Constitution Island is located on the east side of the Hudson River directly opposite West Point and is connected to the east shore by Constitution Marsh. The Marsh provides foraging, nesting, and resting habitat to more than 200 species of birds and 30 species of fish, plus scores of other vertebrate and invertebrate species. Native Americans used the island for hunting, fishing, trade, and transportation. Archaeological evidence shows habitation going back 6,000 years. Visitors can easily imagine themselves exploring the sacred hunting grounds with the Munsee-speaking, Nochpeem tribe, or transport themselves further back in time to when their ancestors hunted woolly mammoths.
In 1609, Robert Juet, a sailor aboard Henry Hudson’s ship the Halve Maen (Half Moon), described the island in the curve of the Hudson River for the first time in writing. The island was first known to Europeans as “Martelaer’s Rock,”possibly after a French family named Martelaire, believed to have lived there for a short time around 1720. Constitution Island was part of the original land grant made by the British Crown to the Philipse family in 1754 and it remained in their possession until 1836. Philip Philipse died in 1768, leaving the island to his wife Margaret who later, remarried to Rev. Dr. John Ogilvie, built a summer retreat there. The property eventually passed on to Margaret’s grand-daughter, Mary Philipse, who married Samuel Gouverneur (1801) and continued to spend summers on the island and entertain relatives and guests there, including members of the prominent Post, Iselin, Kemble and Davenport families. Stephen H. Davenport, an important New York City businessman was born on the island in 1830.
During the Revolutionary War, the island was named Constitution Island by the American colonists who were fighting for their rights under the British Constitution. The Continental Congress, believing that the Hudson River should be fortified against the British, appointed George Washington in May 1775 to make plans for setting up defenses in this area. The Constitution Island fortifications, Redoubts 5, 6 and 7, were begun in 1775 under the direction of Bernard Romans. In April of 1778, the great chain of forged iron links, supported by huge floating logs, was stretched across the Hudson River from West Point to Constitution Island. Joseph Plumb Martin wrote about his experiences on Constitution Island in his journals, published as “Private Yankee Doodle.”
The Warner Family
Henry Warner purchased the property in 1836 during a visit to his brother, Thomas who was Chaplain at West Point. Mr. Warner made a large addition to the existing cottage which he called Wood Crag. Henry Warner moved permanently to Constitution Island with his sister Fanny and his two daughters in 1837 following serious financial losses on Wall Street. To help support the family, Susan and Anna began writing careers. Susan’s first novel, published in 1850, “The Wide, Wide World”, sold more than a million copies in more than sixty editions. Anna Warner’s beloved hymn, “Jesus Loves Me”, was published in 1860. For 40 years, Susan and Anna Warner taught Bible classes for West Point cadets. The Association has a file of correspondence from members of these classes from various Army posts around the world between 1870 and 1900. Anna Warner died in 1915. In her will she bequeathed to the cadets the treasured Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which now hangs in the West Point Museum. The sisters are buried in the cemetery at West Point. Their graves overlook the river and Constitution Island, which they loved so well. Their lives are described in Mabel Baker’s “Light in the Morning.”
The Constitution Island Association, established in 1916, preserves the archives and memory of the Warners, and holds special events on the Island during the summer. For more information contact or write to:
Constitution Island Association
PO Box 126
Cold Spring, NY 10515
You may also reach us by calling 845-265-2501.
Text updated and revised by Preston Lawrence Pittman, 2016.