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reprinted from "Southeastern New York" by Zimm, et al.
We have followed the saga of Orange County, tracing that story back to the days when the red man roamed undisturbed in his native forest. We have seen him resenting the intrusion of the European when he sought to restrict the physical rights and freedom of action of the savage; we have noted also, with the coming of increasing numbers of white men, how the Indians gradually withdrew to more distant sections of their primeval domain, and how finally they allied themselves with forces to augment their strength. We have seen how in desperation, struggling for freedom and scope, they joined in alliances first with France, then with England, to stem the oncoming tides of aggression, and of how they themselves became the uncompromising aggressors, inflicting with terrific blows measures of retaliation upon innocent victims living in back settlements of the county.
Unless one is familiar with the precarious adventures, the hair-breadth escapes, the cruel atrocities resulting from the scalping knife of the treacherous Indian, sometimes goaded on by faithless Tories, who often aimed to surpass the red man in his conscienceless leanings to inflict pain, rapine, and even murder, one can gain but little conception of life on the fringes of civilization anterior to and during our American Revolutionary War as the early settlers of Orange County experienced them.
We have seen that the county early became a territory eagerly sought by those who wanted to control her land and assets more than any desire on their part to people it. So early as 1684, the Governor of the Province, Colonel Thomas Dongan, purchased from its original owners, the Indians, two large tracts of land comprising territory now included in three counties, Ulster, Orange, and Rockland; when this tract of land fell into the hands of Captain John Evans, some years later, to which he gave the high-sounding name of "The Lordship and Manor of Fletcherdon," to honor his friend and benefactor, Governor Fletcher, he claimed that it extended from New Paltz to Stony Point, and for thirty miles inland.
We have noted also that Captain Evans was not permitted by the English Government to retain this vast amount of territory, and that later it was divided into smaller sections with patent rights, and that with the MacGregorie migration upon the Moodna (Murderer's Creek) and his company of Presbyterian emigrants from Scotland, we have the first white settlement within the range of the present boundary of the county of Orange.
Much important local history occurred in this immediate region, not to mention one of its leading traditions: indeed, the very name of Murderer's Creek is said to be derived from the fact that an Indian massacre took place upon its borders. Near to its outlet into the Hudson a family of the name of Stacy had established itself in a log house by special permission of the local Indians with whom Stacy was on most friendly terms because he had been useful to them in a number of ways. Besides Stacy and his wife were two small children, a boy and a girl.
A warm friendship had sprung up between an old Indian, Naoman by name, who made frequent visits to the Stacy cabin. One day, in the absence of Stacy, Naoman came to the hut, lighted his long stem pipe, and sat down without uttering a word. Mrs. Stacy asked him if he were ill. He sighed, but said nothing, and soon departed. The following day he returned in the same mood; after this had been repeated several times and Stacy had been consulted by his wife, it was decided that she would ask him the reason for his strange manner, because both parties professed to be friends. Finally the story came out from him reluctantly. The Indian was the white man's enemy, and white-face women were not good in keeping secrets; if he told her it would cost him his life. But she promised to keep the secret whatever happened. The Indians were planning to kill all the white people within the section because of a grudge inspired by some grievance, and because of their mutual friendship Naoman wanted the Stacys to flee to safety, which they attempted to do, only to be overtaken on the river as they were nearing the Fishkill shore; they were brought back, and a council was held to ascertain how the Stacys came to know the plans of the Indians.
The prisoners were examined with Naoman's consent, he acting as the interpreter. Throughout the ordeal, with mounting threat that they and their children would be massacred, the Stacys true to their word would not betray their informant. Even when Naoman himself ventured to have them name the Indian who informed them of the approaching capture, not a word was spoken by either. The agony of the mother was intense as she appealingly looked up into the face of the old Indian, who gravely sat nearby smoking his pipe. A pause ensued as they waited for some sign that one or the other of the Stacys would speak. Two stalwart Indians with raised tomahawks stood above the children ready to sacrifice them, as they pleaded not to be killed. Out of the silence came the round deep tones of Naoman crying, "Stop." All eyes were now turned in his direction as he said: "White woman, thou hast kept thy word with me to the last moment. I am the traitor. I have eaten of the salt, warmed myself at the fire, shared the kindness of these Christian white people, and it was I that told them of their danger. I am an old man, my days are numbered, like a withered, leafless, branchless trunk, cut me down if you will. I am ready."
With these words he stepped down from the banks of the stream where he had sat, concealed his face with his mantle of skins, and as the tomahawk was raised fell lifeless at the feet of the white woman. This confession on the part of Naoman, however, did not save the lives of the Stacys and others; all perished by the stream which did for years, and still does, in spite of Nathaniel Parker Willis more musical appellation of Moodna, go by the name of Murderer's Creek.
As this part of the present county of Orange was the first to be inhabited, it is not strange that it should bear so prominent a part in the period of the Revolutionary War many years later, for in the neighborhood of the Moodna ran the direct road to the last encampment grounds of Washington's army, and on old Forge Hill Road, through its deep gorges and hilly paths, walked the soldiers of liberty. The John Ellison house, army headquarters of Generals Knox, Greene, and Gates, is still standing, in addition to other dwellings in the neighborhood of Colonial and Revolutionary fame. The onrushing current of the Moodna, threading its way to the Hudson below, passes many a historic site written high on the scrolls of the country's history.
It is interesting to observe that settlements did not spring up in immediately adjacent territory; for the next section of the county to be populated was to the extreme west of the Hudson in the vicinity of the Delaware River. This section to this day is replete with Indian legends, many of which have been collected and published in book form.
Scalping parties were freer to effect their diabolical design in these more restricted outposts where the inhabitants were few and far between, and when scalps were, during the war, taken to Canada and sold; it may be noted here that a person of color was generally left unharmed by the Indian. Two theories have been advanced for this: one, that the Negro was regarded by the Indian as of inferior race; the other, that no bounty was paid by the British for black scalps, thus making the barter purely a mercenary transaction.
Thus the county as a whole has its Revolutionary traditions, its thrilling tales of adventure, its sacred historic shrines, the portrayals of which have descended from parent to child down the years. Many of them are recorded in local history of the cities, towns and villages in the county, in contemporary letters and diaries and in military orderly books of the period. The county is rich in these data, but has fared less conspicuously, for example, than the valley of the Mohawk. What has come to public notice, however, makes for dramatic reading, and establishes beyond conjecture the fortitude, the simplicity, the genuineness of the men and women, pioneers in the best sense of the term, who lived and wrought that their children might be free to live and work untrammeled by the dictation of a foreign power. Freedom to govern by majority rule ultimately became their objective.
It must not be forgotten that while the Revolutionary War was in progress, in the counties of the State, and Orange and her neighbors were no exception to the rule, there were destructive forces, of no mean consequence, attempting to discourage and to thwart the patriotic motives and ardent efforts of the colonists, and that many of these insidious designs were prosecuted clandestinely, persistently, and vigorously, thus greatly adding to the difficulty of creating a republic, and on the other hand, that Loyalists, of whom there were many, were by no means always treated judiciously, nor fairly.
In the last phase of the war, upon ground which has been included in Orange County since 1788, was located the last cantonment of the Revolutionary Army. Here, from October 28, 1782, to June 23, 1783, thousands of Washington's troops were quartered. The period looms up in history as a most significant one, a period which historians have quite generally strangely neglected. General Washington, quartered in the old stone Hasbrouck house, a quarter of a mile south of the settlement of Newburgh, to which he had come on April 1,1782, accompanied by Lady Washington, taking frequent rides to the camp ground three and a half to four miles to the southwest in the town of New Windsor, was perfectly aware of the general unrest among the officers at camp concerning the failure of Congress to meet its obligations on the pay question.
He had not been two months in Newburgh before he had concrete evidence of the symptoms of unrest by the receipt of a letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola, who chanced at the time to be quartered across the river at Fishkill, to which he had responded in no uncertain terms; a letter, moreover, the receipt of which was unknown to the public in Washington's lifetime, save by those of his immediate official family, who were pledged to secrecy. This was eight months before the army came up the Hudson from the east side of the river around Verplanck's Point and created the camp upon ground in old Ulster (now Orange) County at present known as Temple Hill.
But time only increased the tension which had been lying dormant. It was now the spring of 1783. The Continental troops numbered between seven and eight thousand. Among the officers there evolved and spread a dangerous current of discontent which with some included the Commander-in-Chief as well, due to a lack of positive action by Congress, and to his (Washington's) conservative attitude. Forcing the issue, with sundry schemes held feasible, if necessary, it was at last brought out into the open by a most unmilitary procedure, that of calling a meeting of the officers at the Temple without consulting the Commander-in-Chief, then at his headquarters only a few miles away. When General Washington belatedly was advised of the situation he at once took matters into his own hands and postponed the meeting four days. It was the fifteenth day of March, 1783. At noon the officers assembled in the Temple, which had primarily been erected for religious services, but which proved to be an army center. How sweeping his influence and how supreme his leadership is attested by the result. Here, facing a doubtful audience, because of the acute circumstances, Washington by a dramatic and compelling appeal, tinctured by firm speech, and reinforced by his own intrepid and fairminded character, mastered the situation, and brought a restoration of faith and loyalty in the justice of their cause for which they together had battled their way to freedom. In that dark hour, and none for the moment seemed darker, through the capable handling by a prudent and sagacious leader, the embryonic Republic of the United States of America was spiritually reborn.
A movement was started ten years ago to make of this spot where the Temple stood and where other momentous Revolutionary events occurred, a national shrine, by erecting a replica of the Temple and in founding a school for the study of diplomacy and international law in memory of those stalwart men who fought and lived so fearlessly and died that their descendants might live and reap the fruitage of a republican form of government, the seed of which they sowed, and which we should further zealously cultivate, guard and preserve unimpaired. In this national memorial Orange County, especially, should take a leading part, for duty and achievement were crowned upon her soil, and it will be an ill day when either is forgotten.
The Revolutionary period in the county ultimately gave way to a struggle of a different nature. Where the settlers' cabins were distances apart, and bereft of channels of communication, the county began slowly at first to be united by improved roads over which stagecoaches passed carrying passengers and the mails; better roads and the construction of railroads eventually displaced the stagecoach, so that freight and produce from one place to another brought the northern and southern, the western and eastern ends of the county into closer commercial communication. We no longer have the so-called back settlements to defend nor have we contingencies to divert us from cultivating our resources. The county has steadily become a more thickly populated territory, in which business enterprises have expanded and professional standards have broadened. When we look back to the census of 1702 we find that the numerical growth of the county during the century succeeding the discovery, exclusive of MacGregorie settlement, was recorded as forty-nine men between the ages of sixteen and sixty; five men above sixty; forty married women and widows; fifty-seven male children and eighty-four maids and girls; thirteen Negroes, seven Negresses, and thirteen Negro children, or a total of 268. In 1800 the population of the new county of Orange stood at 44,175. The last census of 1940 brought the population of the county to 140,113.
But it is not to population, nor to wealth, nor to business enterprise, but to culture, to education and to spiritual values that we must look if we are to continue to be a county proud of our best traditions and worthy of our aspiring future. Thus, the wide acres of a century ago, and their forests cleared by the industry of the hardy pioneer with his generally wholesome outlook upon life, have been converted into cultivated and up-to-date farms with homes whose accessories would astonish our forefathers. Accessible to well-constructed highways, schools, churches, hospitals, movie houses and lines of travel, the farmer today with his car and radio has all the comforts of his city brother, and still maintains his independent course of living.
While only three cities are credited to Orange County, villages and towns vie with each other in the maintenance of social and economic prestige. Yet the rural communities far exceed in number the more populated centers, and to these the county looks for its productive resources. Garden products, small fruit farms and large dairies have made Orange County one of outstanding prominence in these fields of endeavor.
But what of the future? To whom can we look to lead the way? It cannot come through the channel of politics, for politics as practiced by the average politician is based upon unabashed selfishness, and citizens generally are so unconcerned or at least not willing to voice their critical sentiments in an effective manner, that the ambitious politician has only to fight it out with other ambitious politicians, with too little thought in regard to legislation which would redound wholly to the interest not only of constituents but of the people generally. I have before me, as I write, private letters written from Albany in 1820 to a public official of Orange County, and by their perusal the game of politics is about on a level where it always has been, if not in the old days having been a little lower.
No, our spirits should not be tied to the past, merely because we speak of the past as the good old days. In many respects they were not so good as the present day with all the reasons for improvement thrown in, especially in county government, where reform so sorely is needed.
Libraries in the county have continually increased the number of their volumes and readers, and today there are five historical societies in the county, which during the past few years have grown in influence, in the accumulation of relics and rare documents, not to mention property which some of them have acquired, either through purchase or by gift. Such centers speak well for the future of the county, every one of which throughout the State should have a county historian which at present the County Board of Supervisors has the right to appoint. Much of valuable data in the way of old manuscripts, letters and other source material have in the past been destroyed because no one took an interest in rescuing them and in placing them where they might be preserved in the interest of local history. But the average Board of County Supervisors appears to have little interest in such matters and less vision, and so the assembling of such data is left to individuals who appreciate the value and rich assets of such historical material, but who have not generally the means of cataloguing them.
While any number of separate histories dealing with the cities and towns of Orange County have been published, only four general histories of the county have appeared and each of these more or less has been restricted to its own narrow field of operation. For example, the first history of the county was by Samuel W. Eager, issued in 1846-47. As he himself wrote it was aimed to be only an outline of the history of Orange County. It was a most worthy attempt, however, to put on record information which otherwise undoubtedly would have been lost. But interested parties endeavoring to get their names and records to the notice of the historians are not always apt to be impartial. Mr. Eager worked largely without source material at hand, and errors naturally crept into his work. The time of this publication worked both to an advantage and to a disadvantage, the first that he was near enough to the Revolutionary days to be able to draw upon the memory of those who participated in that struggle; secondly, it worked to a disadvantage because documentary evidence was not available; and when men undertake to recall the past, age is seldom conducive to the impartation of accurate knowledge.
- The Concise History of Orange County by Rev. Corning 10"X7" with new index, 38 b&w illus 125pp $13.95
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Last revised 4/27/96 Copyright © 1995 by Richard Frisbie -- All rights reserved.