Onteora Scout Reservation:
Walking Through Time

My thanks to Jean-Pierre Moreau for sending me a copy of this history of the Onteora area.  It was apparently written in 1967 by the Assistant Reservation Director, Ralph Foster.


By R.M. Foster

The Scouts who pitch their tents in the "Land in the Sky" have from the very beginning traditionally been hikers. In their travels through the hills and forests they regularly pass artifacts and signs of the people who have gone before - fascinating indicators of mans struggle with these same hills and forests, and with other men. This history of the Onteora country is written as an aid to staff and leaders in helping the young ones better read the signs of these struggles. It is to be hoped that many a campfire and trail will be richer from the narrations that occur as a result of this material.

In 1609 Henry Hudson sailed up the river which now bears his name. He sailed to a creek which history has not been able to identify. It seems to have been either the present day Rondout or Esophus.

Hudson bestowed the name Kaatskills and again the name is shrouded in uncertainty. Historians today argue vehemently as to its meaning, either Wildcat Creek or Catskill Mountains. At any rate the name stuck and today Onteora is located in what is known as the southern tier (level or layer) of the Catskill Mountains.

Before even the days of Hudson and the coming of white man, a trail ran from the Indian village of Oquaga on the Susquehanna River near the present city of Binghamton, New York, to Kingston, New York, on the Hudson River. It was called the Sun Trail by the Indians who so named it because it went from the setting to the rising sun (West to East). It was the principal route of the Leni Lenapes of’ the Sophus tribe who lived at Oquago with their agricultural grounds in the fertile valley of the upper Roundout Creek.

In the East, it started at Wawasing (now spelled Warwarsing) and followed Westward up the Rondout Kill through what is now Grahamsville, over Wyman Hill, across the Neversink at Halls Mills and continuing westward through the Willowemoc to Brown’s Settlement on the hills east of the fish hatchery. From there it crossed Mongaup Creek, continuing across the full width of Onteora to the Beaverkill where it joins Shin Creek. The settlement there known as Shin Creek is today Lew Beach known as the summer home of Irving Berlin.

The Indians of Oquoga made the mistake of choosing the side of the British in the Revolutionary War and in 1779 Col. Butler of Fort Shandakan (today known as Kingston) destroyed the village.

Although white men came to the foothills of the dreaded mountains soon after settling in New Amsterdam (New York City) in 1613 to establish a trading post at the junction of the Rondout and the Hudson, it was 175 years before a settler began clearing ground and building a cabin in the Beaverkill valley.

In 1808 Queen Anne granted to Johannas Hardenburg and his associates, the Hardenburg Patent, a tract of land of approximately 2,000,000 acres. Some of the holders of considerable acreage within the patent were Robinson, Verplank, Allen, R.L. and Johanna Livingston, and John Hunter. Alder Lake, which is in the present day town of Hardenburg, was in the Robinson tract and was bounded on the north by the Verplank-Allen tract. The Livingstons established their manor on the Willowemoc at today's village of Livingston Manor.

Into this land, across the Sun Trail in 1789 came Jojeil Stewart, the first white settler into the Beaverkill Valley.

Shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War the owners of these large tracts of land began advertising and offering acreage for sale or lease. Most of the lands in Alder Lake and Beaverkill were offered for 75 cents per acre or leased on terms similar to those contained in an advertisement by John B. Livingston which read "To be leased for 3 levels on the following terms, viz. three years next after date of the lease, free - the fourth year the rate of 5 bushels of wheat per 100 acres; fifth year, 10 bushels per 100 acres; after which and during the continuance of the lease, bushels per 100 acres." This meant that $5.25 per year would pay the purchase money interest on 100 acres at first but that after five years, the interest would amount to $20 per year.

Demand for acreage grew ad rent terms became more unequal. The hardships of the renters to meet the rent grew by the year and gradually solidified into resentment against the old patroon system of the Netherlands.

James Debroosess owned 60,000 acres of Great Lot # 5 of the Hardenburg Patent. At his death the land went equally to his daughters Elizabeth Debroosses and Charlotte Overing. Elizabeth married John Hunter and in 1811 the sisters deeded their lands to their respective husbands which was the custom. Soon after John Hunter hired Able Sprague to clear a road eastward along the Sun Trail, free of stumps and rocks starting at Shin Crock (Lew Beach).

This road, cut in 1815, jointed up at Grahamsville with another road which ran to Warwarsing the eastern end of the Sun Trail. This road cut on the orders of John Hunter became known as the Hunter Road and today at Onteora is the southern side of the Yellow Trail east of the bridge at the lake and is the Blue Trail to the Beaverkill Road west of the bridge.

This road, built right after the War of 1812, opened the territory to the migration of people which seems to occur after every war.

The people whose resentment had been steadily growing against what was termed absentee landlords and high rents erupted in 1838 in Van Rensselaer County. There began a movement of the tenants known as the Anti Rent War. Soon the news spread to the Beaverkill Valley and both the non-renters and the renters organized into a group known as the antirenters and refused to meet the terms of their leases.

At Browns Settlement, in the Church and in the Karst Home, which is now the site of one of our overnight campsites, the anti renters of the upper Beaverkill and Willowemoc Valleys held their meetings and formulated their program of resistance against the legal actions to come from the landlords. In this war there were two factions, one which sought to prove that perpetual rent was a bad and illegal thing and the other which said we have no more allegiance to the king since we have won our independence therefore his laws are no longer in effect so we don't pay rent.

The anti renters had a newspaper at Delhi called the Voice of the People. They favored peaceful means but pressed the cause with vigor and made strong demands to be given a chance to purchase their land in fee simple (out right).

Disguised as Indians, organized bands of tenant farmers went to the aid of their neighbors when the sheriff came to dispossess them. These disguises featured grotesque masks and calico clothes. They were known as Sheepskin Indians.

After the killing of Under Sheriff Steele of Delaware County, when he undertook to seize the cattle of Moses Earle of Andes to satisfy a landlord’s claim for rent, the governor took notice of the seriousness of the situation and the constitution of New York State was amended in 1846 making perpetual rent illegal and providing a way for all tenants to eventually acquire a title to their land.

The industries of the Catskills have changed with the destroying of its natural resources and the invasion of its wilderness by roads and railroads.

The hide tanning industry which began after the war of 1812 resulted in the "Bark Peelers", men who removed the bark from hemlock trees for the tannin used in tanning leather. This industry held sway as the main industry of the Catskills until the Civil War in 1865. The first authentic record of a tannery in the mountains is for one built by Palen in 1817 near the present village of Palenville in the northern Catskills. 100 trees were needed to tan one cow hide and in 1865, the final year of the Civil War with its demand for soldiers boots, 150,000 skins were tanned in Sullivan County; the county in which Onteora is located. Remains of these giant trees left to rot with only the bark removed can still be found on the Onteora property today as long piles of decaying red brown wood.

The water operated mill industries - saw mills and grain mills - held sway from 1830 to 1890. Smith Mill, a water wheel operated saw mill was on Alder Creek just below the big house on the Alder Lake property. The foundation of another mill can still be seen at the falls on Mongaup Creek on our Yellow Trail.

With the end of the tanning industry well into the 1880’s, lumbering became the area’s prime industry. Rafting, a skill of the river lumberman, held prestige as "colts" or small rafts of logs were floated down the Beaverkill to be made into big rafts at East Branch and Hancock on the Delaware.

The steam engine and circular saws came in 1860 and the railroad to Rockland in 1875 marked the end of the rafting and lumbering industries which moved to New York City.

Blue Stone Quarrying which started in 1840 at Kingston hit its peak as a source of materials for roads in the 1880’s as Portland cement, invented a few years previously gradually replacing it.

Another industry which held considerable sway in the middle 1800’s starting at about the same time as the Blue Stone and hardwood lumbering was the Scoop and Hoop Makers. This industry came in after the destruction of the hemlock forests when the hardwoods of today began to take over. These were skilled workers who made wooden scoops and wooden hoops for barrels. The buildings at Turnwood where the Alder Lake Trail crosses the Beaverkill was one of these factories. The Catskill industry was gradually squeezed out by the same industry in the mid west around 1890 and the whole wooden hoop industry was eventually wiped out with the development of the metal hoop.

In 1890-1915 the tourists came to the Beaverkill Valley and Catskills in general.

That's the end of this history lesson, so, when you're ready, please head back to the Onteora history page or the main Onteora page.