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By Paul Hicks

<“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”> — Reif Larsen

A new exhibit is opening Saturday, June 10 at the Square House Museum, entitled “Mapping the History of Rye,” and the public is invited to a reception that afternoon from 5 to 7. As one of the exhibit’s curators, together with Jennifer Plick and Sheri Jordan of the Rye Historical Society, I hope these historic maps of Rye and environs will be viewed by a wide audience throughout the summer. It should have special appeal for adults and children who are captivated by maps.

The exhibit begins with a map entitled “West Chester under the Mohegan Indians”, dated 1609 (the year that Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name). If you look closely at the map, you will see an island in what is Long Island Sound that is identified as “Minniwies or Menusing.” These were Native American names for what is now Manursing Island, the place where the settlers of Rye established their first community, which they named Hastings.

On the mainland there is a stream labeled “Mockquams”, which the Rye colonists named Blind Brook. It separates “Poningoe” (the Milton Point peninsula) from “Apaqwamis” (one of the Native American names for what is now Rye Neck). In bolder letters is the word SIWANOYS, identifying the Native American group that some (but not all) historians believe inhabited the area encompassing Rye.

An introduction to the exhibit provides a useful timeline of key historic events, including Rye’s numerous border changes. The Town of Rye became a part of the Colony of Connecticut in 1665, but in 1685 Rye appeared on an English map, which accurately showed that it was then part of the Province of New York to which it had been moved by royal act in 1683. Later maps in the exhibit show Rye back in Connecticut and finally in New York. Rye residents had much in common with parts of Europe, like Gedansk/Danzig that went from Poland to Russia and back to Poland over the centuries.

Written descriptions of the lands that were exchanged between Connecticut and New York in settling these “border wars” are hard to understand, but it becomes much clearer when looking at the maps. In the last negotiation, New York got a narrow quadrangle running up to the Massachusetts border and, in return, Connecticut got a “panhandle” (not quite as large as the Florida or Texas ones).

Another map, which shows the military plans and operations of the British army during the Revolutionary War, is focused on the battle of White Plains in 1776, when that area was still part of the Town of Rye. Seeing General Washington’s encampments shown in blue and those of General Howe in Red, the conflict becomes as immediate to the viewer as if it were recorded live on today’s media.

Other maps in the collection, some of which are reproductions and some from the Society’s collection, illustrate the evolution of Rye from a settlement on Manursing Island to an unincorporated hamlet to an incorporated village (1904) within the Town of Rye to an independent city (1942).

To me, reading that Rye was settled in 1660 is certainly impressive, but to see that its importance warranted it being shown on a rare and significant map as early as 1685 is even more so. It proves once again that a picture is worth a thousand words.

By Paul Hicks

In the seventy-five years since Rye became a city there have been sixteen mayors. Some of the earlier mayors are still remembered, such as Livingston Platt (for gaining the city charter) and Edmund Grainger (for defeating the bridge). Others have long been forgotten by most of the community, including Karl T. Frederick, who served as mayor from 1948 to 1950. A multifaceted man, he was an Olympic gold medalist, a prominent conservationist, and a respected head of the NRA who favored gun controls.

The Frederick family finally settled in the Finger Lakes area, where Karl Karl Telford Frederick was born in 1881 in Chateaugay, a town in upstate New York on the Canadian border. His father, a Presbyterian minister, moved the family frequently to various communities in the region, and, in the process, Karl developed a lasting love of the Adirondacks.

After completing high school at the age of 16, he enrolled at Princeton University, his father’s alma mater, but family financial problems required him to cover the tuition costs by tutoring. He won the premier senior prize at graduation and was also awarded a fellowship for graduate study in Economics and Politics. Graduating from Princeton in 1903, Frederick spent a year at its graduate school, financing his studies by teaching at Lawrenceville School.

By Paul Hicks

Rye residents contended with rival claims to the territory they acquired more than once.

The concept of “manifest destiny” was first promoted as an American doctrine in the nineteenth century, but the pursuit of territorial expansion had been an important goal for pioneers in the New World since the1600s.

When the original settlers of Rye purchased a large tract of Native American land in 1660, they established their original community on Manursing Island. Soon after, their numbers grew and they expanded onto the mainland, occupying land along both sides of Blind Brook.

In 1662, they acquired additional land from Native Americans further to the west. However, when they failed to settle or cultivate those holdings for more than three decades, the royal governor approved the competing title claim of a group from Long Island in what became known as “Harrison’s Purchase.

It was not the only time the Rye residents had to contend with rival claims to the territory they had acquired. As reported in the history of Rye by Charles W. Baird: “The tract of land known to the natives as Quaroppas, and called by our settlers ‘The White Plains,’ was purchased by them from the Indians in the year 1683.”

But the title held by the inhabitants of Rye was challenged by John Richbell of Mamaroneck, who had a claim dating to 1662, which was acknowledged by both Dutch and English authorities. According to Baird, Richbell complained to the governor that he was “wholly obstructed and hindered by Rye men…and he cannot therefore dispose of these lands…”

The dispute remained unsettled for many years, but after Richbell’s death, his estate’s lands (including all of White Plains) were sold to Caleb Heathcote, who had recently become Lord of the Manor of Scarsdale. The title issues became further complicated when Heathcote died a few years later and his heirs did not press a claim on behalf of his estate. Finally, in 1721 the settlers from Rye obtained a royal patent for the whole tract of 4,435 acres, making it part of the town of Rye.

In 1758, White Plains became the seat of Westchester County, and the unincorporated village remained part of the town of Rye until 1788, when the town of White Plains was created.In the original courthouse at White Plains, the members of the Fourth Provincial Congress of New York assembled on July 9, 1776, where they received a copy of the Declaration of Independence sent to them by the Continental Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia.  

The delegates from New York to the Continental Congress had not been able to vote for the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, because they had not yet received authority from the Colony’s prior Provincial Congress. After review by a committee chaired by John Jay, the new Provincial Congress approved the document and sent instructions to New York’s delegates in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration.

In front of the courthouse on July 11, 1776, Judge John Thomas of Purchase unfurled the Declaration of Independence from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and read it aloud to a large crowd. A painting by George Albert Harker depicts the historic scene with Judge Thomas flanked by John Jay and other prominent New York patriots. At his side is a drummer boy and near him is the color bearer of the local company of militiamen.

It is clear from the evidence, despite all the twists and turns, that White Plains, which became the “Birthplace of New York State,” grew out of the expansionist zeal of settlers from Rye.

 

 

By Paul Hicks

Livingston Platt served as mayor of the Village of Rye for twelve years before he became the City of Rye’s first mayor in 1942. Although he was a leader of the Republican Party in state and national politics, as mayor he took pride in being an independent and in making non-partisan appointments. 

When Platt resigned as mayor in 1943 to become head of the Westchester County Republican Committee, an editorial in The Rye Chronicle stated: 

“The one thing of which this community is most proud is the fact that party politics has never been considered in the choice of its public officials. Ever since Rye became an incorporated village, we have been holding Citizens Caucus meetings where the voters get together, Democrats and Republicans alike, and nominate their candidates for office. It is one of our most  cherished traditions…Rye is dominatingly Republican in county, state and  national elections, yet the Republicans who  live in Rye are independent enough in thought and action to fully realize that partisan politics have  no  place in a friendly, neighborly community of 10,000  inhabitants.”

Platt’s two successors as mayor — Julian Beatty and Grenville Sewell —were nominated by the Citizens Caucus, but in 1949, Karl T. Frederick ran successfully for mayor as a Republican. The Rye Chronicle acknowledged that non-partisan politics had ended by noting in an editorial that, “While defeated by decisive margins, the Democratic candidates can find substantial consolation in the fact that the margin of victory compiled by the Republicans was far less than in previous years.”

Throughout the 1950s, Rye was governed by Republicans, led by Mayors Joseph Hannan and Robert Hughes, although Hannan also had Democratic endorsements. In 1959, Rye voters had to decide whether to amend the City Charter to adopt a City Manager/Council form of government. A Rye Chronicle editorial counseled: “The City Manager Plan, so ardently supported by the Democrats should be entirely disassociated from the vote for party candidates.”

Former Mayor Livingston Platt told The Chronicle: “Rye does not need a city manager any more than it needs a paid mayor…It will cost the city a lot of money…Also, in many communities where a city manager has been employed, it has proven most unsuccessful…I cannot see why [the mayor] should be ‘kicked upstairs’ to chairman of the board…With the City Manager doing all of the work, we can expect to see the council meetings held monthly instead of every two weeks.” The City Manager Plan was adopted, and Platt’s predictions proved to be wrong.

Although the Republican candidate, Clay Johnson, won the contest for mayor in 1961, his Democratic opponent, John Carey, made a strong showing in winning 44 percent of the total vote. In a notable bi-partisan move by Mayor Johnson and his fellow Republicans, John Carey and Thomas Butler, both Democrats, were appointed to two of three vacancies on the City Council in 1963.   Carey was quoted as saying, “Democrats do not want control of the City Council, but…forty-five percent of the voters need representation.”

By 1967, Rye was rife with partisan politics. A Democratic advertisement read: “The City Council is no longer a one-party, one-voice administration, smug and complacent. The Democratic Councilmen have questioned, challenged, and probed...Responsive government has taken on new meaning in Rye the last four years. Two-party government has worked, and the need is greater than ever to keep an open mind and an open heart at City Hall.”

By Paul Hicks

In 1614, five years after Henry Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name, a Dutch navigator, Adriaen Block (for whom Block Island is named), became the first European known to have sailed the length of Long Island Sound.

After embarking from Manhattan Island into the East River, Block managed to navigate the treacherous currents where the river meets the Sound. Called Hellegat by the Dutch (meaning bright or clear entrance), the place name became anglicized as Hellgate (or Hell’s Gate), signifying the difficult and sometimes perilous passage.

Soon after entering the Sound, Block’s ship, the Onrust (Dutch for “Restless”), passed through a series of rocky reefs, which in colonial times became known as the “Devil’s Stepping Stones.” On one of those reefs near City Island still stands the Stepping Stones Lighthouse, built in 1877.

According to legend, the local Siwanoy people chased the devil out of their tribal area in present-day Westchester onto what is now City Island. The devil picked up huge boulders lying there and tossed them into Long Island Sound, using them as stepping stones to make his escape on to Long Island. Many ships have since been lost trying unsuccessfully to maneuver around these and other rocky reefs in the Sound.  

Both the Indian legend about the devil and the dangers faced by mariners on Long Island Sound have been given as explanations of why some colonial era maps called the Sound “The Devil’s Belt.” One German map translated the name as “Der Teufels Belt.” The name might also have had some association with Hell’s Gate.

There are so many shipwrecks lying under Long Island Sound and waters elsewhere in the New York City area that they are collectively called “Wreck Valley” by scuba divers. One of those divers, Dan Berg, has a website that includes charts, guidebooks, and other information about the “history, legend, condition, aquatic life, and pertinent dive information on over 140 shipwrecks” (www.aquaexplorers.com/shipwrecks_NY_NJ.htm).

The most notable shipwreck in local waters occurred on March 31, 1886 when a sidewheel steamer, <The Capitol City>, ran onto the rocks in a dense fog either off Rye Beach or off Parsonage Point (accounts differ). The captain of the 259-foot vessel, which ran between Hartford and New York, was navigating with a compass at the time and thought they were well clear of the shore. Fortunately, the boats were lowered rapidly, and the twelve passengers as well as the crew reached land safely.

Only three months later, The New York Times reported: “The 15-ton passenger and freight steamboat <Ruggles>, bound from Derby, Connecticut to New York, struck the same rocky part of the Sound near Rye Beach yesterday where the steamer <Capitol City> went down last March. The accident is ascribed to a variation of the compass.” The <Ruggles>, however, did not end up on the shipwreck charts along with the <Capitol City>.

In the waters off Playland lie the remains of the <Benjamin F. Packard>, a square-rigged sailing ship. Built in 1883 and nearly 250 feet long, she was originally designed to transport cargo between the Atlantic and Pacific by way of Cape Horn. Her last voyage took her from Puget Sound to New York, hauling lumber in the 1920s.

In 1930, the <Packard> found a second life as an attraction at Playland. Down in her hold were exhibits of ship models and various curios from her voyages to the South Seas. On pleasant evenings a dance band played on her main deck, which was fitted out as a restaurant. During a violent hurricane that swept the Eastern seaboard in 1938, the <Packard> was torn from her mooring, suffered severe damage, and had to be scuttled. When the tide is low, you may be able to see the remains of the substantial hull near the Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary.

Next time you look out over Long Island Sound from the water or the shore, remember that it is teeming not just with wildlife but also with history and legends. Also, if you discover the location of <Capitol City’s> remains or the real explanation for why Long Island Sound is sometimes called the Devil’s Belt, please let me know.