A Catskill Catalog: March 17, 2010
The capital of American colonial history has to be Williamsburg, Va. Colonial Williamsburg recreates that city, as closely as possible, to what it was like just before independence. Spend a couple of days in Williamsburg and you are in colonial Virginia.
Getting a feel for the colonial history of the Catskill Region is not nearly as easy, although a hike through the Forever Wild lands of the forest preserve probably offers the most accurate look of our mountains during colonial times. This was wilderness, uncharted land, populated sparsely, and only seasonally, by hunting and gathering bands of natives: Mohican Esopus, Lanni Lanape, Tuscarora, Mohawk.
In fact, in colonial times, the very idea of the Catskill Mountains would not have been in our collective minds. Rather, our thinking would have centered on the rivers, the natural passageways into the wilderness, the avenues of trade and travel, the promised roads to wealth and civilization-planting.
The main river in this part of the world is the North River, the one Henry Hudson sailed into in 1609, the river that meets the Atlantic in one of the great natural harbors in the known world: the Hudson River. Also important is the Fish River, the one that flows west and south from the other side of the great divide in the mountains, the river named for Lord De La Warr: the Delaware. The Schoharie Creek empties into the Mohawk to our north.
The Dutch staked their claim to New Netherland, first, to exploit the land for fur, a new source of wealth. The New Netherland Company was established to conduct the fur trade. The new world meant new money. The Dutch figured: let’s go get some!
In 1621, to compete more aggressively, the Netherlands established the West India Company, a national monopoly in the conduct of all overseas trade. The Netherlands was an underdog republic, who’d rebelled, for 80 years, against absolutist Hapsburg kings. A national monopoly, the Dutch reasoned, could compete with world powers – England, France, Spain, Portugal – in the battle for world trade.
And in the world battle of ideas. In 17th Century Europe, the crucial ideas were religious ideas, centering on the competing claims of freedom and authority, the individual and the community. In European reformation-era politics, the Dutch were aggressively Protestant.
The 1624 establishment of the first permanent Dutch colony, New Amsterdam, on Manhattan Island, was really a business decision. The West India Company needed settlers to “protect and provision” its fur trade. Thirty families answered the call.
They were not Dutch. They were Walloon, French speakers, descendants of French Protestants who had escaped religious persecution in 16th Century France. They’d lived in the Netherlands awhile. Now, they’d seek new lives in the New World.
The Dutch colony grew rapidly and multi-ethnically. By the 1650s, three-quarters of the newly arriving European settlers were not Dutch. Speakers of German, French, English and the Scandinavian languages rivaled speakers of Dutch on the streets of New Amsterdam.
Africans arrived early in the colony, as early as 1626. The first enslaved Africans were company slaves, required to work the company-owned farms north of New Amsterdam Village. Unfortunately, the Dutch participated in the slave trade, and enslaved persons were about 20 percent of the population in New Netherlands.
In 1654, 23 Dutch Jews arrived, seeking refuge from a failed Dutch colony in Brazil. An historic statement of tolerance and ethical practice was the principled stand of the West India Company’s Board of Directors in rejecting mob-incited calls to deport the Jewish refugees. It would be “unreasonable and unfair” to further burden those who had failed in Brazil, “because of the large amount of capital they have invested in shares of this company.”
Something to be said for reasonable Dutch practicality.
The Catskills were rich in beaver, and beaver hats were in fashion, and the more beaver one could get out of the wilderness, the richer one could get, so the first colonials to penetrate the Catskills were New Netherland traders and the enslaved trappers working for them. They penetrated the mountains on foot from the Dutch settlements that grew-up on the west bank of the Hudson in the 1640s and 1650s.
Dutch settlements grew up where the Catskill Creek meets the Hudson, where the Esopus Creek meets the Hudson, and where the Rondout Creek meets the Hudson. From these early Dutch beginnings in Catskill, Saugerties and Kingston, our Catskill colonial history springs.
So, maybe the stockade area in Kingston, and the oldest parts of Saugerties, Catskill and Leeds are our Colonial Williamsburg, that and the forest preserve.