The Delaware County Historical Association Presents:
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DELAWARE COUNTY
By Tim Duerden
By the time of the American Revolution most of the region had been apportioned
out in tracts to wealthy speculators from the cities along the eastern seaboard
and even among some who lived in Europe. Patent holders sold some of this land
to pioneering settlers, such as Gideon Frisbee, while large tracts, sometimes
consisting of thousands of acres, continued to be owned by the likes of Dutchman
By the 1770's many Scotch-Irish settlers began to find their way down the West
Branch of the Delaware River, establishing tiny communities of log homes in
Kortright, Stamford and Harpersfield. Many of these settlers were drawn to the
county with the offer of 150-acre farms free of rent for the first five years.
The Revolutionary War slowed the settlement of the future Delaware County;
indeed, many settlers fled to the relative safety of more populated areas in
present-day Otsego and Schoharie counties. As in other frontier areas of the
time, it is likely that most pioneer families along both branches of the
Delaware River wished merely to be left alone by the warring factions - and
their respective Indian allies. The Revolution left the territory "virtually d
epopulated," according to W.W. Munsell's History of Delaware County (1880).
After the war, survivors and new settlers returned to the region. Among these
hardy newcomers were numerous groups from the "Old World," including Scotch-Irish
and Germans. In addition, a great many of these post-revolutionary pioneers made
their way to the Catskills from lower New York State and New England,
particularly Massachusetts and Connecticut. These new settlers tended to be
second and third generation descendants of original pioneers in America who now
found their path to economic success blocked at home by what was considered,
for the time, an over abundance of people and an under abundance of land.
Delaware County did not suffer from these "afflictions"!
As scattered communities grew in the clearings of the forests and along the
rivers of present-day Delaware County, buildings of a more communal nature and
function joined the individual log cabins. One-room schoolhouses, churches,
water-powered grist and sawmills, and eventually a general store here and there
were constructed to fulfill the needs of a growing settlement.
By the 1790's, with war becoming a distant memory for younger pioneers, the
population of the region had increased to the extent that the New York State
Legislature was petitioned to establish a new county. In 1797, when enough
support in the legislature had been secured, the region officially became known
as Delaware County, breaking away from Ulster in the south and Otsego County in
This new political entity was made up of a mere six towns, and representatives
of each town met in March 1797 to begin the work of constructing the county's
necessary political and legal infrastructure. By October 1797 the first jury of
the Court of Common Pleas began to meet at the home and tavern of Gideon Frisbee,
located at the spot north of the village of Delhi where Elk Creek joins the West
Branch of the Delaware River (presently the Delaware County Historical
Association). Court continued to be held at this site until construction of a
new courthouse in the village of Delhi was completed in 1799.
Delaware County's geography and mountainous terrain made it difficult to
transport goods to the expanding European-American population - a situation that
was not to change much until the mid-nineteenth century. As a result of their
"isolation," settlers relied on a far-reaching subsistence economy in which most
important commodities were produced locally, either within the household, or at
the hands of local artisans and craftspeople.
Men and women, and sometimes, even children, shared equally in production for
this subsistence economy. On local farms, men and boys tended to the larger
livestock, while their female counterparts maintained the household and looked
after the smaller animals. In addition to vegetables and grains, most households
produced flax and wool, cut their own timber and in spring tapped the maple
trees for their sap. Trees also provided the raw material for products such as
potash and tannic acid. These isolated communities frequently had cabinetmakers,
joiners, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, and basketmakers - craftspeople specializing
in trades that farmers could not.
By the early decades of the nineteenth century acid factories were flourishing
in the southern part of Delaware County and sawmills proliferated across the
entire county. Soon resourceful residents were utilizing the region's waterways
to transport their products. Enormous rafts of floating timber were lashed
together for transport southward along both branches of the Delaware to Trenton
and Philadelphia. Cargoes of bluestone, wheat, potash, wool and whiskey were
often loaded onto the rafts for transport to the cities.
Delaware County continued to attract new migrants through the first quarter of
the nineteenth century. However, the rugged topography of the region, combined
with accessibility problems, hindered any large-scale migration. After 1800 and
the construction of the Jericho Turnpike (connecting Rhinecliff in the Hudson
Valley with Bainbridge on the Susquehanna) and the Catskill Turnpike (from
Catskill in the east to Unadilla in the west) the county gained slightly easier
connections to the outside world - for people and products alike.
Still, population growth in the new county was slow. In 1800 the population
stood at 10,000; some 60 years later it had reached 40,000 - and it has
continued to hover around this mark ever since. The opening of the Erie Canal,
well to the north of the county in 1825, while providing an easier
transportation route between the Hudson Valley and Buffalo, only served to divert
trade and population growth away from the Catskills and Delaware County.
The rugged nature of the land also delayed the arrival of railroads into
Delaware County. While other areas of the state were becoming increasingly
accessible by train, most towns in Delaware County had to wait until the 1860s
and 1870s for regular service.
The advent of rail service, however, when it came proved a boon to the region's
dairy farmers. Now large quantities of butter, milk and other dairy products
could be shipped in refrigerated cars rapidly and directly to urban markets
hundreds of miles away. The creameries that received and shipped the milk from
local farmers flourished in those communities along the rails. "Milk trains"
departed early every morning bound for urban markets, and the dairy industry
continued to be the mainstay of the local economy until well into the twentieth
Rail transportation, and later on, the automobile, provided the catalyst for a
tourism industry in Delaware County. Local boarding houses and, later, large
hotels provided summer accommodations for throngs of city-weary vacationers
seeking the cool freshness of the mountains.
Newcomers, many paying their first visit to Delaware County as tourists, have
continued to settle in the region. Today Delaware County may be described as
having a mixed population of "locals," many of whom are able to trace their
lineage all the way back to the original pioneers, and the numerous "city folk,"
denoting the segment of the community that has arrived more recently (many in
this second category are part-time residents).
Today, as during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these groups have
often not seen eye to eye over questions of land use. Despite the different
ideas about the county's future, however, one phenomenon remains indisputable:
As the local dairy industry has declined during the last couple of decades,
the forest has once more spread its sylvan blanket over the hills and fields
of Delaware County, returning this small corner of the world to an appearance
much closer to a time before the arrival of the first European pioneers.