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Our German Roots

Historical society exhibit celebrates Palatine heritage

by Heather Plonchak
September 16, 2010 02:40 PM | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Barry Benepe viewing a map of the original West Camp settlement.
Have you ever wondered how deep your local roots go? While Saugerties was mostly settled by the Dutch, a group of Germans with a storied past also settled here in high numbers in the 18th century. A joint exhibit between Saugerties and Germantown called “One River, Two Towns, Three Centuries” at the Kiersted House sheds some light on these settlers, known as Palatines, who journeyed to this area in 1710.

Common Palatine last names include Snyder, Fiero, Kiersted, Valk, Myer, and Hommel. The most visible results of the local Palatine settlements are the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, established by the refugees and the Katsbaan Reformed Church, which Palatine settled helped build. Though the original building no longer exists, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church boasts the oldest continuous congregation in Saugerties. Palatines were present for and very involved in the incorporation of the town of Saugerties, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. The signing of the incorporation papers took place at the home of Christian Fiero, and the first town supervisor elected was John Kiersted, both Palatines.

The exhibit highlights historical documents. Displayed prominently on the walls of the museum are ship manifests, family trees, and communications between Reverend Joshua Kocherthal, who founded St. Paul’s, and British leaders. Visitors can also see maps of the original settlements and sketches of the houses inhabited by the early Palatines.

“I think the history itself is important and interesting, whether you’re a Palatine or not,” said Block. “These people have left a lasting effect on Saugerties, and they displayed a spirit of perseverance in places where you’d least expect it.”

The emphasis on documents, with their extensive list of familiar local names, is intentional. Village historian Marjorie Block says the greatest legacy of the Palatines is their descendants.

Who were the Palatines?

By the early 1700s, the people who inhabited the area that would become the nation of Germany had seen decades of war. Several invasions by French troops during the Nine Years War and the War of Spanish Succession had devastated cities and caused economic hardship. The toll was especially high in the area between the Rhine River and French border, known as the Rhineland-Palatinate region. Extremely difficult winters and poor harvests leading to famines only exacerbated the problem for this group, and in 1708, more than 13,000 emigrated to England to pursue the Queen Anne’s promise of free land in America.

The first few hundred immigrants were welcomed, and given housing, food, and supplies by a number of wealthy Englishmen. Soon though, the masses of Palatine refugees arriving overwhelmed England’s ability to provide for them, and political leader began to plan for their dispersal.

Nearly 3,000 Palatines were offered passage to New York, which they would have to work off by harvesting pitch, tar, and hemp for the Queen’s naval stores, and 2,227 arrived in New York, eventually settling into five communities on either side of the Hudson River.

“Queen Anne was in desperate need of tar to build her navy,” said Block. “But, it was the ultimate wrong decision because when they arrived here, they found the wrong kind of trees.”

Nelson Burhans, a likely descendant of the Palatines with an interest in local history, explained that though the local pine trees did yield tar, it was not of an adequate quality to seal the hulls of British ships. Government leaders in England decided that the quality of the tar available was not worth the price to ship it from New York to London.

In 1712, the harvesting operations were halted and the Palatines were abandoned by England to make their own way.

The East and West Camps

Kocherthal led close to 2,000 Palatine immigrants up the Hudson River, where they eventually settled in two camps on either side of the waterway.

The East Camp, located in today’s Germantown, was comprised of four small communities known as Hunterstown, Queensbury, Annsbury and Haysbury. A census taken in May 1711 set the population of the East Camp communities at 1194. Settlers at the East Camp worked to clear 6,000 acres of land then owned by Robert Livingston. When work was halted in 1712, many of the East Camp settlers moved on to the Schoharie Valley and other locations throughout New York State.

The communities of Elizabeth Town, George Town, and New Town comprised the West Camp. The 1711 census showed a population of 583 in the West Camp. New Town is believed to have been located where St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was built, while George Town was established at what is now known as Smith’s Landing. Elizabeth Town, also called Lower Town, may have been located at Evesport.

West Camp retained its name, and was eventually included as a hamlet in the incorporation of the town of Saugerties.

The One River, Two Towns, Three Centuries exhibit will be on display at the Kiersted House during regular operating hours. The museum is open to the public from 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through October.

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