A Catskill Catalog: April 28, 2010
The prototype of the smart, tough upstate operator has to be Robert Livingston, a Scots immigrant who arrived in New York Harbor in 1674, 20 years old and eager to make a New-World fortune. This hardworking immigrant, in a few short decades, made the greatest fortune, and sired the grandest family, in New York Province.
Robert Livingston sailed upriver, settling in Albany, the province’s second city. He soon made the right political and business connections, became estate manager for the province’s richest man, married the right widow, and began acquiring land. Soon he owned a vast manor, 20 miles of Hudson River eastern-shoreline, all the way back to Massachusetts and Connecticut, pretty much all of today’s Columbia County.
In 1728, Robert, founder of the Livingston dynasty, died, succeeded, as Lord of Livingston Manor, by his older son Philip. In his will, the founder left 13,000 acres to his younger son, also named Robert, a lawyer trained by London’s finest legal minds. That Robert established his own estate, Clermont, his manor house situated on a bluff above the Hudson, looking at the Catskill Mountains across the river.
Thirteen thousand acres just isn’t enough for a proper manor, so Robert of Clermont, after building his manse and organizing the business of his estate, looked west for growth, looked, for expansion of his holdings, to the mountains that rose in the distance beyond his window: the Catskills.
In 1740, Robert Livingston of Clermont, then 52 years old, crossed the river to explore the mountains that made the view from his window. The Hardenbergh Patent had organized, into a single property holding, the vast acres of Catskill mountains, rivers, valleys, and hills. But that 1708 royal land grant was now a tired 30-something-year-old business plan, and had never shown a profit. Robert of Clermont smelled an opportunity.
But adventure came first, and to share the adventure into the wilderness, Robert of Clermont took his 22-year-old son, Robert R. Livingston, this Robert later called “The Judge,” reflecting his status as the leading jurist on the provincial supreme court.
But that was all in the future. In the warm months of 1740, young Robert R. Livingston, probably on break from his rigorous legal studies, set off with his father and their guide, woodsman Henry Bush, entering the mountains at the mouth of the Esopus Creek at Saugerties.
Henry Bush was, perhaps, the first mountain man of the Catskills. A skilled woodsman, hunter and Indian trader, Henry Bush settled in Shokan in the early 1700s. He was one of the first provincial explorers of the mountains, credited by some for locating both the East and West branches of the Delaware River. Henry had a son Jacob, who had a son Peter, who got caught up in the chaos of the American Revolution. The name Bush is a proud one in the Catskills today.
Livingston senior and junior followed Henry Bush up the Esopus all the way to Pine Hill, an arduous 50-mile wilderness hike. They crossed the “continental divide” at today’s Highmount, the place where the waters divide: rain on the east side of the summit running downhill through the Esopus to the Hudson and New York Bay; rain on the west slope running through the Bushkill and the Delaware branches to Philadelphia and Delaware Bay.
And they walked down to Margaretville, at least to the Pakatakan flats, native-named, where Margaretville would one day grow. Then, father, son, and woodsman-guide turned back, retraced their steps, walked back to the Hudson River and the Livingston’s Clermont home.
Only two of the original Hardenbergh Patent partners were still alive in 1740: Johannis Hardenbergh himself, still trying to make the thing pay, and Peter Fauconnier, by then, an old man in New Jersey. Heirs of the other partners owned various shares. The land development and leasing operation seemed to be going nowhere. Shareholders were poised to sell.
In 1742, Robert Livingston and his partner, Guilian Verplanck, began buying up the Hardenbergh Patent. They paid four cents per acre for the one-and-a-half million acres, paying upwards of $60,000 for the Catskills. Seemed like a heck of a buy since the lease-value of the land was $3 per acre, a total leased value of $4.5 million. However, only about eight percent of the land was actually under lease, just 128,000 acres, when Livingston bought the Catskills. He’d have to work to make his investment pay.
To spur development, Robert of Clermont built sawmills and settlements at Waghkonk, renamed Woodstock, and at Shandaken and at Pakatakan, the flat between today’s Arkville and Margaretville. He offered land for lease at favorable terms, sought settlers willing to clear the land and make it productive.
Both Robert of Clermont and Robert R., “The Judge,” died in 1775. The Catskills were left to another Robert, this one called “The Chancellor,” chief of all provincial courts. He’d divide the old Hardenbergh Patent into tracts and great lots. But first, there was a nation to build. Chancellor Robert Livingston would be right in the middle of that.