The 1609 voyage by Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name caused the Dutch to claim the adjacent land. In 1621 these lands, the home of the Mohawk and Mohican people, were granted to the Dutch West India Company. The company established the Patroon System to attract settlers. A Patroon was given a large tract of land to sponsor settlers to colonize their land.
In 1629 the new Patroon, Killaen Van Rensselaer, was granted land to create the Manor of Rensselaerswyck in exchange for helping settle the land with Europeans. It incorporated most of the area in Albany, Rensselaer, Greene, and Columbia counties. Fort Orange (later the city of Albany), became the center of the Dutch fur trade.
The Van Rensselaers leased the land to mostly Dutch farmers, but they could not buy it outright. The rights in the property could be inherited or sold, but one-quarter of the sale price went to the Patroon. When in 1664, the English wrested control of the Dutch American colonies, they did not disturb the Patroon system.
In a few decades, Dutch families settled on both sides of the Hudson Valley. Each January, the farmers went to the Van Rensselaer manor to pay their annual rent, at one time the rent was four fat fowls, twenty-four bushels of wheat, and a day’s service.
The Helderberg Escarpment is a rugged limestone cliff that divides Albany County and the Hudson Valley below the escarpment and the Helderberg Plateau above. Due to its inaccessibility and poor soil, the land above the Escarpment and east of the Schoharie Valley remained largely uninhabited by Europeans for more than a hundred years after they had settleed the best lands in the Hudson Valley.
One would think that when the first farmers finally settled above the Escarpment, they would have been Dutch settlers moving from the Hudson Valley, but that is not the case. Instead, the first settlers were Palatines who had moved east from the Schoharie Valley.
The Palatines believed the land had been secured by themselves from Native People, but the Colonial Government had already sold it to Dutch and British merchants. The Palatine settlers had to buy or rent their land in the Schoharie Valley or move to wilderness set aside for them by the government in Pennsylvania or the upper Mohawk Valley. Many newly arrived farmers above the Helderberg Escarpment had relatives in the Schoharie Valley.
A 1767 survey map by John R. Bleeker purportedly showed the location of every leaseholder in Rensselearwyck Manor. The land in the Helderbergs above the Escarpment showed a few buildings but no leaseholders. Still, there were enough farmers in 1765 to build a log-framed Reformed Church in Beaverdam ((the Beaver Dam) in what in 1795 became the Town of Berne.
The Van Resselears’ land in the Heldergs was surveyed in 1787 by Wiliam Cockburn so that they could lease the unsettled land. The lots were a quarter of a square mile each and contained 160 acres. No settlers were recorded at West Mountain, the highest ground in the area.
After the American Revolution, soldiers who had served in the war (and others who had not) understood they could lease these lots and have seven years to clear them and build improvements before they had to begin paying annual rent. These new arrivals spoke English instead of German.
In 1797 Thadius Waring homesteaded Lot 494 on West Mountain. There is now a cemetery on a small part of that lot. The earliest headstone is 1829. Until recently, there was a church next to the cemetery, which was presumably built around the same time.
In 1866 it was a Methodist Episcopal Church. Jack McEneny, former Albany County Historian and State Assemblyman, believes the congregation later worshiped in the Calvinist tradition. In 1888 a new church was built when the original building became too small. It was a simple, solidly built structure of post and beam construction. Over the next couple of decades, membership declined as many farmers moved off the mountain for richer pastures.
In the 1930s, as part of the Federal Government’s efforts to end the depression, a Resettlement project bought up the abandoned land and farms that were barely providing their owners’ subsistence. The few parishioners left rented the church out as a dance hall. About 1989, the collapsing building became the property of Albany County when the owner stopped paying taxes. It was sold at a 1992 auction to someone intending to restore it. It has now fallen, and the site is cleaned-up. The cemetery remains County property (all the known records are located in the Middleburgh Library).
Terry Sholtes transcribed the following article on the West Mountain Methodist Episcopal Church history from the Jan. 5, 1979 issue of the Altamont Enterprise. It was a column by Dawn Soper, community correspondent for Lake Onderdonk, and is transcribed in part as follows:
“As I promised last week, here is the history of that charming, little, tumble-down church on the top of West Mountain in the Helderbergs, as written by Mrs. Guy (Agnes) [Shultes] Vincent [1898-1994].
‘On the right, there now stands a clump of trees. That’s where the original church was. It became too small, and a new church was built. William Wilson donated the land. The timber came from the woodlot I now own, and my father, George B. Shultes (1861-1924) framed and his brothers, Fred and Sherman, built the entire church. Wood’s sawmill cut the lumber. She was a Shultes.
Martin Tubb’s place, which was just beyond Kent’s place, is now gone, and it was beautiful. So was the Wilson place. Tubbs did all the inside work on the church, trimming around the windows and a beautiful altar rail all turned by hand on a foot lathe. The new church was dedicated in 1888. It had a large congregation and lots of suppers. I’ve seen it full and running over.
My father took up a collection for a bell but it didn’t suit him so he added quite a sum and, of course, sent to Switzerland for the bell. It was beautiful. No bongs or clangs. It rang out like a clarion so clear and sweet. They liked to hear it down in Switzkill and all through the valley. The last time it was tolled was for my grandfather who lived to be eighty-six. [Isaac Vedder Shultes (1827-1912)]. The bellman waited five minutes between each toll. I thought it would never stop. That’s the last time I heard it ring.'”
Photos, from above: West Mountain ME Church in Berne; and the same church before its demise (by Mary Ann Ronconi).