1802: The Western Plain


This stone building likely had been a prison built during the Revolution (which would make sense given its location on “Execution Hollow”). In November of 1781, General John Paterson wrote to General William Heath that the “new provost” was not finished (Egleston 1898, 245). He also refers to a “lower floor” which suggests the building was at least two stories (246). The following March, General William Heath wrote to George Washington reporting that thirty-one or thirty-two prisoners had escaped from the “new provost” at West Point (Heath & Washington 1905, 340-341). If this is the same building, it seems to have been finished in the winter of 1781-1782. Boynton (1871, 171), in his mid-19th century history of West Point, refers to it being two-storied and stone. In 1794, this building was used as a classroom building when George Washington established a school for artillerists and engineers at West Point. It also seems to have been quarters for some officers. It burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1796. Alexander Hamilton implied years later to Joseph Gardner Swift that disgruntled instructors were responsible (Swift 1890, 37). There are no known depictions of a complete Old Provost, but a Charles Willson Peale’s 1801 watercolor of West Point shows what appear to be ruins on the west side of Execution Hollow. Peale’s image can be seen here. The location depicted on the map is an approximation.

A two-story, wood-frame building, “about as large as a country school-house” used for classes, chapel services, dances, and other events (United States Military Academy 1904, 221). The second floor had what Swift (1890, 37) referred to as “the long room.” In June of 1801, this building was shown painted a yellow ochre hue in a Charles Willson Peale watercolor (Peale 1801). Peale’s depiction suggests the building had at least two chimneys. The seats and “forms” in the Academy were painted green around the time of the institution’s founding (United States Military Academy 1904, 221; Lillie 1869).

The approximate size and layout of the 1802 Academy (right) and saltbox Office. Both were likely yellow when the Academy opened. The windows shown are known to have existed based on Peale’s 1801 watercolor. We do not know what the fronts of the buildings looked like. Illustration by author.

This small building was a saltbox house. It appears to have been at least partially painted yellow when first graduate Joseph Gardner Swift arrived in 1801 (Peale 1801). This building later was the quarters of Superintendent Alden Partridge (1814-1817). Next to this building was a small depression that had the remains of a mound built to honor the Dauphin of France, Louis Joseph, born in October of 1781 (Swift 1890, 28). Because France was an ally during the Revolution, there were numerous celebrations for the French heir.

Possibly predating the Revolution (Berard 1886, 13), this was certainly one of the oldest houses at West Point in 1802. George Washington was said to have slept here. It was a two-story building with one-story wings on each side. The second floor likely had a porch with a piazza on the first. In 1802, this house was occupied by Major George Fleming (Swift 1890, 29), his wife, and a niece named Ms. Moffat (Berard 1886, 17). A veteran of the Revolution, he had taken control of West Point when Henry Knox was made Secretary of War in 1785 and in 1802 was serving as the Military Storekeeper (Berard 1886, 16). After Fleming, a Colonel Jonathan Snowden lived here as the Storekeeper. Isaac Partridge occupied the house from about 1814-1817 while his nephew Alden Patridge was Superintendent (Berard 1886, 21).

In the 1820s, cherries grew in the yard of this house and cadets would pick them despite profane admonitions (Swift 1879, 29).

Years later, one wing was removed and used as a school. In the mid-19th century, this building became known as “Mrs. Thompson’s House.” Amelia Abigail Thompson (née DeHart), 1765-1855, widow of Captain Alexander Ramsay Thompson, had for years been allowed to provide meals, and boarding in the Academy’s early days, to a small group of cadets. She originally lived near where the Firstie Club now stands, but when that building was constructed (c. 1840) as an ordnance compound, Thompson and her daughters were allowed to move to  this building. Her family provided meals to select cadets until about 1873 or 1874.

Mrs. Thompson’s House in about 1870. The original building also had a wing on the left side. Source: Photo by Pitman / USMA Archives. 


The Academy’s property boundary is approximated by the red dashed line. Historian George Pappas (1993, 12) indicates that there was a “tumbledown” wall along the perimeter, but his source is unclear.

Little is known about this building in 1802. Slightly later accounts describe it as wooden with dormers and six chimneys and was possibly built before the Revolution (Berard 1886, 20). It was set up to house two families. A center hallway divided the quarters and maps suggest each side of the house had a small addition presumed to be a kitchen.

In 1801, this frame building was occupied by Lieutenants James Wilson, Jr. and Alexander Macomb (Swift 1879). Wilson was the son of Declaration of Independence signer and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson. Macomb would later distinguish himself at the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814 and become Commanding General of the United States Army from 1828 to 1841. This building was later used as a Laboratory and a Post Office.

Believed by some to predate the Revolution (Berard 1886, 14), these quarters had been occupied by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Rochefontaine in the 1790s (Swift 1879, 29). Rochefontaine was Commandant of the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers when it was established at West Point in 1795 and remained for about three years. In 1802, and at times afterward, the home was occupied by Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams and family. Williams, the Academy’s first Superintendent, was a the grandnephew of Benjamin Frankin, and would twice serve as Chief of Engineers. His wife, Mariamne, was Scottish (Berard 1886, 16). Williams’ son, Alexander John Williams, graduated USMA Class of 1811 and died in defense of Ft. Erie in 1814.

The house was two stories with a small one-story addition on the southern end and a long addition in the back. The house had gardens of vegetables, fruit, and flowers (Berard 1886, 16). Peale’s June 1801 watercolor of this house (from the back) indicates that the main part of the structure was painted a yellow ochre color and the rest of the building may have been unfinished. There are at least four chimneys visible. The main part of the house appears to have had white (or light-colored) shutters.

This tavern, owned and operated by Thomas North, had been in operation for years, possibly since the Revolution, and was a constant headache to Academy officials (Berard 1886, 23; Swift 1879, 30). In 1798, an order banned soldiers and non-commissioned officers from frequenting the public house without permission. There was also a small riot between patrons and post troops on July 4, 1800. In terms of what the building looked like at the time, there is little evidence. Decades later a section of the building was moved. A photo taken after the move shows a two-story house with a possible third floor under a gambrel roof.

Tavern Remains
This photos from the USMA Archives is said to show part of the building that was North’s Tavern in 1802, later Gridley’s Tavern. Source: USMA Archives

Joseph Gardner Swift’s memoirs refer to a model yard at this location with a “miniature fortress in wood, used in lectures on fortification” (Swift 1879, 29). Peale’s June 1801 watercolor of this area shows fencing around two covered pavilions. Later, Swift and Cadet Walker K. Armistead (Class of 1803) planted elm trees around the site, some of which remained for over a century. By 1808, there appears to be no buildings on the site but the trees planted are clearly visible.

This knoll no longer exists, having been leveled in the late 19th century. It was a small, pointed hill that later had a flagpole and then hosted the Wood’s Monument after about 1820. The hill was later known as Monument Hill. The name Bunker’s Hill (or Bunkers Hill) is seen on maps from 1808 until about 1820. It’s unknown what the hill was called in 1802.

Bunker’s Hill later in the 19th century. Part of the Ordnance Compound, now the Firstie Club, can be seen behind the Hill.


Berard, Augusta B. Reminiscences of West Point in the Olden Time. East Saginaw, Michigan: Evening News Printing and Binding House, 1886.

Boynton, Edward C. History of West Point: And Its Military Importance During the American Revolution: and the Origin and Progress of the United States Military Academy. New York, NY: D. Van Nostrand, 1864.

Church, Albert E. Personal reminiscences of the Military Academy from 1824 to 1831 : a paper read to the U.S. Military Service Institute, West Point, March 28, 1878. West Point, NY: U.S.M.A. Press, 1879.

Egleston, Thomas. The Life of John Patterson: Major General in the Revolutionary Army. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1898.

Gilman, Caroline. “Major John Lillie.” The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, 2nd ser., 5, no. 2 (February 1869): 123-26.

Heath, William, and George Washington. The Heath Papers. Vol. 3. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1905.

Pappas, George S. To the Point: the United States Military Academy, 1802-1902. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.

Peale, Charles Willson. View of West Point from the Side of the Mountain, 1801. Watercolor. Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society.

Swift, Joseph G. The memoirs of Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift, L.L.D., U.S.A…. F. S. Blanchard Co., 1890.

United States Military Academy. The Centennial of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Vol. 1. West Point: Government Printing Office, 1904.