All posts by New York State Parks

Growing the Future in Gilded Age Greenhouses

State Parks contain a diversity of habitats, from forest and fields, to shrub swamp, marshes and streams. All these landscapes support a wide variety of native plants.

As part of efforts at Parks to restore land and protect biodiversity, it is important to have the right plants for the right habitats in order to support healthy ecological function, provide critical habitat for wildlife and reduce the threat from invasive species.

Such projects require a source of plants that are native to the area. Since it can be difficult to find such plants commercially, the Plant Materials Program was started at Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in 2016.

This program was created by the Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team, which was working at Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Ontario County, to restore a grassland habitat critical for endangered birds. And the job called for 200 different species of native plants.

Since then, such plants have been grown in the Sonnenberg’s historic greenhouses in Canandaigua, at the north end of its namesake lake in the Finger Lakes region, to cover parks projects in the eastern part of New York. Many of the Sonnenberg greenhouses had been vacant for years, so this was a perfect match for the facility.

Seedings for native plants, grown from seeds hand-collected in the field by State Parks staffers at the Plant Materials Program, fill the greenhouses at Sonnenberg.

Plant Materials Program Coordinator Brigitte Wierzbicki, Lead Technician David Rutherford and technician Elizabeth Padgett, supported by seasonal staff, partners, and interns, run the program. To fill orders, they identify native species in the field, sustainably collect seeds, propagate those seeds in the greenhouses, and deliver plants back to project sites.

Now in its fourth year, the Ganondagan project aims to recreate the oak savanna grasslands found there in the 1600’s, when the land was managed by the Onöndawá’ga (Seneca) people. This last season, the Plant Materials Program provided more than 5,000 plants towards this project, and over 100 pounds of hand-collected seed have been sown on site.

Currently, the Plant Materials Program provides for environmental stewardship projects across six State Park regions of the state, from the Finger Lakes Region and eastward to the Taconic Region. The program also works with Parks Western District Nursery and its Native Landscape Resource Center, managed by Kevin McNallie at Knox Farm State Park in Erie County, which provides native plantings for the western regions of the state.

Additional guidance on plant suitability for specific habitats or sites is provided by NY Natural Heritage Program.

Why Native Plants?

A wealth of literature points to native plants and species diversity as critical factors for successful restoration. Native plantings are better able to compete against invasive species than non-native plants. Planting more native species also increases both plant and animal diversity. Ensuring that plants are not only native, but regionally appropriate and genetically diverse increases the likelihood that the plantings will be successful and contribute to their local ecosystem.

Plant Materials Program staff search for wild, naturally-occurring populations for each project within the same ecoregion. Ecoregions are zones defined by their plants, soil, geography, geology, climate, and more. Plants that live in the same ecoregion have adaptations that help each species survive in those precise conditions, so seed has the best chance of survival if it is replanted within that zone.

New York State is split into 42 different ecoregions, with each region warranting a different seed collection so that seed is often not shared across projects. In the Sonnenberg greenhouses, plants are not allowed to hybridize (or cross-pollinate) with plants from other regions. Preserving the plant genetics of each ecoregion is important to maintain each unique habitat.

Science of Collecting Native Seeds

Seed collection involves more than just taking a seed from a plant. Our collectors ensure collections aren’t harming the population. Only a small fraction of seed is taken from each plant, so that enough seed remains to support that population, and to serve as food for insects and other animals.

Populations of a plant must be large enough to support seed collection. Areas are monitored before and after collection, and they are not collected from again for multiple years. The conservation of intact ecosystems is more effective than planting and restoring ecosystems, so it is important that seeds are collected in a way that protects existing plant populations.

Measures are also taken to capture genetic diversity, including collecting multiple times a season and using field techniques to collect evenly or randomly across a population. Collectors avoid selecting for specific traits, as that can reduce a population’s ability to adapt, and can in turn negatively impact other populations.

Native Plants Help an Endangered Butterfly

In the Capital Region, the Plant Materials Program collects wildflower seed to support Parks Stewardship staff in restoring rare butterfly habitat. Saratoga Spa State Park is home to the state and federally-endangered, and globally-rare Karner blue butterfly. This small butterfly lives in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and during its caterpillar stage, it feeds on only one wildflower: the blue lupine (Lupinus perennis).

Blue Lupine. (Photo Credit- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Karner blue butterfly on lupine. (Photo credit- C. Voight)

Picking seeds from the right lupine plants is extremely important, as the chemical makeup of lupine has been shown to vary across the range of the species. Introducing a new strain of lupine might be harmful or even toxic for the butterflies. For example, the same species of lupine growing in another state could be different enough from the ones growing at Saratoga Spa State Park that, if planted there, could be toxic to the Karner blue butterflies living in the park.

A 2015 study found that survival and development of the Karner blue was linked to which lupines caterpillars had fed upon. Expanding lupine at Saratoga Spa through local seed is the safest option to protect the unique genetics of both the butterflies and lupine.

New Life for Sonnenberg’s Historic Greenhouses

Each spring, the Plant Materials Program grows a new cycle of plants in Sonnenberg’s historic Lord & Burnham greenhouses. These are greenhouses which date back to the Gilded Age of the early 1900s and reflect the botanical passions of the home’s original residents, Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson, two prominent philanthropists.

The historic greenhouse complex at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park. (Photo Credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion)
One of the greenhouses that is currently under restoration. A not-for-profit group that manages the site is fundraising to help support such work. (Photo credit- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion).

At the time of construction between 1903 and 1915, the greenhouses at Sonnenberg reflected state-of-the-art technology. Only a handful of other such Lord & Burnham structures survive today, with some major examples found at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx, The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh.

The federal government acquired the Sonnenberg grounds in 1931 and passed it to a not-for-profit preservation organization in 1972. State Parks bought the property in 2005, while the not-for-profit group continues to manage it and raise funds to support the restoration of these historically-significant greenhouses.

This 50-acre estate and its greenhouses, gardens, and Queen Anne-style mansion are all open to the public from May through October. A portion of the greenhouses interprets the legacy of the site, including a palm house, orchid house, and cactus house.

Patrons can tour the greenhouses utilized by the Plant Materials Program and learn about the thousands of plants grown for restoration of native ecosystems. Housing the program at Sonnenberg expands the interpretative value for park visitors and supports the restoration of these historic structures.

During this long winter, know that the next generation of native plants for New York State Parks projects is being nurtured in a historic greenhouse complex that dates to the Gilded Age, and come spring, will be ready to preserve and protect some of our most precious places.

Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in winter. The site is open May 1 to Oct. 31 each year.

Post by Brigitte Wierzbicki, Plant Materials Program Coordinator

Cover photo by Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Site


Consider Native Species When Planting At Home

  •  Check if you have natives already coming up in your garden or yard. It is likely that you already have some native plants that are providing habitat, and these will be best adapted to your local ecosystem. Use indentification resources to see what is from NY or New England. Apps like iNaturalist, online guides like GoBotany, or field guides like Newcomb’s (Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb) are great resources for getting started.

  • Native Plantfinder is a great resource to choose which plants are native to your zip code! It also ranks plants based on the number of native butterflies and moths that can use the plants—meaning you will be bringing in more wildlife into your garden including pollinators and birds. It is still in development and only a small fraction of these will be available commercially, so double check your favorites with what’s available.
  • Use the New York Flora Atlas to ensure the plant you’re interested in is native to the state. Even better if it’s native to the county you’re planting in!
  • Utilize the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Saratoga Tree Nursery. The 2020 Seedling Sale is currently ongoing and is an affordable way to purchase native plants and support environmental conservation work in the state.
  • Check out the Native Plant Nursery Directory to find your local native plant nursery. Request that your local garden center carries native plants, and ideally, ones that are from New York. Often the native species in nurseries are sourced from outside of New York, or even the southern U.S. These won’t be as well adapted to New York.
  • Avoid cultivars of native species. You may find some natives in nurseries with different names signifying they have been bred for different colors or flower shapes. These changes can reduce the ecosystem function of the plants, or even populations beyond your garden if they are able to breed. Our native species evolved with the native pollinators, and changes can make the plants completely unusable for native pollinators.
  • Do not collect from the wild for your garden. Taking from the wild can be more damaging to the ecosystem than the benefit that it may bring to your garden. Collecting from the wild is also often illegal. Many factors need to be considered for safe harvests, and many of our plant populations are experiencing declines due to development, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, deer overabundance, climate change, and more. It can be hard to know if the seeds you’re taking will damage the population or remove a critical food source, so don’t take the risk!

References

Bakker, J.D. & Wilson, S.D. (2004) Using ecological restoration to constrain biological invasion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41, 1058–1064.

Fargione, J.E. & Tilman, D. (2005) Diversity decreases invasion via both sampling and complementarity effects. Ecology Letters, 8, 604–611.

Handel, K. (2015) Testing local adaptation of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) to its single host plant the wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). (Electronic Thesis or Dissertation).

Hereford J. 2009. A quantitative survey of local adaptation and fitness trade-offs. American Naturalist 173:579-588.

Johnson R, Stritch L, Olwell P, Lambert S, Horning ME, Cronn R. 2010. What are the best seed sources for ecosystem restoration on BLM and USFS lands? Native Plants Journal 11(2): 117-131.

Kline, V.M. (1997) Orchards of oak and a sea of grass. In: Packard, S.; Mutel, C.F., editors. The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. Washington, DC: Island Press:3-21.

Omernik, J. M. (1987). Ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Annals of the Association of American geographers77(1), 118-125.

Plant Conservation Alliance, P. (2015). National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration 2015-2020. Bureau of Land Management. Available at: https://www. blm. gov/programs/natural-resources/native-plant-communities/national-seed-strategy.

Cake Trees And Clermont

“Can we plant a cake tree?”

The question caught me off guard.

“You know, like a cake tree. Or a cheese tree.”

It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-April several years ago, one of those sunny days that invites you out into the garden, but then leaves you shivering. It had been warm standing next to the bus as the Harvesting History Club disembarked at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, Columbia County, but soon we were in the dirt, one with the Earth, as spring arrived. Doing the digging were a dozen or so elementary school students, our garden educator Leslie, and me.

I was assisting one of the youngest students as she methodically planted her tiny seedlings and asked me questions. I handed her another seedling, a cool-weather vegetable she’d planted in a tray weeks earlier. Just like her, before the new semester began I knew next to nothing about plant. But I did know that cakes and cheese did not grow on trees.

“Oh,” her lips pursed at my answer. She took the kale and gently patted it into the dirt.

 “But,” I continued, “I know we have strawberries. You can use strawberries in cake.”

“OH!” she brightened. “Where are they?!”

I pointed to a wild tangle of leaves and vines, already vying for dominance in the far corner of the garden. The strawberries wouldn’t be ready until June, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But she perked up moments later, when another student discovered a cool bug and everyone ran to see it.

Two campers show off their gardening and nature journals.

Clermont has a centuries-old garden history. The mansion has stood since colonial times — when growing and harvesting was an essential part of life. One of the wealthiest families in early America, the Livingstons of Clermont grew most of their own food and took in significant farm contributions from their tenant farmers. Clermont Livingston (yes, they named their son after the house) kept weather journals detailing growing and harvesting on the manor from the 1840s through the 1890s.

Clermont in the 1890s.

Through the early 20th century, most of the mid-Hudson Valley was agrarian, with vast farms, orchards, dairies, and kitchen gardens populating the landscape.

Today, most people in the area are living on land that was farmed within the last century. With all of this in mind, it’s a little startling how many of us live so close to nature but are so disconnected from it.

To help reintroduce and reestablish that tie, Harvesting History began at Clermont in 2014, spearheaded by Site Manager Susan Boudreau and Garden Educator Leslie Reed. The purpose of the program is to connect Hudson Valley kids with their history and engage them hands-on by working in the garden. As they learn about seeds, plantings, and garden care, they also learn about healthy eating, the history of their home, and the natural world.

It’s amazing how many students start the program with no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s made. It’s not just young kids, like the little girl and the cake trees, but teenagers and young adults. I was 23 when I started working with the program and had no concept of growing seasons or how to plant something.

Two young gardeners help harvest Swiss chard.

It’s a blind spot that our parents and grandparents would not recognize, brought on by refrigerated trucks and supermarkets where you can buy tomatoes and avocados at any time of the year. By planting heirloom vegetables in the chilly spring air, students don’t just begin to understand the seasons, they begin to understand meteorology, biodiversity, and entomology. 

Students use nets to capture insects and magnifying glasses to identify potential garden pests.

Harvesting History has become quite popular. When I was first out in the garden in 2014, talking about cake trees and planting kale, we were serving 100 students annually. In 2018, we served 800 and we had even more students in 2019. The program is often on the road, visiting after-school programs, libraries, and schools, working on their own gardens and learning about healthy eating.

We do garden crafts, like making your own weather journal.

We even have this amazing bike blender we use to chop up herbs and veggies. Bike blender salsa is my absolute favorite way to make salsa now. 

After getting a demonstration, campers try their hands – or in this case, their feet – at making bike blender salsa.

This last spring, our little kitchen garden was expanded to 2,500 square feet, allowing for more students to visit and experience some hands-on history.

And to dream more dreams of cake trees.


Post by Emily Robinson, School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, Clermont State Historic Site.

All photographs provided by New York State Parks

State Parkland Expansion Touches Colonial, Native American History

Before State Parks could purchase 131 acres of Saratoga County forest to add to Moreau Lake State Park in 2018, staffers first had to find out about all past owners of that land – back to the beginning of written records.

As anyone who has ever purchased a home knows, information on past ownership is addressed in a process called a title search. Property records uncovered in such searches are normally covered by a special kind of insurance meant to protect the buyer of a property against claims over disputed ownership that might arise after the sale.

However, since New York State cannot purchase title insurance on land, it had to ensure that there were absolutely no hidden claims lurking from the past in the potential Moreau purchase. For State Parks, the only way to do that was to follow property records as far back as possible.

This historical detective work stretched back more than three centuries, to a controversial royal land grant during New York’s colonial period that covered Native American lands in what is now much of Saratoga County, as well as parts of Montgomery, Schenectady and Fulton counties.

Called the Kayaderosseras Patent, this land transfer was issued in 1708 by a Royal Governor of some ill repute named Lord Cornbury, who under dubious circumstances bestowed up to 800,000 acres north of the Mohawk River and west of the Hudson River.

Ownership of that land was a disputed tale riddled by claims of fraud and missing records, with Native Americans saying that the Colonial patent holders grossly overstated what originally was intended to be a very modest land sale. And the entire affair took six decades to untangle…

Based on a shadowy alleged sale agreement dated several years earlier from native Mohawk tribal leaders, Cornbury awarded this massive tract of land to 13 prominent Colonial citizens of the time _ all in exchange for official fees, of course. The group included such well-connected players as the colony’s Attorney General, several prominent Albany residents, and some Manhattan businessman of Dutch ancestry, with one of them named Joris Hooglandt.

The land patent in colonial New York was an important unit of settlement, along with the large manors of the Hudson Valley—preeminent among them the Van Rensselaer Manor, or Rensselaerwyck, which covered much of present-day Albany and Rensselear counties, as well as parts of Columbia and Greene counties, and Livingston Manor further to the south in Columbia and Dutchess counties. These areas were governed by powerful and wealthy patroons who enjoyed sweeping authority over land usage.

Prior to the American Revolution, land patents were issued by the English Crown or colonial authorities to individuals or groups as a means of encouraging settlement of the sparsely populated frontier.  To those who were granted patents fell the responsibility of surveying, subdividing and conveying parcels to new settlers, which were offered either as freehold land or otherwise as land occupied under lease agreement, as was the case of the quasi-feudal manor system.

The Kayaderosseras episode can be seen as an early example of the dispossession of Native American lands that was to occur repeatedly throughout American history in the years that followed it. Here in the 21st century, the story of this land can be updated to reflect a more nuanced point of view on past decisions and actions that might not now be seen as just or exemplary.



The shadowy origins of this patent were described in an 1878 history of Saratoga County by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester:

“By far the largest and most important land-grant made in colonial times, any part of which lay within the bounds of Saratoga County, was the patent founded on the old Indian hunting-ground of Kay-ad-ros-se-ra. This large tract includes the greater part of Saratoga County, and runs also on the north into Warren county, and on the west into Montgomery and Fulton.

Kay-ad-ros-se-ra, “the country of the lake of the crooked stream,” as has already been seen in these pages, was the favorite hunting-ground of the Mohawk branch of the Iroquois or Five Nations of central New York. The Indian deed was obtained of the Mohawk chief in the year 1703, but the patent was not granted till the year 1708, and the Indians did not ratify the purchase till the year 1768. This patent was, therefore, disputed ground for more than sixty years.

According to the online description by the New York State Museum, the alleged size of the Kayaderosseras patent later was reduced by Colonial officials, but still was claimed to encompass more than 250,000 acres.

However, these supposed new owners took no action on their land patent for decades, with property interests changing hands during the years before steps to conduct land surveys finally started in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s, which settled that the British, and not the French, would control North America. By that time, due to subsequent sales, deaths and inheritances, interests in the land patent had spread out to among some 130 colonists.

Sylvester’s story continues:

“At length, in 1763, the French and Indian war being over, the patentees of Kayadrossera began to look, with longing eyes, after their lands. In the year 1764, some one of them began to issue permits to settlers to enter upon and occupy portions of the patent.

In pursuance of these permits, several families moved upon the patent in the vicinity of Saratoga lake, at the mouth of the Kayadrossera river.

In the fall of that year the Mohawks, upon their hunting excursion, fell upon these settlers and drove them away.

Learning from the settlers that they claimed it by purchase, the Mohawks became alarmed, as they said they had never heard of such purchase.

The Mohawks at once appealed to Sir William Johnson, and were surprised to learn that the whole of their favorite hunting-ground had been deeded away by their fathers more than two generations before.

It is telling who the Mohawks turned to as their advocate. Johnson, whose home in Johnstown, Montgomery County, is now a state historic site, was the largest single landowner and most influential individual in the colonial Mohawk Valley. His success and fairness in dealing with the Mohawks, as part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, greatly influenced England’s victory over France for control of North America.

For his service, the British Crown bestowed upon Johnson the title of Baronet, and appointed him Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a position to which he devoted himself and held throughout his life.

It is important to note that Sylvester was writing as a resident of the mid-19th century, a time when the U.S. was fighting a series of violent wars against the Native Americans of the Great Plains. His viewpoint was likely informed by the predominant viewpoint that Native lands had to be taken, by force if necessary, for the United States to grow.

As Sylvester returns to the saga where the Mohawks turned to Johnson for help with the alleged decades-old sale of their lands:

Sir William took up the matter warmly in favor of the Mohawks, and made every effort in his power to have the patent set aside.

In the first place, Sir William wrote to Lieutenant-Governor Colden, stating the case as he understood it, and urging relief. That very autumn, Sir William introduced a bill into the Colonial Assembly to vacate the patent on the ground of fraud.

These measures failing, in the year 1765 Sir William appealed to the council in person in behalf of his dusky brethren, but the members of the council put him off with, among other things, the plea that to vacate the patent in council would be disrespectful to the council who granted it. By this time the controversy had been taken up warmly by all the tribes of the confederacy of the Six Nations, and Sir William in their behalf petitioned to have the patent vacated on the ground of fraud by act of Parliament.

At length the proprietors themselves became alarmed for the safety of their patent, and offered to compromise with the Indians by paying them a certain sum of money to satisfy their claim. The Mohawks thought the sum offered too small, and the effort failed.

Thus the matter went on till the year 1768, when the proprietors of Kayadrossera gave to the governor, Sir Henry Moore, full power to settle with the Indians. In pursuance of this authority, Sir Henry proceeded to the Mohawk country in the early summer of 1768, and called a council of the Indians to deliberate upon the matter. But it was found that the proprietors had no copy of the Indian deed to produce in evidence on the occasion, and that, as no survey had ever been made, no proper understanding of the subject could be arrived at, and the council was dissolved.

Upon his return to New York, the governor ordered a survey of the patent to be made. The outlines of this great patent were accordingly given by the surveyor-general, and, the boundaries being ascertained, a compromise was arrived at. The proprietors relinquished a large tract on the northwestern quarter of what they had claimed to be their land, and fixed the northern and western boundaries as they now run. They likewise paid the Indians the sum of five thousand dollars in full of all their claims and the Mohawks thereupon ratified the patent and forever relinquished their claims to their old favorite hunting-ground.”

Ultimately, with Johnson’s intervention, the once-gigantic Kayaderosseras land grant was reduced to about 23,000 acres as part of a compromise that eventually concluded the sale in 1768, according to State Museum records.

And this brings our story full circle at last…

The new portion of Moreau Lake State Park so recently added was among the patent lands awarded in 1708 to Joris Hooglandt, the Dutch merchant who lived in Colonial Manhattan. He died in 1712, and there is no record that he ever saw or did anything with the disputed land that he allegedly owned.

In 1723, his children sold their claim to the widow of Hooghlandt’s brother. And in 1770, with the dispute finally settled, descendants of that family ended up with two of the original 13 patent shares, making it the largest single largest land distribution that could be traced back to an original party.

Over the years, this land was sold many times privately before finally becoming part of Moreau Lake State Park in 2018.

This new parcel at Moreau Lake State Park encompasses multiple summits, including portions of the Palmertown Range, and affords dramatic views of the Hudson Valley and southern Adirondack Mountains. The park was 700 acres when established in 1968, and has since grown to about 6,100 acres.

And this land, like all land, has a story to tell, which in this instance may help state residents further examine and appreciate some lesser-known aspects of our shared history.


Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer; Travis Bowman, Senior Curator, Bureau of Historic Sites, and William Krattinger, Parks Survey Project Director.


Cover Photo: Historical maker on the Kayaderosseras Patent in Ballston Lake, Saratoga County. (Courtesy of Saratoga County Historian and William G. Pomeroy Foundation)

Sources:

New York State Museum link of the Kayaderosseras Patent.

History of Saratoga County, New York (1878), by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester

Read a Daily Gazette account of an 1812 copy of the Kayaderosseras Patent map being restored and put on display at the Saratoga County Clerk’s Office in the village of Ballston Spa, which was first settled in 1771, the year after the disputed land patent was resolved..

Follow this link to an 1866 map of Saratoga County, showing the outlines of the patent, maintained by Clark University.

War On the Middleline: The Founding of a Community in the Kayaderosseras, By James E. Richmond

Snakes in Snow at Native American Winter Games

One of the oldest outdoor winter games in North America is again coming to the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Ontario County.

Already centuries old when Europeans first arrived in this country, the game of “snow snake” will be featured at our family-friendly annual Native American Winter Games on February 22.

Earlier that week from February 18 to 21, there also will be a variety of wintertime activities for visitors at Ganondagan, the state’s only historic site dedicated to Native American history and the only representation of a Seneca town in the United States.

Our winter activities will include making a miniature wooden bow from ash, as well as Native American storytelling, Iroquois social dancing, and a variety of outdoor activities including snow shoeing, dog sled demonstrations, and the snow snake. All events are weather permitting, of course.

And not to worry, any first-timers. The game does not involve an actual snake…

Rather, this traditional game once widely played by the Iroquois and many other Native American tribes across North America uses a long smooth stick – known as a gawasa – that is thrown down a trough cut into the snow. The hardwood stick has a tapered head to help it clear potential obstructions, giving it a snakelike appearance as it slides and shimmies down the track.

Snow snakes can be six feet long or more. Smaller versions called “mud cats” are about half that long.

Examples of snow snakes at Ganondagan State Historic Site (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Historically, the track was made by dragging a log through the snow, sometimes a half a mile or more. Called a gawan’go, the U-shaped trough could be level or on gently downward sloping terrain, and different types of sticks were used, depending on whether the condition of the snow was wet, dry, icy, powdery or something else.

Players also used mixtures of special waxes, tallows and oils on their snakes to get them to slide easier, and those mixes were closely-guarded secrets, as a well-tossed snake could travel a great distance. If it is fresh snow, wet snow, or icy conditions the snow snake will slide faster when it is properly waxed for the conditions. Today, ski wax might be part of the mix.

This 1909 published account by New York State Museum official Arthur C. Parker who witnessed the contests described the action as a player “grasps his snake by the tail, his thumb and middle-finger grasping the sides two or three inches from the end, and his index-finger bent and tightly pressed against the grooved end. The palm of the hand of course is turned upward. Dashing forward with every trained muscle in play, he hurls the snake into the trough, using all his skill to throw accurately and steadily.”

Illustration in the 1909 report by New York State Museum official Arthur C. Parker, “Snow Snake as Played by the Seneca-Iroquois.” American Anthropologist, vol. 11, no. 2, 1909, pp. 250-256. JSTOR, www.jstore.org/stable/659466

Competitors tended to be boisterous, and could use what now is called “trash talk,” shouting derision and discouragement as a player drew back for throw, according to this account. If a throw was successful, the snake would move rapidly down the track, with Parker writing, “In its swift passage through the trough, the flexible stick twists and bends in truly snake-like fashion, its upturned head adding greatly to the resemblance.”

Teams could compete for points, and often times, wagers were made on the outcome, so players kept their own special materials and techniques as closely-guarded secrets. Prized snakes were carefully preserved and stored for use year after year.

Per Parker:

“Snow snakes are made of various kinds of hardwood, such as maple and walnut, it being believed that some woods are better adapted to certain kinds of snow. This special knowledge is kept secret by the various experts in the art of snow-snakery.”

During the traditional midwinter festival, Ganayusta, two rival brotherhoods or clans seek to outdo each other in the game, he wrote. Assistants for each team would select the snow snakes to be used, and rub them with various substances “to overcome the peculiar kind of friction exerted by various kinds of snow.”

Once the snake came to a stop, it could either be left in place to be possibly pushed aside or even cracked by a rival’s oncoming snake, or removed after its location has been marked. A good player could throw a snake on a level track from 300 to 400 yards, or even further if the track sloped downward enough, Parker wrote.

But woe to the player who made a poor throw, as they came in for some serious ribbing from other players and onlookers, according to Parker.

“If the (snake) is not thrown at the proper angle, its head may run into the snow when it strikes the track, that is, “spear the track.” This accident brings forth many sarcastic jests, such as, “Are you afraid the trough will get away?” “What’s the matter? Trying to nail down the snow?” or “Thinks he is spearing fish!”

At our winter festival, people are going to be a lot more encouraging to those who will throw the snake, whether they are experienced or first-timers who can start out by throwing the smaller mud cat. So, come to Ganondagan and try your hand at a very ancient way of wintertime fun!

Snow Snake teacher Snooky Brooks describes throwing technique. (Photo Credit- David Mitchell)
A player at Ganondagan throws the snow snake at the head of the track. (Photo Credit- David Mitchell)

Post by Peter Jemison, park manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer


Cover Photo: Snow Snake teacher Snooky Brooks speaks at a demonstration at Ganondagan. Photo Credit- David Mitchell

Sources:

Parker, Arthur C. “Snow-Snake as Played by the Seneca-Iroquois.” American Anthropologist, vol. 11, no. 2, 1909, pp. 250–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/659466.

Read a 2016 article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the snow snake demonstration at Ganondagan.

This account in the Syracuse Post Standard describes a demonstration at the Onondaga Nation School in 2014.

Read an account of the snow snake competition at the 2016 Ojibwe Winter Games (Ojibweg Bibooni-Ataadiiwin) in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin.

Watch this Youtube video of a snow snake contest at the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. The Onedia were once residents of New York State.

Belsnickel's Christmas: Furry Palatine Giftgiver

Today at Christmas, we have Santa Claus, the jolly old elf who brings joy to children, and asks only milk and cookies in return.

In other traditions, the English had St. Nicholas and the Dutch had Sinterklaas. But what did the Palatine children  of the Hudson Valley believe in during the 18th and 19th century?

The answer in a word, Belsnickel. The answer in a photo:

Belsnickel with his sack of gifts.

Rather than a jolly old elf, Belsnickel is a crotchety old man dressed in dirty clothes and furs, usually with his face disguised, who was both gift bringer and child punisher in the Palatine region of southwestern Germany.

There are several variations of the spelling including Pelznickel, which would seem the most likely as “Pelz” in German means fur and Nickel is related to Nicholas. Sometimes, his fur hat has deer antlers which allude to a pagan origin of the character.

In New York State, Palatine immigrants initially settled in the Hudson Valley, bringing the legend of Belsnickel with them.

In 1710, the largest eighteenth century migrations of Europeans to America took place when three hundred families from the Palatine region sailed 110 miles north up the Hudson from Manhattan. There, they established camps on both sides of the river, with the West Camp later becoming the Town of Saugerties and the East Camp becoming Germantown.

Later in the 18th century, Palatine families also spread into the Mohawk Valley and founded such communities as Herkimer, Palatine Bridge and German Flats.

Belsnickel is different from other variations of Christmas characters in that he combines both threatening and generous aspects of a Christmas spirit.

The basic tradition is thus; sometime between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve, Palatine children would hear a tapping at their window at night and suddenly Belsnickel would burst through the door. He would be carrying a sack of presents and a switch. (Belsnickel was the first of the Christmas characters to distinguish between good and bad children. And unlike Santa Claus, who is never to be seen by children, Belsnickel and his message are meant to be seen and heeded…)

The children of the house would be lined up and asked if they were good that year. In some cases they would be asked to recite something from school or a passage from the Bible. If they succeeded they got a present from the sack. If they lied about being good or couldn’t do their recitation, they got a whack from the switch.  In some versions of the tale, Belsnickel might merely leave the switch in the stockings of naughty children, similar to the practice by Santa Claus of leaving coal for those who had misbehaved.

In another variation, Belsnickel would scatter treats or gifts on the floor during his visit. If the children waited for permission, they could have the presents. If they dove in greedily without waiting, then Belsnickel walloped them all with his switch.

It has been difficult to find traces of Belsnickel in the Hudson Valley but his legend has lived on, particularly in the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose roots are actually Palatine German, not Dutch. Perhaps in the Hudson Valley, the Dutch and English influence drove him out earlier.

Belsnickel all but disappeared in the first half of the 20th century thanks to two world wars where Germany and all things German were the enemy. Suddenly many people of Deutsche (German in that language) descent became Dutch and many German traditions were quietly swept under the rug. 


However, Belsnickel has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years. He now features in several holiday festivals in Pennsylvania and even appeared in a holiday episode of “The Office” a few years ago. 

Dwight Schrute from the television comedy “The Office” channels his inner Belsnickel in a 2012 holiday episode.

So perhaps this year as children in the Hudson Valley prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus, they should listen carefully for a tapping on their window. It just may be Belsnickel checking to see if they have been naughty or nice!

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Fröhliche Weihnachten and to all a good night!


Post by Geoff Benton, Curator of Education and Collections, Clermont State Historic Site.


Check out the Clermont blog for interesting historical items on the history of the Hudson Valley and the former home of New York’s politically and socially prominent Livingston Family. Seven successive generations of the family left their imprint on the site’s architecture, room interiors and landscape. Robert R. Livingston, Jr. was Clermont’s most notable resident. His accomplishments include: drafting the Declaration of Independence, serving as first U.S. Minister of Foreign Affairs, administering the oath of office to George Washington, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and developing steamboat technology with Robert Fulton.


Read these contemporary accounts of the Belsnickel legend in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Allentown Morning Call.

Find another version of the tale in the Indiana German Heritage Society newsletter.