Maria Sibylla Merian


I am happy to share a guest post this week—an article written by my mother-in-law Vreni Naess, originally featured in the Swiss publication “Dialog” in 1999. Vreni is from Bern, Switzerland, and has been living in Chicago since the late 1950s. She writes a regular column called “A Voice from Chicago.”

The following is one of my favorites of Vreni’s articles, describing the fascinating life of a talented 17th century artist.

I have included some images—courtesy of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam—and added some active links.


Maria Sibylla Merian

by Vreni Naess


Portrait of Maria Sibylla Merian by Jacob Houbraken, in or after 1717 – 1780.
Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


It all began with postage stamps. For a long time, the United States produced mostly dull stamps of little interest but eventually they joined other countries in celebrating events, objects, and people with interesting and often beautiful stamps. A while ago I noticed a particularly enchanting series of botanical prints done by a woman named Maria Sibylla Merian. I kept looking for them, using them with great pleasure, and wondering whether she might be a Swiss I had never heard about. Eventually, I looked her up in the library and here is some of what I found out about this most unusual and talented 17th century woman.

Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdan.

Gedaanteverwisseling van de nachtpauwoog, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1679.
Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

She was born in 1647 in the free imperial city of Frankfurt am Main, daughter of the artist and publisher Mathias Merian the Elder and his second wife Johanna Sibylla Heim. Mathias was a native of Basel (a Swiss connection after all) who had acquired the Bürgerrecht  of Frankfurt and was known throughout Europe for his engravings of cities and landscapes, his scientific books, and his editions of the illustrated Grands Voyages  (accounts of journeys to the new World). He died when Maria was only three but her mother’s second husband, Jacob Marrel, was also an engraver and painter, as were her half-brothers Mathias the Younger and Caspar Merian. She was thus born into a family of artists where her talent was recognized early and allowed to develop in spite of contemporary beliefs about the negative effects of the female temperament on genius. As a woman, however, she would not be allowed to paint representations of the nude body or large-scale historical works, nor would she be permitted to expand her skills by travelling to workshops in other towns.

When she was only six, her half-brothers did copperplates for a Natural History of Insects, and when she was thirteen, she began to study silkworms, and from there went on to observe “far more beautiful butterflies and moths that developed from other kinds of caterpillars. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to study their metamorphoses … and to work at my painter’s art so I could sketch them from life and represent them in lifelike colors.”

At eighteen she married Johann Andreas Graff, an engraver and painter in the Merian workshop, and eventually moved with him to Nürnberg where, starting in 1675, her husband published her first work, a Blumenbuch, over several years. In 1679 she showed the results of her longstanding observation of caterpillars in a book on Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare BlumennahrungThere were 100 copperplates, fifty in each volume, and each plate depicted one or more insects painted from life, showing caterpillar or larva, pupa with or without cocoon, moth or butterfly in flight and/or rest, sometimes the egg stage as well. The plants were chosen for the leaves upon which the caterpillar fed and were identified by their German and Latin names. A page or two of Merian’s observations (in German) faced the picture. She did not give names to the moths and caterpillars (only a few of them had been named by that time) but she provided their life histories.

Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Tulp, twee takken mirte en twee schelpen, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1657 – 1717
Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Some years later, after the death of Jacob Marrel, the Graffs returned to Frankfurt. There, against a background of family inheritance quarrels, Maria Sibylla converted from the Lutheran faith to the Labadian community, a Pietist movement which offered biblical study, charitable activity, and mystical fellowship, then left her husband and, with her mother and two daughters, joined the center of the community in Wieuwerd, Friesland. The community believed in a simple and fully shared life with love and repentance as guiding principles, repentance meaning absolute detachment from worldly things such as pride, finery, and property. Although she complied with the rules, she did continue her studies of insects and kept a careful “study book” of her work. It is believed that after some time she realized her work could not be printed under the rules of the Labadists, nor could she continue her contacts with the outside world, so she changed her mind (after five or six years) and left for “wicked” Amsterdam. A large and prosperous city of about 200,000, Amsterdam offered many opportunities to a single woman with exceptional skills, connections, and two talented daughters. She was welcomed in the circles of naturalists, collectors, and engravers, and was hired as one of the painters doing watercolors of the plants in the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens.

Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Rode ibis met een ei, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1699 – 1700
Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In collectors’ “cabinets of curiosities” she saw insect specimens from the West and East Indies, was fascinated by them but felt that something important was lacking, namely the origins and later transformations of the insects. “So I was moved,” she said, “to take a long and costly journey to Surinam.” In April 1699, fifty-two years old and having made her will, she set out on this most unusual journey in the company of her daughter Dorothea, then twenty-one. She had sold a large collection of her prints of flowers, fruits, and insects to finance the trip and hoped to get money on her return by selling insect specimens she intended to collect. She chose Surinam because it was somewhat known to her through the Labadists who ran the (in the end unsuccessful) Providence Plantation  there and also because it contained a sizable Dutch settlement. Maria Sibylla and Dorothea settled in Paraibo where in October 1699 she painted and recorded her first “metamorphosis.” She had connections to some of the important Dutch families, had several slaves (whom she called myne Slaven  and with whom she communicated in Neger-Engels).  She threw herself into the work of discovering, breeding, and recording butterflies, moths, and beetles, first in her own garden, then in nearby forests, then on plantations along the Surinam river, always accompanied and assisted by her African and American Native slaves. After about two years, she could not bear the heat any longer and departed for Amsterdam, loaded with rolled vellum paintings, brandied butterflies, bottles with crocodiles and snakes, lizards’ eggs, bulbs, and many round boxes full of pressed insects for sale. She also took along her Indianin.

Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Wreath and insects, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1657 – 1717
Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Four years later, the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam  appeared in Amsterdam, in Dutch and in Latin, a folio edition of sixty copperplates, available in black and white, or hand-colored by Merian. Again, she used her characteristic way of showing nature’s process and relationships, the origin and transformation of insects, and the food on which their larvae lived. She continued not to categorize her paintings by any system then in use but expected each picture, with the accompanying text, to stand on its own. In contrast to most of her contemporaries, she acknowledged help from her Surinam servants.

With the Metamorphoses book, Merian had fully established her reputation as a major artist-naturalist. She was now one of the international figures of Amsterdam, a person one had to meet. When Peter the Great visited the town, his physician came by the house and bought some of her paintings for the czar. She died in 1717, sixty-eight years old.

And all this I learnt (and you read) because of a lovely set of US postage stamps.

Vreni Naess-Brechbühl




New Evidence Shows Squirrels Can Read

Yes, they can. But they’re quite picky about their reading material.



The Walnut Avenue Little Free Library

My West Seattle neighborhood has a brand new library that is so convenient, I often visit in my pajamas.


The Walnut Avenue Little Free Library (official registration in process)

It’s a Little Free Library, a new idea promoting literacy and the love of books that is sweeping the nation.

I first heard about the idea from my neighbor, who asked me to decorate the Library he was planning for our block. Our neighborhood is full of kids who love to read—particularly our neighbor’s daughter who supplied me with ideas for the design.

“Squirrels reading books!” she said, followed by a massive flood of other ideas: fairies, butterflies, wind-blown cherry blossoms, trees with books instead of leaves…

But, mostly squirrels reading books. That was the central theme.



It made sense – we live on Walnut Avenue, a leafy block with two enormous walnut trees nearby. Our yards are bustling with squirrels and we get a kick out of watching them go about their small mammal business—mainly filling our planters and windowboxes with caches of walnuts.

(And this time of year, quite a bit of chasing each other around the yard…but that’s a story for another post.)





Anyway, the love of reading grows and spreads. Chalk it up to the magic of the Little Free Library system.

If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and get a book! Or leave one. It’s free to everyone, and everyone is welcome. You don’t need to have a furry tail or live in a tree to use the Walnut Avenue Library.




Start your own Little Free Library! It’s a great way to spread the love of reading and build community. Find out more here.

Visit a Little Free Library near you.

And don’t forget to READ BOOKS!

(Including mine, which is coming to a reader near you…someday. I promise.)





Wildfire and the Fourth of July

When I heard the awful news on Sunday that 19 firefighters died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, I immediately thought back to the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. I had studied Mann Gulch for an interpretive project for the U.S. Forest Service. I also wrote a post about it last winter, and wondered briefly if now would be a good time to re-publish it. On the one hand, it seemed too soon, too sad. But, since most of the West is a dried-up tinderbox, and as we’re headed into the fire-crazed Fourth of July season, I decided that the more we think about the dangers of fire, the better.

By the way…does anyone else wish we would find a better way to celebrate Fourth of July? Maybe with red, white and blue waterballoons? Light-shows?

Anything but fire?

Here’s the re-post from last winter:


Interpreting Tragedy

Occasionally in my interpretive sign career, I have been hired to deal with difficult, sensitive topics. Many historical themes fall into this category…our nation’s past has its share of dark subject matter, after all.

One particularly sad project was an interpretive sign I did for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana about the tragedy at Mann Gulch, a wildfire that killed thirteen young firefighters in 1949.


At full size, the sign is 2 x 3 feet.


The Forest Service wanted to tell the story of the fire to honor those who died as well as the three who survived. They also wanted to frame the story in the greater context of what it taught us about firefighting techniques. There were a lot of hard lessons learned at Mann Gulch.

The sign was to be installed on the ridge above the canyon where the fire occurred. From the viewpoint, you can see across to the very place where the men died. It’s a chilling view.

This is where the sign was installed.

This is where the sign was installed.


This detail from the sign shows the route the men followed from the time they were dropped in by helicopter until they were engulfed by fire.

I illustrated this detail on the sign showing the route the men followed from the time they were dropped in by helicopter until they were engulfed by fire.

The Fire

The lightning-caused fire was—as most wildfires are—small at first. But it was a windy day and soon the fire “jumped” downhill to the mouth of the gulch—a much more dangerous position. Fires naturally burn uphill, and fueled by the tall, dry summer grasses, it soon “blew up” into a raging monster, racing uphill until it became a three-story high wall of flame, burning with the intensity of a giant blow-torch.


The Sign Project

One of the difficulties in interpretation is deciding what to include and what to leave out. On a sign, you are limited to approximately 150 words or so—not many when you consider how complicated most topics are. The objective is not to impart knowledge or information as much as it is to spark curiosity and interest. We want viewers to walk away with questions…wanting to know more.

But Mann Gulch was also a particularly sensitive subject. There was still one survivor alive at the time, as well as many close family members of the men who had died. The Forest Service wanted the subject matter handled carefully, out of respect for their feelings.

I decided on an approach to help the viewer relate the events of the day to the place—to bring the story alive. As in most sign projects, the graphics are where you hope to tell the story. I wanted to create illustrations that would ignite a sequence of events in the viewers’ imaginations—as if they were standing in this very spot in 1949 and witnessing those terrible events.

Here are some close-up snippets from the sign. You can’t see at this scale, but there are tiny little marks that indicate where the men were at each stage. Click on the photos for a larger view.

(Watercolor illustrations by me, Denise Dahn)

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute.

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute. (watercolor illustration by me – Denise Dahn)


As the men were heading down, the fire jumped the creek. Suddenly the men found themselves trapped in the canyon, with no way to get to the river and to safety. Fires naturally burn uphill, but the only way out was up, so the men turned and tried to outrun the fire as it raged behind them.

As the men were heading down, the fire jumped the creek. Suddenly the men found themselves trapped in the canyon, with no way to get to the river and to safety. Fires naturally burn uphill, but the only way out was up, so the men turned and tried to outrun the fire as it raged behind them. (Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn).




Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn




Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn



Leaving with a thought

The concluding message on the sign was “They did not die in vain.” The investigation and study of this fire led to new and improved strategies and techniques in modern fire fighting. This tragedy may have ultimately saved the lives of future firefighters.

Unfortunately, Mann Gulch was not the last tragic wildfire. Firefighting is a dangerous business.

All the more reason to be careful with fire. You know that already, right?




To read a detailed blow-by-blow account of the events at Mann Gulch

To read a blog post on Mann Gulch by the Forest History Society

To read a popular book based on events at Mann Gulch check out “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean

To see a video about the fire and one of the firefighters, S. Raymond Thompson


Have you ever been near a wildfire? Have you ever worked as a firefighter or smokejumper? Have you ever been to Mann Gulch?

Do you think our country should find a better, less dangerous and potentially catastrophic way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with fireworks?

Leave a reply in the box below!



Civil War Remembrance

In honor of Memorial Day


Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day to honor the dead of the Civil War, the deadliest war in U.S. history. The numbers of that war are staggering: at least 620,000 killed, millions injured, entire territories of our nation burned, blown up, devastated.

One of my ancestors, Captain Gavin Allen Lambie (his sister Jeanette Carter was my great great grandmother) fought and died in the Civil War in the 196th New York Infantry. A collection of his personal letters tell a moving story of the horrors of battle. I have a transcription of one letter written just after his regiment fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg. He was 30 years old when he wrote the letter on January 18, 1863. He died less than a month later, after the legendary “Mud March”.


According to the site I found on the internet, this is a photo of Captain Lambie. I can’t verify that this is actually his photo, but I can tell you that in this portrait, he reminds me a lot of my brother at around age 30. It’s a stretch, I know – but genes are genes, after all. (updated: four members of my immediate family agree…the man in this photo bears a striking resemblance to my brother. For me, at least, that confirms the authenticity of the photo. It’s uncanny.)



The letter describes the battle of Fredericksburg in vivid detail:

“Dear Friend,

“Since you received my last letter, I have seen the realities of war…our artillery opened with fearful effect…it seemed as though earth and heaven were coming together, such was the roar of cannon…I spent such a night as I never spent before and which I hope I never will again. The groans of the wounded and dying beggars all description, while the shot and shell kept flying over our heads…”

He goes on to describe the horrific night of the battle and its aftermath, and the return of his ragged regiment to their camping ground, where he composed his letter. He mentions that they had received marching orders for the next day. This would be the infamous “Mud March”, which ended up killing him.

In one sweet paragraph, he seems to be responding to an offer of a fruit basket. I found this particularly touching. Imagine…the unlikely delivery of a fruit basket sent to a Civil War battleground:

“In regard to sending me a box of fruit, I should like it very much, but as we are situated it might never reach me, for we don’t know one day where we will be the next…A great many boxes have come here lately the contents of which are spoiled and they feel worse than if they had not got them at all.”

He goes on to make some criticism of the Generals’ decisions, and how the men are treated,

“It is not what I suffer myself, but to see the way the sick are treated it is enough to make one’s heart sick. I tell you, when a man gets so low that there is no hopes that he will be of any farther service he is not thought of more than a wornout mule—that is, by those who are looking and seeking for promotion…”

The next day after writing to his friend, Gavin and his regiment left on the grueling “Mud March”. He died less than a month later as a result of illness from the march.


Remembering Gavin Lambie and all the others who have died in Amercian wars.


Here is the transcript of the complete letter. There are many more, including some written to his sister, Jeanette Carter, who was my great great grandmother, in the Google Books collection.



The illustrated story of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff

History + Imagination

A few months ago, I wrote a series of blog posts based on the history of my great great great great great great great great great grandfather, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff. The following is a consolidation of those posts into one story, with a few revisions from the original posts.  I’ve stayed as close as I can to available historical evidence, but I’ve also used a bit of imagination in telling the story.

Special thanks to the folks at the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum for their help with historical details.



When I heard that Hurricane Sandy was going to hit the east coast, I had all the same fears as everyone else. Will this be another Katrina? How many lives and livelihoods will be lost? Is this just the first of a series of coast-bashing storms, courtesy of global climate change?

But, when Sandy headed toward New York City, my concerns zeroed in on a patch of ground in Brooklyn.

I kept thinking: “It’s survived for so long. Will this be the end of it?”

Apple Map view looking down on Brooklyn with Manhattan in the distance.


It’s an unassuming little place—a triangle-shaped lot on a busy corner, surrounded by junkyards, check-cashing stores, car repair shops and fast-food joints. Surprisingly, in the middle of this rather homely urban setting, is a tiny oasis of leafy green space surrounded by tall trees and filled with garden plots and lawn.


Tucked toward the back of the property sits a small, plain farmhouse. Officially, it holds the honor of being the Oldest Structure in the City of New York, and it’s a National Historic Landmark.

Photo of the Wyckoff House, courtesy,


It’s also my ancestral homestead.

In 1652, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff and his wife Grietje Van Ness, moved to this house.

The following is a story—based on available historical evidence—of Pieter and how he came to live in this little house.


Voyage to the New World

It’s the year 1636, and a young teenage boy huddles in the damp, stuffy hold of a Dutch sailing ship. They’ve had bad weather since the voyage began, but this is the worst. The howling wind and the crashing waves muffle the shouts and curses of the crew up on deck. The boy clutches tightly to his bunk as the ship pitches and dives.

The hold is packed with 38 passengers, most of them whimpering and praying. Many are children traveling with parents or other relatives.

Unlike them, the boy is traveling alone.

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


Trying not to think of the cold depths below him, he lets his thoughts drift into the past…

The last few years had been hard. The endless wars crippled Father’s trading business, and they had been forced into bankruptcy. Then, when Mother died, Father seemed to lose his mind for a while. Things had fallen apart quickly after that.

One day, a man in a fancy carriage had come through the countryside, smiling and offering his gold-leafed ledger to anyone who looked his way. “Sign here,” the man said, “and you will be set for life. A New World awaits—a paradise filled with riches. It only takes six or seven years…then you’ll be free forever.” He held out a quill pen temptingly.

Father had bowed to the man, accepted the ledger, and stood for a moment examining it. Then, his eyes brimming with tears, he handed the book to his son.

“Sign,” Father had ordered.


Many immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries came to the New World in such a way—as indentured servants or contract laborers. Many of them were under the age of eighteen. Some came with their families and were sent out to their stations upon arrival. Others made the treacherous crossing by themselves.

Imagine leaving your home, family, and friends to undertake a risky ocean crossing to an unknown world…knowing you would likely never return. What would motivate such a drastic life-choice? Desperation, adventure, hope, despair?

My great great great great great great great great great grandfather Pieter Claesen Wyckoff spent much of his childhood as an indentured laborer. Little is known about his life before he made his Atlantic crossing to the New World, other than that he was born in Norden in Lower Saxony (now Germany) and his father was named Claes.

We will probably never know for certain why Pieter left on a ship bound for the New World—or if he made the trip alone or with family. But we do have the ship’s log from the voyage, and can read first-hand the captain’s descriptions of the entire trip.

The Voyage of 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:

“In the morning, the wind changed to the west. It blew so hard that…we could not carry a single sail….There blew a violent gale from the northwest and we then drifted east with a very rough sea. The waves rose to such an awful height that the waves and the sky seemed one…it lasted the entire night.” – Ships’ log, Tuesday, Oct 21, 1636.

“That day the overhang above our rudder was knocked in by severe storm. This day a child was born on the ship, and named Storm, (Albertsz Van der Zee) the mother is Annetie Barents.” Ship’s log, Sunday, Nov 2, 1636.

They finally decided to reverse course and wait out the bad weather in England.

“Seeing little hope of getting better wind and weather soon – though God knows – having few provisions for 52 or 53 souls…we could oppose it no longer…on account of the sick people whose number increase daily because of their hardships…put the helm hard up and steer in God’s name toward the English Channel and try to get into Falmouth or Plymouth…” Thursday, Nov 6, 1936.

Several weeks later, they pulled into harbor at Ilfracombe, Devon, where they found several other battered and lost ships also taking refuge from the weather. They stayed here for five weeks, until finally setting sail on January 9th, 1637.


New Amsterdam

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.


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


I imagine that young Pieter would have been greatly excited to finally reach New Amsterdam. It is apparent from his later achievements in life that Pieter was intelligent, strong, gregarious, and lucky. He was a born survivor, and this was the New World.

After being so long at sea, it must have been a relief to stand on dry ground once again. The group of passengers probably made their way up to the Fort to be received by the director-general of the West India Company, who must have been overjoyed at their safe arrival. They spent the next few weeks in New Amsterdam waiting for the Hudson River to thaw before they could continue upriver to Fort Orange.

I wonder…would Pieter and the other children been allowed to ramble around, exploring the beaches and woodlands, the little farms, and the town itself? What would they have found in the crude little shops, or the bakery, stables, or blacksmith? Did they peek inside the little church…or the tavern?

The captains’ log mentions another ship in the harbor—an English vessel. The waterfront might have been busy with cargo being loaded and unloaded, the muddy streets bustling with strange faces speaking foreign languages. There could have been African slaves in town, and there were almost certainly Native Americans meeting and trading with the townspeople.

It must have been strange and exciting, and perhaps a little frightening.


 The Edge of the World

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!


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.



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.

I wonder…most of the settlers had wives, and if Simon was married, did the couple share the house with their servants, 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 later the two moved— possibly to a location near New Amsterdam or elsewhere on lower Manhatten 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.


REWIND: The Dutch founding of New Amsterdam

In 1609, Henry Hudson was sent by the Dutch East India Company to explore the area for a Northwest Passage—a shortcut to Asia. Instead he found the Island of Manhattan (shown below) and the North River (now the Hudson River, on the left).

At that time, Manhattan Island was a densely wooded wilderness. There were Native American villages and patches of open meadow which may have been maintained for hunting and gathering by intentional burning.

View looking north on the Island of Manhattan as it would have looked in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor. Image from a screen grab from the website












Today, this is one of the most intensively transformed landscapes on the planet.

I wonder what Pieter and Grietje would think if they could see it now.

An Apple Maps view of the southern tip of Manhattan.



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)







Edna Moore, born 1876 (my great grandmother)










Frances Muller, born 1908 (my grandmother)





Barbara King, my mother








Denise Dahn (me…long ago at age 22)




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:

To read some of the ship’s correspondence:

To read more about Fort Orange on the New York State Museum site:




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.


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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