The Edge of the World

 

This post was originally part of a 4-post series. I have since consolidated the series into one post, with a few revisions. Click here to get the full updated version.

After a harrowing ocean crossing and a few weeks in New Amsterdam, the Ship Rensselaerswyck sailed up the Hudson River on the last 150 miles of its journey. On April 7, 1637, it reached Fort Orange—a tiny fortified settlement that had been hacked out of the towering pines a decade or so earlier. It was the last outpost of Dutch civilization.

To young Pieter and his fellow passengers, it must have seemed farther away than the moon.

(click on the images to get a larger view)

A rough watercolor sketch I did from imagination, showing the view from the banks of the Hudson River looking south toward Fort Orange (present day Albany). The entire fort was enclosed by a wooden palisade. Outside the fort, there was a scattering of dwellings on the river bank.

 

This is the view from roughly the same spot today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the fort, millions of square miles of wilderness sprawled across the continent, inhabited by the Native Americans that had lived there for thousands of years, and hordes of wild animals, birds and fish and other creatures. The location of the fort along the river was key—the waterways were the main travel routes for both wildlife and the people that hunted them. The Europeans were astonished at the abundance of fish and game in New Netherlands.

Elk, bear, mountain lions and wolves were abundant in the area. The only game animal with a larger population today is the whitetail deer.

 

In 1637, the Europeans had no concept of how big North America was—there was even still some debate as to whether the earth was flat or round1. In his 1655 book, Adriaen van der Donck wrote that “several of our people have penetrated far into the country to at least seventy or eighty miles from the coastline.

Judging from the climate and the huge numbers of wildlife and migrating waterfowl, van der Donck concluded that the “land stretches for hundreds of miles into the interior…”

He would have been surprised to know it stretches for several thousand miles!

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Welcome to America Beaverland

It would have been an appropriate name. After all, beavers were the re-landscapers of much of North America’s terrain, transforming entire watersheds and creating millions of wetlands which were rich habitat for countless other species.

Unlike mink or river otters, beavers are vegetarians. Their preferred foods are the succulent leaves, twigs and bark of small trees. Both Indians and settlers thought beavers were the tastiest meat on the continent, and the best part was the tail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beavers were responsible for much of the wetland habitat in North America. At one end of the pond is the dam, and nearby on the bank is the lodge. Both are well-constructed of sticks, logs, mud and leaves.

 

The lodge has a secret underwater entrance—cleverly hidden from land predators like wolves, coyotes, or mountain lions.

 

Beavers were also the main reason for early European exploration and settlement of North America. Europeans—especially the prosperous Dutch in Amsterdam—were wild for fashionable, expensive beaver fur hats, and beaver pelts became a medium of currency, forming the economic base of the New World.

The main business at Fort Orange was beaver. The Mohawk tribe hunted the animals throughout the highlands and brought down thousands of pelts to be traded for European axes, kettles, glassware, knives, and before long, guns and alcohol.

Eventually, beavers were hunted to the brink of extirpation.

This painting from 1662 shows wealthy Dutch businessmen wearing beaver felt hats. Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy of the Rijkes Museum.

 

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Pieter Claesen Wyckoff faces his future

All 38 passengers of the Ship Rensselaerswyck were signed into servitude as farmers and laborers on a tract granted to Kiliaen van Rensselaer, a wealthy diamond merchant residing in Amsterdam. The estate, also known as Rensselaerswyck, stretched for about nine miles along both sides of the river from the Fort and inland a distance described as “two days’ journey.”

On April 3, 1637, twelve year-old Pieter was assigned as a laborer to serve the farmer Simon Walischez (also spelled Walischen). As master, Simon would have total control over Pieter’s life for the next six years. In addition to Pieter, there may have been other servants, or even African slaves assigned to Simon. Servitude and slavery were the main sources of labor in colonial America.

 

A watercolor sketch I did imagining Pieter facing his new master for the first time.

After spending some time in the Fort getting oriented, they would have left by rowboat or small sailboat to their assigned land, a chunk of virgin forest on what is now Papscanee Island in Albany.

 

I did this watercolor sketch imagining the type of house they would have lived in. These types of primitive dwellings had no chimney—the smoke simply rose out from gaps in the thatch.

 

At least initially, they probably lived in a crude pithouse with a roof of planks or logs. Eventually, after their fields were cleared and planted, they might have built a log and thatch hut, or even a small plank house.

I wonder…most of the settlers had wives, and if Simon was married, did the couple share the house with their servants and/or slaves, or did they build a separate dwelling for them?

Maud Goodwin wrote of the settlers: “Most of them could neither read nor write. They were a wild, uncouth, rough, and most of the time a drunken crowd. They lived in small log huts, thatched with straw. They wore rough clothes, and in the winter were dressed in skins. They subsisted on a little corn, game, and fish. They were afraid of neither man, God, nor the Devil. They were laying deep the foundation of the Empire State.2

Pieter stayed with Simon until the age of eighteen, then he collected his wages (a total of 375 guilders for 6 years) and left to rent his own farm on the Rensselaerswyck estate. He married Grietje Van Ness, the daughter of a prominent family, and in 1649, the two moved to New Amsterdam. In 1655, Pieter signed a contract to “superintend the Bowery and cattle of Pieter Stuyvesant in New Amersfoort” (Flatbush, Brooklyn), and they moved to what is now known as the Wyckoff Homestead and Farm, the oldest structure in New York City and a National Historic Landmark.

Pieter became one of the most prosperous and influential citizens, buying land, serving as judge, and helping establish the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church (now the juncture of Flatbush Avenue and King’s Highway). He adopted the invented name “Wyckoff” when the British took over New Amsterdam.

Pieter and Grietje had eleven children, all of whom married, had children and went on to live somewhat prosperous lives. They are the forebearers of the Wyckoff clan, the largest Dutch clan in America.

Pieter was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

 

(This concludes the series on this topic. Hope you enjoyed it!)

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NOTES:

1. “A Description of New Netherlands”, pages 6 and 70, by Adrian van der Donck, first published in 1655, and re-translated by Dederik W. Goedhuys.

2. “Dutch and English on the Hudson”, by Maud Wilder Goodwin, 1919, quoting Augustus H. Van Buren in the Proceedings of the New York Historical Society.

 

Read more about the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House

http://www.historichousetrust.org/item.php?i_id=14

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/nyregion/21houses.html?_r=0

http://hvva.org/hvvanews5-4.htm

 

Sources Include:

“A Description of New Netherland”, by Adriaen van der Donck and first published in 1655. Newly translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys.

“The Island at the Center of the World”, by Russell Shorto

“New York”, by Edward Rutherfurd

“Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566”, by Rien Poorttvliet

“White Servitude”, by Richard Hofstadter (article on-line)

“Dutch and English on the Hudson”, by Maud Wilder Goodwin (available on-line via project Gutenberg)

The Rise of Pieter Claessen Wyckoff, Social Mobility on the Colonial Frontier, by Mortom Wagman.

The Wyckoff Families of Old Canarsie Lane, by Mae Lubizt.

The Old World Progenitors of the Wyckoff Families, by William L. Wyckoff and Herbert J. Wyckoff.

The Wyckoff Family in America, Published by the Wyckoff Association in America

 

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23 thoughts on “The Edge of the World

  1. Hello, I too am a descendant of Pieter Clausen. I am part of the twelfth generation. I have only recently decided to research my lineage although I’ve been aware of it for seventy years. My lineage is Pieter, Nicholas, Pieter, Nicholas, Samuel, John, John, Ursula Ashlock, Elva McGrath, May Morris, Neil Morris and myself, Neil Morris. I have a son Christopher and he has a son Matthew. Thank you for your wonderful story and photos. It was quite interesting to read. I will be attending the 2017 reunion in Tarrytown NY on October 14th 2017 and will be visiting the Flatlands home the next day. Thank you again,
    Neil E. Morris

  2. 20 January 2016….. at sometime I happened to find your Wyckoff pages… then I meandered off to something else. Found them again tonight, accidently! 🙂

    Fantastic. History as it should be written for 95% of the people. My initial impression was “how does this lady know all of this?”…… then I began looking at the bibliography. You or someone has done a tremendous amount of research. Good job. The images add to the story. It all becomes “interesting” for the non-historian….. good writer!

    My grandmother’s pre-marriage name was Ruth Wyckoff…. need to get into the file drawer to find out her exact line.

    Curious— Considering that the family had Dutch origins, lived in New York, and probably did not like the english that well, I assume that they were involved in the American Revolution. Are you aware of any actual participation that would satisfy the requirements for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution? If so, do you have a name/email address that I can contact so as to verify and document the participation?

    My mother, daughter or Ruth Wyckoff, each day adds to what she calls “My Story” <an autobiography of being born in Iowa and living in Colorado for 89 years. …… Her story is long; I assume that she has stories about the Wyckoff family in Iowa in the late 1800's. Will have to check.

    Unbeknown to all— you have kinfolk living in Kent, Washington. Stafford family. They moved to South Bend, WA in the 1930's . Cousin concluded that logging was going to peter-out in the early 1960’s…. so he became a chemist.

    Once again— fantastic. I need to go through the entire story again and conceptualize the story of Pieter.

    Cheers from Kentucky…

    Jerry Aschermann

  3. Very interesting. You did wonderful research. Many things I did not know. I am a descendant of Garett. I named my son after him. David Garrett Wikoff.

  4. Great story nicely integrated with the research and pictures. Pieter Claesen Wyckoff was my 10th great grandfather. I’m descended through his son Nicolas and his wife Sara/Sarah Monfoort/Monfort.

  5. Thanks that is interesting especially since I am a Wycuff descendant also. Pieter was my 9th gr grandfather. I loved the homestead went in 2003 goosebumps walking the street to the house.

  6. Thanks that is interesting especially since I am a Wycuff descendant also. Pieter was my 9th gr grandfather.

  7. Great read and lovely paintings! I believe we may be related, as I’m in the Cornelius-Simon line. My grandmother was Lily Irene Wyckoff. I will look more closely at the family tree to be sure. I’ve heard about Pieter since early childhood and have had a fascination ever since. Hoping to visit the Brooklyn homestead this summer!

  8. Pingback: New Amsterdam | Denise Dahn, artist/writer

  9. Thank You Denise !
    Very enjoyable and great art…”all” the segments in the recounting of the saga with your ancestors.

    • So glad you liked it, Jackson! It was fun to do, and I might re-visit the subject at a later time. I’ve heard it said that if you go back 10 generations…we’re all related. But, there’s something especially interesting about seeing the names all lined up on a family tree. It got me hooked!

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed the history of your ancestors and your delightful drawings. John will get his time @ the computer later on: I know he would “second” my comments.
    We wish you and Ralph Joyful Holidays and for the New Year Good Health and continued Success to both of you!
    The Freis

    • Thanks, Jim! I have to admit, I hesitated to include a Rembrandt next to my own work…but in the end, decided to risk it! I wonder if he were alive today, would Rembrandt have an illustrated blog, too?

    • Thanks, Christina! I was haunted by this story of my Dutch ancestor. I’ve always loved historical fiction myself, and writing a book on this is on my list…but first I have to finish my current series.

        • Thanks, Steve! Yes, it was a lot of research…luckily that’s just the kind of thing I love doing. The whole story just took hold of me!

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