Hiawatha Island, Owego, New York

Hiawatha Island… The name alone brings to mind a land of legends and visions from a long-ago era.  Did the legendary Hiawatha ever frequent its shores?  Not likely.  But, it is believed the Iroquois nation once used the island as part of their homeland.  Artifacts found in its soil from bygone eras have been donated to the collections at both Binghamton University and the Tioga County Historical Society museums.

The Big or Great Island, as it’s been called, comprises 112 acres in a beautiful tranquil setting.  A few miles east of Owego proper, it’s surrounded on all sides by the Susquehanna River flowing west.  Once a bustling retreat for locals and tourists alike, it contained a beautiful three-story hotel and meandering sylvan paths with the island’s dock reached by steamboats throughout the summer months.

Earliest records for the island note that Britain’s King George III issued a mandamus (a writ directing a lower court to perform a specific act) dated January 15, 1755, deeding land, including the island, to the Coxe family in exchange for their territory in Georgia, the Carolinas and the Bahama Islands.  By 1821, the Coxe family had surveyed and divided the land into small farms with the Big Island designated as lot no.120.

Moving to Lounsberry in 1969, I did not pay much, if any, attention to Hiawatha Island during my high school years in Owego, NY.  However, about 15 years ago, I discovered a [supposed] ancestral tie that piqued my interest in the island’s history.  My earliest genealogical research found a McNeill family paper filed at both the Tioga County Historical Society in Owego and the Schoharie County Historical Society at the Old Stone Church in Schoharie, NY.  This paper claimed that a Ruth McNeil, b. 1782 in Weare, New Hampshire, was the daughter of my John C. and Hannah (Caldwell) McNeill of Weare, Londonderry and New Boston, New Hampshire.  Ruth was noted to have married Matthew Lamont(e).  (Note my specific use of one or two “L’s” in the McNeil versus McNeill name.)

This is where due diligence pays off in checking all genealogy sources yourself.  The person filing that family paper did not reply to my inquiry in 2002.  Digging deeper, I found and purchased a McNeil family history from the Montgomery County Historical Society in Fonda, NY simply to see if that family held clues to my own.  However, that historical writeup is about the family of John and Ruth McNeil of Vermont who lived in Fulton, NY, with that genealogy listing a daughter Ruth who the researcher was unable to trace further.

From personal extensive research on my own McNeill family, it is proven that John C. McNeill and Hannah Caldwell married May 8, 1781, that their first daughter, Betsey, was born December 5, 1781, and that she was adopted by Hannah’s childless older sister, Elizabeth.  In checking late 19th century census records for Matthew and Ruth LaMonte’s children, they note their mother was born in NY, not NH.  With the above John and Ruth McNeil’s family history listing a child named Ruth of whom nothing more was known, I felt there was sufficient circumstantial evidence for Ruth (McNeil) Lamont to be their child rather than a daughter of my John C. and Hannah (Caldwell) McNeill.  Furthermore, John C.’s family did not contain the name of Ruth in any older or younger generations as does the Vermont McNeil family.  Of additional interest, my earliest ancestors and their descendants consistently spelled their name McNeill while John and Ruth’s descendants consistently used McNeil.

Matthew and Ruth LaMonte removed from Schoharie County to Owego, Tioga County, NY in the early to mid 1820s.  The second registered deed to the Big Island, dated June 23, 1830, is to Matthew and Marcus LaMonte. Matthew was the husband of Ruth above.  Their son Marcus had at least three children:  Abram H., b.1831 on the island, Susan Jane b. 1834 (as a teacher, one of her students at the Owego Academy was the young John D. Rockefeller), and Cyrenus M., b.1837.  Cyrenus purchased the Big Island in 1872 just before its commercialization commenced in 1874 with picnics and summer events.

The earliest known birth on the Big Island was that of Lucinda (Bates) Lillie, born August 16, 1800.  It is also known that various squatters took up residence on the island, particularly when owners were absent, making good use of the fertile river-loam farmland.

Another tie of note to the island is that of Ezra Seth Barden who was born in 1810 at Lee, Massachusetts.  In 1833 he brought his young bride, Catherine Elizabeth Jackson, to Owego where they set up their home on the Big Island.  She just happens to be a second cousin of U. S. President Andrew Jackson.

The LaMonte family had their main farm directly north of the island where Rt. 17C runs near Campville.  They retained a few acres on the island after selling the rest in 1831, selling that small balance of acreage in 1834.  From my previous research, the LaMonte family operated a ferry across the river to the island.  In 1840, with her five children, Mrs. William Avery Rockefeller (the former Eliza Davison) removed from Moravia, NY to Owego, renting a house on the LaMonte farm.  One of her sons, John Davison Rockefeller, Sr., 11 years old at the time, often worked for pennies a day on the LaMonte farm.  Born July 8, 1839 in Richford, NY, John D. Rockefeller, world-renowned founder of Standard Oil Company, went to the Court Street Owego Academy, was tutored by Susan Jane LaMonte at her home, and often kept in touch with her on his returns to Owego as an adult.  Another student of renown who taught at the Owego Academy was Benjamin F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy under President Benjamin Harrison.

The former Owego Academy at 20 Court Street is an old brick building still very much in use, nicely remodeled, repainted, and well kept over the years.   It was in this Federal style building (built in 1827-28) where I began my secretarial career in 1972 as a high school senior.  I worked part time, then full time after graduating high school, for Lewis B. Parmerton, Esq., gaining valuable knowledge from his experienced secretary, Kathy.  My desk was at the second window to the left of the front door on the first floor, looking out on two tall buttonwood (sycamore) trees which are now gone.  The basement then housed the N.Y.S. Department of Motor Vehicles where I obtained my learner’s permit and driver’s license.

I will also never forget the sale of a particular old building on Front Street along the river’s edge to Pat Hansen.  After all paperwork had been completed and signed, and Ms. Hansen had left, Mr. Parmerton stood in the office with us two secretaries, shaking his head, “I don’t know what she wants that old building for.”  Little did he, or Kathy and I, realize then, but Pat Hansen turned her building into the extremely successful store, “Hand of Man,” spurring on the revitalization and growth of Owego’s Front Street businesses which continues to this day!  I love poking around in the “Hand of Man,” enjoying the delicate and gorgeous one-of-a-kind gifts.

But, among the antiques in the Parmerton office was an oil painting of the Owego Academy, with two young sycamore/buttonwood saplings which stood in front of our office windows.  I cannot find a copy of this painting in an online search.  The building’s tin ceilings were high and ornate.  There were beautiful fireplaces, an old Seth Thomas pendulum clock, an 1850 map designating every road and building in Tioga County, and Mr. Parmerton’s office/library was lined with bookshelves filled to the high ceiling, rolling ladders needed to reach the upper shelves.  The floors were wooden, uneven and squeaky in places, with a beautiful dark wood banister going up the stairs to the second level.

In fact, taking the stairs to the upper floor, I had occasion to enter the office of two elderly attorneys, the Beck sisters. I remember Rowena Beck, the first woman lawyer in Tioga County. The sisters’ grandfather was Professor Joseph Raff who, in 1875, composed the Blue Tassel Quadrille for the start of a new season on the Great Island.  Of further interest, Sedore notes that Raff was the brother of Joachim Raff, an accomplished orchestral composer, who just happened to be “a personal friend of Franz Liszt and Hans von Bulow.”  (Sedore, p.23)  Small world indeed!  Little did I then know the history I was working amongst!

When speaking of the island’s early years, one must also include reference to Joseph Shaw DeWitt, or “Old Joe” as he was otherwise known.  Coming from Binghamton to Owego about 1841, he was an actor, fireman, businessman and restaurateur.  On the side, he made and sold cough drops in a box which looked much like the Smith Brothers box, along with cream candies, and beer.  He owned a restaurant on Lake Street, but it was at his hotel on Front Street in Owego which began the greatest period of Hiawatha Island’s history.  Here, on August 5, 1873, a number of businessmen met to form a stock company with the purpose of building a steamboat intended for trips on the Susquehanna River between Binghamton, NY and Towanda, PA.  They approached Cyrenus McNeil LaMonte, who had purchased the Great Island in 1872, and thus began the island’s “most flamboyant years.” (Sedore p.5)

The Owego Steamboat Company had its first boat ready by the end of February 1874.  The “Owego” was 75 feet long, 26 feet wide, capable of carrying 200 passengers.  Unfortunately, she did not have the most auspicious start to her career.  Putting the “Owego” into the river with 20 men aboard on April 6th was the easy part.  All too soon, however, they realized her paddlewheels were too light and frequently simply stopped moving.  But, that was easy enough to rectify – a man lay down on top of each wheel house, pushing the paddle wheels with his hands to keep them working!  What a job that must’ve been!

Having finally gotten the “Owego” into deeper water, things only went downhill from there.  As they tried to bring her back to shore, someone misjudged and she stopped with a sudden thud on hitting the embankment.  This sent several of the men sprawling flat out on the deck.  Deciding to take the flatboat to shore (towed behind for emergency situations), the men got safely onto this small boat – only to find it couldn’t handle their weight, and it promptly sank.  With chagrin, their only option left was swimming to shore, likely glad it was the middle of the night with few fans around to observe the indignity of it all.

Sixteen days later, though, the “Owego” was steaming to Binghamton and back, and the Big Island was being cleared of brush where a dance hall and restaurant were to be built.  “Old Joe,” the first caterer, fed all picnickers who came to the island for its opening day on Wednesday, June 10, 1874.  Professor Raff’s cornet band provided entertainment on the “Owego”.  Ever the entrepreneur and entertainer, “Old Joe” was ready for customers wearing Indian feathers and war paint on his face, and dubbed his restaurant “Hiawatha’s Wigwam.”  Hiawatha Grove was the name for the eastern end of the island and of the train station on the opposite north shore (off Rt. 17C near Campville).  Soon, though, the Big Island began to be known by the name of Hiawatha Island thanks to the showmanship of everyone’s favorite businessman, “Old Joe.”

Over the ensuing nearly 20 years, the Hiawatha House hotel was built and eventually expanded to three stories with a dance hall, restaurant, and honeymoon suites, with its front balconies overlooking the river.  Gravel strolling paths were made, with small “arbors” built along the paths to sell confections, cigars and lemonade.  Games were played on the lawns of the island, and scull races were held on the river.  Clam bakes were also quite popular, as was the dancing held until the early morning hours, keeping the steamboat busy at the dock.  Many businesses and churches from local and numerous outlying communities soon found it a popular picnic destination spot over the years.

In 1875, a new and better dock was built.   It was 75 feet long with thirteen 16-foot-long piles driven to a depth of 10-1/2 feet.  Sedore comments that nine of these original piles are still visible when the river level is down.  This was another boom year for the island.  In September, the “Owego” was sold with plans in the works for a new steamboat, the “Lyman Truman,” bigger and better at 120 feet long.  She was launched March 9, 1876 from the riverbank just west of the Owego bridge, taking far longer to do so than expected.  She broke the ropes as she lurched forward, gliding about a mile downstream before being stopped and held in place.  Her engine and boiler were not yet completed; sadly, these, too, met with misfortune.  The day before the “Lyman Truman’s” launching, the boiler exploded while being tested in a machine shop on Hawley Street in Binghamton.  Parts flew upward and outward, some landing 500 feet away, another part embedded itself into the roadway, severing a gas pipe with noxious fumes filling the air.  Two people were killed instantly, a third soon died from his injuries, and ten others received various light to severe injuries.

By mid May, the “Lyman Truman” had a new boiler in place, just in time for the island’s full season.  This was 1876, our nation’s centennial year, and celebrations were being held everywhere, with the island no exception.  A great loss, however, was the passing of “Old Joe” in April, but the island’s summer calendar moved forward.  The Hiawatha House hotel had just had its third floor added and was ready for the grand opening on June 7th of Hiawatha Grove on the Big Island.  About 2000 people came for the July 4th centennial celebrations on the island.  Even with a brief heavy shower, everyone was in high spirits.  The Declaration of Independence was read along with prayer, a song, and a lengthy speech.  Croquet and various lawn games were played, and bands provided music for dancing couples, along with a great deal of delicious food being consumed by those enjoying the day’s events.

Every year, travel to the island was enjoyed by thousands.  There were other steamers like “Helen,” “Welles,”Glen Mary,” “Dora” and “Clara,” with the “Marshland” in use for the 1884 season after the “Truman” had been sold.  In 1883, the crowds virtually disappeared with the “Lyman Truman” having been sold, as complaints began surfacing of island/hotel mismanagement in 1882.  Now, with the “Marshland” operating in 1884, business picked up again with its 4th of July celebrations reportedly being better than ever with 3000 tickets sold for the day!  People were coming from as far away as Elmira, Carbondale, PA, Auburn, NY, Waverly, Candor, Cortland, and, of course, Binghamton, Owego and Nichols.  The Grand Army Association held its annual reunion of Civil War veterans with tremendous crowds attending.  In fact, by the end of the 1884 season, “the Hiawatha House hotel register [showed] that…people had come to the island from twenty-six states and nine foreign countries.”  (Sedore, p.85)

In August 1887, Cyrenus LaMonte sold the Big Island, now known as Hiawatha Island, to Dr. S. Andral Kilmer and Company of Binghamton who later sold his half to his brother, Jonas M. Kilmer, in 1892.  Apparently, Kilmer had stated he hoped to build a sanitarium on the island.  Though the 1888 season was a great success, the island was never again used as a summer resort.  The Big Island’s greatest days were unexpectedly silenced forever.

The Kilmers made no announcements or promises for opening the 1889 season.   The steamboats were leased or sold.  Boats were not allowed to dock at the island by the Kilmers, and no one was allowed entrance to the island to observe how their work was coming on the new sanitarium.  “The 1889 season came and went without the usual excursions to Hiawatha House and the grove.  There was no dancing, bowling or billiards.  Hiawatha was closed to the public.”  (Sedore, p.111)  Though small groups were occasionally allowed entrance to the hotel, the demise of the island’s success was obvious.  Instead, the Kilmer family used it as their private family retreat.

Sedore includes an 1890 photo of the Hiawatha House (Sedore, p.121, fig.32).  Near the dock at the river’s edge, she stood tall, an elegant lady in white, an impressive four stories, with first and second floor balconies, and fourth floor dormers.  In 1900, the island was sold by Jonas Kilmer, and a succession of various owners filed through the property in the ensuing decades.  Hiawatha House was taken down in 1932 after falling into disrepair as other outbuildings either burned or collapsed with age.  Aerial photos from 1900, 1937, and 1955 show how few trees remained on the island.  From the highways today, it’s hard to tell what the interior of the island looks like beyond its border of trees along the river’s edge.  It has been used during the 20th century for private family retreats and camping to dairy farming.

I also recall that Hiawatha Island went on the auction block on August 20, 1988 following financial difficulties by its then current owner.  Inquiries about purchasing the island came from Japan and the Arab countries, with an ad in the Boston Globe bringing ten phone calls in two days.  Having heard a local land developer intended to purchase the island to strip-mine it, the Historic Owego Marketplace, Inc., also known as the Hiawatha Purchase Committee (a non-profit group of Owego business people), decided to purchase the island to protect it.  They barely managed the successful bid at $351,000; yet, with a 10% buyer’s premium, the total purchase price was $386,100.  Ultimately, the final cost was over $700,000 with interest payments and other expenses.

Numerous people, volunteers, and businesses came together to help raise funds to pay off the purchase price, an accomplishment many thought impossible.  A good number of fundraisers were held, with Noel “Paul” Stokey (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame) coming to town to give a concert.  After four years, the fundraising group was able to pay back those who had kindly loaned money to the purchase committee.  An annual “Walk Through Time” was held on the island along with a Native American Pow-wow.

When the Hiawatha Purchase Committee paid off their debt for the purchase in 1993, they turned their ownership over to the Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin for perpetual conservation.  The purchase committee insisted on restrictions to keep the island in a natural state forever, and that the name would always be Hiawatha Island.  Waterman Center’s director, Scott MacDonald, has said, “From a naturalist’s standpoint, we preserved a very unique piece of land for the community.  It truly is the ‘jewel’ of the river.”  (Life in the Finger Lakes.com)  “The Waterman Center plans to use the island for education classes on Native American civilizations, conservation, wildlife, and perhaps archeology.” (Sedore, p.220)   In 2006, a family of bald eagles was actually spotted living on this now-protected island!  And, I’m sure that many more eagles have made the island their home since then.

What a legacy the Hiawatha Purchase Committee has left us for the future.  In allowing the island to rest without commercial traffic, its use strictly limited under conservation guidelines, this gem of the Susquehanna once again shines in its natural state.

BOOK SOURCE:  Hiawatha Island: Jewel of the Susquehanna by Emma M. Sedore, pub. Tioga County Historical Society, March 1, 1994.

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It’s Laundry Day!

Starting my early Saturday morning chore of laundry, I couldn’t help recall this article posted a few years ago. Doing the laundry is everyone’s favorite chore, right? Ummm… no! Even with modern conveniences, it’s a task I don’t think many of us look forward to. Sort the darks and lights, delicate linens from the jeans, pre-treat stains, use various cycles and water temperatures, to bleach or not to bleach, does it go in the dryer, on a hanger or the clothesline outside, does it need to be ironed or can it get by with some wrinkles, etc. You all get the idea!

I remember as I grew up that my dad’s mother did laundry on Monday and ironed on Tuesday, without fail. Both she and my mother had old wringer washers, which fascinated us kids. My sister and I actually enjoyed putting the laundry through the rollers to “wring” out the excess water, heeding the warning to keep our fingers away from those menacing rollers! I’m sure many of my readers remember those antique washers, too! With perhaps a few fingers painfully scrunched between the rollers.

So, imagine what it must have been like doing laundry in colonial days without washers and dryers. The fabrics were wool, linen, cotton or silk, without permanent press. It was a major undertaking back then, and not an effort completed every week. I found it interesting to learn that most items laundered were “body linen.” These garments (undershirts, shifts, chemises, etc.) were worn next to the skin to protect the fancy outer shirts and dresses from skin oils and sweat. Clothing from a few centuries ago was not laundered often because the undergarments protected them, in turn being the very reason that antique clothing has survived the centuries. Removable cuffs and collars also protected their shirts and dresses from dirt, along with the full bib aprons which I recall my mom’s mother always wearing over her dresses in the old farmhouse. My dad’s mother seemed to wear mostly a from-the-waist type apron over her every-day dress. Wearing pants, or jeans, was out of the question for my grandmothers’ generation!

But, to wash all the laundry, soap was needed. One of the annual fall chores was to make soap, typically done after the fall butchering of hogs. Virtually every part of a butchered hog had a purpose with the lard being used for cooking or making soap. Soap making began well in advance by burning hardwoods down to white ash. Next, a tall wooden barrel was set up with holes in the bottom for drainage. Small stones were placed in the bottom of the barrel, and covered with straw. A good layer of white ashes was put in with naturally soft rainwater poured on top of the ashes. Then followed a slow drainage of the water down through the ashes, straw and stones before the liquid leached out of the holes in the bottom of the barrel and into a separate wooden or glass bucket. This effort produced liquid lye. Aluminum containers were not used as the lye would destroy them.

Sometimes an ash hopper was used to make lye rather than the tall wooden barrel. By keeping the ash hopper in a shed to protect it from rain, fresh ashes could be added periodically with water poured on top every so often to obtain a steady supply of lye. Again, the lye would drip slowly into a bucket beneath the hopper.

To test the strength of the lye, either a potato or an egg was floated on top. If it floated with about a modern quarter-sized area of its surface above the liquid, the lye was ready for use in making soap. If it was too weak, it could be boiled down more, or poured back through more ashes. If it was too strong, a little more water was added.

To make old-fashioned soap, water, lye and tallow/animal fat is needed. One recipe I found online uses 2 gallons of rain water, 10 ounces of lye by volume (not weight), and 5 lbs of tallow/lard (animal fat). Trim the fat into about 1-inch cubes, removing anything that looks like meat or is not white. Start a fire under a cast iron pot (split pine apparently works best as it heats quickly and the heat is controlled easier). Place the tallow cubes into the pot to render (cook) the fat into a liquid. Once the fat has cooked down, strain it through cheesecloth in a funnel-shaped container. The liquid should be a nice amber color.

Then, measure and weigh 5 lbs of liquid fat, putting it back into the cast iron pot (again, aluminum will be eaten by the lye). Slowly add the water to the fat, which cools the fat down to solidify it into a greasy cream. Make sure the mixture is well blended. Carefully measure out 10 oz. of lye into a glass container. (Red Devil Lye brand can be purchased, and was often used by our ancestors if they did not make their own lye from ashes.) Carefully add the lye into the tallow/water mixture using a wooden paddle to stir it gently. Be careful – since lye is extremely caustic, it can burn your skin and eyes on contact.

Cook the soap mixture for 30-60 minutes, stirring occasionally, adjusting the heat to keep it from boiling over. After cooking, the mixture should be similar to a creamy chicken soup. When the wooden paddle removed from the mixture has “sheets” that look like hot wax hanging from the paddle, it’s ready to pour into wooden, glass or cast-iron molds that have been lined with plastic wrap or waxed paper. Allow the soap to harden for a few days before cutting it into bars. It may take a week or more to harden for use. (Online Source: Shepherds Hill Homestead, Making Lye Soap)

Before washing stacks of laundry, the ladies would have sorted the clothing, soaking some overnight in soapy water. Sounds similar enough, doesn’t it?! But, the difference starts with their gathering enough firewood to feed a large fire under each huge copper (which did not rust or stain like iron) or black cast-iron kettle. You’ve seen those kettles in front yards either upright or on their side as a large flower urn. The Iron Kettle Farm in Candor takes its name from their large black iron kettles on display.

Next, water had to be hauled from the well to fill the kettle(s) and any other wash or rinse basins. About 20-40 gallons of water were needed per wash load, with perhaps 10 gallons more for the scrub and rinse basins. Remember, they had no running water back then either; and, if they did not have a water source close at hand, walking a distance with heavy shoulder yokes to carry buckets of water would have been the norm. My mom’s mother raised a large farm family of 12 children, not having running water in the house until about 1932, 21 years after my grandparents married (my mother, child #11, was born in 1933). Are we tired yet?!

After starting a good fire under the kettle to boil the water, some lye soap was put into the water. Clothes were then dunked into the boiling water and agitated by using a 2-3 foot long wooden paddle. Some garments might be removed to a smaller basin where they could be scrubbed more thoroughly to remove dirt and stains. Remember the antique wooden shutter-like washboards? They were put to good use as the clothes were rubbed over the “shutters” to loosen dirt. Chalk and brick dust were often used on greasy stains. Alcohol could treat grass stains, kerosene, and blood stains. Milk was believed to be helpful in removing fruit stains from clothing and urine stains from diapers. Lemon and onion juice were often used for bleaching.

Colored garments were not washed with lye soap in order to prevent fading. Instead, they were scrubbed by hand in cold or lukewarm water. Need something starched? Great-great-grandma simply put that garment into water that had been used to cook potatoes or rice, making sure the water had not soured or turned moldy before putting the clothing in it. If the used potato or rice water was not used for laundry, it was often used to make bread. Nothing went to waste back then.

Once boiled, washed and rinsed, the laundry had to be wrung out before drying. If you were wealthy, you might own a “box mangle” which wound the laundry around rollers, and then rolled a heavy box over them to squeeze out excess water. Normally, water was simply wrung out by hand by twisting each garment. Then, the clothing was hung on a clothesline (without clothespins), spread out on bushes, hedgerows, fences, wooden frames, or even spread out over the lawn. And, oh my! If the farm animals or pets got into the clothing, one likely had quite a mess and had to start all over again. If it was not good drying weather, everything was dried inside the house or up in the attic. A good hot fire in the fireplace or cook stove would help dry the clothes very well.

After the laundry was done and dried, the ladies would need to iron the clothing. That required heating up heavy irons in the fireplace in order to press each garment. What a hot chore that must have been! And all the time they were taking care of the laundry, they had other household chores and meals to prepare, children to care for, and barn chores if the man of the house was out in the fields clearing land, planting or harvesting. It was definitely not an easy life for our ancestors…

Independence Day

It’s a fact that we Americans love our 4th of July celebrations!  We especially enjoy big parades with lots of floats and marching bands.  We look forward to fireworks with their beautiful colors and designs exploding in the night sky.  We decorate our homes with flags and bunting.  And, we salute, or respectfully place our hand over our heart, as our nation’s flag is carried past us by military veterans in parades.

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”  What precious meaning these words have held as we take time to gaze backward to their origins, something I never tire learning about.

As I contemplated our nation’s celebrations, I thought about the effort and sacrifice it took from many to give us the freedoms we so often take for granted.  I am so thankful for all we have in America which many around the world do not enjoy.  But, I also wondered if perhaps we have forgotten all that took place a long time ago, and if this day has simply become a traditional fun holiday.  Though no nation or government has been perfect as far back as the beginning of time, the early days of a young nation’s beginnings provide perspective for today’s America, this bastion of freedom.  So, it’s fitting that we ponder what part our ancestors played in the making of our great America some 240 years ago.  And, I might add, one of the best parts of researching my ancestors was the great lasting friendships I’ve made with other descendants.

Several of my ancestors served in the Revolutionary War in various capacities, some of whom I researched more extensively than others.  Originally, I did not plan to bring them into this article.  But, then it occurred to me that would be fitting.  Knowledge of personal service and sacrifice often provides us with a greater understanding of the historical era and what our collective ancestors experienced.

Numerous events, political acts, and taxes over many years led to the First Continental Congress meeting from September 5 through October 2, 1774 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  It was held to counteract the British Parliament’s Coercive Acts (commonly called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists) which were intended to punish the colonists for their Tea Party held in Boston’s harbor.  (Read complete timeline.)

But, among the early precipitators of the American Revolution was the import ban in 1774 against firearms and gunpowder enacted by the British government.  Next came the order to confiscate all guns and gunpowder.  The aptly named “Powder Alarm” took place on September 1, 1774 when Redcoats sailed up the Mystic River to capture hundreds of powder barrels stored in Charlestown.  Taking the event seriously, 20,000 militiamen turned out and marched to Boston.  Battle was avoided at that time, but ultimately took place the following spring at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.  Within these events lie the foundation of our Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as written by Thomas Jefferson in 1791: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  That very same day, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys seized New York’s Fort Ticonderoga from the British after traveling west from Vermont.

On June 14, 1775, delegates from the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army from colonial militia near Boston.  The next day, they appointed an esteemed and experienced military and civic leader as commanding general of their new army, a humble man by the name of George Washington, congressman of Virginia.  Nearly a month later, Washington arrived in Boston to take command on July 3rd.  The Continental Congress then approved a Declaration of Causes on July 6th.  This proclamation outlined why the thirteen colonies should stand united against Great Britain’s political clout and military force.

Through these early years, and with pressing urgency, the great minds of the day began formulating a bold statement of the burdens the colonists bore from an overbearing government an ocean away.  Initially, the colonists were not looking to start a war; they simply wanted their concerns heard and addressed.  But, revolt would be a relevant term regarding that which was festering.  They felt the heavy hand of tyranny over them like a smothering umbrella with their king and his government’s over-reaching philosophy of “taxation without representation.”

It did not take much for congressional delegates to think back and recall the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770.  Several colonials had taunted the ever-present British soldiers.  Reinforcement soldiers shot into the crowd killing five civilians, injuring six others.  Three years later, the Tea Act in May 1773 was followed by the Boston Tea Party on December 16th.  The year 1775 began with several new tax acts put in place; labeled collectively as the Intolerable Acts, they were Britain’s answer to their colonists’ unrest.  And then an auspicious delegation met in Virginia on March 23, 1775.  Those present were never to forget Patrick Henry’s speech and resounding words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Paul Revere took his midnight ride the night of April 18/19, 1775 to warn of British ships arriving at Boston’s shores.  [From the interstate, I have seen Boston’s diminutive North Church tucked beneath the shadows of modern “skyscrapers,” and walked the upper and lower decks of the U.S.S. Constitution from the subsequent War of 1812 – with a sailor in period dress uniform talking on a telephone!]  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” (“Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…”) has been said to contain many inaccuracies; in reality, it was written 80 years after Revere rode out with several others on horseback, quietly alerting other Patriots, but it may also be that Longfellow simply wrote a flowing ode to Revere with embellishments as any poet is wont to do.

The British government was again intent on confiscating all weapons held by the colonists. Bands of British troops were sent to confiscate ammunition stores in Salem, Massachusetts and part of New Hampshire. Both times, Paul Revere, a silversmith, was among members of the Sons of Liberty who alerted townsfolk in advance of enemy troops, giving them sufficient time to hide weapons and frustrate the British military.

Desiring to alert citizens, Revere garnered assistance from Robert Newman, sexton at Boston’s North Church. To warn that the Redcoats were coming from the shorter water route across Boston’s inner harbor, Newman hung two lanterns from the steeple window. These lanterns were clearly seen by those in Charlestown, including the British, unfortunately. Newman must have felt tremendous fear as the Brits attempted to break into the church while he was still there. Reportedly, he managed to escape capture by quietly sneaking out a window near the altar moments before enemy soldiers entered the church to begin their search. And the very next day, April 19, 1775, the Minutemen and British redcoats clashed at Lexington and Concord with “the shot heard ‘round the world.’”

Two months later, June 17, 1775 saw the Battle of Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on the Charlestown Peninsula overlooking Boston. Per military records, my ancestor John Caldwell McNeill was present as part of the Hampshire Line. As British columns advanced toward American redoubts, the colonists were reportedly told by their commander, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” The British were shot virtually pointblank and hastily retreated – twice. It was not until the third advance by the British that the inexperienced colonists lost to a superior military force. As the colonists’ limited ammunition ran out, hand-to-hand combat took place on that third advance. The redcoats took control with greater troop numbers despite their loss of over 1000 men, while the colonists counted over 200 killed and more than 800 wounded. Yet, the inexperienced Americans realized their dedication and determination could overcome the superior British military which, in turn, realized this little uprising was going to bring a long and costly war to the Crown.

With pressure mounting, the congressional delegation met the next year in the City of Brotherly Love. Here, they commenced to hammering out wording for what would henceforth be termed a declaration of independence.

“Monday, July 1, 1776, [was] a hot and steamy [day] in Philadelphia.” In a letter to the new president of Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, John Adams wrote, “This morning is assigned the greatest debate of all. A declaration, that these colonies are free and independent states… and this day or tomorrow is to determine its fate. May heaven prosper the newborn republic.” (John Adams, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY, 2001, p.125.) The delegates felt the tension amongst themselves in the debates and wording of their declaration, and the voting at the end of the day was not unanimous. Their tension was heightened that evening as news reached the city that one hundred British ships had been sighted off New York, with eventually more than 300 joining the initial fleet. The seriousness of what they were undertaking was felt by every man in the delegation for they knew their very lives were on the line.

July 2nd saw an overcast day with cloudbursts letting loose as the delegates met. The New York delegates abstained from voting while others joined the majority to make a unanimous decision. Thus, on July 2, 1776, twelve colonies voted to declare independence from Britain. More than anyone else, John Adams made it happen. His elation showed in writing home about the proceedings to his wife, Abigail. “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” (McCullough, pp. 129-130)

News spread like wildfire throughout Philadelphia. A young artist, Charles Willson Peale, journaled that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.” (McCullough, p.130) But, Congress still had to review what the delegation had written before an official statement could be made.

July 3rd blessed the city with a drop of 10 degrees following cloudbursts the day before. Tensions had even begun to ease among the men, but still there was much work to be done. More discussion and deliberation ensued as they reviewed the language of their declaration. (McCullough, pp. 130-135) Much had to be cut and reworded to make it a more concise document which then boldly declared, “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Benjamin Franklin offered encouraging and comforting words to the now-silent Thomas Jefferson whose many words were debated and cut. When their work was finished, it was still Thomas Jefferson’s words, however, which have held a firm and tender spot in the hearts of Americans ever since. To Jefferson goes the credit for writing “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (McCullough, p.130-136)

Thursday, July 4, 1776, dawned cool and comfortable. The tension was gone from the weather just as it was now from among the men of the delegation. Discussions were again held through late morning when a final vote was taken. New York still abstained, but the other twelve colonies voted unanimously to support the hard work they had wrought in this Declaration of Independence. Ultimately, the delegates from all thirteen colonies, including New York, signed the document in solidarity. (McCullough, p. 136)

Celebrations began on the 8th when the published Declaration was read to the public. Thirteen cannon blasts reverberated throughout Philadelphia, bells rang day and night, bonfires were lit everywhere, and candles shone bright in windows. The news reached Washington and his troops in New York City the next day where the Declaration was read. More celebrations sprang up as the crowds pulled down the equestrian statue of King George III. (McCullough, p.136-137) But, their elation was not long in lasting.

In reality, it would be several more years before celebrations of this magnitude would again be held. In reality, though the hard work of writing such a declaration was finally completed, even harder efforts and sacrifices of thousands of men and boys on battlefields were about to begin. In reality, the conflict about to begin would affect every man, woman and child living within the thirteen colonies in ways they could never have imagined. And, ultimately, their great sacrifices gave rise to the freedoms which we enjoy and tend to take for granted today.

The lives of the men who signed this declaration were also forever affected. If the new America lost its war for independence, every signer of said document faced charges of treason and death by hanging for actions against their king. In signing, they gave “support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, [as] we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

There were 56 representatives from all thirteen colonies who signed, ranging in age from 26 to 70 (the oldest being the esteemed Benjamin Franklin). Over half were lawyers, but the men included planters, merchants and shippers. Most of them were wealthy men who had much to lose should Britain win. Though none of them died at the hand of the enemy, four men were taken captive during the war by the British, with one-third of the signers being military officers during the war. And, nearly all of them were poorer when the war ended than when it began.

There was much at stake in the days and years ahead after the Declaration of Independence was signed and the war began in earnest. Some men abandoned the battle lines, their friends, and what once seemed like worthy ideals, and simply walked home. Many suffered untold pain and suffering as prisoners of war. Many suffered deprivations of food and clothing along with disease and death within their own military camps. Many fought family and friends in the same community as Patriot was pitted against Tory, i.e. Loyalist. Schoharie County, New York, considered by historians to be “The Breadbasket of the Revolution,” provided an abundance of food for Washington’s northern troops. To frustrate the colonists’ efforts, the British and their Loyalist supporters, including many Native Americans, destroyed and burned crops and buildings as they captured, killed and scalped settlers throughout the Mohawk and Schoharie Valley and along the western frontier during the war.

In reality, however, we likely would not have won our independence if it were not for Washington’s spies. Barely two months after the Declaration was signed, a 21-year-old Yale graduate by the name of Nathan Hale from Massachusetts eagerly volunteered to spy for Washington. He intended to go behind enemy lines on Long Island and in New York City to infiltrate the British strongholds. Instead, not being sufficiently familiar with the area and its people, and likely having a New England accent, he was caught and found to have sketches of fortifications and memos about troop placements on him. Without benefit of legal trial, he was sentenced to death. His requests for a clergyman and a Bible were refused. Just before being hung on September 22, 1776 in the area of 66th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, Hale was heard to say with dignity, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” (George Washington’s Secret Six, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2013, p.1.)

George Washington knew that he desperately needed spies, but he needed them to work in such a way that they would not be discovered. His tender heart for his fellow countrymen deplored that even one should die for the cause of freedom. Yet, he also knew that such loss was inevitable. And, thus was born Washington’s spies so aptly named, “The Secret Six.”

Out of the realization that Gen. George Washington desperately needed spies, and hating to lose even one more life after the hanging of Nathan Hale, a ring of trustworthy spies was gradually pulled together. Washington’s “Secret Six” included five men and one woman embedded within and around New York City and Long Island, each familiar with the land and its people. They reported to Washington on British movements and military plans in a timely fashion.

Because they knew the area, and were known by the people, they were readily accepted as they maneuvered amongst the enemy. That is not to say, however, that they didn’t come close to being found out. They lived in constant fear of such, not to mention the fear of losing their own lives and destroying their families in the process. At times they were emotionally frail, depressed and despondent. But, because of their passion for the freedom movement afoot, they came together for the greater benefit of all.

At one point, Washington’s army was entirely surrounded by the British in New York City. With tips from his spies, and being a man given to much time and prayer with God, his troops managed to quietly evacuate the city under the cover of night at an area not under guard. With dawn, however, came the realization that a large contingent still remained behind and would be very visible to the enemy. An answer to prayer was soon forthcoming to allow the balance of his men and equipment to leave the city – an unexpected and extremely dense morning fog enveloped the area, allowing them to continue crossing safely over into Jersey with the British unable to do anything about the Continental Army’s escape from their clutches.

Because of the work of Washington’s spies and the “important memos” he managed to have planted with false information behind enemy lines, the Americans crossed the Delaware to surprise the enemy at Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day night 1776 after the British had relaxed their guard and celebrated the day in style. Needless to say, the Americans enjoyed a vital and rousing victory.

Because of the spies and their efforts, accomplished with great fear for their own lives and that of their families, warning was given to Washington of 400 ships arriving from England. The spies’ insider knowledge that the British were planning to attack and scuttle the French ships and troops coming to Washington’s aid allowed him to turn the tide in a timely manner. He was able to fool the British into thinking he was readying an imminent attack on New York City, causing them to leave Long Island Sound, thus allowing the French time to land and move inland to safety in Connecticut without battling the British at sea before they even disembarked.

Because of the spy who owned a print shop which seemingly supported King George, important plans were heard and passed on to Washington. Other spies were privy to the upper level of command amongst the British military at parties in a particular merchandise shop and a certain coffeehouse. A circuitous route was set up for their messenger across Long Island to Setauket where packets with concealed or innocuous-looking papers written in invisible ink and code were rowed to the Connecticut shore in a whale boat (while being pursued by the British) where another member took the seemingly innocent packet of merchandise and rode his horse overland to Washington’s camp in New Jersey. At times, someone simply traveled out of New York City to visit relatives in northern New Jersey and met up with another dependable link to pass the information along to Washington’s headquarters.

Because of their courage and resolve, the spies assisted in uncovering the Crown’s Major John Andre` (who, himself, ran a British spy ring) as he worked with Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, American commander at West Point. Despite a prior stellar military record, but due to personal bitterness, Arnold was in the process of handing West Point over to Andre` and the British. Through a series of blundering mistakes, because of the spies’ knowledge given to Washington at just the right moment, and because of the quick thinking of a couple of patriotic guards on a bridge leading back into New York City, Andre` was captured and later executed. Arnold’s hand-over was thus thwarted, although Arnold managed to escape behind enemy lines and ultimately fled to England.

Because of the supposed loyal British support by the owner of said print shop, a little book was obtained through his work as an undercover spy. This inconspicuous little book contained key information on British troop movements at Yorktown, Virginia. With important knowledge gained of the enemy’s military plans, Washington was able to redirect appropriate troops and ships to Yorktown. General Cornwallis surrendered for the British on October 19, 1781 in an American victory where total defeat for the Americans would have otherwise taken place.

Because they swore themselves to secrecy, no one knew the full involvement of all six spies, nor all of their names. Only gradually over the last few hundred years has their identities become known, the fifth not confirmed until recently. All five men are now known, but the woman’s identity is not; she is simply known as Agent 355. It is believed she was captured and became a prisoner; but, there is no hard evidence by research even to prove that conjecture.

The efforts of the six spies as they secretly obtained information and passed it along (devising their own specialty codes, using a unique invisible ink, and more) enabled them to maintain total secrecy. Nor did they ever seek accolades for their work after the war was over. The secrets to their successful accomplishments have been among the methods still taught and used successfully by our CIA today.

In the interest of sharing the spies’ courage which undoubtedly helped us win the Revolutionary War, their story (as briefly described above) has been extensively researched and written by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger in George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. It was one of my Christmas gifts from my husband a few years ago, and I highly recommend it to other history buffs. It’s a read you’ll find hard to set down!

While researching my ancestry over ten years ago, I purchased Revolutionary War pension application files of several ancestors who had served. For those whose government files I did not purchase, their data was obtained from Schoharie County Historical Society, various Revolutionary War books, CDs, and documents proving their service. Hoping that my family research might provide us a closer glimpse of the war through their experiences, I share their legacy.

1) Frantz/Francis Becraft/Beacraft, bp. 06/12/1761, Claverack, Columbia Co., NY – Private, 3rd Comp., 3rd Regiment, 1st Rensselaerswyck Battalion, Albany County New York Militia, on muster roll from Berne in 1782, 1790 census at Berne. In an 1839 affidavit, Francis Becraft of Berne stated that he “served as a Private in a company commanded by Capt. Adam Dietz in the County of Albany…” Frantz/Francis married Catherine Dietz (sister of said Capt. Adam Dietz), my g-g-g-g-grandparents.

In researching my ancestors, I discovered an apparent familial tie to the notorious Tory Becraft/Beacraft. This man felt no remorse in aligning himself with Joseph Brant’s Indians to capture, kill and scalp Patriots throughout Schoharie County, known to have brutally killed and scalped a young boy in the Vrooman family who managed to escape the house after his family had been murdered. After the war ended, Becraft/Beacraft had the audacity to return from Canada to Schoharie County where he was immediately captured by ten men. In meting out a punishment of 50 lashes by whip, the men supposedly reminded him of his infamous acts against the community, his former neighbors. Roscoe notes that death did not linger for him after the final lash, and his ashes were buried on the spot. Of the ten men who swore themselves to secrecy, apparently only five are known. (History of Schoharie County, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Comp., 1882, pp.250-251.)

However, in “Families (to 1825) of Herkimer, Montgomery, & Schoharie, N.Y.,” a genealogical source on many early families by William V. H. Barker, it is noted that the Tory Becraft/Beacraft was Benjamin, born about 1759, brother of my ancestor noted above, Frantz/Francis Becraft. If this is accurate and they are indeed brothers, they were both sons of Willem/William and Mareitje (Bond) Becraft. Another source, “The Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea…” notes Becraft survived his whipping and left the area (pg. 64), just as other undocumented sources indicate he survived and returned to Canada to live with his family. So, I am uncertain as to whether Tory [Benjamin] Becraft actually died from his whippings or survived and left the area.

2) Johannes/John Berlet/Berlett/Barlet, b. 05/08/1748, Schoharie, Schoharie Co., NY – Private, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t, Mohawk District. He married Maria Gardinier, b. about 1751; their daughter Eva/Eveline Barlett married Martin Tillapaugh, b. 1778, my g-g-g-grandparents.

3) Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz, bp 05/10/1722, Nordhofen, Vielbach, Germany – served in Lt. John Veeder’s Company, Rensselaerswyck, later under Capt. Sternberger’s Company at Schoharie. He married Maria Elisabetha Ecker, bp. 1725; their daughter Catherine Dietz, b. 1761, married Frantz/Francis Beacraft above, my g-g-g-g-grandparents.

As per my upcoming article on Chemung County’s Newtown Battle, the Indian/Loyalist raids and massacres also touched my ancestral families in New York. In Beaverdam (now Berne), New York near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, the Johannes Dietz family was attacked. Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz was captured and forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and a Scottish maid be killed and scalped. (see “Old Hellebergh,” Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in Roorda’s collection from her father.) Capt. William Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor noted above, Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz.

4) Johan Dietrich Dallenbach/John Richard Dillenbach, b. 1733 per cemetery records, Stone Arabia, NY; father Jorg Martin Dallenbach born Lauperswil, Bern, Switzerland, emigrated with 1710 German Palatines. John Richard Dillenbach married Maria Mynard; their son Martinus took name of Martin Tillapaugh (my lineage), married Eva/Eveline Barlett as above. Dillenbach reported for duty March 20, 1757 when Sir William Johnson called local militia out to protect Fort William Henry on Lake George for the British. The Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War, began in 1754 and ended with the European peace treaties of 1763 during which year Dillenbach again reported to defend Herkimer with the Palatine District Regiment.

James Fennimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans about the siege of Fort William Henry. Roughly 2300 colonial troops were protecting the British fort when the French arrived with about 8000 troops in August 1763 and heavily bombarded the fort. With additional supporting troops not found to be on their way, the garrison was forced to surrender. The men were to be protected as they retreated by generous treaty terms. However, as the Indians entered the fort, they plundered, looted, scalped and killed about 200 colonials, many of them too sick to leave. In desecrating graves of those who had died before the siege, the Indians exposed themselves to smallpox, taking the germs back to their homes. The French destroyed the fort before returning to Canada. Fort William Henry was reconstructed in the 1950s. Visiting this fort in 1972 with the Lounsberry Methodist Church youth group, I was unaware at the time that my Dallenbach/Tillapaugh ancestor had walked that ground, having been involved in the siege and survived.

5) Timothy Hutton, b.11/24/1746, New York City. He married 2nd) Elizabeth Deline b.1760. Their son George b.1787 married Sarah Wyckoff b.1793, my g-g-g-grandparents. Timothy served as Ensign in Philip Schuyler’s Regiment of Albany County Militia, at defeat of Gen. Burgoyne in Saratoga October 17, 1777; appointed Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Marinus Willett; defended Schoharie County from burnings and killings by British, Loyalists and Indians. This Timothy is not to be confused with a nephew of same name and rank, b. 1764, which many have done, including an erroneous grave marker in Carlisle, New York. Sorting their military service out was part of my extensive thesis and documentation in researching and publishing two lengthy articles on the origins and descendants of this Hutton family in the New York Genealogical & Biographical Record in 2004-2005.

My Timothy’s nephew William Hutton served extensively in the Revolutionary War throughout New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley. My Timothy’s nephew Christopher of Troy, NY served as Ensign, promoted to Lieutenant, member of the elite Society of the Cincinnati. My Timothy’s nephew, Timothy Hutton b.1764, served as Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Willett, enlisting 1780 at age 16 in the Albany militia. My Timothy’s nephews, Isaac and George (brothers of Christopher and the younger Timothy, all sons of George Hutton, my ancestor Timothy’s older brother), were well-known influential silversmiths during the Federal period in the late 18th/early 19th centuries in Albany. Hutton silver is on display at museums in Albany, New York.

6) Johannes Leenderse (John Leonardson), b.06/18/63, Fonda, Montgomery Co., NY – enlisted as private in 1779 at age 16, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t; Corporal in 1781; served on many expeditions in the Mohawk Valley and at forts; joined Col. Willett’s company on march to Johnstown October 1781 in successful battle against enemy who had burned and killed throughout Mohawk Valley; re-enlisted 1782. Married Sarah Putman b.1773. Their son Aaron Leondardson b.1796 married 3rd) Lana Gross, parents of Mary Eliza b. about 1732 who married William Henry Ottman, my g-g-grandparents.

7) John Caldwell McNeill, b. 1755, Londonderry, Rockingham Co., NH – at Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on Charlestown June 17, 1775. As Sergeant under Col. Timothy Bedel of the New Hampshire Line, John bought beef to pasture and butcher as needed for the troops. Bedel’s regiment joined “Corp.1, Co. 1, New York Reg’t” on mission to Canada against British; taken captive with his cousins and friends at The Cedars near Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence; soldiers were stripped of clothing, belongings and food, and released in cartel negotiated by Gen. Benedict Arnold before he became a traitor. John served at and discharged at Saratoga, NY. He married Hannah Caldwell b.1762; removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York ca. 1794; their son Jesse m. Elizabeth Ostrom, my g-g-g-grandparents.

8) George Richtmyer, bp 04/23/1738, Albany Co., NY – Captain from 1775 through end of war in 15th Reg’t of Albany Militia, defending Cobleskill and Middleburg, Schoharie Co., NY. Married Anna Hommel; their son Henrich/Henry married Maria Beacraft (see above), my g-g-g-grandparents.

9) Hendrick/Henry Vonck/Vunck, b. 03/06/1757, Freehold, Monmouth Co., NJ – served as private and Corporal in New Jersey and New York City; carried papers for American Gen. Charles Lee; joined units marching to same area of Canada as John C. McNeill; on return became ill with smallpox with others at Lake George when news of the Declaration of Independence was made; honorably discharged; called to serve again at Sandy Hook, NJ; captured by the British at Sandy Hook, taken to a prison ship, then to the [Livingston] stone sugar house in Manhattan, then another prison ship, the Good___ (writing illegible on the early 1800s pension document, possibly Good Hope). After “one year and one month” as prisoner, he was exchanged and released. “Having suffered while a prisoner great privations and disease and in poor clothing and severely unwholesome provisions many prisoners died in consequence of their treatment.” (Per 1832 affidavit of military service for pension.) Conditions suffered as a prisoner left Henry in poor health the rest of his life; removing later to Montgomery County, NY. Married Chestinah Hagaman; their daughter Jane Vunck married James Dingman, my g-g-g-grandparents.

From 1776 to 1783 the British made use of decommissioned ships (those incapable of going to sea) as floating prisons. At least 16 rotting hulks were moored in Wallabout Bay, the inner harbor along the northwest shore of Brooklyn, now part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Among the ships were the Good Hope, Whitby, The Prince of Wales, Falmouth, Scorpion, Stromboli, Hunter, and the most infamous HMS Jersey, nicknamed Hell by the men. (see websites below.) Over 10,000 men, perhaps at least 11,500, died on these ships due to the deliberate deplorable conditions. Men were crammed below decks with no windows for lighting or fresh air. There was a lack of food and clothing, with vermin and insects running rampant, and a lack of other humane efforts to aid the ill, all leading to the death of thousands.

Prisoners died virtually every day, reportedly as many as fifteen a day. Some were not found right away, their bodies not disposed of until days later. Often, those who died were sewn into their blankets (if they had one) to await pick up by cart the next morning. Many were buried in shallow graves along the shore (unearthed during major storms) or were simply tossed overboard, later washing ashore. With development of Walloon Bay area over the last two centuries has come the discovery of their bones and parts of ships. To commemorate these soldiers’ lives and what they gave in the fight for independence, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument was built. Located in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, it was dedicated on April 6, 1808 with improvements made to it several times since. (see websites below)

At least another 5-6000 men died in the sugar houses, bringing the total who died as prisoners to more than 17,500 in the sugar houses and ships, more than double the battlefield losses. Sugar houses were buildings meant to store sugar and molasses. Affidavits by my ancestor, Henry Vunck, and friends note he was held for a few months in the “stone sugar house.” This could only mean the Livingston Sugar House, a six-story stone building built in 1754 by the Livingston family on Crown (now Liberty) Street in Manhattan. Demolished in 1846, buildings No. 34 and 36 are now on the site. (see website below)

A second sugar house, the Rhinelander, a five-story brick warehouse, was built in 1763 at Rose (now William) Street and Duane Street. This building was eventually replaced and is now the headquarters of the New York City Police Department. A third, Van Cortlandt’s sugar house, was built about 1755 by the early Dutch family of this name at the northwest corner of the Trinity Church in Manhattan. It was demolished in 1852.

10) Hans Georg Jacob Dubendorffer (George Jacob Diefendorf), b. 01/23/1729, Basserstorff, Switzerland – a Loyalist during Rev War, he left Mohawk Valley for Philadelphia and New York City, returned to a daughter’s home in Canajoharie, NY after the war rather than remove to Canada. A patriotic son disowned his father, taking his middle name (his mother’s maiden name) as his new surname, removing to Virginia. George Jacob married Catharine Hendree; their son Jacob Diefendorf married Susanna Hess, my g-g-g-g-grandparents.

On February 3, 1783, the British government acknowledged the independence of the American colonies. The next day, they formally agreed to halt all military operations. A preliminary peace treaty was ratified in April, and Canada offered free land that summer to Loyalists who sought a new life. Still, the British military maintained a presence in Manhattan. When Britain signed the Treaty of Paris September 3, 1783 to end the war, the hated Redcoats finally and slowly began to abandon their New York City stronghold.

Next would begin the task of establishing the government and president of this new nation, the United States of America. George Washington rode into Manhattan on November 25, 1783 with his officers and troops, eight horses abreast. At the same time Washington’s parade began, British soldiers and ships were setting sail for their homeland.

Flags were joyfully waved, church bells rang in celebration, and cannons were fired in honor of those who had fought and for those who had given their lives, all for the independence of this fledgling nation. The war had definitely taken its toll; but, on this day, great joy was felt in every heart for what had been accomplished. And that is why we continue to celebrate our 4th of July heritage in style – as we remember and commemorate those who gave so much that we might enjoy so much. And, I trust we will never forget what their efforts wrought for us.

BOOK SOURCES:

1) George Washington’s Secret Six, The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2013.

2) History of Schoharie County, New York, 1713-1882, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Co., Syracuse, N.Y., 1882; Paperback Reprint by Heritage Books, Bowie, MD, 1994, Two-Volume Set.

3) Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea; Including the Border Wars Two-Volumes, by William L. Stone, pub. Alexander V. Blake, New York, NY, 1838.

From Whence Cometh Your Name?

Chances are, if your surname is Cooper, Currier, Miller, Slater, Smith, Tanner, Tailor/Taylor, or Wright, etc., the earliest known source for your name can be traced to those ancestors employed with such skills at a time when an occupation typically became the family’s surname. Over time, others may have adopted occupational surnames even though they, themselves, held no skilled connection to such a name.

Some names are more obvious than others. A few years ago while writing this article on surname occupations, and discussing it with my husband, Ed began his own litany of surnames – Baker, Barber, Butcher, Carpenter, Plumber, Electrician… Laughing, I said, “No one’s last name is Electrician!” to which he replied, “Oh that’s right; they shortened it to Sparks!” You’re so helpful, dear!

Centuries ago, typical Scandinavian patronymic (paternal) surnames used the father’s first name with sons adding “sson/sen/zen/zon” and daughters adding “dotter/dottr”, i.e. Nielsson/Nielsen, Nielsdottr”. Thus, each generation was tracked by the father’s birth name as a prefix in a generational changing surname. Legislation began in 1771 to establish permanent surnames, with subsequent amendments enacted frequently since. Surnames also denoted town of residence, name of residence, or occupation, for example: Moller = Miller, Schmidt = Smith, and Fisker = Fisher.

Norwegian surnames might also reference their farmland, such as: Bakke/Bakken (hill or rise), Berg/Berge (mountain or hill), Dahl/Dal (valley), Haugen/Haugan (hill or mound), Lie (side of a valley), Moen (meadow), or Rud (clearing). Similarly, Swedish surnames include Lind/Lindberg (linden/lime + mountain), Berg/Bergkvist (mountain/mountain + twig), Alström/Ahlström (alder + stream), or Dahl/Dahlin (valley). Read more HERE.

As a genealogist, I enjoy the study of surnames and what they mean, and to what nationality they’re linked. In genealogy research, I’ve been bemused by some of the names chosen centuries ago when families were forced to take a designated surname. I am more familiar with our Dutch family names, many families forced to adopt permanent surnames by Napoleon if they didn’t already have one. After occupying the Netherlands, on August 18, 1811, Napoleon required the hardy Dutch to register permanent surnames. The stubborn Dutchmen that they were/are, you can find many interesting surnames among today’s Dutch if you delve into the meaning, including serious, humorous, place names, and occupational names.

Apparently, the top 10 Dutch surnames include: DeJong/DeYonge (the Young), Jansen (Jan’s son, like the American Johnson), De Vries (the Frisian, or of Vriesland), Van De Berg/Van Den Berg/Van Der Berg (from the mountain), Van Dijk/Van Dyk/Dyke (residing near a dijk/dyk/dike), Bakker (a baker), Visser (means fisherman with variations including Vissers, Visscher and Visschers. After emigration to America, this surname was often changed to Fisher, which my paternal grandfather’s uncle did); Smid/Smit/De Smit/Smidt/Smits (a blacksmith), Meijer/Meyer/Hofmeijer (a farmer who managed a farm/estate for the owner/landlord like the ancient feudal system.)

My paternal grandmother’s Vos of Zuid/South Holland province means fox. My paternal grandfather’s Visscher (fisherman) family is from Groningen province, close to Germanic influence, and my husband’s Roorda (similar to the English Edward meaning famous guardian) is Frisian. The first documented Roorda in Friesland province rode with Charlemagne, though I don’t know how my husband’s ancestors connect to him. My mother-in-law’s family names include Van Der Heide (from the moor/heath), Van Den Berg (from the hill/mountain), and ten Kate (the cat).

Other common Dutch surnames include Boer (farmer), Buskirk (bush church, i.e. kirk/church in the woods), de Groot (the large or great), de Wit (the blond), Mulder (miller), Noteboom (nut/walnut tree), ten Boom (at/the tree or pole), Van Der Zee (from the sea), van Dorp (from the village) van Staalduinen (from the steel dune) – you get the idea!

As my long-time readers will recall, I’ve been enamored with all things Dutch having been born into a paternal full Dutch family. Though my mother’s family had had little knowledge of their full ancestry until my in-depth research, it is interesting to note my mother’s paternal Swiss Dallenbach/Tillapaugh/German Kniskern and maternal Scots-Irish McNeill/German Ottman are overwhelmingly Dutch and German Palatine with Scots-Irish, English and French scattered amongst them. That my mother’s parents each descend from one of the only two sons of a German Palatine widow is also among my treasured ancestral findings.

I extracted a number of Dutch surnames from Wikipedia, particularly since early New York was settled predominantly by the Dutch in New Netherlands. Think about the names below, sound them out using your best phonics, and you’ll hear names and terms in use today, many of which are familiar to me from my grandparents and their friends. (Read balance of article after list of names.)

Baas – The Boss
Bakker – Baker
Bos – Forest
Berg, van der/den – From the cliff, mountain
Berkenbosch- birch wood, a grove of birch trees
Boer, de – the Farmer
Boogaard – from the orchard, Americanized as Bogart
Bouwman – mason, construction worker
Brouwer – Brewer
Bruin, de (Bruijn, de) – brown
Buskirk, van – literally bush church, or church in the woods
Cornelissen – son of Cornelis/Cornelius
Dekker – from the verb dekken or to cover as in covering roof tops (compare English “Thatcher”)
Dijk, Deijck, van – From the dike
Dijkstra – From the dike
Graaf, de – The count/earl
Heide, van der – from the heath
Hendriks, Hendriksen, Hendrix – Henry’s son
Heuvel, van den – From the hill, mound
Kuiper, Cuyper, Kuyper, de – the Cooper
Leeuwen, van – From Leeuwen/Leuven; Levi
Jaager, de – the Hunter
Jansen, Janssen – Jan’s son (compare Johnson)
Jong, de – the Junior
Koning, Koningh, de – the King
Lange, de – the long/the tall
Linden, van der – from the Linden (type of tree)
Meijer, Meyer – Bailiff or steward
Molen, van der – from the Mill
Mulder, Molenaar – Miller
Maarschalkerweerd – Keeper of the horses (compare English marshal)
Peters or Pieters – Peter’s son
Prins – Prince
Ruis, Ruys, Ruisch, Ruysch – the sound of wind or water (surname common with millers).
Rynsburger – inhabitant of Rijnsburg
Smit, Smits – Smith
Timmerman – Carpenter (timber man)
Tuinstra – From the Garden
Visser – Fisher [my ancestral Visscher = Fisherman (from Groningen, near Germanic influence)]
Vliet, van – From the vliet (type of water)
Vries, de – from Friesland/Frisian
Vos – Fox
Westhuizen, van der – from the houses located in the west
Willems, Willemsen – William’s son
Wit, de – White (= the blond)

But, back to our preoccupation with occupational surnames, particularly old English surnames.  Brewster was a woman brewer of alcoholic beverages, like beer. Chapman, old English for ceapmann, was a merchant or salesman. A cooper made wooden barrels or tubs with innumerable uses. A miller owned or worked in a mill, especially noted early on for grinding grain into flour. A smith was a blacksmith, hammering out iron objects heated in the fire. A tanner cured hides, while a currier (remember the artwork of Currier and Ives?) removed the hair from the hide, readying it to be made into leather goods. An experienced tailor could sew the finest outfits just by taking your measurements. A wright was a skilled woodworker, the word replaced by carpenter in the 11th century. A prefix designated other skills a wright might be proficient in – i.e. a shipwright built ships, a wheelwright made and repaired wooden wheels, a millwright set up machinery, and a wainwright was a wagon maker.

The name Cooper is Anglo-Saxon, stemming from the original Latin word cupa, Middle Dutch kuiper, German kuper, and anglicized in England during the 8th century. Surnames were also necessary when governments implemented a personal tax, or the Poll Tax as it was known in England. Over the centuries, many surnames have changed spellings, some dramatically so, often due to one’s ability to spell, or lack thereof. This fact alone is key when researching your ancestors.

A cooper was a skilled craftsman who worked with a variety of carpentry tools. He made and shaped wooden staves with broadaxes, planes and drawknives to form the rounded vessel, which in turn was held together by wooden or metal hoops/rings around the exterior. He then fashioned wooden lids or barrelheads to fit tightly. A cooper played a vital role within a community. His barrels, buckets, butter churns, casks, firkins, hogsheads, kegs and tubs, etc. were needed to hold milk, water and a whole range of staples/food supplies, dry food goods, gunpowder, and other liquids like beer and wine. The products of a cooper’s trade were generally known as cooperage, or individually a piece of cooperage.

A dry or slack cooper made wooden containers for dry goods including grains, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. A dry-tight cooper’s casks kept moisture out, enabling gunpowder and flour to be preserved. A white cooper made the pails, buckets, dippers, butter churns and tubs to hold liquids, but these were not used for shipping. These containers used straight staves, or wood that was not bent. The wet or tight cooper made barrels and casks in which liquids, including beer and wine, could be stored and preserved, and later transported. Certain woods have long been used in wine barrels to give a distinctive flavor enhancement to wine and liquors.

When we think of a miller, one who owned or worked in a mill, we usually envision a gristmill in an idyllic setting by a flowing stream and peaceful pond. The water flowed over the wooden “paddle wheel” which turned the shaft/gears which turned the millstone. A miller is among the oldest professions, a vital link within the community since everyone needed his product. Millers took grain and ground it finely between two flat millstones to make flour, the staple of breads, biscuits, pastries and pasta. Almost every community had its own mill for the convenience of local farmers transporting their grain. The miller’s income often stemmed from a “miller’s toll,” a certain percentage of the grain he had milled rather than a monetary fee.

Wikipedia describes the milling process well: “The millstones themselves turn at around 120 rpm. They are laid one on top of the other. The bottom stone, called the bed, is fixed to the floor, while the top stone, the runner, is mounted on a separate spindle, driven by the main shaft. A wheel, or stone nut, connects the runner’s spindle to the main shaft, and this can be moved out of the way to disconnect the stone and stop it from turning, leaving the main shaft turning to drive other machinery. This might include driving a mechanical sieve to refine the flour or turning a wooden drum to wind up a chain used to hoist sacks of grain to the top of the mill. The distance between the stones can be varied to produce the grade of flour required; moving the stones closer together produces finer flour.”

Smith, another common old English surname of the Anglo-Saxon era, or the German smithaz or Schmidt, originates from workers who were skilled in working with metal, such as a blacksmith or metalsmith. They made wrought iron or steel items by forging – the process of heating the metal in a fire until it is soft enough to be hammered, bent or cut to make gates, railings, agricultural implements, tools, household items, and weapons, etc. Typically, a blacksmith made horseshoes while a farrier shod the horse, though often their skills were interchangeable. A whitesmith/tinsmith or tinker worked with tin, typically making useful household items. Working with a lighter metal, he did not need the higher temperatures of a blacksmith’s fire. The skills of both a silversmith and goldsmith are self-explanatory.

Tanner is also an ancient Anglo-Saxon surname taken by those employed in the process of tanning animal hides/skins. It is thought to be of Celtic origin, a word for the oak tree and its bark which was used for tanning. A tanner held an important skill during the medieval era when leather was used for many common but necessary items including buckets, clothing, shoes, harness and saddles, and even armor for battle. Tannin (from the German word “tanna” for oak or fir, i.e. Tannenbaum) is the chemical residue from oak tree bark used to treat the animal hides, also producing the coloring during the process.

The Wikipedia article in my research includes a photo well worth the viewing entitled “Peeling bark for the tannery in Prattsville, New York during the 1840s, when it was the largest in the world.” Here, men are shown removing strips of bark from the base of trees in the forest. Oak and hemlock were the trees of choice. After peeling the bark off, the trees were sawn into firewood or lumber. The bark was set out to dry, then ground down and put into vats of water, and left to leach out the tannic acid necessary for tanning hides. Many of those early virgin forests were thus logged bare for the tanning products.

Some of the tools used in the process of tanning include:
Fleshing knife – for removing the flesh from an animal skin/hide
Unhairing knife – for removing the animal hair on the skin/hide
Sleeker – for smoothing the skin/hide
Buffer – for shining the animal’s skin/hide
Stone mill – driven by horses, used for grinding oak-tree bark which is used during tanning.

In the old days, tanning was an odiferous trade, typically performed by the poor on the outer edges of town. Even today, if the old-fashioned methods are used, tanneries emit foul odors and shops are set up well away from populated areas of town. The process is a lost art, one I found fascinating to read about, even if yucky. Again, Wikipedia gives an apt description of the processes. There may be some within our communities who trap and tan the animal hides to make their own leather. If so, they likely use a modern chemical process which I saw described online. But, for the purpose of the history of this interesting old skill, we’ll describe the ancient process.

When the skins/hides arrived at the tanner’s shack, they were dry, stiff and filthy. The first step was to soak them in salt water for curing to help prevent bacterial decay. The soaking steps also helped to clean and soften the hides. The hides were next treated with a layer of lime, and then pounded and scoured to remove any remaining flesh and fat. The hair needed to be removed, either by soaking in urine, coating it with a lime mixture, or letting the skin putrify for a few months before dipping it into another salt solution. With the hair loosened, the tanner could more easily scrape the hair fibers off with the unhairing knife.

After the hair had been removed, either animal brains, manure/dung or urine was pounded or rubbed into the skin. The ancient tanner often used his bare feet to knead the skins in dung water for a few hours. Centuries ago, tanners hired children to collect dung and urine from chamber pots set out on street corners for such a purpose. Plant juices or bone marrow, urine and rotted brains were used by many African tribes to make soft leather. The ancient Hebrews used oak bark, Egyptians used Babul pods, and the Arabs used barks and roots. Japanese preferred rapeseed (a flowering plant) and safflower oils. Eskimos used fish oil, while Native Americans would smoke the hides to tan them. Mud and alum were used by the ancient Chinese, as did the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Indians, and Greeks.

Softening the hide can be done by further pounding or rubbing it with sticks or heavy ropes, or by pulling it from the edges with another person to stretch it out. After putting the hide through all these processes, it would be pliable and to ready to use in making various items. I remember going with my father as an early teen to a leather shop in Newark, NJ where he picked out leather of various shades, thickness and flexibility, including alligator hide. Using a variety of tools to create designs, he made beautiful purses for my mother and others in the family. I still have a small one he made when I was about 5.

The ancients took leftover leather scraps from their projects and put them into a vat with water to rot. After several months, this mixture was boiled down to make hide glue. Nothing was wasted!

A cooper, blacksmith, tailor or wheelwright can often be found in living history museums like those I have visited: Bement-Billings Museum in Newark Valley, NY; the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY; Genesee Country Village Museum in Mumford, NY; and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, just to name a few as there are so many other museums to visit.

Bannerman’s Castle on the Hudson

A Scottish castle on the Hudson?  Drawn to the hazy beauty of this photo, I was mesmerized by the castle’s classic lines… so reminiscent of centuries-old castles scattered around the British and Scottish moors and highlands, intrigued to know it sat upon American soil.  After researching and naming my Mom’s maternal Scots-Irish, I am proud to say that they, too, hold a special place in my heart amongst all my Dutch ancestors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto by Will Van Dorp, Tugster

Think back with me to an earlier day when the adventurous Europeans followed Henry Hudson’s momentous sail north on a river now bearing his name.  It was an era of exploration, a prosperous time for the Dutch and their friends as they established a considerable presence in the settling of Nieuw Nederlands… and traveled freely up and down the North River with its invitingly peaceful, and beautiful, sylvan surroundings.

Now envision a fairy-tale castle of Scottish design built upon a solid rock foundation, entirely surrounded by a pristine and placid river as its moat.  At times though, depending on the season and storm, the waters become riled and treacherous, perhaps evoking images of an ancient castle set upon the lonely and stormy seacoast of bonnie Scotland.  Such a sighting embodies the ambiance of castle life in the Middle Ages…  a time of chivalry when knights in shining armor went out to battle, bravely protecting their sovereign and his empire, returning home with honor to win the heart of a certain fair young maiden…

Roughly 50 miles north of New York City lies an island comprising about 5-1/2 or 6-1/2 acres (depending on source) along the eastern shore of the Hudson River as you head north.  Pollepel Island is a lush growth of trees, bushes, flowers and gardens, clamoring vines, weeds, bugs, ticks, snakes, and rocky ground.  Not surprisingly, the hardy Dutch left their influence on our language and place names all throughout the new world in both New Amsterdam proper and environs of the greater New Netherlands.  Naturally this little island, Pollepel (i.e. Dutch for ladle), was named by these hardy early settlers, situated in an area designated as the “Northern Gate” of the Hudson River’s Highlands.  Just like in the Old Country, the island’s natural harbor provides the perfect setting for a castle… Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, to be exact.  Arsenal, you ask?  Yes, a place where knights could well have donned shining armor for their king and perched behind the battlements with all manner of arms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhoto by Will Van Dorp, Tugster

Long before there was a castle of dreamy old-world architecture, it was said that Native Americans refused to take up residence on this mound of rock.  Believing the island to be haunted, the Indians rarely dared set foot upon it in daylight, if at all, while their enemies flaunted that fact by seeking refuge on the rocky shore…

The hardy mariners who once sailed Hudson’s North River left a legacy of legends and tales of this little island.  Washington Irving of Tarrytown, told with skillful imagination the story of “The Storm Ship“, also known as the “Flying Dutchman”.  Fear of goblins who dwelt on Pollepel Island was as real as that of their leader, the Heer of Dunderburgh.  It was well known that Dunderburgh controlled the winds, those furies which provoked the waters, making safe passage of the Highlands a thing to be envied.  With the sinking of the famed “Flying Dutchman” during an especially severe storm, the captain and crew found themselves forever doomed.  And, if you should ever find yourself traveling the river near Pollepel in such a storm, listen closely… for in the howling of the winds which whip the sails, you just might hear the captain and his sailors calling for help.

Another legend which early Dutch sailors spoke about was that of Polly Pell, a beautiful young lady rescued from the river’s treacherous ice.  Romantically saved from drowning by the quick wit and arms of her beau, she married her rescuer.  Such are the dreams of the romantically inclined…

From a more practical perspective, Gen. George Washington used the strategically placed Pollepel Island during the American Revolution in an effort to prevent British ships from sailing north.  “Chevaux de frise” were made of large logs with protruding iron spikes which, when sunk upright in the river, were intended to damage ships’ hulls and stop the British from passing through.  However, these particular obstructions, set up between the island and Plum Point on the opposite shore, did not deter the resourceful British.  They simply sailed with ease past the sunken deterrents in flat-bottomed boats. Washington also planned to establish a military garrison for prisoners-of-war on Pollepel Island, but there is no proof extant that his idea was ever implemented.

According to Jane Bannerman (granddaughter-in-law of the castle’s builder) in “Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History”,  the island had just five owners since the American Revolution era:  “William Van Wyck of Fishkill, Mary G. Taft of Cornwall, Francis Bannerman VI of Brooklyn, and The Jackson Hole Preserve (Rockefeller Foundation) which donated the island to the people of the State of New York (Hudson Highlands State Park, Taconic Region, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation).”

Francis (Frank) Bannerman VI,  the island’s third owner, was born March 24, 1851 in Dundee, Scotland.  His ancestor was the first to bear the honored name of Bannerman seven centuries ago.  At Bannockburn in 1314, Stirling Castle was held by the English King, Edward II.  Besieged by the Scottish army, however, Edward II’s well-trained troops were ultimately defeated in a brutal battle.  Less than half the size of England’s army, the successful brave Scotsmen were commanded by the formidable Robert the Bruce, King of Scots.  During that battle, Francis VI’s ancestor rescued their Clan Macdonald’s pennant from destruction.  In reward, Robert the Bruce is said to have torn a streamer from the Royal ensign and bestowed upon Francis’s ancestor the honor of “bannerman,” an auspicious beginning of the family name.

Fast forward a few centuries and, interestingly, we learn that two years after the February 8, 1690 Schenectady (New York) massacre by the French and Indians, there was a similar massacre in Scotland.  Barely escaping the Feb 13, 1692 massacre of the Clan Macdonald at Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands by the Campbells, Francis Bannerman I and others sailed to Ireland.  With the family settling in Antrim for the next 150 years or so, it was not until 1845 that Francis Bannerman V returned his branch of the family’s presence to Dundee, Scotland.  There, Francis VI was born into this distinguished family.  When but a lad of 3 years, his father brought the family across the pond to America’s shores in 1854.  Settling in Brooklyn by 1856, the Bannerman family has remained with a well-respected presence.

Francis V earned a living by reselling items in the Brooklyn Navy Yard which he’d obtained cheaply at auctions.  A few years later, on joining the Union efforts in the Civil War, his 10-year-old son, Francis VI, left school to help support the family.  Searching for scrap items after his hours in a lawyer’s office, young Frank VI also sold newspapers to mariners on ships docked nearby.  In the evenings, he trolled or dragged local rivers and searched the streets and alleys, ever on the lookout for profitable scrap items, chains, and other odds and ends, even sections of rope, all eagerly bought by local junkmen.

Returning from war an injured man, Francis V saw how successful his son had become with his scrap business.  By realizing that items he sold held more value than ordinary junk, young Frank had made good money.  To handle the growing accumulations of items his son had collected, and the military surplus in 1865 purchased at the close of the Civil War, Bannerman’s storehouse was set up on Little Street.  Next, a ship-chandlery shop was established on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  Returning to school with his father at home, young Francis received a scholarship to Cornell University.  However, owing to his father’s disability, family loyalty won out and he declined to pursue the halls of higher education in order to help run the family business.

In 1872, 21-year-old Francis VI took a business trip to Europe.   Visiting his grandmother in Ulster, Ireland, he met Helen Boyce whom he married June 8, 1872 in Ballymena.  Two of their sons, Francis VII and David Boyce, eventually joined their father in the family business.  A third son, Walter Bruce, took a different path by earning his medical degree.  Sadly, their only daughter died as an infant.  Charles, grandson of Francis VI, married Jane Campbell, a descendant of the ancient Campbells who had attempted to destroy the Macdonald clan (from which massacre Francis I had escaped).  Their marriage showed love was the impetus to rise above the ancient rivalry between the families, reminiscent of the Appalachian’s storied Hatfields and McCoys.

Considered the “Father of the Army-Navy Store”, Frank Bannerman VI opened a huge block-long store on Broadway by 1897.  Here, his large building of several floors housed untold numbers of military supplies, munitions and uniforms from all around the world.  Francis/Frank was the go-to man in equipping soldiers for the Spanish-American War.  At that war’s end, the company bought arms from the Spanish government and most of the weapons which the American military had captured from the Spanish.  Printing a 300-400 page mail order catalog from the late 19th century through the mid-1960s,  collectors found a large array of military surplus and antiquities.  As city laws limited Bannerman’s ability to retain his massive holdings within the city proper, a larger facility was sought to store their collection of munitions.

Relaxing by canoeing the Hudson River around this time, David Bannerman observed an inconspicuous little island.  Finding Pollepel Island perfectly suited to their needs, his father, Frank VI, approached the Taft family and purchased the island in 1900.  Designing a Scottish-style castle to honor the family’s legacy, they built an arsenal to store their vast munitions supplies, with a smaller castle providing a family residence.  On the side of the castle facing the Hudson River, “Bannerman’s Island Arsenal” is embedded in the castle façade, clearly informing all passersby of its purpose to this day.

As the largest collector of munitions in the world, buying and selling to many nations, including Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and to private citizens like you nd me, even Buffalo Bill Cody, military memorabilia collectors, theatrical establishments, and artists needing props, Mr. Francis Bannerman VI held an in-depth knowledge of the military supplies and ordnance in his possession.  But, not being a man of greed, he refused to arm revolutionaries and returned their money on learning their intention.  At the opening of World War I, he reportedly shipped 8,000 saddles to the French Army and delivered thousands of rifles and ammunition to the British at no cost.

Though extremely successful selling munitions, Francis/Frank Bannerman VI considered himself a kind and generous man, “a man of peace”.  It was his intention that such a vast collection of arms as his would eventually be considered “The Museum of the Lost Arts.”  Energetic and devoted to his church and public service, he also taught a boys’ Sunday School class.  He enjoyed bringing friends to the island to experience his family’s hospitality.  His wife, Helen, who loved to garden, had paths and terraces constructed throughout the property.  Even today, tour guides point out the many flowers and shrubs she planted which have survived the decades, the beauty of which enhance the antiquity of the castle ruins.

With the death of Francis Bannerman VI on November 26, 1918 at age 64, building on the island stopped and many setbacks seemed to befall his estate.  Two years later, an explosion of 200 tons of stored shells and powder destroyed part of the castle.   With State and federal laws controlling the sale of munitions to civilians, sales began to plunge for Bannerman’s Arsenal.  Family continued to reside in the smaller castle on the island into the 1930s; but, for the sake of their customers, sold their goods more conveniently from a warehouse in Blue Point, Long Island into the 1970s.  In 1950, a pall fell over the island and its castle when the ferry “Pollepel” (named for the island it served) sank in a storm.  Then, when the island’s caretaker retired in 1957, Bannerman’s island remained abandoned and untended for years.

Frank VI’s grandson, Charles Bannerman, wisely predicted in 1962   that “No one can tell what associations and incidents will involve the island in the future.  Time, the elements, and maybe even the goblins of the island will take their toll of some of the turrets and towers, and perhaps eventually the castle itself, but the little island will always have its place in history and in legend and will be forever a jewel in its Hudson Highland setting.”

Ultimately, New York State bought the island and its buildings in 1967 after all military supplies had been removed, and tours of the island and castle commenced in 1968.  Unfortunately, a devasting fire on August 8, 1969 destroyed the Arsenal along with its walls, floors and roofs making the island unsafe, and it was closed to the public.  Though the castle now sits in ruins, much of the exterior walls are still standing, accented with climbing ivy, and held up in the weakest sections by supports.  Since virtually all interior floors and walls were destroyed by fire, “vandalism, trespass, neglect and decay”  have continued taking their toll over the decades.

In more recent years, the island once again made headlines with a tragic story.  On April 19, 2015, Angelika Graswald and her fiancée, Vincent Viafore, kayaked to Bannerman’s Castle Island.  Attempting to return from their outing in rough waters, Viafore’s kayak took on water and overturned, resulting in his drowning.  Graswald, charged with Viafore’s murder, admitted to removing the drain plug.  Arraigned in Goshen, Orange County, NY, a plea deal was later reached before the case went to trial.  Pleading guilty to a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide, she was released from prison not long after, having duly served the time of her reduced sentence.

 

Few people know and remember “Bannerman’s Island”  during its glorious past like Jane Bannerman (wife of Charles, Francis VI’s grandson).  Assisting The Bannerman’s Castle Trust and the Taconic Park Commission to repair the buildings, Jane has noted, “…it all comes down to money, and if they don’t hurry up, it’ll all fall down.  Every winter brings more destruction.”  Unsafe conditions on and around the island are due to both underwater and land hazards, not to mention unstable castle walls.  Due to these conditions, it is advised you do not attempt to visit the island on your own.

The Bannerman’s Castle Trust has initiated “hard hat” tours along with other entertainment venues.  By making island visits possible, it is the Trust’s hope they will be able to restore the castle, smaller castle home, and gardens for the public to enjoy more fully.  In the interest of preserving the rich history of this Scottish Castle on a small island in the Hudson River, we hope The Bannermans’ Castle Trust is successful in its restoration endeavors.

Hudson River Cruises advertise a tour from Newburgh Landing: “Ruins of a 19th century castle on Bannerman’s Island can be seen on special guided history and walking tours departing from Newburgh Landing and Beacon.”  For information on 2-1/2 hour guided tours held May through October call:  845-220-2120 or 845-782-0685.

With my own maternal Scots-Irish McNeill and Caldwell heritage, I was intrigued by the photos of such an old-world castle built on a small, seemingly insignificant island.  The fairy-tale ambiance of this Scottish castle stands out, visible by boat and train, amidst the New Netherlands’ Dutch influence up and down the Hudson River.  I hope someday to take a guided tour on Pollepel Island and see Bannerman’s Castle; but, for now, the photos and articles will have to do.

Many thanks to friend, Will Van Dorp, who initially piqued my interest by posting his photos and synopsis of the island, castle, and its environs on his blog, Tugster:

Hudson Downbound 18b, April 12, 2018, Tugster – Scroll down to photo of Bannerman’s Castle which prompted my story.

Landmarks, Bannerman’s Castle Arsenal, 2013, Tugster.

More Ghosts, photography of Bannerman Castle, 2007, Tugster.

There is so much more in-depth reading and photography from many websites, including these which I referred to in my research:

Bannerman’s Island Arsenal

Bannerman Castle Trust

FRANCIS BANNERMAN, the noted merchant and authority on war weapons

Bannerman’s Castle: The Ultimate Army-Navy Store

Bannerman Island: A Mystery Island on the Hudson

Pollepel – An Island Steeped in History by Jane Bannerman

Pollepel Island: Private Fortress on the Hudson

Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, Historic Images – Old Photos/Postcards

Bannerman’s Castle: The Ultimate Army-Navy Store (history and photos of military supplies) 

1913 Military Goods Catalogue Francis Bannerman, 501 Broadway, New York

All Things Medieval

Ghosts of Old Bannerman’s Island

Washington Irving, The Storm Ship

Wikipedia: Pollepel Island

 

Your Family Tree #12 – Genealogy Website Resource List

As we conclude our discussion on how and where to begin your ancestry research with suggestions based on my experience, I thought it would be helpful to collect the online resources in one place.  The following is a list of some of the many online sources which I found most helpful.

I also continue to stress that not all submitted family records on any given site are totally accurate.  Unintentional errors and misspellings in data creep in.  It is up to you to seek out and prove the accuracy of whatever data you find online about your ancestors.  Unless you know a book is truly accurate and can prove the author had sound documentation, do not take a published book as fact “just because it says so.”  That’s how I proved errors in a book that had been accepted as fact for decades as I noted previously.  The extra footwork involved can be extensive, but it’s worth every effort put forth to have solid documentation for your family’s ancestral heritage.

Ancestry.com – free 1880 census record; but, for an annual subscription fee, you get in-depth census records from 1790-1930, military records, city and national records, land records, international records, family trees, baptisms, marriages, death indexes, etc.

Family Search  – free website with 1880 census records, baptism, marriage records, death records, and submitted family data.  Books and documents on microfilm can be ordered and viewed at a Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, locally as in Owego or Elmira.  They also have a free down-loadable Personal Ancestral File, PAF, which I have used, though I prefer the Family Tree Maker.

My Heritage – discover your roots in a free trial to a subscription-based genealogy compilation.  I have not used this site.

Olive Tree Genealogy – free old church/cemetery records, 1600s ships’ lists, records for New Netherland, Palatines, Mennonites, Loyalists, Native American, Military, and Canadian data, etc.  I found this website to be very helpful in my early research nearly 20 years ago.

RootsWeb  – free source of records, county genweb sites, surname lists, e-mail lists, posted documentation for cemeteries, church records, family websites and more. Currently undergoing a full-site rebuilding, but worth checking out for sections as they come back up for use.

CyndisList – free listing of American and International records and resources – a great resource.

Vital Records – U.S. birth certificates, death records, and marriage licenses for a fee.

U.S. GenWeb – free County GenWeb sites with a lot of data to aid your research.

Three Rivers – free source for middle-eastern New York families in the Hudson, Mohawk, Schoharie river regions, family genealogies, books, etc.

Sampubco – Wills from several states, but not all wills.  Fee charged for copies.  I purchased several wills from this website and was very pleased with the service.

National Archives and Records Administration  –  Click on Veterans’ Service Records section to begin searching.  You will find military service records, pension records of veterans’ claims, draft registration records, and bounty land warrant application files and records available. Order forms are free, but you pay a fee to order copies of records. Well worth the cost.

NARA contact/forms – see various forms listed for National Archives Records Administration, government war records.  Obtain free forms from which to order military records including pre-Civil War full service records or pension application files (on NATF Form 85 and/or 86; forms are free).  Some list family members, others do not.  You will find a good amount of information in files re: a soldier’s service, enlistment, capture, discharge, death, etc.,; these records provide valuable documentation.

Soldiers and Sailors Database – Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database for military records.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation – search passenger and ship manifest records free, or order quality record copies for a fee.  Ship manifest records are also found at Ancestry.com, a subscription resource.

New York Biographical and Genealogical Society – very trustworthy site with many online articles/records.  They are working to put more records online; however, most are limited to membership in the Society.  The Steele Library in Elmira has the full set of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record and the New England Genealogical Journal.  I can attest to the high quality of published research and records in both journals.  I used these journals in my research, with my documented research articles published in the NYGBR.  In order to publish, you must prove all of your statements with solid documentation.

Making of America, Cornell University – old books, magazines, newspapers online in searchable/readable format – worth wading through this free resource.

Higginson Book Company, Salem, Mass. – old maps, family surname genealogies, county/state historical books, published cemetery and church records, etc.  Contact for free catalog; copies books/records obtained for a fee but worth it, from which I purchased a few books.

Olin Uris Library, Cornell University – Cornell University’s guide to research of their extensive holdings.  They note that, unfortunately, not all their genealogical books are kept in one section.

Find-A-Grave – free resource of many gravestones around the United States.  Be careful of family notes – I found errors in a family of my close relatives; when I contacted the contributor who added notes tying my family to theirs by error, there was no response, no correction.

Tips on fraudulent lineages at:

Family Search Fraudulent Genealogies

Genealogy Today 

Gustav Anjou, Fraudulent Genealogist

Genealogy.com, locating published genealogies

Genealogy Bank, Researching your Pilgrim Ancestry from the Mayflower

Again, locally, the Steele Library in Elmira has an excellent genealogy section on the second floor to aid your research.  I spent many a Saturday morning searching through their collection for documentation on my ancestry data and can highly recommend it.  Cornell University also has a major genealogy library though I was afraid to go up on campus for a personal visit.

Last but not least, your local library can order books through the interlibrary loan system.  This was a tremendously helpful resource to me for out-of-county and out-of-state historical/genealogical books.  I could not have done it without these resources.

I must also give credit to the many friends I made along my genealogical journey, some of whom proved to be distant cousins and have remained close friends.  We shared data, books, and a love for our ancestral families.

And now, I wish you every success as you search for your ancestors.  Enjoy the journey!

~ The End ~

 

Your Family Tree #11 – Using Genealogy Websites

There are many free genealogy websites which are a great resource for records and helpful family data, including RootsWeb. This free site, part of the ancestry.com family, includes a “Getting Started” section with their “guide to tracing family trees.” The latter has great tips on how to begin, a list of sources and where to find various records, and a list of various countries/ethnic groups. Clicking on any of these hi-lited items will provide information on beginning your research.

Unfortunately, in checking the RootsWeb site to update this article, I learned they’re in the process of making website repairs. Feel free to check them out for their explanatory letter as some functions may be up and running while other functions will gradually return for usage as they make repairs.  I do, however, review other free websites below that will be very helpful to your family search.

RootsWeb has a section entitled “Searches.” This includes surname listings you can peruse to see what might be out there. My favorite section was the “U.S. Town/County Database.” Here, I have found a wealth of information for vital records from churches and cemeteries, biographies, family lineages, and more. Researching my early New York families often brought me to the Albany, Schenectady and Schoharie county genweb sites.

The next section is labeled “Family Trees (World Connect).” You can search family trees generously submitted by other researchers. I did find errors in submitted family trees when I began my research, prompting my own research to document, write and publish my family articles. For that reason, I tend to stay away from this section in seeking information on my ancestors. I prefer to do as much footwork as I can on my own, albeit with guidance from friends who taught me as I learned along the way. Submitted trees certainly can be entirely accurate; however, if used as a starting point with other online records, you can then seek sources to provide solid documentation and corroborative proof, i.e. church and cemetery records in reputable books or journals, census records, wills, etc.

The next section is “Mailing Lists.” These lists are also invaluable. I was formerly on an email list which provided discussions on various topics relating to the early settlers and records of the 1600s and 1700s in New Netherlands/New York. It was a rewarding experience to reply to someone’s query by contributing data I have in a book of ancient Albany’s city and county records that was helpful to others.

From RootsWeb, I had subscribed years ago to the Schoharie County email list. That resource was where I saw the notice by a professor from Long Island who found an old photo in a Washington, D.C. antique shop. The pencil writing on the back of the matting read, “First Tillapaugh Reunion July 1910…” I replied that my mother’s two oldest brothers inherited that farm, and their sons continue to farm it today. A reproduction of the photo is in the Dallenbach book of descendants which I own, so I was well aware of what the professor had found. In fact, the house in the photo, built in the 1830s, is still very much in use today. I was offered the opportunity to purchase the photo which, of course, I did, thus beginning my genealogy research in earnest in the late 1990s.

RootsWeb also includes a section for “Message Boards.” Here, you can search your surname of interest, read other posts, and post your own query for information which I have also done. Folks on these message boards have been very helpful. This has also been a resource to meet extended relatives in various lines, which I have also done. We have then shared our own researched and documented data with each other. Several friendships were made this way, and they continue to be counted among my close friends today.

Other sections have even more options available including various surname websites, other tools and resources such as blank forms and charts, and hosted volunteer projects. The latter includes books owned by folks who are willing to research them for information you might need from a particular book. You may also find volunteers who are able to do local lookups at either cemeteries or historical societies for you. When volunteers have helped by doing research footwork for me, I felt it appropriate to pay their expenses, a much-appreciated gift.

You can also submit your FamilyTreeMaker data to RootsWeb. Instead, of doing that, I submitted a McNeill descendancy outline with names and dates of birth to the Schoharie County Genweb site. It is also common courtesy not to submit names of any living relatives, or those born within the past 75-100 years out of respect for privacy.

Another free online source of cross-referenced data is the comprehensive CyndisList.  The Categories section provides a list of resources, including American state and government as well as international resources. There is an Adoption section to help find orphans and living people, message boards, and volunteers to assist your search. A section entitled Free Stuff includes charts and forms, translation tools, online databases to search, volunteer lookups, surname family associations and newsletters, etc.

Sections you might not have thought about include 1) Migration Routes, Roads and Trails, 2) Canals, Rivers and Waterways, and 3) Immigration and Naturalization. There are sections entitled Heraldry, Hit a Brick Wall?, and Ships & Passenger Lists. The Mailing Lists are great for asking questions when you’re stumped, and for connecting with researchers working on the same lines. There are also sites to purchase items, and free trials to search various genealogy websites before paying their site subscription fee.

Ancestry.com has some free data, like the 1880 Federal Census records, but the best records are obtained using subscription-based entrance. Here, you will find tabs for Home, Trees, Search, DNA, Help, and Extras. It is absolutely an invaluable resource.

Perhaps your ancestors came through Ellis Island. Search The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to find your ancestors and the ship on which they sailed. A ship’s manifest lists the passengers, their age, name of the ship, port, date of departure, occupation, nearest relative in their country of origin, and their sponsor in the U.S.  I found information for my husband’s paternal grandfather’s family when they emigrated from Holland in the early 1920s. Some went first to North Dakota before settling in northern New Jersey as dairy farmers while others settled right away in northern New Jersey and Massachusetts to work in the textile mills.

I also found records at the Ellis Island website for my father’s families which emigrated from the Netherlands. Like many families, both of my father’s grandfathers came through Ellis Island, each with their oldest son – my dad’s paternal grandfather in November 1922, and his maternal grandfather in September 1923. They settled in and around Kalamazoo, Michigan among other Dutch. When they earned enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Uithuizermeeden, Groningen at age 15 in July 1923 with his mother and siblings through Ellis Island.

However, my dad’s maternal grandfather was determined his wife and children would not go through the rigors of steerage and Ellis Island. Instead, he sent money back home to them in Rotterdam for second-class tickets. Decades ago, my grandmother told me only a little about their sailing on the S. S. Rotterdam to Hoboken, New Jersey. Research showed the ship came into a New York City port in January 1926, with the ship’s manifest listing my grandmother’s family. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask more questions. She told me that a Dutchman, who made a living helping immigrants, met my great-grandmother and her children (my grandmother was age 15), and took them to his home in Hoboken, New Jersey. He fed them, put them up overnight, and the next morning put them on the right train to Michigan with lunches in hand. There, my great-grandmother was reunited with her husband, and my grandmother and her siblings with their father and oldest brother. How exciting that must have been!

My grandparents married in 1931 and lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan. With the Great Depression, my grandfather and his father lost everything as building contractors. They removed to another Dutch enclave in Clifton, New Jersey where my grandfather became a door-to-door salesman before again becoming a successful general contractor, with many a beautiful house or remodeling project to his credit.

You can purchase quality photo documentation of the ships your ancestors sailed on. However, I simply printed the free online photo of the ships on which my ancestors sailed, along with each respective ship’s manifest for documentation. I used both Ancestry.com and the Ellis Island websites to obtain records.

For steerage immigrants, the Ellis Island experience included passing a medical and legal inspection. If your papers were in order, and you were in reasonably good health, the inspection process typically lasted 3-5 hours. The ship’s manifest log was used by inspectors to cross-examine each immigrant during the primary inspection. Though Ellis Island has been called the “Island of Tears,” the vast majority of immigrants were treated respectfully and allowed to enter America to begin their new life. However, about two percent of immigrants were denied entry. Typically, if you were suspected of having a contagious illness, or if the inspector thought you might become a public burden, entrance to the U.S. was denied. I can only imagine the pain it must have caused when one or more family members were told they had to go back to their native country.

I am very appreciative of the efforts my many ancestors made to emigrate from their home country, to which none ever returned, of becoming American citizens, and of their hard work to provide a better way of life for their family. By sharing bits of my ancestral heritage, of who they were and whence they came, I hope it has encouraged you to search for your ancestors, to find their place in the building of our great America, and thus to know the gift of your family heritage.

COMING NEXT: Genealogy Website Resource List.