Native Americans, the Dutch, and the English
When Henry Hudson and his crew first sailed past what is now the City of Poughkeepsie in 1609, they sailed into a region that had been inhabited for centuries by a mixture of Algonquin-speaking peoples from the Mahican, Lenape, and Munsee cultures. The people living closest to the waterfall called “Pooghkepesingh” were Wappinger, part of the Lenape nation. The Wappinger likely had ample reason to settle near the Pooghkepesingh falls – the river and the small stream that ran to it from the falls provided good places to fish, and the surrounding hills offered both protection and ample opportunities to hunt.
As the Dutch colony of New Netherland took shape along the banks of the Hudson River, the Dutch largely bypassed the river’s east bank. The Dutch preferred settling on the river’s mouth (now New York City), its northern navigable terminus (today’s Albany), and landings on the western bank of the Hudson (such as the modern city of Kingston). As such, Europeans did not show up in force near the Pooghkepesingh falls until the late 17th century. By that time, the Dutch had lost control of their colony to the English. It was a mix of these two groups that started building what is now the city of Poughkeepsie.
On May 5, 1683, a Wappinger named Massany signed a deed giving control of the land around the Pooghkepesingh falls to two Dutch settlers, Pieter Lansingh and Jan Smeedes, who planned to build a mill on the small creek running from the falls. Like the Wappinger before them, Lansingh and Smeedes must have found much to like about the land. The small, fast stream could provide ample force to turn a water wheel, which could in turn power any number of economic ventures. There was also a large, rocky outcropping near the mouth of the creek, which they called Slangen Klip (“Snake Cliff” in English). This cliff provided both an easy landmark to identify the property and some protection from the elements. With the deed to this attractive property in hand, Lansingh and Smeedes may have been the first Europeans to live on the banks of the Fall Kill, as the Dutch named the creek.
Over the next twenty years, Dutchess County and the town of Poughkeepsie slowly grew along the banks of the Hudson. In 1687, Robert Sanders and Myndert Harmense were issued a land patent encompassing the mouth of the Fall Kill by the governor of the colony of New York. Coming from a colonial authority, this deed superseded the earlier one signed by Lansingh, Smeedes, and Massany. To encourage emigration to the patent, the two landlords offered 100 pine boards, nails, assistance with masonry, and one hundred trees to any settler willing to lease a 48-acre plot from them. Harmense built the first recorded mill on the property in 1699, erected on the south bank of the Fall Kill. Travelers and traders coming to Poughkeepsie frequently landed their boats in the small, bow-shaped cove where the Fall Kill ran into the Hudson. This area became the northernmost landing commonly used by water traffic into Poughkeepsie, and became a center for economic activity for the following two centuries.
In the decades after Smeedes and Lansingh acquired rights to the Fall Kill/Slangen Klip plot, the property changed hands several times in a relatively short period, eventually coming into the possession of Leonard Lewis in 1710. Lewis was an important political, social, and economic figure in the early history of Dutchess County, representing the county in the colonial assembly and serving as the colonel of its militia. Lewis built a stone house and mill just above the Fall Kill, at the foot of the rocky outcropping then called Snake Hill. The house was likely one of the finest in the town, and may have been used for official meetings in place of a proper town hall. A 2013 dendrochronology report found that at least one oak ceiling joist dated to the 1710s still hangs in one of the structures still standing at the Upper Landing, possibly indicating that pieces of Lewis’ house were used in later structures at the site.1
As a seemingly endless stream of European settlers moved into Poughkeepsie in the first half of the 18th century, the original inhabitants of the region remained active in life in the region. This period was marked by both cooperation and conflict between the very different cultures inhabiting the Hudson Valley. In 1712, Native Americans living in the Catskills sent a belt of wampum to Poughkeepsie as part of a declaration of war against the town, just as they would have done when attacking another Native American village. Fortunately for Poughkeepsie, the war belt was not followed by an actual attack. In peaceful times, nearby Wappinger hunted wolves for the farmers of Poughkeepsie, including Leonard Lewis. The Wappinger earned a bounty of 5 shillings per wolf – about what a common British soldier made in a week.
After Leonard Lewis died in 1730, his property was split between his widow, Elizabeth, and his children – 11 divisions in all. Over the next 25 years, all but one of these divisions were purchased by local businessman Anthony Yelverton. In 1755, Yelverton sold the collected properties to Martin Hoffman, another local businessman. Hoffman went on to make numerous long-standing and important additions to the property.
By mid-century, the influx of European settlers (and their African slaves) had crowded out the area’s original inhabitants. Some of the surviving Wappinger were pushed eastward, settling on a reservation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts along with the survivors of several other Native American cultures from New England. From the 1750s onward, control of the land around the Slangen Klip and the Fall Kill lay in the hands of the area’s new arrivals. These colonists forged a new, uniquely American identity from the various nations they originally hailed from.
1William A. Flynt, A Dendrochronology Study of the Hoffman House, Poughkeepsie, New York. 2013. Pg. 4.