Words by John Conway
As Sullivan County’s resident historian for over 20 years, John Conway is a treasured source for locals and media who call on Conway for his expertise on the region’s past and present. Conway is a professor at SUNY Sullivan, a contributing editor for the Encyclopedia of New York State and author of numerous books on the region.
For thousands of years, people have been drawn to the Upper Delaware River Valley for its majestic beauty and the healing quality of its air and water. This tradition started with the Lenape, a Native American tribe of Algonquin culture thought to have lived along the banks of the Upper Delaware as far back as 15,000 years ago. The Lenape hunted, fished and farmed, growing corn, squash and beans. The tribe held great council fires and annual green corn festivals along the Delaware at what is today Cochecton.
To the Lenape, every object in nature—including animals, trees, grasses and stones—contained a spirit, or manetu, so the more abundant a place was in natural beauty, the more sacred it was to them. Few places were held in greater reverence than the Upper Delaware. It was so heavily forested that the Europeans referred to it as the “dark forest.” The Lenape believed that it was blessed by the gods.
What we might today call “communing with nature” was a life-affirming ritual for the Lenape. For them, finding a spot encompassing all that was majestic in nature—venerable trees, rushing waters and rugged cliffs—was like finding a cathedral. The Upper Delaware was exactly that place in the days before the arrival of the timber rafters, tanners and tourists. It was tree and rock and river, undisturbed by man.
When the first Europeans began to arrive here in the middle of the 17th century, the Lenape moved on. With no written language and no concept whatsoever of land ownership, friction with the Europeans ensued. As a result of numerous wars with the more aggressive Iroquois tribes to the north and devastation by at least fourteen different epidemics, their population dwindled drastically. By 1730, the Lenape had virtually vanished.
Few places were held in greater reverence than the Upper Delaware. It was so heavily forested that the Europeans referred to it as the “dark forest.” The Lenape believed that it was blessed by the gods.
The first permanent European settlement in the region was established in the 1750s by a group of Connecticut farmers calling themselves the Delaware Company. They came because farmland in Connecticut had become scarce and they wanted to own the land they worked. Their settlement, Cushetunk, stretched for nearly thirty miles along both sides of the Delaware River. Those residents played a major role in the development of the region, and many families in the area today can trace their ancestry to these early settlers.
The construction of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which began around 1825, brought many Irish immigrants seeking work and a significant number decided to stay. In addition, a few Germans, recruited by the canal company as stonemasons, also took up residence. The canal proved to be of immeasurable economic benefit to the region, making it possible to move goods in and out of the area inexpensively for the first time. The population of Sullivan County more than doubled in the first twenty years of the canal’s operation. When the Erie Railroad arrived in the Upper Delaware in 1848, it attracted thousands of visitors each year, all eager to visit the “sportsman’s paradise.” Many of them found it so much to their liking they never left.
While tourism remains the major industry in the Upper Delaware, and thousands of visitors still travel here each year, it is those who actually stay and settle that ultimately come to define it. The true pioneers—those who were the very first to explore and inhabit it—were the Lenape. So it is only fitting that the latest generation of pioneers, those seeking refuge from urban life, share their reverence for the stunning natural beauty. The New Pioneers hunt and fish; they forage and garden; they protect the bald eagle and the purity of the waterways. And, like the entrepreneurs who came before them, many are finding ways to put down roots and help renew the economic promise of the region. There are lessons to be learned from the history of the Upper Delaware and an exciting new chapter is still being written.