Early Shawangunk History

  Before European settlement, this area was populated by the Munsee branch of the Lenape (Delaware) people, who occupied the upper Delaware Valley, the adjacent Catskill foothills, and most of what is now the state of New York south of the Catskills, as well as northern New Jersey (Kraft 2001).

  The Waronawanka (Waranawankong), known to history as the Esopus Indians, were the Munsee tribe present in the region of the Shawangunk Grasslands Refuge. They inhabited the Rondout-Wallkill Valleys/Shawangunk Mountain region southward to their boundary with the Murderer’s Kill Indians (Moodna Creek, near Cornwall) and southwestward along the Shawangunks to their border with the Minisink tribe, near where present Interstate 84 crosses the ridge in western Orange County (Fried 2005).

  The Esopus grew maize and a few other crops, in addition to hunting, fishing and gathering. Their first contact with Europeans was with Henry Hudson in1609. Fur trading by the Dutch took place along the Hudson River during the years that followed, and the first permanent settlers arrived at Fort Orange (Albany) and New Amsterdam (Manhattan) in the mid-1620s. The mouth of the Rondout Creek was recognized very early as a good place to transfer goods between large sailing vessels and smaller boats, since the river was relatively shallow above the point.

In 1652-53, settlers moved south from the Fort Orange area to where a bend in the Esopus Creek brings it within three miles of the Rondout’s mouth. Thus began the Dutch settlement known as Esopus or Groote Esopus (also “Wildwyck”) and later as Kingston. The settlers farmed the Esopus flood plain using the Rondout as their harbor. Disputes and incidents of violence soon erupted, culminating in two wars, in 1659-60 and 1663-64 (Fried 1975).

 A number of Indian tribes served as mediators between the Esopus and the Dutch during the Esopus Wars, including not only nearby tribes such as the Mohicans and Wappingers, but also the Mohawks, Senecas and Hackensack Indians, whose proximity to the major Dutch settlements at Fort Orange and New Amsterdam made them useful to both sides (Fried 1975). In 1664, a peace treaty ended the final conflict with the now impoverished Esopus Indians. Later the same year, the Dutch lost their North American colonies to the English. By1684, the Esopus tribe had sold most of their ancestral lands to the colonies, though many Indians continued living on portions of the land until settlers actually took possession during succeeding decades.

  The Lenape population had been ravaged not only by war, but by European diseases for which they had no natural immunity. The last known sale of land by an Esopus Indian in Ulster County occurred in 1770 (Fried 2005). The refuge itself lies close to two sites of great historic interest; only a mile to the west, the Esopus tribe had a major village on the Shawangunk Kill that was the scene of a dramatic battle and rescue of prisoners by Dutch forces in 1663,during the Second Esopus War.


  Bruyn and her three young children became the first people of European ancestry to settle on the Shawangunk Kill, sometime between 1682 and 1686. Bruyn’s deed from the Esopus Indians in 1682 contains the earliest reference to the name Shawangunk (Fried 2005).

  In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, settlement spread rapidly through the valleys of the Wallkill and Shawangunk Kill. During the French and Indian War, there were some Munsee raids on European settlements west of the Wallkill River. Some residents moved east, back toward the Hudson, and four blockhouses were built by the English on the Delaware River (Snell 188 and Headley 1908 in Maymon et al. 2002).

  During the French and Indian War, the western Delaware, including some Munsee, sided with the French. Peace settlements resulted in their subjugation to the Iroquois and Iroquois sale of their land to Europeans. The Munsee moved west, first to Ohio, then Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada. Federally recognized tribes which may contain Munsee descendants are:
■ Stockbridge-Munsee Community of Wisconsin
■ Delaware Tribe of Indians

  Henry Hudson’s voyage of 1609 had occurred during the terminal stage of the Late Woodland period of Lenape culture. The dispersed, semi-permanent human landscape that Hudson saw drastically changed in the next three centuries through warfare, permanent nucleated settlement, agriculture, industry, mining, transportation and the damming of the Hudson and its tributaries.

  From 1790 to 1816, farming on moderate sized tracts produced wheat and other small grains, cheese, butter, wool, liquor, livestock, and maple syrup.

  About 1800, road construction improved. One of the greatest impacts on the landscape of the Wallkill River Valley took place in 1804: the first attempt to drain the river by ditching its banks. Three years later, the attempt to remove limestone from the riverbed began. Roughly two decades later, the Cheechunk Canal was built to drain the upstream portion of the Wallkill, because valley farmers wanted to create a landscape more suitable for agriculture from the unproductive, swampy area known as the “Drowned lands.” Although these projects made available some of the most productive agricultural lands in New York State, the stagnant waters that resulted created health risks.

  Farther downstream, major dams on the river at Montgomery, Walden and Wallkill created waterpower for the local industry. When the river is very low, evidence of an old wooden dam is still visible at Galeville, just beyond the east boundary of the refuge. This dam was reportedly destroyed by ice in 1883.

  An1880 account indicates the hamlet of Galeville contained “a Methodist church, a hotel, a school-house, a grist-mill, a saw-mill, an axe-helve and spoke-factory, a wagon and blacksmith shop,” while five years earlier, a map had shown a “store & P.O.” as well (Sylvester 1880; Beers 1875).

  On the Shawangunk  a dam was built at Tuthilltown, four miles north of the refuge, where a historic eighteenth century mill still operates today using waterpower. Sheep raising and wool manufacturing become important during the early decades of the nineteenth century (Maymon et al. 2002).

  After the Civil War, the Wallkill Valley Railroad changed not only the landscape and settlement patterns but also agricultural practices of the region. From 1868 to 1872, the new railway was laid down along the valley to Kingston from Montgomery in Orange County, where it linked to the Erie Railway and thus to the great markets of the New York metropolitan area (Mabee1995). This spurred the livestock and, particularly, the dairy industry. The townships of Shawangunk and Gardiner became a center for dairy farming, a way of life that remained dominant well into the second half of the twentieth century.

  Meanwhile, population and commerce gravitated to locations along the rail corridor; the hamlet of Gardiner sprang up where only fields had existed, and Wallkill increased significantly in size and importance. Older mill-hamlets such as Tuthilltown and Galeville now began their decline. Finally, the automobile played a vital role in development patterns, stimulating the construction of hard-surfaced roads in the valley. With vastly enhanced mobility, commercial growth became concentrated in regional population centers such as New Paltz and Walden and, especially, Newburgh, Kingston, Poughkeepsie and Middletown, while many of the smaller hamlets lost most if not all of their places of business.


new counter View My Stats