Tag Archives: Clermont State Historic Site

Extra! Brutish King Hiring Foreign Thugs, War Elephants and Samurai to Attack America!! Or, Fake News In Colonial New York

Such an inflammatory headline would doubtless draw more than a few clicks on social media today. In the 18th century, the Colonial American public got their information from the contemporary version of the internet – newspapers. Colonists might get some news from talking with neighbors or serving on local and state committees, but the major source of information was from the multitude of papers printed across the colonies and imported by ship from Europe.

Imagine then a colonist picking up the February 15, 1777 edition of the respected and reliable Philadelphia-based Durand’s Pennsylvania Packet and seeing the entire front page dominated by harrowing dispatches from London, under the headline “The IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE, or the INFALLIBLE INTELLIGENCER; upon the plan, and after the manner of, the NEW-YORK MERCURY.”  Founded in 1771, the Pennsylvania Packet was widely read and by 1784, it became the first successful daily newspaper published in the United States. The Packet was an ancestor of the current Philadelphia Inquirer.

With the Declaration of Independence only about seven months old and blood already shed on battlefields, readers of The Packet were eager for news from the recently estranged Mother county. Imagine the shock when they read on its pages that King George III was ignoring rules of civilized warfare and preparing to send tens of thousands of brutish foreign mercenaries to invade the colony of New York.

These soldiers of fortune didn’t care about liberty, representation, or the rights of Englishmen (or women), they were lured only by gold, plunder, and foreign influence from malevolent despots. King George III, who had never ONCE visited a foreign court (he never even went to Scotland, and that was on the same bloody island…), according to the newspaper, was now entertaining troop offers from around the world in some kind of global outsourcing of villainy.

And the breathless accounts ranged from the reality of German mercenaries who were already fighting in the colonies on behalf of the British to the terrifying spectacles of an amphibious invasion of Japanese samurai on the Pacific Coast and rampaging war elephants being shipped over from an Asian potentate.

The news was shocking – but it was also absolutely fake. The whole thing was a hoax — a hit piece against His Majesty King George III — slipped into a very real colonial newspaper by William Livingston (1723-1790), the son of one of New York’s most powerful families.

Like any good purveyor of “fake news,” Livingston used some kernels of half-truth. German mercenaries were already fighting in America, but the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE reported that thousands more depraved warriors were on their way from India, Japan, Central Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and Scandinavia — faraway places full of people who had been deemed “savage” by the racial classifications of 18th century America.

Livingston was the embodiment of the educated, upper-class, white male who dominated colonial America. Governor of New Jersey at this time, he was rich, and by rich, I mean “really rich.” His father, Philip, was, literally, Lord of the Manor as proprietor of a massive estate in modern-day Columbia County.

William was well connected to the elite. His brother, also Philip, was known throughout the Colonies as the “the signer” for signing the Declaration of the Independence; and his sister, Sarah, was married to Lord Stirling, one of George Washington’s most trusted generals. William’s daughter, also Sarah, was one of the most well-known and influential women of the entire Revolution — her marriage to John Jay created a partnership of intellectualism and effectiveness that rivaled John and Abigail Adams.

A young William Livingston was part of the powerful ruling class in Colonial New York. The portrait dates from approximately 1730, when William would have been about seven years old. (Photo Credit – John Jay Homestead State Historic Site.

William was a cousin to another famous and powerful Colonial New Yorker, Robert R. Livingston, who grew up near William at Clermont State Historic Site, and was a high-ranking member of New York State Government and the Committee of Five who wrote the Declaration of Independence.  In that document, colonists included a list of grievances against King George III, including the charge he was “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries [the so-called “Hessians” from the state of Hesse in Germany] to complete “the works of death, desolation and tyranny.”

George Washington had achieved a stunning victory over these hated Hessians in his famous crossing of the Delaware River into Trenton, N.J. in late December 1776, but support for the war overall was lagging early on as some Americans questioned whether reconciliation with England might be the best response.  Just two months after Trenton, William Livingston used his well-known writing skills to inflame rebel resentment against the King and toward the cause of revolution and liberty.

It was the colonists’ fear of foreign mercenaries (especially the mislabeled and misunderstood German Hessians) that William was amplifying and preying upon in his 1777 IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE hoax.

Hessians were scaring New Yorkers for decades after the end of the American Revolution. The “headless horseman” featured in the famous Washington Irving ghost story was of a decapitated Hessian soldier, as illustrated in this 1858 painting “The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” by John Quidor. (Photo Credit – Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

Livingston was smart. He crafted his hoax in way that was obvious satire and clearly fake, at least to discerning readers, but was also outrageous enough to get people talking about it. His approach allowed him to provoke a laugh at the expense of King George III, all the while stoking primal fears of foreign mercenaries and a frontier war with Native Americans allied with those foreigners.

Livingston began his IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE piece by claiming the Emperor of India had offered King George III “five hundred Elephants out of his own stables” to dispatch against the rebellious Colonials but the King had politely refused because it would cost too much to feed them.

An 18th century depiction of an Indian war elephant carrying spear-wielding soldiers. The elephants were the armored tanks of their day and terrorized opposing troops. (Photo Credit- Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE went on to claim, however, that King George’s advisors, mindful of a potential alliance opportunity with the Indian Emperor, recommended that the king offer his son the Prince of Wales in marriage to the potentate’s eldest daughter.  The scheme failed because it was believed the 15-year-old prince could not “close with the overture” (so to speak) with the Indian Princess unless he submitted to circumcision; even that last bit had a racial subtext. Englishmen of that time considered circumcision a dangerous practice, only done by non-Christians — in short, it was 18th century code for barbaric.   

In addition to the 500 Indian War Elephants, the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE claimed offers of troops were pouring in from across the globe to form a gathering barbarian horde.

The King of Denmark was sending 4,000 elite warriors in reindeer-drawn sleds to fight Americans in the snow. In Persia (modern-day Iran), the king was sending 3,500 horse archers to join His Majesty’s light cavalry units. From the Hapsburgh monarchy in central Europe, 5,500 Hungarian Hussars, Pandurs, and Croats were being sent to “cut [Americans] down with their sabers” before their victims even saw them.

In perhaps the largest whopper of them all, Japan was going to amphibiously land 12,000 troops on the coast of California (yes, really, California) and march all the way to New York. The reason for the overland march was twofold, William explained to readers. First, it would save the Japanese fleet from a “circuitous voyage” around the southern tip of South America. Second, the Japanese would gather Native Warriors all the way from “the South Sea and the river Ohio” as allies by convincing the Indigenous Americans that “their ancestors having emigrated from Japan,” and so they should  fight for the Japanese Emperor.

The humor is somewhat lost on us modern readers of course, but in the 18th century, it was outrageously funny, so much so that it even made George Washington offer up a LOL. Afterward, the general wrote to William (a personal friend of his): “I heartily thank you for the Impartial Chronicle: Fraught with the most poignant Satire, it afforded me real pleasure.” If you’ve ever read anything written by George Washington, you’d know that’s about as high as his praise gets.

Other bits of news from the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE hoax were thankfully less about fear-mongering propaganda, and more about plain old mockery. An ad claimed that a runaway servant named “Common-Sense and Honesty” had left the palace of King George III, and offered a £5,000 reward (a considerable fortune at the time) for anyone who could bring him back:


Perhaps the best bit in the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE was a “correction” which apologized for previously reporting “that the King and Queen were both with child” (the Queen was in fact pregnant at the time). The paper noted the lie apparently had been invented by Americans with “malicious hopes” the King would die in childbirth.

Tightly buttoned waistcoats bursting over a prominent belly were a way that 18th century men displayed their social status and power, but calling King George III pregnant was a low blow of particularly harsh mockery. (Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Speaking of the Queen, another salacious story in the IMPARTIAL CHRONICLE indicated she had vetoed a plan to offset the losses from the war and repopulate England. As the story went, a foreign Emperor, noting that the *ahem* “common mode of procreation” usually practiced in England was inadequate, offered to send five female concubines to every Member of Parliament and to provide “his Majesty himself with a score…of amiable blooming breeders.” Parliament, it was reported, had “gratefully accepted” but the offer was scuttled because “our most gracious Queen cannot be fully convinced of the necessity of the measure.”

Another bit of “fake news” fabricated by William Livingston claimed that the British Navy, so dominant by sea, was converting some of its warships into land vessels by using ropes and pulleys, so the behemoths could chase Rebels in the countryside. Shown here is a design of a land fighting vessel by famed 16th century Renaissance inventor Leonardo da VInci .(Photo Credit – Wikipedia Commons)

So why did Livingston venture into the realm of fake news? Well, muck-raking and sensationalized journalism were already established New York traditions by 1777.

Robert Livingston, William’s own grandfather, once claimed in a newspaper account decades earlier that former New York Governor Edward Cornbury walked around daily in “womens cloths.” Newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger famously took it a step too far when he had the audacity to publish mean things about Colonial Governor William Crosby that were actually true (Governor Crosby had him arrested for libel, but Zenger was acquitted in one of America’s foundational cases for press freedom from government repression).

Maybe William Livingston did it to insult the King and those loyal to him. Maybe he did to instill a sense of camaraderie among Americans by creating an “Us versus Them” dynamic. Maybe he even did it to convince those on the fence about independence that today it might be Germans sticking bayonets in your belly, but tomorrow it could be War Elephants trampling your wife and children.  Or maybe he did it to be funny (well, at least 18th century funny).

Before he was a General and Governor, Livingston was famous for his satirical writings and political commentary. Livingston’s well-known pen and wit weren’t only used against his enemies, either. A few months after his fake news operation, when William learned that the British had burned Kingston in October 1777, he feared for the safety of his brother Philip “the signer.” Philip was serving a term in the New York State Senate, which had relocated to Kingston and had been forced to evacuate just ahead of the British army taking the city.

Upon finally hearing his brother was okay, William sent a letter to Henry Laurens (father of John, from the musical Hamilton fame):

“If my Brother be with you, pray make him my Compliments, and tell him, that considering his size, I was under great apprehensions that he would not have been brisk enough to escape the Firing of Kingston. Sure I am that if any one had done him the kind office that Aeneas did Anchises of bearing him on his Shoulders to avoid the Conflagration, both the bearer & the burden, (or as the Merchants would say, both the Carrier & the freight) would have run the risque [risk] of perishing in the Flames. 5 February 1778.”

In other words, William was calling his little brother fat. A real card, huh?

A portrait of the admittedly rotund Philip Livingston, shown here in a circa 1770 portrait by Abraham Delanoy. Again, showing of a prominent belly displayed that a man had enough wealth to eat well and often. (Photo Credit – Clermont State Historic Site)

Cover Shot: Portrait of Samuel Johnson (“Blinking Sam”), Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Frances and Loren Rothschild.


Post by Travis Bowman, Historic Preservation Program Coordinator (Collections), Bureau of Historic Sites

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

Drawing Today’s History to the Page

For decades, comics have been a gateway into the world of reading for many children. During today’s challenging times, creating personal comics can also help young people chronicle their unique view of the history-making COVID-19 pandemic, according to an artist who also helps students discover history at the Clermont State Historic Site.

In 2016, Emily Robinson, a professional comic artist and the site’s School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, founded History Comics Club, a unique program that connects underserved youth with their local history, builds an interest in art and writing, and helps create a sense of place at our historic site for students and their families in the community. Each student learns to draw their own comic while learning about the history of the 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.

Clermont State Historic Site, which remains closed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Friends of Clermont)

Thanks to funding from Friends of Clermont, History Comics Club has provided the program to more than 1,000 students from age 7 to 17, resulting in the program’s publication of five books of their collected comic art and prose.

“Drawing requires the students to look at the history represented at Clermont, from clothing and how homes looked, to pets that lived on the estate,” said Robinson. 

As part of her work to help introduce students to Clermont’s history, she created a series of comics from the point of view of the family dog, Punchy, who gives a “tour” of the mansion in his own inimitable way. View some of it here

Punchy the dog makes an appearance at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival in 2018 to introduce visitors to the history of Clermont.

During the pandemic, families are sheltering at home, and many children might feel anxious over what the future might hold. Art can be a powerful way of processing that anxiety and interpreting ongoing events through their eyes as part of a historical record.

“Art can be a great healer,” said Robinson. “It doesn’t matter how well you draw or write, it’s about being creative and conveying information.”

Emily Robinson’s comic version of herself urging students to consider creating their personal comic or other record of their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a child grows older, each piece of art will provide a window into their younger years, said Robinson, who recalled being in fifth grade during the September 11th terrorist attacks.

“I remember the confusion of those early days, and how my own teacher used art as a creative outlet,” she said. “I struggled writing the script for the COVID-19 comic, because I wanted to address kids in a way that wasn’t patronizing but didn’t scare them. They’re already stressed out; art should be a welcome window to self-expression.” Robinson continued, “I hope kids will feel pride that their artwork could help inform future historians’ understanding of life during the pandemic.” 

It does not take many supplies to start creating comics at home, a drawing pad and something to draw with. Robinson suggested that students may start with a basic sketch book, which includes stencils and general information on how to draw expressions and symbols. But almost any kind of white paper, like computer printer paper, will do.

During the last four years, Robinson has taken the program to the Hudson City School District, Germantown Central School District, Rhinebeck Central School District, and the Starr Library in Rhinebeck, as well as the Hudson Valley Writers’ Project in New Paltz. She also has presented on the program at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival and in 2018 hosted a panel at Comic Con in New York City.

Clermont’s Historic Site Manager, Susan Boudreau, is extremely proud of the program and what it offers to area children: “As I’ve seen over the life of the program, the art of making comics can make a great impact on the lives of our students. No student needs to have any artistic experience to participate, and some find that they are quite talented, which is so empowering. The openness of the comic genre encourages students to explore their own identities, fears, hopes, and dreams, which is a wonderful gift in these uncertain times.”

Emily Robinson, under her pen name Emily Ree, is best known for her young adult graphic novels, Anarchy Dreamers and Marshmallow Horns. You can see more of her work on her websites, EmilyRee.com and AnarchyDreamers..com.


Cover Photo: Emily Robinson’s comic representation of herself wearing a protective mask. All photos from New York State Parks.

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

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

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.