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)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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
“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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