300 Years of Dutchess County Democracy
This year marks the 300th anniversary of democracy in Dutchess County. Within the span of three centuries, this tract of New Netherland wilderness, speckled with trading posts for exchanging furs, grew from a small, colonial farming settlement governed by nearby Ulster County into a modern, autonomous county. Anniversaries as remarkable as this one emphasize the need for scholarship to fill in the gaps in the county’s early history. Uncovering these facts and making them accessible to the public is the goal of the 300th Anniversary Dutchess Heritage Days Committee.
When Dutchess County was first established, it’s population was so small that it had to be governed by cross-river Ulster County. Once Dutchess began to govern itself independently, the milestones in its development and growth sometimes occurred years apart. Likewise, the commemoration of Dutchess’s “300 Years of Democracy” will span a number of years. Over the next eight years, newly instated Dutchess County Historian William P. Tatum III will be organizing commemorative events to document these milestones.
“The vision for the 300th anniversary is really to make people aware of how much our structure of government influences daily life throughout the county,” says Tatum. “Here in 2013, we are actually commemorating the start of what was an eight-year-long process for the county between 1713 and 1721.”
However, there are few history books that accurately convey the timeline of early Dutchess events. Most volumes were “assembled from oral interviews conducted prior to the advent of professional history, when people didn’t really think to look at documents as sources,” says Tatum.1
Making research all the more tedious were the early Dutchess locals who typically enacted their own initiatives before seeking approval from the proper authorities; the “official” dates written in county records did not always corroborate other sources’ versions of the same event. From the volumes of data and county records he has scoured during his tenure as historian, Tatum has pieced together a great deal of the county’s early governmental history.
The history of Dutchess County officially begins in 1683, when it was established as one of the original twelve counties of New York in accordance with the Duke of York’s orders. The British gained control of Dutch New Amsterdam, renamed it New York, and divided it into smaller counties.2 In 1683, New York Governor Thomas Dongan relinquished the Wappingers Indians’ title to the Hudson River’s eastern shore, a fertile valley nestled against the backdrop of distinguished mountain ranges. Governor Dongan gave Francis Rombout, Guilian Verplanck, and later Stephanus Van Cortlandt an opportunity to purchase the property. These men received the title to the land, Rombout’s Patent, on October 17, 1685.3 The new boundaries spanned from Putnam County to the south and extended as far north as Clermont and Germantown.
Named for the Duchess of York in 1683, Dutchess County was an extension of Ulster County’s government in its early years. Naturally, all legal and tax disputes had to be settled in Ulster courts. Because the Hudson River separated the two counties, the need for a local Dutchess government became clear. From his research, Tatum has deduced that on October 23, 1713, “Royal Governor Robert Hunter signed the bill into law from the colonial assembly allowing us to elect our first supervisor, treasurer, and tax officials.” After receiving this permission, Dutchess County held its own elections in September 1714. Developing its own government was essential to Dutchess’s recognition as a county distinct from Ulster.
Newly elected Dutchess officials determined that the next logical step in creating a strong, democratic county would be to gather records of its citizens. In 1714, a census was conducted; it counted 416 free people and twenty-nine slaves among its population. A second census was not recorded until nine years later; by 1723, the county had remarkably grown to 1,083.
Just as the population continued to grow, Dutchess County’s government saw several appointments, elections, and acts of legislation in its early years. In 1715, the first County Clerk was appointed to maintain the county’s records. In July, the General Assembly approved the construction of a courthouse and prison for the county’s use. The following year saw the appointment of the first County Treasurer; Judge Leonard Lewis was eventually elected to this position in 1718 and served until 1739.
On January 17, 1717, the county’s first taxes were recorded. Later that year, the colonial assembly passed a second act allowing for construction of the county courthouse and jail to begin. These government buildings were slated for completion within three years, but county records suggest that construction took as many as thirty years. Nonetheless, Captain Barendt Van Kleeck and Jacobus Van Der Bogart were selected as commissioners to oversee the construction.4 The deed to the land designated for the courthouse and prison was signed to Van Keeck and Van Der Bogart in 1718. This “County House” was designed to hold the county Supervisors’ annual meeting and other county-related functions.
The First Book of Supervisors shows that since 1717, Dutchess government operated under a three-ward structure. On June 24, 1719, the patents for Rhinebeck, Poughkeepsie, and Beacon were sold and Dutchess was officially recognized as having three distinct wards. The southernmost ward extended as far as Westchester County and included present-day Putnam County, while the northern-most ward touched Albany County near Clermont. The sale was carried out by the three partners who secured the original patents for Dutchess: Rombout, Verplanck, and Van Cortlandt.5 In the same year, the colonial assembly authorized the county to elect three supervisors (one for each ward) instead of the one previously allowed.
On July 6, 1720, Governor William Burnet authorized the establishment for Dutchess County’s own Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace. Prior to this authorization, Dutchess county residents were subjected to the terms and opinions of Ulster County justices. Governor Burnet mandated that the Court of Common Pleas:
… with the Advice and Consent of his Majesties Council for the Province of New York, and by virtue of the Power and Authority unto me given and granted under the Great Seal of Great Britain, and do hereby Erect, Establish and Ordain, that from hence-forward there shall be held and kept at Poghkeepson, near the Center, of the said County, a General Sessions of the Peace, on the third Tuesday in May, and the thirds Tuesday in October, yearly and every year for ever, which General Sessions of the Peace, in every Sessions, possibly, in one Day, and that from henceforth there shall be held…6
In its biannual meetings, the Court of Common Pleas typically heard cases that ranged from debtor lawsuits and master-apprentice relationships to liquor sales transacted without proper licensing.
Tatum reports that by 1721, “We finally had the full court structure in place. In particular, this is the Court of Common Sessions that allowed us to be fully self-sustaining.” In October 1721, J. van de Voert was appointed the first sheriff of Dutchess County; his duties consisted mostly of formalities in the court, like reading announcements. Having its own sheriff and Court of Common Sessions meant that Dutchess residents would no longer have to travel to Ulster County to settle disputes.7
In October 2012, Dutchess County Legislator Michael Kelsey introduced a resolution before the county Legislature to sponsor the Dutchess County Heritage Days Committee to celebrate 300 years of county leadership. With the county’s sponsorship, Kelsey’s legislation proposed to create a “shared heritage as a county” by commemorating the 300th anniversary of Democracy in Dutchess. “As an elected official myself,” says Kelsey, “we have a sacred position to represent the people and do it well and this year will recognize that.”
The Dutchess County Heritage Days Committee has since put forth plans to enact an essay-writing contest in the county’s school systems. Elementary, middle, and high school students will be challenged with the task of writing about historical events. “We’ve had movie stars, athletes, and a president from this area. We’ve also had many events of consequence that impact who we are,” says Kelsey,8 imploring students to learn more about their county’s history. Dutchess county students also have an opportunity to design a logo for the committee, allowing creative, young minds to contribute to the Dutchess County Heritage Days Committee.
In February 2013, Tatum, Kelsey, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, and several other county officials gathered to announce that from October 23 through November 1, 2013, a weeklong celebration will be held to commemorate the county’s first election in 1713. “Now is the time, 300 years after the establishment of our government, to celebrate all that got us here and to make history for ourselves,” declared Molinaro. “It’s really about the pride that so many residents, businesses, families, and farmers have for a community they call home.”
To help spread awareness of the 300th anniversary of democracy in Dutchess, Tatum enlisted the help of Dutchess County Tourism Executive Director Mary Kay Vrba. She projects that Tatum’s eight-year plan “will help us continue to focus on the rich heritage of Dutchess County and the Hudson Valley and provide reason for people to return visit after visit.” To learn more about Dutchess County history, tourists and students of the Hudson River Valley will be eager to return for the parades, books, and speaker series that will commemorate the 300th anniversary of democracy in Dutchess. Vrba plans to implement “a full marketing effort using print, digital, and TV to support promoting these activities.” Civil War re-enactments, parades showcasing antique automobiles, and other commemorative celebrations will be held. “There is really no reason to go anywhere else on your vacation,” Vrba comments.
Dutchess’s towns have been encouraged to host their own events; for example, 2013 is also Beacon’s 100th anniversary. The city will be hosting its own speakers, concerts and other events.
“Our goal for the 300th anniversary cycle is to increase awareness of and appreciation for the ways in which our form of government has influenced the shape of daily life in the county,” says Tatum. “We additionally hope that this series of celebrations will lead to more detailed studies of county government, which has hitherto escaped most scholarly attention.” Tatum anticipates that local historians and historical societies also will come together in a collaborative effort to assist the Dutchess County Heritage Days Committee in commemorating the milestones of the 300th anniversary of democracy in Dutchess.
“2013 is an exciting year for Dutchess County as we celebrate the County’s 300th anniversary of democracy. Our Heritage Day celebrations will reflect back on our history and celebrate the county we are today,” said Dutchess County Executive Molinaro. “It is a wonderful opportunity for residents and visitors alike to visit our historical treasures, shop at our shops, dine in our restaurants, and truly enjoy all that Dutchess County has to offer.”
— Samantha Dutchess Halliday, Marist ’13
Selected Works on Dutchess County History
Hasbrouck, Frank. The History of Dutchess County, New York. Poughkeepsie, New York: S. A. Matthieu, 1909. http://archive.org/stream/cu31924028853327/cu31924028853327_djvu.txt
MacCracken, Henry Noble. Old Dutchess Forever! The Story of an American County. New York: Hastings House, 1956.
Moreau, Lindsay. “The Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricenntial Commission.” In Hudson River Valley Reivew Vol. 25, No. 2 (2009): 86-93.
Smith, James H. History of Dutchess County, New York with Illustrations. Interlaken, NY: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1980.87 300 Years of Dutchess County Democracy
1. Personal correspondence
2. Frank Hasbrouck, The History of Dutchess County, New York (Poughkeepsie: S. A. Matthieu, 1909), 34.
4. James H. Smith, History of Dutchess County with Illustrations (Interlaken, NY: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1980), 118.
5. Henry Noble MacCracken, Old Dutchess Forever! The Story of an American County (New York: Hastings House, 1956), 57.
6. Smith, History of Dutchess County, 118.
7. Ibid., 126.
8. http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/article/20130221/NEWS01/302210020/VIDEO-County-to-celebrate- 300-years-heritage-events-parade