Historian Vern Benjamin on local prejudice, monuments and the Revolutionary War

Benedict Arnold’s boot, a memorial of the Battle of Saratoga that makes no mention of the traitor’s name. “The boot is perfect,” said Benjamin “That’s what they should have done with Robert E. Lee.”

There were no Confederate sympathizers willing to display such leanings during the Civil War years in Saugerties or nearby Kingston and Woodstock, according to Saugerties native and historian Vern Benjamin, author of the massive two-part History of the Hudson Valley (Overlook Press).

“I didn’t run across any,” he said, looking this past week at some current national political issues as they have reverberated through local history. “I expect any merchants who relied on the cotton trade had some sympathy, however.”


Benjamin, as is his historian’s wont, spoke about a man from the 1830s, John Field, who built a great mansion overlooking the Hudson along what is now Lighthouse Drive; one can spot it by the structure’s grand Greek-style columns.

“He ran a packet to and from Charleston, South Carolina, and was said to have hid escaping slaves in the hold of the ship,” he says. “But it was also said that they helped build that mansion of his.”

Benjamin spoke about Saugerties’ role as a stop on the Underground Railroad, from whence fleeing slaves could walk, by night, west to Centerville, Willow, and eventually Schoharie County en route to the so-called “Burnt Over Districts” in Central and Western New York where abolitionism was at its most fervent, Harriet Tubman lived, and the safest routes to Canada ran north. But he added that while many in Ulster County would help such endeavors, they didn’t support abolitionists publicly.

Abolitionists tended to be seen, the historian said, as troublemakers, as the sort who brought dissension and trouble to a community.

“Prejudice was separate from emancipation,” he added.

Later, during the troubled Reconstruction years that saw African-American rights whittled back to near-nothing, Benjamin said, the black population of Saugerties and immediate areas dwindled to zero, excepting one “hovel” out Winston Farms way, connecting to what is now Buffalo Road, where the town’s fashionable set used to take after-dinner rides to see what was going out on what was known for years as “Ni**er Road.”

“There’s an example of prejudice,” he said matter-of-factly. “Although it didn’t show any sympathy for the South.”

We asked about immigrant fears. Benjamin talked about bias against the southern Europeans who started coming to Ulster County to work in the brickyards, but then noted how the northern Europeans who came for the cement works north of Saugerties were more accepted, especially when they started setting up what became the area’s mushroom industry.

What about Tories during the Revolution, those who didn’t side right-away with the idea of a new nation?

That, Benjamin said, was a difficult and truly volatile time. He pointed out the thousands thrown out of the state following the war. But also the area stretching from just north of the Malden Turnpike south to Ruby known as the Buckhoven Valley, where British militia and native Americans would swoop down from a fort at the top of Platte Clove and other locations on raids, most famously involving Blue Mountain militiaman Jeremiah Snyder and his sons, taken to Buffalo but later escaped to bring General George Clinton news of troop movements behind Canadian lines.

“This area wasn’t much different from any Hudson Valley community in that there were strong Tory sentiments, but even stronger resolve on the part of the patriots,” he said. “After it was all over I’m sure some things that the winning patriots associated with Tories were abolished or burnt down, but I don’t know of any records of it. They tore down the statue of King George in Union Square in New York City. And the Articles of Association were adopted out front of where Smith’s Hardware is on Saugerties’ Main Street now.”

Vernon Benjamin

Those articles, signed throughout the harvest times of 1774, pledged a boycott of British commerce as a means of showing power, and the potential for full rebellion.

“In those days oaths meant something,” Benjamin added.

He pointed out differences between the wilder western side of the Hudson and the great estates of eastern counties. How richer families would take in a black child at birth and raise them alongside their own kids as partner/slaves, and servitude in the north tended to involve domestic work over field labor.

Things grew complex, racially, when the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833 and many started to look at New York City, as well as Canada, as a route towards freedom. Concurrently, abolitionists started speaking about sending all blacks back to Africa, to start their own nation (Liberia, with its capital city of Monrovia), while a new black intellectual class of clergy started speaking out against such “colonization” ideas, noting their wish to make homes where they’d grown up, and where their families had grown before them.

“It’s not easy to uncover this side of history,” Benjamin said. “There were no newspapers on this side of the river for many years. The records are hard to find.”

He talked about how for years, our histories outlined a racial makeup that seemed to place African Americans “cowering in the corner,” when that just wasn’t true.

“The growing idea was that ‘This is our land too,’” Benjamin added. “By the 1850s there were black lobbyists in Albany, even in New Paltz, seeking the right to vote but getting voted down by white voters. Prejudice was already strongly inculcated into the American consciousness by the end of the Revolutionary War.”

Finally, we ask about statuary to what was here before our nation. Did anything last?

We talk about a monument to the great American general remembered for his efforts at the Battle of Saratoga with a simple nameless image of a boot. That was Benedict Arnold, now known as our country’s most infamous traitor.

“The boot is perfect,” Benjamin acknowledged. “That’s what they should have done with Robert E. Lee.”