Two hundred years ago Red Hook split from Rhinebeck, becoming an independent, self-governing township. It was by all accounts, a peaceful separation, authorized by the New York State Legislature to make it more convenient for residents to attend town meetings as horse and carriage were the primary means of transport. But although things between Rhinebeck and Red Hook were cordial, 1812 was not a peaceful time in the newly minted United States. The country was at war.
The war between France and Britain disrupted trade between the two countries and the United States. President James Madison’s request that they respect his nation’s neutrality and commercial interests was ignored. And although both countries targeted American trade, Madison declared war on Britain because of its additionally annoying habit of seizing American ships and forcing her sailors into the service of the Royal Navy.
Red Hook resident General John Armstrong, who married Alida Livingston (sister of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston) started work on his estate La Bergerie (later christened Rokeby) in 1811 but the war delayed the completion of the mansion and Mrs. Armstrong received many letters concerning beams, flooring, cellars, and farm buildings from her absent husband. According to later Rokeby resident, Margaret Chanler Aldrich, in the early 1800s, “people lived as they had in Europe, producing the wool they wore, the flax for their household linen, and preparing their winter supply of meat.” And dueling was still considered the gentlemanly way to settle a dispute.
Armstrong was appointed Brigadier General in 1812 and Secretary of War in 1813. His oldest sons, Horatio Gates Armstrong and Henry Beekman Armstrong were sent into service on the Canadian “frontier” where Horatio led the 23rd Infantry and Henry helmed the 13th. As soldiers, their daily rations were 20 ounces of beef, 18 ounces of flour, .64 ounces of both salt and soap, .24 ounce of candle, and one gill (4 ounces) of both rum and vinegar. Henry was wounded in the war’s first significant contest, The Battle of Queenston Heights but recovered sufficiently to return to battle in 1813.
Back at home, John Hermance married Elizabeth Hapeman on January 19, at St. John’s Low Dutch Reformed Church in Upper Red Hook. Their first daughter, Catherine Marie was born on September 17, 1812. They would go on to have 19 more children. As couples married earlier, large families were not exceptional. Four of John and Elizabeth’s children would not survive until their first birthday; one would die shortly after her 18th birthday; the rest would live exceptionally long lives with six of their children living past 70 and three living past 90.
The average white couple in 1812 could expect to have 7-8 children. On average, one would die before their first birthday and another would die before the age of 21. (African-Americans, some still slaves, had higher rates of infant and childhood mortality.) Pneumonia, typhoid, and dysentery were the primary causes of death in babies. For children, the risks were chicken pox, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, and whooping cough. Adults were usually done in by tuberculosis euphemistically called “consumption.” The average life span was roughly 39 years old. And unlike today, a woman’s life span was shorter than a man’s because of the inherent dangers of child birth.
On July 9, 1812 Red Hook lost one of its more colorful citizens when Colonel Andrew De Veaux died after a fall. The South Carolina native and British loyalist had settled in Red Hook (after capturing the Bahamas from Spain and returning them to Britain). He married the wealthy socialite Anna Maria Verplanck but lived beyond both of their means and four days before his death, offered their estate for sale “on accommodating terms.” De Veaux was interred in the Cemetery at the Reformed (Dutch) Church in Upper Red Hook. One can assume that, in the tradition of the day, he was buried in a casket made by the local cabinet maker/undertaker as both tasks were frequently performed by the same person.
De Veaux’s estate boasted “a garden of four acres with all kinds of the most valuable fruit, as well as a considerable stock of horses, cattle, sheep, farming utensils, wagons, carts, and oxen.” The estate reflected the area as during this time, although trade was difficult, agriculture thrived.
The aforementioned Armstrong estate was called La Bergerie, the sheep pen, after the flock of Merino sheep that Napoleon had given to Armstrong at the end of his diplomatic service to France. Sheep continued to thrive in Red Hook; in 1824, there were 6,406 sheep recorded.
James Williams’ advertisement in an 1812 edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal highlights the diverse selection of fruit trees that thrived in the area. His apple trees were Spitzenburgs (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite), Swaars, Gloria Mundi (a variety which some say originated at Crooke’s Farm in Red Hook in the early 1800s), Ox, Pie, and Paradise. His peach trees were Pine Apple, President, Lemon, and Congress. There were Moorpark apricots and Swan’s egg pears; Queen Claude plumbs (sic) and Brentford Rhaspberries (sic).
The Massonneau family, best known for the Tobacco Factory, got its mercantile start in 1790 and in 1812, French immigrant Claudius Massonneau opened his general store at Red Hook’s four corners on land purchased from John Armstrong. Massonneau was well-connected, having married Robert G. Livingston’s daughter Catherine.
In 1807, Robert Fulton invented the steam boat (with the financial support of Clermont’s Robert Livingston). Fulton, Livingston and their heirs held a monopoly on Hudson River travel between New York City and Albany until 1824. In 1812, the price of passage from Albany to Red Hook was $2.75; from New York City to Red Hook, $4.50. The NYC-Red Hook trip took about 30 hours. An advertisement of the time advises that: Young person 2 to 10 years of age are 1/2 price. Children under 2 are 1/4 price. Servants who use a berth are 2/3 price, without a berth 1/2 price.
Slavery, alas, was still prevalent in both the grand estates and humbler homes of New York although it had been abolished in the neighboring states of New England and Pennsylvania in 1784. Although New York passed an act in 1799 calling for slavery’s gradual abolition, a gazette claims that as late as 1824, there were still 182 slaves in Red Hook.
Fortunately, 200 years later, slavery, dueling, and high infant mortality are relegated to history’s dump heap. Instead as we celebrate Red Hook’s bicentennial, we honor the river, estates, politicians, farmers, entrepreneurs, ancestors, and immigrants that made Red Hook the vibrant town it is today — 200 years of rural traditions and community connections.
2012 Red Hook Bicentennial Celebration activities are scheduled to begin on Apple Blossom Day, May 12, 2012, and conclude on Hardscrabble Day, September 22, 2012. Among the “must attend” events will be: giant puppet-making workshops; a Community Day of old-time games; food and fun at Montgomery Place on July 14; a ticketed tour of 10 historically important homes, buildings and grounds in Red Hook, Tivoli, Annandale, Barrytown and Upper Red Hook; a musical performance by acclaimed Broadway artists at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College; an old-fashioned barn dance; and, on August 11, a sunset concert on the banks of the Hudson by the West Point Band of the U.S. Military Academy. So mark your calendars and get ready for a year of fun-filled celebration! And keep an eye out for regular updates on Red Hook Bicentennial events in Hudson Valley Mercantile, our media partner.
Robin Cherry is the treasurer of the Egbert Benson Historical Society and author of ‘Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping.’ She’s working on a book on the history of garlic and blogs on garlic and travel at www.garlicescapes.com.