals of history, tales of bravery and valor often blur the lines between fact and fiction, creating a rich tapestry of myth and legend. Such is the case with the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern of North Salem, a place whose history has been shrouded in mystery and inaccuracies for generations. As the saying goes, “history is written by the victors,” and in this case, the legend of the Yerkes Tavern has taken on a life of its own, woven into the very fabric of American folklore.

The story of the Yerkes Tavern is a classic example of how historical narratives can become entangled with myth-making. Countless books and accounts have perpetuated the same narrative, like a game of historical telephone where facts become distorted with each retelling. The result is a documented history that, despite its lack of accuracy, has achieved mythological status.

At the heart of the legend is the figure of John Yerks, a Patriot hero who purportedly owned and operated the tavern in North Salem, New York, during the tumultuous days of the American Revolution. According to the myth, it was from this very tavern that John Yerks organized a patrol of the Neutral Zone with a group of friends.  This patrol would play a pivotal role in one of the most remarkable events of the Revolution: the capture of Major John André and his sinister plan to betray West Point to the British.

However, as history buffs know, stories of revolution, like all tales passed down through time, can undergo a transformation. The passage from oral tradition to written accounts and popular culture often involves the embellishment or exaggeration of certain events or personalities to make them more compelling or emotionally resonant. This phenomenon has led to the creation of legendary figures and events that capture the imagination but may not align entirely with the historical record.

In the case of the Yerkes Tavern, the challenge lies in untangling the web of myth from the threads of reality. By delving deeper into the historical archives, examining primary sources, and scrutinizing the often contradictory accounts, we can hope to separate fact from fiction and shed light on the true role of the Yerkes Tavern in the American Revolution.

In this article, we embark on a journey through time, exploring the origins of the Yerkes Tavern legend, the historical context of the American Revolution, two John Yerk’ and the process of mythologizing historical narratives. By the end, we hope to gain a clearer understanding of how history and myth can intertwine, creating stories that endure through the ages, even as the truth remains elusive.

The Yerkes Tavern: A Relic of North Salem’s Past

Nestled at the crossroads of Bogtown, Yerks, and Cat Ridge Roads in the quiet enclave of North Salem, New York, stands a structure that has long been steeped in local lore—the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern. This historic landmark, situated in the far southeastern corner of the town, is a testament to the enigmatic history of early colonial America.

Location of the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern in North Salem, NY

Location of the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern in North Salem, NY

While the precise origins of the Yerkes Tavern are shrouded in the mists of time, it is believed, albeit estimated, that this venerable building was erected around 1750. There exists no concrete evidence to support the existence of the structure prior to 1815, when it was granted a coveted Tavern License, but based on the construction, it is a fair assumption that the home was pre-revolution.

Based on research from the North Salem Historical Society, it is believed that the structure served as the original farmhouse of Caleb Smith Dr., a yeoman of Van Courtland Manor. The term “yeoman” denotes a man who held and cultivated a small landed estate, a common occupation in the Van Courtland patent region.

The Smith family, having acquired a Tavern License in 1795, likely operated a tavern at this very location before it became known as the Yerkes Tavern. Although historical records do not definitively name it “Smith’s Tavern,” it is clear that the Smiths were the proprietors of the establishment.

The dawn of 1815 heralded a pivotal moment in the history of the tavern when John F. Yerks of Mount Pleasant acquired both the property and an accompanying Tavern License, thus bestowing upon it the name it carries to this day—the Yerkes Tavern.

1815 - North Salem Tavern License

1815 – North Salem Tavern License

As the years rolled on, the Yerkes Tavern played a significant role in the life of the community. However, by the turn of the 20th century, its glory days had faded into memory. Around 1912, the building became completely abandoned, leaving behind only the stoic remnants of its foundation. Those who venture to the site today can still bear witness to these haunting vestiges, standing in silent testimony to the passage of time. A nearby sign, thoughtfully placed by the North Salem Historical Society, marks the spot, ensuring that the legacy of the Yerkes Tavern endures.

What's Left of the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern

What’s Left of the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern

Notably, whispers of the tavern’s history persist in the surrounding landscape. It is said that the very door that once welcomed patrons into the Yerkes Tavern now serves as an entrance to the house next door, a poignant reminder of the past’s connection to the present. Another door, a relic of bygone days, is said to have found a new home in the Mill River area of Lewisboro, New York, carrying with it echoes of the tavern’s vibrant past.

Tales of the Yerkes Tavern, with all their historical intrigue and local mystique, continue to captivate the imaginations of those who call North Salem home. As we delve deeper into the annals of this township’s history, we discover not just a building, but a living testament to the rich tapestry of a bygone era—a time when the clink of glasses and the camaraderie of patrons filled the air of this iconic establishment. Though its physical form may have crumbled with the years, the spirit of the Yerkes Tavern endures in the hearts and minds of those who cherish the past and the stories it leaves behind.

The Foundation of the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern

The Foundation of the Yerkes (Yerks) Tavern

John Yerks Jr.: Patriot and the Unlikely Hero of West Point

In the picturesque town of Philipsburgh, New York, on a crisp October day in 1758, John Yerks Jr. entered the world. Little did anyone know that this unassuming birth would mark the beginning of a remarkable journey—one that would lead to his pivotal role in one of the most fateful episodes of the American Revolution.

John Yerks Jr. is best remembered as the patriot who orchestrated a patrol of the neutral zone in September of 1780. This patrol, initially comprising six intrepid men, may have been later joined by two others along their journey. Splitting into two groups near Tarrytown, they aimed to better cover the roads and, by a stroke of destiny, one of these groups—though not the one Yerks himself led—captured the notorious Major John André. Subsequently, the two groups rejoined forces, and together they delivered André to the vigilant eyes of Col. John Jameson at the nearest Continental Army outpost, situated in North Castle. Unbeknownst to them, their mission to capture Cowboys inadvertently saved West Point—an act that undoubtedly saved the Revolution.

The story of these six patriots embarking from North Salem to capture marauding Cowboys has the hallmarks of a classic tale that could have been hatched over a pint or two at a local tavern. Alas, the specifics of their strategizing remain forever shrouded in the mists of history, with only a few accounts to verify the genesis of their audacious plan.

But here is what John Yerks told oral historian John McDonald in 1845………. “All seven of us were serving either as volunteers or as eight months’ men, or in the militia.” …”We were at Salem, every other week off duty, and it was on one of those alternate weeks that we applied to Captain Baker and our other commanding officers for leave to go down near Tarrytown in order to take from the Refugees and Cowboys cattle and plunder they might be conducting below, and to work for pocket money. Our officers had full knowledge and approved of our enterprise…”

Nevertheless, it’s a narrative that resonates with the essence of the American spirit—a courageous band of individuals, spurred by a shared sense of duty, willing to take matters into their own hands.  

John Yerks Jr.’s military service, which laid the foundation for his role in this historic event, is documented in various genealogical resources. His journey through the turbulent years of the Revolution reveals a steadfast commitment to the cause. In March 1776, he enlisted in Captain William Dutcher’s Company, part of the 1st Regiment, Westchester Militia, serving for nine months. His initial tasks included aiding in the construction of Fort Independence in what is now the Bronx, followed by deployments to Dobbs Ferry and eventually Peekskill, where he found himself amidst the Battle of White Plains. His first enlistment concluded at Dobbs Ferry.

March 1777 witnessed his enlistment in Captain Sybert Acker’s company, still within the 1st Westchester Militia, this time for three months. In 1779, he joined the ranks of Captain Gilbert Dean’s company of Rangers, stationed in the perilous neutral ground. It was during one of these skirmishes, in July 1779, that John Yerks Jr. was reportedly wounded in the thigh during an encounter with the enemy at Tuckahoe.

Undeterred by his injuries, in May 1779, he reenlisted for a year in Captain Jesse Baker’s company of the 1st Westchester Militia. This period saw him stationed at Phillipsburgh and Bedford. Notably, he remained a member of Captain Baker’s Company when the momentous capture of Major André transpired.

In the latter part of September 1780, seven young men, including John Yerks Jr. alongside names like John Paulding, David Williams, Isaac See, James Romer, Isaac Van Wart, and Abraham Williams, all members of the local militia, embarked on an expedition triggered by their sense of civic duty. The terms of the Governor’s proclamation spurred them into action, leading to a scouting mission that would change the course of history. Their journey began in the vicinity of North Salem and took them towards Tarrytown—a tale that deserves its own dedicated exploration.

Post-war, John Yerks Jr. found solace in the arms of Sarah Silkman, whom he married. Their life together in Mount Pleasant was marked by the joys of raising a family. Sarah, born on April 26, 1762, would be his lifelong companion until her passing on April 8, 1839. Together, they had five children: Susanna, Abigail, Clarissa, Loretta, and Maria, forging a legacy that would endure through generations.

In another of John Yerks Jr. interviews with John MacDonald in 1845, he reflected on his role in André’s capture. At the age of eighty-seven, he recounted, “The enterprise which resulted in André’s capture was planned by us in North Salem, where or near which place the families of some of our parents had removed for safety and where we or most of us were in the public service.” This statement not only underscores the local context of their mission but also highlights the profound commitment these patriots had to their cause. The vision that was conceived on that September day in 1780 would resonate through the annals of history.

It’s important to dispel a prevailing misconception. Despite his pivotal role in this historic event, there is no evidence to suggest that John Yerks Jr. was ever a tavern owner, either before or after the Revolution.  In fact, based on his Military history, he had little time for such work.   While the image of a tavern owner planning the rescue of West Point over a drink is tantalizing, the historical record paints a different picture—one of a dedicated patriot who answered the call to safeguard his homeland.

The backdrop against which these events unfolded is worth noting. The mid-Westchester County, known as the neutral zone, was far from a haven of tranquility during the Revolution. Cowboys, affiliated with the Loyalists, and Skinners, associated with the Patriots, relentlessly plundered the homes and farms of those in the neutral zone for their own financial gain. The so-called safety of this area was relative, and the challenges faced by its residents were very real.

In tracing the life and contributions of John Yerks Jr., we glimpse not only the heroism of a single individual but also the collective spirit of an era when ordinary citizens rose to the occasion, determined to shape the course of history. His legacy endures as a testament to the resilience and dedication of those who helped secure the freedom we cherish today.  But based on his extensive military history, I think we can all agree that being a Tavern Owner is not part of his legacy.

The Headstones of American Revolutionary War Hero John Yerks Jr and his wife Sara Silkman

The Headstones of American Revolutionary War Hero John Yerks Jr and his wife Sara Silkman

John F. Yerks: The True Proprietor of Yerkes Tavern

In the intricate tapestry of the Yerkes Tavern’s history, another key figure emerges—John F. Yerks. 

John F. Yerks, born on May 5, 1788, was the son of William “Brook” Yerks and Mary Foshay. His roots ran deep in the soil of Westchester County, a place where the echoes of the Revolutionary War still reverberated in the collective memory. 

On December 16, 1812, John F. Yerks wed Elizabeth (Betsy) Clark of Bedford, New York. Their union heralded the beginning of a family that would be at the heart of the true Yerkes Tavern story. Over the years, they welcomed a brood of children into their lives, each bearing witness to the passage of time and the changing fortunes of their family.

The Yerks family tree includes the following branches:

  • Stephen Leroy Yerks, born November 5, 1812, and passed away at the tender age of 20 on November 5, 1833.
  • Ann Marie Yerks, born October 13, 1813, lived a life of 37 years before departing on January 7, 1851.
  • Eliza Jane Yerks, born September 15, 1815, left this world at the age of 35 on January 16, 1851.
  • William Henry Yerks, born September 1, 1817, met his fate at the age of 37 on July 23, 1855. (Twin #1)
  • Amos Clark Yerks, born September 1, 1817, passed away at the age of 35 on April 11, 1853. (Twin #2)
  • Patience Yerks, born December 14, 1819, lived until the age of 32, departing on October 13, 1852.
  • Lydia Yerks, born October 9, 1822, enjoyed a long life, spanning 75 years, before her passing on January 3, 1898.
  • Laura, born March 25, 1826, lived for just one fleeting month before her untimely demise on March 25, 1826.
  • Samuel Penfield Yerks, born March 9, 1863, left this world at the age of 25 on September 5, 1852.

Around the year 1815, John F. Yerks and his wife Elizabeth became the owners and proprietors of the very house that would become known as Yerkes Tavern. This coincided with the birth of their third child, marking a pivotal moment in their lives. It was during this era that the Yerkes Tavern would etch its name into the annals of local history.

In 1824, John Yerks and Elizabeth sold 25 acres of land to Timothy Vanscoy in North Salem, likely including the tavern and its surrounding property. This sale occurred after the birth of seven children but before the arrival of the final two.

But by 1840, and perhaps even earlier, John and Betsy had relocated to Mount Pleasant. The war was over and Mount Pleasant was where their family had been farming prior to the war.  Their commitment to their faith was evident, as they were active members of the Reformed Church there . John F. Yerks passed away on March 9, 1863, followed by Betsy on January 7, 1885. Their love story, intertwined with the Yerkes Tavern legacy, had come full circle. Both share their final resting place in Unionville  Reformed Church Cemetery. 

The circumstances surrounding John F. Yerks’ early life are a testament to the tumultuous times in which he lived. It seems plausible that his parents, William “Brook” Yerks and Mary Foshay, may have temporarily taken refuge north of the neutral zone during the Revolutionary War, as the conflict raged on. The displacement of Westchester County families was a common occurrence during those tumultuous years.

It’s also conceivable that John F. Yerks himself was born in North Salem, where he met Betsy Clark of Bedford, New York. This safe haven would serve as the backdrop for their union. John earned the moniker “Brook” due to his later residence on the other side of the Saw Mill River in Mount Pleasant, an area roughly where Rosedale Nursery stands today. In all likelihood, this was the same house where his parents, William and Catrina, had once owned a substantial farm. Situated just across the river from the Saw Mill Road, a route often used by British soldiers, it made sense for them to abandon their home until the end of the war.

The adult life of John F. Yerks was marked by tragedy. Seven of his children fell victim to pulmonary tuberculosis, with six of them succumbing between the years 1851 and 1855. The toll of disease weighed heavily on the Yerks family, a stark reminder of the challenges faced by families in that era.

The image of John F. Yerks’ house in Hawthorne, identified by the Mount Pleasant Historical Society as 36 Broadway, serves as a tangible link to the past.  It remains clearly visible from the street. 

36 Broadway, Hawthorne, NY

36 Broadway, Hawthorne, NY – Home of John F Yerks

While genealogical records often cite Mount Pleasant as the birthplace of John F. Yerks’ children, the absence of concrete birth, marriage, and death records from the early 1800s leaves room for interpretation. Given the Yerks family’s presence in Mount Pleasant at the onset of the war and the burial of many Yerks children in Unionville, it’s understandable why records might suggest Mount Pleasant as their birthplace. However, the possibility that one or more children were born in North Salem cannot be ruled out, especially considering the family’s history of displacement.

John F. Yerks found his eternal rest on March 9, 1863, in Mount Pleasant, and his final resting place is in the Hawthorne Reformed Church Cemetery. His legacy, intertwined with the Yerkes Tavern and the history of the Revolutionary era, endures as a testament to the resilience and enduring spirit of those who shaped our nation’s past.

The headstone of John F Yerks and his wife, Elizabeth (Betsey) Clark

The headstone of John F Yerks and his wife, Elizabeth (Betsey) Clark

Anatomy of a Historical Myth

As we delve deeper into the annals of history, we encounter a fascinating phenomenon—the birth and evolution of a historical myth that has left an indelible mark on the Yerks (Yerkes) Tavern of North Salem. This intricate web of misconceptions, conflations, and misattributions paints a compelling portrait of how the past can sometimes become entangled in the threads of popular belief.

The very structure that would become known as Yerks Tavern likely stood before the Revolutionary War, with the possibility that it was once a residence of the Smith family. However, over time, the lines between historical fact and legend blurred, leading to the conflation of two distinct individuals named John Yerks.

This conflation of two Mr. Yerks into a single persona occurred gradually and can be traced back to at least three pivotal events that set the stage for the emergence of this enduring myth.

Scharf’s Contribution:
“Scharf’s History of Westchester County”, published in 1886, stands as one of the most respected resources in the realm of Westchester County history. Countless genealogists and historians have turned to this tome for invaluable insights. It was in the pages of this monumental work that Charles E. Culver, at some point, became the first writer to assert that the captor of Major John André owned the very building that would become the famous Yerks Tavern. Culver’s assertion on page 500 of Scharf’s History, along with his claim on page 534 that the party responsible for André’s capture had departed from Yerks’ tavern, laid the cornerstone for this historical conflation.

One of Scharfs Mistakes

One of Scharfs Mistakes

“The Old Yerks Tavern” Article:
The Westchester County Historical Society Bulletin of 1930, in Volume 6, page 39, introduced one of the few known photographs of the Yerks Tavern. This article offered a glimpse into the building’s interior and chronicled its state of disrepair. Building upon Charles E. Culver’s thesis, Dunlap, in the same publication, further propagated the notion that the patriot John Yerks owned the fabled structure. This publication effectively cemented the story within the annals of local lore.

“When Our Town Was Young”:
Sometime around 1940, the seventh graders of North Salem added another layer to the myth when they featured the tale in their production titled “North Salem When Our Town Was Young.” This youthful dramatization not only perpetuated the story but also disseminated it to a wider audience.

Intriguingly, the evolution of the myth extends even to the naming of the roads surrounding Yerks Tavern. One sign in North Salem reads “Yerks Road,” while another at the Goldens Bridge end of the road bears the name “Yerkes Road.” The reason for this discrepancy remains shrouded in mystery, but it is worth noting that the “Yerks” surname is commonly associated with the Dutch Yerks family of New York, while “Yerkes” is often linked to the German Yerks family of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In unraveling the layers of this historical myth, we are reminded of the delicate interplay between fact and fiction in the retelling of our shared history. The Yerks Tavern, once a humble structure in North Salem, has now assumed a place in the collective consciousness—a testament to the enduring power of storytelling and the ever-shifting sands of historical interpretation.

As we conclude this exploration, we are left with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of our past and the need for vigilance in preserving the accuracy of our historical narratives. The Yerks Tavern, with its layers of history and myth, continues to stand as a living testament to the enduring allure of our shared heritage.