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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
Read more about the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House
Explore historic New Amsterdam:
Explore New York City before settlement:
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
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.
“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
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