American Indians once battled Craryville farmer in court

CRARYVILLE–JAMES BUCHANAN WAS PRESIDENT when Jesse Wybrow, three other men and three women set out, most likely on horseback, from their homes in Northeast Wisconsin that winter day in 1859. Although their destination was Bain’s Corners (now known as Craryville) in Columbia County, on reaching the Albany area, they stayed there for a number of weeks before moving on. Perhaps it was the cold weather that influenced that decision.

In April, the group finally reached Bain’s Corners, where they headed for 33-year-old Norman Niver’s 200-acre farm, which bordered present day Route 23, just west of Craryville. A tenant had just left the farm and the Wisconsin group settled down in the newly vacated house and made it known that they were claiming ownership of the farm. Their arrival must have shocked Niver something awful. Just three years previously, he and his four children had lost his wife, Catherine Lampman Niver. And now this.

18 16news Blue Niver house

The early 19th century Niver farmhouse still stands along Route 23 in Craryville near the Niver Cemetery. Just before the Civil War a small group of American Indians occupied a vacant tenant farmer’s house on the farm and sought to reestablish their ancestral claim to the land. Photo by Howard Blue

Who were these people seemingly out of nowhere with their bold claim? The answer was that they were Stockbridge/Munsee Indians. They, or at least their forebears, perhaps even their parents, had originally lived in the Copake area. Subsequently, because of the overwhelming power of the relatively recent European immigrants to the Roe Jan/western Massachusetts area, the Indians had migrated first to Stockbridge, MA, then to farther upstate New York and then to Wisconsin. But judging at least from the actions of the group on Niver’s farm, the loss of their lands in New York State had festered with them.

Niver had lived on the farm since the age of nine, when his parents had bought it and brought him and his seven siblings to live there. So he initiated court proceedings in Hudson. Some weeks later, in a courtroom presided over by Judge named Peck, Niver’s attorney presented arguments to a jury that the intruders, as they were labeled, were guilty of forcible entry and detainer. In response, a man bearing the name Headcock, representing the Wisconsin squatters, claimed that their original titles to 600,000 acres in Columbia County had never been extinguished.

Headcock’s argument was based on a well documented claim that Robert Livingston, the de facto feudal lord who was the first to claim ownership of the area now known as Copake (as well as substantial lands nearby), never actually legally owned the lands of Craryville and other parts of Copake. Historical records show that in 1715 the colonial governor of New York granted Livingston a patent which gave him the right to purchase land in the Hudson Valley. However the land in question was divided into large parcels near the Hudson River and east of the Copake area, but did not include the Copake area. Yet Livingston nevertheless treated the intervening 157,000 acres as part of the patent and he apparently never purchased the Copake lands from their Indian owners.

The trial ended with the jury’s decision that that the Indians had forcibly withheld the premises from Niver and that he was entitled to possession of it. Strangely, the question of title was not permitted to be brought up at the trial. The court dealt only with the question of possession. Thus the essential question of who legally owned the land was brushed aside.

Subsequently, the Indians moved to a house south of Copake Lake on land owned by a Mr. Schultis, where there they made baskets and sold them to locals. Records do not show how long they stayed in the area. Presumably, they eventually returned to Wisconsin.

There the story ends. But there’s a postscript. News articles of the time mention (without explanation) that the leader of Wybrow’s group was named Levi Konkapot. A Google search of his name revealed that in 2012 Jo Ann Schedler, a Tribal Council member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation in Bowler, WI, visited Konkapot’s grave in Virginia. Konkapot her lateral ancestor, had died as a Union soldier under the command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on the second day of the last Battle of Petersburg, VA, in April 1865.

In a phone conversation with me, Ms. Schedler related that in 1857 Konkapot had studied at Oberlin College, which was known for its racial tolerance and its opposition to slavery, a controversial stance in that pre-Civil War era. And then, sadly, came his end in battle. As a group, American Indians have had a higher percentage of their population participate in America’s wars than any other group. Generally, however, they have not fared well in court struggles.

To contact Howard Blue, a historian in Copake who maintains the Copake History Facebook page, email . Mr. Blue thanks Warren Broderick for two old newspaper articles about the occupation of the Niver farm.

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