A large house with Federal style details situated on a "bluff overlooking the Hudson River, Wildercliff was constructed in 1T99. Wildercliff was the home of the Reverend Freeborn Garrettson (1752-1827), an early circuit riding Methodist minister, and his wife, Catherine, a daughter of Judge Robert and Margaret Beekman Livingston of the estate, Clermont, Wildercliff is one of twenty-one contiguous estates along the east "bank of the Hudson River "between Staatsbury and Tivoli, New York.
Freeborn Garrettson was born on August 19, 1752, near the mouth of the Susquehanna River at Perryman, Maryland. He was raised as a member of the Church of England. A visit by the itinerant preacher, Robert Strawbridge, encouraged Garrettson's conversion to Methodism in 1775. The Rev. Garrettson was admitted on trial to the Methodist conference at Baltimore and served circuits in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. During the Revolutionary War, Garrettson suffered imprisonment and physical violence because he refused to take oath to bear arms. In 1788 Garrettson was appointed presiding elder of the region stretching from Westchester, New York, north along the Hudson River to the Canadian border and westward along the Mohawk. It was a key assignment that began twelve circuits within two years and thus helped to open the trail west.
While on this preaching circuit, Rev. Garrettson met Catherine Livingston, sixth child of Judge Robert and Margaret Beekman Livingston. Born in 1752, Catherine was the only remaining unmarried daughter. Family legend says that one day Catherine Livingston stood at the window at Clermont and announced that she was going to marry the next man that came up the river. The next man was reported to be Freeborn Garrettson.
Following an intense conversion experience to what was considered a radical religious sect in 1787, Catherine "became a devout Methodist. She withdrew from the active social life at Clermont. In a letter to Mrs. Janet Montgomery, Catherine described her alienation from her mother and family: "You know and I feel that since I had known the Lord which is four years last October I had continual sorrow from without and from within. I have been cast from my mother's affections and house, and had now no other home that such I derive from the bounty of a kind sister on whom I had been thrown."
Catherine Livingston was forced to leave Clermont to live with her sister, Margaret Livingston Tillotson. Her husband. Dr. Thomas Tillotson, was a native of Maryland who served as Surgeon General of Washington's army. It was through Tillotson's invitation that Freeborn Garrettson came to Rhinebeck and met Catherine. Their first meeting was later described by Mrs. Garrettson in her Autobiography: "Plenty was little known at Rhinebeck where I chiefly resided. However it was not long before some Methodist clergymen with Mr. G came up by invitation to Mr. Tillotson at whose house I then resided. They left us and went on to form new circuits north and east. On this day I was told in prayer that this person would be my husband."
A long courtship ensued, initially with every opposition from Margaret Beekman Livingston. In 1791 Catherine was forbidden to receive Freeborn's visits. Finally in 1792, Catherine wrote to Freeborn to advise him that matters had improved: "I had a letter from Mrs. Tillotson a few days ago. She says if I saw any hopes of success my utmost exertions should be made in your favor. Mrs. Lewis also tells me tis her opinion and that of some more of the family that my wishes should be opposed no longer."
On June 30, 1793, Catherine Livingston was married to Rev. Garrettson at the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Rhinebeck in a ceremony performed by Rev. Peter Moriarty. Their first home "was a very humble one, well suited to their narrow income. Their experience during the first six years of married life was more in unison with that of their brethen than has generally been supposed." Nathan Bangs, Garrettson's first biographer, also stated: "From the time of Mr. Garrettson's marriage in 1793 until 1809, I find no regular account of his travels and labors." No letters from this period are preserved in the Garrettson Collection at Drew University. Therefore, it appears that Rev. Garrettson remained for the most part in Rhinebeck, while serving as presiding elder of the New York, New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia circuits.
In 1799 Garrettson began to build a house on the Hudson. Catherine's siblings received riverfront portions of the former Beekman patent, inherited by Margaret Beekman Livingston and passed on to her children. Rev. Garrettson, however, purchased Wildercliffs land from John Von Wagenen. The land had "been part of the Kipshergen patent. The new house was called "Traveller's Rest" by Bishop Ashury because there was always a room reserved for itinerant preachers. Later the house became Wildercliff, named for a stone with Indian markings found in a nearby cove.
Reverend Garrettson died in 1827 at the house of his friend George Suckley in New York City. Catherine Garrettson remained at Wildercliff until her death in 1849.
Their daughter, Mary Rutherford Garrettson (1794-1879), maintained Wildercliff as a center of Methodist activity until her death. Abel Stevens in The Women of Methodism described an interior filled with antique furniture, a fine library, and numerous portraits of the Livingston family.