The Lordly Hudson

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The life of the small Dutch river towns before the American Revolution was far from the pastoral idyl that Washington living, James Paulding, and their contemporaries later suggested. The newcomers to these communities had not come to the big stream seeking refuge from religious persecution or from governmental tyranny. They had come seeking wealth, and they had found it not in the copper or silver that Robert Tuet had once thought likely to exist at river’s end, but in beaver pelts so valuable and so easily come by that they were often used as currency in the local economy. The river was a frontier, and law and order had obtained scant foothold. Yelling and shooting, drunken young bloods galloped through the narrow streets of the towns as wildly as would the cowboys and badmen of a Wild West that would not exist in America for another 200 years. Food was plentiful and the Dutch pioneers ate prodigiously, and what they ate they washed down with liquors so strong as to be affectionately titled Kill Devil, Bride’s Tears, Great and Small Fisheries. They were a quarrelsome, rough people, fond of jokes, and at the same time practical and of a whimsical turn. In a sermon, good Dominie Bogardus wounded the local governing officials with a blistering attack: “In Africa which has a climate of intense heat different species of animals come together by which various monsters of men are generated. But I know not from whence, in such a temperate climate as this, such monsters of men are produced.” The colony’s director answered by listing the Dominie’s services in two categories—those conducted when “dead drunk” and those conducted when “pretty drunk.” Then, to keep his congregation from hearing the good man’s deadly riposte on the next Sunday, the Fort Amsterdam Drum Corps were ordered to beat loudly on their instruments at the church door during the sermon, and the fort cannon was discharged frequently.

The people of the Hudson Valley were not slow to wrath in the days before the American Revolution. The Dutch residents joined heartily with those of British and German descent to let England know that they resented British tyranny. Their defiance has been less publicized than that of the New England area, but it was equally angry and violent. The “Battle of Golden Hill,” in which members of the Sons of Liberty and their sympathizers set upon detachments of troops sent into the New York streets to enforce order, rallied the anti-British citizenry some time before the comparable struggle known as the “Boston Massacre.” In 1766, Westchester County farmers, protesting the feudal practices o! the valley manor lords, enlisted under Kilkenny-born William Prendergast to march upon New York, and it was a detachment of these agrarian rebels who, taking shelter in a Putnam County cornfield, fired volleys that brought down two of the hated redcoats. Though these were not shots “heard round the world,” some historians are inclined to regard them as among the first rounds of the revolt against British rule.

Once the Revolution had begun, the British high command very sensibly decided on a divide-and-conquer policy and sought to separate the New England colonies from their allies by winning to themselves the wide stream that separated Yankee-land from the rebelling forces to the west. A stubborn and sometimes inspired defense, and the great good fortune of General George Washington and his armies, kept ths Hudson from ever falling completely into enemy hands. And this contributed mightily to the winning of the War of Independence.

No sooner had galloping riders brought to the Hudson’s banks news of the battles of Lexington and Concord than more than 200 men of the Coxsackie area met to sign a proclamation that the people of the Hudson’s great valley had taken their stand and were firm in their decision “never to become slaves.” Two months before the better-known pronouncement at Mecklenburg in North Carolina, and over a year before the signing at Philadelphia of the Declaration of Independence, these men of many national heritagesDutch, French, German, Swedish—affixed their names to a vow that they would be ruled in the future only by laws that they themselves had agreed upon.