The recent global refugee crisis has made many Americans more conscious of the fact that as descendants of immigrants ourselves, whether one generation removed or many, we have more in common with those seeking refuge in our country than we are unlike. Here in New Paltz, points out Carol Johnson, coordinator of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Library, the entire town was founded by refugees.
The word “refugee,” Johnson notes, was actually coined in reference to the French Huguenots. Merriam-Webster confirms this, stating in their online etymological guide that the word came from the French word, ‘réfugié’ with a very specific meaning, referring to the Protestant Huguenots who fled France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, a document that for nearly a century had granted them religious liberty and civil rights. Over time, the word refugee in English began to be applied to anyone forced to flee to a place of safety, usually for reasons of political or religious freedom, and that place of safety was called a refuge.
The refuge for the Huguenots that became the New Paltz we know today will be the subject of an eight-week PowerPoint presentation and lecture series about the history of New Paltz to be conducted by Carol Johnson with technical help from Margaret Stanne, her assistant in managing the historical collections at Elting Library. “The series will show who the Huguenots were and how much they still figure prominently in the lives of the people who live in New Paltz today, and how things from back then tied in to the future,” says Johnson.
The series will be held in the Steinberg Reading Room of the library from 3-4:30 p.m. on consecutive Sundays beginning March 19. (The series will take a break for Easter Sunday on April 16, resuming the following week.) The cost is $50 per person, with all proceeds benefitting the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection. Pre-registration is a must, as the series is limited to 50 people.
The lecture series will be similar to a course Johnson gave last fall as a Lifetime Learning Institute class, but she says she’s added material relating to things that people taking the first course were particularly interested in. One little-known aspect of New Paltz history that Johnson herself only recently discovered is the location of the stone wall that marks the southern edge of the New Paltz Patent, running right through the college campus. Unmarked, parts of it still remain today, she says, built partially with slave labor.
Johnson has worked at the Elting Library for more than 30 years, becoming coordinator of the historical collections around 1999. She has written two books about New Paltz history for Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series and she contributes a monthly column to this newspaper detailing daily life in New Paltz a century ago.
Much of what is taught in New Paltz schools today about local history was not studied when Johnson was growing up here. “I didn’t know the word ‘Lenape’ until I came back from college,” she says. “We heard about the Algonquin and the Esopus, who signed the Indian Deed, but anyone who studied New York State history in the seventh grade back then studied the Iroquois. And we never knew about slavery in the north; we thought of that as being only in the south.”
A lifelong resident here, Johnson says she finds New Paltz history so intriguing because it’s unique to other towns in Ulster County. She cites the way in which the Huguenots owned the land in common at first — which amounted to 39,683 acres — only dividing it up into 12 equal parcels (for the 12 original New Paltz patentees) as need be. “Then the original patentees, in some cases, got other patents — the Louis DuBois Patent, the Hugo Freer Patent — that extended the area of New Paltz until it was much bigger.”
Eventually Gardiner, the Town of Lloyd, parts of Esopus and Rosendale were broken off from this extended territory to make the Town of New Paltz what it is today, Johnson says, just under 22,000 acres.
The original Indian Deed document signed on May 26, 1677, ceding to the Huguenot refugees nearly 40,000 acres of land (in exchange for two horses (one stallion and one mare), tools, knives, oars, woolen cloth and lace, stockings and shirts, blankets, a powder keg, wine, tobacco and 100 bars of lead), still exists in the archives of Historic Huguenot Street. One point of interest with regard to the Indian Deed, notes Johnson, is that it was signed by both male and female Native Americans, whereas the European signers were all male. That document, approved by New York’s Dutch governor Edmund Andros a few months later on Sept. 15, 1677, became the basis for the New Paltz Patent issued Sept. 29, 1677, making the tract an official township.
The lecture series at Elting Library will mark 340 years since the historic events that started New Paltz on the path to being what it is today. Seats may be reserved by calling (845) 255-5030, extension 2. All sales must be completed at the circulation desk of the library. Checks and credit cards are accepted.