mountain clouds


By Wendy E. Harris

Article appearing in Shawangunk Watch 2001
(Bulletin of Friends of the Shawangunks and The Shawangunks Conservancy)
Volume 6, #1: 4-7 and #2: 3-5.


Sam’s Point Preserve encompasses 4600 acres and contains many rare plant and animal species. Available evidence, however, indicates that significant cultural resources may also be present within the Preserve’s bounds.  These include Native American prehistoric archaeological sites—especially rockshelters—as well as structures, landscape features, and archaeological remains associated with historic period Euro-American use of the Shawangunks. For the past three years, I have been working with a colleague from New York City, archaeologist Arnold Pickman, to determine the nature and extent of such properties. Much of the information we’ve gathered has found its way into the cultural resources component of the Draft Sam’s Point Preserve Management Plan, a document prepared by the Nature Conservancy with the assistance of the Sam’s Point Preserve Advisory Council. The following two-part article summarizes the results of our research. In the first section, appearing below, I describe the state of cultural resources protection in the Shawangunks, focusing especially upon Sam’s Point Preserve. The emphasis here is on archaeological sites of the Shawangunks associated with Native American cultures. The second part of the article, which will appear in Shawangunk Watch later this year, is again devoted to the cultural resources of Sam’s Point Preserve, focusing this time upon Euro-American sites and structures.

My approach to these issues has been greatly influenced by my experiences as a staff archaeologist for a large federal agency. Because of federal and state historic preservation laws, especially the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, cultural resources that may be affected as a result of publicly funded undertakings are protected. Sites, structures, and landscapes may not be saved from destruction entirely, but the spirit of the legislation directs the government to consider what effects their actions might have upon properties that are considered historically significant. The money to pay for this comes out of the budgets of the various agencies. The National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service—all have archaeologists on their staffs and all fund programs to protect cultural resources under their control. The same is true for many state agencies as well. After more than thirty years of government supported cultural resource management programs, federal and state agencies now routinely pay for such activities as archaeological surveys or moving historic bridges.

During my eleven years as a federal archaeologist, I had grown accustomed to situations in which funding and personnel (not always a lot but usually enough to get the job done) were always available. Returning to the private sector, and able to spend more time at my home in Cragsmoor, I discovered that protecting the land from development is the number one priority in this part of the Shawangunks. Given the urgency of this objective, causes like preserving cultural resources may appear a bit quixotic. For those of us who care deeply about the Shawangunks, the problem becomes how to save the ridge without losing those more subtle aspects of the landscape and its history that make it so unique. As an advocate for cultural resources at Sam’s Point Preserve, I have come to believe that in the absence of an established archaeology program and institutional support, careful planning early on in the process may be our best hope for preserving the material remains of our past. 
In the Shawangunks, although portions of the ridge are owned and managed by the State of New York, large expanses of terrain are still privately owned or else controlled by private institutions whose mandates do not include the protection of archaeological sites or historic structures. As stated above, acquisition of land in order to protect it from development necessarily takes precedence over everything else. Additionally, even when the desire exists to address cultural resources, there is just not enough money available to pay for essential services and staff. The exception is the Mohonk Preserve, where Daniel Smiley’s presence ensured that from the very beginning cultural and natural resources were equally valued (Paul Huth 2000: personal communication). Perhaps, in time, this will be true for the rest of the ridge. Until there is a formal program in place, however, efforts to identify and protect cultural resources at Sam’s Point Preserve will have to be done on a volunteer basis. My hope is that we can use the information that we collect now as a basis for a larger and more systematic survey sponsored by research grants. In the meantime we have been fortunate enough to find people willing to donate their time and talents. 
Throughout our efforts, the focus has been upon identifying archaeological sites and structural remains, rather than intact structures. Such resources tend to be somewhat ephemeral and thus more in need of protection than larger and more visually impressive properties—such as the Mohonk Mountain House and grounds—whose architectural and historical merits are readily apparent and have already been recognized by listing on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Besides, at Sam’s Point Preserve, we have only one intact historically significant structure that still survives—the gatehouse, dating to the 1850s or earlier. Our other historic above ground structures, consisting of a series of huckleberry pickers’ shacks, would be best categorized as “structural remains.”

As for the archaeological sites at Sam’s Point Preserve—we don’t believe that much digging should occur now. Although testing of some locations is probably necessary, it would be premature at this point to undertake intensive excavations. Like environmentalists, archaeologists have a strong conservation ethic. We understand that when we excavate an archaeological site, we are also destroying it. Thus the work that Arnold and I have done is not so much about archaeological excavation as it is about gathering together existing information regarding this section of the Shawangunks: studies done by naturalists, historians, and other archaeologists; artifact collections in the possession of professional and local avocational archaeologists; historic photographs and documents; and our own observation of cultural resources that are above ground such as foundations and refuse middens.  We’ve used this information in conjunction with visible features of the Preserve’s landscape and ecology to make predictions about what may exist below ground, thus requiring archaeological testing to verify at some point in the future.

As a preliminary step in this process, we began by acquainting ourselves with the history and archaeology of the entire ridge, including portions southwest and northeast of the Preserve. This not only provided us with a context for understanding the Preserve’s cultural resources, but also a basis for theorizing what we might expect to find within the Preserve’s bounds. To this end, Arnold and I visited and conducted documentary research in a number of repositories including the New York State Archives, the New York State Library, the cultural resources collection of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the New York Public Library, and the Daniel Smiley Research Center. As a result we also learned about earlier efforts to identify archaeological sites and historic structures in the Shawangunks.

For the field aspect of our study we inspected the Verkeerderkill drainage, Indian Rock, the area adjoining the High Point Tower; the escarpments that extend northwest and northeast from Sam’s Point (including the Sam’s Point ice caves), Lake Maratanza, and the huckleberry picker campsites located to the west of Lake Maratanza. More recently—in the company of non-archaeologists—I have visited other sections of the Preserve and its environs in order to make field observations and photograph areas of interest. These include the North Gully, South Gully, Shingle Gully, the Ellenville Ice Caves, the Witch’s Hole, Napanoch Point, Mud Pond, and the escarpment located to the east of Mud Pond that extends northeast towards Murray Hill and Margaret Cliff.

Much of the information presented in the two parts of this article builds upon the work of others, especially the authors Jack Fagan (1998), Marc Fried (1981, 1995, 1998), Robert Larsen (with Jack Fagan as illustrator, 1999) and Bradley Snyder (1981). I gained a better understanding of Shawangunk cultural history from conversations with Paul Huth  and Robert Larsen of the Mohonk Preserve and with Marc Fried, reading pieces by Robert Larsen and Keith LaBudde published in Shawangunk Watch, and from studying the wonderful illustrations of Karl Beard and Jack Fagan.  Cragsmoor residents Sally Matz, Maureen Radl, Pete Stanger, Hattie Grifo, and Bob Shulman also shared their extensive knowledge of the Shawangunks. Bob Anderberg of the Open Space Institute and Heidi Wagner of the Nature Conservancy provided access, contacts, maps, ideas—and most importantly—encouragement. Our research experience was greatly enhanced by access to the extraordinary collection of books and documents devoted to the history of Shawangunks, assembled over the last 50 years by my father, the local historian Harold Harris. As discussed above, the task of compiling and analyzing much of this material was eased by my collaboration with Arnold Pickman. Throughout this article you will notice citations to various authors. These are keyed to a bibliography that appears at the end of the article.

Why Be Concerned with Cultural Resources?

Human beings have inhabited the Shawangunks for the past several thousand years. The Native American presence here dates to approximately 8200 B.P. (before the present time), and possibly as early as 11,500 B.P (Eisenberg 1991: 173). Archaeological sites from the prehistoric period have been found throughout the ridge. In the opening decades of the 20th century, a survey in the vicinity of Lake Mohonk and Lake Minnewaska resulted in the discovery of at least 25 archaeological sites. More recent investigations of two of these sites by a professional archaeologist confirmed their significance (Eisenberg 1991; Historical Perspectives 1991). Research and stray finds of artifacts suggest that similar sites exist within the bounds of Sam’s Point Preserve.

During the early historic period, the terrain now enclosed within Sam’s Point Preserve was not intensively utilized by Euro-Americans. In fact, the poorly defined boundary lines and large size of present day tracts attests to the low value assigned to these rugged and uninhabited lands until very recently. Only a handful of 18th and 19th -century Euro-Americans were able to establish livelihoods in the Shawangunks. Foremost among this group were the huckleberry pickers—a group of men, women, and children—participants in a locally important fruit gathering industry, who began to seasonally inhabit the Shawangunk ridge sometime in the middle of the 19th century, remaining active until the 1960s. Today, the most visible historic period remains within Sam’s Point Preserve are associated with the huckleberry pickers. Also surviving, throughout the ridge, and probably within the Preserve—as evidence of 18th and 19th- century Euro-American use of the ridge’s natural resources—are material remains associated with farming, hunting, trapping, quarrying, mining, and various forest-related industries such as shingle making, charcoal burning, hoop shaving, and bark peeling. A related category of archaeological and structural remains is associated with early tourism and includes the ruins of boarding houses and hotels.
To the northeast of Sam’s Point Preserve, where Minnewaska State Park and Mohonk Preserve have been in existence for many years, efforts to manage cultural resources have been underway for well over a decade. In 1991, a cultural resources assessment was completed as part of the Master Plan for Minnewaska State Park (Historic Perspectives 1991). It is on file at the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP). Also on file at NYSOPRHP are listings of the known archaeological sites in the Shawangunks. Site location information for the Mohonk Preserve is being incorporated into the GIS database maintained by the Dan Smiley Research Center—an undertaking that is part of the Center’s initiative to compile a complete Cultural History Plan for the lands within the Mohonk Preserve (Paul Huth 2001: personal communication).  Also at the Mohonk Preserve, the Trapps Mountain Hamlet, a community dating to the 19th century, is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places. One of the structures, the Eli Van Leuven Cabin, is restored. Structural remains and landscape features have been painstakingly researched and interpreted. Visitors can view the cabin and the rest of the Hamlet with aid of a self-guided tour and booklet (Larsen and Fagan 1999), a project funded by the Preserve and by Furthermore, the publication program of the J.M. Kaplan Foundation. On lands belonging to the State of New York, archaeological sites and historic structures are protected under a series of historic preservation laws including the New York State Historic Preservation Act of 1980 (Chapter 354 of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law). Immediately southwest of Sam’s Point Preserve, much of the community of Cragsmoor has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district.

Such attempts at management are vital because cultural resources, unlike natural resources, are not renewable. They do not replenish themselves. Native American archaeological sites are especially fragile. The information about human history that they contain is represented not only by artifacts and faunal remains but also by the stratigraphic contexts in which remains are found. These soil layers may also contain charcoal and fossilized pollen, critical for the reconstruction of past lifeways and environments. As more of the ridge is opened to hiking and exploration, these sites and the information contained within them, become threatened with destruction by the actions of often well-intentioned persons. Undertakings associated with the development and maintenance of Sam’s Point Preserve and elsewhere may damage both buried and aboveground remains. Hikers, hunters, climbers and cavers may remove artifacts and contribute to soil erosion. Avocational archaeologists, many of whom are knowledgeable about the materials contained within sites, do not always follow scientific methods of excavation or share the results of their investigations with professional archaeologists and the public.

Although we believe that these resources are “out there,” the archaeological sites and historic structures of Sam’s Point have not yet been systematically surveyed. There is no map or inventory that tells us where cultural resources are located, to what time period or category they might be assigned, how many of each type or category exists, or their physical condition. However, recognizing the possibility of damage to cultural resources, as well as their potential significance, the Open Space Institute and the Nature Conservancy have decided to include a section on cultural resources in the Draft Sam’s Point Preserve Management Plan. These pages provide a brief overview of the Preserve’s prehistory and history, preliminary descriptions of cultural resources, as well as delineations of sensitive areas that may contain resources that have not yet been identified. Measures for identifying, evaluating, protecting, interpreting and preserving these resources are also presented in the plan. The goal of the cultural resources component of the management plan is to integrate these data and procedures into the planning process for the Preserve.

By preserving the material remains of the Preserve’s past, we hope to create opportunities for public education and stewardship. Experience has shown that knowledge of the past strengthens our attachment to the landscape and teaches us to respect the resources it contains. Understanding how past cultures interacted with their environment illustrates the profound connections that exist between human beings and the natural world.

Prehistoric Native American Resources - Overview

artifacts Artifacts recovered from the Shawangunks suggest that the Native American presence here may date to the time when the first human beings entered the northeast, approximately 11,500 years ago, an era archaeologists call the Paleoindian Period. Over the centuries Native Americans ventured into the Shawangunks for various purposes including: hunting; gathering of various foodstuffs such as berries, nuts, and perhaps medicinal plants; and possibly for spiritual purposes. As discussed below, prehistoric travelers would have followed a number of trails over the ridge as they journeyed between the Wallkill and Rondout Valleys . The material evidence left behind by these early visitors consists primarily of stone tools, debitage (loose chips and flakes which are the by-products of the manufacture and maintenance of stone tools), fragments of ceramic vessels, and faunal remains (the bones of animals hunted, butchered, and eaten by Native Americans).

While open-air archaeological sites can certainly be identified, most archaeological sites within rugged terrain, such as that found in the Shawangunks, take the form of rockshelters. Rockshelter sites can be found in several natural environments including rock/ledge overhangs along the bases of cliffs, within caves, or among rock masses that have become detached from “parent” cliffs. Such habitation spaces were sought after as temporary shelter by small mobile bands of prehistoric hunter-gatherers because they offered safety and protection from the elements. Activities within rockshelters usually involved “sleeping …, food preparation, cooking, and maintenance of equipment.” Groups tended to visit rockshelters repeatedly through time, allowing a significant accumulation of cultural debris (Walthall 1998:225-227). Not every rock shelter holds archaeological materials, and in many cases the ground surface has been covered with boulders, making excavation nearly impossible without the use of mechanical equipment. Rock shelters were also used by Euro-Americans, including early surveyors, trappers and hunters.

The presence of Native American rockshelter sites in the Shawangunks was demonstrated early in the 20th century. As part of a larger study of rockshelter sites in New York and New Jersey, Max Schrabisch surveyed two sections of the Shawangunks—one section lying to the southwest of Sam’s Point Preserve and the other lying to the northeast. The southernmost survey consisted of an 11-mile stretch of ridgeline between Otisville and Tristate. Here he identified and excavated 10 rockshelters (Schrabisch 1936a: 131). The second survey was devoted to an approximately 50 square mile tract located west of Lakes Mohonk and Minnewaska. It resulted in the identification and excavation of 25 rockshelters and several open-air sites. Because of its proximity, the latter survey probably provides a more reliable indication of the  distribution and contents of Native American sites within Sam’s Point Preserve. 

Schrabisch, a German immigrant, was one of the early pioneers of prehistoric archaeology in the northeastern United States. In the first two decades of the 20th century Schrabisch conducted archaeological investigations for the Geological Survey of New Jersey, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. His work in the Shawangunks was at least partially sponsored by the New York State Museum. These excavations were probably conducted between 1918 and 1919. Correspondence on file at the New York State Archives indicates that Schrabisch   was residing in the Shawangunk mountain hamlet of St. Josen in 1918 (New York State Museum 1981). Additionally, collections of artifacts from Schrabisch’s Shawangunks survey now housed at the State Museum bear the date 1919 (Sullivan et al. n.d.: 72). By this year, Schrabisch had begun to publish accounts of his findings in various journals.

As documented in Ed Lenik’s Max Schrabisch: Rock Shelter Archaeologist (1998), Schrabisch’s career was prolific, although his methods, by today’s professional standards, cannot be considered very thorough. Schrabisch investigated countless archaeological sites in our region—not just in the Shawangunks but also in the Catskills, and along such waterways as the Rondout, Bashakill, Neversink and Delaware Rivers—establishing for the first time the existence and research value of the material remains of local Native American cultures. His articles and manuscripts are still a valuable guide for archaeologists seeking to understand how prehistoric people utilized the landscape. Sadly, Schrabisch’s accounts of his excavations contain few site measurements, not much data on stratigraphy, and little other descriptive information that would allow present day researchers to further evaluate these sites.   

Within the northern Shawangunks, the area surveyed by Schrabisch consisted of the drainages of the Coxing Kill, Peters Kill, Sanders Kill, and the Stony Kill. He searched for rockshelters and open-air sites along streambeds and steep ravines, as well as along the ledges and cliff faces of the bordering ridge tops. In an account of this survey appearing in an unpublished manuscript, Schrabisch (1936a: 94) reported the following distribution of rockshelter sites:

“Stony Kill, a site on one of its tributaries; Sanders Kill, a ridge site west of it; Sanderskill, five sites; Peters Kill one site; Peters Kill, nine ridge sites east of it; the Clove, two sites; Mohonk Mountain, three sites.”

In addition to rockshelters, the survey also resulted in the identification of 9 open-air sites along streambanks, recognizable by the presence of surface debris. Many of the rockshelters contained evidence of hearths and yielded considerable quantities of cultural material, including finely worked stone tools and pottery sherds. Schrabisch (1936a: 125-6) concluded that:
“It was found that practically every natural shelter suitable for habitation had anciently been occupied…. The occurrence of so many rock shelters within a relatively small area hints of the existence of many additional ones in other parts of these mountains.”
Lacking sustained institutional support, Schrabisch never returned to complete his investigations of the Shawangunks. There is no indication in his subsequent articles or in his unpublished 1936 manuscript that these sites and their contents were ever carefully analyzed. Schrabisch did, however, provide a survey map, as well as drawings and narrative descriptions of each rockshelter. He also attempted to classify sites as to function based upon the types of artifacts he found—the categories being “chipping sites, workshops, hunters’ retreats and family abodes” (Schrabisch 1936a: 125).

To his credit, Schrabisch struggled endlessly to secure backing that would enable him to continue his studies. His efforts, though, were largely unsuccessful. A letter on file at the New York State Archives, written in 1918 by Alonzo T. Clearwater, a prominent Kingston attorney and local historian, urges Dr. Clarke of the New York State Museum to find a position for “Professor” Max Schrabisch. “Unfortunately,” observes Clearwater, “there is no local interest in these ancient rock shelters, and before many years have gone by all trace of them will have been obliterated” (Clearwater 1918). The job never materialized, but another letter in the archives suggests that the State Museum paid Schrabisch $300 to prepare a report describing his rockshelter surveys in the Shawangunks and the surrounding region (New York State Museum 1918). Years later, in 1936, Schrabisch was still corresponding with the State Museum, hoping to raise money by updating his earlier report to include more recent investigations conducted in Ulster, Rockland, Orange, Sullivan, and Delaware Counties. In a 1936 letter to the Director of the State Museum, he states that he financed his excavations out of his own pocket “thus impoverishing myself for the sake of the cause” (Schrabisch 1936b).

Schrabisch’s accounts of his work in New Jersey and Pennsylvania were eventually published as monographs by the sponsoring institutions. Not published, however, was his study of the archaeology of southeastern New York that included discussions of the two Shawangunk surveys. Archaeologists at the New York State Museum decided that the 1936 manuscript was “outdated.” Schrabisch died in 1949 at the age of 80 in a one-room apartment in Paterson, New Jersey and was buried in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field (Lenik 1998: 52-53). His collections and field records fared little better. Most are missing—many of the artifacts having been sold off by the financially desperate Schrabisch (Lenik 1998: 35-37). Of the twenty-five northern Shawangunk rockshelters investigated by Schrabisch, artifact collections from only three—the Clove Lower Shelter, the Clove Upper Shelter, and the Peterskill Rockshelter—are listed in the State Museum’s inventory (Sullivan et al. n.d.: 71-72). Some consolation may be drawn, however, from the fact that Schrabisch (1920: 38) considered the latter rockshelter to be “the most important” of the Shawangunk sites.  

point Since Schrabisch’s day, many of the rockshelters identified during his survey have come under the protection of either Minnewaska State Park or the Mohonk Preserve. Several of these sites have been revisited and reevaluated (Paul Huth: 2001, personal communication). Two—now known as the Mohonk Rockshelter and the Ski Minne Rockshelter—were professionally excavated. The latter, excavated in the 1980s by the late Leonard Eisenberg of SUNY-New Paltz, yielded approximately 90 stone tools (Historical Perspectives 1991: 14).  Eisenberg also excavated the former, first excavated in 1931 by Daniel Smiley, in the 1980s. Artifacts recovered here totaled 1,024 stone tools, 19,414 pieces of debitage, and 130 potsherds (Eisenberg 1991: 164). This site and its research implications are discussed below in more detail. For all the accusations of site destruction leveled at Schrabisch over the years, it is interesting to note that portions of these two sites remained sufficiently intact to warrant the attention of contemporary archaeologists.    

Our research indicates that excavations and finds by avocational archaeologists represent the only other known sites in the Shawangunks. Naturalist and historian Marc Fried (1981: 23-25) has published a brief account of excavations at Indian Cave Rockshelter located in Minnewaska State Park. The assemblage of artifacts found here are of Euro-American as well as Native American origin. Together they suggest that human beings have used this site continuously for several thousand years. Based upon his readings of 19th-century sources, Fried (1995: 37-39, 2000: personal communication) has developed a very intriguing theory regarding the Indian Cave rockshelter—a theory that may help archaeologists locate additional, as yet undiscovered, formerly occupied rockshelters. Indian Cave Rockshelter, he suggests, is located near the site of the former “Old Wawarsing Trail,” a footpath used intensively in the 20th century by huckleberry pickers but that his research indicates may be much older, having originally connected historic Euro-American and Native American settlements on either side of the mountain.  Providing access from the Wallkill Valley westwards across the ridge top to the Rondout Valley, the trail would have crossed the steep eastward facing escarpment at a break near Indian Cave, passed close by Lake Awosting, and continued on across the top of the ridge towards Napanoch Point and the Witch’s Hole area, where it was carried through a notch in the cliff line known as Jacob’s Ladder, finally terminating just outside of the Hamlet of Wawarsing. Assuming that travelers followed this route over the ridge for many centuries, we would expect to find additional rockshelters or open-air archaeological sites within corridors adjoining it on either side. 

Other known rockshelter sites include the Roosa Gap Rockshelter, located on the top of the Ridge near Wurtsboro, several miles southwest of the Preserve, and an unnamed rockshelter located in Cragsmoor, on lands belonging to the Cragsmoor Association  (Stanger 1999: personal communication). Roosa Gap was excavated by members of the Orange County Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association in the late 1960s. It contained artifacts dating to the Woodland Period (3000 to 400 B.P) and the Archaic Period (10,000 to 3000 B.P.) (Funk 1989:49-50). At the Cragsmoor rockshelter, V.P. (Pete) Stanger, an avocational archaeologist, recovered a stone tool that can be dated to 4000 to 3700 years  B.P., during the Late Archaic Period. Within the Preserve, Native American artifacts have been found at Indian Rock and along the shores of Lake Maratanza. At the latter location, Sally Matz, President of the Cragsmoor Historical Society, retrieved an Orient Fishtail Point that was embedded in the sand. This object was used as a spear point was most likely produced between 3000 and 3300 years ago. Its owner was probably a member of a group affiliated with what archaeologists call the Orient Phase—a transitional period of cultural development linking the region’s hunting and gathering pre-ceramic Late Archaic Period cultures to Early Woodland Period cultures. The Woodland cultures are generally characterized as more sedentary, and horticultural. It was during this period that clay vessels were first produced. Sites attributed to this culture have been found along the Atlantic coast in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Long Island, and in the Hudson Valley as far north as Catskill (Ritchie 1980: 173).

Several other Shawangunk rockshelters have been excavated and these collections, including at least one from within Sam’s Point Preserve and another from the Mohonk Preserve, are in the possession of various individuals and institutions, including local avocational archaeologists, the Dan Smiley Research Center and the New York State Museum. We hope to examine these in the near future.

The Mohonk Rockshelter and the Importance of High Elevation Archaeological Sites

Excavations conducted within the Mohonk Preserve suggest to us the possibility that less accessible ridge top areas at Sam’s Point Preserve may contain repositories of archaeological information that cannot be found in other settings. Although archaeologists have long been aware that areas like the Shawangunks contain prehistoric sites, it is only recently that they have recognized the importance of high elevation environments for understanding the development of prehistoric cultures in the eastern United States. Excavations in mountainous regions of West Virginia, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Missouri have led to the identification of sites associated with cultural traditions for which there has been a general lack of knowledge, including the Early Archaic  (ca. 10,000 – 8000 B.P.) and Middle Archaic Period (ca. 8000 – 6000 B.P.).  These discoveries suggest that the “apparent hiatus” in human occupation previously posited for this time period is a consequence not of prehistoric population densities but rather archaeological survey techniques that favor easily accessible lowland locations. Simply put, archaeologists have been looking for Archaic Period sites in the places least likely to contain them.  The lowland areas preferred by prehistoric peoples were located along coastlines and river valleys, many of which have been inundated or eroded by rising sea levels and are no longer available for excavation. Additionally, a large percentage of surviving lowland sites have been destroyed by modern development.

Faulty reconstructions of paleo-environmental contexts have also contributed to misinterpretations of prehistoric settlement patterns. In explaining how early human groups adapted to post-glacial ecological change, archaeologists tended to assume that inland conditions in the Northeast were

     “unfavorable for Indian occupancy until ca. 6000 B.C.when the coniferous forests had largely been replaced by deciduous forests with a higher carrying capacity for           game and,consequently, for hunting-gathering populations” (Funk 1976: 307).
This blanket characterization, however, is questioned by Eisenberg (1991) who suspects that during this period, high elevation areas such as the Shawangunk ridge tops were deglaciated earlier than surrounding lowlands—thus becoming the home of ecosystems that were especially attractive to human beings. Eisenberg (1991:175) observes that

    “[the Shawangunk ridgetops] probably would have had a rich biota, being one of the first areas open to colonization by returning vegetation and accompanying fauna.”

In recent years more advanced research technologies have become available, especially in the field of palynological studies (the analysis of fossilized pollen), enabling scientists to reconstruct past environments with a higher degree of accuracy. Such data exists for the Shawangunks in the form of sediment cores that contain pollen profiles extending back to 9000 B.P.  This information will provide a useful context for interpreting existing and future archaeological findings.  

Regardless of the environmental setting, occupation of the Shawangunks by a Middle Archaic Period culture has been indicated by Smiley's and Eisenberg's  excavations at the Mohonk Rockshelter, which yielded seventy-three Neville projectile points (a type which has been dated to 7000–7750 B.P.). This site also contained evidence of occupations dating to the earlier Paleoindian Period (ca. 11,500–10,000 B.P.) and Early Archaic Period (ca. 10,000–8000 B.P.).

Since Eisenberg’s excavation of the Mohonk Rockshelter, there has been no further professionally conducted research of Shawangunk Mountain prehistoric sites. The evidence for early occupation of the Shawangunks, however, together with other research conducted in the Hudson River Valley and the Catskills suggest a number of important research areas that may now be addressed. For example, recent research results from nearby Hudson River sites with Middle Archaic Period components—the Dogan Point Site in Westchester County (Claassen 1995) and the Goldkrest Site near Albany (Lavin et al. 1993)—have yielded extensive evidence of riverine resource exploitation. The discovery of these river valley sites, dating to the same period as the Shawangunk Mountain sites, underscores Eisenberg’s (1991) observation that early groups had more complex subsistence and settlement systems, extending over greater distances, than has been previously acknowledged. Based on the archaeology conducted to date, a picture of post-glacial lifeways is emerging based upon the seasonal exploitation of  "backcountry" as well as riverine resources (Diamond 1995; Lindner 1998). However, very little is known about such high elevation environments. Questions about these cultures and their relationship to the landscape will be answered only when archaeological and palynological evidence from these sites is obtained and studied.

As intriguing as the data from Middle Archaic occupations of  Shawangunk rockshelters may be, the presence of  Paleoindian and Early Archaic components is also of great significance. Because of environmental change and the destruction of many lowland sites due to modern development, sites dating to these early periods are relatively rare. Thus, sites located in undeveloped upland contexts, such as Sam’s Point Preserve, are especially important.

How Do We Protect Native American Archaeological Sites?

Virtually every archaeologist who has studied the Shawangunks, has concluded that the ridge is highly sensitive for the presence of Native American archaeological remains (Dunn Geoscience 1991; Eisenberg 1991; Historic Perspectives 1991; Schrabisch 1919, 1920, 1936a). Present and proposed land uses on the ridge, however, pose several potential threats to these remains. These include impacts associated with new construction, road/trail maintenance, landscaping, fire management, and expanded access into areas where there were formerly few visitors. The question has now become, how do we protect cultural resources as the Shawangunks attract greater and greater numbers of visitors?

As stated above, cultural resources under the control of the State of New York are regulated by the New York State Historic Preservation Act of 1980 (Chapter 354 of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law). Thus archaeological sites afforded some degree of protection include those located within Minnewaska State Park, immediately adjoining Sam’s Point Preserve, and other lands on the Shawangunk Ridge controlled by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Sadly, throughout the state the effectiveness of these laws is severely limited due to personnel shortages. Administrators at Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks, as well as at Minnewaska, report that over the past twenty years many of their archaeological sites have been disturbed by looters and vandalism, as well as by unscientific excavation. During a recent tour of Harriman State Park, archaeologists representing a New York City professional group were shown several important rockshelter sites where holes dug in the ground by looters were still visible.

At Sam’s Point Preserve, where the land is privately owned, there is even less of a mandate to protect archaeological sites. However, under the provisions of the State Environmental Quality Review Act, an environmental review that includes the consideration of cultural resources can be triggered in situations where state permits are required, or in which funds obtained from the state are used in construction projects. This occurred in 1983 when an archaeological survey of the Sam’s Point area was conducted as part of the environmental review for the proposed Genro Wind Energy Project (Dunn Geoscience Corporation 1983). It should be noted, though, that such reviews often produce less than satisfactory results. In the case of the Wind Energy Project survey, the archaeologists were allotted only three days to field test the 2000-acre project area even though the tract had been previously determined “sensitive in regard to prehistoric remains” (Dunn Geoscience 1983: 3). Predictably, the 21 shovel tests dug by the crew yielded no evidence of Native American occupation. The final report concluded that the time given to the archaeologists to perform the survey was “insufficient” and recommended “further archaeological investigations should be conducted” (Dunn Geoscience 1983: 4). Because the wind farm project was never initiated, the additional investigations did not occur.

Recognizing their responsibilities as stewards of the land, the Open Space Institute and the Nature Conservancy have incorporated the protection of cultural resources into Sam’s Point Preserve’s management plan. The plan outlines measures to be followed so that impacts will be minimized or avoided. An important first step towards protection is to identify where such sites might be located so that the Preserve staff and volunteers can plan accordingly. Unfortunately, as discussed above, the only archaeological survey that has been ever conducted within Sam’s Point Preserve was too limited in scope to provide such data. As archaeologists often do when no excavations have been conducted, we have delineated several locations that we consider sensitive based upon our observations of the Preserve’s terrain as well as upon what we know from previous archaeological surveys involving rockshelter sites. Our sources for developing a preliminary model predicting the distribution of potential rockshelter sites within Sam’s Point Preserve include a study of 5 caves and 18 rockshelters located in eastern New York State and Vermont  (Funk 1989), as well as a study of seven rockshelters in the vicinity of the Ashokan Reservoir (Lindner 1998). Aside from the most obvious factor—the presence of a prominent rock overhang —several attributes were found to be reliable indicators of whether or not a rockshelter contained evidence of human occupation.

Many of the formerly occupied rockshelters analyzed in Funk’s (1989: 87) study were situated close (i.e. less than 600 feet) to streams, springs, wetlands, or lakes. Those located at a greater distance may have been exploiting water sources that had become extinct or that were overlooked by the archaeologists. At Sam’s Point Preserve we are fortunate to have access to a late 19th–century map (Smiley 1899) that notes spring locations and other landscape features that may have changed over the years. It allows us to include areas that we might have otherwise omitted if we didn’t know the local landscape history.

Another variable to consider is aspect (i.e. north, south, east, or west) indicating relationship to prevailing winds and the warmth of the sun. Commonsense suggests that north- and west-facing rockshelters would be less desirable. Funk (1989: 87) analyzed 39 rockshelters and concluded that indeed only a small number faced north although “west-facing shelters were occupied as frequently as east- or south-facing shelters.” 

The character of the adjoining terrain is an additional variable considered by Funk. Again, his analysis confirms commonsense expectations that certain locations are just “too much trouble” (Funk 1989: 87). Thus overhangs atop excessively steep slopes or very rough talus slopes can be ruled out because access was just too difficult. Another, but more elusive variable, is proximity to known prehistoric travel routes. Thus, as discussed above, we characterize as sensitive corridors along either side of the proposed route of “the Old Wawarsing Trail.”

Finally, the internal characteristics of any given rockshelter can be used to predict whether or not it was used by Native Americans. Funk (1989: 87) found that almost all of the formerly occupied rockshelters had dry floors that were level or gently sloping. Because rockshelters were sought by single hunters as well as large extended families, the occupied rockshelters studied by Funk (1989: 87) were found to range in size from approximately 18-square feet to 300-square feet.    

During preliminary field investigations of the Preserve, we observed a series of landscape features that might have been attractive locations for Native Americans seeking shelter. Among these are several mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this article including the Verkeerderkill drainage, Indian Rock, the area adjoining the High Point Tower, the escarpments that extend northwest and northeast from Sam’s Point (including the Sam’s Point ice caves), Lake Maratanza, North Gully, South Gully, Shingle Gully, the Ellenville Ice Caves, and the Witch’s Hole (Louis Ravine). Some of these areas contain specific rock overhangs with attributes similar to those described in the two rockshelter studies cited above. These overhangs would thus be considered highly sensitive. There are doubtless many more in addition to what we observed in our limited explorations. These deserve further study. Ultimately we hope to see rockshelters determined moderately to highly sensitive for Native American archaeological remains mapped, inventoried, and accorded the same status as the many natural resources now protected by the Preserve.  


To Daniel Smiley, the ridge was a “sky island.” He chose this metaphor to express the uniqueness as well as the cohesiveness of the ecosystem. The term also carries with it a suggestion of vulnerability—the sense that the Shawangunks stand alone, surrounded by an increasingly urbanized landscape (Burgess 1996: 46-52). Just as the natural resources of Sam’s Point Preserve are part of this larger entity, so too are the sites and structures described above part of a singular cultural history that encompasses the entire ridge.


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Fagan, Jack
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Fried, Marc
1981    Tales from the Shawangunk Mountains: A Naturalist’s Musings, A Bushwacker’s Guide. Adirondack Mountain Club, Inc.
1995    The Huckleberry Pickers: A Raucous History of the Shawangunk Mountains. Black Dome Press. Hendersonville, New York.
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Historical Perspectives, Inc.
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Larsen, Robert and Jack Fagan (illustrator)
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Lavin, Lucianne, Marina E. Mazzi, J.M.Bouchard, and Karen Hartgen
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Lindner, Christopher R.
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New York State Museum
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Ritchie, William A.
1980     The Archaeology of New York State. Revised Edition. Harbor Hill Books. Harrison, New York.

Schrabisch, Max
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1920    Indian Rock-Shelters in the Shawangunk Mountains. The Historic Wallkill and Hudson River Valleys, Volume A.D. 1920. Wallkill Valley Publishing Association. Walden.
1936a    Archaeology of Southern New York. Unpublished manuscript on file, New York State Archives. Albany. 
1936b    Letter to Charles C. Adams, Director New York State Museum. Schrabisch File, New York State Archives. Albany. 

Smiley, Edward
1899    Map of the Central Part of the Shawangunk  Mountains.

Snyder, Bradley and Karl Beard
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Sullivan, Lynn, Edward V. Curtin, Lisa M. Anderson, Peggy Ann Perella, and Stuart Mendleson
n.d.    A Guide to the Archaeological Collections of the New York State Museum. New York State Museum Circular 53. The New York State Museum, Division of Research and Collections. Albany.   

Walthall, John A.
1998    Rockshelters and Hunter-Gatherer Adaptation to the Pleistocene/Holocene Transition. American Antiquity 63(2): 223-238.

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