A Catskill Catalog: November 16, 2011

I remember thinking this guy Halcott must have been some fellow, having two local towns named after him. Turns out Halcott wasn’t one guy at all. He was three!

John Halcott started it all, back in 1776, when he ran away to join King George’s army to put down the rebellion in the colonies. The story is told that he was an Eton lad, student at a prestigious English school, son of, what-they-called-in-those-days, a good family. His people were said to be descended from a knight in the Court of King James, back in the early 1600s, and distinguished, since that time, in military affairs.

John was one of 21 children. His brothers and sisters were 10 sets of twins. No wonder John turned out to be such a cool-headed cat!

His father did not want John to volunteer for colonial service. John did not want to obey his father. The 18-year-old ended up on a ship, sailing to America. The father cut him out of his will.
Young John was an apt soldier, a good organizer. He rose to the rank of brigade quartermaster, the officer responsible for securing provisions for the troops. His brigade was stationed in British-occupied New York City. Keeping them well supplied was a big job.

Here’s where the story takes an American turn. Maybe John Halcott read Thomas Paine’s liberty-rallying pamphlet Common Sense. Maybe a copy of the Declaration of Independence came the quartermaster’s way, and “We hold these truths to be self-evident” was powerfully self-evident to John. Whatever happened, John Halcott “became convinced he was fighting on the wrong side.”

Those words come from a 1931 Halcott family history. The story goes that John Halcott swam the Spuyten Duyvil, the creek below today’s Henry Hudson Bridge, the swirling waters the Dutch named devil’s spout, waters that separate Manhattan from the Bronx. He swam away from British-occupied Manhattan to the mainland, where he volunteered his service in General Washington’s army.
The story gets even better. John Halcott swam the Spuyten Duyvil with his British officer’s sword clutched in his teeth!

John Halcott’s great-great grandson, Hilton Kelly, showed me a sword that has been passed down, in his family, from the time of his first American ancestors. Hilt also lent me that 80-year-old Halcott family history.

The sword is known as Matthew Halcott’s sword because it has been documented back to John Halcott’s second son, who used it, in the early 1800s, during his service in the New York State Militia. That it is the same sword John Halcott clutched in his teeth is family tradition. The sword and the stories have been passed down through the generations. Matthew Halcott’s sword is engraved parta tueri, Latin for to protect.

That sword did protect American independence. After the revolution, John Halcott enjoyed the fruits of his new country, marrying, teaching school, marrying again when he was widowed young, and settling, in 1800 or so, in a corner of Greene County, in the old Hardenbergh Patent, where he cut out a farm. He and his wife, Letitia Jenkins, had 10 children.

In 1831, John Halcott died in his little corner of Greene County. His grave is marked in a copse of trees, just beyond West Settlement Road, behind a field, on the right-hand side of the Halcott Road, Greene County Route 3.

His son, Matthew Halcott, had already established a farm in the Denver Valley, and become “a man of parts” in the area, elected to various public offices, including a term, in 1830, in the New York State Assembly. In 1836, he applied for a post office in the general store he then ran, along the upper Delaware. Custom had it that post offices took the name of the storekeeper whose place served the public, so his hamlet became Halcottsville, named not so much in his honor as out of public convenience.

Not so Halcott Center. The valley on the back side of Halcott, Vly, and Bearpen mountains had long been a part of the Town Of Lexington, when, in 1850, it was split off, by the county, to form a new town. George Washington Halcott, youngest son of John and brother of Matthew, was “a man of parts” himself, elected, in 1850, sheriff of Greene County.

An early steamboat captain, George Washington Halcott had business interests in both Lexington and Catskill and was well liked and respected throughout Greene County. When it came time to give the newly created valley town a name, the county chose to honor this most prominent man, who had, of course, grown up in the valley. The Town of Halcott was born.

The Hamlet of Halcottsville and the Town of Halcott: two scenes, three leading men. Right here in the Catskills.