I moved last month from Rochester, NY, where I’d lived for 33 years. I was ready to explore and experience a new place. The process of deciding where that would be took some time, but in the end it brought me to the mid-Hudson Valley of New York.
I live in Dutchess County near Hyde Park, of Roosevelt fame. I’ve been visiting friends in the area for years. It’s beautiful—plentiful parks, the mighty Hudson River, quaint towns, and trees, trees, trees.
Lately I’ve been wondering if the pull to come here might be in my DNA. A couple years ago I learned of ancestors who were among the first Dutch to live here—nearly 400 years ago. I’m starting to research one in particular, an eighth-great-grandfather named Jan Jansen Van Amersfoort.
Jan was a carpenter who helped build the stockade at Wiltwijck, which was renamed Kingston in the 1660s after the British took over. He arrived at the settlement in 1658 from New Amsterdam, now New York City, to which he had sailed as a boy from Amersfoort in the Netherlands.
I’d always heard we had Dutch in our family tree. My maternal grandfather’s mother was born a Van Steenburg. Some in our family had wondered how recently they had come to this country. My uncle traced it all the way back to the earliest Dutch settlers.
For 40 years the Dutch—not the English—ruled European settlement in this part of New York, Massachusetts, Delaware and Pennsylvania. New York City’s melting-pot reputation has everything to do with the early Dutch presence. There is so much that we didn’t learn in school about early American colonization. Where were the Dutch in all those stories?
The more I learned, the more curious I became, and so nearly a year ago I flew to the Netherlands. I spent most of my time in Amsterdam but took a 25-minute train ride to Amersfoort, Jan’s hometown. (That's Amersfoort in the photo above.) Until I was across an ocean, standing on a brick-paved street gazing at a house that looked almost exactly like one I had seen a few months before in the Hudson Valley, the full import of the Dutch influence in early America hadn’t hit me. It was wild to think I was related to those people. Some bit of my DNA had come from that exact dot on the map of Holland.
When I got home I did some research. Jan was surprisingly easy to find. Translated Dutch court records preserved in the Ulster County Archives show that, for all of his apparent usefulness as a carpenter, Jan also was a lastpost—a persistent troublemaker. He was arrested 70 times in New Netherland, including for beating his pregnant wife, Catharyn, nearly to death. She and the baby survived. Jan was banished from Wiltwijck and fined 500 guilders.
Unfortunately, he didn’t stop. Three years later brought more of the same in a petition by Catharyn: “She is no longer able to keep house with her husband on account of his greatly abusing her every day,” the records state—pushing, beating, chasing, threatening to kill her. This time the court ordered he be sent away on the next ship for a year and six weeks.
I will probably never know what was going on with Jan. But Catharyn’s voice is clearly heard in the record—thanks to the more egalitarian ways of the Dutch, however briefly they ruled. No longer is the Hudson Valley simply a charming place to me. It is alive with all the messy moments of people who have come before me.
This post is adapted from an essay in Hudson Valley Magazine.