Putnam’s Origins, 1691-1776
When the Half Moon anchored in the Hudson in 1609, the area on the east bank was inhabited by a band of Native Americans called the Wappingers, sometimes known as the “River Indians”. This group of Munsee-speaking Delawares farmed in the valleys, hunted in the forests and swamps, and gathered shellfish in the Hudson estuary in the land that would become Putnam County. No European settlements are known to have occurred here during the 17th century, but the Wappingers had regular contact with Dutch traders from whom they acquired trade goods in return for beaver pelts. They also acquired disease, alcohol, and firearms, decimating their people.
Adolph Philipse, patentee
In 1691, two Dutch traders purchased a portion what would become Putnam County from the Wappingers for a “competent” sum of money. Six years later, the traders sold it to Adolph Philipse, a wealthy merchant, who then obtained a royal patent for land extending all the way from the Hudson to the Connecticut border, an area to be known as the Philipse Patent.
In 1737, the Colonial Assembly designated the Philipse Patent as the South Precinct of Dutchess County, and the Philipses began leasing farms to immigrants from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Long Island and lower Westchester. After Adolph Philipse’s death, the Patent was divided in 1754 into nine lots granted to three heirs, Mary Philipse, Philip Philipse, and Susannah Philipse Robinson. During the French and Indian War, many of the Wappingers went to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. (Thereafter, they were often known as Stockbridge Indians or Stockbridge Mahicans.) When the Wappingers returned to Putnam after the war and attempted to regain the land that the Philipses had been leasing to others, they brought suit. Their sachem Daniel Nimham argued with considerable justification that they had been defrauded of their lands, the Provincial Council, dominated by great families like the Philipses, upheld the Philipse claims.
Adolph Philipse, patentee
Putnam in the Revolution
During the Revolutionary War, the control of the Hudson Highlands was critical to both sides. British strategy aimed to dominate the Hudson, Lake George, and Lake Champlain corridor and so cut the colonies in two. To do this, the British had to take the east (Putnam) or west bank of the river and to break through the iron chain laid across the river. The British managed this once but failed to maintain their advantage. For part of the Revolution, the defenders of the Highlands were commanded by General Israel Putnam, for whom the county would be named.
Putnam was also the scene of two other fascinating Revolutionary War events. Benedict Arnold was staying in Putnam, across from the West Point fortifications that he intended to place in enemy hands, when his treachery was discovered. Arnold’s flight from Putnam is marked by a historic marker.
Sybil Ludington�s grave in Patterson
A statue and many other markers commemorate the extraordinary, night-long ride of Sybil Ludington, which rivaled that of Paul Revere. In April of 1777, the 16-year-old daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington roused the area militia under her father’s command to march to Connecticut where British troops were burning Ridgefield and Danbury. The militia succeeded in driving the British back to their ships lying in Long Island Sound. Although there is no contemporary documentation of the event, Sybil’s feat is firmly established in local and family tradition .
Memorial to Chief Nimham at County Park
The sachem Daniel Nimham and the Wappingers supported the American cause during the Revolutionary War, and many of them – including Nimham and his son – were killed at the Battle of Kings Bridge in 1778. Nevertheless, when the lands of the Philipses were granted to other patriots, the Wappingers received no reward for their valor. Most left the area and settled eventually in Wisconsin and Ontario.
A New County in a New Country
Because the Philipses had been Loyalists during the war, most of their lands were confiscated and sold by Commissioners of Forfeitures primarily to those Philipse tenants who had backed the winning side. The flight of the Philipses and other Tory families created opportunities for New Englanders and others looking for vacant land, creating an influx of immigrants to the County. By 1812, the increased population of southern Dutchess County as well as the inconvenient distance to the county seat in Poughkeepsie caused the State Legislature to create the new County of Putnam, which would have its own Board of Supervisors, courthouse and jail.
Putnam’s position on the Hudson gave it a good, cheap means of transporting people and goods to New York City and Albany, but the river froze in the winter and, of course, did not provide for inland travel. In 1815, the Philipstown Turnpike Company was organized to improve a toll road from Cold Spring to Connecticut. Wagons on the turnpike brought manufactures to the interior and carried farm produce from eastern Putnam and iron ore from the mines in the Highlands to the river. Unfortunately, the tolls were not adequate to make it a profitable venture for the investors.
West Point Foundry, Cold Spring, 1841
Two years later, Putnam’s most famous industry, the West Point Foundry, was born. The events of the War of 1812 impelled the Federal Government to encourage a domestic munitions industry. Cold Spring’s location on the Hudson opposite West Point was ideal: it had river transportation, water power, iron ore from nearby mines, and fuel from the charcoal making in forests close at hand. The Foundry’s huge demand for workers, skilled and unskilled, brought Putnam’s first flood of immigrants directly from Europe, primarily from England and Ireland.
The Coming of the Railroads and the Civil War
By the mid-19th century, two railroads from New York City were operating in Putnam County – one tracking the level shore of the Hudson to Cold Spring and the other in the Harlem Valley to Brewster’s Station. Gail Borden built his new milk processing plant in Brewster where he could ship his condensed milk to market by rail. His operation required nearly 90,000 quarts of milk each day from the farmers in eastern Putnam County. Transportation of raw milk to Brewster encouraged the development of a network of good roads in the area.
Although small, Putnam County played a significant role in the Civil War. About a third of the men and boys between 15 and 55 served in the military, and four distinguished fighting generals – as opposed to the “political generals”- are associated with Putnam. In addition to the ordnance supplied by the West Point Foundry and the condensed milk sold by Borden’s, Putnam contributed to the cause by feeding the troops as well as civilians those at home. Declining sheep farming received a boost by a renewed demand for woolen clothing when southern cotton was unavailable.
Post-War Years, 1865-1914
Between the Civil War and World War I, industry and agriculture experienced great change. Iron mining and the West Point Foundry, which had prospered during the Civil War, were unable to compete with ore from Michigan and Minnesota and iron manufacturing in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Those involved in the iron business went west, moved to the cities, or found other jobs.
Aerating fountain at Boyd�s Reservoir, Kent
Agriculture was also in decline. New York City’s need for more drinking water caused it to look to the entire Croton River watershed to supply its needs. Beginning with the construction of the Boyd’s Dam in 1866 through the construction of the last reservoir in the County in 1906, some of Putnam’s best arable land was inundated. The lure of western land was irresistible for farmers who had worn-out land or whose property was taken by the City. The population of the County declined precipitously; in 1920 there were fewer inhabitants here than in 1820!
The abandonment of the mines and farms, the creation of the reservoirs, and the preservation of new open space all contributed to the scenic beauty of Putnam County and made it attractive to its new industry – “summer people”. Hotels, inns, and boarding houses around Lake Mahopac, Oscawana, and the many other lakes attracted vacationers to Putnam County. The existing railroads and the Putnam Division of the Harlem Railroad, built in the 1880s, made Putnam a vacation mecca for New York City.
Putnam between the Wars, 1914-1945
Gov. Herbert H. Lehman opening Taconic, 1931
In the early 20th century, improved roads brought a new sort of “summer people” to the County. The movement for better highways accelerated after the first World War. During the Great Depression, county planners succeeded in paving many of Putnam’s dirt roads. The Taconic State Parkway reached Putnam County in 1931. Small bungalow colonies sprang up, and cheap vacant land was laid out in large developments of summer homes, like those in Lake Peekskill, Lake Carmel, and Putnam Lake. “A place in the country” was now accessible and affordable for many New York City residents.
Putnam County’s natural beauty made it a desirable summer resort area. Its many lakes and reservoirs were attractive for fishing and water sports. The abandoned iron mines and farms in the northwestern part of the county reverted to nature and became the nucleus of forested Clarence Fahnestock State Park in 1929.
While Putnam’s population doubled during the summer months, the year-round population, which had reached an all-time low in 1920, began to grow. Apple, egg and poultry farming gradually replaced many of the dairy farms of the 19th century. Construction trades and the service industry were stimulated by the explosion of the summer population. People discovered that they could summer in Putnam County and still commute to New York City to work. A new Putnam County was in the making on the eve of World War II.
Putnam County since World War II, 1945 –
During the last half century, Putnam ceased to be a rural area and became part of the New York City outer suburbs. Returning veterans and many workers in New York City and lower Westchester County found one could live year-round in Putnam and commute to work on excellent roads and rail connections. While not as convenient as Westchester, Putnam offered less expensive housing, good schools, and a safe environment. New year-round housing developments sprang up throughout the county. The rapid conversion of summer houses to year-round use has provided affordable housing but at an environmental cost.
Rock cut on I-84 in Kent
For several decades, Putnam has been the one of fastest growing county in New York State. The Taconic State Parkway, designed for leisurely pleasure driving, has become a heavily- traveled, high-speed commuter roadway. The interstate highway system now serves Putnam; and while it has encouraged commercial development in the eastern part of the county, it has also produced more commutation and more congestion. One brake on Putnam’s development has been the stringent regulations adopted by the City of New York to protect the watershed of its reservoir system. More than half of the county is affected by these rules.
These regulations, as well as the enormous expansion of the state park system in the county, have saved open space for the county and helped to preserve its spectacular natural beauty. Our forests and lakes enhance the quality of life for county residents and bring in eco-tourists. The preservation of historic sites and the revitalization of charming main streets also attract visitors. Special events stimulate tourism, now an important component of economic development. (For information about visiting the county, contact the Visitors Bureau at www.visitputnam.org
The Great Swamp, Patterson
Today, Putnam County has managed to strike a balance between change and preservation and between development and conservation. It will be the challenge of the 21st century to continue on that difficult path.