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
Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts: Being the Letters of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer
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Are you related to the Wyckoff family? Have you visited the Wyckoff Farm and Museum, or other interesting Dutch Heritage sites around New York?
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I’m so glad I happened upon your story and beautiful illustrations of the life of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff. I am so impressed with the amount of research you did and with the engaging way you told the story. Your watercolors are excellent.
I, too, am a descendent of Pieter and Greitje. Pieter is my 9th great grandfather and I am descended through his first son, Nicholas – and then the first sons of the next few generations, another Pieter, then another Nicholas and then Peter Wyckoff, born in 1724, who married Jane Cornell as his second wife. Their son, Joseph, was captured by Native Americans in 1778 during an altercation near their home close to Montoursville, PA. He ended up in Montreal where, in 1783, he met and married Keziah Faure, who had also been captured during a battle in 1780, in Kentucky. One of their daughters, Jane (Jennie) Wyckoff, married into the Owen family. Jennie was the great grandmother of my grandmother, Georgia Owen Kaveney.
My sister and I grew up in Pennsylvania, where we did not know anyone named Wyckoff. Our dear grandmother did mention the name and gave us an idea of our family history, but I don’t think she knew about the house. Debby and I had plans to visit Brooklyn and the Wyckoff House in 2019, but up until now, we have not been able to make that trip. One day we will.
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
Thank you, Phyllis! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
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!
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,
I believe I have Cornelius Wyckoffs hand written last will and testament consigned to my auction on February 5, 2017.
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! ❤️
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!
My fourth great grandmother was Elizabeth Wycoff. I shared your post with some family members.
Thanks for sharing with us.
Thanks, Sharon. I’m glad you liked it!
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!
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What is the connection between Wyckoff and Wycoff. I know nothing about my father’s family except that he was from Keokuk, Iowa around 1902. (RUSSELL SAGE WYCOFF)
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!
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!
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…;)
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?
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!
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.
Thank you Jackson! I had a lot of fun with this one. So cool to trace one’s lineage like that.
I was born Charles Henry Wyckoff in 1935. As I understand it. Peter Claesen eventually became Much like a mayor of the town. His title was (forgive spelling) Wickuff or Wyckoff Phonically. When the British demanded English sounding names they allowed Peter to keep his title as a last name. (so the story goes.