As a historian, the most compelling aspect of anything for me is how it came to be. During my three decades as a New Yorker, that has certainly become the case with my state. I’ve read and researched New York’s rich history, from Henry Hudson’s ill-fated search for a northwest passage to the Orient up through the cataclysmic attack on September 11th. Throughout my studies I became particularly intrigued by the brief but fascinating Dutch period of our state. (Particularly after reading Russell Shorto’s masterful Island at the Center of the World.) Englishman Hudson, sailing for the Dutch “discovered” the New York harbor and the majestic Hudson River in 1609, and by 1624 the Netherlands had established a small, precarious outpost: a fort on the tip of what is now Manhattan Island. “New Amsterdam” would remain in the control of the Dutch for four decades before peacefully falling to the British. Eventually I developed a course on New York State history and loved to share with my students tales of those early Dutch days and the continuing influence of Dutch DNA on the modern juggernaut we know as New York City.
Five years ago, my uncle and aunt came for a visit and knowing of my interest in family genealogy, brought along some old family papers they’d dug up while cleaning out their attic. As I started pouring over it, I realized that it concerned the family story of my great, great grandmother, Retta Wyckoff, and that it traced her lineage back to my great (x10) grandfather, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, who emigrated to New Netherlands in 1637, just twelve years after the Dutch established their ancient fort. By varying accounts Pieter may have been as young as twelve at the time of his journey (other versions have him as a young man upon his arrival) He arrived alone, indicating that he was almost certainly orphaned. It is heart wrenching to think of this young man, younger than my own children, embarking alone on that perilous adventure. He came as an indentured servant and worked off his debt and apparently proved himself in the process because he married Grietje Van Ness, from one of the most prominent families in New Netherlands. The Dutch did not use surnames, so the name Claesen refers to his deceased father, literally “Nicholas’s son”. When the British took over New Netherlands they insisted on last names and so Pieter took the name “Wyckoff.” He managed lands for Governor Peter Stuyvesant and became the local magistrate, and the name Wyckoff possibly references that title. Pieter and Grietje built a home and raised 11 children. Pieter named his first son Nicholas for his father. (Nicholas was the son through which my ancestors descend.) Their home was right on the old Canarsie Indian trail which became the main road in Brooklyn. Somehow the home survived all through the ages and today still stands in the Flatlands region of Brooklyn, just a half mile from the shore. It is the oldest structure in New York City and the oldest non-Native American structure in New York State. Americans named Wyckoff (and its 50 various spellings) descend from Pieter & Grietje. Some of his prominent descendants (besides yours truly, of course) include the Wright brothers, first lady Margaret Hoover, artist Georgia O’Keefe, actors Kirk and Michael Douglas, and actress Dixie Carter. The Wyckoff Family formed a society in the 1950s and re-purchased the house, which by then had survived a fire and was being used as a storage shed behind a gas station. They restored the home and donated it to the city of New York as a historic landmark in 1982.
And so in June of 2012, I found myself riding the New York subway as far as it would go out to Brooklyn, then transferring to two buses and finally walking through the working class neighborhood of East Flatbush. Suddenly, amongst the pawn shops, auto-repair garages and diners, I came upon the grassy oasis where sits the ancient home of my ancestors. The gracious young director, learning I am a Wyckoff, gave me a mesmerizing and in-depth tour. Afterwards, I still didn’t feel ready to leave, so I got a sandwich and a Coke next door and sat out on the lawn and marveled as I contemplated my ancestors who had walked, worked, and lived on that land so many centuries before. It was really a mystical, almost spiritual, experience. After I ate I found myself walking along the wrought- iron gate and picking up the litter that must blow in every day. I guess I wanted to do “do my chores,” to feel like I belonged.
What had life been like for the Wyckoff family in those earliest days of New York? What were their daily hardships and pleasures? What did they think when the British crown took over the colony? What stories did Pieter tell his children about his journey to the new world? What would they think if they could see today’s great city which they helped to found? And what part of them do I still carry inside me? Had some ancient part of me been drawn to the story of New Amsterdam before my brain ever knew that it figured prominently in my own genealogy? What I do know is that on that sunny June afternoon in Brooklyn, as I walked in their footsteps, I felt the whispers of ten generations and nearly 400 years speaking to my spirit and teaching me about myself; I’ll never forget it…