A Catskill Catalog: June 11, 2008

A county is an administrative subdivision of a sovereign jurisdiction. The theoretically sovereign state of New York has 62 of them. Six can lay claim to parts of the Catskills; Ulster, Greene, Delaware, Sullivan, Schoharie, Albany. Give or take Albany.
The English divided the newly established Province of New York into 12 counties on November 1, 1683, almost 20 years after their nearly bloodless conquest of the former Dutch territory of New Netherland. It was early in the learning curve for English colonial administration.
Albany County comprised most of western and northern New York. The east side of the Hudson was organized into Westchester and Duchess counties; the west side of the river into Orange and Ulster. Living in an overseas outpost, the great majority of New Yorkers resided within 10 miles of tidal waters – sea, sound, bay or the tidal estuary Hudson.
A couple of large tracts of land were outside the county sub-divisions. All of present-day Columbia County was the manor lands of Robert Livingston, and today’s Rensselaer County contains much of the old Patroonship of that family name.
In the years just after the settlement of the independence question, New York enjoyed a land boom that propelled the rapid growth of the state population and economy. By 1830, the Empire State led the nation in population, domestic production, transportation, manufacturing, banking, and commerce. The state population grew from 340,000 in the first national census, 1790, to almost 2,000,000 in 1830.
Cheap, abundant land was the early American equivalent to the cheap, abundant oil of more recent days. It was the readily available energy that activated all economic activity. Settle a family on a piece of land and you’ve got a customer for tools, seed, milling, and finance, a producer who will invariably create something of value with which to pay. It was the sale that kept on selling.
In May 1786, William Cooper put up for sale 40,000 acres west of the Catskills in the upper Susquehanna Valley. He sold out in 16 days! In Cooper’s own words, the buyers were of “the poorest order of men.” He got rich providing them with mills and stores, a bank and provisions. His son, James Fennimore Cooper, wrote the books that gave their Leatherstocking District its name.
Of course, new counties were established, as new lands were settled and new landholders found their mutual interest. These community activists would petition the state legislature to form a new county. It only took five years for Cooper’s “poorest order” to successfully petition the formation of their own county: Otsego.
Settlers on the upper Delaware were next. In 1797, Ulster County State Assemblyman Ebenezer Foote of Delhi and Otsego County Assemblyman John Burr of Harpersfield led the fight to establish Delaware County from parts of their two counties. The petitioners to the state included many with longtime mountain family names like Griffin, Beardsley, Harper, Parsons, Fuller, and Ingalls. A similar petition process led to the formation of Greene County three years later.
Tim Duerden of Franklin has written a new narrative History of Delaware County, New York: A Catskill Land and Its People 1797-2007, published by Purple Mountain Press of Fleischmanns. Tim is Director of the Delaware County Historical Association in Delhi. The DCHA operates the Frisbee House Museum in the tavern house where the first county business was conducted.
Tim looks at the history of Delaware County through the prism of today’s concern with land use, natural resources, and conflict among those with competing land use visions. The book is a general history, an overview, lavishly illustrated in the high quality, visually pleasing manner that has become the hallmark of Purple Mountain Press.
The publisher touts the new history as “the first comprehensive history of Delaware County since 1949.” That was the year of publication of John D. Monroe’s Chapters in the History of Delaware County, an increasingly difficult book to find. If you have one, keep it.
I am not sure I have ever even seen an 1898 Delaware County New York, by David Murray. They seem very rare. Not to mention an 1856 Jay Gould History of Delaware County and Border Wars of New York. You need to go to a fancy auction house for one of those.
Years ago, happily, I bought a 1976 reprint of W.W. Munsell’s 1880 History of Delaware County. It’s a great source. Twenty years ago Purple Mountain Press published Two Stones for Every Dirt: The Story of Delaware County, New York, also a collaboration with the Delaware County Historical Association. The publisher does not qualify that one as a comprehensive history because it is organized thematically rather than chronologically.
Separated by 20 years but united in subject, the “Story” and the “History” make a nice two volume companion set on Delaware County from a Delaware County publisher who has set the standard for quality New York State Regional Books for 34 years.