Next year marks the 250th anniversary of a Montgomery landmark. The Colden mansion, along with its surrounding land, was originally the home of Cadwallader Colden, Jr., his wife Elizabeth Ellison, and their large family. The stone structure, remnants of which are still visible on Route 17K, dates to 1767. A stone from the house, which had been inscribed with the date, can now be seen on the grounds of the Town Hall.
Cadwallader Colden by Matthew_Pratt 1772
Cadwallader Colden, Sr., received the original patent for the land in 1719. He began clearing and building on the land, and later settled his family there, having found living in New York City too expensive for a growing family. He named his home Coldengham or Coldenham.
In 1720 he would be appointed to the New York provincial council which required him to spend at least part of the year in the city. In 1744 he deeded a portion of his Coldenham land to his son, Cadwallader Colden, Jr., with the understanding that the son pay the annual quit rent to the King of 2 shillings and 6 pence per 100 acres, as stipulated in the original patent. That was also the year Cadwallader, Jr., married Elizabeth Ellison of New Windsor.
Cadwallader and Elizabeth’s first home together was located on this portion of land. It is thought that this early home later served as the summer kitchen whose stone foundation can still be seen near the ruins of the mansion. Around 1760, when Colden, Sr., began serving as lieutenant governor and acting governor of the province (until 1775), his obligations required him to live closer to New York City year-round; he transferred the remainder of his Coldenham land to his son, totaling 3000 acres. Within a few years the stone mansion was constructed.
In 1796, looking back on his life, Cadwallader, Jr., wrote to a cousin in Scotland, bringing him up to date on a branch of the family he had never met and their home in Coldenham:
My father being much from home on public business, I was left almost entirely to my mother for instruction and education (there being no such thing as a school)…In the year 1760 my father was called upon to fill that office [Lieutenant Governor]…leaving me in possession of his estate here…
I have lived in this woody country from seven years of age, always more fond of working in the field than of literature. My father gave me five hundred acres of woodland, adjoining his farm on which I felled the first tree, and took out the first stub with my own hands. It was then a perfect wilderness through which one could not see the sunshine. —
After clearing a little land, commencing a barn and house, I thought it was proper to look for a housekeeper; and, before my house was finished, I had got one in the neighborhood, for I could not spare time to go far, and if I had I should not have fared better — she making as good a wife as if she had been brought up by my own mother… We have now lived together above fifty years, and, I believe, no fifty years were spent happier by any one pair. While I am writing, she is as busy at her needle as if just beginning the world and looks almost as young, although the mother of twelve children — six only of whom are living — three dying infants and three grown up…
Cadwallader was a dedicated farmer, experimenting with different crops and keeping careful records. Recalling him in later years, his neighbors “spoke in warm praise of his character for the honest uprightness that governed him in all his business transactions.” He was devoted to his family, making their well-being and happiness his top priority. He was often called upon for advice and provided a home to extended family members who had lost loved ones or any means of support.
Over the years, the mansion was frequently a gathering place for family and friends. Among many others, Washington Irving was a known visitor. Perhaps it was here that he met his future fiancée, Matilda Hoffman, a great-granddaughter of Gov. Colden and grand-niece of Cadwallader, Jr: tragically, she died of tuberculosis at the young age of 17. Irving never married. According to a family story, he carried a miniature portrait of her with him until his death 50 years later in 1859.
Another grand-niece, Mrs. Alice Colden (Willet) Wadsworth, who was born around 1787, reminisced about the closeness of the family:
I must not omit to mention a custom of the Colden family for many years—Every New Year’s eve, they met at the family mansion house (occupied at that time by the parents [Cadwallader, Jr. and Elizabeth Colden]) – grandchildren—nephews—nieces & cousins—in short, all the descendants who resided there, assembled to pass the evening together in love & harmony. A long table was set & sumptuously filled, & tastefully arranged, at which they generally sat down at 11 o’clock. The meal ended & the hour of 12 just completed, the eldest son arose, & going to the head of the table & then to the foot, wished his parents, many returns of the New Year. This was followed by all present. After the death of her husband, the venerable old lady continued the custom…
And the house even had its resident ghost, as recalled by another family member, Sarah S. Murray, in her description of visits to the house. Sarah was born around 1832:
Our summers, or a portion of them, were spent at Coldenham, taking the Mary Powell to Newburg[h]— there was then no other communication — and then the drive of seven miles, generally arriving at the “Mansion House” long after dark…
The house was a massive stone building, set quite too closely to the broad, dusty turnpike. A century ago there were but few travelers on the lonely road and such relieved rather than disturbed the monotony of the home life. There was a small, roofed porch in front, upon which always stood two extremely quaint chairs.
The old-fashioned divided door with its big brass knocker introduced you to a heavily wainscoted entrance, which again opened upon a great hall… the late supper, and the dance prolonged till after midnight, perhaps intruded upon by the phantom lady, who once every year at that spectral hour, tradition asserts, issued forth “from her chamber, clothed in white,” and gliding through the house, vanished as mysteriously as she came. What was the history of the ghostly lady, or why… I know not. A small corner room on the upper floor was held sacred to her presence, and in the history of the house was always known as the “white room.”
A sizable portion of the woodwork from the first-floor west parlor is now on display as part of a furnished colonial room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other pieces are stored in the Montgomery Town Hall.
In 1861, after several generations had lived there, the mansion and the remainder of its attached land were sold out of the family. Its role as a home continued well into the 20th century, falling victim to the elements only when there was disagreement over its future by its then-owners and its upkeep was neglected.
The mansion and its setting, now the property of the Town of Montgomery, are being developed into a park. An annual open house is held on the grounds in April; a prelude to the future when we will be able to walk in the paths of previous generations of the Colden family and their guests. Imagine the home and grounds as it once was, full of people who, like us, laughed and loved and lived and died; who cared about their home and family and strove to provide a warm welcome to all those entered through their door.
*This is a guest post by Juliann Hansen. She is a Colden descendant.
Cadwallader Colden, Jr., letter to a cousin (1796), as transcribed in Samuel Watkins Eager, An Outline History of Orange County (1847), p. 245f.
Edwin R. Purple, Genealogical Notes of the Colden Family in America (1873). https://archive.org/details/genealogicalnote1873purp
Sarah S. Murray, In the Olden Time: A Short History of the Descendants of John Murray, the Good (1894). https://books.google.com/books?id=wfk4AAAAMAAJ&
Sarah (b. ca. 1832) describes her visits to the mansion from the time of her childhood,