Growing up knowing that my dad was a first-generation American born to 1920s Dutch immigrants, I’ve always been partial to all things Dutch. Then, researching my mom’s ancestors, and discovering the several nationalities in her lineage along with New Netherlands’ Dutch and their part in building America, has been even more of a treasure.
So, why is genealogy so important to us? Put another way, why is history important? To quote David McCullough in the Reader’s Digest, December 2002, author of John Adams and 1776: “The best way to know where the country is going is to know where we’ve been…But why bother about history anyway? …that’s done with, junk for the trash heap. Why history? Because it shows us how to behave. [It] teaches and reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for. History is about life – human nature, the human condition and all its trials and failings and noblest achievements… Everything we have, all our good institutions, our laws, our music, art and poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work… faced the storms, made the sacrifices, kept the faith… If we deny our children that enjoyment [of historical story telling]… then we’re cheating them out of a full life.”
We cannot walk in our ancestors’ shoes; we can only imagine the way their life was from recorded history. And, though their life seems from a simpler time, it was much more difficult in so many ways. We can also look back with knowledge gained from their experiences, both good and bad. With stoic determination, our ancestors left families and homes behind to sail across an ocean with hopes of building a better life in a new country, tame the wilderness, and push back the western frontier. Typically, they never again saw the “old country” or family left behind. How easy it is for us just to hop in the car for a visit to relatives, or take a flight to faraway places! We have no idea what hardships our ancestors truly faced.
As you research, consider the reasons your ancestors left behind all they knew. This will give you a better appreciation for the people and their times. We know the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1620 seeking religious freedom. In 1609, sailing for the Netherlands, Henry Hudson explored the Atlantic coastline and river which bears his name, looking for the Northwest Passage. Soon after, the Dutch built their vast empire, establishing a presence in New Amsterdam and New Netherlands that helped create New York what it is today, especially the city and eastern half of the state. But, few realize it was the Dutch influence on our early legal and governmental systems, the city’s early design, free trade, individual rights, religious liberty, and language that made New Amsterdam/New York City a world hub well before the 1664 British takeover.
A must read is the excellent book by Russell Shorto, “The Island at the Center of the World“, to understand the influence and legacy of that little Dutch colony. The idea of a district attorney or public prosecutor began as the Dutch Schout (Scout). A home’s front stoep/stoop or step often held hearings to settle neighborhood disputes. Baas/boss is Dutch, koekjes/cookies are Dutch, and even our Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch Sint Nicklaas. New York City’s Bowery district was part of Pieter Stuyvesant’s bouwerij, the farm cared for by my ancestor, Pieter Claesz/Claesen Wijkoff (Wyckoff). Pieter sailed October 8, 1636 from Texel, Netherlands as a teen to work on the Rensselaerswyck plantation. Owned by Dutch financier, Kiliaen van Rensselaer, it was located where the city stands today. Pieter’s house, now the Wyckoff House Museum at Clarendon Road, Brooklyn, built c.1652, displays a collection of early Dutch artifacts reflecting New Amsterdam’s history.
Guns at New Amsterdam Fort formed the battery on Manhattan, today’s Battery Park. Wall Street was de wal, a row of palisades erected to protect the burgeoning town against Indian raids. Brooklyn was Breuckelen or broken land; Harlem was Nieuw Haarlem named for the city in the province of Friesland; Flushing was Vlissingen. Albany, founded by early Dutch, is the oldest continuous settlement in the original 13 colonies. The Hudson valley region up through the Mohawk River and Schenectady was settled by early Dutch before other nationalities arrived to claim their place in history.
Searching for your ancestors will help show when, where and how your family fits into this country. We are a nation built by immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds seeking a better way of life. Essentially, there were four major waves of immigrants to our American shores over the last several centuries. Colonial immigration, begun in the early 17th century, peaked just before the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775. The second wave began in the 1820s, lasting until the depression of the 1870s. The greatest influx of immigrants came in the third wave from the 1880s through the early 1920s (with my and my husband’s Dutch immigrants arriving in the early to mid 1920s), while the fourth, and continuing, wave is said to have begun about 1965.
Our ancestors immigrated for religious, economic and political reasons. They sought to enjoy our government-protected freedoms, to escape wars and famines and diseases, to own land, and to seek employment opportunities to provide a better way of life for their families. Ultimately, we were melded together to form a blend of cultures and ethnicities which have become uniquely American.
Our next segment will begin to look at specifics on how and where to search for your elusive ancestors. And with this article, I hope to begin a schedule of posting on or about the 15th of every month.
"Homespun Ancestors is written by Linda Roorda. To see more, visit her site HERE