Recognizing an Altered Landscape; Memories from an Archaeological Investigation at Trapps Gap

By Chloe McGuire

If you ever find yourself in the position to visit the Shawangunk (pronounced: SHOM-GUN) Mountains running through upstate New York, about 12 miles from the Hudson River and 100 miles outside New York City, you absolutely must visit the scenic Trapps Gap (see Figure #1).

Figure #1: Map of Northern Shawangunks, Trapp’s Gap is denoted by red triangle. Image taken from (Snyder 1981: 4).

Figure #1: Map of Northern Shawangunks, Trapp’s Gap is denoted by red triangle. Image taken from (Snyder 1981: 4).

Although today you will recognize the gap by the hoards of rock climbers or the exaggerated horse-shoe turn that lies just before the mountain range’s summit on Highway 44/55, this seemingly inconspicuous landscape has been in use long before today’s adventure seekers knew of its glory; from the initial Esopus Native Americans within the Neolithic to homestead settlers in the years after European colonization, this beautiful slice of the American landscape has a dense history deeply emblematic of greater United States history (Kiviat 1991).

Two summers ago in 2011, I was fortunate to work with Vassar College Anthropology Professor Lucy Johnson on a 10-week archaeological excavation of a dual-component site within miles of Trapps Gap. Our original research questions guiding the excavation sought to further understand the nature of pre-historic Native American rock shelters in the area, but due to previous surveys of the area at large, as well as excavations by New York State and Cornell University in the 1960s and 1970s, few Native American artifacts were initially recovered and we were forced to reconsider the focus of our project. Fortunately for us, almost immediately, we came upon the homestead foundation of Calvin Burger, the son of Benjamin and Helena Burger, one of the three original homesteaders families to settle the area (Smith 1965: 205). During Calvin’s lifetime, and within decades of this original wave of settlers, the community–called ‘the Trapps’ due to its location next to Trapps Gap–peaked in 1880 with about 50 homesteads, a school, store, tavern, mill and chapel.

During the next 9-weeks, our project began to more holistically consider homestead life in the Trapps, both before and after the construction of the Smiley’s famous Mohonk Mountain House in 1869, looking specifically at how this rural mountain community was able to survive and flourish throughout the social and economic tensions of the 1800s till today. Life in the Trapps was by no means easy, and these original homesteads survived off a combination of subsistence farming and “cash-generating” activities. From making barrel hoops during the pre-Civil War era to distilling alcohol during Prohibition, the life of these people was dependent on the social and economic fluctuations of New York City and the rise of urbanizing America (see Figure #2).

APPENDIX A: Figure #2: Chronology of the economic activities of the Shawangunks (Kiviat 1991: 11).

Figure #2: Chronology of the economic activities of the Shawangunks (Kiviat 1991: 11).

Below I speculate on how life for the Burger’s as generational members of the Trapps community functioned within these ever-changing economies, focusing primarily on the Benjamin and Helena Burger and their son Calvin.

Perhaps the first great economic boom that altered the Trapps the need for raw materials to support this new growth. This drive for lumber led to intensive woodcutting throughout the Shawangunks, and subsequently cleared enormous swaths of first growth forests, that in the decades following, would evolve into pasture and agricultural lands on both a subsistence and commercial scale (Kiviat 1991: 22). Although the area can first be detected in the historical records of 1677 as “Table Rock” in the original Paltz Patent–a legal document granted by Edmund Andros, Colonial Governor of the English province of New York, giving 40,000 acres to Louis DuBois and his 11 Huguenot associates–the first physical evidence of landscape alteration was not performed by the Huguenots that clustered in the valley (in the present day town of New Paltz), but rather by the following wave of more rural settlers, including Benjamin and Helena Burger, that dared for the mountains and all of the resources it had to offer (Partington 1911: 5).

If you find yourself wandering through the Shawangunks, or really anywhere throughout the Northeast landscape of colonial America, you may notice the miles of resilient rock-pile walls in various stages of deterioration compartmentalizing the natural landscape. When you next stumble upon one of these walls, a good rule of thumb used by archaeologists when considering an altered landscape’s past use, is that if the rocks composing the wall are on the smaller side, the land had most likely been used for agriculture for the farmers had to completely clear the soil so as not to damage their farm equipment; whereas if these rocks are bigger, the land was probably then used as pasture for livestock where these smaller rocks were irrelevant. Although this may be common knowledge in some circles (i.e. the Indiana Jones type that like digging in the dirt), to the untrained eye these historical features may go unnoticed.

The history of the Trapps cannot be understood from an archaeological perspective alone though; for although such research sheds light on the material conditions of these early homesteaders in the wake of New York City’s rapid urbanization, old folklore from the region tell a rather different story. According to one of such local legends, when Benjamin and Helena Burger were initially settling the area, every night they had to construct fires to ward off the wild animals (Phillip 1965: 201). In another tale of the Burgers and Trapps wildlife, Helena accidentally stumbled upon a rattlesnake nest one day while berry picking in a nearby-by rock outcrop and barely escaped with her life. Perhaps these tales are a bit romantic and far-fetched as a product of time, or perhaps they were created as such by the Burger’s to dissuade following generations of youngster from climbing those enticing rock jungle-gyms. That is only speculation of course.

When considering the natural landscape of the Gunks, these rocky outcrops would come to gather a much different connotation in the years to come, for beginning in the 18th- century, and reaching its peaks in the century following, Shawangunk conglomerate became known as the most durable conglomerate found within the young country and thus became extensively quarried for building stones and millstones (Stradling 2007). In fact, during the 19th-century, the majority of all United States millstones were cut within a 50 mile radius of the Trapps, thus further altering the landscape much more permanently than all pervious deforesting (see figure #3 below). Although there has been no evidence either archaeologically, or within the historic records, that suggests the Burger family ever entered in the millstone market commercially, probably for both fiscal and environmental reasons (the Burger property does not have a constant source of running water that would be needed with such an endeavor), examples have been found in the archaeological record throughout the Shawangunks.

Figure #3: I!ustration of mi!stone quarrying (Kiviat 1991: 15)

Figure #3: Illustration of millstone quarrying (Kiviat 1991: 15)

Between 1820-1900, during the purchase of Mohonk by the Smiley Brothers after the Civil War in 1869, homestead population was to reach it’s peak with about 50 family units, and the accompanying community infrastructure–from a tavern, mill, and schoolhouse, although small, the community was high functioning (Evers 1995). Through the late 1800s, the Industrial Age and up through the Great Depression, the economy of the Trapps was dictated by the demands of industrializing New York City chronologically as follows: quarrying, charcoal-making, tanbark peeling (Hemlock trees), barrel hoop production,blueberry and huckleberry harvesting, and lastly, tourism with the birth of the idealized natural American landscape and the Mountain House (Stradling 2007).

Unfortunately, in the years following the Great Depression, both the Trapps as a community, and the Burger’s original property specifically, was significantly altered the emergence of the automobile industry, and the accompanying tourism that followed in its wake. I did have the resources to track down exactly when the last of the Burger family sold their property, but with the construction of Highway 44/55, a gas station was built sometime in the 1950s directly on top of the original foundation of Calvin Burger’s house. Thereby, no archaeological excavation ensued.* There are still many signs throughout the Trapps of these original homesteaders, however. For although the second growth forests have filled in the landscape and the rock walls are crumbling, a landscape that to the average tourist may look seemingly natural. If you find yourself in these parts however, you will be the wiser and understand this landscape as a product of United States history, forever altered as New York City became the international metropolises that it is today.


*This location was deduced during Professor Johnson’s 9-week excavation of the old Burger property, now apart of the Minnewaska State Park. Although the original Calvin Burger house site was destroyed, surveys of the area yielded various other structures, including a shed and perhaps a secondary house for Rachel Burger– Calvin’s wife (CIITE)


Evers, Alf. In Catski! Country: Co!ected Essays on Mountain H istory, Life and Lore. Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1995.

Kiviat, Erik. The N orthern Shawangunks: An Ecological Survey. New Paltz: Mohonk Preserve Inc., 1991.

Partington, Frederick. The S tory of Mohonk. Annadale: Turnpike Press, 1911 (1932, 1964). Smith, Phillip. L egends of the S hawangunk (S hon-Gum) and its Environs. Syracuse: University Press, 1965.

Snyder, Bradley. The Shawangunk Mountains: A H istory of N ature and Man. New Paltz: Mohonk Preserve, Inc., 1981.

Stradling, David. Making Mountains: N ew York City and the Catski!s. University of Washington Press, 2007.

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