A Catskill Catalog: July 15, 2009
By Bill Birns
Mention New Kingston to residents of Kingston and receive blank stares, with mutterings of “where’s that?” But shortly after the Revolution, New Kingston offered recovery and opportunity to the people of that battered Hudson River town.
The Hudson River marked the clear dividing line between the ardent revolutionists of New England and the seemingly more temperate Middle Atlantic colonists. The British could cut-off New York and Pennsylvania from New England by gaining control of the Hudson. Divide and conquer. In addition, the Middle Atlantic was the breadbasket of the colonies, a wheat-growing region whose control could both feed the British and starve the rebels. Take the Hudson and quash the revolution.
So the officers of the British fleet, sent to put down the insurrection, anchored at New York harbor with a clear strategy in mind: conquer the Hudson Valley, control that waterway, divide the colonies, isolate New England, win a quick victory, and hang the revolutionaries. Simple.
General Washington was a Virginian, but he stationed the Continental Army he commanded in New York City right from the start. He knew where this war would be fought, and he knew the quickest way to lose the war was to lose the Hudson. While he fortified the harbor, he commissioned General George Clinton of Ulster County to fortify and protect the Hudson Highlands, upriver, midvalley.
The British plan was a beautifully simple military strategy. Forces from New York City would move up river in mass. Barry St. Leger’s troops would march in force from Fort Niagara, in the west, down the Mohawk Valley to the Hudson. General John Burgoyne’s army would use Lake Champlain to invade south from Canada. They’d all meet around Albany. Home by Christmas. Nice.
To protect the valley, General Clinton had Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton built on the highlands. A huge iron chain was forged in Sterling Forest and stretched across the river just below the river-surface to try to block British ships.
Meanwhile, the overwhelming British force at New York forced Washington out of the city and sent the infant revolutionary assembly running. First, the rebels set up shop in White Plains, then in Fishkill and Poughkeepsie, until an official state government was established and constituted in Kingston, the new state capital. As an important settlement on the river, Kingston would have been a target of British attack anyway, but as the state capital it was particularly attractive.
In October 1777, a British force of over 1,100 British soldiers and mercenaries from the German state of Hesse – Hessians – set sail in flatboats up the Hudson, burning and looting whatever they could find. General John Vaughn was their commander. On October 16, they reached Kingston.
The Brits landed at Ponckhockie, just north of the place where the Rondout Creek empties into the river. Forewarned by patriots fleeing the British from the south, Kingston’s settlers took refuge in Woodstock, Hurley, Marbletown and other inland settlements. The British overcame the vastly outnumbered defenders of the place, marched up-hill to the stockaded village, and set it aflame.
The day after the burning of Kingston, Burgoyne surrendered his army to the Americans at Saratoga. The British Hudson Valley strategy was not going to succeed. Too late, however, for Kingston.
About Kingston, the British-sympathizing New York Gazette reported the burning of “three hundred and twenty-six houses, with a barn to almost everyone of them.” Even if the Tory paper exaggerated the British success, that’s a lot of destruction.
And that is where New Kingston comes in. The newly named Chancellor of the New York State Courts was Robert Livingston, whose own home, Clermont, across the river, was likewise burned. Chancellor Livingston owned pretty much the entire Catskills, the old Hardenbergh Patent.
The Chancellor offered any 5,000 acres of unsettled land in the Patent to the burned-out citizens of Kingston. Kingston’s trustees were required to cover the cost of a survey and to select the site – not Woodstock or Shandaken or any other settled place - within three months. It was an act of enormous generosity, or an act of shrewd economic and political self-interest, or, likely, both. It also took seven years to consummate.
After all, there was a revolution to wage. Kingston’s trustees didn’t manage to send out a surveyor until 1784. Samuel Cockburn, who often worked for the Chancellor, was accompanied by a young Revolutionary war veteran, Jacob VanBenschoten, who was looking for land.
Anyone who has driven up the Margaretville Mountain Road, north from Walnut Street in Margaretville, up over the mountain to just beyond the summit, where the road turns on the hill’s shoulder, anyone who has seen that view of the New Kingston Valley will understand why Jacob VanBenschoten chose the valley he chose for the 5,000-acre settlement. Inspiring.
Used to be, that Mountain Road was called by some “Uncle Jacob’s Trail.”
Cockburn’s survey divided the valley into 50-acre lots, deeded to those Kingstonians who suffered at the hands of the British. Most sold. Some, like Jacob VanBenschoten, stayed to clear the land and make a life: build farms, stores and shops, a church or two, a community. Jacob’s descendants reside today on lands he opened 215-odd years ago.
And the stone walls that marked many of those 50-acre “settling-lots” still run through the woods and fields of New Kingston.
© William Birns