The oldest oyster shell middens on the North Atlantic Coast uncovered by archeologists on Croton Point confirm that the peninsula was inhabited by Native Americans as early as 7,000 years ago. Croton is, in fact, named for the Indian sachem, Kenoten, which means "wild wind.” In the 17th century, Indians of the Kitchawank tribe on the Wappinger Confederacy occupied a large fortified village on the high flat at the neck of Croton Point, which they called Navish. This was one of the most ancient and formidable Indian fortresses south of the Hudson Highlands. A marsh known by the Indians as “Senasqua” separates the Point from Croton Neck, and a plaque marks the spot where a peace treaty was signed with the Kitchawank tribe.
Cornelius Van Bursum was the first to purchase Croton Point from the Indians in 1682. A few years later William and Sara Teller were given permission to live on the point and operate an Indian trading post. In the 18th century the area came to be known as Teller’s Point. Soon after, Stephanus Van Cortlandt incorporated the property into his Cortlandt Manor. By the end of the 18th century the Tellers, who married into the Van Cortlandt family, were in full possession of Croton Point. The Van Cortlandt Manor House still stands on the Croton River east of Croton Point Park.
Revolutionary War Period
It is not surprising that this prominent site played a role in the American War for Independence. Although several military actions took place here, many involving invasions by the British, the most notorious was connected with the attempted betrayal of West Point by Benedict Arnold and the capture of his British confederate, Major John Andre. Andre had conspired to meet with Arnold on board the British frigate, Vulture, which had anchored off the western end of Teller’s Point in September of 1780. Fearing for his safety, Arnold sent word for Andre to meet him on the western shore of the Hudson River at Haverstraw. While they were meeting on the opposite side of the river, American militiamen on Verplanck’s Point fired upon the Vulture with a small cannon, forcing her to move downstream. Major Andre, separated from his means of escape, crossed the river at King’s Crossing, Verplanck, clad in an American uniform and carrying a pass stating he was on official business for General Arnold. He was captured in Tarrytown and subsequently hung as a spy. The cannon that fired upon the Vulture is on display at the Peekskill Museum.
Croton Point in the 19th century was to a great extent characterized by commercial development. In 1804, Robert T. Underhill bought the point from Elijah Morgan, Jr. and Robert McCord, both of whom had married Teller women. Underhill himself was descended from Captain John Underhill, who led the troops that massacred the Westchester Indians in Bedford in 1644. He produced Newtown Pippin apples for foreign export and castor bean plants for castor oil. When the blockade of the War of 1812 cut New York City off from the south, he produced watermelons for its populace. Upon Robert’s death, his sons divided the land. Richard acquired an 85-acre tract in the southern portion, and William obtained 165 acres in the north.
Richard, who produced a hybrid grape that was resistant to disease, became famous for the cultivation of grapes and the production of wine. The Underhill vineyards attained a worldwide reputation and Croton Point wines were reportedly featured on old Astor House menus. The Underhill wine vaults are still intact midway down the southern portion of Croton Point and built into the slope on the eastern side. William’s main occupation was brickmaking. With the help of his brother-in-law, Richard Tallcot, he was able to use revolutionary steam-powered machinery to make “Croton Fonts.” At the height of their business, the Underhills operated two extremely productive brickyards and employed several hundred men. A small community evolved for the families of the employees that included a school, a store, a tavern and a boarding house for seasonal workers. A number of these structures still stand today.
Shad fishing was also a very profitable activity around Croton Point at this time. In 1848 it was noted that 2,154 shad and 7,000 herring had been taken from the surrounding waters. A rich lore of Croton Point fishermen’s tales and ghost stories have been preserved in the “Crawbucky Tales” recorded by Ossining newspaperman, Frank Pierson.
Organized recreational use of Croton Point began about 1900 when Judge Decker of Croton leased the beach area and began the Croton Point Club. Summer bungalows were built and in 1923 the “Croton Point Park” was open featuring dancing, swimming, and other amusements. On July 2, 1923 the Westchester Board of Supervisors purchased the park and opened a limited area to the public. They replaced a group of shacks known as “tent city” with baseball fields, and the dance hall with a camp for children on the plateau overlooking the Hudson River at Squaw Cove. During the 1930s an emergency airplane landing strip with a 214-foot runway was built in the ball field area.