A Catskill Catalog: July 8, 2009
by Bill Birns
July 4, 1776 several farms sat along the banks of the upper Pepacton, as the East Branch of the Delaware was then called. Farmers named DuMond and Von Waggoner, Hendricks and Kittle, Slyter, Green, Yaple and Carpenter made up a little outpost of settlement on the frontier. Similar groupings of farms sat in the Shandaken Mountains along the upper Esopus Creek.
Most of the land along those streams belonged to Robert Livingston, who himself lived across the Hudson at his Clermont Estate, but, that July, had been, all summer, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In fact, on the previous June 11, Mr. Livingston had been appointed to a five-member committee to draw up a statement asserting American separation from the British Empire, clearly a bold and radical Congressional step.
The 13 colonies had been in open insurrection — a civil war, to that point — since the spring of the year before. A Declaration of Independence would change the terms of the conflict.
Livingston and his fellow committee members, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, agreed to work from a draft prepared by fifth member, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. On June 28, the committee submitted its proposed Declaration to Congress. Congress, as Congresses often do, voted to table the motion.
The farmers on the Pepacton and along the Esopus must have known very little of these goings on. I don’t think there was any regular mail service up into the mountains until after the revolution and the establishment of the new United States. Colonel John Grant is generally credited with being the first postmaster in these parts, but he was closer to 1800 than to 1776. And what newspaper would have regularly penetrated the mountain wilderness to carry the Congressional news to the pioneers?
The proposed Declaration was debated extensively among the representatives of the 13 separate and distinct colonial governments, assembled in what is today called Independence Hall in Philadelphia. John Hancock of Massachusetts presided. Declaring independence would change the very definition of the struggle of General Washington’s vastly outnumbered Continental Army, presently camped, that hot July, warily, in and around Manhattan. The fight would be transformed from a dispute among countrymen over taxes to the defense, from foreign conquest, of home and freedom.
On July 2 and 3, Congress debated. On July 4, Congress adopted. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
How those words resound today in places like Tehran, Pyongyang and Darfur.
As soon as Congress adopted the Declaration, a hand-written copy was sent down the street to the print shop of John Dunlap, who had previously secured a lucrative printing contract with Congress. Dunlop printed 150 to 200 single-page broadsides, the Dunlop Broadside, distributed by presiding officer Hancock to publicize the action of Congress.
On July 8, John Nixon read one of those broadsides aloud to the crowd outside Independence Hall. The next day General Washington had his officers assemble their units in New York to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the same day the New York Provincial Congress, pretty much hiding out from the Brits in White Plains, endorsed the Declaration.
The farmers along the rivers of the Catskills were, I’ll bet, ignorant of these occurrences. When did the Declaration come to them?
The Declaration of Independence began to get some circulation in the weeks after July 4. It had been published almost immediately in The Pennsylvania Evening Post, a four-time-a-week Philadelphia newspaper and in the New York Packet, a waterfront weekly.
John Holt, a former mayor of Williamsburg, Virginia, who had moved to Manhattan, published in New York a widely circulated broadside printing of the Declaration. Copies passed throughout the colony. Later Holt fled the city, continuing to publish a revolutionary newspaper as he moved, in Fishkill, Poughkeepsie, Esopus and Kingston.
At some point, perhaps up-river on the Delaware from Philadelphia, and up-river from Kingston on the Esopus, the Declaration of Independence came to our Catskill Mountain pioneers.
But the past is never simple when it is the present. The farmers on the upper Delaware and on the Esopus had to be concerned with what their Indian neighbors would do in relation to the idea of American independence. While many patriots emerged from these parts, others remained loyal to the British, often in response to the military power of the English-allied Iroquois nations to their immediate west.
Similarly, the identification with the Declaration of the fabulously wealthy landlord, Robert Livingston dynasty had, for too long, considered the family manor. One can understand Tories.
But, by the end of the following year, the struggle to turn that Declaration of Independence into a fact on the ground, had affected every settler, every family, every farm on the banks of our Catskill Mountain rivers, no matter where their sympathies lay. © William Birns