Lenape, African, European: The Dutch Genesis of the Gracie Mansion Site
Imagine that it’s a warm summer morning in the year 1660. You are strolling through the Manhattan farm of the carpenter Sybout Claessens and his wife Susanna Jans overlooking the East River, today the site of Gracie Mansion and Carl Schurz Park. Inland to your west stretches a rural landscape of red maple, black cherry, and sweetgum trees and underbrush; sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks hover overhead, alert for signs of meadow voles and deer-mice darting around below. Wolves and black bears are known to range through this wooded countryside, so you keep your eyes peeled for them. Facing east into the morning sun, you peer across the expanse of water known as Hellegat (Bright Strait, or Clear Passage, part of the East River) to Lange Eylandt (Long Island, specifically Astoria, Queens) where the farmhouse of William and Elizabeth Hallet stands near the shoreline. You can also view the northern tip of Varckens Eylandt (Hog Island, today Roosevelt Island), owned by François Fyn and recently farmed by Laurens Duyts. Peering northwest along the wetlands that hug the East River shore to the mouth of Harlem Creek (between what are now East 107th and 109th Streets at the FDR Drive), you also see the two islands originally known to the Dutch by their Lenape names as Tenkenas and Minnahanonck (Wards and Randalls Islands). Beyond, out of sight, sit the emerging village of Nieuw Haerlem (East 125th Street at First Avenue) and the 680-acre grain and tobacco farm established across the Harlem River by Jonas Bronck, who will bequeath his name to the surrounding region on the North American mainland—the Bronx.
In every direction, you survey a landscape in the process of being transformed by Dutch colonists, other Europeans, and enslaved Africans who have gradually been occupying this territory ever since the first arrival of transatlantic settlers under the direction of the Dutch West India Company in 1624. Some six miles to the south at the tip of Manhattan stands the compact but thriving port city of New Amsterdam, home to some 1,500 souls, and administrative headquarters for the entire colony of New Netherland (what is now the New York City area, western Long Island, northern New Jersey, and the Hudson and Delaware River valleys). Facing New Amsterdam at the mouth of the East River sits the small Nutten (Nut, today Governors) Island, where Claessens co-leased a sawmill from the West India Company in 1639. Like other colonists, Claessens has been in and out of New Amsterdam’s court as both plaintiff and defendant in various lawsuits over debts, for slandering a miller named Abraham Pietersen (the offending comment is not recorded), at least one dispute over his work as a house builder, and a drawn-out wrangle over payment for a house lot he bought in 1651 facing the harbor close to the mouth of the Heere Gracht, the canal running along what is today Broad Street. Claessens is also one of the settlers who has protested the allegedly despotic ways of director-general Petrus Stuyvesant, making a trip home to the fatherland in 1649 to submit a memorial to the Dutch governing body, the States General, “complaining of Stuyvesant’s conduct.”
Claessens named his farm Hoorn’s Hook after his birthplace, the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands. The property, granted to him by an earlier director-general, Willem Kieft, in 1646, contained 50 morgen (about 100 acres) along the river, running inland to a point at about York Avenue, bounded approximately by the current locations of East 83rd and East 90th Streets. Yet there is much that we don’t know about this bouwerie (Dutch for farm). Did Claessens occupy and farm this land, or hold it in reserve? Did he, perhaps, send a servant or tenant to farm, while he stayed in his house in New Amsterdam? Did he build some form of shelter on the farm? We do know that later in the century, farmers in northern Manhattan were harvesting “hay meadows” and rotating crops—planting buckwheat, pumpkins, turnips, and “summer fruits,” while also pasturing cattle and oxen—and perhaps Claessens did likewise.
We also know that Claessen’s occupancy—along with that of his neighbors — set in motion the making of a Dutch colonial world along the wooded shores of the East River. That world, however, was never exclusively Dutch. Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and other Europeans played crucial roles in shaping the topography and history of a territory that would one day be an integral part of the world’s largest and most influential city, as well as the official residence of its mayors. That intermingling of peoples, in fact, a hallmark of New York City’s history, began as a defining trait of the city’s Dutch origins.
First to come were the Native Americans. Some six thousand years ago, bands of people arrived in the area, migrating between seasonal campsites they used for hunting, gathering, planting, and fishing. These were predecessors of the Lenape, the people Henry Hudson encountered on his voyage of exploration in 1609, and among whom colonists started settling in 1624. It’s possible that Lenape bands used the shoreline of what are now the East Eighties to fish in the East River. The landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson believes that one of six possible Lenape East River fishing camps may have existed at the foot of East 80th Street, where a natural fresh-water stream ran into the river. For centuries, the Lenape had been using and controlling this land and waterscape–“wild” to untrained European eyes—to sustain themselves without disrupting the seasonal and yearly cycles of plant growth and animal migration they relied on. In Claessens’s day, the Lenape used a trail they had established running Manhattan’s north-to-south length for inland traveling. Known to Europeans as the Wickquageck Road, it was later appropriated to be part of the Boston Post Road linking New York City to New England. The road’s closest proximity to Hoorn’s Hook was at about Fifth Avenue and East 85th Street. But Claessens’s farm also sat to the south of a possible Lenape settlement at Lexington Avenue and East 98th Street (called Konaande Kongh in a 1669 deed) and a fishing beach on the Harlem River at about East 106th Street.
The coming of the Dutch engaged the Lenape in a complex relationship that turned their world upside down, starting from the moment the Lenape discovered Henry Hudson and his Dutch East India Company crew entering their waters in 1609. The Lenape-Dutch relationship evolved through the trade of European cloth, hardware, alcohol, and other goods for beaver and otter pelts that colonists shipped back to Europe to be sold and made into hats and garments. Before Claessens was granted his land, the colonial director-general Pieter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from one group of Lenape in 1626—a transaction the Indigenous people probably understood as a mutual sharing of resources rather than as a permanent cession of property. By 1640, however, the relationship was being stretched to the breaking point by mutual mistrust, Dutch encroachment on Lenape settlements, and Dutch attempts to tax the Native people. Kieft’s War, a conflict that erupted intermittently between 1640 and 1645, devastated both Lenape and Dutch communities across what is now the Greater New York area. Claessen’s wife Susannah, in fact, was the recent widow of Aert Teunissen Van Putten, killed fighting the Lenape in 1643. (Kieft’s and Stuyvesant’s refusal to lease Susannah the farm and brewery that Aert had developed at “Hoboquin”– Hoboken, New Jersey– helped motivate Claessens’s complaint before the States General in 1649.)
Among those who suffered from Kieft’s War were settlers who preceded Claessens to the remote woods of northern Manhattan. In 1644, the farmhouse of Jochem Pietersen Kuyter and his wife Lentje Martens burned down, possibly as the result of a Lenape attack. Kuyter’s 400-acre farm stretching along the East River above East 127th Street was a prime example of how ambitious farmers had spread out onto outlying lands, making them vulnerable during war. Claessens’s 1646 title to Hoorn’s Hook, in fact, was part of a strategy to repopulate New Amsterdam’s outskirts after Lenape sachems and Dutch leaders concluded a peace treaty in 1645. When continuing tensions triggered another Dutch-Lenape war in 1655, the remote farmers once again became easy targets. Lenape warriors killed settlers, reportedly including Kuyter’s widow. Hoorn’s Hook was part of this war zone, although Claessens survived unscathed (again, whether he was living at Hoorn’s Hook or—more likely– safe in his downtown house is an open question).
One consequence of the 1655 war was the determination of the next director-general, Petrus Stuyvesant, to create a fortified village in northern Manhattan as a bulwark and early-warning system against future Lenape attacks. Established as Nieuw Haerlem in 1658 at what is now East 125th Street near the Harlem River, and home to over twenty families by 1661, this outpost would eventually give its name to an entire neighborhood—Harlem. The village would draw the Hoorn’s Hook farm into its orbit, well beyond the Dutch period of New York’s history.
A final series of battles fought in the Hudson Valley between 1659 and 1663 broke Lenape resistance, although Native people remained a presence on the periphery of the lower Manhattan settlement that became New York City after the English took it from the Dutch in 1664. Yet Lenape people were not the only non-Europeans in the vicinity of Hoorn’s Hook. The Dutch had introduced slavery in New Amsterdam as early as 1625-1626, and they sent enslaved Africans to work on the city’s rural outskirts. In 1639 a map clearly shows “The quarter of the blacks, the Company’s slaves” near the mouth of a creek running into the East River at what is now 74th Street. Ordinarily these enslaved African men owned by the Dutch West India Company had to live in a barracks several miles distant in New Amsterdam. This rural “quarter” may have been a temporary campsite where the enslaved laborers cut timber at a sawmill for use in the construction of the growing city to the south.
During the 1640s officials freed and granted land to a group of older enslaved men and women in lower Manhattan on the condition that their children remain in bondage, but this “half-freedom” did not apply to many other Africans owned by the Company and private masters. In founding Nieuw Haerlem, Stuyvesant and his governing council suggested using “the Company’s Negroes” to build “a good wagon road” between New Amsterdam and the new village. By 1664, at least three Nieuw Haerlem farmers (Nicholas De Meyer, Daniel Tourneur, and Johannes Verveelen, the latter two future owners of parts of Hoorn’s Hook) owned enslaved workers. As we will see, slavery would remain a reality after the period of Dutch rule.
The Dutch language, Dutch Protestantism, Dutch legal and political practices, and Dutch cultural traditions shaped every aspect of life in New Amsterdam and northern Manhattan. Claessen and his wife Susanna Jans were born in the Netherlands, and during his lifetime (he died around 1680; Susanna’s death date is uncertain) his fellow northern Manhattan colonists included Dutch immigrants Jan Louwe Bogert (an ancestor of Theodore and Eleanore Roosevelt), Resolveert Waldron, Johannes Verveelen, and others. But under the Dutch, Manhattan Island also became one of the most diverse places in the transatlantic world, a location where some eighteen different languages were purportedly spoken by 1643.
This pluralism represented a mix of principle and policy on the part of the Dutch West India Company. Headquartered in Amsterdam, a richly cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant city, the Company repeatedly overruled its more conservative employee, director-general Stuyvesant, ordering him to permit Jews and English Quakers to live unmolested in New Netherland. (True, liberality went only so far: Reflecting religious politics in the Netherlands, the Company did not extend protections to Lutherans or Catholics, although small numbers of both were present in the colony).
To populate New Netherland, tolerating specified religious minorities (as well as fellow Calvinists from across Europe) made practical sense. Convincing Dutch families to cross the Atlantic to start new lives in a remote American outpost at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, an era of unrivaled commercial prosperity at home, proved a hard sell. At the same time, northwestern Europe was a world in motion, unsettled by economic change and new religious movements while also scarred by wars and persecutions. To populate the colony and build its economy, Stuyvesant and the Company accepted many non-Dutch Protestants, and by the 1660s other tongues besides Dutch, Lenape, and African languages could be heard in the vicinity of Hoorn’s Hook. Claessens’s neighbors across the East River in Queens, the Hallets, were English, while the early trailblazer Jochem Pietersen Kuyter had been Danish, and Jonas Bronck was either Danish or Swedish. Non-Dutch settlers outnumbered Netherlanders among Nieuw Haerlem’s early male residents. Villagers there included the couple Glaude and Hester Du Bois le Maistre, Protestant refugees from Catholic France, a German named Adolph Meyer, and Maria Vermilye, of Walloon (French-speaking Belgian Calvinist) descent.
A New Era:
Following the English takeover of New Amsterdam in 1664, the Dutch imprint endured in and around Hoorn’s Hook. By 1668, when the leaders of “New Harlem” confirmed that Claessens’s farm was legally part of their village as one of its “outside lands,” the varied European landholders of the village proper had already come together to establish a Reformed Church (originally located at what is now 125th Street near First Avenue), covenanting themselves under Dutch Calvinist doctrine.
In 1677 New Harlem’s officials presided over the division of the Hoorn’s Hook land (no longer in Claessens’s possession) into ten land lots that changed hands in a complex series of transactions into the eighteenth century. As several generations of “uptown” farmers intermarried and jockeyed for property, members of the Meyer, Bogert, Verveelen, le Maistre (Delamater), Tourneur, and other families bought, sold, and exchanged the ten lots. By now, Hoorn’s Hook was fruitful and profitable, with “good wheat, rye, barley, peas and buckwheat” grown there by 1687. In the same year Pieter Van Oblinus, owner of four of the ten lots including the Gracie Mansion site, planned to build a home for himself, the first documented dwelling to stand here, although its precise location is unknown.
Profitability also brought conflict. In 1679 Pieter’s father Joost Van Oblinus, then owner of Lot Number 10 (encompassing the Gracie Mansion site), and his neighbor Jan Louwe Bogert went to court over a salt meadow along “the Bay of Hellgate,” valuable for its hay as winter cattle fodder. A court ruling divided the contested meadow between them. Bogert had previously gone to court in 1675 to prevent other local farmers from trespassing on his land, just northwest of the Hook, as a shortcut “to the mill, the village, and church” at New Harlem. Between 1690 and 1710, members of the Delamater family bought and re-consolidated most of the acreage of Claessens’ original plot, and in the latter year Samuel Waldron—son of Resolveert Waldron, a Dutch immigrant who had been one of Stuyvesant’s functionaries—purchased it. In 1770 a Waldron heir would sell land fronting Hellgate Bay to merchant Jacob Walton, builder and occupant of the Bellevue mansion marking the site of Gracie Mansion, which followed it in 1799.
The relationships between people of color and Europeans that commenced in 1609 also continued beyond 1664. Though increasingly displaced during the Dutch era, the Lenape remained a local presence in the early English period. Despite Minuit’s 1626 “purchase” of Manhattan, some sachems asserted their continued claim to specific local tracts, probably calculating that the anxiety of farmers to secure unchallenged legal title under the new English regime worked to Lenape advantage. In 1669, for instance, a deed written in Dutch confirms that farmer Jan La Montagne agreed to buy from the sachem Rechewack and six other Lenape the area called Rechewanis or Montagne’s Point, a peninsula jutting out into wetlands along the Harlem River at 106th Street. La Montagne’s French Protestant family had originally been granted the land by Kieft in 1647, shortly after Claessens obtained Hoorn’s Hook.
While a small number of Lenape descendants remained in the New York City area, most moved west in a series of land sales and migrations that eventually brought survivors to Ontario, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. The activist stickers currently to be seen on Manhattan walls and lampposts affirming that the area is Lenape land remind us that the long history of Native dispossession began just as surely in Dutch New Amsterdam and English New York as everywhere else in the North American colonies.
More continuous was the African-American presence. The slavery instituted by the Dutch continued and expanded under the English. In 1667 New York City mayor Thomas Delavall leased to Johannes Verveelen (later an owner of one of the ten Hoorn’s Hook lots) a ferry connecting New Harlem village to the “Bronck-side,” provided he also establish a tavern and inn near the foot of East 123rd Street. Verveelen made his enslaved African man Matthys work as the ferryman, transporting passengers, cows, and oxen for stated fares in silver pence and wampum that went into Verveelen’s pocket, not Matthys’s. (“All cattle that are swum over pay but half price.”) White landowners nearby in the Bronx also owned Black people who worked as farm laborers. In 1681, for example, Colonel Lewis Morris, owner of much of the South Bronx (an estate soon to be called the Manor of Morrisania) sent enslaved workers across the river in canoes to bring back hay from meadows on the Manhattan riverfront that he claimed as his, triggering a lawsuit by New Harlem farmers who won title to the land. And English farmer-brewer Thomas Codrington, an early eighteenth-century owner of part of the Ten Lots originally granted to Sybout Claessens near what is now Gracie Mansion, was also reported to possess “half a dozen slaves.”
Slavery near Hoorn’s Hook could be brutal. In 1687 New Harlem court documents recorded “the beating to death of a negro child.” Yet some enslaved people devised ways to resist their bondage. In 1684 an enslaved man belonging to New Harlem farmer Jan Nagel burned down Nagel’s barn, killing several of his owner’s cows, although the man then apparently took his own life. Running away was a tempting option. In 1669 “a Negro Servant… big and tall, about 25 or 26 years old” belonging to Daniel Tourneur, a future owner of a Hoorn’s Hook lot, vanished. Tourneur surmised that the man was heading “toward New England,” and New York Governor Francis Lovelace alerted Westchester County’s constable to keep a look-out for him. Other African Americans made lives for themselves in the area. A “Negro Burying Ground” on East 126th Street, near the original Nieuw Haerlem village center, became the final resting place of both enslaved and free Black people between the seventeenth and mid-nineteenth centuries (New York State did not end slavery until 1827). Rediscovered in 2009, the site inspired the creation of the 126th Street Harlem African Burial Ground Memorial and Mixed-Use Project—a reminder of the continuous presence of Black New Yorkers in northern Manhattan from the Dutch period onward.
Lenape, African, European: All shaped the history of the neighborhoods we now know as the Upper East Side, Yorkville, and Harlem. The property successively known as Hoorn’s Hook, the Ten Lots, the Waldron Farm, Bellevue, and the Gracie Estate has stood as witness and participant in changes effected by Native, Dutch, African, French, German, Scandinavian, English, and many other New Yorkers who have benefited from this site over hundreds and, indeed, thousands of years.
Steven H. Jaffe, Ph.D.
Public Historian, Curator, and Lecturer
Author of New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham (Basic Books, 2012) and Activist New York: A History of People, Protest, and Politics (NYU Press, 2018).