Catskill Catalog: June 24, 2009
Today, the term Yankee refers to the baseball team in the Bronx or, perhaps, to any American abroad, but once the term clearly identified New Englanders. The Red Sox Nation of the six states of New England (can you name them?) must swallow hard and recognize that they were once, eek, Yankees!
At the time of the American Revolution, settled New York was pretty much limited to the lands of the Hudson Valley from New York City to Albany. Yorkers, as they were called, were a mixed lot, often termed Dutch, although settlers who traced their ancestry to Holland were merely one part of a polyglot mix of French Huguenots, Flemish Walloons, Palatine Germans and others who spoke any of the 18 languages common to New York at the time of independence.
America’s first internationally acclaimed writer was Washington Irving, a New Yorker who invented for his state a colorful mythic history rooted in Dutch-ness. Rip Van Winkle, the literary character, was that exceedingly rare lazy Dutch farmer who’d rather drink than work, and found himself among Hendrik Hudson’s Dutch mariners playing a game of ninepins. Henry Hudson was an Englishman, but for the readers of “Rip Van Winkle,” the Dutch Hendrik captured more colorfully the exotic history of New York.
Dietrich Knickerbocker was Irving’s invented historian of New York, a literate and amiable old Dutchman who symbolized the city and state’s difference from the Yankees of New England. Ironic it is that Manhattan’s basketball team and the baseball team from the Bronx share the city as icons of New York-ness.
How did Yorkers become Yankees? As one might guess, the Catskills had something to do with it. Cheap land in the Catskills, that is.
Rip was from the Village of Catskill, but his was the old Dutch Catskill, today the hamlet of Leeds. The Village of Catskill we know today was an English invention, an extension of the old Dutch landing called Het Strand. The Strand – many still refer to the Rondout waterfront section of Kingston by that name – was a place to load and unload supplies, not a place to live. The fertile flatlands up hill and inland were more attractive homesites to the Dutch.
Not so the New England Yankees, who transformed Het Strand into Catskill, a port and commercial center developed by New England business and professional men shortly after independence. Yankees were moving west.
The Hudson River had long been the actual, authentic boundary between New England and New York. Border disputes were common among New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut right into the 1800s, the lands east of the river claimed by each. Drive east from the Hudson and you pass into Massachusetts and Connecticut without any natural border marking the change. You’ve already crossed the natural border: the Hudson!
The City of Hudson, on the east bank of the river, was always a Yankee town, settled by whalers from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In the first half of the 19th century, Hudson was home to a whaling fleet second only to the New England whalers of New Bedford and those Massachusetts islands.
The plentiful empty lands west of the river in the old Hardenbergh Patent were mighty tempting to those east-bank Yankees, and, soon after independence, sawmills and iron foundries, barrel-stave mills and bell factories sprang up in the northern Catskills, the products of Yankee ingenuity and Yankee pluck.
The incursion from Hudson was just the beginning. New York State historians refer to the years between 1790 and 1820 as “The Yankee Invasion of New York,” and nowhere was that invasion more transformative than in the Catskills.
Settlements like Durham, Windham, and Westkill were like model New England hamlets, complete with Presbyterian Church, library, meeting house, and whipping stocks.
The population of New York State bloomed from 340,120 in 1790 to 1,372,812 in 1820. A huge birth rate – most families had more than seven children – was partially responsible, as was a tremendous influx of settlers who migrated from New England.
Englishman William Cobbett met an emigrant from New England in 1818. “He has migrated,” Cobbett wrote. “His reasons are these; he has five sons, the eldest 19 years of age, and several daughters. Connecticut is thickly settled. He has not the means to buy farms for all the sons there.” Cheap land was the answer.
The Catskills abounded in cheap land, and Yankees flocked into the mountains. Today, the Catskills still boast our share of Van Luevens and Van Benschotens and Dutchers, but we have many more Sanfords and Fairbairns and Millers. Woodstock and Roxbury, Shandaken and Shokan still have Reformed Churches, descended from the Dutch Reformed, but many more Presbyterian and Methodist churches grace our towns.
Many Catskill Mountain towns, such as Stamford, Colchester and Andes, were founded by Connecticut migrants, even, in the case of Stamford, named after the town back home.
And while the New York Yankees are world famous, no one speaks of Yorkers any more.
Perhaps, we should bring back the term.