OUT OF THE WILDERNESS – The Emergence of Eastchester, Tuckahoe & Bronxville, NY - 1664-2014
(Eastchester 350th Anniversary Inc. , 2014)
Book Review by Robert Riggs, co-chair of Eastchester 350th Anniversary Inc.
At last a history of the Town of Eastchester that is more than a bland summary of town celebratory material or a section of a century old Westchester treatise. Eloise Morgan, Bronxville Village Historian, Richard Forliano, Town of Eastchester Historian, and 13 other local historians have authored a poignant, informative and comprehensive history of one of the oldest colonial towns in the county, a narrative that traps the reader amid many colorful and beautifully reproduced maps, illustrations and photographs.
The maps alone (30 are listed in the index) tell a remarkable tale of 350 years of change from a wilderness with only a smattering of farms into a suburban community, bound on the west by the Bronx River and on the east by “Hutchinson’s River”. I do not recall any book for which I spent the first 30 minutes absorbed in study of the front and back endpapers: 1881 and 1900 maps of Eastchester that show the town in midstream as it changed from clusters of farms to developed communities growing along the Harlem Division train tracks. What fun picking out the roads, rivers and crossings and the homes of Mary Dusenberry and siblings Alexander, Jr., Robert and John Masterton, Frank Chambers, William Van Duzer Lawrence and Samuel Fee, all important nineteenth century community leaders whose properties lay next to early subdivisions such as Lawrence Park and Gifford Park.
Mixed with the text are other fascinating maps that show, for example, the Tuckahoe marble quarries active in 1868, the movement of British and Colonial troops north to White Plains and then back out following the battle there in October 1776, and, most edifying, the evolving borders of the town, starting with its settlement in 1664, expansion into modern Eastchester, Tuckahoe and Bronxville in the first decades of the eighteenth century and then its diminishment from the incorporation of Mount Vernon in 1892 and the annexation of its southern end by New York City in 1895.
A brilliant first chapter by Morgan, entitled “Evolving Borders”, clearly and concisely narrates the 350 year story of town expansion and diminution. She notes the irony of celebrating the 350th anniversary when the original town was settled in 1664 by Connecticut families on a tract now near St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site in Mount Vernon that is no longer part of the town. Then follows the tangled history, post 1664 and under five British sovereigns and their governor generals. The stability and reach of the town faced competing claims by a neighboring township (now dissolved Town of Westchester), wealthy New York political figures and, most importantly, Native Indians. Finally by 1730 the town was able to control nearly 7,000 acres stretching south from Scarsdale and between the two rivers to what is now part of the Bronx.
As Morgan and Forliano note in the preface, the book makes “few references to Native Americans,” saving that subject for another time. The book does describe the proceedings incident to the signing of a deed to Eastchester in 1700 by three Mohican chiefs, as witnessed by “Sachem Gramatan”’. Morgan concludes that “contrary to legend, Gramatan was not a seller of the land”, belying the “unfounded claim that Chief Gramatan sold Eastchester to the white man in 1666, and did so, no less, on Sunset Hill,” as represented on a 1936 plaque still displayed on Sunset Hill, formerly the site of the Hotel Gramatan in Bronxville.
“Evolving Borders” offers as well a comprehensive analysis, the first in this reader’s knowledge, of the developments that led to the incorporation of the villages of Bronxville and Tuckahoe in 1898 and 1902, respectively. The history is a familiar story of corruption of municipal officials and the taxation of geographical areas within the town that went well beyond the services provided by the town.
Marilynn Hill authors what must be regarded as a definitive account of the history of the enslaved and free African Americans in Eastchester from 1664 to 1870. She reminds us that the assumptions underlying the Eastchester 1665 Covenant, that the community is to be based on “good will toward all humanity, kindness, equality, fairness, honesty, shared burdens and economic sensibility,” did not extend to slaves, noting that a year earlier officials in New York (then New Amsterdam) were signing vessel documentation evidencing the transport of slaves (that is, those who had survived the voyage from West Africa) up the Atlantic coast. By researching census records and other source material, she finds that Eastchester, from the earliest days of the town and like other areas in the State of New York, was the residence of African Americans representing a significant portion of the population. She traces the history of their presence as slaves and in some cases as “free” African Americans and the continuation of slavery in the town through the early decades of the eighteenth century. Her epilogue points out that by 1870, the African American population was only 1 percent of the town’s population but that racism represented a strong force in the community and would take another century to reflect the civil rights effort to match the promise of the 1665 Covenant with reality.
Appropriately Forliano’s chapter on the town’s transformance in the first three decades of the twentieth century tracks the changing populations as Irish immigrants, and then Italian immigrants, moved to the town. Many of them came to work the marble quarries in Tuckahoe and northern Eastchester. Indicative of the felt separateness of the two nationalities, two of the four surviving marble landmarks in Eastchester are Catholic churches built within a mile of one another. The churches, as both dedicated In 1912, were clad in local marble largely through the labor of parishioners, predominantly Irish in one case and Italian in the other. As recorded by Forliano, however, “with passage of time changing social mores, and anti-discrimination legislation, ethnic tensions and exclusionary practices in the communities of Eastchester would be reduced or eliminated.”
The book is truly remarkable for its depth, comprehensiveness and accuracy. Other chapters recite the short life and shocking end of Anne Hutchinson in what became Eastchester, the facts surrounding the 1733 Eastchester election that was not, as sometimes advertised, the “Birth of the Bill of Rights,” and other pointed topics that inform Eastchester history. The book concludes with a 350 year time line that nicely sums up in words, copied documents and photographs “The Emergence of Eastchester, Tuckahoe and Bronxville, NY – 1664-2014.” .
January 5, 2015