A Catskill Catalog: Aug. 18, 2010

“I don’t know much about Rondout,” I said to a friend. We’d been talking about the Strand, the riverside section of Kingston.

“Didn’t you read Bob’s book?” he asked, a bit surprised when I said I hadn’t. What is particularly neat about this conversation is that “Bob” refers not only to Catskill Mountain historian, poet, and writer Bob Steuding, but also to my friend’s favorite college teacher (30 some-odd years ago) Robert Steuding, still Professor of English at Ulster County Community College.

So, I went out and bought Bob’s book, Rondout: A Hudson River Port (Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, 1995 and 2009). Happily, regional books are increasingly available in an expanding number of local stores.

Bob Steuding grew up in Hurley, a self-proclaimed “country boy” who joined the faculty of an upstart community college in his home county, and helped build it into the strong regional educational institution SUNY Ulster has become. Along the way he’s published a couple of books of poetry; a collection of reflections on the outdoors, hiking in the mountains; and several works of regional history.

His Last of the Homemade Dams (Purple Mountain Press, 1989) is the definitive history of the building of the Ashokan Reservoir, the first of New York City’s forays for water from the Catskills. The Heart of the Catskills (Purple Mountain Press, 2008) is an essential social history of the people who, adapting to the challenges of mountain living, created here, a vibrant mountain way of life.

The Rondout book is a similar social history, telling the story of the people who, over a period of 400 years, made Rondout a hub of human interaction, commerce and productivity. Bob Steuding is a storyteller, a careful researcher who weaves historical fact and detail into an incident-by-incident tale, full of characters whose pluck, perseverance and vision drive the story.

One such character is Thomas Chambers, “an English carpenter and early immigrant to the New World,” who, just might be the first European settler on the lands where the Rondout Creek meets the Hudson. Using scanty historical records, Steuding traces Chambers from New Amsterdam in 1642 to the Patroonship of Rensselearswyk, up river, across from Albany, in 1646, to the Rondout, evidently establishing a farm there in the 1650s.

Now why should this matter to us, here, in the Catskills?

History is the story of the past pieced together from written records. The Lenni Lanape, native peoples of the Rondout and Esopus Creeks, of the Delaware River and the Catskills, left no written records. For their story, we must rely on archeology, the story of the past pieced together from artifacts.

History begins with writing, so Catskill Mountain history begins with Robert Juet’s journal, kept aboard the Half Moon when it sailed up the Hudson, in 1609, and crew member Juet wrote, “The Land grew very high and Mountainous.”

So the deeds, invoices, and journal books that document Thomas Chambers as the first settler at Rondout document the start of a history that leads from that first settlement on the river at Rondout to a retreat to higher ground that became Kingston. Thomas Chambers played a part in the provocation of the Indians that led to the Esopus Wars of the 1650s and the building of a 12-foot stockade of stripped saplings around the site of today’s uptown business district.

First came Rondout, then came Kingston (called Wiltwyck at first.) Later came the need for additional fields for Kingston settlers, who created a path to the Hurley flats, today’s Lucas Avenue. In 1769, farmers from Hurley would seek woodlots in the mountains, leading several to migrate through the mountains to the East Branch of the Delaware, the first settlers in what is Margaretville today.

So our history kind of starts in Rondout. Catskill Mountain history starts at the Hudson River. Bob Steuding’s book on the Rondout is an important addition to my collection of Catskill Mountain books.

Archeology tells us quite a bit about the presence of native peoples here, with much of it coming from the Pakatakan flat between Margaretville and Arkville. Ten-thousand-year-old artifacts have been found there.

Woodstock painter Judy Abbot has a show at The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development’s Erpf Gallery in Arkville you ought to see. Called “Pakatakan: Paintings of Spirit and Place,” the exhibit is comprised of 22 oil paintings of Pakatakan, each a compelling landscape of that place.

Judy Abbot is Native-American, herself, and something of a mountain protégé of the late Alf Evers, great chronicler of Catskill lore. A trained and accomplished artist, the detail in her paintings is exquisite, intricately accurate down to the leaf on a distant tree. Her muted greens, browns, and yellows whisper of earth and of something beyond earth, something in her composed window-on-place that is momentary, yet eternal, that has witnessed so much and changed so little, that seems the very thing we have loved about the Catskills and its river flats for 10,000 years.
© Willaim Birns