The Catskill Mountains are an extension of the Appalachian Mountains into New York State. These mountains are northwest of New York City and west of the Hudson River and lie within the bounds of six counties ( Otsego, Delaware, Sullivan, Schoharie, Greene, and Ulster). They are actually a dissected plateau, an uplifted region that was subsequently eroded into sharp relief.
At the eastern end of the range, the mountains begin quite dramatically with the Catskill Escarpment rising up suddenly from the Hudson Valley. The western boundary is far less certain, as the mountains gradually decline in height and fade into the Allegheny Plateau. Nor is there a consensus on where the Catskills end to the north or south, with it being certain only that by the time one reaches either I-88, the Delaware River or the Shawangunk Ridge that one is no longer in the Catskills.
Whether you are in the Catskills or not in these peripheral regions seems to be as much a matter of personal preference as anything else, as an old saying in the region — "When you have two rocks for every dirt, you are in the Catskills" — seems to suggest.
Many visitors, including owners of weekend or vacation homes in the region, seem to consider almost anything sufficiently rural west of the Hudson yet within a short drive of New York City to be in the Catskills.
The Poconos, to the immediate southwest, are technically a continuation of the Catskills under a different name.
The Catskills contain more than thirty peaks above 3,500 feet and parts of six important rivers. The highest mountain, Slide Mountain in Ulster County, has an altitude of 4,180 feet (1,274 m).
Within the mountain range is the Catskill Park and corresponding Catskill Forest Preserve. Not all the land is publicly owned; about 60% remains in private hands, but new sections are added frequently. Most of the park and the preserve are within Ulster County.
This is a traditional vacation land with many summer resorts and camp grounds. During the first part of the 20th century, many ethnic groups (Germans, Czechs, Jews, etc) established summer resorts in the Catskills that catered to their needs. The "Borscht Belt" was a collection of Jewish resorts (Brown's, Grossinger's, etc) in this region, where many comics got a start in show business. This ethnic tradition has mostly disappeared, although some special groups maintain private resorts. Many of these resorts now attempt to remain open all year and cater to winter activities such as skiing.
The Catskills figure in Washington Irving's story, Rip van Winkle
"Catskills" did not come into wide popular use for the mountains until the mid-19th century — in fact, that name was disparaged by purists as too plebeian, too reminiscent of the area's Dutch colonial past, since it was used by the local farming population (a continuation, actually, of the British practice of trying to replace most Dutch toponyms in present-day New York with English alternatives after taking possession of the colony in the late 17th century). They preferred to call them the Blue Mountains, to harmonize with Vermont's Green Mountains and New Hampshire's White Mountains. Only after Irving's stories did Catskills win out over Blue and several other competitors.
While the meaning of the name ("cat creek" in Dutch) and the namer (early Dutch explorers) are settled matters, exactly how and why is a mystery.
The most common, and easiest, is that bobcats were seen near Catskill creek and the present-day village of Catskill, and the name followed from there.
But there is no record of bobcats ever having been seen in significant numbers on the banks of the Hudson, and the name Catskill does not appear on paper until 1655, more than four decades later.
Other theories include:
- A corruption of kasteel, the Dutch sailors' term for the Indian stockades they saw on the riverbank. According to one Belgian authority, kat occurs in many place names throughout Flanders and has nothing to do with cats and everything to do with fortifications.
- It was to honor Dutch poet Jacob Cats, who was also known for his real estate prowess, profiting from speculation in lands reclaimed from the sea.
- A ship named The Cat had gone up the Hudson shortly before the name was first used. In nautical slang of the era, cat could also mean a piece of equipment, or a particular type of small vessel.
- It has also been suggested that it refers to lacrosse, which Dutch visitors had seen the Iroquois natives play. Kat can also refer to a tennis racket, which a lacrosse stick resembles, and the first place the Dutch saw this, further down the river in the present-day Town of Saugerties, they gave the name Kaatsbaan, for "tennis court," which is still on maps today.
The confusion over the exact origins of the name led over the years to variant spellings such as Kaatskill and Kaaterskill, both of which are also still used, the latter as the name of a creek and mountain, the former in the regional magazine Kaatskill Life.
The supposed Indian name for the range, Onteora or "land in the sky," was actually created by a white man in the mid-19th century to drum up business for a resort. It, too, persists today as the name of a school district.
The Catskills began existence as a river delta 350 million years ago. Streams flowing off the then-mighty Taconic Mountains deposited sediment where the river met a sea (now the Allegheny Plateau. Eventually the Taconics eroded to their present size and the waters dried up, leaving a mostly flat plain.
During this time period, a meteor is believed to have struck the area. Panther Mountain is the remains of its crater.
Two hundred million years ago, as continental drift pushed up the Appalachians, the delta region rose almost uniformly into a plateau rather than breaking up into smaller mountains. Streams that formed over time eroded gaps and valleys, leaving today's mountains.
The Ice Ages
The next great change in the Catskill landscape was caused by the most recent of four periods of glaciation, the Wisconsin. Every mountain except Slide (and perhaps not even that) was buried in the ice that came down from the north; while the effect was not as profound as that observed in the Adirondacks, the glaciers carved two gaps, today known as Plattekill and Kaaterskill Clove, in the Helderberg Escarpment and formed the Hudson River, as well as some cirques such as Maltby Hollow.
The melting glaciers left lakes and then beds which would later be partially resurrected when New York City dammed up the creeks for its reservoirs in the 20th century.
Some geologists also believe the glaciers scoured off sedimentary layers that may have contained coal, noting the surfeit of coal to the south in Pennsylvania and that the white quartz pebbles found atop Slide Mountain are often an indicator that one has reached the bottom of a coal bed in those regions.
While the matter has yet to be fully researched, there seems to have been no large-scale long-term Native American presence in the mountains. The local Iroquois tribes used land and water routes through the mountains to get to the places beyond them, hunted the abundant game and used the mountains in some of their rituals, but in general chose not to live there due to the difficulty of farming the land.
Robert Juet, one of Henry Hudson's crew, was the first European to take note of the Catskills on the Half Moon's 1609 expedition up the river. Some hardy pioneers, explorers and traders followed over the next several decades, leaving their imprint on the region in placenames, but generally not settling the region to a significantly greater extent than the Indians did.
In 1667, as a result of the Treaty of Breda which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War, England’s wartime victory was ratified and the British crown took over colonial administration of what was now New York.
Over the next several decades, regular rumors of gold strikes drew more settlers to the region, though none has ever been found. Trade in beaver hats spurred more exploration and settlement of the region.
The Hardenbergh Patent
The most important event in the history of the colonial Catskills took place in the first decade of the 18th century during Queen Anne's War. In 1706 an ambitious speculator named Johannis Hardenbergh, and his partner, Jacob Rutsen, petitioned the governor, Edward, Viscount Cornbury, for a land grant in the mountains of Ulster County, attempting to head off another petition by a group of Hurley farmers who wanted pasture in the area yet had not properly purchased the land from the local Indian tribes as the law required.
The lack of a good survey of the area complicated matters somewhat. After years of arguing, haggling and taking advantage of Cornbury's loose ethics, the Patent was granted on April 20, 1708.
Since they had applied as a corporation, Hardenbergh and Rutsen were exempt from laws limiting any such grant to 2,000 acres (80 km²). Yet they wound up, through what some say was a mistake, with title to a thousand times that land, or practically the entire Catskill region as we know it today, in the form of a rough triangle that started west of Kingston and extended, at least on paper, to the west branch of the Delaware.
Settlement was impeded for the next thirty years due to the lack of a survey. Hardenbergh, however, managed to enrich himself by selling shares in the partnership, much to the consternation of colonial governors who wanted a firmer bulwark against French ambitions in North America. There had been no good survey, and no one knew where the boundaries of the patent lay, much less any subdivisions . Indian tribes upset that rivals had sold their land out from under them and squatters who had moved into the area before sabotaged the Wooster brothers' attempts at a first real survey of the region in the 1740s.
In his later years Hardenbergh was helped greatly by Robert Livingston , who saw the region's economic potential, and by the time of his death in 1748 settlement was at last beginning to get underway. Five years later, when the entire Patent was subdivided and accounted for, the Hardenbergh land company was dissolved.
The unclear early history of land ownership in the days of the Patent, however, would impact the region for generations to come.
The Bartram expedition
In 1753 the early American naturalists John Bartram and his son William went to the Catskills as part of their explorations into the colonies' plant life, focusing particularly on the balsam fir, which was known among the colonists as balm of Gilead fir and believed by both them and the Indians to have curative powers. While their explorations were not extensive, the elder Bartram's short written account of the adventure, “A Journey to Ye Cat Skill Mountains with Billy,” was widely read and appreciated both in America and abroad. It is the first literary appreciation of the Catskills as a natural environment.
The Bartrams were the first to document the wide variety of tree species in the mountains. Officially, the trip was a failure as the balsam seeds they managed to collect failed to flourish in England.
But in the course of collecting them they explored the area of the Pine Orchard near North and South Lakes on the Escarpment in Greene County, which would in the next century become the site of the Catskill Mountain House.
The mid-18th century
Robert Livingston's son gradually took over managing his interest in the lands he had managed to acquire, and saw their future more in terms of the timber on them than the land itself. Drawing on the family's Scottish roots, he sought to rename them the Lothian Hills and envisioned a grand scheme in which castles named after originals in Scotland would be built on the mountaintops and sold to members of the European nobility who wished to have grand manors.
These plans were put on hold in 1769 when John Bradstreet, a British lieutenant colonel who had fought with distinction in the recent French and Indian War filed papers with the crown charging that the Hardenbergh Patent had been improperly granted and could thus be regranted; he claimed a 50,000-acre (20 km) slice as was his right as a retired officer. Other officers joined in with additional, smaller claims.
The colonial governor, John Murray Dunmore, found in 1771 a solution that temporarily settled the issue but pleased no one: he awarded Bradstreet 20,000 acres in what is now Delaware County but said nothing about the legality of the original patent. Back in London the Privy Council urged King George III to block it, and he duly ordered the new governor, William Tryon, not to sign any grant for the land.
Bradstreet died in 1774, and his daughters were widely expected to take the fight to court, but very soon that took a backseat to other events.
The Revolutionary War
As tensions increased between the colonies and Britain during the early 1770s over how to pay for the war, the Catskills saw this divide play out rather sharply. The large landowners like Livingston and the Hardenberghs, fearing Parliament would settle the matter with a land tax that would vastly cut into their wealth, increasingly took stands that would lead to independence. Their tenant farmers , on the other hand, were, as Livingston put it, "resolved to stand by their King," despite their landlords' efforts to drum up revolutionary sentiment among them, in the belief that if it came down to war, the Crown would confiscate the holdings of those who had opposed it and distribute smaller parcels back to those who who had been loyal.
This came to a head in 1777, when Lieutenant Jacob Rose raised an army of several hundred of the region's young men to go fight alongside the British in return for 50 acres (20 ha) each. Rose’s Rangers, as they were called, had to make its way through the strongly Patriot Hudson Valley to rendezvous with British regulars in New York City, however, and was captured in the vicinity of Schunemunk Mountain in Orange County after a skirmish with local militia. Prisoners were taken to Fort Montgomery and tried for treason against the recently-established state of New York. Most were pardoned in exchange for committing to serve in the Continental Army; Rose and a few other holdouts were hanged.
The failure of Rose's mission and the burning of Kingston by British forces that year severely blunted Tory sentiment in the Catskills, and for the remainder of the war the region posed no threat to the Patriot cause.