Settlement above the Helderberg Escarpment

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A 1767 survey map by John R. Bleeker of the entire Rensselaerwyck Manor, shows 133 lots on the west side of the Hudson River and 148 on the east side. An index on the map identifies the families that lived there. There are two clear leases above the Helderberg Escarpment in what is now the Town of Westerlo, one was to Koenard Hogteling and the other to Casper Fouser. In what is now the Town of Knox near the Schoharie County line, along the wagon road between Altamont and Schoharie, are two names, Hett? and Smith. To the east along the road are four other scattered houses with no names.

The area in what is now the Town of Berne shows a lake, but no houses, even though two years earlier there were enough people living at the Beaver Dam to organize the Dutch Reformed Church. Since the survey map covers the entire Manor, and gives the name of each person below the Helderberg Escarpment holding a lease, it is reasonable to assume that the only leases above the Escarpment at the time were as previously mentioned. The "Good Patroon," as the elderly Stephen Van Rensselar II was called, apparently had not had the individual homesteads surveyed nor issued leases to the perhaps half a hundred families who had been squatting on his mountain lands, some possibly for forty years.

Due to the lack of primary evidence, it is difficult to determine the names of the earliest families in the Helderbergs. The Palatines who initially settled in the greater Schoharie area were quite obstinate; they clearly did not put much store into paying rent or buying land; as a consequence, there are no early deeds or leases. Also, for several decades there was no church in the Helderbergs; marriages and baptisms were frequently performed by a circuit preacher and recorded in Schoharie or elsewhere. During this early period of settlement it appears that the Beaver Dam area was considered part of Schoharie; so naturally records indicate they lived there. For all of these reasons, it is impossible to say with certainty who were the first settlers in the Helderbergs, where they lived, or when they arrived. That being said, there is no doubt that the majority of the early settlers were German speakers, especially to in the western half, with a few Dutch settlers to the east above the Helderberg Escarpment.

In 1774 Catherine Van Rensselaer, the widow of Stephen Van Rensselaer II, a grandson of Kiliean, issued a lease to Jacob Weidman for land on Fox Creek in the Beaver Dam upon which Weidman had constructed the first sawmill and gristmill almost 20 years earlier. Surveys were also made for the homesteads of Peter Dietz and Conrad Swart in the Switzkill Valley, and leases signed by the Catherine Van Rensselaer.[1]. There were undoubtedly other leases issued about this time.

  1. The 1787 survey map shows that it was Lot 518 that was leased by Conrad Swart in 1774. Adam Dietz, Jr. was on Lot 519 having taken over the farm of the deceased Peter Dietz.