Monday, March 12, 2012

What's in a portrait?

While evidence of the Colden family has mostly been erased from the local landscape, the former prominence of the family is reflected in other ways. Oil portraits of Cadwallader and Alice, Jane’s parents, are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. In the American wing the museum displays the paneling and woodwork from the first floor west parlor of the house of Cadwallader Colden Jr. and I’ve recently discovered they own a miniature painting on ivory of Jane’s sister Elizabeth Colden Delancey (1720-1784). The New York Historical Society is another repository for things Colden including the papers and manuscripts of Cadwallader Sr. and various family portraits. Two miniatures on ivory depict Alice Christy Colden (1768-1788/89) the daughter of Jane’s brother David and Jane’s great niece Matilda Hoffman (1791-1809).

Looking for Jane has yielded descriptions of her intellect and curiosity and her superior domestic skills. We get a glimpse of her light side when Jane writes her sister describing a minor injury her new husband incurred while spinning her about. What I haven’t discovered is a picture of her. By examining the portraits of her close female relatives, particularly Elizabeth, four years her senior (lower left) and mother Alice (upper left), it seems likely she had dark hair and eyes, and pale skin. Her mother looks capable and sharp while her sister looks fragile and perhaps timid. In my imagination, Jane would look more like her mother and would never wear Elizabeth’s incredible bonnet or timid expression. I guess a missing portrait doesn’t really matter since I have so obviously formed an image of my own.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Farm Journal

This summer I have been looking at the Farm Journal of Cadwallader Colden. He began the journal in 1727, three years after building a house at Coldengham and when Jane herself would have been 3. He continued until 1736 listing trees, vegetables and livestock, making notes on grafting and planting, and supplying weather reports and financial notes. Mixed in with all of this are regular mentions of the farm layout such as in this detailed entry about fencing the garden:

About the time I pail’d in the Garden The Posts& rails of Chesnut made of trees that had been kill’d about 3 or 4 years & the Clapboards or pails of white oak from trees fell’d about ye 20th of this month The rails of ye 5th and 7th panels from ye Garden door next ye brook were of read oak rails that ad been cut 6 or 7 years

The rails between the Kitchen & the Brook were generally of White Oak

While cataloging some of the trees that had been cut since 1720, presumably to clear the land for the house and surrounding fields, this entry also places the garden behind the house between the kitchen and the brook. The garden door, made of red oak, is next to the brook. Using this and the other descriptions scattered throughout the journal, I have begun a drawing that guesses at the overall plan of the house and surrounding farm circa 1727-28.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Stewart State Forest and Stewart International Airport are both named for the Stewart family who owned a dairy farm called Stony Lonesome at the site of the current day airport. Stony Lonesome was split between the towns of New Windsor and Newburgh and in 1930 the Stewart family donated the farm to the town of Newburgh with the hope that it would become an airport. This didn’t happen in 1930 but with time it became an air training facility for West Point cadets, an Air Force and National Guard base and eventually included a regional airport offering commercial flights. Passenger, cargo and military jets fly over and land on what once was Stony Lonesome and still earlier, part of the original Coldengham property.

Stewart State Forest also has a complicated history that is reflected in what exists there today. Bordered on the north by Interstate 84 and the airport to the east, it is crossed by high power lines and the remnants of former town roads. Abandoned farms are juxtaposed with forest and wetlands and it all forms a peculiar mix of the bucolic and the mundane. A part of the original Coldengham patent lies within the borders of the State Forest although only the Great Swamp has the possibility of looking anything like it did back then. Watching the Great Blue Herons that nest in the swamp can make me feel as if time has stood still but this only lasts until another incoming Fed Ex jet makes it’s final descent to the airport.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Act of Walking

In the first year of Jane’s botanical work she recorded 32 plant names and described 12 of them in her notebook. These samples were easily found near her home and I can imagine her taking some small time from her domestic work to wander near the house, seeing and listing what was around her.

In her second year of collecting Jane described 140 plants in extensive detail and clearly had expanded her territory to the surrounding woods and wetlands. The plants are wild and would have required Jane to explore the varied landscape of the Hudson Valley. This sort of collecting couldn’t be done while carrying out chores or catching a breath of air. It would have to be a planned activity and as I imagine it, would require less wandering and more deliberate walking. I interpret Jane’s walking as an act of independence; a means of breaking away from domestic routine and the usual social norms and setting out on her own, absorbed in her own thoughts.

While I collect the various bits and pieces of Coldengham and Coldenham, I also walk. I follow roads Jane would have travelled and walk through fields and woods near the farm. I also view the contemporary infrastructure and plan field trips to try to understand the various choices and changes that have occurred here. As I walk, I photograph and make notes in a process probably not all that different from Jane’s.

Now, as I begin to structure the information I’ve gathered, it seems natural to arrange the images and texts into a series of “walks” representing particular places, events and objects. This structure imitates both what I imagine of Jane and my own walking explorations and becomes part of an installation tentatively titled Looking for Jane: Coldengham to Coldenham.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Maple Avenue and Interstate 84

I don’t know when Maple Avenue came to be named Maple or took on the length and characteristics it had in the 1960’s but it’s a local road that at that time joined 17K in Coldenham with Rte. 207 between Little Britain and Rock Tavern. Given that it passes the site of the original Colden home and family cemetery, the origins of the road seem clear.

I’ve driven up and down Maple Avenue many times looking for trees and Tin Brook, walking in the frozen swamp and gazing at the cemetery and current day Pimm Farm. Last June, at the beginning of this project, I went looking for the cemetery historic marker on Maple Avenue and while driving the road for the first time, was startled to find it forms a cul-de-sac that dead ends right at Interstate 84. Rising above Maple Avenue, I 84 is a busy highway carrying much car traffic as well as freight beginning it’s western trip into Pennsylvania and on across the country. Maple Avenue starts up again on the other side of the highway and like other north/south local roads, was bisected when this section of the highway opened in 1971.

The original 3000 acre Colden patent is also bisected by I 84, effectively cutting the property into northern and southern parts and making a circuitous route necessary in order to see things that are geographically close. Of the many juxtapositions of the historic with the contemporary at Coldenham, Interstate 84 represents the most glaring example of how things have changed. Not only does the area look different but sound and smell are permanently altered and the differences in the speed of life couldn’t be more dramatically displayed.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Feats of Engineering

There are a variety of references to the Colden Canal, built by Jane’s father, Cadwallader Colden. The earliest I have found is an article by John M. Eager published in The Historical Magazine in March of 1864. This article and others state that between 1728 and 1760, using Tin Brook, Cadwallader Colden built a canal on his property to transport fuel and building supplies. This canal is believed to be the first freshwater canal in what is now the United States and was a practical means of transportation when there were few roads through the wooded landscape. While rudimentary, it is considered a predecessor to the great canals and inland waterways of later periods and demonstrates the engineering abilities of Cadwallader Colden.

The source of the canal is in the Great Swamp that lies south of the original Colden home. Portions of the swamp were drained to provide peat for fuel and in this bog meadow Colden used stone to widen Tin Brook and construct a feeder pond for the canal. In the 1864 article Eager writes, “Portions of this work are still visible upon the meadow, now one of the best and most valuable portions of grazing land in that county.” In a 1967 survey conducted by the New York State Historic Trust, Malcolm Booth reports the current purpose of the site as pasture, the condition as poor and endangered by the construction of Interstate 84. He recommends a state marker.

I’ve been told by a few people in the Coldengham Preservation and Historical Society that the last remaining pieces of canal construction are part of Stewart State Forest in what was the northwest corner of Little Britain but can’t be seen because of long term flooding caused by beavers. In fact, the beaver flooding is clearly marked on the Trail and Facilities Map of Stewart State Forest and going there, I see that the beavers have performed their own marvel of engineering. Their pond is large and full and completely obscures any sign of stone.

Assuming that the construction is really there, I can place another dot on my map and greatly expand the Coldengham property line towards the south and well away from the cluster of red dots representing the Colden homes and cemetery.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I know of only one standing historic Colden house remaining on the original acres. It's located on the northern part of the patent and was the home of Thomas Colden, grandson of Cadwallader Sr. I have yet to see the house because it is occupied and permission needs to be arranged. Occupied is a good thing because it means, unlike the other Colden buildings, there actually is a house to see. Elsewhere on the original property there are remains of stone walls which I've been told were tenants houses, the recently reclaimed ruin of Cadwallader Jr's house built in 1767 and an educated guess as to the location of the original family home, built in 1724 but no longer existing. 1724 is pretty old, even by Hudson Valley standards but many homes from that period still exist in the area including my own, which was built in 1750 or earlier. This leads me to wonder why my house, never occupied by a historic figure, was preserved and the Colden homes were not.

Jane's father Cadwallader Colden was a prominent citizen of colonial New York. In addition to his scientific studies and well respected books, he served for many years as Surveyor General in the mostly unmapped colony and was appointed to the Provincial Council, an important 12 member group serving the governor. At various times he served as Lieutenant Governor and was part of the prominent society that governed the colony for the British Royal Crown. You might think all of this would lead to the careful conservation of his properties but being a conscientious servant of the crown, he remained a fierce Loyalist as the colonies prepared to revolt. The Colden family was on the "wrong" side of the Revolution and before the war began left Coldengham, seeking security in Flushing, NY. Unlike the heroes of the revolution whose homes and headquarters are now historic sites and museums, the Colden homes eventually changed hands, were neglected and mostly fell to ruin. As a Tory, Cadwallader Colden became a forgotten figure in history and I suspect his unpopularity doomed Coldengham to the same fate.