A Catskill Catalog: June 18, 2008
I confess to a weak spot for the Livingstons. Perhaps it’s my fondness for New Kingston, the historic little hamlet on the upper Plattekill, founded on land that Chancellor Robert Livingston donated to the victims of the British burning of Kingston in the Revolutionary War. It’s a great story.
In October 1777, British forces under General John Vaughn sailed up the Hudson from New York in a flotilla of flatboats carrying over 1,100 British and Hessian soldiers. The British aimed to take control of the strategic Hudson Valley. Knowing the force was coming, the people of Kingston had plenty of time to prepare, retreating to the safety of higher ground, taking with them their livestock and most treasured possessions.
The Kingston colonials could not take their houses, of course, and when the British landed at Kingston Point on October 16, the village was theirs for the sacking. Colonial newspapers reported the British burned some 326 houses and the barns on the grounds of each of them. Grain, gunpowder, and supplies including 12,000 barrels of flour were destroyed. The settlement was burned to the ground.
The fourth Robert Livingston had recently inherited the lands of his father, lands that included nearly all the old Hardenburgh Patent, the Catskills from about Woodstock to the West Branch of the Delaware; 2,000,000 acres of Livingston land. Robert was a New York delegate to the Continental Congress and a member of the committee appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Livingston later became the Chancellor of New York State’s new judicial system, and administered the first Presidential oath of office to George Washington in New York City in 1788. A regular founding father, he was.
He was also, I think, a generous guy. After the British attack, the Chancellor offered the burned-out residents of Kingston any 5,000 acres of unsettled land in his vast domain west of the Hudson on which to establish a new community. The war and instability on the frontier kept the Kingstonians from acting on his offer right away. In 1784, Revolutionary War veteran Jacob Van Benschoten and a surveyor named Cockburn made their way up the Esopus Valley, over Highmount to the East Branch, then followed the quick running Plattekill up to the point where its source-streams merge. There, they laid out 100 50-acre lots. Some of the original stone wall lot-boundaries are still there.
Those lots were then distributed, free of charge minus the cost of the survey, to 100 residents of Kingston who were burned out. Many held on to their titles to the land only to sell them, but some migrated to the mountains to establish New Kingston, a hamlet now over 200 years old, which has recently gained historic district recognition. Some descendants of original settlers still reside there.
Chancellor Livingston was the son of Judge Robert R. Livingston and his remarkable wife Margaret Beekman, a woman of Abigail Adams-type strength and resiliency, whose own house was burned to the ground by the British. Besides the Chancellor, her 10 children included her eldest, Janet, the widow of General Richard Montgomery, hero of the Siege of Quebec, killed on the last night of 1775 leading the patriot attack on that British fortress city. Her son Edward was a founder of Louisiana, Congressman, and Minister to France. Her daughter Alida’s husband was a Secretary of War, and her daughter Gertrude’s husband a Governor of New York. All this success and power in one generation was in addition to that of the chancellor.
Now, it turns out, historians are increasingly turning their attention to an historically overlooked member of that remarkable generation of Livingstons. Catherine Livingston was 41 years old when she was finally able to overcome family opposition to marry Freeborn Garretson, a brilliant, but socially unacceptable, anti-slavery Methodist circuit-riding preacher who was decidedly not the kind of man Livingston women generally married. Catherine had earlier undergone a spiritual awakening through the Methodist approach to Christianity, an approach that stressed personal sanctification and growth toward Christian perfection beyond sin. Her conversion was not unusual for the time, but it was strikingly unusual for an aristocratic high church Episcopalian Livingston. Her family did not approve!
Rachel Cope, a graduate student at Syracuse University, recently presented a paper “Conversion as Process: Catherine Livingston Garretson’s Search for Sanctification” at the 29th Conference on New York State History in Saratoga Springs. It seems Catherine Garretson kept a Spiritual Journal that can be compared to the mystical writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, a 2,000-page compendium of spiritual searching, dreams, visions, memoir, prayer,
evangelization and reflections that follows the classical pattern of the mystical tradition: purgation, illumination, the dark night of the soul, and mystical union with the divine. This spiritual journal is gaining a lot of academic interest. A Drew University doctoral dissertation is in the works.
I do have a weak spot for the Livingstons. Imagine, a genuine American mystic in our own historic back yard.