Early Sullivan County History
by Hope Farm Press
|The mention of Sullivan County to the average person brings visions of
hills, brooks, lakes with summer visitors completing the landscape. It is
all that the mind can picture and more. The hills are relations of the
Catskills, geologically, even if a visible connection is not apparent. The
mean altitude of the county is about 1,500 feet, and several ranges of
hills with wide intervales make up its surface. Some of the separate
elevations approach 2,000 feet. The Delaware River separates the county
from Pennsylvania, while the Shawangunk River marks the southeastern
boundary. The Neversink, rising in Ulster County, passes through a large
part of Sullivan before it enters Orange County, and there are a half
dozen smaller streams, affluents of the Delaware. The lakes are too
numerous to even list.
Geologically the county is interesting, but the minerals of its hills are of little commercial value. Few attempts have been made at mining, and these with little success. The clays, blue stone, and shales have proven of more value than the metals found. From an agricultural standpoint, the county is peculiarly located, for the soils are either of the red sandstone, which disintegrating, leaves little more than a colored sand, neither deep nor fertile. Or the soil in certain valleys, like the Mamakating, is glacial drift, giving a very uneven content, usually easily worked and reasonably rich. The sand soils, and sometimes the drift lands are underlaid with an impervious stratum which makes the surface cold, easily waterlogged and sterile. These remarks are not made with the intent to disparaging the soils of Sullivan, but rather to draw attention to the difficulties which have had to be faced and overcome, by those who followed the pioneers who had profited by the cutting of the timber, but did not stay to cultivate the land. It also, in a measure, explains why there is such a vacation spot so near the Metropolis with so much of the county still in a primitive state.
In the early days the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians over-ran the region and the Wolf tribe or Esopus Indians were the original owners of the land. In 1684 Governor Dungan bought of certain chiefs a tract of land extending from Palz on the Hudson to Murderer's Kill, and the next year purchased from another chief the land from that stream to Stoney Point. Ten years later, 1694, under Governor Fletcher, a patent was granted to one Captain Evans which covered the west bank of the Hudson for the 18 miles from Palz to Stony Point, extending westward for 30 miles. This grant was later annulled and renewed, and Evans tried to reap some benefit from these grants, but when an old man all he secured was another and less valuable tract. Later there were other purchases from the Indians, but of the grants the Minisink and Hardenbergh are the most important and greatly influenced the type of colonization, and caused many of the difficulties which arose later in the development of Sullivan.
The Minisink patent issued to Matthew Ling and twenty others on August 28, 1807, covered originally 250,000 acres, but was illegally added to by the owners by 50,000 acres east of the true boundaries. For many years the State of New Jersey claimed and held a large part of the Minisink grant. In 1769 a commission was appointed to settle the boundary between the two States, which decided the matter in favor of New York, and established the present line from the Hudson to the Delaware. On March 15-22 of the year 1716, Major Johannes Hardenbergh bought of the Esopus Indians, through their sachem Nanisinos, the immense tract of land since known as the Hardenbergh patent, which covered the greater part of Sullivan County, not located in the Minisink patent. For this vast domain the sum of 60 Pounds was paid, less than one mill an acre. On April 20, 1708, this purchase was legally confirmed and the "Major Hardenbergh patent" was granted to Hardenbergh and six others. Shares in this patent quickly changed hands, but the terms under which the land was sold or leased were so varied and onerous that it not only greatly retarded the settlement of the district but tangled the title to many a tract for a century.
There seems to have been little attempt to settle this region until after the Revolution. Previous to 1790 there were few people in the area except the Mamakating, Lumberland, Cochecton and Neversink districts. But shortly after this date Robert Livingston, who had purchased five-sixteenths of the Hardenbergh patent with others, pushed the location of men on their lands by either sale or lease, and by 1800 there were more than 3,000 inhabitants of the county.
For the better handling of the legal affairs of the region, a movement was started for the setting off of this territory as a separate county, which led to the organization of Sullivan by the Legislature on March 27, 1809 The name was chosen to honor the hero of the march through the Indian country of 1779, General John Sullivan, who passed, on his way on this punitive expedition, through part of the county. A three-cornered contest for the county seat was precipitated by the desire to be chosen for this honor, by Liberty, Thompsonville and Monticello. But the latter had a great advantage in being on the Newburgh and Cochecton turnpike, the great thoroughfare between the Hudson and the Delaware. Or it may have been the skill of its champions. But whatever the cause Monticello, "Heavenly mountain," was chosen as the shiretown and a site for a courthouse soon after selected. But such was the opposition, and disappointment over the result that, although only a simple frame building was under construction, it took from 1811 to 1814 before there was a place for the courts to meet. On the I3th of January, 1844, a great fire swept the county seat destroying, with other structures, the county's buildings. Before the ashes were cold a fight was on for a change of shiretowns. But after a long and animated controversy Monticello was empowered to rebuild the courts, and since then the question of change has not recurred.
There were two events which had much to do with the early development of the county, and the types and nationalities of its people. The first was the construction of the Newburgh and Cochecton Turnpike. The company which built this highway was chartered March 20, 1801, and the road in question connected the Hudson with the Delaware. It not only solved the transportation problem of the two districts, but was the means and the way by which the district was settled, and its completion antedates but little the formation of the county.
The other important event was the building of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. Pennsylvania coal had come into use in the early eighteen hundreds, but the inability to get it to market from mines except by the most extraordinary effort and primitive methods, greatly retarded the use of this new material. William Wurts and his brother Maurice had the vision to look for a cheap way of sending coal into New York in immense tonnage, and, after exploring many land and water routes, saw the feasibility of a canal through the valley whose outlet should be at Kingston. A company was formed, with a capitalization of $1,500,000; work was begun in 1826 and completed two years later.
The history of this remarkable piece of engineering is out of place here, but the fact that many of the residents of Sullivan are descendants of the men who worked on this canal is worthy of note. The Irish famine of '47 sent some from that country to the States, and some of them wandered into the county, but the Irish names, which are so intimately connected with Sullivan history, are names of those who came in the canal period and made here their home.
The Erie Canal had a depleting effect on Sullivan as it did on most of the southern counties. Accessibility to so great a market as New York was becoming, had encouraged its agriculture, enlarged its population, given it prosperity. When that water way was opened in 1829, there was a great movement to lands along its lines, especially to the west. Farm lands in Western New York during the next twenty years jumped from prices lower than those of Sullivan to $60, while those of the county dropped from four to two. The interior of the county had but one outlet, and that over two high mountains, and the soils could not be said to be rich or easily worked.