Shubael Merritt: The Legend of an Outlaw
“There’s one in every family.” We have all heard that saying before, and can think of a relative, distant or close, who brings some element of character to our lineage.
Within the family tree of a prominent colonial Westchester family, the Merritts, originally from England, there is this one family member who stands out from the rest. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the Merritt name was known in Rye, White Plains and parts of Connecticut. They were property owners and community members, some were Loyalists and some were fighting for American freedom, and one was an outlaw: the legendary Shubael Merritt.
When we think of outlaws, images of the Wild West come to mind. The same is often true when we hear the word cowboy. Long before Americans headed west, however, when the town of Rye was positioned at the center of the much-conflicted Neutral Ground during the Revolutionary War, cowboys and outlaws roamed in our own backyards.
Throughout the war years, lower Westchester County had periods of British occupation and American occupation, but for much of the time was unoccupied. Rye was miles from American lines or British lines, and the unprotected farms, homes and daily lives of the inhabitants were in constant threat. A group of Loyalists known as the Cow-boys earned their name by chasing farmers off their land and stealing their cows, while another group with American ties, known as Skinners, stole from the enemies along British lines. Beyond these two groups were other individuals who operated outside of the law, outside of any organized group and showed loyalty to no one. They cheated, plundered and murdered, seemingly for fun. These were the outlaws, the most feared men in Revolutionary Rye, and the most memorable of them was Shubael Merritt.
Shubael Merritt’s name conjured up fear for many people in Rye, and his stories, factual or exaggerated, have made their way into Rye legend. With little regard for his family members and even less for strangers, he went about stealing and cheating his way through life and right into death. In a time when the laws of the land were just beginning to form and crime and punishment were handled differently than today, many believed that in the end, Shubael got what he deserved.
In one famous example of Shubael’s outrageous behavior, he chased two Frenchmen who were carrying a large amount of gold down King Street and into a field, shooting one of them in an attempt to rob them of the money. While he was gathering gold from his victim, the other man escaped into a nearby home on King Street. Despite the language barrier, the Frenchman explained to the family that he was being chased, and the family hid the man in the cellar. Only moments later, Shubael arrived at their door. Some say the man climbed in through the cellar window, making it easy for the family to both hide him and be honest when Shubael asked if a man had come to their door. They insisted that no one had come to the door and, not wanting to seem suspicious, invited Shubael in for dinner, during which time he grew increasingly agitated at not having found the second man. They managed to stay calm and Shubael left to continue his search, never discovering his target was hidden right below him.
In another Shubael Merritt story, he put his grandfather, a shoemaker, down a well and left him there until he promised to give Shubael shoe buckles. It is believed that he raised and lowered the old man numerous times until he got the answer he wanted. While a story like this one may have been retold over the years in a slightly humorous fashion, the dark reality of Shubael’s callousness was anything but funny to his family and neighbors who were often his victims. Unfortunately, he found others who were willing to participate in his evil, thug-like games.
In the end, even Shubael could not escape judgement. As legend has it, one day Shubael was playing a game of cards with another outlaw near New Rochelle when they spotted a man named Ole Kniffin and his young son plowing in a field. Shubael and his opponent decided that whoever lost the game should go into the field and shoot the father. Shubael lost and accepted the challenge. He proceeded to walk into the field and shoot the father in front of his son, an act of cruelty that went beyond the limits of the imagination, even in a time of widespread war crimes and murders.
Years down the road, when the war was over and Shubael had built his reputation by terrorizing the town, a young man is said to have tracked Shubael down, shot and killed him. That young man was the son of Ole Kniffin, now grown up and seeking revenge. The lawmakers and townspeople never sought punishment for the young man’s actions, believing wholeheartedly that the man’s killing of Shubael was justified. While we all know two wrongs do not make a right, in the case of Shubael Merritt, the punishment seems to fit the crime.
Interested in the sources behind this story? Contact the Rye Historical Society for more information about Shubael Merritt. Contact Rye Historical Society