The Boundary Wars — Part Two

Current tri-state boundary, painting for 1900 re-survey. (Looking south) Where are the trees?

In 1755, in the midst of the French and Indian War, natives (from the North) attacked Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  The fear and alarm sparked by this attack led to the raising of a company of one hundred men – to defend the Taconics against the enemy?  Livingston immediately feared that this militia, led by a charismatic former soldier named Robert Noble, would turn its guns against him.  Noble (and shortly after Michael Hallenbeck) had apparently been given Commissions by Massachusetts. 

Noble’s men attacked and destroyed a mill in Claverack, far to the west of the Taconics, and took a New York constable and another man prisoner, jailing them in Springfield.  The High Sheriff of Albany arrested one of Noble’s men.  Noble, along with fifteen to twenty armed men, took the Sheriff prisoner, and jailed him in Sheffield until he bailed himself out.  A response from the New York Lieutenant Governor expressed hope that these events did not mean “civil war between his majesty’s subjects.” 

            Livingston deployed his own militia company – again, a force supposedly raised against the enemies of the Crown – to try and prevent Michael Hallenbeck’s company from training.  An armed standoff ensued; the only prisoner taken a man named Rosman who tarried after the confrontation “to gitt a bag of Indian corn.”  But two of Hallenbeck’s men, questioned, revealed that they had been sent by Colonel Ashley of Sheffield to assist Hallenbeck.

             April 14, an armed gang described (by tenants) as “Livingston banditti, abandoned Irishmen and Negroes” began a rampage through the Taconics,  First, “in a violent and tumultuous manner” they finally captured Loomis and carried him off to “Albany gaol.”  The next day they broke into and robbed two more tenant homes, and raided Robert Noble’s house. 

April 16 they – according to the “New England” side — “assaulted the house of William Race, broke it open and “as sd Race was attempting to escape shot him dead with a charge of buckshot.”  The “Livingston” side claimed that when asked to open his door Race “refused and swore he would kill them all upon which one of the Company broke a board out of the door which Race then put his gun and snapped it three times at the men.”  Race got through his garret onto the roof, where Matthew Furlong “shot him through the body as he was turning about to shoot again.”  So there’s no way to know whether Race provoked the fatal shot or was simply murdered.  His was the first, but not the last life lost to this boundary battle.  His name survives, on a mountain that offers a hiker one of the best views in the Taconics. 

            On May 6, Noble gained revenge by helping to lead an army of one hundred men across the state line to “arrest” workers at Livingston’s iron works in Ancram, jailing them in Sheffield.  Considering the fact that this Ancram furnace was actually engaged in making supplies to fight the French, Noble’s attack seems a step towards anarchy.  His men then proceeded to protect surveyors who laid out land in the Taconics and Nobletown (near present-day Hillsdale.)

            Furlong was quickly arrested for the murder of Race.  An affidavit from John Hollenbeck reported that Livingston’s men, led by “one Tim Connor” invaded his house, smashed a hole in the back of the chimney and one through the rear of the house, and set up swivel guns with a clear prospect of the surrounding area.  Connor claimed that they were establishing a fort, and that Livingston himself would soon arrive with one hundred men and “a wench to dress provisions and serve as cook.” 

May 28, Livingston declared that the Massachusetts government would, in a short time, “extend their possessions as far as Hudson’s River.”  This sounds like panic, but Livingston visited Taconic once again and was informed that one hundred men had “in the morning passed southward under the west side of Tachonick Mountains and from thence westward towards Hudson’s River: with a purpose to lay out new town lines.”  He proceeded to Springfield, met with a commission, tried and failed to win the release of his Ancram workmen, and was told again that Massachusetts intended to survey new towns on his Manor.  In June the prisoners responsible for the arrest of Sheriff Yates were set free from Albany, while Livingston’s iron workers remained in “gaol” in Massachusetts.

In October, Robert Van Deusen was again a target of the rebels, forced out of his house by Benjamin Franckland – a stranger to Van Deusen.  At this point the great-grandson of Robert the Elder, Peter, steps into the story, travelling to “Tackkaneek” (how many spellings of this name exist?) to confront “old Franckland” who informed him that he had been sent “by orders of the Court of Boston.”  The next month, when Peter Livingston read the rebels a “kind letter of advice” from Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, they replied that Shirley was no longer Governor!  On what basis?  After Peter departed the house, he heard shots fired and “several huzzas.” 

Livingston soon sent his employee, Ten Broeck, to read the rebels a letter from Governor Shirley telling them to move off Livingston’s land.  Their replies are worth recording and considering:

Andries Rees: “If I go out I must die.”

Jonathan Darby: “I will go when I please and come when I please.”

Hendrick Brusie: “I will not go until I am killed.”

Christopher Brusie: “I will not go till I know better.”

Surely hunger for land motivated the Taconic rebels; certainly each outrage helped provoke the next one.  But plainly Rees and his partners also fought for a principle, a belief in something like the worth of every individual.  “I will go when I please and come when I please” is not as ringing as “Give me liberty or give me death.”  But the spirit is similar.  In twenty-one years, the American colonies would rise up against the Crown. 

            Quiet came over the Taconics for a couple of years.  Perhaps both sides drew back when their feud resulted in death.  But beneath the peace, rage grew.

As we’ve seen, one of the most glaring gaps in Robert the Elder’s 1686 patent was the lack of an Indian deed for much of his land – in particular that eastern part running “soe back into the woods.” Ninety-one years later, this opening bedeviled his grandson and great-grandson. 

The Stockbridge Indians were a small group, mostly Mohican, that had been granted land and a Mission on the site of the present-day town.  In the spring of 1757, they were drawn into the boundary turmoil when two Van Guilders were released from prison in Albany at the request of the “Jenango Indians.”  (A group that lived near present-day Chenango?)  But soon after the release of these two – possibly the only ones involved who had any sort of ancestral claim to the Taconics – they joined a “combination” of  thirty “evil minded persons” (New York Governor’s description) gathered at Jonathan Darby’s home in the Taconics.  (Today Mount Darby is topped by a radio tower.)   Armed with some kind of claim from Massachusetts, as well as a new deed provided by the Stockbridge Indians, they were ready to try to once again pry land away from Livingston.  Many of the original leaders were missing from this gang, but they were no less determined; confronted by a force that included a Deputy Sheriff, two Constables, and Livingston himself, they answered with gunshots fired through loopholes in Darby’s house.  Several were wounded, and two died. Afterwards, Livingston requested a company of fifty men to be quartered at his Manor House for protection.  The Governor issued a “Proclamation to Arrest Certain Rioters in Livingston Manor.” 

In 1758 three men – none of them mentioned in the arrest proclamation, all jailed because of the riot – were still imprisoned, waiting for proceedings against them.   

            At this point, on the edge of a full-scale war between the colonies, the two sides seem to have pulled back.  The anger of Livingston’s tenants still steamed: in 1762 he wrote to his son that “it appears this old banditty intends to give me new trouble.”  But this time around papers, not guns, were their weapons.  A solicitor was to be sent to the Governor, claiming lands “which they have purchased of some stragling Indians.”  (No doubt the Stockbridge group.)  This resulted in yet another proclamation — not demanding arrests, but this time simply warning anyone against so much as assembling on Livingston land.  But it held the peace for years, until Robert Noble reappeared. 

In 1766 Van Rensselaer, Livingston’s Manor Lord neighbor to the north, attempted to expel “squatters” from his lands.  Noble organized a group of rebels against Van Rensselaer; the sheriff was handed the duty of apprehending Noble at his house in Claverack.  He found thirty men armed with clubs, behind a fence.  When the Sheriff dared to remove one of the fence rails, he was attacked, at which point the guns came out.  One of the sheriff’s posse was killed, and also one of the rioters.  A proclamation to arrest Noble is the last record of the fifteen year battle between the Livingstons/Van Rensselaers and their liberty-loving tenants.  The Royal Army was at last sent into the area.  Noble fled to Massachusetts, and never again galvanized a Manor Lord’s enemies into battle.  David Ingersoll’s scheme to form a “combination” of Taconics settlers ended with his being stripped of his titles and lands (due possibly to his involvement in the raid on Livingston’s furnace) and the Massachusetts General Court backing away from support of the Taconic rebels.    

            So the fist of the state halted this cycle of violence.  Anti-rent rage seethed and periodically exploded well into the nineteenth century, in other parts of the state, but after the 1766 suppression the Livingstons seem to have given up on their borderlands.  In 1779 the town of Mount Washington was incorporated — using land grants purchased from the Stockbridge Mohicans — and so Massachusetts at last claimed most of the Taconics.  The many petitions of the settlers — “If your honors do not appear for their relief they are finally doomed’ – in the end succeeded.  In 1795 a petition signed by two hundred and thirteen citizens of the town of Livingston demanded an investigation into Livingston’s title, examining the language of the original deed and pointing out all the leaps and gaps we’ve seen.  But this went nowhere.

Map from 1787 survey — northern half

            But while men were fighting and dying over Taconics farms, a bloodless, bitter struggle flared on between colony / state governments over the ongoing, intractable, maddening question of where to draw the boundary between Massachusetts and New York.  This dragged on from the era of kings to the days of Presidents. A chronology:

1664: Following England’s seizure of New Netherlands, commissioners were appointed to delineate the boundaries between the various British colonies. The line between New York and Connecticut was set twenty miles east of the Hudson River, and a stone heap built to mark this original tri-state boundary.  For reasons I’ll detail later, the northwest corner of Connecticut was finally fixed a mile and three quarters east, but for years “Connecticut Old Corner” was used as a reference point for surveys and squabbles.

            1767: The year after military force finally squashed the violence in the Taconics, Commissioners from New York and Massachusetts met and tried to fix the boundary between the two states.  Massachusetts declared the line to run twenty miles from the Hudson; New York insisted it run thirty miles from the river.  Negotiations led to New York caving in and allowing the line to begin at Connecticut Old Corner, but also insisting that the northwest corner of Massachusetts should be fixed by measuring a right angle to the “general course of the river.”  No agreement was reached, even though the disputed points lay barely a mile apart.

            1773: A new set of commissioners took on the task of settling the colony boundary. They agreed that the line must begin at Connecticut Old Corner, and run parallel to the Hudson N 21 degrees 10 minutes, and 30 seconds E.  This was almost exactly what the King’s commissioners had recommended in 1664.  However – this line had to be surveyed, and once that process began, agreement collapsed: the line run by transit and sight stakes travelled east compared to a line run by a needle.  The effort was abandoned.

            1784: A revolution had transformed the colonies into states, but the new governments could not agree on where they began and ended.  This time an attempt to run the line foundered over the proper allowance to be made for the magnetic declination of the compass needle.  

            1787: Sometimes tasks that inarguably matter are undramatic and tedious, the people who accomplish them unremembered.  But the Federal Commissioners that settled the one hundred and twenty-three year old Massachusetts-New York boundary dispute are at least recorded here: Thomas Hutchins, Reverend John Ewing, David Rittenhouse.  From July 19 to August 4, they travelled with their gear from the Connecticut line to Williamstown, climbing mountains, setting flags, checking and re-checking compasses.  The journals of their mission, preserved in the New York State Archives, show a process that began with teeth-gnashing disagreement.

The Massachusetts commissioners insisted, at first, on beginning at a certain pine tree which they thought fixed the correction from the 1773 line. Their New York counterparts found this “contrary to all experiments,” but the two sides reconciled, on the very first day, by “using a great circle to divide the share.”  I don’t pretend to grasp the math that follows, though it’s all there: hand-jotted calculations, lists of compass variations, rough-drawn loops that illustrate tangent lines, sentences such as: “To find the proportion between the triangle ABC and the contents between the curve AB and the tangent AC, the series expressing the contents of the triangle ABC will be 1+3+5+7+9..”  But through all this mundane calculation, they achieved something none of the other surveyors before them could – they split the difference.  They compromised.  They also spent long hours observing and adjusting their compass needles, which apparently showed variation as the sun rose and the day grew hot.

On July 22, they fixed a flag on Cedar Mountain. July 23, they ascended Elk Hill (now Alander?) and when they reached lodging that evening, it “showered very hard.”  July 25, they went to the top of Cedar and Dugway Hill and fixed a flag on the “next hill” – Prospect? – and on July 26 reached Gelder Mountain (present day Catamount?) 

On July 27 they reached the “road from Barrington to Kinderhook” and thus left the South Taconics.  But on August 4 they “completed the line to the north boundary of Massachusetts.”  That imaginary line where New York ends and Massachusetts begins was, at last, precise.

Map from 1787 survey — southern half

 Today, at intervals along the western Taconic ridge, you’ll find twelve by twelve inch, roughly three foot tall granite markers set in stone by an 1898 commission, proclaiming “NY” on the west side, “MA” on the east.  An hour’s hike from the Sage’s Ravine parking area, over Round Mountain and the flank of Frissell, brings you to the point on our planet where Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut join.  There’s a granite marker at this spot, announcing “NY” and “MA” – but not CT.

But the mountains reach down into Connecticut, and form part of the town of Salisbury.  How, why, when was this Connecticut portion settled?

Once again, Livingstons enter the tale.  When Robert Senior consolidated his land holdings into a Manor, in 1686, he added a spur of land that reached east into Connecticut, all the way to present-day Salisbury village.  Livingston the Elder toured these holdings in 1707, reaching Salisbury after a two-day horseback journey from his home on the Hudson, following Indian trails with stops on “high hills.”  His journal records that: “From Wichquapacket” (now Bird Peak) “ye southernmost end of hill of Taghkanic,” he followed a footpath along which he marked two black oaks M/L.  He “Came by ye way to 2 lakes called Wanapakaook where a great Indian house was.”  (These bodies of water, just below Lakeville, retain their Mohican names today.)

Dutch families settled on farms near the Housatonic by 1714, living peacably among the Mohicans, and apparently never paying rent to Livingston.  In striking contrast to the boundary struggles just to the north, the Livingston family never fought for their Connecticut lands.  Why they were purchased in the first place is a good question.

            In any case, New York and Connecticut signed a treaty in 1731 agreeing to a boundary line twenty miles east of the Hudson – which would seem to nullify Livingston’s spur.  As late as 1767 Philips’s brother consulted with a lawyer, hoping to hang on to the family claim, but never followed through.  Quietly, the Livingstons watched Connecticut absorb their Manor spur.         

In the late seventeenth century a handful of enterprising families ventured from existing towns along the Connecticut River, and began clearing and farming land in Salisbury.  Likely none of these acres lay in the Taconics: when the town was surveyed by the state, and the different parcels “rated,” the surveyors describe the parcels on “Poconnuck Mt” as “a large piece of rough waste land.”  Nevertheless, in 1729 a man named Hinman purchased two hundred acres on “south end of Taconic Mt,” covering “the old Bull farm.”  One hundred acres of this lay along Riga Brook from above Sellecks Mill to Town Hall, the very southern edge of the Taconics.   

 But it wasn’t Livingston’s manor, or even farming, that drove the settlement of the southern end of the mountains.  It was iron.  Ore Hill nowadays is a deep pond just north of Route 344 in Lakeville, where the mountains smooth into valley, but in the early eighteenth century the bed of that pond was a deep vein of valuable iron ore.  When Pell and Ashley bought Ore Hill in 1731, the entire region entered an era of charcoal production, forest destruction, mining and blast-furnacing that didn’t end until 1925, when the Salisbury furnace went into receivership. 

The census says that in 1756 the entire town of Salisbury numbered 1100 souls.  By 1782, after a furnace went into blast in Lakeville, the population had more than doubled, to 2225.

The charcoaling of the Taconics makes it more difficult to say when the Connecticut end of the mountains was settled, because “settled” becomes a word in need of sharper definition.  It’s clear that the mines and the charcoal industry attracted landless families that built shacks in the mountains and near Ore Hill.  These people are mentioned in sources, and obviously someone worked the mines and reduced the forests to fuel.  But they passed through the years leaving little trace: no deeds signed, no taxes paid, no land tilled.  When the Taconics were stripped of usable wood, many likely moved on.  Did they ever really “settle” the Taconics?  How many were they? 

Some peripheral evidence suggests how much labor the mountains must have seen. The partners who fired up that Lakeville furnace purchased the privilege of cutting and coaling 2/3 of the wood on a 365 acre parcel on Mount Riga.  (The agreement stipulated that they did not have permission to fell chestnuts.)  In 1766 a lawsuit arose over Taconic land: a speculator had sold 376 acres on the mountain when he only owned 275.  So the mountain land had value; doubtless there were families living and working up there — a fair guess would place their numbers in 1790 at something less than the two hundred fifty six residing in Mount Washington.

This early period of settlement – with or without quotes clawing that word – ended in 1801 when an iron furnace was constructed at the Mount Riga pond outlet, and the industrial era of the Taconics begin

The boundaries between Connecticut and its neighbors were settled with amity, compared to the struggles between New York and Massachusetts.  The 1664 Royal Commission began with that seemingly simple, but in practice contentious concept that the Connecticut-New York (and Massachusetts) line lie twenty miles east of the Hudson.  Connecticut Old Corner marked the northwest corner of the colony, but only for a few decades.  Problems arose from the early-settled Connecticut towns along Long Island Sound that lay closer to the Hudson than that twenty mile limit, and did not wish to be annexed to New York.  So, New York agreed to cede this area (including Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan) to Connecticut in return for a strip of earth along the western Connecticut border, one and a quarter mile wide, forever after known as the Oblong.  When a line was run in 1731, the northwest corner moved one and three quarters miles east, and became the “Oblong Corner.”

The twists of the story don’t quite end there, though – Massachusetts continued to use Connecticut Old Corner as its southwest point; that 1787 boundary survey began there. This meant that the state of Massachusetts jutted out awkwardly a mile and three quarters beyond Connecticut, and more importantly, beyond the Taconics into the Harlem Valley.  This little area in the valley, known as Boston Corners, became notorious as a place Massachusetts law-men never bothered with, while New York sheriffs had no jurisdiction.  It seems that the town attracted thieves, particularly horse thieves, but the lawlessness seems to have been tolerated until the arrival of the Harlem Valley railroad became imminent.  In 1848 (when the trains reached Dover Plains) the villagers petitioned Albany to annex their area to New York state.  By the time the famous, illegal prize fight held beside the rail line ended in a chaotic riot, the political wheels were already turning, and Massachusetts handed Boston Corners over to its neighbor in 1853.

What was the effect of all this human turmoil on the land? 

Delay of the inevitable?  Like almost every acre of the Northeast, the Taconics were destined to be logged, farmed, mined, settled.  The struggles over land titles and boundaries kept people away for some decades, but not forever. In 1751, forty-four heads of families had settled in Mount Washington.  By 1790, after the Livingstons had given up the struggle, after the state boundary had at last been fixed, after the town of Mount Washington had been incorporated, the population had risen to 256 people – 55 men 16 or older, 77 men younger than 16, and 124 women.  Census records show that Mount Washington reached a peak of 474 souls in 1810.  So the Taconics gained a kind of reprieve, before the axes and saws and plows arrived.

Map of the border from Pope, “Western Boundary of Massachusetts” 1886 “Ahashewaghick” was a Mohican stone pile near present-day Catamount. Note Connecticut Old Corner towards the southwest.

On a hot, clear day in August 2017, I set out with my cell-phone compass and a quadrangle map to attempt to locate Connecticut Old Corner.  Could that heap of stones still stand somewhere in the woods along Route 22?

I wish I’d worn long pants.  My compass directed me up the sides of a long-abandoned quarry, through goldenrod as high as my head, tangles of blackberry and sumac and stubby hemlocks.  The blackberries were plump and ripe.  My legs were thoroughly and meticulously scratched.  I found nests of boulders, apparently pulled out of the quarry and thrown aside.  I followed a dirt-bike track until my compass told me not to. I looked over the steep side of a ridge into a hollow that the Harlem Rail line once ran through.  I could see the bald spot on the Taconic ridge that marks Brace Mountain. 

I’m pretty sure I found Connecticut Old Corner, but I need to sharpen my orienteering skills before I can say with certainty that there’s nothing there.  It’d hardly be surprising if a pile of rocks that marked a defunct boundary was disassembled by farmers building walls, or quarry workers digging gravel.  But I keep hoping that markers of distant moments survive. 

You can easily find most of the Massachusetts-New York boundary markers in the mountains today.  Just down a decline from Route 23, on the edge of Catamount Ski Resort, a post rises from strata of road-salt and sand, dead leaves and candy wrappers.  A very short side path off the South Taconic trail, on Prospect Hill, leads to another weather-worn monument.  Right in front of a weekend house on Sunset Rock Road stands the next one heading south.  Few probably pay much mind; unless you own property along the edge nobody cares, now, where the border lies.