When Kim first suggested this blog idea, I was very excited. I’ve lived a lot of places, but we settled on the delightful, evocatively named Fishkill, NY for me to talk about. It’s been some time since I lived there. I was a different person then, on a rigorous, almost killer, career track from which I’ve since diverged. I was young, in my twenties, but what made me so interested in this little Hudson Valley River town hasn’t changed in the intervening years: History. At no point in my life have I not loved history, and Fishkill swims in it, pun intended.
The first thing upon arrival I had to find out why it was named Fishkill, since it couldn’t mean what PETA assumed it meant (seriously, they petitioned to make the town change its name to something animal friendly). ‘Kil’ is actually Dutch for stream or creek, and you’ll find many New York towns with ‘kill’ in them. Growing up in Pittsburgh with its heavy Italian and Polish influences, I knew little more about the Dutch settlers other than they were some of the first people to immigrate to America.
At the time, I had learned very little about the Dutch beyond the fact they had gotten the land that Fishkill occupied from the Wappinger Indians, and found out even less about the Wappingers. However, the Dutch left their fingerprints all over this part of New York, including what became for me the touchstone of the town: The First Reformed (Dutch) Church.
Not only was the architecture alluring, it had a cemetery that was, for this country, very old. Many of the gravestones were in Dutch and had wonderful artwork on them, remarkably well-preserved in the sandstone.
I was fascinated by the stones and wanted to know more about the people they represented. I was a little surprised to learn the townspeople originally sent back to Amsterdam to find Dutch-speaking priests since in the early 1700s this was not an easy task.
But as I learned, the church had a far more interesting and dark history. All of Fishkill was very active in the Revolutionary War, becoming part of the largest Colonial encampment and the base of Alexander Hamilton. One can touch the history of the revolution all around Fishkill. The Van Wyck Homestead was part of the Fishkill Supply Depot, feeding thousands of militia men. In the 1970’s, when much of the land became a mall, they unearthed tons of artifacts from the era, though the unmarked graves of the men who died of smallpox have not been found. Mount Gulian, Gulian ver Planck’s home became General von Steuben’s residence, and he went on to become famous for being the man who truly shaped the Colonials into a fighting force.
However, as interesting as those sites are, it was the First Reformed (Dutch) church that held my interest. The unassuming church became a site of meetings for the military officers and then became a prison for British prisoners.
Imagine what these walls would say if they spoke. All the fear and pain they had to have witnessed. I couldn’t keep the image of imprisoned soldiers out of my mind. Even learning that the church later became the seat of New York’s Provincial Congress after the British drove them out of New York City and White Plains didn’t displace the thoughts about the prisoners.
I wanted more than anything to get inside that church. Bringing up the history to the locals was met with hostility. I suppose no one wants to remember their dark side, but it was that side that fascinated me. I never did get to go inside. Oh, it’s an active church to this day, but at that time, they still worked medical residents on long shifts, 36 hours on not being uncommon, so if I was off on a Sunday morning, I either slept or did all the things that needed doing. That’s the difference between me then and me now. Today, I would have found a way inside. I would have tried to cajole my way into the area the prisoners were held because I simply had to see it.
I may go back someday. I do go back in my imagination. I just traveled back to this area in an upcoming steampunk novella, and yes the main character is Dutch. Fishkill is a picturesque little town and fun for the history buff. You might be seeing it in my stories sometime soon, if only to ponder why there is a tombstone for a Gray alien in the First Reformed Dutch church’s cemetery. Thanks to Kim for having me on her blog today.