Oak Hill & Vicinity: The settlement of the town of Durham

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

Today there are four hamlets in the town of Durham. Contributed photo

The settlement of the town of Durham is worth considering to understand the people who lived here in the beginning.

J.G. Borthwick, writing in “Beers’ History of Greene County,” tells us that Greene County was formed March 25, 1800. Freehold became one of her townships. In 1803, Cairo and Greenville took slices off from Freehold. 

“March 28, 1805, the name of the town was changed to Durham. Many of the early settlers came from Durham in Connecticut, and from the first they had called their settlement New Durham.  The name had continually gained favor with the people and was finally adopted by universal consent as an appropriate name for the town. 

“The town of Durham is bounded on the north by the town of Rensselaerville, in Albany County, on the east by the town of Greenville, on the south by the towns of Cairo and Windham, and on the west by the town by Windham and Conesville.

“It is exceedingly unfortunate that a historical record of the settlement of New Durham together with the subsequent history of the town, was not written by some able person, conversant with the men of those days,” Borthwick added.

Thus, we have to put together the bits and pieces that we have to tell the story.

The DeWitt farmhouse  photo is from a copy of “The Greene County Farm Bureau News” article:  “The DeWitt Farm at Oak Hill — 1774-1937,” when Dr.  Guy C DeWitt was the owner of the farm. He was the oldest son of Israel DeWitt. Contributed photo

According to Borthwick, writing in another section of Beers’: “The first actual settlement commenced within the borders of the town [of Durham] was made at Oak Hill, by Lucas DeWitt, John Plank, Hendrick Plank… Lucas DeWitt and the Planks came from the Hurley area of Ulster County…. The exact date of this settlement is not known but it is certain that it was several years before the Revolution — probably about 1770 or 1772. Lucas DeWitt took possession of the farm now owned by his grandson, Israel DeWitt. His first house (a log building) occupied the plot of ground now used as a garden by his descendants. This settlement was found to be on a patent granted by George III to Colonel Richard Mainland. The patent was granted June 23, 1767. By the terms of Mr. DeWitt’s lease, he was to pay a rent of “one ear of corn, and proportion of the King’s rent pe year for five years.

“In 1776, the War of the Revolution came on, the Indians became troublesome, the massacre of a family of whites at Shingle Kill took place, which greatly alarmed the settlers, so that fearing for the safety of the wives and little ones, they were led to abandon the settlement, and return to their friends in Ulster County.  Thus, ends of the history of the first settlement in Durham.”

The Dewitt’s and Planks were of Dutch ancestry and while they did not build a church in Oak Hill, before too many years there was a Reformed Dutch Church located about a mile from Oak Hill, on the turnpike leading to Preston Hollow. The site was donated to the church by Stephen Van Rensselaer and was not in the town of Durham. The exact date of the formation of this church is not known, but probably about 1787. The preliminary records are lost but the regular church register dates back to 1790. There are no records after 1832. 

The building stood unoccupied for several years and was finally torn down and used in the construction of a dwelling house in Oak Hill. [Wish I knew which one it was.] The church register contains the names of 178 members and 750 children baptized. These men settled along the Catskill Creek, farmed, built mills, added other businesses, built houses.

The Presbyterian Church on Meeting House Hill was moved to a section of  Route 145, then called Broadway. The Methodist Church was moved to Cornwallville. Contributed photo

Borthwick wrote, “The next settlement which was made in this town was by some Connecticut people, on Meeting-house Hill as it was called. The hill and the surrounding country were for many years known as New Durham, so called from the town of Durham in Connecticut, from which these people came. In fact, this part of the town was called New Durham until 1805, when the name of the town was changed from Freehold to Durham.

“These settlers built not one but two churches very soon after they arrived—one Presbyterian and one Methodist and at least one school house, a blacksmith shop, a store and public roads.”

Borthwick commented: “Meeting House Hill is one of the highest of a series of foothills lying near the base of the Catskills… It is strange, at first thought, that these men should come directly past the rich valley lands of the town of Catskill, and even the lower lands of East Durham and Oak Hill and settle on that hill. But it should be remembered that the best lands of Catskill and of Oak Hill had already been taken up, and as they were Yankees, they thought they could not raise wheat on the lower lands of East Durham — they must get up in the world.” 

Later, the people moved down into the valley to the site of the present village of Durham.

In a diary kept by one of the settlers on Meeting-house Hill, in a reference to Mr. DeWitt and to Mr. Shue, both of whom were spoken of as having seed-wheat to sell, show they had been here at least a sufficient length of time to raise a crop of that grain. It is evident that the Utters and the Pratts, the Flowers, the Baldwins, the Strongs, and the Merwins, who were evidently the first Yankees who settled in this town, were dependent upon their Dutch neighbors for their seed-wheat.

Another group of people to settle in the town of Durham were from England. James Barker — the Patroon — a prominent member of the English bar, married Elizabeth Wooer whose family was said to be of the House of Tudor. Shortly before the American Revolution James and Elizabeth came to America bringing with them 23 tenant farmers and their families.

“Soon after his arrival, he purchased a large tract of land lying in the town of Durham, “Beers’ History of Greene County,” states, “The Barker Patent for 6,000 acres extended from the little hamlet of Woodstock [their settlement called Woodstock was located on the present-day Route 32 between Cairo and Freehold.], nine miles north of the town of Durham, situated on both sides of the Katskill Creek.” 

The land was chosen carefully for fertility, abundance of water for powers, and accessibility. Some years before his death in 1820, Barker moved to the home of Obadiah Every, one of his tenants [in the town of Durham].

According to the booklet “James Barker, The Patroon,” by Vernon Haskins, written in 1979, “At the easterly end of East Durham village, an improved road leads northerly and easterly in a wide, sweeping loop, again joining the Susquehanna Turnpike at Stone Bridge. Much of the acreage contained in this loop was a part and parcel of the Barker Patent. The wagon house on this farm was the original house and doubtless was once occupied by the Patroon. Further up the highway from the Hedges Homestead, now the home of the Jennings-Partridge family, we come to Stone Bridge Cemetery. The land upon which it is located was given to the town of Durham for use as a cemetery by the Patroon, James Barker.

Sometimes all that remains to remember the early settlers is a cemetery stone. The Patroon and his wife Elizabeth have a marker in the Stone Bridge Cemetery. Contributed photo

The region around East Durham was settled mostly by families from Connecticut, with a sprinkling of Dutch families from the valley of the Hudson. That is how it began in Oak Hill and Vicinity. 

Soon I want to consider the lives of some of these early settlers.

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