10 Dec 1776
Governor Clinton Decides
After the War
Lt. Jacob Best's Quandary
We picture the stalwart heroes of the Revolution much as Emerson portrayed the Concord militia: "embattled farmers" who "fired the shot heard round the world." But part of the battle, even in that day, was with the patriot's own bureaucracy. This is the story of one soldier's attempts to do his duty and the troubles he encountered.
New York State saw more skirmishes and battles than any other during the Revolution. The presence of the British headquarters in New York City during most of the War led to many engagements near the City. The rivers provided easy access for both major expeditions and for smaller raiding parties from Canada. Many attacks on settlements in the Mohawk and Hudson valleys terrorized the settlers there. So an efficient militia force to help protect this area was very important to the patriot cause.
Claverack, the locale of this story, is about 30 miles south of Albany and a few miles east of the Hudson River. Its Dutch name is indicative of the fields of clover which grew there. Highway 23 now goes eastward through Claverack toward Boston. Gen. Henry Knox's "noble train of artillery" consisting of 50 or 60 pieces was hauled from Ticonderoga down along the Hudson and then across the Berkshires on this route. It passed through Claverack in the middle of January 1776. When placed on Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston the guns helped persuade the British to leave - but then they went to New York City.[top]
During the Revolution the Claverack military district was split between two regiments: one headed by Col. Robert van Rensselaer and the other by Col. Peter van Ness. Whether the two Dutch colonels squabbled about other matters I don't know, but they certainly bickered for Jacob Best's services.
The records are scanty, but it appears that he was first an ensign and later a lieutenant in Col. van Rensselaer's regiment of the Claverack District. However he moved out of the area allotted to that regiment, and so was expected to join the other - as a private! Instead, he continued to serve with his old outfit as an officer. The new outfit then threatened him with significant fines. Fortunately enough records exist to trace the history of the dispute and Jacob Best's attempts to resolve it.[top]
"Ensign Jacob Best appeared before this Board and represented that he lived in that part of the District of Claverack which was allotted to the Regiment of Collo. Robert van Rensselaer and in which he was chosen Ensign to Capt Peter Bartell's Company, that since that Election he has moved into that part of the District which comprehends the Regiment of Collo. Peter Van Ness and that ever since his removal he has been warned and done duty in the Regiment of Collo. Rensselaer, and that he has been fined £10 for not marching with Coll. van Ness on the alarm to the westward, when in fact he Marched with the Regiment of Colo Rensselaer, and was now again threatned to be fined £50 for not marching with Colo. Van Ness's Regiment, he therefore prayed the advice of this Committee in the Premises.
"The committee took the same into Consideration and are thereupon of the opinion that his Commission is not vacated by his removal, and that Colo. van Ness or any of his Field Officers be Cited to appear before the next General Committee to answer to said Complaint, and that the Execution of the Warrant directed to seize and distrain the Goods of said Jacob Best be in the mean Time Stayed. And it is farther Resolved that the said Jacob Best be ordered to attend this Committee with his Witnesses at the next meeting of this Committee."[top]
Col. van Ness wrote to Governor Clinton as follows:
"Claverack August 26th 1778
Sir, Yesterday Major Esselstyn, of Collo. Van Renselaer's Regiment, offered For Qualifycation To Me, one Jacob Best, as Appointed for a Subalteran officer in Collo. Renselaer's Regiment and this Same man is an Inhabitant in a Beat or Company with the Limits of my Rigiment. I Did not Conceive that he Could Consistantly be appointed In an other Rigiment, and upon that Seposition I refused to Qualify the Said Jacob Best as Such. If upon a fair Representation of the Matter your Excellency Should think propper To Judge this Measure Requisite, I Shall Submit and Give up the point. For This Representation I must beg your Excellency to Inquire by Peter Cantine, Esqr. & Quartermaster Gemrych, who is the Bearer hereof. Mr. Cantine I Beleive is now at Poogkeepsie. Those Two persons are well acquainted with the Transactions During the whole of this Dispute. If your Excellency Should be of Opinion that an Inhabitant Residing within the Limits of one Rigiment Can with any Degree of Legallity be appoint a Subalteren officer In another Rigiment I Shall Give up the point. Till Then I will Look upon Jacob Best to be Either a private or an Exempt and Liable to Do Duty In my Rigiment. I am your Excellency's Most Obediant and Very Very Hum'le Servant
Peter Van Ness"
The buck stopped there and Governor Clinton settled the matter in the following letter to Col. van Ness.
"Poughkeepsie 29th Aug't 1778So Col. van Ness was over-ruled and Lt. Jacob Best stayed with his old regiment as an officer - Col. van Ness only wanted him as a private.
D'r Sir, I am favoured with your Letters of the 24th & 26th Instant. Colo. Van Renselaer gave the Council of Appointm'nt a full & I believe very Candid account of the Time of Lieut. Best at the Time of his appointment. And tho' they mean not to establish it as a Presedent, yet in that particular Case they thought it Right to appoint him to his former Rank & Command tho removed out of the Regt."
Lt. Best's superiors must have thought well of him to insist on his services and to promote him during the course of the War from enlisted man to Ensign and then to Lieutenant. I am proud to have such an ancestor![top]
The 1790 Census of New York locates this family in Hillsdale, Columbia County. In 1791 they were in Schenectady. In 1795 they were in what is now the town of Fulton, Schoharie County, as two of their sons attended school there then. No wills or death dates for this couple have been found. They probably spent their last days in Schoharie County, New York, where their children prospered in the next century.
And the two squabbling colonels - what happened to them? Col. Robert van Rensselaer was promoted to Brigadier General of the militia in 1780 and continued to the end of the War. Col. Peter van Ness, still a colonel, left the militia in 1780 because the other's promotion.[top]
An earlier version of this article was published as "Lt. Jacob Best's Quandary," The SAR Magazine, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Spring 1993), pages 18-19.
Look for the publication of another article entitled "Those Five Jacob Bests: Loyalists or Patriots?" This will sort out confused accounts of these five men during the American Revolution.
Please send any comments or suggestions to the author using the link at the bottom of the Al & Jim's Home Page.
Updated 6 November 2002.[top]