Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 11

The Catskill Mountains by Irving

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
THE CATSKILL MOUNTAINS, BY IRVING.-Their Name.-Description of Them.-The Alleghanies.-Their Extent.-Hudson River.-A Voyage on it. -An Indian Trader.-Early Legends.-Storms and Clouds.-American Climate and Scenery.-Gold among the Catskills.-Governor Kieft.-Van der Donk.-De La Montagne.-Arent Corsen.-Van Slechtenhorst.-Death of Kieft.-Silver Ore.-Search for it.-Fearful Rain Storm.-Its Effects.-History of Van der Donk.-His Writings.-Sketch of La Montagne.-Van Slyke's Patent.- Claims of Van Rensselaer and Others. -The Silver Mine. -The Tempest.-Colonel Stone.-Catskill, the Valley of Cauterskill, and the Mountains.-Lawrences.-The Mountain House.-View from thence.-A Thunder Storm.

The sketch which follows is from a work entitled "Spanish Papers, and other Miscellanies hitherto unpublished or uncollected, by Washington Irving, arranged and edited by Pierre M. Irving, in two volumes. New York, 1866." What is here given is from Vol. ii., pages 480-487 :

The Catskill, Katskill, or Cat River Mountains, derived their name in the time of the Dutch Domination, from the catamounts by which they were infested, and which, with the bear and the deer, are still found in some of their most difficult recesses. The interior of these mountains is in the highest degree wild and romantic. Here are rocky precipices mantled with primeval forests, deep gorges walled in by beetling cliffs, with torrents tumbling as it were from the sky, and savage glens rarely trodden except by the hunter. With all this internal rudeness, the aspect of these mountains towards the Hudson at times is eminently bland and beautiful, sloping down into a country softened by cultivation and bearing much of the rich character of Italian scenery about the skirts of the Appenines.

The Catskills form an advanced post or lateral spur of the great Alleghanian or Appalachian system of mountains, which sweeps through the interior of our continent from southwest to northeast, from Alabama to the extremity of Maine, for nearly fourteen hundred miles, belting the whole of our original confederacy, and rivalling our great system of lakes in extent and grandeur. Its vast ramifications comprise a number of parallel chains and lateral groups, such as the Cumberland Mountains, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghanies, the Delaware and Lehigh, the Highlands of the Hudson, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In many of these vast ranges or sierras Nature still reigns in indomitable wildness; their rocky ridges, their rugged clefts and defiles teem with magnificent vegetation. Here are locked up mighty forests that have never been invaded by the axe; deep umbrageous valleys, where the virgin soil has never been outraged by the plough; bright streams flowing in untasked idleness, unburdened by commerce, unchecked by the milldam. This mountain zone is, in fact, the great poetical region of our country, resisting, like the tribes which once inhabited it, the taming hand of cultivation, and maintaining a hallowed ground for fancy and the Muses. It is a magnificent and all-pervading feature that might have given our country a name, and a poetical one, had not the all-controlling powers of commonplace determined otherwise.

The Catskill Mountains, as I have observed, maintain all the internal wildness of the labyrinth of mountains with which they are connected. Their detached position, overlooking a wide lowland region, with the majestic Hudson rolling through it, has given them a distinct character, and rendered them, at all times, a rallying point for romance and fable. Much of the fanciful associations with which they have been clothed may be owing to their being peculiarly subject to those beautiful atmospherical effects, which constitute one of the great charms of Hudson River scenery. To me they have ever been the fairy region of the Hudson. I speak, however, from early impressions, made in the happy days of boyhood, when all the world had a tinge of fairyland. I shall never forget my first view of these mountains. It was in the course of a voyage up the Hudson, in the good old times, before steamboats and railroads had driven all poetry and romance out of travel. A voyage up the Hudson in those days was equal to a voyage to Europe at present, and cost almost as much time; but we enjoyed the river then; we relished it as we did our wine, sip by sip; not as at present, gulping all down at a draught, without tasting it. My whole voyage up the Hudson was full of wonder and romance. I was a lively boy, somewhat imaginative, of easy faith, and prone to relish everything that partook of the marvellous. Among the passengers on board the sloop was a veteran Indian trader, on his way to the Lakes, to traffic with the natives. He had discovered my propensity, and amused himself throughout the voyage by telling me Indian legends and grotesque stories about every noted place on the river, such as Spuyten Devil Creek, the Tappan Sea, the Devil's Darts Kammer, and other hobgoblin places. The Catskill Mountains, especially, called forth a host of fanciful traditions. We were all day slowly tiding along in sight of them, so that he had full time to weave his whimsical narratives. In these mountains, he told me, according to Indian belief, was kept the great treasury of storm and sunshine for the region of the Hudson. An old squaw spirit had charge of it, who dwelt on the highest peak of the mountain. Here she kept day and night shut up in her wigwam, letting out only one of them at a time. She made new moons every month, and hung them up in the sky, cutting up the old ones into stars. The great Manitou or master spirit employed her to manufacture clouds. Sometimes she wove them out of cobwebs, gossamers, and morning dew, and sent them off, flake after flake, to float in the air and give light summer showers. Sometimes she would brew up black thunder-storms, and send down drenching rains, to swell the streams and sweep everything away. He had many stories, also, about mischievous spirits, who infested the mountains, in the shape of animals, and played all kinds of pranks upon Indian hunters, decoying them into quagmires and morasses, or to the brinks of torrents and precipices. All these were doled out to me as I lay on the deck, throughout a long summer's day, gazing upon these mountains, the ever-changing shapes and bites of which appeared to realize the magical influences in question. Sometimes they seemed to approach, at others to recede; during the heat of the day they almost melted into a sultry haze; as the day declined they deepened in tone; their summits were brightened by the last rays of the sun, and later in the evening their whole outline was printed in deep purple against an amber sky. As I beheld them, thus shifting continually before my eye, and listened to the marvellous legends of the trader, a host of fanciful notions concerning them was conjured into my brain, which have haunted it ever since.

As to the Indian superstitions concerning the treasury of storms and sunshine and the cloud-weaving spirits, they may have been suggested by the atmospherical phenomena of these mountains, the clouds which gather round their summits, and the thousand aerial effects which indicate the changes of weather over a great extent of country. They are epitomes of our variable climate, and are stamped with all its vicissitudes. And here let me say a word in favor of those vicissitudes, which are too often made the subject of exclusive repining. If they annoy us occasionally by changes from hot to cold, from wet to dry, they give us one of the most beautiful climates in the world,the brilliant sunshine of the south of Europe, with the fresh verdure of the north. They float our summer sky with clouds of gorgeous tints or fleecy whiteness, and send down cooling showers to refresh the panting earth and keep it green. Our seasons are all poetical, the phenomena of our heavens are full of sublimity and beauty. Winter, with us, has none of its proverbial gloom. It may have its howling winds and chilling frosts and whirling snow-storms; but it has also its long intervals of cloudless sunshine, when the snow-clad earth gives redoubled brightness to the day; when, at night, the stars beam with intensest lustre, or the moon floods the whole landscape with her most limpid radiance; and then the joyous outbreak of our spring, bursting at once into leaf and blossom, redundant with vegetation, and vociferous with life. And the splendors of our summer, - its morning voluptuousness and evening glory, - its airy palaces of sun-gilt clouds, piled up in a deep azure sky, and its gusts of tempest of almost tropical grandeur, when the forked lightning and the bellowing thunder volley from the battlements of heaven and shake the sultry atmosphere; and the sublime melancholy of our autumn, magnificent in its decay, withering down the pomp and pride of a woodland country, yet reflecting back from its yellow forests the golden serenity of the sky! Surely, we may say, in our climate, " The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth forth His handiwork: day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge."

A word more concerning the Catskills. It is not the Indians only to whom they have been a kind of wonderland. In the early times of the Dutch dynasty we find them themes of golden speculation, among even the sages of New Amsterdam. During the administration of Wilhelmus Kieft, there was a meeting between the Director of the New Netherlands and the chiefs of the Mohawk Nation, to conclude a treaty of peace. On this occasion the Director was accompanied by Mynheer Adrian Van der Donk, Doctor of Laws, and subsequently historian of the Colony. The Indian chiefs, as usual, painted and decorated themselves on the ceremony. One of them, in so doing, made use of a pigment, the weight and shining appearance of which attracted the notice of Kieft and his learned companion, who suspected it to be ore. They procured a lump of it and took it back with them to New Amsterdam. Here it was submitted to the inspection of Johannes de la Montagne, an eminent Huguenot, Doctor of Medicine, one of the Counsellors of the New Netherlands. The supposed ore was forthwith put into a crucible and assayed, and to the great exultation of the junto, yielded two pieces of gold worth about three guilders. This golden discovery was kept a profound secret. As soon as the treaty of peace was adjusted with the Mohawks, William Kieft sent a trusty officer and a party of men, under guidance of an Indian, who undertook to conduct them to the place where the ore had been found. We have no account of this goldhunting expedition, nor of its whereabouts, except that it was somewhere on the Catskill Mountains. The exploring party brought back a bucket full of ore. Like the former specimen, it was submitted to the crucible of De la Montagne, and was equally productive of gold. All this we have on the authority of Doctor Van der Donk, who was an eye-witness to the process and its result, and records the whole in his "Description of the New Netherlands."

William Kieft now dispatched a confidential agent, one Arent Corsen, to convey a sackful of the precious ore to Holland. Corsen embarked at New Haven in a British vessel bound to England, whence he was to cross to Rotterdam. The ship set sail about Christmas, but never reached port. All on board perished.

In 1647, when the redoubtable Petrus Stuyvesant took command of the New Netherlands, William Kieft embarked on his return to Holland, provided with further specimens of the Catskill Mountain ore, from which he doubtless indulged golden anticipations. A similar fate attended him with that which had befallen his agent. The ship in which he had embarked was cast away, and he and his treasure were swallowed up in the waves.

Here closes the golden legend of the Catskills, but another one of a similar import succeeds. In 1679, about two years after the shipwreck of Wilhelmus Kieft, there was again a rumor of the precious metals in these mountains. Mynheer Brant Arent Van Slechtenhorst, agent of the Patroon of Rensselaerswyck, had purchased, in behalf of the Patroon, a tract of the Catskill lands, and leased it out in farms. A Dutch lass, in the household of one of the farmers, found one day a glittering substance, which, on being examined, was pronounced silver ore. Brant Van Slechtenhorst forthwith sent his son from Rensselaerswyck to explore the mountains in quest of the supposed mines. The young man put up in the farmer's house which had recently been erected on the margin of a mountain stream. Scarcely was he housed when a furious storm burst forth on the mountains. The thunders rolled, the lightnings flashed, the rain came down in cataracts ; the stream was suddenly swollen to a furious torrent thirty feet deep; the farmhouse and all its contents were swept away, and it was only by dint of excellent swimming that young Slechtenhorst saved his own life, and the lives of his horses. Shortly after this a feud broke out between Peter Stuyvesant and the Patroon of Rensselaerswyck, on account of the right and title to the Catskill Mountains, in the course of which the elder Slechtenhorst was taken captive by the potentate of the New Netherlands, and thrown into prison at New Amsterdam.

We have met with no record of any further attempt to get at the treasures of the Catskills. Adventurers may have been discouraged by the ill luck which appeared to attend all who meddled with them, as if they were under the guardian keep of the same spirits or goblins who once haunted the mountains and ruled over the weather. That gold and silver ore was actually procured from these mountains in days of yore we have historical evidence to prove; and the recorded word of Adrian Van der Donk, a man of weight, who was an eye-witness. If gold and silver were once to be found there, they must be there at present. It remains to be seen, in these gold-hunting days, whether the quest will be renewed ; and some daring adventurer, with a true Californian spirit, will penetrate the mysteries of these mountains, and open a golden region on the borders of the Hudson.

The facts which follow were collected by the author from various historical sources.

Adrian Van der Donk, spoken of above, was a free citizen of Breda, in Holland; graduated at the University of Leyden; became a learned lawyer, and received the Degree of Doctor both of Civil and of Canon Law; was an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Holland; and was the first lawyer who practised in New York. He came to America in 1641, as Sheriff of the Colony of Rensselaerwyck, in the region of Albany. In 1643 he made an attempt to purchase lands at Catskill, but was defeated by the Patroon, Van Rensselaer, who coveted that region for himself. He afterwards removed to the Manhattans, now New York, and obtained a grant of land where Yonkers now is, which was made a Manor, and he was its Patroon. Having returned to Holland, he came to America again in 1653, his family having removed here the previous year. He published a "History of New Netherlands" in 1650, and a second edition in 1653, which has been translated by Hon. Mr. Johnson, of Brooklyn. He was permitted to give advice to clients, but not to plead in the courts, as the good Dutch fathers thought that the pleas of lawyers in court consumed useful time without being of much account.

Dr. Johannes La Montagne, a learned Huguenot, of whom Irving speaks, was born in 1592, and came to this country in 1637. He commanded expeditions against the Indians near the city, and in 1643 saved Governor Kieft from assassination. His farm, called Vredendal, or Valley of Peace, was cast of the Eighth Avenue, and extend ed from Ninety-third street north to Harlem River. It contained two hundred acres, and was bought for seven hundred and twenty dollars, of the heirs of Hendrick Deforest, deceased, ancestor of the Deforests in Connecticut and the region around.

August 22, 1646, Governor Kieft issued a patent to Cornelis Antonissen Van Slyck, of Bruckelen (Brooklyn), for the land of Catskill, lying on the River Mauritius (the Hudson being then so called by the Dutch, in honor of Maurice, Prince of Nassau), there to plant with his associates a colony. This was in return for what Van Slyck had done for " this country as well in making peace as in the ransoming of prisoners." Kieft thus set at nought the claims of the Patroon, Van Rensselaer, which had also been formally denied in the proceedings against Koorn in 1644.

April 19, 1649, coveting the region extending from his possessions south to Catskill, and disregarding the patent which Governor Kieft had granted to Van Slyck three years before, the Patroon procured through his agent, Van Slechtenhorst, a cession to himself of the Indian title to the Catskill lands.

May 24, 1650, the claims of proprietors in the colony, to the territory about Catskill, were openly denied by the Dutch West India Company, under whose orders Governor Stuyvesant prohibited any settlements there by tenants claiming to hold under leases which had been granted by the authorities of Rensselaerwyck. Those thus forbidden wished to refer the question to Holland for decision, promising, in the meantime, to refrain from further action in the matter.

July 1, 1652.-The sale by the Indians, to Van Slechtenhorst and others, of lands at Catskill and Claverack, was declared void by Governor Stuyvesant, and the pretended proprietors were to return the purchase money to those who had obtained lands from them. But if those holding these lands would, within six weeks, petition the Director and Council, they might retain such lands as should then be assigned to them. All persons were also forbidden to purchase lands of the Indians without the previous consent of the Governor and Council. The Amsterdam Chamber, however, afterwards gave grants free from any feudal patronage or patroonship, to the purchasers of lands near Catskill, Claverack, and Rensselaerwyck.

A little before the date last given, namely, in September, 1650, Van Slechtenhorst, who had just escaped from Manhattan, where he had been detained four months by Governor Stuyvesant for opposing and disobeying him, by directions from Holland sent his son Gerrit to the Catskill Mountains in search of a silver-mine. Some time previous to this a farmer's daughter at Catskill had found a stone which some thought to be silver. This led, in the end, to the search for a mine. As soon, however, as young Gerrit had reached the Patroon's newly established bouwery, or plantation there, there was a heavy rain-storm, so that in three hours the mountain torrent there rose thirty feet, the farmhouse was swept into the kill or creek, and all the cattle and horses would have perished but for the exertions of Gerrit, who was an excellent swimmer. The ruin which the flood had caused diverted all thought of immediate explorations, and the hope of finding a silver-mine in the Catskill Mountains was postponed.

The following sketch of Catskill and the Catskill Mountains, is by William L. Stone, Esq., formerly editor of the New York "Commercial Advertiser," a well-known historical and political writer.

Colonel Stone visited the mountains in 1824, and published in the paper of which he was editor, the following account of what he saw and heard. Of Catskill he says, "Its Dutch founders, with characteristic prudence, placed it entirely out of sight from the river, probably to render themselves secure from bombardment by a foreign fleet, and from invasion from the armies of Yankees, which formerly so much annoyed our primitive settlements." The lovely valley of the Cauterskill, three miles west of Catskill, on the road to the mountains, he thus describes : "The traveller is here cheered by one of the most charming landscapes, though of small extent, that we recollect to have seen. The beauty of this romantic spot is undoubtedly heightened by contrast with the country around. A water prospect is supplied by the Cauterskill, which winds its way through the valley. The eye lingers on the rich fields and green meadows, diversified with fruit and forest trees, with delight."

The author of this work has for years passed and repassed through this valley weekly or oftener, and always with peculiar pleasure. The valley, for several miles along the creek, is of great fertility and beauty, with numerous grassy hillocks and projecting spurs from the hills on either side ; those on the east being of gentle and graceful descent, while on the west is a high, precipitous, wooded cliff, down which, after heavy rains, a mountain torrent wildly rushes. The creek, too, so winds its way in graceful curves through the valley, as within a short distance to run towards every point of the compass; presenting, as seen from some places, the appearance of several different streams, advancing and retreating, sporting and dallying with each other, in their onward course. In viewing this fertile and lovely valley, I have often thought of the words of the inspired poet of Israel, where he says of the Most High, " Thou crownest the year with thy goodness, thy paths drop down fatness. They drop upon the pastures of the wilderness, and the little hills rejoice on every side. The pastures are clothed with flocks ; the valleys also are covered over with corn ; they shout for joy, they also sing." The valley of the Kiskatom, too, farther on, with its flowing streams, its gentle hills on one side, and towering mountains on the other, richly dotted with fruit and forest trees, and extending, with its teeming fertility and verdure for miles in extent, along the eastern base of the mountains - this valley is one to which, for productiveness, grandeur, and beauty in and around, it were not easy to find a parallel elsewhere.

At Lawrence's Hotel, at the foot of the mountains (since burned, and replaced by the dwelling-house of my late friend and neighbor, Joseph Sax), Colonel Stone saw a tame bear, such as were often kept there to attract and amuse guests, and as but three cents were charged for an introduction to King Bruin, he had many visitors and friends.

Of the Mountain House and the mountain, Colonel Stone thus writes : " The rock on which the Mountain House stands projects out like a circular platform beyond the regular line of the ridge. On reaching the front of the house the tremendous prospect suddenly opens below and before you. Burke remarks that height has less grandeur than depth, and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice than in looking up to an object of equal height. The correctness of this opinion will not be questioned by those who from below have looked up to the hotel almost without emotion, and who again have looked down from these shelving cliffs with giddy heads and trembling, breathless interest." " No one," says an elegant writer, "mounts a towering eminence but feels his soul elevated the whole frame acquires unwonted elasticity, and the spirits flow as it were in one aspirin - stream of satisfaction and delight: for what can be more animating than from one spot to behold the pomp of man and the pride of nature lying at our feet ? Who can refrain from being charmed when looking down upon a vast extent of country, with its mountains and cliffs, its hillsides and valleys, its fields and glens, the cottages of the lowly and the mansions of the rich, its flocks and herds, and its broad, expansive river, sweeping its course along an extended vale, now encircling a mountain, and now overflowing a valley, here gliding beneath overhanging trees, and then in grand cascades or mighty cataracts rolling over rocky ledges of lofty mountain Cliffs."

Of the morning glories of the mountain, Colonel Stone says, "As the day advanced, and the rays of light darted thicker and brighter across the heavens, the purple clouds which hung over the hills in, the cast were fringed with a saffron dye of inexpressible beauty; while a deeper glow was imparted to the centre, where the sun was about to appear in all his majesty and glory.

" Such is the elevation of this portion of the Catskills that storms of rain and snow are not unfrequently below, while all is clear and serene on the mountain's top. A friend at the hotel described to us a thunder-gust he had witnessed a few days before. The top of the mountain was cloudless through the day. At two P.M. clouds began to collect on the mountain-side below, which increased rapidly, as thick columns of vapor came rolling and surging along, rising apparently from the deep glens and ravines of the mountains to the south. Then a heavy, dark cloud from the east, an immense mass of vapor, spread over the valley. Opposing currents of clouds flowed onwards, mingling together, forming a vast canopy of darkness, suspended in mid air. The thunder muttered and roared like an earthquake below. The lightning, brighter than the sun above, played upon the upper surface of the clouds like the crinkling scintillations along the conductor of a powerful electrical machine, while now and then a vivid, dazzling flash, from the highly charged artillery of heaven, brought with it a report, by which the awe-struck spectator was led to feel as well as see the violence of the storm, which was heaving and raging beneath his feet ; a spectacle sublime beyond expression, with no feeling of terror, or of fear of injury from a storm, so far below the lofty mountaintop.

"Viewing from above the wide expanse of country below, under the bright sunlight of Heaven, where things large and grand look, in the distance, so slight and small, one is led wisely to reflect on the insignificance and the vain and trifling pursuits of man. If to us, thus raised but a little above those around us, man's possessions and labors seem so small, how must the saint in Heaven look down upon human toils and cares and greatness, here on this little globe of earth so far beneath him ! "

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