Christoffel “Kit” Davis, Esopus Pioneer

Quite by accident (don’t you love when that happens?) I found  a 1914  publication online with the story of my paternal 8th great grandfather, Christoffel “Kit” Davis…”The Esopus Pioneer”.  The first paragraph sets up the tale of Kit Davis.

Olde_Ulster_an_Historical_and_Genealogical Magazine Vol 10 Kit Davids bio_Page_01 Header CropEarly in the settlement of Fort Orange (Albany)there drifted into the colony of van Rensselaer an Englishman who seems to have been the first white man who thridded the woods and explored the lowlands about ‘the Esopus.’ The story of his life, the picturesqueness of his character, his influence with the Indians, his conformity to their customs and usages, his hatred of restraints of civilization and his enjoyment of the life primitive among the men of the woods, his dislike of obedience to the ordinances and rules civilized communities felt compelled to lay down reveal a pioneer character whom it would have delighted the heart of Bret Harte to delineate.

Kit Davis was a rugged individualist and used his fists as much as his words when confronted with too much ‘civilization’ as told in the Minutes of the court of Rensselaerswyck.  On one occasion he was called  before the authorities charged with telling the local tribe that Petrus Stuyvesant was coming to the Esopus “to break the necks of all the savages there which caused the Indians to commit a great deal of mischief”.   He succeeded in clearing himself, but he left an unfavorable impression with the authorities.   Records in Albany contain several incidents in which he was in conflict with other settlers including “striking Rijck Rutgersz on the head, for beating his servant,  wounding Jan Dircksz, from Bremen”.   The Dutch Records of Kingston (1658-1684) translated and published in 1912 for the New York State Historical Association shows a lively community engaged in not only the usual land deals and transactions, but reveals the contentious nature of the individuals who settled along the Hudson.  No doubt Peter Stuyvesant earned every guilder managing such a feisty group and dynamic point in history.

In many records Kit Davis’ surname was spelled “Davits” and  “Davids” as influenced by the Dutch language of the settlers along the Hudson River valley.    A trader and an interpreter between the settlers and the Esopus tribe, he made his home on the “Strand” as that part of Kingston was known in 1658. Over a period of time he had acquired small and separate parcels of land about the Rondout Creek and it grew to be referred to as either the Esopus or “Kit Davietsen’s river”.  Kit’s second wife was Maria Meertens, my 8th great grandmother. Together they had eight children.  Their daughter, Deborah and her husband, Pieter von Bommel are my 7th great grandparents.  During this time he and Maria were driven from their homestead as it was burned to the ground during hostilities with the Esopus tribe.  Kit was on record as the negotiator during the “Second Esopus War” arranging the return of the white women and children held in captivity. In addition he was a messenger to the Mohawks who also acted as mediators in the hostage exchanges.

His exchanges with regard to Peter Stuyvesant and his role as a frontier messenger and negotiator are really intriguing.

Stuyvesant replied that Kit was just arrived in Manhattan. He said he would send him but spoke slightingly of him except as a messenger. On the 19th of August Kit arrived at the Esopus, having paddled from Manhattan in a canoe. He brought with him a letter from Stuyvesant. He also brought some personal information. He had slept one night on his voyage with the Indians in their wigwam; that some Esopus Indians were with them who had four Christian captives with them; that one of them, a woman captive, had told Davis that forty Esopus savages had been spying about the stockade of the Esopus; that the Indians were getting supplies of liquor from the sloops trading along the river and he, Davis, warned the settlers from exposing themselves away from the fortifications.

In an 1861 publication “The Documentary History of the State of New York, Vol. IV” the accounts of “The Second Esopus War” make it very clear how perilous the times had become.  A stockade was built at the direction of Peter Stuyvesant;  nevertheless there were raids on the settlers ending in murder.  Homesteads were burned and hostages taken.  Esopus Indians were rounded up and sold into slavery.

Esopus Creek

Esopus Creek

Old Kit wasn’t above selling liquor to the local tribesmen and ‘tattling’ according to a complaining letter to Peter Stuyvesant. Despite Kit’s shenanigans, he was also considered a genial fellow among his fellow outdoorsman and was a great sportsman. He was noted for taking long journeys on the Hudson in his canoe.   I lived in the Kingston area for a period of time back in the 1980’s…though I had no clue at the time that I was living in the land of my settler ancestors.   It is a majestic and mysterious environment with the land rising high above the Hudson River and waterways like Esopus Creek meandering through the verdant Catskill foothills.   No one knows where Kit is buried, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think his spirit is in the mists that haunt the Esopus.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2014.  All Rights Reserved

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