The Forgotten New York Families who Inspired Washington Irving
By Gloria Waldron Hukle www.authorgloriawaldronhukle.net
The basis for all engaging historical fiction is a life well-lived.
Long before 19th century American author Washington Irving wrote about a “headless horseman” and a fictitious “drunk Dutchman” by the name of Rip Van Winkle, some say the man who became famous for his literary work was visiting with a Dutch cook in the basement scullery of the grand Knickerbocker Mansion located in rural Schaghticoke New York. Folklore has it that the Manhattan born Mr. Irving sat beside a flour-dusted small wooden table while the well-rounded cook kneaded bread. And she’s not quiet. As she pounds dough, she gossips about Dutch neighbors whose ludicrous escapades would become the seeds of Irving’s first novel: Diedrick Knickerbocker’s The History of New York From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty published in 1809. Filled with satirical humor, the tale introduced us to a jolly, Dutch Saint Nicholas who rattles down chimneys, and also featured an imaginary New York historian, the character, Diedrick Knickerbocker. In truth, Diedrick Knickerbocker was actually the byproduct of the author’s friendship with 19th century Congressman Herman Knickerbocker, the son of Johannes Knickerbocker III, the richest man in Schaghticoke, New York, and the owner of the impressive Knickerbocker mansion until his death in 1827.
But I wonder about the cook, who in the early 1800s might well have been an enslaved black woman at Knickerbocker’s, or any one of the finer homes straddling the upper Hudson Valley Region. It seems highly unlikely a servant woman would be engaged in frivolous conversation with a white man chattering about her master’s white neighbors. Although it’s certainly possible Washington Irving saw or overheard something by way of the help on one of his countryside visits since slaves were not emancipated in New York State until 1827. According to the census records of 1790 taken only a few years after the present Knickerbocker Mansion was built, and when the above-mentioned Herman Knickerbocker was eleven years old, the family owned twelve slaves. One of them was probably Tom, i.e., Thomas Mando who was born about 1767 and is buried in the old Knickerbocker Cemetery at Schaghticoke. The stone is simply marked, “Tom”. Other than slaves being enumerated, we know nothing of the eleven others, or where they are buried. But Tom is remembered decades later in an article printed in the December 1876 issue of Harpers New Monthly Magazine. The article is titled “Knickerbockers of New York Two Centuries Ago” by General Egbert Viele. According to the article Tom was ninety when he died about 1857. In December of 1809 when Washington Irving’s book was published Tom had already lived through many life experiences. It stands to reason someone writing a historical novel, observed, listened, and made a few notes about his remembrances.
On the other hand, Robert N. Pierpont, the architect who prepared a report in 1994 for the Knickerbocker Historical Society about the Knickerbocker Mansion, it’s architecture and the family history as it pertains to Schaghticoke, doubts any of Washington Irving’s The History of New York… was written at the Knickerbocker mansion. Although Mr. Pierpont’s work is spellbinding, for various reasons, I believe there is a possibility that Herman Knickerbocker and Washington Irving became acquainted
years before The History of New York… was published. My friend, historian and Knickerbocker Mansion administrator, Leslie Allen, who was also a part of the Mansion Restoration Committee in 1994, says, “history is full of mysteries”. Indeed, and who doesn’t enjoy unraveling a mystery?
It is safe to say young Herman Knickerbocker, born in 1779, had grown up watching his father, Johannes III, entertain dignitaries while his mother, Elizabeth (Winne) oversaw her large household eventually consisting of eleven children and the twelve slaves. The Knickerbocker property was a huge farm, and likely the Knickerbocker boys and some of their farm hands might have worked side by side in the fields. In 1789 Knickerbocker slaves might well have carted stones for the masons to set in the foundation, or bricks needed by the bricklayers to build walls in the new mansion. It is also possible that under the supervision of Johannes and others, dark-skinned workers may well have played a part in building the bridge in 1799 over the Hoosick River at Schaghticoke Point. What a remembrance that would have been for old Tom!
While writing his The History of New York… Washington Irving drew upon memories of times spent at the homes of various prestigious New York Dutch. One such remembrance is a letter by Washington Irving discovered years after his death. In that letter a lake was mentioned which was on the property of Peter Van Ness of Kinderhook. Irving’s letter is shared by Harold Van Santvoord and is dated Kinderhook, New York, March 14, 1898. It was published within a letter to the editor of the New York Times on March 19, 1898. Mr. Santvoord (1854-1913), a journalist, illustrator and one time member of the editorial staff at the Albany Times Union, refers to this letter Washington Irving wrote to his friend, Jesse Merwin, an attorney living at Kinderhook years prior:
“Do you remember our fishing expedition in company with Congressman Van Alen to the little lake a few miles from Kinderhook, and John Moore, the vagabond admiral of the lake, who sat crouched in a heap in the middle of his canoe in the center of the lake, with fishing rods stretching out in every direction like the long legs of a spider; and do you remember our practical pranks when we made up for our own bad luck in fishing by plundering his canoe of its fish when we found it adrift; and do you remember how John Moore came splashing along the marsh on the opposite border of the lake, roaring at us; and how we finished our frolic by driving off and leaving the Congressman to John Moore’s mercy-tickling ourselves with the idea of his being scalped to death? Oh, well-a-day, friend Merwin, these were the days of our youth and folly, and I trust we have grown wiser and better since then; we have certainly grown older. I don’t think we would rob John Moore’s fishing canoe now. By the way, that same John Moore and the anecdote you told of him, gave me the idea of a vagabond character, Dick Schuyler, in my Knickerbocker History of New York, which I was then writing.”
Clearly, John Moore melded into the character “Dick Schuyler” the way Herman Knickerbocker became Diedrick. In fact, Martin Van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, would also certify that Jesse Merwin is the same person celebrated in the writings of Washington Irving under the character of Ichabod Crane in his “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” written a decade after his The History of New York…
In Washington Irving’s youthful swimming days, the Van Ness estate was called Kleinrood. Eventually Martin Van Buren would buy the house and surrounding acres. He called it Lyndenhurst.
End Part 1 of 2
Forgotten New York Families and Washington Irving
Part 2 Additional
Gloria Waldron Hukle
While writing my American Waldron Series I spent countless hours checking and re-checking the historical data that served as a platform for each of the five titles comprising my own New York saga. The research was always mesmerizing. and I am struck by the courage and fortitude of our ancestors which is often something incomprehensible for many of us today.
While studying a map dated 1790 of Stillwater, New York, I noticed the name Wynant Van den Bergh. (A copy of the map can be found on my website www.authorgloriawaldronhukle.net ) The Van den Bergh families were prominent in the early history of both Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties of New York. Wynant, the son of Wynant and Anna Wendell Van den Bergh, was also the elder brother of Catherine Van den Bergh (born 1744) who married Gerrit Waldron in 1761. Today there are thousands of Van den Bergh and Waldron descendants living throughout New York and beyond.
It was Wynant’s and his wife Francyntie (Clute) Van den Bergh’s house and barns that were burnt to the ground by the British in 1777. And it was at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 that Colonel John Knickerbocker II was seriously wounded forcing him to resign his commission.
After the American Revolution Van den Bergh returned and rebuilt. He, his wife and family pressed forward in a new country free of British oppression.
John Knickerbocker II and his wife Rebecca ((Fonda) are buried in the Knickerbocker Family cemetery at Schaghticoke. John was the first NY Assemblyman to serve the new county of Rensselaer.
We who carry their DNA are a living testimony to their endurance.
Other evidence of the Knickerbocker family and friends’ lives can not only be found in the writings of many biographers but also in the scripts of the historical novelist. We all know there is a truth to be found within the folklore told. Washington Irving did this and he did it very well.
Herman Knickerbocker, the son of John Knickerbocker III, was the prototype for Washington Irving’s fictitious Deidrick Knickerbocker (or so he wanted us to believe) by introducing Herman to President Madison as his “cousin” Diedrick Knickerbocker.
Irving and Herman Knickerbocker struck up a friendship in their twenties. Where and when they first met is a mystery. Some say the meeting took place while Knickerbocker was serving in Congress, but I believe the two met years before since Hermen Knickerbocker was elected to Congress in 1809 which is the same year “The History of New York”, Irving’s first novel, was published in December 1809. It seems to me Diedrick Knickerbocker existed long before Washington Irving had finished his manuscript at the country estate of another Dutch friend, Judge Van Ness at Kinderhook.
In the years to follow, the author took other career paths away from America and into Europe. In short, he was a grand success, a huge celebrity in his own time and much of who he became was due to his relationship with the New York Dutch. Early in life Mr. Irving lost the love of his life, Mitilda Hoffman, to tuberculosis. He never fully recovered from her loss and he never married.
Herman Knickerbocker would have a long career in law, serving in Congress and later as a member of the New York Legislature. He served multiple times as Schaghticoke town supervisor and Judge of Rensselaer County. Herman was married three times and had fourteen children. He, too, was successful during his life, but unlike Irving he died broke, and it’s only because of Washington Irving’s imagination we remember the Knickerbocker name today.