Saturday, March 11, 2017

Chapter 49 - My Wyckoff Ancestors

Joshua Wyckoff Rappleye
Our Great, Great Grandfather
It was not until fairly recently that I discovered that I was a direct descendent of the first man in our country with the family surname of Wyckoff. What is really fascinating is that my ancestor's surname was not "Wyckoff" when he walked off the ship into the Dutch Colony in America known as the New Netherlands at the young age of only 13 in April of 1637. His full name at the time was Pieter Claesen. The Claesen name per Dutch tradition was taken from the given name of his father whose first name most likely would have been "Claes." When the British took over the Dutch colony in 1664 and renamed the colony New York, they had difficulty with all of the constantly changing Dutch names so they demanded that the Dutch families take fixed surnames by which they could more easily be identified. By 1687, the names of Pieter Claesen and his six sons appear in the public records with their newly adapted surname of Wyckoff.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph it was not until fairly recently did I discovered that I was a descendant of this first Wyckoff immigrant to America. In my early studies of my ancestral tree I learned that my 2nd great grandfather was named Joshua Wyckoff Rappleye (see photo above.). His daughter, Helen Ely Rappleye, married Asbury Harpending Baker and they are both my great grandparents. Anyway, despite hours of research I could not figure out how and why Joshua Wyckoff Rappleye received the middle name of Wyckoff as clearly none of his recent ancestors carried that name in any of their lines. It was not until later did I discover that young Joshua was actually named after his mother's older step-brother, whose full-name was Joshua Wyckoff (1767-1841). Our Joshua's mother was Mary "Polly" Covert and she was the daughter by her mother's second marriage to a man named Abraham Covert. Mary's mother, AriAnn Coshun, was married first to Abraham Wyckoff who had died early at the age of only 32. The reason that Joshua's mother, Mary Covert, decided to name him after her step-brother who was ten years her senior, is purely speculative but I have to wonder if she may have had a "crush" on her older step-brother. In any case, Mary's husband, Peter Rappleye, accepted the name. It is highly doubtful that Peter Rappleye, my 3rd great grandfather, was aware that he himself was a descendant of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, who just happened to be his great, great, great grandfather. With all of this intermingling of families in our ancestry, it is now time we believe to write a story about our 8th great grandfather, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff.

Map of Germany and Holland in 1678
Norden in East Friesland located just east of United Provinces (Holland)
There are many theories about the origins of our Pieter Claesen. His birth location is alternately given as Sweden, Germany, or Holland and the names of his parents are often provided, and in at least one instance, it is written that his father even accompanied him to America. We believe however, that most historians would now agree that the names of his parents are unknown and the fact that he came to America as an indentured servant would make it highly unlikely despite his young age, that his father would have accompanied him on the voyage. The fact that Pieter's voyage to America most likely departed from the Netherlands, would strongly suggest that he was born and lived in the Netherlands. Some family historians however, write that he may have been born in Norden in East Frisia (East Friesland on map above) area in present day Germany near its northwestern border with Holland. If Pieter Claesen was from Norden as some suggest, it is hard to imagine how he travelled the almost 200 miles by land between Norden and the City of Amsterdam in Holland where he is known to have boarded the ship Rensselaerswyck in 1636 that was headed to America. In any case, we really do not know the names of his parents nor the exact location of his birth. Apparently, before he boarded the ship, young Pieter Claesen was sold as an indentured servant by either his father or perhaps if his parents had died, by an uncle or other relative. An "indentured servant" is someone who agrees to work for nothing or for a minimal cost for a defined period of time in exchange for the cost of the passage (usually) to America and then once they arrive, the cost of food, clothing, and shelter will be provided at no cost to the new indentured servant. What is really surprising is that despite his very young age, his position as an indentured servant was to take place in the far away continent of America. If his parents were still alive, sending him to America was like sending him away forever. This would not be something I would expect from my 9th great grandparents therefore we must assume that they had both died very young. It is of course, remotely possible that young Pieter Claesen made the decision to be an indentured servant on his own without anyone else's knowledge or permission although this possibility would seem to be highly unlikely.

Fort Orange
The first Dutch explorer in America was actually an Englishman hired by the Dutch by the name of Henry Hudson who in 1609 sailed up the Hudson River which obviously today bears his name. As we all remember from our grade school history classes, Henry Hudson was looking for the "Northwest Passage" which he obviously did not find up the Hudson River. Around 1614, the Dutch having learned about the huge fur trading opportunities available in this newly discovered area, sent up the river a group of fur traders who then constructed a small fortified trading post and warehouse near the present day city of Albany. The small structure named Fort Nassau was later abandoned in 1618 after its constant destruction each spring due to flooding. It had obviously been built to close to the river. The Dutch however, were not yet ready to give up, so in 1624 they again sent up another group of men (and a few women) who constructed another larger fortification that was later named Fort Orange. Most of these early settlers who had helped to construct the fortification returned back down the Hudson River in 1628 to the new colony down on Manhattan Island by the name of New Amsterdam. Among these early settlers were a man and his wife by the names of Joris Jansen Rapalje and Catalyntje Trico, my 8th great grandparents. Their story is told in Chapter 1 in this blog. Several dozen or so traders remained behind at the new fortification to continue the very profitable fur trading operations with the local Indians. This very remote area up the Hudson River was very soon to expand.

What we know about young Pieter Claesen is that he was one of a number of men and women who were indentured at least indirectly, to a wealthy Dutchman by the name of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. Van Rensselaer, recognizing the huge potential of owning land along the Hudson River, acquired in 1629 from the local Algonquin Indians, a huge tract of land on both sides of the Hudson River in and around the recently constructed Fort Orange. The land purchased eventually consisted of around 700,000 acres. It would seem that hundreds of indentured servants were needed to help farm the land and thus create farm products along with the fur for the Van Rensselaer organization to sell back in Europe. It is well known that Kiliaen Van Rensselaer who was one of the founders and directors of the Dutch West India Company, was the progenitor of the fabulously wealthy and powerful Van Rensselaer family in America who were dominant in America for the next several hundred years following the founding of the so named Manor of Rensselaerswyck. A portion of the land originally controlled by the Van Rensselaer family bears today the name Rensselaer County which is located just east of the City of Albany, New York. Pieter is believed to have sailed on the Dutch ship Rensselaerswyck along with around 37 other indentured servants who, once they arrived and departed the ship at Fort Orange (now Albany), were assigned to various farmers working the huge Van Rensselaer estate. The trip on the ship Rensselaerswyck to America must truly have been an awful experience for everyone onboard. The voyage is said to have taken almost seven months during the mostly cold and windy winter months of 1636/1637 and it is not hard to image that our great grandfather and the other passengers were delighted to finally arrive in early March in New Amsterdam. As it turned out they had to moor their ship in New Amsterdam for several weeks waiting for the ice in the Hudson River to thaw before finally sailing up the Hudson River about 150 miles to their final destination at Fort Orange. They at last disembarked from their ship on the 7th day of April in the year 1637.

Map of Hudson River 1656
Shows Fort Orange and Rensselaerswyck
Pieter Claesen upon arrival in Fort Orange was contracted almost immediately as an indentured farm hand to a local tenant farmer by the name of Symon Walichsz who was a lease-holder under the landowner, Van Rensselaer. Here Pieter worked for a period of around six years at which time he had completed his obligations and then using money he had received at the end of his indentureship, he too leased some land and took on the role himself as a tenant farmer. A few years later around 1645, Pieter Claesen then around 20 years old met and married a young 18-year old girl by the name of Grietje Van Ness, my 8th great grandmother. Grietje had arrived in America from Holland with her parents in 1641. The marriage for young Pieter proved for him to be a great financial benefit for his new father-in-law was not only a "Principal" farmer within the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, one to whom all tenant farmers like Pieter were to follow, but his new in-laws were also fairly wealthy, educated, and both came from prominent families back in Holland. We find it somewhat surprising that Grietje's family would have allowed her marriage to a poor uneducated farmer like Pieter who had just recently completed his obligation as an indentured farm hand. There has been some speculation that the Van Ness family might have known Pieter's family back in Holland or East Frisia but that would seem highly unlikely. More likely is the fact that Pieter Claesen while uneducated, may have been very bright, well spoken, and seemly eager to play a prominent role in this new community all of which were very important features in this new land where young unmarried men from wealthy and prominent families were few and far between. There is also this speculation proposed by an old family genealogist that certainly might explain why young Grietje Van Ness may have demanded to her parents that she be wed to young Pieter Claesen. He writes describing Pieter: "a man of over six feet tall and large in proportion, that he had blue eye, and tawny yellow hair, high and prominent cheek-bones, a broad face and a firm square chin."  Describes the men in our family perfectly.

Pieter and Grietje Claesen lived in a community known as Beverwyck located just north of Fort Orange on the Hudson River along with Grietje's parents, Cornelius Hendrickse Van Nes (1589-1684) and Mayken van den Burchgraeff (1602-1664), who lived nearby. Unfortunately in the year 1648 both Cornelius and his now son-in-law Pieter got into an argument and a subsequent and prolonged lawsuit with a man named Van Slichtenhorst who just happened to be the "Autocratic Director" of the Rensselaerswyck Colony. Not surprisingly considering his position, Van Slichtenhorst prevailed in the lawsuit which probably was the primary reason that our Pieter Claesen and his wife and by then two children abruptly left the Fort Orange area in June of 1649 and moved south down to the New Amsterdam area. In contrast, his father-in-law Cornelius and his family elected not to leave which in the end worked to their benefit, for in 1652 Van Slichtenhorst was arrested for defying the authority of Director Peter Stuyvesant and he was subsequently sent back to Holland. Cornelius Hendrickse Van Nes, my 9th great grandfather, then went on to become very active in the local government and to achieve a general financial success. In 1650 the family moved to a new home in Greenbush located southeast of Fort Orange (now Albany) where he opened a large and financially successful brewery.

Old Brooklyn
While it is clear that Pieter and Grietje Claesen moved to the village of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in 1649, what is not clear is what Pieter did for a living during the next few years to cover the cost of housing and food for his rapidly growing family. Surviving church records show that in 1650 and 1653 two more children were born into the family. It is entirely possible of course, that Grietje's parents helped them out financially during this period. One thing that we learned during our research, is that Dutch parents during this time period, unlike their English counterparts, shared their wealth fairly equally with all of their children, both male and female. In contrast, the English parents generally favored their oldest son at the time of their death, and he typically inherited the bulk of their wealth. It is often reported by historians that in 1655, Pieter was hired by then Governor Peter Stuyvesant to supervise a farm on land that was probably owned by the Dutch West India Company. Apparently the farm which in part was a cattle ranch was to be used primarily to grow tobacco which had become very popular back in Europe and undoubtedly its sale was a good source of income for the Dutch West India Company. The farm was located out on Long Island in a townsand then known as Nieuw Amersfoort and later renamed by the British as Flatlands. The location today is in the southeastern section of the City of Brooklyn (see the map above.)

Wyckoff House Museum

It was not until after 1645 that any serious settlement in the Dutch controlled western end of Long Island was considered. The land prior to that time was still occupied by the native American Indians although their population had gradually been decreasing what with the influx of the Europeans and their "purchasing" of the Indian lands plus the awful diseases such as measles and smallpox that were carried in by the Europeans to which the Indians had no immunities. Their population decreases were inevitable although they still greatly outnumbered the Europeans. What really drove the Indians to submission in this area however, was a two year war with the new Dutch colonists known as Kieft's War which took place between 1643 and 1645. The war resulted in the death (or perhaps massacre) of over 1,000 Indians. Fortunately what followed was a period of relative peace. Not surprisingly after the war the Dutch soon moved along with our ancestors, into the fertile lands of the future City of Brooklyn. The general consensus seems to be that Pieter and Grietje were granted as a tenant in 1652 the use of a farmhouse on Dutch West India Company land and therefore they never actually owned the house in which they lived for so many years. The fact that the Claesen family, later referred to as the Wyckoff family, continued to live in this same farmhouse for a total of eight generations up until 1902 would suggest that the house and the land surrounding the house was purchased at some point by Pieter. Historical records however, show that the house was not owned by the Wyckoff family until it was purchased by Pieter's grandson in February of 1737. The old Wyckoff House said to have been originally built in 1635 still exists today as a museum although it has changed considerable since it was first occupied by Pieter and his family. The photo above shows the Wyckoff house as it stands today. According to the Wyckoff House Museum website, Pieter and Grietje actually first occupied the house in 1652 and they describe it as follows: "The house they occupied was a simple one room structure with a packed earth floor and unglazed windows, with doors and both ends and a large jambless (open) hearth." The description was clearly not describing the home of a wealthy owner. Anyway, Pieter and Grietje Claesen continued to live at this home for the remainder of their lives. They were to have a total of eleven children including their fourth child, a daughter named Mayken who was born on 19th day of October in 1653. If indeed the Claesen family moved into their new home in Flatlands in 1652 as stated by the museum's website, then Mayken Claesen, my 7th great grandmother, would have been their first child born in this still surviving Wyckoff House. Pieter Claesen Wyckoff's old home was named New York City's first historic landmark back in 1965.

We were pleased to read this following sentence in one of the many biographies found online described the life of my 8th great grandfather, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff: "Peter Claesen prospered and became one of the most influential citizens of the little frontier settlement." While it would be easy to accept this statement as one of fact, the subsequent descriptions of his life do not really lend credence to this statement. Pieter is credited with being a local judge, like a justice of the peace, and he is credited with being "influential" in the establishment of the nearby Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church. There are also references in some of his biographies that he served on three occasions between the years 1653 and 1663 as a town Magistrate and in 1664, just prior to the English takeover, he was a representative at a convention. None of these functions however, would seem to place him in our opinion in the category of "one of the most influential citizens."  And if Pieter "prospered" as a farmer it may have been due in large part to wealth that he received from his in-laws during his lifetime and even more so upon the death of his in-laws. While the details are not entirely clear, one interesting thing about the Van Nes family is that Grietje's mother had been left a sizable estate by her mother at the time of her death. In 1635, Grietje's mother, Mayken, prepared her Will leaving everything directly to her children and not to her husband, Cornelis. He had agreed with her decision probably because he was also wealthy. Mayken died in 1664 therein leaving Pieter Claesen and his wife Grietje with land and money. In 1664, Pieter and Grietje were 39 and 37 years old respectively and at this point we would then have to agree with the statement that "Pieter Claesen prospered. . ." We may sound like we are trying to downplay the life of my great grandfather. This is not really our motive. It would seem however, that most historical biographies on the life of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff have a tendency to exaggerate his wealth and status. It should be enough to simply state that our grandfather lived a good life and raised a great family and he was undoubtedly highly respected in his community. This is a remarkable fact considering that he arrived in America at a very young age as an indentured servant without parents or siblings.

When Pieter Claesen arrived in New Amsterdam in 1637 the western end of Long Island claimed by the Dutch was mostly wooded and unoccupied except by some local Indians. By the time that the Claesen family moved to their farm home in 1652 in New Amersfoot or Flatlands, the Indians were mostly gone or at least peaceful and the Dutch population of the area including Manhattan Island had grown to around 1,000. The future Brooklyn area however, was still scarcely populated by this time with no more than 250 people living in the Flatlands area and it consisted mostly of large farmlands still primarily owned by the Dutch West India Company and a few other wealthy landowners. In the year 1665, the Dutch lost control of New Amsterdam and western Long Island to the British who renamed the area New York.  In 1687, Pieter Claesen and his five sons signed an Oath of Allegiance to the British and shortly thereafter the family adapted the surname of Wyckoff.  By the time of Pieter Claesen Wyckoff's death in 1694 the population of New Amsterdam/New York had grown to almost 7,000 and the whole area had changed enormously in appearance. Many roads, homes, businesses had been built, including taverns, plus churches, schools, and other public buildings. For a man like Pieter who had come to America as a young teenager, the changes must have been truly overwhelming. When Pieter died in 1694, Pieter and Grietje had had eleven children, ten of whom survived to adulthood, had married, and given Pieter and Grietje around 60 grandchildren and even a few great grandchildren. Most of their children and grandchildren still lived in the Brooklyn area prior to Pieter's and Grietje's death and considering the enormous size of their family, they must have had a few massive family get-togethers. Wow! Obviously considering the small size of their family home, the family get-togethers must have been held outdoors only during the warm summer months. We are not surprised considering the size of the Wyckoff family that there are thousands of Wyckoff descendants alive today. The burial sites of Pieter and Grietje Claesen Wyckoff are unknown although it is assumed that they are both buried on the site of the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church.

Unfortunately we know very little about the daughter of Pieter and Grietje Claesen Wyckoff and my 7th great grandmother, Mayken Wyckoff.  She was apparently baptized on the 19th day of October in 1653 at the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam and one of the three witnesses listed on her baptismal record was none other than Judith Stuyvesant, wife of the then Director General or Governor of New Amsterdam, Pieter (Peter) Stuyvesant. Obviously our Pieter Claesen was already making a name for himself. If indeed the Wyckoff family was in 1653 living at their home out on Long Island, then apparently there were no churches yet built in the new community of Nieuw Amersfoort (Flatlands) and they had no choice if they wanted to get their daughter baptized but to return to Manhattan Island for the service. Perhaps it was this inconvenience that contributed to Pieter's helping to establish in the following year the congregation of the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church located near his home. We have no idea when Mayken met her future husband, Willem Willemsen, who in 1657 had immigrated along with his parents and siblings to America from Holland. There is an old story that is often repeated that claims that Willem and his mother were actually born in Bermuda and that the family had left there and not from Holland to emigrate to New Amsterdam. Considering that Bermuda was controlled and occupied entirely by the British at the time, it would seem highly unlikely that a family who were obviously Dutch would have been living there and then left to travel northward to the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam. Willem's father's name was Willem Gerritsen and the mother has simply been identified as "Mary" or sometimes "Maria," and they are of course, my 8th great grandparents. From what we could determine, Willem the son was born around 1652 which would have made him around five years old when he moved to America. If his parents located in Nieuw Amersfoort after their arrival, it is possible that Willem and his future wife Mayken had known each other as children. The fact that Mayken's younger brother, Marten Wyckoff, who was ten years younger than his sister, married the sister of William Willemsen, a girl named Hannah Willemsen, might certainly suggest that their families were close.

Mayken Wyckoff and Willem Willemsen were married around 1678 probably at the recently constructed Dutch Reformed Church in Flatlands. While surviving tax records show that Willem owned land in Flatlands in 1676 and as late as 1683, land that he may have inherited at the time of his father's death in 1662, we know that by 1680 the family had moved to Gravesend, Long Island located just south of Flatlands (again see map above.) Their first child, a son named Nicholas, my 6th great grandfather, was born in Gravesend in 1680. Furthermore, a 1683 tax record shows the Willemsen family owning land in Gravesend. There really are very few historical records about either of my 7th great grandparents. We know that they spent their entire lives after their marriage living in Gravesend and they both died less than a year apart, Mayken in December of 1721 and Willem in February of 1722. Willem's half-brother, Samuel Gerritsen (common mother) writes about the death of his brother: "In the year of our Lord 1722 the 2nd of February my brother William Willemsen fell asleep in the Lord on a Friday evening about 7 o'clock and was buried on a Tuesday after aged about 70 years." The few records that we have found show that Willem Willemsen was appointed as a town assessor in 1694 and a constable in 1698 and that their family were members of the local Dutch Reformed Church in Gravesend. One of the family historians states probably accurately, that Willem "owned considerable land and (cattle) stock" which would suggest that Willem's primary occupation was that of a farmer. From what we have read, conditions for farming in western Long Island were excellent during this period in history and once the English took control over the area from the Dutch in 1664, trading must have increased dramatically thus contributing greatly to Pieter's and Willem's wealth. One thing not mentioned in any of the stories about my great grandfathers living on Long Island during this period of history was whether or not they owned slaves. Slaves were first introduced to New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company back as early as 1626. It would seem highly likely that both Pieter Claesen Wyckoff and his son-in-law Willem Willemens were major slave owners particularly since the vast number of farms and the shortage of indentured servants and hired farmhands made owning slaves almost mandatory. It has been estimated that 15% of the population of this area during this time period were slaves and that by 1703, 42% of households in New Amsterdam owned slaves. Obviously slavery was not unique just to our southern states. It seems kind of stupid today when referring to a present day American whose ancestors may have arrived in America from Africa in the mid-1600s, over 300 years ago, as an "African-American." Just as stupid we suppose as referring to yours truly as a Dutch-American or an English-American or anything other than just an "American." Truly goofy. Anyway,

Willem Willemen's Last Will and Testament backs up somewhat our assumption of his wealth when Willem writes in his will that he had sold prior to his death all of his lands to his oldest son Nicholas for the sum of 600 pounds. He goes on to state that when he dies, Nicholas must share equally with his four brothers and three sisters, the value of the land given to him by his father, each sibling to receive a 1/8 share of the land value. Willem's will verifies two things about his life. First that he was fairly wealthy as 600 pounds was quite a sum of money at the time of his death in 1722, and secondly that as a Dutchman, he shared his estate equally with all of his children and not just with his eldest son Nicholas. Good man our great grandpa.

My relationship with my Claesen/Wyckoff and Willemsen ancestors is as follows:

Nicholas Willemsen (1680-1779) m Lucretia van Voorhees (1696-1733)
Willem Willemsen (1720-1787) m Geetje Hegeman (1722-?)
Sarah Willemsen (1748-1813) m Jeremiah Rapelyea (1742-1827)
Peter Rappleye (1776-1858) m Mary Covert (1777-1870)
Joshua Wyckoff Rappleye (1814-1888) m Jane Taft Campbell (1819-1891)
Helena Ely Rappleye (1860-1944) m Asbury Harpending Baker (1860-1933)
Charles Schenck Baker (1885-1952) m Helen Mary Spaulding (1887-1937)
Charles Asbury Baker (1916-2000) m Marian Coapman Patterson (1916-1973)
Charles Asbury Baker Jr (1942-?) m Kathleen Therese Mahar (1948-?)

And so ends another chapter of our ancestral blog.