The Pieter Claesen Wyckoff Story

The name “Wyckoff” is familiar to many Seattleites. The family has a long history of entrepreneurialism and philanthropy in the Northwest, particularly in the arts and the environment.

The family name is also famous nationwide for its interesting history, being traceable to the early roots of America, to the very moment one young man, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, stepped onto the muddy shores of New Amsterdam in 1637.

Pieter was my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather. (see family tree photos at the end of the post)

Here is a bit of Pieter’s story. (Excerpted from an earlier post.)

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Voyage to the New World on the Ship Rensselaerswyck

In 1636, when Pieter was a young teenager, he left Texxel (near Amsterdam) on the Dutch Ship Rensselaerswyck. There were 38 passengers on board, many of whom were signed as indentured laborers or contract farmers to a wealthy Dutch diamond merchant named Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. They were on their way to Fort Orange (Albany, New York) and the settlement—also called Rensselaerswyck.

The entire trip took over six months.

It was a difficult trip, even by the standards of the day. For the first seven weeks, the captain’s log tells of one bad day after another.

Crossing the Atlantic in the 17th century was a dangerous ordeal.

 

Arrival at New Amsterdam (now New York City)

After months at sea, finally reaching New York Harbor must have seemed like sailing into heaven for the passengers of the Ship Rensselaerswyck. It was March 4th, 1637—more than sixth months after the ship had left the Netherlands.

I sketched this watercolor showing how New Amsterdam (New York) might have looked in 1637. At that time, New Amsterdam was still years from becoming the neatly laid out Dutch village shown in historical illustrations (most of them depicting the view twenty years later). The ship in the foreground is the Rensselaerswyck (I could not find definite reference for the ship itself, but there’s a good chance it was a Dutch fluyt). Click on the picture to get a larger view.

 

Fort Amsterdam and a windmill stood on a small hill surrounded by a scattering of rough buildings. There was no proper pier—people arriving by ship would have been rowed to the shallows to splash up the muddy shore on foot. It was a primitive settlement, and the few hundred inhabitants surely had no idea of the growth spurt their little town would undergo in the next few decades—let alone that this lonely outpost would one day be the financial center of the entire world.

The same view today:

An AppleMap view of the original site of New Amsterdam – today Wall Street in lower Manhattan. The Fort was located behind Battery Park.

 

 

Up the Hudson River to Fort Orange

After a spending 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, they 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.

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!

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.

 

 Pieter Claesen Wyckoff starts his life as a laborer

The 38 passengers of the Ship Rensselaerswyck were either farmers or 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.”

Simon Walischen was a Master Farmer and a lease-holder with van Rensselaer. He was favored by being given his choice of the laborers on the boat, and he chose Pieter. 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 laborers assigned to Simon.

A watercolor sketch I did imagining Pieter facing his new master.

 

After arriving at the Fort, they would have left by rowboat or small sailboat to Simon’s assigned land, a large tract of previously cleared land 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 they might have built a log and thatch hut, or even a small plank house.

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 later the two moved— possibly to a location near New Amsterdam or elsewhere on lower Manhattan Island.

At that time, New Amsterdam was a growing trading and port settlement, controlled by the Dutch. The map below shows New Amsterdam a few decades later, in 1660.

The Castello Plan, a map from 1660 that shows a detailed depiction of New Amsterdam. Today, this is lower Manhattan, the financial and government center of New York City. You can see the layout of Fort Amsterdam, built in 1625 by the Dutch on the upper left side of the town. On the right side of town is the wall, officially built to protect against attack by the Indians, or “wilden” as they were called. Wall Street takes its name from this wall. Image from Creative Commons.

 

 

In 1652, Pieter signed a contract to “superintend the Bowery and cattle of Pieter Stuyvesant in New Amersfoort” (Flatbush, Brooklyn)—which was a West India Company- owned tract— and Pieter and Grietje moved to what is now known as the Wyckoff Homestead and Farm, the oldest structure in New York City and a National Historic Landmark.

In the mid 1600s Brooklyn and the rest of Long Island was still mostly wild country. There was a small settlement called New Amersfoort—centered a couple of miles to the southwest—that had been started about 20 years earlier as a farming community. At the time Pieter, Grietje and their 3 children moved in (they ended up with 11 kids eventually!) there were about 15 settlers living in New Amersfoort.

I imagine Pieter’s farm might have looked something like this:

I did this watercolor sketch imagining what Pieter’s farm might have looked like in the 1650s. At that time the house (now the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum) would have been a small, simple thatched hut. There may also have been a barn or hay barracks, a pigsty and other outbuldings. At first, they probably grew mostly grain.

 

Pieter became one of the most prosperous and influential citizens, buying land, serving as magistrate, 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.

Here’s the very same house as it looks today. It’s now a museum, a National Historic Landmark, and officially the Oldest Structure in New York City. It’s located in the heart of Brooklyn.

Photo of the Wyckoff House, courtesy bridgeandtunnelclub.com, http://www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com/bigmap/brooklyn/eastflatbush/wyckoffhouse/index.htm

 

Apple Map view looking down on Brooklyn with Manhattan in the distance. The Wyckoff House is shown in the red circle.

 

Climbing on the Family Tree:

The family lineage from Pieter to me:

Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, born 1625

Cornelius Wyckoff (one of 11 children!), born 1656

Simon Wyckoff, born 1683

Cornelius Wyckoff, born 1715

George Wyckoff, born 1745

George Wyckoff, born 1795

Cornelius Wyckoff, born 1820

(From here the lineage goes on the female side)

Maloda Wyckoff, born 1853 (my great-great grandmother)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maloda’s daughter Edna Moore, born 1876 (my great grandmother)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edna’s daughter Frances Muller, born 1908 (my grandmother)

 

 

 

 

Frances’ daughter Barbara King, my mother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denise Dahn (me…long ago at age 22)

 

 

 

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

Explore historic New Amsterdam:

http://www.virtualnewamsterdam.com/page/page/1846100.htm

Explore New York City before settlement:

http://welikia.org/about/overview/

To read the entire ship’s log from the voyage: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~clifflamere/Misc/MI-LogRenWyck.htm#Part%201

To read some of the ship’s correspondence: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nycoloni/rnscores.html

To read more about Fort Orange on the New York State Museum site: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/loc/fortorange.html#farmers

 

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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.

 

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

Lucie Chin and Joshua Van Kirk, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum

Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts: Being the Letters of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer

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23 thoughts on “The Pieter Claesen Wyckoff Story

  1. Hello Denise,

    I most enjoyed viewing your paintings. I am the great-granddaughter of Mary Eva Wyckoff Garretson. She is the daughter of Simon Wyckoff III. If you should find the time, I would love to hear from you.

    All the best to you,

    Phyllis Bower McCall

  2. Thank you so much for all you’ve done. You’ve not only brought beautiful and thought-provoking visual elements to his story you’ve also brought pieces of his early life together and joined them in a wonderfully insightful and interesting way. I kept wanting to see more! I hope someday you’ll have the opportunity to write and illustrate other stories of his and of other ancestors. Thanks again! P.S. My connection is through the line of Pieter’s son, Nicholas and his son Cornelius down to those who went to NJ and then settled in SW Ohio with the variant spelling of Wikoff. Interesting histories wherever they went. I haven’t been able to go to NY and the other areas but I love traveling vicariously through all the people who do!

  3. The other day I did a web search on my 5th great grandfather, Cornelius Wyckoff, and found your site. Pieter Claesen Wyckoff was also my 9th great grandfather, so I found your site fascinating and informative.

    I love the accompany watercolors. It’s interesting to think of what would become a huge metropolis looked like when Pieter stepped off the boat. Also, I had no idea the journey was as arduous as it was. It’s amazing they all survived – and of course, very lucky for us.

    From what I can gather from your website, we share a seventh great grandfather, Simon, and branch off from there.

    I visited the Wyckoff homestead in 1987, for the 350th anniversary celebration. It was a wonderful experience to think of what started in that tiny house. I’m not sure how they managed with 11 children in such a small space.

    Thanks for posting this information on your website, where both your research and artwork can be enjoyed by others.

    All the best,

    Siobhan Dugan

  4. Hi! ❤️ love your water colors so much.
    I’m the daughter of Virgil Everett Wyckoff (1894-1998), and a descendant of the Nickolas lineage. My sister and I are trying to reconnect with our Wyckoff cousins and learn a little bit more of our distant history! ❤️

  5. Dear Denise, what a treasure this is. I live in Ohio but have always had a yen for NYC and so I visit frequently. I don’t know if it’s because of my heritage or something else but I am strongly drawn to it. Someday soon, I WILL visit the Wykoff Homestead. Thank you so much for Shari g your beautiful art and history. You are a gem!

  6. My fourth great grandmother was Elizabeth Wycoff. I shared your post with some family members.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

    Sharon

  7. Denise! This is a treasure! Thank you so much for sharing this. I am also a Wyckoff descendent and I had the great privilege of visiting the house two summers ago. It really felt like a spiritual experience to me as I walked around the grounds and tried to imagine my ancestors who also walked there. I had the same feeling as I read your article. Your beautiful watercolors add so much! Thank you again, dear cousin! (oh my, and I love the pictures you have of your mother, grandmother, etc.)

    • Thank you so much, Tim! It is so nice to hear you enjoyed your visit to the house, too. Yes, those photos are very dear to my heart, too.

      • I don’t know about you, but I felt like I was approaching the end of the world by the time I took the train to the end of the line then two bus changes! I was getting a little nervous, but then there was beautiful oasis for the Wyckoff House!

  8. Pingback: 52 Ancestors: #5 Pieter Claessen WYCKOFF – Plowing Through | RELATIVITY

    • I have read that the variation in spelling is just that — a variation. The names come from the same origin. But, please don’t quote me on this — I have not done an exhaustive researching of the subject!

  9. For readers with a serious interest in Pieter Claessen Wyckoff, check out the latest research in my little book, “What’s in a Name? History and Meaning of Wyckoff” (11 illus.) available by searching Wykoff Wyckoff (author and subject) at amazon book website.

    • For anyone (all Wyckoff’s/variants especially) who hasn’t had a chance to read M. William (Bill) Wykoff’s amazing and deeply researched “little” book of about 60 pages, get it, read it and read it again. It was published in 2014 and gives a fascinating history of the surname Wyckoff from many angles. It’s not a standard genealogy of the indidividual, Pieter Claessen and his descendants, so don’t be expecting standard lists and dates (though there is some information). He points you to the best, most valid resources for that. What he does do is sweep away some of the mythology and tradition that was invented and repeated (and is still being repeated) concerning Pieter’s birthplace and the name he ended up adopting. Find it on Amazon. Inexpensive and informative and interesting. Can’t get much better than that :-). I just got it and read it and updated some of my family tree info because of it. I hope many others will do the same!

  10. How fascinating! I too am related to Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, but didn’t know any real stories of his life and impact. I have been intrigued by how early he was in New York and tried searching for more information – and found your beautiful and amazing site! I LOVE your artwork, images, and pictures. Thank you for sharing!! My side of the Wyckoff family settled in Iowa. My father was told that his mother’s side of the family owned part of Staten Island in New York, but lost the claim somehow. I thought it was a tall tale – but maybe there’s some truth to it.

    • Thanks, Denise, it’s nice to know you enjoyed the post and artwork. I bet the Staten Island claim is true! Just a hunch…;)

  11. Denise, I love what you are doing. Any chance you might use your art to form a children’s book around it featuring the life and trials of coming to the new world?

    Bill

    • Thank you so much, Bill! I would love to do a children’s book on Pieter’s story. When I was writing that post, I got so wrapped up in the atmosphere of the land, the people, and what it must have been like for Pieter and other young people making that journey. I’ve written one young adult book already, (still looking for a publisher) and a book about Pieter is definitely on my bucket list!

  12. Denise-This is a wonderful post. I enjoyed the old map(s), the depictions of then and now, the history that is connected personally to you. And, of course, the photos of your elegant maternal lineage culminating with you.

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