By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
It was the forbidden place. As children growing up in Tarrytown we were told to stay away from it. So naturally we tried to get there as soon and as often as possible. The place is called Catfish Pond. We knew the big kids—the teenagers—went there, and of course that made us all the readier to flaunt the prohibition of our parents. Besides, our parents probably had a very dim idea of where Catfish Pond was anyway. Some of the kids on my block knew you could get there by following paths through the woods from the east end of Union Avenue in the Crest—the big kids had shown us the way. But we could also walk down to Tarrytown Heights and pick up the dirt path of the old railroad bed—along the back edge of the Tarrytown Lakes. It was not then a paved bike path as it is today, and there was a chance that you might encounter a particular vagrant person along the way. He was harmless the big kids said, but, personally, I was prepared to run.
Today, most local folks do not know where Catfish Pond is, or even that there is a Catfish Pond. They might recognize the place but have no idea that it actually has a name. The only reason I bring it up here is to give the reader some idea of where Frena Romer lived in the time of the Revolutionary War. She lived a short distance from where the pond lies today—with her husband Jacob and their many children.
During the years of the war, she was known to be a very zealous patriot. She was a patriot who mothered a brood of patriots. It appears she was an exceptional woman and an archetypal American mother, suffering hardships, struggling for herself and her family, making due with little, and helping to give birth to the United States. Frena was, if not the Mother of her Country, at least the Short-Order Cook of her Country. I will explain.
Frena’s life was a sort of frontier story, but the frontier was the colony of New York. Her rustic cabin would today almost overlook the pump house at the Tarrytown Lakes. With so many mouths to feed, and so much to do, who would have thought she would have time to make dinner for Major John André on a fateful day in September 1780?
Frena Romer’s patriotism was not confined to idle dinner table discussion. She put all the little she had on the line for American Independence. And yet, she was an immigrant. She was born in 1725 and raised Frena Haerlager in a German-speaking canton of Switzerland. In her parish was a young man, ten years her senior, named Jacob Romer, a tailor, and the two wished to marry. Frena’s parents opposed the marriage, thinking the young man to be inferior in class or status to their daughter, so the young couple ran off to America. To know how they got to a European port from land-locked Switzerland would probably add even more luster to Frena’s story.
The voyage to New York was expensive, and their funds were insufficient for the passage. They were offered the unattractive expedient of paying for their trip by selling themselves into indentured servitude. On reaching New York, they were separated. Frena was indentured as a seven-year bondswoman. She was separated from Jacob and sent up the Hudson River to some place unknown to him. He, in the meantime, may also have also been indentured for several years himself. He then worked toward earning enough money to redeem Frena from the balance of her indenture.
Frena was to serve her full seven-year term. By 1753, Jacob had moved to Tarrytown, possibly with the help of Hendrick Romer, who appears to have been a relation. Jacob built a modest cabin on four acres, about midway between what would later become known as Catfish Pond and the County House Road. In colonial times this road would be more commonly referred to as the Lower Cross Road to White Plains. Some of the money for this purchase may have come from prize money he earned during his service on a privateer vessel, the Royal Hester, of sixteen guns. The Royal Hester was said to be one of the most profitable privateers based on Manhattan, taking in as much as 60,000 to 100,000 pounds per year during wartime. Crew members shared in the prize money along with the captain and commercial backers.
Meanwhile, Frena was virtually a prisoner somewhere near Albany. Due to the circumstances of their separation, she and Jacob knew nothing of the other’s whereabouts. One day in 1754 Frena got word that a postal rider had inquired after her. As it turned out, the postman had been hired for seven dollars by Jacob to seek her out. Frena met the rider at Albany on his next circuit, and, seated on the back of his horse she rode over 100 miles with him to Tarrytown and was reunited with Jacob. She was by then twenty-eight years old.
Frena and Jacob were married at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow in 1754, and they began their life together in that isolated dwelling near today’s Catfish Pond. At first their furniture consisted of a single trunk, which served as a dining table and a tailor’s bench. Their four acres of hillside could hardly be called a farm, so it is a matter of conjecture how Frena and her tailor-husband supported themselves in a community of country folk who made their own clothes. Perhaps they did it through barter, making Tarrytown the best-dressed neighborhood in the Manor of Philipsburgh.
Unlike the many tenant farmers of Philipsburgh, the Romers actually owned their four acres, having purchased it from the wide domain of the Philipse family. This purchase was a unique circumstance in Philipsburgh, where all the other land was technically leased; the Romers’ four acres had previously been the eastern extremity of Michael McKeel’s 300-acre tenant-farm. Frena had two relatively close neighbors on the County House Road, the Joseph Paulding family, located just to the east past the Saw Mill River crossing, and the Isaac Reed Tavern—in today’s terms located about fifty yards east of where Lake Road intersects with the County House Road. In later days this general area would be known in Tarrytown jargon as “over back.”
Frena’s first child came in 1755, and they kept coming until the mid-1770s when she had her twelveth child and Frena was fifty years of age—a mother of biblical proportions. How she managed to feed this “flock” is another biblical feat. All but two of the Romer children were baptized at the Old Dutch Church; it may be that the two mentioned succumbed to childhood illness, for only ten children are mentioned by name in the sources. All three of her sons were soldiers of the Revolution—Henry, Jacob (James), and John.
During the American Revolution, the residents of Westchester were robbed and abused, their farms and homes looted by soldiers and freebooters. Many patriot families relocated north of the Croton River for security. Others took their chances locally, or simply lacked the means to go north. The site of Frena’s home was bordered by trees, making it a fairly sequestered place and perhaps a less obvious target for mischief.
It appears that the hidden situation of Frena’s home may have made it a regular stopping-off place for some of the local militia. On the morning of September 23rd, 1780, a party of eight militiamen stopped there for breakfast. Included in the group were Frena’s son, James, and a young neighbor, the now famous John Paulding, the son of Joseph Paulding. No one present at the Romer house that morning knew what the next few hours would bring, but Frena set herself to feeding the squad of young men in addition to her own family. Afterward, she prepared lunches for the soldiers to take on the road; some of the food she placed in a basket and a pewter bowl. The militia party discussed their plans and set out over the ridge to the west—the ridge that today separates Tarrytown Lakes from the Villages of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown.
About two hours went by that morning, then John Paulding arrived at Frena’s house and said to her, “Aunt Fanny, take care what you say now; I believe we’ve got a British officer with us.” This is an interesting statement made by the leading captor of Major André, for it implies a family relation with Frena. It also suggests that Paulding was used to hearing Frena express her patriot views very openly. Finally, it would indicate that Paulding suspected his prisoner of being a British officer well before André later confirmed it.
At this point there was only one thing they all could reasonably do—have dinner. Once again, Frena Romer went into meal preparation mode, although, where all the food was coming from is hard to say. Food was very scarce during the Revolutionary War. In addition to the members of the Romer family present, there were the seven visiting militiamen, and now a captive British adjutant-general who was used to eating pretty well. In her isolated little hillside home, Frena was recreating the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes.
Fortunately, Major John André was not very hungry; when pressed by his hostess to have something, André replied, “Madam, it is all very good, but indeed I cannot eat.” It is unlikely that either André or Frena recognized it, but they actually had something in common—both traced their roots to Switzerland. André’s father was Swiss, and André himself was educated in Geneva.
In the years and decades following the war, Frena’s family and their descendants spread out all over New York State and the United States. Her son, John, married Leah Van Tassel, one of the youngest victims of the Neutral Ground fighting—less than a year old when she was burned out of her house in Elmsford on a frigid winter night. Frena’s thirteen grandchildren by this marriage were all of Native American descent through their mother, Leah. At some point Frena and Jacob went to live with John and Leah at a new house, built in 1793 on the site of Leah Van Tassel’s’s destroyed home. The house still stands a mile south of Elmsford’s four corners. There Frena lived out her days in the kind of bustling household she was used to. Jacob died in 1807 at the age of ninety-three, and Frena passed away in 1819 at the age of ninety-four. Their graves are in the Old Dutch Burying Ground of Sleepy Hollow.
Frena’s homestead near the County House Road was gifted to her son, John, in 1806. The house remained in place until the late nineteenth century when it was moved to a neighboring field to make way for the Putnam Railroad. A few years afterward, it was accidentally destroyed by fire. Its precise original location is not today known.
At some point during that memorable morning of André’s capture, Frena noticed the absence of her pewter basin and sent her fifteen-year-old son, John, to fetch it where Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert had forgotten it near André’s Brook. In those days a good pewter bowl could be a household treasure. The basin was later passed down to John, and from John to John’s grandson. Frena’s pewter bowl is now in the collection of the Historical Society Serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown and can be viewed in “the captors’ room.”
Among Frena’s many direct descendants was a noted mayor of Tarrytown, Frank Romer Pierson. Pierson was known for his many terms in office and numerous improvements to the village during the early twentieth century. He is the namesake of Pierson Park, Pierson School, and Pierson Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. He was also a very significant force on the Tarrytown School Board in the early development of the Tarrytown public schools. In addition to these accomplishments he was an influential businessman—responsible for building what we currently know as the Chase bank building at the bottom of McKeel Avenue.
Then there is Frank Romer Pierson’s namesake and great nephew, Frank Romer Pierson (the younger, 1925-2012), another direct descendant of Frena Romer. This man became an Academy Award-winning screen-writer and the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He wrote screen titles such as “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Cool Hand Luke.” I had the opportunity of communicating with Frank Romer Pierson about his Romer lineage before his passing in 2012.
[Copyright © 2009-2017 Henry John Steiner]