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History of Peekskill Summary

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Peekskill’s Origins, Development and Highlights

Peekskill is located in the northwestern part of Westchester County, NY along the Hudson River. The riverfront of the City of Peekskill was historically one of intense commercial and industrial activity for most of the last century. The City’s Waterfront served as a port for the shipping and receiving of materials and finished goods. The City’s river port thrived and provided an economic engine for the City and a region as a whole.

European Discovery and Settlement

Peekskill was established as a distinct locale by travelers from the Hudson River in the 1600s. Henry Hudson, the English sea captain and explorer, sailed the river in the autumn of 1609 onboard the Dutch ship Half Moon. This voyage of exploration began the land claims made by the countries of Holland and England to the river valley.

The first European person recorded to set foot on this territory was Jan Peeck. The Peekskill region, and specifically what is now Annsville, was first identified by European immigrants as “Peeck’s Kill”. On various sloop journeys to this region at about 1650, Peeck exchanged various manufactured items with native tribal people located along Peekskill Bay, or what is now Annsville Creek, and possibly some distance up Peekskill Hollow Brook. The resident people identified themselves as “Sackhoes,” according to the phonetic transcription from their language.

While once unofficially known as Jan Peeck’s Creek, it was the formal transfer of itemized useful products by the Europeans to the Sachoes and their tribal representatives in 1685 that created Peek’s Kill as a distinct geographic location, recognized as a land deed. Among the items given to the Sachoes were: eight brass kettles, one thousand fish hooks, fifty-two knives, two swords, eight muskets, 40 bars of lead and five bullet molds, 15 pounds of gun powder, three pistols, two hundred needles, 15 axes, 15 hoes, 100 tobacco pipes, rum, beer and tobacco.

The written deed transfer of land for these items was the Ryck’s Patent. The document was signed with appropriate marks by four members of the Sachoes tribe, and the English governor at that time. In return, six New Amsterdam residents representing three families were given title to 1,800 acres. Peekskill then became a territory distinct from the surrounding Van Cortlandt lands.

African-Americans are an important part of Peekskill’s early history. There is evidence indicating the use of Black slavery from about 1750 through 1825. By the time of the Revolution in 1776, Blacks could serve in the Continental Army as a condition of their freedom. Peekskill saw several free Blacks well established before the end of the Civil War.

Peekskill Was An Important Location During the War of Independence

Peekskill was a significant Revolutionary War military base, and at times used as a headquarters for American army officers in the Hudson Valley from 1776 through 1782. The area was important for its hilly defensive location, its views of the bay, and its industries applied to military purposes. The overlook locale, now identified as “Fort Hill” in Peekskill, was the site of five large barracks buildings and two redoubts. An average of 1,000 Continental soldiers were stationed at Camp Peekskill on and off through the eight years of war.

Washington established Peekskill as the regional command center for the Hudson Valley following a personal inspection tour here in November 1776, immediately after the battle at White Plains. Officers used the former Birdsall house on Main Street as their headquarters. Among the Continental Army generals based at Peekskill were William Heath, Alexander McDougall and Israel Putnam. The locally raised 2nd New York Regiment of Continental soldiers was commanded by Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt. This unit saw action in battles at Saratoga, New York in 1777 and Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.

Beginning with Peekskill’s first legal incorporation as a Village in 1816, industrial, commercial and civic activities continued to grow. This New York State legislative act established Peekskill’s working government as a Village within the Town of Cortlandt. The 1816 law allowed Peekskill to elect five Trustees, have elections and to raise taxes. Also authorized was the appointment of four fire wardens with a company of 18 firemen.

The Hudson River Railroad appeared at Peekskill in 1849 and by 1850 was connected between New York City and Albany. Some of the steamboat passenger and freight services continued into the 1900s. Peekskill was developing in an industrial style similar to other Hudson River communities such as Yonkers, Nyack, Haverstraw. Ossining, Cold Spring and Newburgh.

President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a stop at the old Peekskill train station on Water Street, and delivered a short speech on February 19, 1861. A memorial marker on South Street, named the Lincoln Exedra, overlooks the site of that original railroad depot. The stop at Peekskill was Lincoln’s only living appearance in Westchester County. That event is still commemorated by the Lincoln Society of Peekskill.

Peekskill also served as an “Underground Railroad” station in the system that helped refugees from slavery. Spearheaded by Harriet Tubman, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Park Street was established in 1852. Prominent African-American property owners before the time of the Civil War, Hawley and Harriet Green were active residents active in the Abolitionist cause, and allowed their house at 1112 Main Street to be used as an Underground Railroad safehouse.

Point of Interest: The prominent abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, lived at his East Main Street mansion. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a powerful anti-slavery work.

Peekskill Village in the era after the Civil War saw an economic and population expansion. The primary industry was the fashioning of cast iron cooking and heating stoves. Peekskill in 1895 had seven foundries and manufactured 200,000 stoves in the one year. There were also lumber yards, nickel plating works, boat builders, a hat factory, a shirt and underwear factory.

By 1900 the large Fleischmann Company yeast and yeast by-products industrial complex was established at Charles Point. This factory innovated several yeast and yeast by-products, and became the largest maker of such products in the world, helping to improve the quality of American breads.

Peekskill as a City

Peekskill officially became an incorporated City on July 29, 1940. Two years of difficult legal wrangling had finally settled the issue, and a legal separation from the Town of Cortlandt. The local government would consist of a two-year term elected Mayor, six Councilmen each elected to four-year terms. The City Charter was revised in 1967 to allow for a City Manager form of government.

Source: Summary of Peekskill’s History
Written by John J. Curran – City Historian
January 2002

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