Hi. We’re Lauren and Chris, newly minted Hillsdale Town Historians. Back in January when Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski asked us to take on the role we were surprised. We’d moved to Hillsdale in late 2014, which, in historian terms, is about 15 minutes ago. We didn’t think we had the credentials to be Town Dog Catcher.
But Peter seemed flexible about the duties involved, and said we wouldn’t have to be a font of facts and figures. We’ve always liked the idea that town historians practice the art of studying large questions in small places. The historical significance of the region is hard to overstate: the Hudson Valley played a dynamic role in the country’s transition from the colonial era to the Republic, and we were interested in learning more.
So we said yes.
A little about us: we are new residents in Hillsdale. We had a weekend house in Malden Bridge for 20 years and bought a place in Hillsdale in December of 2012 to be closer to Manhattan. Then we both promptly lost our jobs, so that was great timing. But we were fed up with the corporate grind anyway, so we pulled up stakes and moved to Hillsdale in December 2014, just in time for the worst winter in a century. Once again, great timing.
We have complementary skills: Chris is a superior online sleuth and Lauren is a get-out-and-talk-to-people type. We are slowly finding our way around local historic resources. For us, the town website was a good place to start, especially former Town Historian Herb Parmet’s history of Hillsdale. We found A History of Hillsdale by John Francis Collin (1883) available as a PDF online. And because it is digital, it’s searchable. That’s a lifesaver.
The Roe Jan Library has a good selection of reference books. History of Columbia County, New York, by Capt. Franklin Ellis (1876), covers all the towns and hamlets; its chapter on Hillsdale makes up in flowery language what it lacks in absolute reliability. The book isn’t indexed but the chapter isn’t very long – you can read it in one sitting.
Two more recent – and reliable — histories are John L. Brooke’s Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson (The University of North Carolina Press 2010), and The History of the Hudson River Valley from Wilderness to the Civil War by Vernon Benjamin (The Overlook Press, 2014). These volumes shed light on how political and social forces that led to the American Revolution shaped the region in general, and Hillsdale in particular.
We learned that an 1849 fire destroyed Hillsdale’s town records, making the task of unearthing the past even more difficult than it already is. Some vital statistics are on file at the Columbia County courthouse; some deeds and mortgages may be found at the County Clerk’s office in Hudson. The Columbia County Historical Society and the Roe Jan Historical Society have other resources. And some information can be gleaned from the headstones of Hillsdale’s 15 cemeteries.
We learned about marriage, birth and death records for Hillsdale stored at the Pittsfield Athenaeum. Why? Because in the early days, when Nobletown/Hillsdale was still disputed territory between New York and Massachusetts, clerics from Great Barrington were called in to record these events. Those church records found their way to Pittsfield, the county seat. We haven’t been there yet but it’s on our list.
We’ve found that often the best information comes from Hillsdale’s own residents. It pays to ask questions, and we plan to do that right here in this blog, as well as report on the inquiries we’ve received from people in far-flung places searching for their Hillsdale antecedents. You probably know more than we do, so we hope you’ll give us a hand when we get stuck.
Between us we hope to tackle some unfinished business – like the Hillsdale Oral History Project– and to start some new ones. Like, what’s the story with Harlemville?
There are also projects we just think will be fun. We’re researching the 30 or so Hillsdale streets, roads and lanes named after actual people, inspired by a book we own that gives the origin of street names in Manhattan. Did you know that the ubiquitous Duane Reade drugstore chain was named because it was founded 0n Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets in lower Manhattan? Probably you did, if you’ve ever spent time in NYC. But did you also know that James Duane was the first elected mayor of New York following the Revolutionary War and that Joseph Reade was a warden of Trinity Church and a member of the Governor’s Council? What will we learn about Collins and Mitchell Streets and Shutts Road? Stay tuned.
We hope you’ll help us fill in the blanks about Hillsdale’s history by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or posting a comment on this blog. As they always said on The X Files: The Truth is Out There. Together, we can find it!