My longest drive on the road trip journey was leaving Philadelphia Friday morning and traveling to upper New York State. The closer I got to Albany, the more thrilled I was to arrive in the land of my Dutch branch of the family tree. My journey was along the western side of the Hudson River. This river is linked back to the discovery of this area of the New World by the navigator/explorer Henry Hudson.
The earliest history goes back to 1609 when the Dutch West India Company commissioned the English-born explorer, Henry Hudson, to discover a Northwest passage to the Far East. History gives him credit for sailing into the big bay and navigating up the river as far as current day Albany. His ship was Halve Maen (Half Moon). And the river bears his name to this day.
Soon after his discovery of the river and the possibility of commerce and wealth, the Dutch West India Company established the first trading fort in 1614 for trading furs with the Indians of the area. The trading fort was called Fort Nassau (After the ruling Holland family – House of Oranje/Nassau) and built on Castle Island, located below current day Albany, New York. Newly arrived settlers built a stronger fort about two miles away in 1624 and was known as Fort Orange.
The reason I am interested in the first settlements of the Dutch in the Upper Hudson River area is due to a line my great-grandmother wrote on the recollections of her ancestors. I have a hand-written copy of her documenting as far back as she can remember the lineage of her Dutch ancestors on her father’s side.
Her oldest child, my grandmother, knew I had a keen interest in the stories of the family’s past since I was a little girl. She gave me the papers when I was old enough to be excited to receive this information and my grandmother knew I would treasure this precious link to a branch of my family that arrived in America in the 1600s. I’ve often gazed at the names and dates of people long dead and gone, but wondered about them. Where did they come from in the Netherlands? When did they emigrate to the New World? Where did they settle in the Albany area?
Something about nearing Albany in a shiny, modern machine with four wheels and a gas combustion engine and lots of glass with comfy upholstered seats and pleasant music filling the interior from the radio speakers and cooled by an air-conditioned breeze along a wide, paved highway gave me pause as I headed back to a time when the Dutch settled this area and all was unknown and wilderness and dangerous. All the same, I have a lot of respect for the hardships and sacrifices my Dutch forefathers endured to establish homes and families here. Because they took the greatest risk of all, I exist almost 400 years later.
From what I’ve researched over the years of my family tree genealogy–ALL branches of my ancestors arrived in America and settled in several eastern states long before the Revolutionary War of the 1770s. The Dutch branch on my maternal side seems to go back the farthest in time. And that’s why I’m on a quest to make solid connections to the recollections of my great-grandmother.
On page one, in the hand-written script of Elsie Van Schaick Ellsworth, after listing her father’s parents and siblings, she added a list of forebears going back generations. At the bottom of her list she wrote:
“My ansesters(sic) imegrated(sic) from Holland in 1614 settled at Fort Orange. now Albany”
Ok-this is really exciting to me, because if this is true and I can document this information, that means my ancestors arrived in America BEFORE the Mayflower anchored at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts and the Pilgrims landed in 1620!
To a white, middle-class, average girl growing up in the 1950s and 1960s where everything was common English/American, just reading the Dutch names out loud sounded very European and exotic and uncommon. These are the names of my maternal Dutch ancestors, according to my great-grandmother.
Elsie Van Schaick Ellsworth – 1866-1956 my great grandmother (Her parents) Garrett Van Schaick – died aged 82 – my great-great-grandfather Hannah Watkins Van Schaick – 1825-1885 – my great-great-grandmother (Her grandparents-Garrett’s parents) William Van Schaick – 1785-1870 – my gr-gr-gr-grandfather Eunice Van Buren Van Schaick – 1795-1854 – my gr-gr-gr-grandmother
The listing gets rather vague beyond the immediate three generations back, but still interesting information.
Jacob Van Schaick – died 1795 her great-grandfather. Hendrick Van Buren – died 1814 her great-great-grandfather on grandmother’s side
On my quest into the original settlement of New Netherland, I am searching for any of these names. Van Buren provokes a strong interest. Over the years, I’d heard the family “rumor” that we are related to Martin Van Buren, who was President of the United States (1837-1841). He was from New York and of Dutch ancestry. The name Van Buren is listed in the family genealogy.
As far back as I’ve been able to research doing my amateur genealogy, I’m leaning toward the ancestors who first settled here, when this section of America was ruled by the Netherlands and known as New Netherland. Cornelis Maessen Van Buren arrived from Holland in 1631. Martin Van Buren is a direct descendant. I’d like to discover verification that I am also.
As far as the Van Schaick line, I’ve researched back to the Jacob Van Schaick my great-grandmother listed on her family tree document. If it’s the same one, I have more information going back several generations.
Jacob Van Schaick 1723 – 1795? (His father) Gerrit Sybrantse Van Schaick b. 1685 (His grandfather) Sybrant Goosen Van Schaick b. 1653 (His great-grandfather) Goosen Gerrit, Capt Van Schaick 1633-1676
Goosen Gerrit, Capt Van Schaick was born in Westerbroeck, Utrecht, Holland and emigrated to New Netherland in 1637 and noted as earliest settler at Ft. Orange. (source: Ancestry.com – Bruce masterfile 12/17/2001 Contact: James Bruce)
You know, I’ve carried these names around since childhood and on July 5, 2002 I’m about to wander over lands that my forefathers may have seen, may have owned and farmed. To turn a page in a book eighteen years ago and look at a Dutch-style house known as the Van Schaick House, built in 1735, is to imagine that I’m studying the family homestead. Then to look in an atlas at a map of New York state and find Cohoes located north of Albany–AND see smack in the middle of the Hudson River an ENTIRE island called Van Schaick Island—-
This is a childhood dream come true! Compared to how excited I am to approach Albany on the way to the Quality Inn hotel for a two night stay, my dream of turning fifty on July fourth at Independence Hall is merely a pleasant thought. I drove through city streets on a Friday evening around 5:00pm and traffic was light. Yesterday was July 4th, workers probably took a long holiday weekend.
As I did after registering for my room and gettling settled and unpacked in Gettyburg, I was too eager to stay inside after getting to Albany. I was so close to my lifetime prize! A few hours of daylight remained and I had to find the island tonight. I changed clothes and brought along a local phone book, since it had detailed maps of Cohoes and Van Schaick Island. A prominent red square pinpointed exactly where I could locate the Van Schaick Mansion. Camera and voice-activated tape recorder in hand–I was on my quest.
“I am so excited! I am just so excited! Oh my god-I can’t believe I’m really here! Actually being here–is HUGE! It’s beyond anything I imagined! If I was on a trampoline right now, I’d be leaping high in the air and shouting-YIPPEE! I am so excited!”
I was practically giddy by the time I crossed the bridge from Cohoes and drove down my first Van Schaick Island street. I suppose it seems silly to anyone else. Big deal, so she’s going to look at an old house with her family name, so what. Please understand that I stared occasionally at that house in a book for about eighteen years, longer than the age of my son. I always wondered if this was where my ancestors once lived. If not my great-grandfather, Gerritt Van Schaick, then another branch of the family lineage I could be connected to. And I was on the Island that was named after my Dutch forefathers.
In my giddiness, I stopped to take pictures of every single item with the Van Schaick name on it. Van Schaick Street sign, Van Schaick Mansion sign, Van Schaick school sign–and the biggest sign I could find–Van Schaick Marina sign!
I followed the arrows that pointed to the direction of the house. And–I couldn’t find the darn place! I drove down a few streets, but it wasn’t there. I stopped at an intersection. In the street to my left, a ROAD CLOSED sign partially blocked the lane. Hmmm. I’ve come all this way. It’s an island. I WILL find this house! I studied the phone book map. This street promised to take me to the house. I drove around the barricade and rushed down a narrow, crumbling asphalt road. When the road reached the Hudson River, it curved to the right and went along the river and dead-ended in the marina boatyard.
I wrinkled my brow and pursed my lips in confusion. Hmmm. No house. I gazed at the map again. According to that map, if I reached the marina, I’d gone too far. I turned the car around and slowly moved back the way I’d come. When I turned the curve to go up a slight hill, I saw woods to my right where the house should stand. No sight of any Dutch-style house. I eased my car up the hill until I saw it.
There it was! In my haste to find it–I rushed right past it!
It appeared every bit like the picture in my book on American Architecture. Maybe by most “mansion” standards, it’s not stately or grand, but to me, seeing the reality before my eyes was beyond the giddy excitement I’d felt earlier. “I’m here.” I smiled and shed tears of relief and joy. And felt a sense of homecoming. Like the Van Schaick Mansion was waiting for my arrival all these years.
I pulled just inside the driveway and off to one side. At this late hour on a Friday evening, no open house tours were available. I hesitated about getting out of the car. It looked solitary and private. I did take my camera and approached the building. The right end of the house faces the street, which I thought was odd until I rounded the corner and saw the front of the house faced east and overlooked the Hudson River. The property extended right to the river’s edge.
I took several photographs of the house. Built in 1735 by Anthony Van Schaick and lived in 1777 by John Van Schaick and his wife Anna. I did my research when I decided to continue my journey up to Albany, New York. After all, I saw the house in a book published in 1984 and wanted to be certain the Van Schaick Mansion still existed in 2002.
The State of New York has designated the Van Schaick Mansion a state historical site, due to it’s importance in the Revolutionary War. The city of Cohoes and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR Chapter) are caretakers and give tours of the house. I read about the house and it’s illustrious history online, so I was very enthusiastic about the possibility I had a family link to the Van Schaick Mansion.
What I did NOT realize until I arrived to see the house and the property is just HOW important this house became during the Revolutionary War. There is a historical stone monument placed just off the street in the side yard. The plaque has a long list describing the historical significance of the Van Schaick Mansion. It looked familiar, just like so many memorials situated at Gettysburg National Military Park I’d seen earlier.
When I approached the marker to read the long list of historical information, I literally gasped! Ohmigod–I had no clue about this house. Unbelievable! What I read left me breathless with the irony and coincidence of the theme of my entire journey. The marker with bronze lettering reads as follows:
1735-1927 VAN SCHAICK MANSION Home of John G. Van Schaick and his wife Anna Patriot Americans Built by Anthony Van Schaick Son of Goosen Gerritsen Van Schaick Original Patentee HEADQUARTERS August 18 – September 8-1777 Northern Department Continental Army GENERAL PHILIP SCHUYLER GENERAL HORATIO GATES Here was planned the Saratoga Campaign And here August 19-1777 General Gates assumed command From this place August 15-1777 General Benedict Arnold and his force Marched to relieve Fort Stanwix Beneath this roof were received GOVERNOR GEORGE CLINTON Gen. Benjamin Lincoln Gen. Enoch Poor Gen. Ebenezer Learned Gen. John Stark Col. Peter Gansevoort Col. Daniel Morgan COLONEL TADEUSZ KOSCIUSZKO Engineer of the fortifications on Peebles Island and at Bemis Heights Here also after the surrender were entertained General John Burgoyne and his staff
Erected by the Cohoes Historical Society and the State of New York – 1927
I stood there for several minutes in amazement. My theme of this road trip, this July journey, is traveling to turning points in American History. Shanksville, Gettysburg, Philadelphia. Until this moment, I thought I was done. Coming to Van Schaick Island to see the Mansion is personal. It was merely an ages-long curiousity to discover my Dutch heritage and determine if I’m related to these Van Schaick ancestors. I had no clue there was more.
Spending a long day in Philadelphia yesterday on July fourth brought out all the 1776 environment and sense of historical time and place. I killed some time that morning inside an air-conditioned portrait gallery to get out of the hot, humid weather. I gazed at the paintings of our founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. George Washington, Benjamin Frankin, Benedict Arnold and many others we know from school textbooks were inside the Van Schaick Mansion during the Revolutionary War.
I paused to study a portrait of General Horatio Gates. The description under his ornate frame told of his leadership in the Battle of Saratoga, New York. The victory at Saratoga was considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War. I remembered that phrase because my road trip journey became an American Pilgrimage to turning points in American History.
And I thought I was done.
To read the marker in front of the Van Schaick Mansion and discover that General Horatio Gates was here in command of the Continental Army in 1777 AND planned the Saratoga Campaign in this house—
Unbelievable. At that moment, when the enormity of the historical significance of this house during the Revolutionary War sank into my heart and soul, I knew–I just knew I hadn’t really planned anything about this road trip on my own. This property, these grounds and the Van Schaick Mansion allowed an important turning point in American History to begin here. General Horatio Gates and other military minds planned the Saratoga Campaign HERE.
I looked over the grounds with new-found awe and reverence. I gazed at the house for a long time. This place is another turning point in American History. WOW!
Then I swear I shivered with excitement. What if? Ohmigod–what if I AM related to the Van Schaick’s of this house? It’s beyond incredible! To be related to Dutch ancestors who entertained so many great men of revolutionary times? This mansion just took on a higher level of significance in my opinion.
And how come nobody knows about this mansion? Outside of Cohoes and Albany and a few surrounding New York areas, does anyone even know the Van Schaick Mansion exists? Or cares about the important role it served for America’s military leaders in 1777? I’ve never heard of this place. If I hadn’t opened a page in my book on houses, I wouldn’t be here right now.
I walked toward the house again. As I approached, a woman appeared from the back of the house and walked toward me. She was the caretakers wife. We spoke for quite a while. I told her how impressed I was to be here from Ohio and why I traveled all this way to see the Mansion. When I mentioned possibly being related to the Van Schaick family on my maternal great-grandmother’s side, the woman told me about the Van Schaick burial plot.
The Van Schaick cemetary was located beyond the house in a wooded area. I asked to go investigate the names on the headstones. She agreed, but I wasn’t allowed to walk inside the fenced cemetary to look closely at the markers. Here was an opportunity to verify names and dates and know I had a connection to the Van Schaick ancestors on my list. The best I could do in the fading daylight was lean in close to the fence and take pictures. I still don’t know if I’m related. None of the details are clear enough to read in any of the photos I took at the gravesites.
She waited for me when I returned to the back yard. She gave me a wonderful suggestion. A special Saturday morning tour of the inside of the Van Schaick Mansion would happen tomorrow. Two busloads of direct descendants of Anthony and John Van Schaick are arriving to go through the rooms and learn more about the family. I was invited to show up around ten o’clock and meet the organizer of the group. He was the Van Schaick family historian and I could show him my great-grandmother’s family tree and verify if I was indeed related to this branch of my Dutch ancestors.
I was thrilled. One-I could go on a tour through the actual rooms of the Van Schaick Mansion and two-I would talk with the man who could tell me if I belonged to this family tree. The caretaker’s wife smiled when I thanked her. She told me she’d see me in the morning and hoped my reason for driving all this way from Ohio would be having my questions answered. I waved from the end of the driveway and got in the car.
I tried to plan my entire trip and leave no detail overlooked. At every stop on my odyssey this week, I was acutely aware of a guiding hand taking me to places I needed to see on this journey. I experienced more emotional insight and deeper meaning being at each historical location. I could not predict the results of how important the pilgrimage has become on this road trip. Coming to New York, supposedly on a personal whim, has turned out to be more exciting , more historical, and more significant than I could ever imagine.
I drove back to my hotel room in Albany. So much to sink into my brain about the first visit to the mansion. I took notes and reread my research articles and ended my evening ready for the next day to discover if I could claim this Van Schaick lineage as my own.
The Van Schaick Mansion, am I coming home————