The Wallkill River area is said to have been known by the Native Americans as "Twischsawkin," meaning the land where plums abound. Many prehistoric resources are found in the area, including at least three Indian rock shelters. The Wallkill Valley was an important source of flint and chert for the aboriginal inhabitants, who used these stones to fashion their projectile points. Thus, it appears that the Native Americans not only valued the area for its abundant food resources, but also traveled considerable distances to exploit its mineral resources.
In historic times, an influx of Dutch settlers followed the Wallkill up from the Hudson River. They dubbed the Wallkill River bottomland "The Drowned Lands" because the valley flooded extensively, forming a huge lake in the spring. Before it was effectively drained, settlers used the bottomland meadows as pasturage for cattle.
As early as 1760, efforts were made to straighten, dredge, and drain the river corridor to make the land dry enough to farm. The effort didn't succeed until sixty-six years later when a large canal lowered the water table of the river. Mill owners, however, sought to keep the lands flooded, and a battle ensued between the millers and the farmers who wanted the lands drained. These battles were known as the "Muskrat and Beaver Wars". The millers were known as the "beavers." The farmers were known as the "muskrats." The disputes were finally settled in the farmers' favor in 1871.
Until just recently, the Wallkill River valley was primarily agricultural. Dairy farming is no longer the dominant economic force in the valley. Due to the proximity of the valley to larger metropolitan areas, the region is becoming more suburbanized. However, an abundance of state and federal public lands are helping preserve the natural beauty of the area and provide valuable habitat for wildlife.
The Wallkill River lies within New Jersey’s Ridge and Valley physiographic province and borders the New Jersey Highland physiographic province. The Kittatinny mountain range lies to the west, and the Highlands lie to the east. The Kittatinnies continue into New York State, where they are known as the Shawangunks. The New York/New Jersey Highlands are part of a larger system as well, spanning across the State of New Jersey to the New York/Connecticut border.
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The federally threatened bog turtle can be found in wetlands throughout the Wallkill River valley and the Papakating Creek Watershed. Endangered by habitat loss and poaching (the diminutive turtle is favored among illegal pet traders), this turtle is an important focus of the refuge’s conservation work. Due to their listed status, refuge public use areas are located away from sensitive bog turtle habitats.