A Catskill Catalog: April 7, 2010
The first produce of the Catskills to achieve commercial value were seeds of the balsam fir. That’s right, evergreen seeds. Seems that landscape gardening was all the rage in 18th-century England. As early as the 1730s, trendsetting English aristocrats were abandoning the formal, geometric gardens of the Age of Reason - clipped, shaped hedges, and low, carefully managed sightlines - for wilder, more natural landscapes. The wild plants of the American colonies were much prized, and the balsam fir, known then as the Balm of Gilead Tree, was highly sought after.
Balsam fir - Abies balsamea – is native to eastern and central Canada, and the upper rim of the U.S. from Maine to Wisconsin to Minnesota. The Balsam fir thrives at higher elevations, often crowded out of valley forests by taller rival species. On many Catskill mountaintops, balsam fir is plentiful, so plentiful as to have given the name to Ulster County’s 3,600-foot Balsam Mountain.
The pitch from the balsam fir has important medicinal qualities. Native peoples long used the sticky balm as an antiseptic and healing agent. Prepared as a tea, balsam pitch has been used to treat ailments ranging from earaches to dysentery to scurvy. Eighteenth century British landscape gardeners and country gentlemen sought it for its ornamental attraction.
Today, the balsam fir is highly prized as a Christmas tree. Balsam firs offer a pleasing symmetrical and conical shape; soft, lush, short-needled greenery; and a woodsy, pungent fragrance. Those qualities, prized today, were equally prized in the 1700s.
But add to that, in those 1700s, the romance associated with this Balm of Gilead Tree: the natural medicine of its sticky, fragrant pitch; its indigenous Indian-lore strangeness; the biblical association of its very name. The young and the hip and the educated of the English 18th-Century were gradually embracing Romanticism: the notion that wisdom and truth were to be found in the natural wilderness, in exotic locales, in the primitive simplicity of uncorrupted humanity. The balsam fir fit right in.
Enter John Bartram, “the father of American botany.” Born in Pennsylvania in 1699, Bartram was encouraged, by Benjamin Franklin and others, to study and catalog the plant life of America. In 1753 he explored the Catskills. His primary purpose: to find the Balm of Gilead Tree, and bring back its seeds.
Bartram had what every enterprising young man in America needed to maximize success – a partner in England. London cloth merchant Peter Collinson was a Quaker, like Bartram, and like Bartram, keenly interested in botany. The two entered a lifelong mutual aid, with Collinson sending books and the latest scientific information to Bartram, and Bartram sending field notes and specimens to the Englishman. They never met.
It was at Collinson’s request that Bartram entered the Catskills in search of balsam. He brought with him his 14-year-old son, William, and called the account of his trip he wrote in his field notes, “A Journey to ye Cats kill mountains with billy 1753” (sic).
The two traveled to the mountains from the south, crossing the Delaware at Easton, Pennsylvania, and following the Delaware Water Gap northward on the New Jersey side. They probably took the old mine road north. That’s state Route 209 today, and one of the oldest roads in America, built in 1650, 104 miles long. From Esopus the river would carry them to Catskill settlement.
John and Billy Bartram entered the Catskills from the east, from the Hudson River bottom near today’s Kiskatom, below North and South lakes up on the mountaintop. Up the summertime-dry bed of Silver Creek, father and son forayed into the mountains. On the banks of those twin lakes, they found Balm of Gilead. Oh, happy day.
Alas, the seeds didn’t take too well in England and the whole venture came to very little, except that the Catskill Mountains were explored, at least a small, but vitally important part of the Catskills. Something else happened too.
That something else happened when John and young Billy Bartram were up there on the mountaintop, up on the banks of North Lake, where the Catskill Mountain House would later stand, where, today, a major New York State park attracts thousands every summer. Young Billy Bartram reached for what he thought was a fungus.
“A rattlesnake, my son,” cried John Bartram, as he pulled away his son’s hand.
Forty years later, William Bartram would recount that incident in his 1791 book Travels with John Bartram, a widely read and influential book published in Philadelphia, then capital of our fledgling republic. “When in my youth,” William Bartram had written as he introduced the anecdote of the rattlesnake, “attending my father on a journey to the Catskill Mountains, in the government of New York…,” he continued.
He need not continue for us. That 1791 sentence is the first printed mention of the Catskill Mountains in all our history. Right there, in a book, in 1791. The Catskill Mountains got mentioned by name, and written about, for the very first time. That’s something.