Category Archives: Park History

Curated Cemeteries Tell Tales at State Parks

With Halloween coming up, the setting of an old cemetery might come to mind. Cemeteries are beautiful, poignant, old and sometimes just creepy, but these places are also a powerful reminder of the past and a record of the people who came before.

As part of its mission to preserve the state’s heritage, New York State Parks is responsible for the care of numerous cemeteries – from dozens and dozens of small old homestead cemeteries and large military cemeteries to burial vaults and even pet cemeteries. And cemeteries, just like any other historic item, do require maintenance and repair from time to time.

It is the job of the Historic Site and Parks Services (BHSPS) to preserve these cemeteries and the individual gravestones. That means tackling the challenges posed by time and weather, but also repairing the damage done by vandals, who break or damage stones.

Intact stones can be cleaned and inventoried in place, but fractured stones in need of repair are brought to our historic preservation labs Peebles Island State Park, where conservators perform the needed repairs. That work has been assisted by members of the New York State Excelsior Conservation Corps, who learn how to document, map, clean and reset gravestones.

A visit to a historic cemetery can be a time of contemplation in a quiet natural setting. For example, Grafton Lakes State Park in the forests of the Rensselaer Plateau in the Saratoga/Capital Region, has four historic family cemeteries.  The Old Snyder Cemetery is just above the Mill Pond and shadowed by the forest.  The small cemetery, dating to the 19th century is surrounded by a decorative iron fence and features obelisks, and marble and bluestone gravestones.

At the historic preservation labs at Peebles Island State Park, a fractured gravestone from a historic family cemetery within Grafton Lakes State Park is reset.
Gravestones freshly cleaned by State Parks staffers shine at Grafton Lakes State Park.

The gravestones tell the story of life in 18th and 19th century New York. Some stones simply feature a name while others feature beautifully carved weeping willows or crosses.  The Thomas West, Frances West and Hicks cemeteries are smaller and buried deeper in the Park.  The cemeteries are marked by fieldstone walls or split rail fence.  

At the other end of the state, the 1812 Cemetery at the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, is the resting place of the fort’s soldiers and their families from the War of 1812 through the 1930s. This cemetery is shaded by mature oaks, pines and maple trees and overlooks the Niagara River.  Traditional military tombstones are intermixed with large granite and marble memorials to the Unknown Soldiers who died during the campaigns of Western Expansion, the Revolutionary War and the war of 1812. The Victorian and Gothic gravestones feature finely detailed cannons, urns, flowers, shields and crosses.   

State Parks conservator Heidi Miksch gently cleans the bronze plaque on a tombstone at Old Fort Ontario State Historic Site.
Gravestones at Old Fort Ontario during and after a cleaning session. Use the slider bar to compare pictures.

The Herkimer Home State Historic Site and Fort Ontario State Historic Site in central New York also feature military and local cemeteries. The Herkimer Home cemetery has large memorials flanked by cannons intermixed with delicate 18th-century marble gravestones and 19th-century zinc memorials, and includes the resting place of Revolutionary War General Nicholas Herkimer, who died of wounds after the Battle of Oriskany.

A member of the Excelsior Conservation Corps (ECC) cleans a gravestone at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site.

Back at the historic preservation labs at Peebles Island, an ECC member repairs a broken gravestone from Herkimer Home State Historic Site.
A map of the Herkimer Home cemetery created by Excelsior Conservation Corps members.

In Oswego at Fort Ontario, a small cemetery features 77 marble military tombstones of veterans from the French and Indian War to World War II. Inside the fort are fragile and rare gravestone from the 1700s.

Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua has a small pet cemetery under an old oak tree near the 19th century Victorian mansion. The cemetery is surrounded by a low iron fence and features large boulders carved with the names of family pets owned by Frederick and Mary Thompson, the estate’s former owners.  A marble statue of a resting dog guards the small resting place.

Pet cemetery at Sonnenberg Gardens, where a statue of a reclining dog stands watch.

At Katonah’s John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, in the historic house’s Terrace Garden, there is a simple marker in the memory of Old Fred, a horse that served in the Civil War with Colonel William Jay II, with both rider and steed coming home safely at war’s end.

Its inscription reads: “In memory of Old Fred, who carried Colonel Jay through the Battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Peeble’s Farm & Appomattox, and who died at Bedford in May 1883, aged 28 years.”

The grave and historical marker for Old Fred, the faithful warhorse of Colonel William Jay II. At bottom, Colonel Jay is shown in uniform with his sister, Eleanor Jay Chapman.

So, a quiet October afternoon could be a perfect time to appreciate the hand carved stonework, and imagine the lives marked by the gravestones, which are another aspect our shared history being protected by New York State Parks.


Cover Shot: Members of the Excelsior Conservation Corps cleaning gravestones at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site. (All photos by NYS Parks)

Post by Erin E. Moroney,  architectural conservator, Bureau of Historic Site & Park Services

King of the Road at Rockefeller State Park Preserve

The words John D. Rockefeller and “Do It Yourself” might not naturally come to mind in the same sentence.

But visitors to the Rockefeller State Park Preserve – the former Hudson Valley family estate of petroleum magnate John D. Rockfeller, who was one of the 20th century’s richest men – will see one of this state’s most ambitious DIY projects.

The preserve is part of the 3,000-acre the Rockefeller Pocantico Hills Estate Historic District, recently added to the National Register of Historic Places, which is honeycombed by more than 55 miles of historic “carriage” roads that gracefully showcase its woodlands, vistas and the river valley.

Near the start of the 20th century, many miles of these roads _ and the picturesque views each step of the way _ were envisioned and laid out on foot by “Old John D” as he was known by neighbors at the time. He passed along his passion for road building to his son, John Jr., who completed and enhanced his father’s vision for the extensive network into the 1930s.

As the head of the Standard Oil conglomerate, Rockefeller was fabulously wealthy, and could have hired any engineer he wished to create the road network for the Westchester Country country estate where he, and his brother William, were to each have luxurious mansions.

John D. Rockefeller St. (Photo Credit- Oscar White/Wikipedia Commons)

But Rockefeller knew what he wanted his roads look like and where they ought to be, so he did it himself, traipsing around the woods with his surveyor’s tools to get it just right.

And he wanted the roads to be suitable for travel in a horse and carriage, which is how he wished to tour the estate. That meant roads with crushed stone surfaces, gentle grades and good drainage to prevent erosion.

In the nominating form for listing the site on the State and National Historic Register, State Parks researcher William Krattinger located some of Rockefeller’s own words recalling his road work..

“I have spent many delightful hours studying the beautiful views, the trees and the final landscape effects of that very interesting section of the Hudson River … I had the advantage of knowing every foot of the land, all the big old trees were personal friends of mine, and with the views at any given point, I was perfectly familiar.”

“In a few days, I had worked out a plan so devised that the roads caught just the best views at just the angles where in driving up the hill, you came upon impressive outlooks and the ending was the final burst of river, hill, cloud and great sweep in country to crown the whole; and here I fixed my stakes to show where I suggested the roads should run.”

Roberts, Ann Rockefeller (1990) Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads: The Untold Story of Acadia’s Carriage Roads & Their Creator
There are miles of carriage roads at Rockefeller State Park Preserve surveyed and laid out by industrialist John D Rockefeller Sr. at the turn of the 20th century. (Photo Credit- NYS Parks)




A contemporary newspaper account in the Dec. 31, 1904 edition of the Utica Journal also expressed admiration for Rockefeller’s skill as a surveyor and road builder:

“With only an assistant to carry the transit and hold the rod, the old man (Rockefeller was 65 at the time of the article) has trampled all over his vast estate on the Pocantico Hills and has made his own surveys for the huge park which he is laying out there.”

“More than this, he has shown himself to be an expert road builder. When all the roads he has mapped out are completed they will stretch for nearly 40 miles and “Old John D.,” as the whole countryside calls him, has planned every foot of them himself. Landscape gardeners and civil engineers alike agree that, whether from the viewpoint of artistic effect or mere utility, the work could not have been better done.”

The roads themselves, of course, were built by hired workers following the Rockefeller’s routes.

A carriage road passes along a meadow. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

The carriage roads are a favorite of equestrians. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Rockefeller’s vision for his estate was also different from that of many opulent estates of his day, in that he did not want an elaborately designed, geometrically landscaped estate of exotic or imported plants.

Rather, Rockefeller wanted to showcase the natural beauty of the land, sky and river valley.

As described by Bill Krattinger: “The outer estate landscape of the Pocantico Hills estate was not designed, in the formal sense, but was instead “culled back” to reveal or otherwise highlight what were deemed to be the most desirable existing features and views … it might more properly be defined as a refined or culled landscape, in that its creation was not so much a process of introducing new plant and tree material and adding or modifying topographic features, but instead one of honing the existing landscape’s natural features to bring to the forefront those characteristics which were deemed to be the most desirable and beautiful.”

Rockefeller’s work was picked up and continued by his son, John Jr., whose instincts for landscape design and road building were as sharp as his father’s, so much that John Jr. was bestowed with an honorary membership in the American Society of Landscape Architects in the late 1930s.

Long popular for walking, riding, jogging, and carriage driving, the trails lead through varied landscapes and past natural and historical features, such as Swan Lake, the Pocantico River with its wood and stone bridges, gurgling streams, colonial stone walls and rock outcroppings.

The Park Preserve occupies about 1,700 acres in this district, with the rest privately held.

So, come experience the beautiful carriage roads here at Rockefeller State Park Preserve as the fall leaves turn color, and as you take in the views, imagine one of the country’s richest men, happily tramping through his woods and envisioning what you now enjoy today.

For a trail map, click HERE.


Cover Shot- Walking the carriage trails at Rockefeller State Park Preserve (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

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

New York’s Forgotten Patriotic Vow

It was 245 years ago this month that, shortly after the start of the Revolutionary War, that a bold declaration of American liberty rang out.

No, it was not the Declaration of Independence, which came from Philadelphia in in July 1776 and became a widely celebrated national holiday. This earlier, largely-forgotten declaration came from northern New York along the shores of Lake Champlain.

On June 15, 1775, not far from what is now Crown Point State Historic Site, 31 men from the Northeast signed a so-called “Declaration of Principles,” vowing they would “never become slaves,” calling for a “union” of the states, and giving their allegiance to the newly formed Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Among those who publicly embraced armed resistance to the British Crown in the name of a new government was the document’s author, a man who went from one of the Revolution’s earliest battlefield heroes to its most despised traitor five years later.

That man was Benedict Arnold (1740-1801), and the path to his infamous treason in New York stretches from that now largely forgotten declaration, issued from the state’s northern frontier in what is now Essex County, to an infamous meeting with a spy along the shores the Hudson River— now within Rockland Lake State Park—where he agreed to betray the Revolution and deliver the river’s critical West Point fortress to the British.

In the five years between those two events, Arnold distinguished himself by buying the Revolution a critical year at the naval Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1776. The following year, he contributed to the relief of Fort Stanwix after the Battle of Oriskany in the Mohawk Valley and was instrumental in the decisive American victory at Saratoga.

His earlier role in capturing Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775 to the south of Crown Point had provided Patriot forces with desperately needed heavy cannon that later helped drive British troops out of Boston. That victory set the stage a month later for Arnold, as commander at Ticonderoga, to issue written principles from Crown Point to rally support for the Patriot cause. 

At the time, Arnold and the other men who signed the declaration did so at great personal risk, as it targeted them personally as potential traitors to Great Britain when the punishment for treason was death.

Flush from success at Ticonderoga, here is what Arnold wrote and he and other prominent early supporters, who came from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and what later become Vermont, signed.

Benedict Arnold’s Declaration of Principles

Crown Point, 15th June, 1775

Persuaded, that the Salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America, depends, Under GOD, on the firm Union of its Inhabitants, in a Vigorous Prosecution of the Measures necessary for its Safety And Convinced of the Necessity of preventing the Anarchy and Confusion which attend a Dissolution of the Powers of Government, WE, the Freeman, Freeholders, and Inhabitants of the Province of New York, being greatly alarmed at the avowed Design of the Ministry to raise a Revenue in America; and, Shocked by the bloody Scene now Acting in the Massachusetts Bay, DO, in the most Solemn Manner Resolve never to become Slaves; and do Associate under all the Ties of Religion, Honour, and Love to our Country, to Adopt and endeavour to Carry into Execution whatever Measures may be Recommended by the Continental Congress; or Resolved Upon by our Provincial Convintion for the purpose of preserving our Constitution and opposing the Execution of the Several Arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament; Untill a Reconciliation Between Great Britain and America, on Constitutional Principles Which we most Ardently Desire Can be obtained And that we will in all Things follow the Advice of our General Committee Respecting the purposes aforesaid, The Preservation of Peace and Good Order, and the Safety of Individuals, and private party.


Click on this slideshow of images from the Crown Point State Historic Site, near where the Declaration of Principles was issued 245 years ago shortly after the start of the Revolutionary War.

Arnold’s words may have been largely forgotten, but his ultimate fate remains relatively well known. As the war went on, he felt slighted and upset from being passed over for promotion, with other officers getting credit for his accomplishments. Arnold could be brusque and headstrong, which alienated some. He borrowed heavily to support a lavish lifestyle.

And while military governor of Philadelphia, Arnold married a woman named Peggy Shippen, who came from a prominent city family loyal to British King George III. His new wife introduced him to one of her former suitors _ the British spy Major John Andre.

Arnold had been given command of West Point by George Washington, on the advice of his trusted advisors, Albany resident and General Philip Schuyler and Robert Livington of the Hudson Valley . (The residences of both men are now state Historic Sites.)

Once his plot with Andre to surrender West Point was found out, Arnold fled to the safety of British lines, where he was made an officer and fought against his former comrades. After the war, he lived in Canada and England, before dying in London in 1801 at age 60.

Benedict Arnold, from a 1776 mezzotint by artist Thomas Brown, and now in the Anne S.K. Brown Collection at Brown University.

A historical marker at the site in Rockland Lake State Park where Benedict Arnold met with Major John Andre to plot the surrender of the American fort at West Point. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Use this map to locate Crown Point and the other historic places in New York State described in this story.


Signatories of the Crown Point declaration had a variety of fates. One of its most prominent signers, William Gilliland, was an Irish immigrant and New York City merchant who was the first European to settle the lands west of Lake Champlain. He was founder of the town of Willsboro, and at one point, controlled about 50,000 acres in the region between Crown Point and Plattsburgh, leasing some of it out to tenant farmers and developing gristmills and sawmills.

In spite of Gilliland’s wealth and influence, as well as his signing of the Crown Point declaration and his financing of Patriot militia, he was mistrusted because of “unfounded allegations relative to his loyalties,” likely due to disagreements  and entanglements involving Arnold and Ethan Allen, commander of the Green Mountain Boys, a militia from Vermont, as recounted in documentary sources.

With both sides suspecting that he was secretly supporting the other, Gilliland was confined to Albany during part of the war. The aftermath destroyed Gilliland’s vast fortunes, stripped him of his lands and left him destitute by the time he died in Willsboro in 1796 at age 62. He is buried in the town that still bears his name.


But most other signers of the Crown Point declaration fared better. Among them was Dirck Swart, a Dutchess County native and a member of the Albany Committee of Correspondence from Saratoga, according to information collected by the Fort Ticonderoga Museum

These committees were shadow governments organized by Patriot leaders on the eve of the Revolution. They shared plans for strategy and by the early 1770s they wielded considerable political power.

Swart owned a tavern in Stillwater, Saratoga county, and his home still stands in the village. The residence was built in 1757 and remains among the oldest extant dwellings in Saratoga County. It was from Swart’s home that Arnold began his 1777 march to relieve Patriot forces at Fort Stanwix.

After the war, he was the town’s first postmaster, served as the Saratoga County Clerk, and was elected to the state Assembly.  In 1788, he was a delegate to the state convention to accept the new U.S. Constitution.

At age 70 in 1804, Swart died a venerable and respected citizen, having prospered in the new country that he had helped launch by signing that bold statement from Crown Point.


Cover Photo: Crown Point State Historic Site (Photo Credit- NYS Parks) All photos NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for New York State Parks


Signers of the Crown Point Declaration of Principles by State

New York

  1. Benedict Arnold
  2. John Corbin
  3. Zadok Everest
  4. Joseph Franklin
  5. William Gilliland
  6. Charles Graham Jr.
  7. Ebenezer Hyde
  8. Benjamin Kellogg
  9. Robert Lewis
  10. Moses Martin
  11. Ebenezer Marvin
  12. Martin Marvin
  13. Daniel McIntosh
  14. Elisha Painter
  15. George Palmer
  16. William Satterlee
  17. Thomas Sparham
  18. Dirck Swart
  19. Thomas Weywood
  20. Hugh Whyte

Massachusetts

  1. Jonathan Brown
  2. Ezra Buell
  3. James Noble

Connecticut

  1. John Watson Jr.
  2. Samuel Keep

Vermont (this state was created a year after the Crown Point Declaration)

  1. John Grant
  2. Issac Hitchcock
  3. Robert Lewis
  4. David Vallance
  5. Samuel Wright

State Unclear

  1. Francis Moor
  2. James Wills

Source: Fort Ticonderoga Musuem

A Legacy of Strength

During the 1930s when racial segregation and Jim Crow held sway over much of America, there was a Depression-era federal public works unit where African-Americans, not whites, were in command. And it was here in New York State Parks.

To combat rampant unemployment among young men, President Franklin Roosevelt had created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 to perform public works projects.  

The struggles of the 1930’s reached beyond the economic depression. Major environmental issues plagued the nation as well.  The impact of poor farming practices, deforestation, and destructive pests were just a few of the things destroying thousands of acres of usable land. Across the nation, the CCC immediately put its companies to work solving these two major crises at once.

While discrimination based on ‘race, color, or creed,’ was against Roosevelt’s founding policy, that was to exist almost only on paper. When the first CCC companies formed, racial segregation was part of the process.  After two years of operation, this practice became official policy in 1935 when CCC Director Robert Fechner insisted on complete segregation of whites and colored enrollees.  The only exception allowed was if a company was formed in an area of the country with a small African American population.

Enrollees from big cities and small towns all over New York found themselves at Camp Dix, New Jersey, with thousands of other men who were desperate for work.  Upon arrival, men were assigned to a 200-man company, although many colored companies numbered less than 100. Each company was given a number, and a lowercase ‘c’ was added for ‘Colored’ where needed. And policy dictated that those in charge of all companies were white Army officers.

Men from New York quickly filled slots in several ‘Colored’ companies forming at Camp Dix. As these companies moved around the country, they were trained on the job by local professionals who were also white.  Pressure from Congress, the National Urban League, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began immediately for African American officers and professionals to work with African American companies, but it would be several years before things changed.


Click on this slideshow of the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps “Colored” companies from New York State.


By the fall of 1933, colored companies from Fort Dix including 246-c, 247-c, and 1245-c were formed and immediately sent out.  Company 246-c was shipped by train to Chelan, Washington State, to fight fast-moving forest fires. Their next mission took them across the country to Yorktown, Virginia, to excavate colonial buildings and reconstruct two historic sites — the Moore House and the White Swan Tavern, both of which still stand today.

From Virginia, the men of 246-c headed back to New York to the Orange County town of Wawayanda to begin working on the Wallkill Flood Control Project, a ten-mile-long canal designed to change the direction of the river and stem seasonal flooding.

Company 247-c headed to Idaho to build roads and fire trails and plant hundreds of trees in the Lake Pend Oreille Forest. They later went south to work as archaeologists at the Yorktown Battlefields collecting pottery chards and other bits before returning to New York. Company 1287-c fought forest fires in Idaho, built roads in Virginia, then moved into New York, joining the other companies for the Wallkill project.

Company 1245-c headed out in 1934 to create fire breaks, build truck trails, plant trees and dig wells before heading to the Wallkill. Company 3210-c and 3211-c, formed in 1935, went directly to the Wallkill project, with 3211-c later heading a few miles north to build roads.

Health care and food services were year-round jobs as well with the CCC, and often these were the first positions filled by young African American men. During the early years of the program, African Americans could be found as cooks and health orderlies but rarely as the head chef, doctor, or dentist.

Initially, trained African American officers in the U.S. Reserved Army were totally ignored, then slowly as more pressure from members of Congress and other groups continued, they began filling positions as medical officers, working alongside African American orderlies and chaplains. By 1936, such outside pressure forced Fechner to set-up a “demonstration camp” in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a Colored company would be managed by African American commanding officers. If the experiment worked, other companies could be switched over.

While the Gettysburg effort was successful, only one other CCC company ever saw the change to Colored officers _  1252-c in New York State. Initially stationed at the Newtown Battlefield Reservation outside of Elmira, Chemung County starting in 1935, this company had started with white officers like all the rest. But in June 1939, colored officers were quietly brought in to run the unit.

The work of the men of Company 1251-c is still visible at Newtown Battlefield State Park, where they built the picnic pavilion and concession stand, sports fields, stone tables, and wooden bridges, as well as planted trees and plants, and added or graded topsoil.

A new CCC enrollee arriving at Newtown Battlefield Reservation.
At work at the battlefield.
The men of Company 1251-c at Newtown Battlefield Reservation with their officers, seated in the center of the front row.
Pavilion at Newtown Battlefield State Park built by the men of Company 1251-c.

Such work was only part of an average day for company members. Improving the education of enrollees was also part of the CCC’s mission. Civilian Educational Advisors (CEA) were local educators who were stationed at the various sites.

Classes were held regularly and for many of the colored companies stationed in New York the classes were taught by African American men. Reading and writing went hand in hand with Spanish, French, Mathematics, and Negro History. Recreational pursuits included bands, sports teams, and company newsletters.

Although hugely successful, the CCC came to an end in 1942 as the nation joined the Second World War. By then, more than two million men had gone into the program. Read more about New York’s history in the program in the Parks Blog post below…


Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, the entire nation was in a state of turmoil never seen before or since. It was the height of the Great Depression: unemployment was at 25%, croplands were failing, and millions of families were going hungry. As governor of New York State, FDR had implemented the … Continue reading Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State Parks


Even in the face of economic hardship and ecological stress, racism and segregation had dogged the program each step of the way. CCC Director Robert Fechner’s insistence on racial inequality plagued the CCC in spite of constant pressure from the White House, Congress, and other groups striving to create a more equitable environment in the country.

The work done by the men in New York’s colored companies of the CCC continues to enrich the lives of New Yorkers everyday. Theirs is a legacy of strength we can all draw from.


Cover Shot: Company 246-c. All photographs from state Bureau of Historic Sites

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, state Bureau of Historic Sites


At Gilbert Lake State Park,  Otsego County, other companies of the CCC constructed cabins, trails, roads, dams, and erosion control structures between 1933 and 1941. The park is also home to the New York State Civilian Conservation Corps Museum, which displays photographs and artifacts from the days of the CCC.

A 1935 poster for the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

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