The Greenville Pioneer 2023, March 10
Oak Hill & Vicinity: The DeWitts
By Mary Lou Nahas
For Capital Region Independent Media
According to J.G. Borthwick writing in Beer’s “History of Greene County”: 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 Jr. was the son of Lucas DeWitt, who lived in the town of Hurley, Ulster County…. The exact date of this settlement cannot now be given: but it is certain that it was several years before the Revolution — probably about 1770, or 1772. Lucas DeWitt Jr. 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 per 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 them, 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.”
Added later was the statement that Hendrick Plank was abducted by the Indians and removed to Canada, where he died in captivity. The two remaining pioneers and Hendrick’s widow, who remarried to Leonard Patrie, all returned by about 1782 to reestablish their homes.
The Maitland Patent, which was the first grant to lie exclusively in the future Town of Durham, is historically significant as being the location for land described in the first known recorded lease in Durham and thus contains the first documentation for the initial settlement of the town. This patent of 5,000 acres was made to Colonel Richard Maitland, a British army officer of Scottish birth. The patent encompassed land that now includes the Oak Hill area as well as surrounding farmland leased by the earliest settlers.
The first known lease was to Lucas DeWitt, dated May 3, 1774, for property in ‘DeWittsburg.” The language of that lease suggests an occupation of the land by the earlier settlers, perhaps by 1771. In the early 19th century, Oak Hill matured into an industrial hamlet with highly productive mills and fashionable homes.
I’ve never pursued the story of Lucas DeWitt before he came to Oak Hill. But today I want to look at Ulster County, where Lucas came from. When I think of Ulster County today, I think of Kingston, just down the Thruway, close enough to go grocery shopping, not much different from Greene County. I’ve been to Hurley to some of the stone house tours, but in the 1770s, what was Ulster County like?
Online I found some background: Dutch traders first called the area of present-day Ulster County “Esopus.” The local Lenape indigenous people called themselves Waranawanka, but soon came to be known to the Dutch as the “Esopus Indians” because they were encountered around the settlement known as Esopus.
In 1652, Thomas Chambers, a freeholder from the Manor of Rensselaerwyck, purchased land at Esopus. He and several others actually settled and began farming by June 1653. The settlements grew into the village of Wiltwijck, which the English later named Kingston. In 1683, the Duke of York created 12 counties in his province, one of which was Ulster County, named for Ulster, the northern part of Ireland. Its boundaries at that time included the present Sullivan County and parts of the present Delaware, Orange and Greene counties.
In 1777, the first state capital of the independent New York state was established at Kingston. The official records of Ulster County were removed to safety to a stone house in Kerhonkson when it became evident the British would burn Kingston.
In 1797, parts of Otsego and Ulster counties were split off to create Delaware County.
In 1798, Ulster County’s southernmost towns were moved into Orange County to compensate Orange for breaking away its southernmost part to form Rockland County.
In 1800, portions of Albany and Ulster counties were split off to create Greene County.
In 1809, Sullivan County was split off from Ulster County.
The Esopus Wars were two conflicts between the Esopus tribe of Lenape Indians (Delaware) and New Netherlander colonists during the latter half of the 17th century. The first battle was instigated by settlers; the second war was the continuation of a grudge on the part of the Esopus tribe.
I also found online that in the United States today there are 22,383 people with the name DeWitt. But what about the family who came to Oak Hill? Again online I found that the ancestor of the DeWitt family in America was Tjerck Claessen De Witt, of whom the first mention made is in the register of marriages of the Reformed or Collegiate Dutch church of New York City. There it is recorded that on April 24, 1656, “Tjerck Claessen De Witt van Grootholdt en Zunderlandt” (Westphalia) married “Barbara Andriessen van Amsterdam.” Tjerck C. DeWitt resided in New York for a short time following his marriage in 1656, where his first child was born; but removed in the spring of the following year to Albany, where he purchased a house and lot. He exchanged this in September 1660, for land in Wiltwyck (Kingston), Ulster County, New York, where he lived until his death, and for two centuries and a half the place remained in the family.
He was undoubtedly a man of means. In 1661 he was taxed to help pay for a new church building in Esopus, and in 1662 he owned No. 28 of the “New Lots.” His eldest daughter, Taatje, was carried away from him by the Indians on June 7, 1663, during the destruction of Kingston and Hurley, but was rescued. Governor Lovelace deeded to him “a parcel of bush-land, together with a house, lot, orchard, and calves’ pasture, lying near Kingston, in Esopus,” on June 25, 1672, and Governor Andros on Oct. 8, 1677, deeded to him about 50 acres of woodland west of the town.
He was, on Feb. 11, 1679, one of the signers of a renewal treaty with the Esopus Indians. The trustees of Kingston conveyed to him 189 acres of land on Feb. 13, 1685, and on June 6, 1685, he claimed 290 acres lying upon the north side of Rondout Kill. He was elected a magistrate of Ulster County on March 4, 1689.
He died at Kingston, New York, on Feb. 17, 1700. By his will, dated March 4, 1698, he left his property to his wife for life, and directed that after her death it be divided between his oldest and youngest sons, in trust, and by them divided into 12 equal shares, to be given to each of his children or their heirs. His widow was named executrix. Barbara died July 6, 1714.
Two of his descendants, Justin DeWitt and Gage DeWitt, re-established the DeWitt Family Historical Society four years ago and immediately set out on a quest to determine the most probable burial location of the DeWitt family progenitor, Tjerck Claessen DeWitt, who for 322 years was at rest in an unmarked grave. They conducted the archeological exhumation of the grave site.
As they explained, “Not only were we able to determine the burial location of Tjerck, we discovered what could be defined as an unmarked mass-family burial site; burials which predate the American Revolution by almost a century.
“We exhumed the skeletal remains of six DeWitt ancestors who represent four generations and located the grave shafts of many more unmarked graves in our family plot.
“To our knowledge, this is the first and only example of a colonial-era family, spanning generations, which all predate the American Revolution, to be exhumed for identification and research purposes.
“Even more exciting, this is the first and only example of a New Netherland founding family of Dutch/Frisian descent to be exhumed in this manner.
“The entire purpose of this project is to locate unmarked burials in our family plot, identify the individuals, reinter their remains and properly mark their graves so that these people will be remembered for generations to come.”
You can see a video of the exhumation- at https://youtu.be/lyFfyVZYU7Y.
There is much more to know about the background of Lucas DeWitt and the time in which he came to Oak Hill, but I feel I’ve taken a step toward understanding what it was like for him and his family when they came.
Sometime soon, when I go to Kingston, I’m going to look into more of the DeWitt history there. I am going to drive down the main street at Hurley and look at the stone houses. When I stop at the diner in Kerhonkson for a bowl of soup, I’m going to be thinking about the area in a different light than I did before.
I hope some of the DeWitt descendants will share with me the stories of their families past and present.