Stories From Stones

An Interview with Ulster County Historian Anne Gordon

My name is Anne Gordon and I am the Ulster County Historian. Certainly, this region of New York State is really so rich in history. I’m from Virginia so it isn’t my history and so I had to learn it all from scratch and I’ve done that and it’s been very enjoyable to learn about it.

Oral history is an unscripted version of history, interviewing ordinary people who saw extraordinary events or ordinary people who led ordinary lives in extraordinary times. And it makes me wonder what we could be doing today to interview people who are experiencing the life that would be never be covered by big history, that their stories are little history but still just as much worthy of preserving today as the big history. But the importance is that they are uncovering hidden history whether it’s important history or everyday history that’s the importance of it.

To me, storytelling has a beginning and an end where as oral history is just an on going saga, if you will. I think one of the finest examples of oral history was the person who interviewed Sojourner Truth and wrote down what they called her “narrative” and it’s fascinating because she gives such a wonder picture of slavery here in the Hudson Valley, what it was like to be a slave. But the lady who was doing the interview was a very proper Victorian lady and she edited quite a few of the things that Sojourner told her about her life here because, they were not to be talked about. Sojourner Truth’s sex life isn’t there, we can’t believe she didn’t have one, we don’t know what it was like to be married to a man that she disliked, the owner forced her to marry him. All this has been tidied away and so what is a very fine oral history of life here has been censored and refined and made to suit reading by a Victorian lady audience. So on the one hand while it’s a wonderful piece of history to have on the other hand it’s too bad we don’t have more of the actual nitty gritty of her life. In later interviews she did talk about things that were not included in her narrative and those have all been recorded but I think oral history to give us a picture of something no one else has done, that’s what Sojourner’s narrative tell us. With Sojourner Truth I have an intense personal involvement because I’ve been researching her life for over five years and in preparation to recon the statue of her that stands in Port Ewen we went into every bullet point, in to every detail of her life, discovered new facts that had never been published. And I just came to feel a very personal, deep admiration for her and every time I discovered something new it was so exciting it was as if I was discovering it about a living person.

I look for ways I can interpret the community in the life of the fact that there were slave owners. Now here in Huguenot Street slavery of course ended in 1827. You have a longer span of history so you can actually open up your presentation of the lives of slaves and take them up to 1827 and point out the fact that here, are the actual cellars where they lived or some in cases they lived in small out buildings behind the owners houses and I don’t know if any of those still survive, but you can actually see the places where they lived to get some an idea of what their life was like. There are traces of slavery here and when you throw into the picture the County Home, the poor house over in Libertyville that was built primarily because so many eldery and indignant former slaves were roaming the roads. They had nowhere to go, nowhere to live, so the county built a poor house to handle them, that’s an interesting side light on its history, wasn’t just for poor white people. So there are all kinds of ways to interpret Huguenot Street just looking at it through the lens of a slave community that was here. If I wanted to look at it in terms of the lives of women, your library has a lot of wonderful material and it would be possible to do that too or as an agricultural community. There are all kinds of ways you can interpret life here.

This town has no industry the Wallkill River didn’t supply water power, so it was a farming community and once they lost their slaves to manumission in 1827, they also lost a good part of their labor force. And then you add the other end of it which is the Erie Canal, which  connected the state’s western regions, which would grow huge suaves of grain, acre after acre, it left out these people here who had to ask a higher price because their land was smaller acreage, they didn’t have the economies of scales, they were priced out of the market so not only did they lose their labor, but they also lost their markets. They weren’t prospering they had to save what they had because of economy, so here it is. It’s an interesting concept to think that this whole property was preserved because of bad times but that’s what preserves a lot of things, I think in the long run so if you think of the identity of this little enclave, bad times plays a part to it. Just in the downtown area alone, I know they’ve torn down twelve stones houses up through the 1960‘s,  they were still tearing them down to build parking lots. Now, some people would say, “Well uptown Kingston couldn’t survive without the parking lots, why is it important to keep the stone houses?” And that’s a valid question that every community has to make those determinations themselves. As far as this street, you’ve very fortunate that the families at some point have been involved in keeping the houses. I remember the first time I went on a tour, can’t remember which house it was, one of the smaller ones, was filled with Victorian parlor furniture and everybody said, “Well it’s old isn’t it, so put it in this old house?” Preservation is more than just taking away all the things that aren’t old because, a stone house that’s been altered and changed is just as worthy of keeping as one that’s been stripped back to its original condition. And the one that’s that way down the street where the stone house is really a very small part of a very large turn of the century mansion, to me that’s just as much worthy of preservation as the oldest and quaintest stone house because it demonstrates human history has had a hand in this building. Not going to take away every touch of the human hand of history and still have something that’s worth studying.

There must have been gardens and little sheds and livestock, you know? There were cows living in the backyards so you could go milk it everyday. There were all kinds of things going on here, real life things that you don’t get any sense of when you walk down the street. But how could we even know what the street looked like when it was really inhabited? I think there is some excavation going on, some archiological excavation and that might help  give a better picture of where were these out buildings located, what kid of gardens did they have? Where was the privy? Those buildings are missing, that’s what I think when I walk here. What really was going on the street when people lived here?

Ulster County was formed, and I wrote it all down so I wouldn’t forget the dates, it was formed in 1683 because James Stewart the Duke of York was given the whole northeast, all the colonies here by his brother, King Charles, and he was the one who set up the county system here in New York State and named the twelve new counties, either after himself or his relatives and friends. Ulster County was named for the province in Ireland that was an earldom that belonged to the Duke of York, and so he named this county “Ulster” for that Irish property. The original symbol was the symbol for that county in Ireland and it was a hand cut off at the wrist and it was called the “Bloody Hand of Ulster” or the “Bloody Hand of the O’Neills” who were the main family in Ulster and that was the symbol for Ulster County. And when our troops from Ulster County, the militia and so forth went into the Civil War that’s what was on their flag, the Bloody Hand. So I once saw one of those old flags and someone said, “What is this?” I said, “Oh my god, it’s the Bloody Hand of Ulster!”