More than a year before our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, a ragtag group of farmers, merchants, and tradesmen from Coxsackie unanimously declared their own “independence” from the tyranny of British rule and endless taxes. Read all about it in a document popularly known as the Coxsackie Declaration of Independence (properly called the Coxsackie Association of 1775).
“It was not a breaking-free. They were basically complaining and saying, ‘We won’t stand for this. Let us 13 colonies have rights. We have no voice, you simply impose taxes on us,’ ” says Harvey Durham, coauthor with Raymond Beecher of Around Greene County and the Catskills (Arcadia Publishing). Although other communities probably produced similar documents, the so-called Coxsackie Declaration of Independence is the only one known to have survived to the present day.
Even after 234 years, revolutionary fever still heats up the declaration’s language. The Boston Massacre had taken place five years before, a horrific event in which five civilians were killed by British troops. Just a month previous, the bloody battles of Lexington and Concord resulted in the first shots of the American Revolutionary war.
Coxsackie residents were keenly aware of these events — and say so in their declaration. They proclaim that they are “shocked by the bloody scene acting in the Massachusetts Bay.” Anti-British sentiment simmers in a reference to “several arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament.” And then, the clincher: “Until a reconciliation between Great Britain and America… we will… follow the advice of our general committee…” It didn’t take too long for that advice to become crystal clear, and for Americans to be “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown,” to quote the more famous declaration.
“It’s one of our most important documents and often visited by history scholars,” says Tammis Groft, deputy director for collections, exhibitions, and the library at the Albany Institute of History and Art, where the original parchment is stored under lock and key (it can be viewed by appointment).
Curiously, the document was only discovered in 1923 in an Albany attic. The Greene County Historical Society was formed in 1929; had it surfaced just six years later, the declaration would have belonged to the society. Having such a significant document in the society’s possession would have been a real coup, says President Bob Halloch. Still, the society does have its own version on display at the 1663 Bronck House (upstate New York’s oldest Dutch home).
Photograph courtesy of Bronck Museum
Just a year before the Dutch lost control of New Netherlands to the English, Pieter Bronck — of the family that lends its name to the Bronx — relocated here after a stint in Albany as a fur trader, brewer, and bar owner (there had been some disagreement with the local authorities about selling alcohol on Sundays). More than a century later, prerevolutionary meetings were common at the house that Pieter Bronck built. In fact, among the first Coxsackie Association signees were descendants John L. Bronck and his son, Leonard Bronck, both active patriots.
It was no small feat to round up some 225 signatures from sparsely populated 18th-century Coxsackie. But the Rev. Johannes Schuneman, the first signer, was up to the task. A familiar sight riding through the countryside on horseback with his rifle, this minister of the Dutch Reformed Church was infamous for his sermons (given in thunderous Dutch) railing against sin and Tories. There can be little doubt that Schuneman persuaded his congregation to add their names to the declaration. Scattered among the signatures are marks for people who could not read or write — or could they? “Some of the people who signed with Xs might have known how to write, but deliberately did not use their names,” says Halloch.
Think of all that was at stake. If, when the Revolutionary dust settled, you were on the wrong side, you could pretty much kiss your property good-bye. Which makes it even more remarkable that such prominent landowners as the Broncks added their names.
“Here’s a family — well-respected, well-connected, well-to-do landowners — and they’re risking everything,” says Halloch. “But they went ahead and did it anyway, and convinced others to sign. That’s pretty courageous.”