The History of the Town of Rockland
By Wilmer Sipple Town of Rockland Historian
The Indian & Colonial Period
The History of the Town of Rockland is largely a history of the surroundings of the Beaverkill and Willowemoc river basins. This region was the borderland between the Iroquois nations to the North and the Algonquin of the South. The Lenni-Lenapes, a branch of the Delaware tribes, were in the majority. Although defeated by the Iroquois, they remained active under the leadership of their chief Nanismos and continued to enjoy the protective preserve with an abundance of fish and game which included deer, elk, moose, wolves, bear, panthers, and other fur bearing animals. Wild geese, ducks, and turkey provided ready food at all times.
Presbyterian Church, Roscoe, NY
A decimated group of Tuscaroras from the Carolinas took refuge in the area. A tribe member by the name of Tunis was brought up in the home of John Osterhout, an Indian scout and guide, living near Pepaction. Although Tunis was refused the hand of a white girl; he continued to be a friend of the white man. On one occasion he crept into an Indian camp and freed John Osterhout and Silas Bowker, caught spying for the Hudson Bay Company. He also discovered a lead mine and supplied the white men with the lead they sorely needed for bullets. Although located near Tunis Lake, the whereabouts of this mine still remains a mystery to this day. Tunis acted as a guide for the Marquis de Lafayette on a hunting trip into the Beaverkill valley. Lafayette presented him with a gun for his services.
From the beginning, Rockland was a savage paradise, difficult to penetrate except by the Indian trails in the area. The most important ones were the Sun Trail, Cross Mountain Trail, Berry Brook Trail, Beaverkill Trail and the Mary Smith Trail. The Sun Trail ran from Hudson River to the East Branch of the Delaware and was so called because an Indian or scout could start running at sun-up and reach the other end by sun-down.
The First Settlers & Township Development
The renowned Hardenburgh Patent set the stage for the eventual development of the Catskills. Johannes Hardenburgh and associates petitioned for a royal grant. In 1709, Queen Ann granted the “Hardenburgh Patent,” an immense tract of around two million acres, with the stipulation that the original patentees had to give satisfaction to the Indian landlords by buying their interest in the land. The entire tract of land comprised parts of Delaware, Greene, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties. Hardenburgh made his purchase from Nanismos, chief of the Lenni-Lenapes. In a very short time, a new owner, Robert Livingston, appeared on the scene and in less than forty years he acquired title to almost half of the entire patent leaving Johannes with only three-sixteenths. Livingston Manor, Roscoe and Rockland are located in Great Lot #4 containing 94,608 acres of land.
At the close of the Revolutionary War, scouts and land viewers from Massachusetts and Connecticut visited the Big Beaverkill Flats and reported the existence of 10,000 acres of rich level land covered with pine, hemlock and laurel. For a number of years, only trappers attempted to pioneer the area because of troublesome Indians and lack of passable roads.
The first settlers in the Town of Rockland were the Jehiel Stewart family and his brother Luther, who came from Middletown, Connecticut. They located and remained about a year in Wawarsing and in 1789 set out for Big Beaverkill Flats driving his livestock ahead of an ox-sled loaded with household goods. It was an arduous journey taking two weeks because they had to hack there way along the narrow trail to get the sled through. The Stewarts followed the well know Sun trail which was used by the savages who massacred Lieutenant Graham and his men at Grahamsville in the battle of Chestnut Woods. The trail followed the Lackawack up the hills of Neversink, then across the town of Liberty, and down the Beaverkill Trail to the Big Beaverkill Flats. Later on they continued to Lower Westfield and then Westfield
Flats now known as Roscoe, which was named after Roscoe Conklin, New York State Senator. Stewart bought from John Livingston, Lot No. 24 where he built the first log cabin in the area. His farm occupied the area of Roscoe extending from Stewart Avenue (named after the founder) to School Street. Jehiel Stewart ran the first inn at Westfield Flats and brother Luther built the first sawmill. By 1800, all the lots from Beaverkill ford above Rockland to the forks, now named “Junction Pool”, and up the Willowemoc to Buck Eddy were occupied. Most of the settlers were neighbors and relatives of the Stewarts.
The location was at the time a part of the town of Rochester in Ulster County. In 1798 it became a part of Neversink and in 1909 a bill was introduced in the legislature to cut off the western part of Neversink to form Rockland. The Town of Rockland was legally established on April 1, 1910 and Israel Dodge was its first Supervisor. In the early days the Roscoe-Rockland locality was known as lower Westfield, as distinguished from upper Westfield, now known as Livingston Manor. It was settled by Mr. Harrington in 1790. Before the establishment of Livingston Manor in 1882 there was Morsston to the East and Purvis to the West. Morsston was located near the South line of the Little Beaverkill stream. In the mid 19th Century it contained one tannery, a school, two blacksmith shops, one sawmill, and 250 residents. Purvis was located on the Willowemoc at the junction of the Little Beaverkill, now the center of Livingston Manor. The Village was named after Dr. Edward Livingston who lived in his manor house on upper Main Street where the present firehouse is located. With the influx of new settlers there was a great need for tools and the necessities of life. William Sprague and Heziah opened up the first store at Westfield in 1820.
About this time, John Hunter had an idea of making the Sun trail into a road soon after acquiring title to his 29,700 acres. He employed Able Sprague to cut and grade the road. When finished in 1815, it opened up settlements in Shin Creek, Beaverkill, Craig-E-Claire, Turnwood and Rockland.
Our first settlers were kept very busy clearing the forests which provided an early source of income because of the ready market for logs and lumber. Logs were lashed together to form pony rafts to float down the Willowemoc and Beaverkill rivers to the Delaware at East Branch, where they were made into larger rafts for the trip down the Delaware River to Trenton and Philadelphia.
Many of the new settlers were unable to purchase land or enter into lease agreements with any hope of ever owning the land. They were obligated to pay an annual rent of wheat or other commodities such as “two fat hens.” There were also many restrictions on the use of the land and rents were low at first and then increased. This was a form of the ancient Dutch Patroon System which soon resulted in the “Anti Rent Wars.” The Constitution of New York State was finally amended making perpetual rent illegal and opened the way for tenants to gain title to their lands.
With the improvement of roads into the area, the life of pioneers grew easier; business began to boom and many new settlers came to share in the abundance of the area. The Delhi-Esopus Turnpike provided a transportation route to the North. Turnwood settlers were connected to this highway by taking the Cross Mountain road with easy access to Kingston, and settlers in the South used the Hunter Road. The stage was now set for the Railroads which opened the area and promoted the great boom of the resort area.
This article was compiled with information from the
Roscoe Bicentennial booklets and Pioneer magazine.