Over the river and through the woods to Hutchinson’s house we go. Anne Hutchinson’s house, that is. That’s where our trek through Eastchester’s 350 years of history will take us this week, from the southern, not-so-scenic tip of the river that bears her name to the northern, scenic tip of this same river.
In reality we can’t see even traces of Anne Hutchinson’s settlement since it is long since paved over. This column will attempt to unearth her history and that of the Town of Eastchester near the Hutchinson River. It is an area sometimes noted as Colonial Eastchester in what is now the Bronx and is very different from the boundaries of modern-day Eastchester.
Sometimes called America’s first feminist, Anne Hutchinson was a complex woman. Once revered as a midwife and a religious leader, she was later branded a heretic. It was this later supposed heresy which brought her to settle by the river which now bears her name. Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson moved to what she hoped was a more religiously tolerant colony in Rhode Island. When that appeared not to be the case, she decided to settle near New Netherlands in the area now known as Co-op City and Pelham Bay. The exact location of her never-completed home is not known, nor is the reason she and some of her children were massacred not long after their arrival. It was 1643, a time when the Dutch and Native Americans were at odds over land ownership. It has been debated whether the family was seen as another threat by the Native Americans or whether the massacre was random.
Co-op City is not the most scenic place, but its storied history is Eastchester’s history. Once the Dutch animosities abated, settlements began. One settlement was created through the purchase of land by 10 Connecticut families in 1664. This new settlement was called East Chester and its borders extended along the Hutchinson River from present day Co-op City in the south to Scarsdale in the north.
So yes, the Bronx’s Co-op City and Pelham Bay areas and the City of Mount Vernon were once part of Eastchester and are often referred to as Colonial Eastchester.
And they were scenic.
These new landowners in Eastchester needed mills to process grain for the community and to cut lumber for home construction. Tidal mills began operating along the Hutchinson River before 1700 and continued through the 1700s and 1800s. One was Wright’s Mill, utilized by Connecticut soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Another was the rope and cord factory of Anderson. The colonists also built docks and landings. During the 1800s, wharf costs ranged from 50 cents to 75 cents.
An old watercolor and a photograph attest to the fact that Co-op City was the site of Reed’s Mill until 1900. No remnants of this and any other 17th and 18th century mills remain. We can reimagine the mills in their bucolic splendor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The local landscape artist, Edward Gay, painted the area often, including a painting titled “Broad Acres” which is owned by the world renowned museum.
During his long, prolific life, Gay included the Hutchinson River and its mills in several of his paintings. Two of his other paintings can be viewed nearby at St. Paul’s Church.
Deemed as marshland during the early 1900s, the land along the river was left alone until developers bought it on the cheap before 1960. The developers were former Disney bigwigs and transformed the marshland into the famed Freedomland, the first theme park in New York City. This park was short-lived, declaring bankruptcy in 1964, a brief five years from its opening in 1960. Once in bankruptcy, the land was again available for a pittance and no longer scenic. Developers envisioned other possibilities and Co-op City, the largest cooperative housing complex in the world, was the result.
There are two scenic parks in the now Bronx and former Colonial Eastchester, but their residents were not the friendliest. They included rattlesnakes and wolves who created grievous losses for the farmers. Today, it stands as Seton Falls Park, named after a family member of Elizabeth Seton, the United States’ first Roman Catholic canonized saint. An area of this now park was aptly named Rattlesnake Brook, where pigs were sent to feast on these rattlesnakes for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Historians also mention land west of Rattlesnake Brook as being used for planting as early as 1685.
The other scenic park is nearby at Pelham Bay and Split Rock golf courses, New York City’s largest park. It contains scenic miles of bridle paths and hiking trails and was also part of Eastchester’s colonial history. Split Rock is literally named for its large, split rock, a legendary hiding spot for the one daughter of Anne Hutchinson who survived the massacre. The daughter supposedly hid in the natural crevice in the middle of this large rock. That rock once sported a plaque attesting to this but it is long since missing. The rock is not very accessible as the commercial and busy Interstate 95 crosses that area of the park. The park also encompasses some of the Town of Pelham’s history at the Bartow-Pell Mansion. It remains scenic.
Take time to unpave and trace Colonial Eastchester’s history along this river. Don’t hurry. As A. A. Milne wrote for Pooh in “Pooh’s Little Instruction Book.” “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.”
Try to get there someday. In the next article we’ll follow modern day Eastchester’s history along the Hutchinson River. Most of that is scenic.