The History of the Saw Kill

10,000 years of Stewardship on the Metambesem?

The Saw Kill watershed, just like the Hudson River Valley, has a long history of human habitation, though the first peoples were not European. People speaking Algonquin dialects, like their cousins to their East, had their own settlements and connections to the land, and they certainly had their own names for local environmental features. Unfortunately their history has only been passed down in bits and pieces. One record of the Metambesem comes in a British deed of land from the Colonial Governor of New York, Thomas Dongan, to Colonel Pieter Schuyler, who apparently “purchased” the land from the “Indians”:

” ‘…on the east side of Hudson’s river in Duchess county, over against Magdalene Island, beginning at a certain creek called Metambesem; thence running easterly to the south-most part of a meadow called Tauqushqueick…’ ” (Deed as quoted in Smith, et al, 1882 p.38).

Later, “an old map in the possession of Col. Henry B. Armstrong” would show that

“the creek called Metambesem is now the Saw Kill, entering the river between Montgomery place and the Bard premises; that the meadow, called Tauquashqueick, was Schuyler’s, and is now generally known as Radcliff’s Fly.” (Smith, et al, 1882 p.38).

Smith, James Hadden, Hume H. Cale, and William E. Roscoe. The History of Duchess County, NY: Illustrations and Biological Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers. D. Mason & Company, 1882 – Dutchess County (N.Y.)

A History of Conservation on the Saw Kill

“And it is further agreed that covenants shall be inserted in the conveyance and all subsequent conveyances that the Saw Kill and the water power shall not at any time hereafter be used for milling or manufacturing purposes…”

-Letter from Garret Van Keuren (lawyer) to Louise Davezac Livingston, February 5th, 1841, MP.2005.669, Historic Hudson Valley, Pocantico Hills, NY.

Those who have either visited or lived in the Hudson Valley know of the serene, natural beauty found at every turn. It was the beauty of the Saw Kill, specifically, that inspired the making of one of the earliest conservation covenants in the United States. Formed between Louise Davezac Livingston of Montgomery Place and Robert Donaldson, the owner of Blithewood, their legal agreement prevented the development of mills and other factories along the Saw Kill in order to protect the natural beauty of the landscape. The quotation above, from their correspondence about the making of such a covenant, shows their mutual commitment to protecting the Saw Kill.

The actions of Robert Donaldson and Louise Livingston reflected the sentiment of many wealthy landowners at the time. As industrialism flourished throughout the United States, development in the Hudson Valley pushed landowners to secure the sanctity of their homes by buying more of the surrounding property. Nevertheless, the Saw Kill as we know it today would probably be much more degraded were it not for their efforts.  In addition to agriculture, wineries, and orchards, the logging, brick making, and milling industries had a very significant presence in this region.

Maps of the greater area of Red Hook showing both the properties and mills of the time, courtesy of Historic Red Hook

Historic Landowners of the Region

Montgomery Place was the home of Janet Livingston Montgomery, built in 1802. Janet purchased the 242 acres that would later become the famous Montgomery estate for $3,300! Montgomery Place remained the home of the Livingston family until 1985, when it was sold to Historic Hudson Valley.

roosevelt drawing

Teddy Roosevelts childhood writings and drawings on Tivoli South Bay.

As prominent society members in the region, the Montgomery family had many relations and visitors, including ties to Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact, our first conservation-minded president Teddy spent a formative summer in his youth at Montgomery Place! See his hand-written letters with his very own drawings of rowing on South Tivoli Bay and animals he saw on the Saw Kill here!

Robert Donaldson, owner of Blithewood, started building his estate in 1835 with architect Alexander Jackson Davis and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. It was Donaldson’s idea, in 1841, to buy the land on either side of the Saw Kill with Louise Davezac Livingston of Montgomery Place in order to prevent further industrial development next to their properties.

Rokeby, or La Bergerie, is an estate in Barrytown built by John and Alida Livingston Armstrong from 1811 to 1815. It was bought in 1836 by William Astor, husband of Margaret Livingston, and remains the home of Astor and Livingston descendants to this day.

A History of Arts

The Hudson Valley was the home of many well known artists, most notably Frederic Church of The Hudson River School  of painters and owner of Olana. However, not all artwork of the Hudson Valley centered around the Hudson River. The Saw Kill was featured in prints and paintings by Jacques-Gerard Milbert (1766-1840) and Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) during the 19th century.

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A History of Industry and Agriculture

This region along the Hudson River was once a large part of the logging industry. By the end of the 19th century, the combined effects of logging and agriculture resulted in the destruction of more than 75% of New York State’s forests. Thankfully the New York Forest, Fish and Game Conservation Commission implemented a reforestation effort in 1901 that first started with tree plantings in the Catskill Mountains.For more information, visit the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s web page on the history of forestry and geology:

In addition, the Hudson Valley contains a long history of agriculture, and surprisingly, of wine production! The Hudson Valley contains some of the oldest vineyards in the United States. Apples, peaches, and sour cherries have also been grown in this region since the earliest settlers from Europe. It is thought that the first apples were grown here by Dutch settlers. Today, the Hudson Valley contains 22% of the fruit production acreage in New York State.

The Chocolate Factory in Red Hook operated from 1888 to 1932 and produced 20,000 lbs of chocolate a day! After chocolate production stopped, it was used for cold storage of local produce until after WWII, when it was used for frozen food storage.

Continuing Acts of Conservation in the Hudson Valley

The conservation covenant formed to protect the Saw Kill in 1841 is not the only historic act of conservation to have been performed in this region. Over a century later, factory development would once again become a pressing issue in the Hudson Valley. Storm King Mountain  was set to be destroyed by Con Edison’s proposed hydroelectric power plant, but thanks to the actions of six Hudson Valley residents that would later become the founding members of Scenic Hudson, the beauty and ecology of Storm King and the Hudson River was protected. Scenic Hudson’s 17 year long legal battle with Con Edison (from 1963 to 1980) was unprecedented in the United States and lead the way to our modern day grass-roots environmental movement.

40+ Years of Conservation on the Saw Kill

In May of 2016, SKWC and the Bard Water Lab re-started a type of water quality monitoring begun 40 years ago in 1976. Two of the members of the original team of citizen scientists–Sue Ellis and Sheryl Griffith–were back in 2016 to test for physical, chemical, and biological indicators of water quality on the Saw Kill!

Another long-term defender of the Saw Kill and the local environment is Ruth Oja. This article by Teresa Vilardi from the Winter 2013 edition of All About Town–Ruth Oja’s Kind of Place–is proof!. “In naming Ruth Oja ‘Citizen of the Year’ in October [2013], the Red Hook Rotary Club recognized that ‘Ruth has worked tirelessly to preserve our environment and is a model for good citizenship.’ For Ruth this has been a labor of love—love for the place she has called home since 1957…” Read more about Ruth here.

The Mouth of the Saw Kill 1963 & 2013


Map courtesy of Dutchess Land Conservancy

More Saw Kill History in: An Unfinished History of the “by no means beautiful village of Annandale”

In 1988 an employee of Historic Hudson Valley (then owners of the Montgomery Place) wrote a 79-page history of Annandale, the hamlet near the mouth of the Saw Kill. With many maps and juicy details from historic documents, Pamela Goddard lays out a story of mills, farms, and estates developed, divided up, and passed from one generation to another. In the process the place names and the people’s names change, but you can recognize the old familiar Saw Kill through the many changes. To read more, download An Unfinished History of the “by no means beautiful village of Annandale”.

Saw Kill 1881 Map.png

“Map of Rhinebeck, previous to 1812” published in E.M. Smith’s History of Rhinebeck, 1881. As described in An Unfinished History of the “by no means beautiful village of Annandale” by Pamela Goddard, of Historic Hudson Valley, 1988. Note: Crueger’s Island was once called Magdaline Island and “Vly” is probably new world dutch for “swamp”.