I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women’s locker room the first week I moved up to New Paltz. We’re both lap swimmers and I’d noticed that she has a smooth competitor’s stroke and mentioned that I ,too, had once been a competitive swimmer. I don’t do flip turns any more, nor do I rotate my head side to side to breathe, though I still love to swim. That was the beginning of our conversation.
Jennifer is a trained teacher who, at the time, was working at Historic Huguenot Street as the School Programming Coordinator. She lives in New Paltz with her family, not in the original farmhouse--they were dairy farmers--but in a house her grandfather built when he retired. However, to say she “lives,” in New Paltz is not accurate; her family has been anchored here for twelve generations. The DuBois name is everywhere in town.
I was intrigued and started to read everything I could about the history of New Paltz from the first Dutch settlements to the present day. Dear Reader, I went to the local library. There I found various books on the shelves, an archivist, a huge collection of memorabilia, and a link to 66 libraries in the Mid-Hudson Valley for loans.
As soon as I began to read, I wanted to know more:
What happened to the Esopus people? They were the First Americans to live here. Unlike the descendants of the Dutch, English and French Huguenot families who still reside in New Paltz, their history is mostly absent from a history of New Paltz photo book for sale at the library. Yet the Algonquin language the tribe (still) speaks is evident everywhere—the Esopus creek, the town of Esopus, Kerhonkson, and so much more.
The tribe was decimated by disease, enslaved by the Dutch “settlers,” pushed west into Wisconsin and Canada by the US government—a trail of tears—and by the time the Huguenots arrived, their numbers had diminished significantly, they were in survival mode and struck financially beneficial deals. By all accounts, they lived mostly peacefully with the Huguenot settlers who themselves had escaped persecution. It’s a complex, fascinating and troubling story that still resonates today.
“The subject of my town’s local history had been on my mind for a few reasons. For one, I am a descendant of the New Paltz Huguenots,” Jennifer DuBois Bruntil explains in an article she wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal in December, 2016 to publicize her children’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot.”
Although Jennifer had never considered herself an author, the idea for the book began as a poem in her head in the middle of the night. She got up and wrote it all down, consulted friends, found a local illustrator, Matthew Kelly, and started to raise funds through Kickstarter. The book is charming, informative and, for the most part, historically responsible. More than a simple “congratulations on getting published” is due here. To her credit, Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has included four beautifully illustrated pages devoted to the Esopus presence on the land the Huguenots purchased. Missing, however, is any reference--even in the background illustrations-- to the African slaves in New Paltz. Yet, the history of slavery in New Paltz has been carefully documented by historians Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn in the Huguenot Historic Site's“register” of slaves (1799-1825). They write:
“Often overlooked is the fact that African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with an abundant supply of labor for use in the farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. The institution of slavery thus provided the Huguenots and their descendants with much of the labor upon which to build their communities, prosperity, and longevity.”
The register is fascinating to read:
Few families in Colonial America, including the Jews in New York and our Founding Fathers, remained innocent as the barbarity of the slave trade intensified. Either they owned slaves themselves, were complicit in the “legalization” of the institution, or succumbed to the temptation of free labor.
Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has ended her modest children’s book with the arrival of the Huguenots in America, before they purchased slaves themselves. A sequel would undoubtedly have to include all this subsequent, disturbing history explained simply, but honestly, to young readers. During the educational tours at the Huguenot Historic Site, students are taken to different "stations" where they find out about the Esopus at one station, and family life, including slaves, at another. None of the local history is ignored. And during the summer months, SUNY New Paltz Professor Joseph Diamond supervises students as they dig for artifacts left by the settlers, the Native Americans, and slaves, in front of the DuBois Fort, the Esopus Wigwam, and elsewhere in the carefully preserved, landmarked area. This year he hopes to excavate part of the road. I plan to stop by to observe their progress and will report again in another blog post. Stay tuned.
“Hugo the Huguenot” is available online or at the Huguenot Historic Site gift shop in the Fort: