A Historic Look at the Hudson River Valley
by Erica P. Lome
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville penned a letter to his father describing the Hudson River Valley:
You will never guess, my dear father, where on earth I have ensconced myself to write this letter. I sit at the top of a rather steep hill. In the foreground, one hundred paces below me is a country house, where we lodge. Beyond it, the hill slopes down to the Hudson. More than a league-wide and covered with sails, the great river runs north into a range of high blue mountains and disappears. Its banks are a scene of bustle and prosperity delightful to observe.
Tocqueville was a twenty-five-year-old deputy royal prosecutor from France on a visit to tour America’s prison systems. Famous for his two-volume series Democracy in America (1835, 1840), Tocqueville’s observations about the natural world are nonetheless revealing of the Hudson River’s historic importance as a source of both beauty and industry.
The Hudson River Valley has long been central to American culture, serving as a home for politicians, explorers, robber barons, artists, and inventors. Stretching 315 miles from the Adirondack Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean it encompasses seven counties throughout eastern New York.
Native Americans made the Hudson River Valley their home long before European colonization. Lenape, Wappingers, and Mahicans settled along the river in fertile tracks of lands and communicated with each other through a shared Algonquin language. These communities made the first contact with an early group of European explorers including Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. By the sixteenth century, fierce competition for land, resources, and glory among European imperial powers resulted in more concentrated efforts to “discover” the Americas. In 1609, the Dutch East India Company employed Henry Hudson to find the Northwest Passage. In his attempt to locate this mythical source to the Pacific Ocean, Hudson sailed up what was then known as the Mahicantuck River and landed on the western shores near present-day Albany. He claimed the territory in the name of the Dutch and gave the adjoining river his name.
The Hudson River proved a strategic source of the early American economy, providing the Dutch a direct route into the nation’s interior and fueling the rapidly-growing fur trade. These enterprises enabled New Netherlands to prosper until 1664 when territorial disputes between English colonists exploded into direct conflict. Peter Stuyvesant surrendered to the English shortly thereafter. Despite the official transformation of New Amsterdam into New York, the Dutch influence remained deeply ingrained in the people, traditions, and folklore of the Hudson River Valley.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the Hudson River Valley developed an agricultural economy. Farmers owed their livelihoods to wealthy landowners who amassed great political and cultural power. The Philipse family owned over 50,000 acres comprising much of lower Westchester County. The richest family in New York owed its largess to patriarch Frederick Philipse (1626-1702), a Dutch immigrant who made important connections with the new English government and strategic marriages to other influential Dutch families. His great estate on the Hudson, Philipsburg Manor, was also home to 23 African slaves during Frederick Philipse’s tenure on the executive council of the Governor of New York. His dealings with the slave trade eventually got him banned, and descendants of his family later became staunch abolitionists.
The Hudson River Valley was also home to colonists of social distinction who believed they had a mission to beautify the world, starting with their homes and gardens. In the 1740s, Robert Livington Jr. built a home on the banks of the Hudson in Germantown, New York which he called Clermont. Livingston was the son of Robert Livingston Sr., a Scottish immigrant who made his mark on the colony of New York, receiving a series of land deals and the title “Lord of Livingston Manor” after marrying into one of the most elite families in the colony, the Van Rensselaers. Several generations of Livingstons were raised at Clermont, including Robert R. Livingston, the first Chancellor of New York. Hailed by contemporaries as the epitome of beauty and sensibility, Clermont was inspired by the eighteenth-century Georgian architectural style which stressed symmetry, clean lines, and rationality. It was a fascinating contrast to the enduring Dutch vernacular style with its identifiable gambrel roof. Destroyed in 1777, Clermont was later rebuilt in the popular Colonial Revival style.
While the British held fast to the Hudson Valley for over a hundred years, the region was also home to one of the more decisive victories for the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. At the Battle of Stony Point in 1779, George Washington gained control of the Hudson and captured West Point. The soon-to-be first president later established his headquarters in Hasbrouck House in Newburgh, staying there from 1782 until 1783 when he issued the Proclamation of Peace.
The Hudson Valley continued to be home for America’s founding fathers over the course of the Early Republic period.
Culture and Commerce
The 19th century marked a divergence of the Hudson River Valley into two important streams: industry and nature. In 1807, Robert Fulton launched the first commercial steamboat—called the Clermont—from the titular estate on the Hudson where it traveled upstream from New York to Albany. Steamboats soon enabled more people to explore the Hudson River Valley, fueling a nascent tourism industry and providing a more efficient way to transport goods and laborers into the interior. The Hudson became an even more important commercial link between New York City and the Great Lakes with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825.
At the same time, the region also became a haven for artists, writers, and poets looking to escape the perceived ills of modern society. Thomas Cole founded the Hudson River School in 1825, made up of a group of painters who popularized the genre of monumental landscapes. Followers of the School combined aspects of European Romanticism and American nationalism. Cole, along with painters like Asher B. Durand and Frederic Edwin Church, idealized the beauty and majesty of the natural world. Through their paintings, they hoped to instill in the public an appreciation of the wonders of their country and the value of nature as a resource not to be squandered.
Frederic Church lived in the Hudson Valley at Olana, the eclectic and Near Eastern-inspired villa he designed in the 1860s. In 1867, the artist recorded his view of the Hudson River at sunset. Titled View of the Hudson River from Olana, the painting captures the beauty of the region. In the foreground, the sight of a broken tree symbolized the unflinching violence of nature and the encroaching threat of industrialization – a common motif for Hudson River School artists. These paintings received much acclaim and international recognition and sparked numerous efforts to preserve the region’s natural environment. (see title image on previous page)
Writers like Washington Irving also popularized the Hudson River Valley through commercial fiction. Intended to be somewhat satirical, Irving captured the culture clash between the transient, entrepreneurial Yankee from the city and the long-rooted, traditional Dutch inhabitants of the country. Writing from Sunnyside, his cottage on the Hudson, Irving’s best-known works, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, had an enormous impact on the public. Tourists soon roamed the peaks and valleys of the Valley, searching for ghosts and reveling in the nostalgic allure of villages seemingly untouched by time.
The Hudson Valley’s Gilded Age
By the late nineteenth century, the Hudson River Valley was a popular summer destination for America’s leisure class. Railroad tycoons, shipping magnates, and real estate moguls bought up massive amounts of property, rubbing shoulders with the region’s aristocratic elite. These nouveau riche families had money and were not afraid to show it, often competing with each other to build the grandest and most lavish mansions.
The marriage of lawyer and politician Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston culminated in the construction of a 65-room, beaux-arts style home in 1895 in Staatsburgh, New York. Designed by the prominent firm McKim, Mead, and White, Staatsburgh contained a vast collection of antiques and European decorative arts. Though the family only visited in the fall, their country estate became the destination for Gilded Age society. Not to be outdone, Frederick Vanderbilt hired McKim, Mead, and White to build his mansion in Hyde Park, New York along the Hudson. Equally massive, the Vanderbilt estate was a monument to conspicuous consumption, with furnishings from around the world and architectural features salvaged from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European homes in disrepair.
By the early twentieth century, dozens of wealthy industrialists had their homes along the Hudson in what came to be known as Millionaire’s Row. John D. Rockefeller had the firm Delano & Aldrich design their Georgian Revival mansion Kykuit (meaning lookout’ in Dutch) in Sleepy Hollow. The estate was known for its beautiful gardens in a range of Eastern and Western styles, and a massive underground bunker which housed the family’s world-class collection of modern art.
Amongst the influx of wealthy capitalists, the Hudson River Valley remained an important site for American politics and international diplomacy. In the shadow of the Vanderbilt estate in Hyde Part, Franklin D. Roosevelt grew up at Springwood, his family home built in the early 1800s. Down the road, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt found a sanctuary at Val-Kill, a Dutch Colonial cottage built in 1926. They both opened their doors to notable figures such as Winston Churchill, Haile Selassie, and the King and Queen of England. More importantly, the Hudson River Valley represented a respite from the trials and tribulations of the era. As he debated running for a fourth term as President in 1944, FDR remarked with great reluctance:
“All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River …”
An Enduring Legacy
In the early twentieth century, Americans began to recognize the importance of preserving the Hudson River Valley’s natural and cultural attractions. The National Park Service acquired vast tracts of land and property for the use and enjoyment of the public, including Bear Mountain State Park, Clermont Estate, Boscobel House and Gardens, and Lyndhurst. As a National Heritage Area, the Hudson River Valley today tells the story of early encounters, exchanges, and innovation. As a home to Native Americans, Africans, Dutch and English colonists, American patriots, and prominent global citizens, the Hudson River Valley also demonstrates the diverse origins of the United States. It continues to connect people across cultures, backgrounds, and distances and is ready to be re-discovered by a new generation of visitors.
Erica P. Lome is a doctoral candidate in history and material culture at the University of Delaware. When she’s not writing her dissertation on reproduction furniture, she’s out hunting for antiques and ephemera.