Category Archives: Park History

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

Mother of the American Youth Conservation Movement

Liz Titus Putnam looked at dozens of people in the dining hall at a Dutchess County summer camp — eating, talking and laughing — and she saw a room full of connections.

Although many people in the Sharpe Reservation hall that October morning were in their early 20s, their ties stretched back to 1953. That was when Putnam, a 20-year-old Long Island native and junior at nearby Vassar College, came up with an idea.

After reading a magazine article on the deplorable state of the national park system, Putnam used her senior thesis to propose a voluntary student service program to work at the parks. Her inspiration came from the Civilian Conservation Corps created two decades earlier by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression.

“I knew that I would be interested in doing that work. And I thought other young people would be interested, too,” Putnam said.

Through timely encouragement and helpful connections that seemed to show up just when needed, the new college graduate founded what became the not-for-profit Student Conservation Association (SCA), with its first crews of 53 men and women (Herself included) arriving in 1957 at Grand Teton and Olympic national parks to do trail work. The Peace Corps and Earth Day were still years away.

Six decades later, more than 90,000 young people from every part of the U.S. and many foreign countries have gone through the SCA, with most members later going on to jobs and careers in the field of conservation at a myriad of organizations.

Since the beginning, SCA members have performed about 40 million hours of public works service at parks and other public lands. In today’s dollars, that would be worth about $600 million.

Last month, their ranks grew by another 40 people who graduated from the Hudson Valley SCA 2019 program under Putnam’s appreciative and proud gaze. The ceremony was held at the Fresh Air Fund’s Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill.

“I have so much hope for the future, to see young people getting involved,” said Putnam, now an 86-year-old resident of Vermont where she lives on a farm. She retired from running the organization day-to-day as its president in 1969, but under the title of Founding President remains active and involved.

“You will have many adventures. You have one life, and it goes by very fast,” Putnam told the Hudson Valley SCA graduates. “It is what you do each day. You are part of a team, with the humans all around this earth. Each person counts.”

President Barack Obama presents Liz Titus Putnam with the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2010. The award is the nation’s second-highest civilian honor. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

Putnam believes that connections helped her all along the way, starting with her faculty advisor at Vassar who encouraged her to pursue her idea. Then through a family connection, she met the daughter of the late Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service. She in turn introduced Putnam to his successor, former park director Horace Albright. He was intrigued enough by the idea to urge her to visit four national parks to gauge local interest in a volunteer corps, giving her a letter of introduction to ease the way. After that trip in 1955, the superintendents at Grand Teton and Olympic said yes to accepting her student volunteers.

Liz Titus Putnam (left), near Grand Teton National Park during the first year of the Student Conservation Association in 1957. To the right is fellow Vassar College alumna Martha “Marty” Hayne, who co-founded the SCA and later was a member of its board of directors. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)
Liz Titus Putnam and Martha “Marty” Hayne share a laugh back in the day. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

“I had no connections at the time, But the connections appeared when they were needed. That is the miracle,” Putnam told a visitor at the Hudson SCA graduation.

Speaking there, Putnam shared her tale of actually joining the group that she helped found. It was after fires had devastated Yellowstone National Park in 1988 and the SCA was lining up people to come help. She was 56 years old.

“I spoke to our staff, asking if anyone could join. And they said yes. And I asked if I could join, and they said yes,” Putnam said. “And I said, no special treatment, treated just like everyone else? And they said yes.”

After filling out an application, she got her SCA acceptance letter (she recalled saying ‘Yippee!” upon opening it), later arriving at Yellowstone under an assumed name to wield hand tools and help other members repair burned out bridges and cut downed trees. One day, a college student from Texas said he knew who she was, because she had spoken at his school about the SCA. “I asked him to keep it to himself, and we would be fine. And he did,” said Putnam.

Liz Titus Putnam plans a tree at Vassar College during a ceremony in her honor in 2018. (Credit: Vassar College)

“Liz is very inspiring,” said Dana Reinstein, a 23-year-old Queens resident who is finishing her second SCA stint. “I got to meet her when she was at Vassar last year, when she was helping plant a tree there.”

Now serving as an environmental educator in New York City schools, Reinstein said working at the SCA was about “a lot of new connections and experiences,” starting with lessons on how to use hand and power tools. “This is not something that I ever thought I would do. When I started, I did not even know how to use a hammer properly.”

A graduate of SUNY Fredonia with a degree in geology, Reinstein became part of an SCA team that provided more than 71,000 hours of service, valued at $1.7 million, working this year on trails, waterways, and recreational habitat.

Marking its 20th anniversary, the Hudson Valley SCA works with New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, local Soil & Water Conservation Districts, Scenic Hudson, Audubon New York, and Vassar College. The Hudson Valley SCA Corps is an AmeriCorps program.

Some 900 young adults have gone through the Hudson Valley SCA since it started, logging some 1.7 million hours of service that would have cost $30 million if workers had to be hired.


Check out this slideshow of some of the members of the Hudson SCA 2019 session. (Credit: Hudson SCA)


‘Once an SCA member, always an SCA member’ seems to be a cardinal rule of the organization. When Putnam asked how many people attending the graduation had been in SCA, many hands went up.

One belonged to Melissa Miller, park manager for Grafton Lakes State Park, Cherry Plain State Park, and Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site.

Miller did two SCA terms in 2001 and 2002, working on landscape tours at Olana State Historic Site, and then as an environmental educator at Grafton, where she was hired subsequently as a State Parks employee.

“Before that, I had been working in a restaurant. Being in the SCA was such a wonderful experience,” Miller said. “It gave me my career.”

Sarah Davies, an alumna of the original Hudson Valley Corps in 1999, is now Chief Environmental Educator with State Parks after service with DEC. “SCA was the best decision of my professional life. It was the catalyst for my 20 years in government service,” she said.

Liz Titus Putnam, left, with Ann Harrison (center), bureau chief of environmental education at the state Department of Environmental Education, and Sarah Davies (right), chief environmental educator at NYS Parks. (Credit: Student Conservation Association)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks


Learn about applying to SCA here.

See Liz Titus Putnam interviewed on the 2009 Ken Burns film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”

Read the 1953 Harper’s Magazine article that inspired Liz Titus Putnam — then a 20-year-old college student — to create the Student Conservation Association. She described the article as “hitting me like a bolt.”

Read this in-depth interview with Liz Titus Putnam

Watch a short history of the SCA

Get Out and Explore … The Palisades Region

With autumn leaves now turned, hiking in the Palisades region of State Parks offers spectacular views of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills to go with a fascinating history that includes an outlaw’s lair, the state’s early iron industry, and a traitor’s secret meeting place.

Located on the west side of the Hudson River, this region between the Capital Region and New York City stretches through Rockland, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties, and contains 23 parks and seven historic sites.

As with all hikes, there are few things to remember beyond carrying a mobile phone. Wear sturdy yet comfortable shoes or boots, bring water and snacks, and perhaps carry a camera, to capture what you see. Be mindful of hikes on steep terrain or that go near cliff tops. Having a small first-aid kit available in case of emergency is never a bad idea

Hiking poles are useful, and can transfer some of the stress of hiking from your knees and legs to your arms and back. And use a trail map, which is available online at each park website at https://parks.ny.gov/ and at the main office at each park. Check the park’s individual website to see if its maps can be downloaded to your iOS Apple or Android device, but a paper map is a good backup in the event of device failure.

These maps include Park facilities such as parking, park offices, nature centers, campsites, and boat launches in addition to the location, name and distance of each designated trail in the park. For some facilities, data is available as a Google Earth KML file or a map is available to download to your iOS Apple and Android mobile devices in the free PDF-Maps app. Learn more

For the Palisades region, more information on hikes is also available online from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, and at the bookstore near Exit 17 on the Palisades Interstate Parkway.

It’s smart to know how long a trail is and how long it ought to take to finish. Since daylight is not an unlimited resource, especially in fall as days grow shorter, tossing a flashlight or headlamp into your backpack is a good form of insurance, should you unexpectedly find yourself on the trail as dusk approaches.

And, as the incidents of tick-borne diseases surge in the state, it is always important to check yourself for ticks after being outside, even if it is only time spent in your own backyard.

Rockland County

Rockland Lake State Park, 299 Rockland Lake Road, Valley Cottage, (845) 268-3020: The Nyack River Trail runs along the western short of the Hudson River between Haverstraw Beach State Park and Nyack Beach State Park. About five miles long, the level trail offers excellent river views. It is lined with crushed stone, and so is easy on the knees for a run, and also makes for an excellent bike ride or walk with a dog (must be leashed per NYS Parks rules). This trail also passes a county historical marker for the infamous “Treason Site,” where during the American Revolution in 1780 American General Benedict Arnold meet secretly with British spy Major John Andre to hand over plans for the capture of the strategic Patriot fortress at West Point. Thankfully, the plot was thwarted, with Arnold becoming one of the fledgling nation’s most despised figures.

Find a trail map here

Strolling along the Nyack River Trail.
A historical marker for the Treason Site erected by the Rockland County Historical Society (Photo from Wikipedia Commons.)

Harriman State Park, Seven Lakes Drive/Bear Mountain Circle, Ramapo, (845) 947-2444: At more than 47,500 acres, the second-largest State Park has more than 200 miles of hiking trails. At its northeastern edge, it borders Bear Mountain State Park as well as the U.S. Military Academy’s forest reserve. To the southwest lies the 18,000-acre Sterling Forest State Park. This vast park includes a large rocky shelter that was the remote hideout for a bandit named Claudius Smith, who led a gang of pro-British marauders during the American Revolution, known at the time by terrified local residents as “Cowboys.” To find it, go to the parking lot at the end of Old Johnstown Road, and look for the Blue Trail. Follow this steep trail to the top of Dater Mountain for its views, and then continue until you reach the rocky den, which had enough room to shelter both the gang and their horses. After taking in the panoramic views, which allowed the gang to see anyone coming, head down on the Tuxedo-Mount Ivy Trail to return to the parking lot. The hike is a five-mile trip, with one very steep section.

Find a trail map here

A vintage photograph of hikers exploring Claudius Smith’s Den.

Ulster County

Minnewaska State Park Preserve, 5281 Route 44-55, Kerhonkson, (845) 255-0752: Take in Catskills from atop the Stony Kills Falls at the northwestern edge of the park on this short, but challenging one-mile hike. Start at the parking area at the end of Shaft 2A Road and follow the gravel trail that crosses two wooden bridges on its way to the base of the 78-foot waterfall. Follow a set of stone stairs upward, using iron hand holds and railings for safety, to reach the top of the falls and its sweeping northerly views. You can either backtrack to the parking lot, or connect to the Stony Kill Falls carriage road atop the Shawangunk escarpment to make a longer hike.

Find a trail map here

Taking in the view at Stony Kills Falls.

Orange County

Bear Mountain State Park, Palisades Parkway or Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, (845) 786-2701: Take in the view of four states and even glimpse the Manhattan skyline from the Perkins Memorial Tower atop 1,289-foot Bear Mountain. Take the completely rebuilt Appalachian Trail, which features about 1,000 stone steps along a steep granite face. It took crews, including members of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, seven years of arduous labor to renovate the 1.5 mile trail up to the top. There is a new wooden bench at one of the lookouts for those who might find themselves in need of a breather on the way up.

The view from the top.

Also at Harriman, photographers will enjoy the trail to West Mountain that starts at the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area. Start on the Fawn Trail to the Timp-Torn Trail, which takes you to the mountain ridge to the West Mountain Shelter. From there, return using Timp-Torn to the intersection of the Appalachian Trail westbound, which will lead to Beechy Bottom Road that returns to the main parking area. The moderate hike is about five miles.

Find a trail map here

Looking out from the West Mountain Shelter.

Sterling Forest State Park, 116 Old Forge Road, Tuxedo, (845) 351-5907: For larger groups or school trips, there is the Lakeville Ironworks Trail Loop, which takes in the remains of an iron industry that once dominated the area. At about a mile long, the easy loop includes views of Sterling Furnace, the Lake Mine, and other mining remnants. This trail is among more than 30 trails, including the Appalachian Trail, within a 21,935-acre park in the midst of the nation’s most densely populated areas.

Find a trail map here

The former cable house at the ironworks.

Cover Photo of West Mountain summit view by Abigail Leo Parry, manager of Beaver Pond Campground at Harriman State Park.

All photos from NYS Parks unless otherwise credited.


Post by Brian Nearing, deputy public information officer at NYS Parks

Where the Holocaust Came to America: The Last Reunion of the Fort Ontario Refugees

Now 90 years old, Bruno Kaiser remembers arriving 75 years ago at a U.S. Army base along the shore of Lake Ontario, a day that ended his family’s long struggle to escape death during World War II at the hands of the Nazis.

“We felt safe, which had been our biggest worry for so long,” said Kaiser. “At last, we felt perfectly safe.”

On Aug. 5, Kaiser returned to Fort Ontario State Historic Site, along with 18 other surviving refugees of the Holocaust, to gather for a final reunion to remember their lives at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.

Surrounded by a fence and guarded by military police, the base at Oswego was America’s only wartime sanctuary for escapees of Hitler’s genocide.

European refugees arrive at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego on Aug. 5, 1944. As part of their passage to the U.S., they were assigned military tags normally used to identify “casual baggage.” (Photo from the collection of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)
Refugees receiving shoes, soap, and towels upon arrival at the camp. (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)
The day of her arrival, Doris Schecter (Dorrit Blumenkranz at the time) has her first taste of an American hot dog. She told reporters at the time that it was “swell.” She is still wearing the military “casual baggage” tag used to track her passage to America from Europe. (Photo courtesy of International News, Aug. 6, 1944)

Kaiser was one of 982 European refugees who arrived at the fort Aug. 5, 1944, about a month after the first accounts of a liberated Nazi death camp horrified the world.

Coming from 18 different countries, the new arrivals were predominately Jewish, but their ranks also included some Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Having escaped annihilation in their homelands through a combination of luck and pluck, the refugees came to the U.S. under a program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt., whose selection of Fort Ontario stemmed from his earlier time as U.S. Secretary of the Navy and later as Governor of New York state.

Gov. Franklin Roosevelt visits Fort Ontario in 1931.

Providing security, shelter and food _ but not the ability to leave _ the camp was to be home to the weary refugees for the the next 17 months. After the war’s end, their fate ended up drawing national attention over whether they should be forced to return to their devastated countries.

In late 1945 Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, gave the refugees the choice of remaining in the U.S. or going back to Europe. Like Kaiser, most chose to stay, building lives and families in their new homes.

Refugees outside their barracks. The trains that brought them to the camp can be seen in the background.
Now 90 years old, former refugee Bruno Kaiser at the 75th reunion of the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego. A California resident, he has three adult daughters and two grandchildren.

Today, no more than 35 former camp residents remain alive, said Paul Lear, manager of the historic site and co-organizer of the reunion and commemoration. He said it will likely be the last such gathering for a group whose members are now in their mid-70s to early 90s.

More than 600 people attended the reunion, said Lear, including Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York; Rebecca Erbelding, a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; Michael Balanoff, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Central New York; Geoff Smart, son of Refugee Shelter Director Joseph Smart; and Oswego Mayor William Barlow Jr.

Surviving former refugees at Fort Ontario pose during a dinner held Aug. 5 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of their arrival at the camp, which was America’s only wartime sanctuary for escapees of Hitler’s genocide.
A ceremony at a local cemetery where some refugees who died while at Fort Ontario are now buried.
The grave of six-month old Rachel Montiljo, a refugee who died on the way to Fort Ontario. Weakened by poor nutrition, the child died of a fever on Aug. 2, 1944, the day before the ship from Europe docked in New York City. She is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Oswego.

Kaiser’s story is both unique and similar to that of his fellow escapees, spending months or years on the run, trying to stay ahead of arrest and shipment to concentration camps. Along with his father, mother, and two grandparents, Kaiser had fled Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941 after his father had been arrested – and miraculously released after only a few days – in the wake of the Nazi invasion and takeover when Jews were being rounded up.

“My father decided we should leave _ quickly,” said Kaiser, so the family caught a train bound for the safety of the Italian-occupied Adriactic coast. During the trip, the train stopped in a switching yard.

“Across from us was another train, this one with prisoners being taken away by the Nazis. I could see their faces. That is how close we came,” said Kaiser. “The rest of my (extended) family, who did not leave, ended up being wiped out.”

His family remained in relative safety under Italian control until September 1943, when the Italian government surrendered to the Allies, which led the Nazis to attack and occupy all Italian-held territory. The Kaiser family then gained passage on a small ship that took them to an island occupied by the Allies.

From there, the family was shipped to the Allied-controlled portion of the Italian mainland, and taken with several hundred other refugees to the port of Toranto for shipment to North Africa. But the family decided on its own to stay in Italy, and was helped by a local stranger to find an apartment. And it was there, while the teenage Bruno was attending a local high school, that the family learned of Roosevelt’s program for America to accept a very small number of European and Jewish refugees.

“We applied, and because we had family in Cleveland and Chicago, were accepted. The Oswego camp was a peaceful place. I went to the public high school, with about 40 other kids from the camp,” said Kaiser, who recalled he had to “learn English from scratch” to go along with his other languages:  Croatian, Italian and German. “The people of Oswego were nice to us. There was never any anti-Jewish anything.”


Oswegians conversing with World War II refugees housed at Fort Ontario. Local people passed the refugees gifts of money, food, clothing, shoes, toys, dolls and more. (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

After being released from the refugee camp in January 1946, the Kaiser family joined relatives in Cleveland, their son finishing his senior year of high school there. He later earned an electrical engineering degree from Ohio State University. Now retired after working for various companies, he is father to three daughters and two grandchildren.

Asked what the lesson of Fort Ontario is for people today, Kaiser paused. “It is that anti-Semitism rears its ugly head every once in a while. And it is happening now.”

Tellingly, a 1981 stone monument to Fort Ontario camp was vandalized shortly after being installed, with the word “Jewish” partially chipped away and its corners knocked off. Site officials decided to leave the monument as it is as a reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism.

The vandalized monument at Fort Ontario.

To create the camp, Roosevelt avoided rigid immigration quotas by identifying the refugees as his “guests,” a status that gave them no legal standing and required them to sign documents agreeing to return to Europe at the end of the war. In September 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp to draw attention, writing about it her weekly newspaper column.  After the war, camp director Joseph Smart stepped down from that post to form a national campaign that pushed for the refugees to be given the choice to stay in America, a step that was taken by President Truman.

Later, the state historic site at Fort Ontario was established and opened to the public in 1953.


Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Fort Ontario in September 1944. (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Linda Cohen came to the Oswego reunion from her home in Michigan, to remember her parents, Leon and Sarinka Kabiljo, who lived at the camp.

“My parents were married on April 6, 1941, the day the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. They were on the run for three years, hiding in the forests with the partisans. My mother worked with them as a nurse,” she said. Once Italy surrendered, the Kabiljos went to that country, and while there also learned of the U.S. refugee program.

“My older sister was born nine months to the day after my parents arrived in Oswego,” said Cohen. “My mother told me that refugees cried when they got to the Oswego camp. They had beds with sheets, and most had not slept on sheets in years. She told me the camp director said to them: “When there is a knock on your door now, it will be a friendly one.”

Her parents eventually settled in Baltimore, where Linda was born in 1951 and where Leon lived to age 94 and Sarinka to age 92. Cohen wrote a book about their story entitled Sarinka: A Sephardic Holocaust Journey: From Yugoslavia to an Internment Camp in America.

At the start the reunion ceremony, a recording was played of Neil Diamond’s 1981 song America. “I have heard that song a thousand times,” said Cohen. “But sitting here that day, near where the refugee barracks and my parents used to be, it was like they were that song.”


Linda Cohen, whose parents, Leon and Sarinka Kabiljo, were among the refugees at Fort Ontario. She has written a book about their experiences.

Currently, the National Park Service is studying whether Fort Ontario should receive national park status, as part of the Fort Ontario Study Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018. The site is open to the public and various activities and exhibits run throughout the year.

During his tour of the fort, Israeli Ambassador Dani Dayan praised the people of Oswego for their warm embrace of the camp, with residents often coming to the fence to visit the refugees, passing food and other gifts. “The people who welcomed Holocaust refugees into Oswego were a shining example by saying with their actions that they were not indifferent, that they cared about them and wanted them to be there while the rest of the world rejected refugees solely because they were Jewish,” he said.

Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York, examines a section of camp fencing and a U.S. flag that flew over the fort.

During a ceremony near the site of the former barracks, Lear recalled the words of refugee Dr. Adam Munz at the first reunion in 1981: “The Oswego Refugee Shelter was and has remained for me, and I suspect for some others as well, a paradox.  It symbolized freedom from tyranny, oppression and persecution on the one hand, and yet there was a fence, a gate that locked and guards were felt necessary to contain us at the very time we longed for the kind of freedom this country stood for and professed. Our country’s immigration laws continue to be paradoxical.”

Lear also recalled General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prediction that someday people would deny that the Holocaust ever happened. To protect against that, he ordered U.S. troops in Europe to tour concentration camps to bear witness that it did. 

Now, in a time of rising anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews, Lear said Fort Ontario, while no longer an active military base, remains “a fortress against forgetting and denying the Holocaust.”


Resources:

Erbedling, who has also written a book on subject, entitled Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe, said given the age of the surviving former refugees: “For everyone younger than 75, it is our job to remember their story.”

In 1987, the public broadcasting station in Rochester, WXXI, made a documentary about the camp. It can be found here.

Cover Photo: During a visit to the Fort Ontario museum, Yugoslavian refugee cousins Ella, David and Rikika Levi touch a section of the wire fence that used to surround the camp. Behind the fence is a 48-star flag that used to fly over the fort during World War II.

Post by Paul Lear, Site Manager of Fort Ontario Historic Site, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer.

Did You Know That Allegany State Park Played A Role In Wild Turkey Restoration?

The wild turkey is native to North America, but suffered severe declines due to wide-scale forest clearing and over hunting. By the mid-1800’s, this great bird was gone from New York state and much of the northeast. However, in the mid to late 1940’s, some wild turkeys were observed along the NY and PA border from Allegany State Park to the Genesee River Valley, a sign that the habitat might be recovering and able to support them again. So, in the early 1950’s, the New York State Conservation Department (forerunner to the NYS Dept. of Conservation) began a restoration effort in the early 1950s. They started with game farm turkeys, but after a few years, this effort failed because the game farm birds were not wild enough to avoid predation and lacked the capacity to survive.

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Flock of hens in the forest in the 1950’s.

Meanwhile, a healthy breeding population of wild turkeys expanded from Pennsylvania into the Allegany State Park region of New York. Park managers then gave the Conservation Department permission to trap turkeys in the park, initiating the wild turkey trap and transfer program which began in 1958 and concluded successfully in 1974. This program allowed for more rapid expansion of the turkey population to suitable unoccupied habitats.

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Tom turkey displays his tail.

The turkeys trapped in Allegany State Park were moved to several areas in the Region and then throughout the state. In addition to the in-state trap and transfer, turkeys from the park were also sent to Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont. Other trapping efforts in the region and elsewhere in New York sent birds to Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island and the Canadian Province of Ontario. New York turkeys helped re-establish populations throughout the Northeast, Midwest and southeastern Canada.

New York State Conservation Department was one of the pioneers among state agencies to restore wild turkey populations in the United States. This program would not have been successful without the cooperation of Allegany State Park and to this day is recognized as one of the greatest wildlife management success stories of North America.

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2017 Monument commemorating the first wild turkey trap and transfer program, photo courtesy of Rick Miller, Olean Times Herald

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Wild Turkey Restoration exhibit in the Red House Natural History Museum, image from DEC Conservationist, October 2017, p 28.