A Narrative History of Rockland County
Rockland County (176 mi²/2000 pop 286,783) was part of Orange County until 1798. The origin of its name is unknown but probably reflects its topography. Located 33 miles northwest of New York City in the southwestern part of the state, bounded by the Hudson River on the east, New Jersey on the south, Ramapo Mountains on the north and west. It is mostly level with free slopes, except for the Ramapo Mountains and the Palisades along the Hudson River. Annual precipitation - rainfall 45 inches; snow 25 inches. Temperature - average 25F in January; 72F in July. Contains five towns and nineteen villages with the county seat at New City in the town of Clarkstown. The topography discouraged early settlements and large farms, the Palisades being the most formidible barrier.
When Europeans first visited, the Lenni Lenape of the Algonquian nation occupied the region. Living in small tribes, they fished, hunted and traded with the early settlers. The gradual growth of settlements drove them west and by 1800 only a few remained.
Henry Hudson, an Englishman under commission to the Dutch East India Company, in 1609 sailed up the river, which would bear his name. Ship logs indicated he anchored in both the Tappan Zee and near Haverstraw, the widest point in the river.
Early attempts to settle the county by the Dutch were unsuccessful, and in 1664 the territory was surrendered to the British. The Dutch left a legacy in place names like Dunderberg, Sparkill and High Tor, as well as a small number of unique sandstone houses.
Orange County, one of New York's original twelve counties, was established in 1783 and included all of present day Rockland County and most of what is now Orange County.
In 1691 the first County Courthouse was built in Tappan. By 1737 the residents in the northern part of the county (modern Orange County) were demanding their own courthouse because of the physical difficulty of crossing the Ramapo Mountains to attend court in Tappan. Sessions of the County Court were then alternated between Goshen and Tappan. In 1774 the county seat was moved to New City.
Most of the early patents or land grants under the English system were established on land purchased from the Native Americans. The DeHarte (1666) and the Crom (1685) Patents included all or part of the town of Haverstraw. The Tappan Patent (1686) included most of the town of Orangetown. The Mattasink (1694) and the Quaspeck Patents (1694) stretched from Haverstraw and Ramapo to Clarkstown and Orangetown. The Cheescock Patent (1707) included parts of Haverstraw, Stony Point and present day Orange County.
In 1686 the town of Orangetown was created and included all of present day Rockland. The precinct of Haverstraw was established in 1719 when it was separated from Orangetown and permitted to hold its own meetings and elect its own officers. Haverstraw became a town in 1788 and included the present towns of Clarkstown, Ramapo and Stony Point. Clarkstown and Ramapo became towns in 1791 and Stony Point became a town in 1865.
On February 23, 1798 Rockland was separated from the rest of Orange and was made a county.
Slavery was introduced into the county by the settlers on the Tappan Patent. In a census taken in 1702, 33 slaves were recorded. In 1800 there were 551 slaves in Rockland County out of a total population of 6,353. By 1820 the number was down to 124. After slavery was abolished in the state in 1827, no slaves were recorded in the 1830 census of the county. African Americans came from the south in the latter part of the 19th century to work in the brickyards in Haverstraw. The community of Skunk Hollow in Orangetown provided a haven for free African-Americans throughout the 19th century.
REVOLUTIONARY AND EARLY NATIONAL PERIOD
Tories and Patriots were both present in the county during the war causing much disruption and destruction. On July 4, 1774 the people of Orangetown gathered in Yoast Mabie's house to adopt a series of resolutions that contained the seeds of the great principles which would be embodied in the Declaration of Independence adopted exactly two years later.
There were American fortifications at Sidman's Fort at Suffern, a blockhouse at Palisades and larger forts at Stony Point, Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery. The King's Ferry in Stony Point and Dobbs Ferry in Palisades linked New York and the Southern colonies with New England. In 1781 the King's Ferry carried the French allies on their way to the final battle at Yorktown. The British captured Forts Clinton and Montgomery in October, 1777 and the Americans, under the command of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, captured the British fort at Stony Point in July 1779. Rockland was also the site for the treasonable plot by General Benedict Arnold to sell the plans for the fortifications at West Point to the British. His co-conspirator, British Major John Andre was captured, taken to Tappan, tried, found guilty and hanged. Arnold escaped and was made a British general. If the plot had succeeded and the British had gained control of the Hudson Valley, the course of the war might have been altered.
Rockland was also the site of the first formal recognition of the new nation by the British. On May 5, 1783, General Washington received the British Commander, Sir Guy Carleton, at the DeWindt house in Tappan, which still stands, to discuss the terms of the peace treaty. On May 7th, when Carleton received Washington on his vessel, Perseverance, the King's Navy fired its first salute to the flag of the United States.
After the war the residents were displeased by the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation but opposed the adoption of the Constitution because of the fear of a strong national government.
By the early 19th Century, Rockland settled into a farming community, serving the New York City market. Abundant water power encouraged the milling of grain, cider and wood. With the Industrial Revolution came shipyards, quarries and ice operations that also served the city. Haverstraw became known for its brick industry and was instrumental in building much of 19th century of New York City. An agrarian, mining and milling economy persisted into the 20th century, when scientists like Avon founder David McConnell and Dr. Ernest Lederle established industries that ushered in the first waves of a high tech industry that is now a strong presence in the county.
Improvements in transportation set the pace for development in the first half of the 19th century. The Nyack Turnpike opened in 1830 between Nyack and Suffern and connected with the Orange Turnpike, the inland route to Albany. In 1827 steamboat travel, which gradually replaced the river sloops, began from Nyack to New York City, attracting competition from steamboats later built at Haverstraw and Tappan. A road was built over the marshes at Piermont to the end of a 500 foot pier, which became the terminus of the Erie Railroad. Eleazor Lord planned a railroad through the Ramapo Pass to serve New York's southern tier. Work began in 1838, and the 484 miles to Dukirk on Lake Erie was completed in 1851, making it the second longest railroad in the world. President Millard Fillmore and the Secretary of State Daniel Webster, boarded the train at the Piermont Pier for the first trip. The opening of the West Shore Railroad in 1883 established a north/south service.
ETHNICITY AND IMMIGRATION
The earliest settlers, reflecting the colonizing nations were Dutch and English. By the middle of the 19th century the Irish and Germans came to work in Rockland's industry. By the end of the 19th century immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe.
POPULATION AND SETTLEMENT
The small geographical size of Rockland County is reflected in the fact that the population only increased from 6,353 in 1800 to 38,298 in 1900. Throughout the 19th century Rockland's villages such as Haverstraw, Nyack and Suffern, were the centers of economic activity.
The early Dutch Reformed churches in Tappan, New Hempstead and West Nyack, and the later Presbyterian churches laid the foundation for other Protestant denominations. The first Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter's in Haverstraw, opened in 1847 and Haverstraw was the site of the first Jewish temple in 1889, the Congregation of the Sons of Jacob.
By the middle of the 19th century debating societies were formed in Haverstraw, Nyack and Nanuet. Halls and "Opera Houses" flourished. Newspapers were established in Nyack and Haverstraw, and a fire in Haverstraw in 1854 brought about the formation of the county's first volunteer fire company.
By the 1920's Rockland County was becoming home to many artists, writers and stage celebrities. Henry Varnum Poor, the painter and muralist; Maxwell Anderson, the playwright, and Kurt Weil, the composer, all lived on South Mountain Road in New City.
Edward Hopper, the world-renowned artist, the writer, Carson McCullers, and the actress Helen Hayes lived in Nyack. Other county residents have included the actors Burgess Meridith and Al Pacino, actresses Ellen Burstyn and Arlene Dahl and TV newsmen, Mike Wallace and Morley Safer.
For over half a century the only school in the county was the one begun by the Tappan Reformed Church. The first schoolhouse was built there in 1711 and continued in use until 1860. The next mention of a school is in the Town of Haverstraw Highway Commissioner's report in 1796. Schooling in the late 18th and early 19th century was primarily done in private homes or schoolmaster's homes. As compulsory education spread there were 34 school districts established in 1829. Schools districts were established on the concept that a three mile square area with a centrally located school would allow children to walk to school. The middle of the 20th century saw the consolidation into eight school districts.
From the late 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century, the Republican Party dominated Rockland County, with the exception of the traditional Democratic stronghold in Haverstraw. Today the Democratic Party has the most registrants but neither party dominates. From its beginning until 1972 the county government was run by a Board of Supervisors, consisting of the five town supervisors. The board was replaced by a county legislature. In 1984 a charter was passed by the voters which established the position of county executive.
Rockland's most famous politician was James A. Farley, who was the successful manager for the first presidential campaigns of Franklin D. Roosevelt and served as the United States Postmaster General from 1933 until 1940.
During World War II, Camp Shanks in Orangeburg was the largest Army port of embarkation on the East Coast, some 1.3 million G.I.'s passed through on route to North Africa and England. After the war, the camp became Shanks Village - the largest veterans' housing complex in the nation.
The most significant event in the last half of the 20th century was the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge in 1955. The 3.5 mile span connected Rockland to Westchester and opened Rockland to the New York metropolitan area which caused a major spurt both in population and development. In 1950 the county population was 89,276 and by 1970 it increased to 229,903.
Although Rockland County's population has more than tripled in the last 50 years, there remains much natural beauty due to the fact that 30 percent of the county is parkland.
The county's population has also become more diverse and has a more international character. African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians and Pacific Islanders now comprise 25 percent of the population. The largest ancestry groups remain Irish, Italian and German, although new immigrants such as Haitians, Dominicans and Russians are increasingly represented bringing new contributions and needs. At the turn of the 21st century Rockland is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the nation.
- Casey, Thomas F.X., "A Brief History of Rockland County," Rockland County Bicentennial Commemorative Journal (1998):6-14.
- Cole, David, History of Rockland County (1886; repr. The Historical Society of Rockland County, 1986).
- Green, Frank, The History of Rockland County (1886; repr. The Historical Society of Rockland County, 1989).
- Rockland County Planning Board, Rockland County: River to Ridge - A Plan for the 21st Century (New York): 2001.