With the exception of the Native Americans who resided in the area at the time of the European's
colonization, the arrival of the diverse cultural and ethnic peoples that make up the Warwick Valley's
present population can be documented through early records. They came in small groups and waves of immigration, all seeking a better place to live and to enrich their lives, claiming the Valley as their home and changing it by their presence, even as newcomers do today.
The first to arrive were the white Europeans. A Dutch community existed to the north of Greenwood Lake shortly after the signing of the Cheescock Patent in 1702, which became known as "Dutch Hollow." Johannes Weesner and his family were Swiss, arriving in 1712. The majority of Warwick's early immigrant families were of English or Scotch-Irish descent, and Protestant. A large group from Ireland arrived in 1729, brought by Charles Clinton, founder of the distinguished Clinton family in America. Among them were the McCamlys, who settled in Jockey Hollow (New Milford) and the Armstrongs, who chose homesteads in Brookland (Florida). The Houstons of Scotch-Irish descent were also newly arrived, in the Bellvale section of the Valley. Another Scotch-Irish family, the Blains, arrived in 1721. Daniel Burt of English descent came from Connecticut in 1746. Many other with English ancestry followed, coming from New York City, Long Island and Connecticut. A few families of French Huguenots travelled up the trail from Bergen County.
Many of the white settlers were accompanied by their servants and slaves of African descent. The first count of African Americans in the Warwick area was in 1755. One district reported 15 slaves, another 11. No family owned more than three slaves; short growing seasons and the necessity of keeping households warm in winter were among the factors that made slave ownership less attractive to settlers in the North. Procedures for freeing slaves were in place in New York State in 1801, and every child born after July 4, 1799, would be free by age 28. Many New Yorkers chose to free their slaves early; records exist that seem to indicate that Margaret Vance in 1794 was the first to free her slaves in Warwick. By 1850, the Warwick census listed 175 persons as "black", with another 63 listed as "mulatto" (racially mixed). Since at this time most blacks lacked the means to obtain a formal education
or to learn the skills necessary for advancement, many chose to leave the area for more urban centers. As the area prospered in the mid 1800's, however, a new wave of blacks appeared as servants to wealthy families from New York City. These formed a community in the McEwen Street area of Warwick Village, and founded a church there which is still in use today. Despite limited economic and social opportunities, blacks contributed greatly to Warwick churches; most Protestant churches had a number of black members, and in this area at least interracial participation was common and often encouraged.
Another wave of immigrants occurred during the 1840's-1860's, when many Irish left their homeland in response to widespread economic depression and potato crop failure. The Florida area of town in particular was attractive to them. The 1850 Census showed 123 people who were born in Ireland. They tended to be Catholics and planted fields of potatoes. Some of the Irish names that arrived in the Valley at this time were McFarland, Brennan, McNally, Lynch, and Sullivan.
In the late 1880's, Polish groups began to arrive. The four families to settle here first during this latest influx were Bogdanskis, Brodzowskis, and Smolenskis. Often they purchased land from the Irish, many of whom had tired of the difficult farming conditions, and left for more urban opportunities. Florida's Polish population grew rapidly and soon arable land was at a premium. Father Nowak, the first priest at the newly built St. Joseph's RC Church, persuaded a nearby shelter for homeless children to sell a 600 acre tract known as "The Mission Lands", which was then divided and sold to the Polish farmers. This wetland area saw industrious activity as drainage ditches were dug and fields appeared from swampland.
The "Drowned Lands" had become one of the richest agricultural areas in Orange County, and in recent times their Onion Harvest Festival has been revived, a huge celebration of Polish-American culture and agricultural life.
Following the Polish immigrants closely, a nearby community called "Little York" was about to emerge. Conrad Luft and his wife were persuaded by Charles Donnelly to become tenant farmers. They were part of a large group of German-speaking Lutherans from Russia, whose ancestors had settled near the Volga River. Other German-Russian immigrants followed, among them the Paffenroths, the Scheuermanns
Yungmans, and Schmicks. They clearned their lands, near Pine Island, and called their hamlet Little York.
The cultural diversity of the Valley had been enhanced since the late 19th century with the arrival of Jewish immigrants, for the most part from eastern and central Europe. Settling mainly in the Florida area, they were primarily shopkeepers and farmers. As Greenwood Lake began to be developed as a resort, Jewish residents of New York's Lower East Side found that summers there lead to permanent homes.
Since the late 1950's, the Warwick Valley has also been home during part of each year to Mexican and other Hispanic migrant workers. Toiling long hours in the rich soil to plant, tend, and harvest local crops, they contribute greatly to the local economy, yet are not highly visible members of the community. Some have chosen to stay and make the area their permanent home.
In the late 1950's another population boom began, this time middle class families from New York's five boroughs, New Jersey, and Westchester, in search of less expensive housing and better schools. The era of residential subdivisions was ushered in with the building of Galloway Heights, Werner Heights, and Wickham Village. The exodus accelerated in the 1980's and continued in the 1990's, and new subdivisions sprang up with what was alarming rapidity for their predecessors, whose chosen lifestyle was rural and agricultural.
This latest wave of immigrants to reach the lands of the Valley are from as near as Rockland and Bergen Counties and the five borough of New York, and as far away as Russia, Brazil, Asia,
India, and many other nations and cultures. The year 2000 Census will in all likelihood show the most ethnically diverse population the Warwick Valley has ever known.
The transformation of the land-- first from forest to farm, then from farm to suburban neighborhood, continues, with tools now in the works to preserve something of the rural character of the Valley as it has been since the Europeans landed. As we have seen, more than once in the recorded history of this Valley the lament for a passing lifestyle and cultural identity has sounded. It is to be hoped that as the millenium turns "newcomers" and "natives" of the Valley will learn and pratice the arts of cooperation and compromise, of land conservation, and respect for diverse cultural identities better than the Europeans did when they arrived three centuries ago.
-- by S. Gardner, July 1999
Ellis, David M. et al. A Short History of New York State. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1957.
Hull, Richard W. History of Warwick New York: Three Centuries of a Community 1696-1996. Warwick, NY:
Richard W. Hull, 1996.
Orange-Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Orange County: A Journey Through Time. Goshen, NY: Orange Ulster BOCES, 1983.
Special thanks to Richard Hull for permission to use his work.
Copyright 1999, Sue Gardner. All Rights Reserved.