Wolphert Gerrittsen von Couwenhoven, lived behind a palisade of upright timbers that fortified his dwellings and kept his family somewhat safe from the attack of local tribes on Long Island, New Amsterdam. He did lose a son and possibly his wife in a war with the Indians. But Indians were not the only threat to our ancestors. In fact, our ancestors were more likely to be killed by fellow Caucasians who differed with a view of God or ownership of land.

Wolphert’s ancestors may have worked the fields of Europe and fled behind castle walls when neighboring warlords encroached on Dutch soil. My family visited some of our ancestor’s castles in the Dordogne of France where Nancy’s 26 Greats-Grandfather, King Henry II, ruled over his domain with Queen Eleanore of Aquitaine (when he didn’t have her imprisoned for being a threat to his life). See the movie, Lion in Winter, for the theatrical version. Henry and the Plantagenet dynasty were great grandfathers of the Bruehn (Obadiah) family from which Nancy descends. Nancy’s family descends from numerous pioneer families that settled into Connecticut and New Jersey. They traveled in convoys in those days, Protestant homies looking for a home. They actually laid the first cornerstones in New Haven CT and Newark NJ.

In exploring the history of my Dutch ancestors in Europe and America I stumbled across documents that actually blew me away and diverted my attention to the Protestant Reformation and the growth of colonial America in the 1600’s. The spark was provided when I found my wife’s ancestors moving from Connecticut to Newark, New Jersey. “Who,” I asked myself, “would give up Connecticut, home of the ESPN network for Newark?”  As I continued research on her ancestors in New England, I found they were they messing with my Dutch ancestors (von Couwenhovens) on Manhattan and Swedish ancestors (Stilleys) in New Jersey.

During the course of the 1600’s Nancy’s ancestors: Obadiah Bruehn, Robert Kitchell, Abraham Pierson, Edward Ball and the Deacon Lawrence, had been moving from Massachusetts, to Connecticut to Long Island, back to Connecticut and then on to Newark. All were ninth great (9G-G) grandparents to my wife. With each move these weary travelers were encroaching on the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (New York City), from the north, then the east and finally the south. Basically, they lived at the three terminal ends of today’s New York City transit system. Why they gave up living in the Hamptons (Southampton) I will never understand. Apparently their protestant beliefs conflicted with the beliefs of other protestant reformers. Or maybe they had advanced notice that the Kardashians would be summering in the Hamptons.

The Dutch were always sensitive to an implied threat to their domain. Whether it be the British, the Swedes to the south or the Natives surrounding them and living in their midst. Never mind the fact that they, the Dutch, were also encroaching on the native population and creating life threatening issues for all involved.

When Obadiah Bruehn and his Protestant entourage fled to Newark they were not only a threat to my Dutch ancestors (Von Couwenhovens) but my Swedish ancestors: the Stilley family. The Stilleys and Von Couwenhovens united by marriage in the 1670’s when seven times great grandfather Anders Stille married equally great grandmother Annetje Von Couwenhoven. The Stille(y) family was famous for their ability to get along with a diverse number of people and cultures. Olof Stille (Ander’s father) dined with the local tribes on his South River front property. They broke Maryland blue crab together and probably washed it down with a microbrew from Annetje’s brother’s brew house in Manhattan. His tavern was a forerunner of Fraunces Tavern where George Washington and the Sons of Liberty would conspire against the ruling British over a good pint.

Olof and his son, Anders, lived peacefully with Dutch, Swedish, and British rulers all within a ten year window of time on the banks of what would become the Delaware River. Olof was frequently called upon to act on behalf of various quarrelsome parties. When the Bruehns and the migrating protestants of Connecticut settled into Newark, Olof  wpuld remain calm and find a way to broker their differences. After all, he had been displaced in Sweden by a cantankerous landlady who had his head on a chopping block before he managed to escape with his life (true).  His biggest problems in America paled in comparison to his previous life in Humlo, Sweden.

A second factor also grabbed my attention as I studied my Dutch line (Von Couwenhovens) in Amersfoort, Holland. They were living in a hot bed of the Protestant reformation. My wife’s Slaymaker clan fled “Germany” (before there was a Germany) and headed to Amsterdam/Rotterdam in Holland. Their intent was to save their Protestant lives from genocide in France and central Europe. Mathias Slaymaker and his entourage were on their way to London for an appointment with the Queen (really) and William Penn, before heading off to Lancaster, Pennsylvania with the Queen’s blessing. It wasn’t his good looks that got Mathias in to see the Queen.  It was a woman, Marie Ferree, leading the Slaymaker entourage, who scored major points, impressing the Queen with her business acumen. Her resume made the point the Queen had been making for some time: Women know how to lead too! Marie’s husband David, a Huegonot, had died in the French genocide. Marie and her children escaped with their lives and her husband’s fortune. Mathias, a wealthy man in his own right, traveled with his wife and family. There was no hint of scandal in terms of his business relationship with Marie.

Nancy’s protestant relatives, members of the Bruehn caravan, were fled persecution in England, and like the Pilgrims before them, they found a safe harbor in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Like the Slaymakers, they checked online at and found safe passage on ships leaving for Boston. It wasn’t paranoia that caused our ancestors to develop hot feet and move from one hideaway to another.  The threat of torture and death was very real and it was all being done in the name of God. Whose God? Well, that was the subject of controversy. I don’t mean to make light of God or Christianity here. There were a number of good people claiming to know what God wanted from them. The behaviors that resulted in the name of God were atrocities that my God would not support. But, we can duel to the death on that point later. I will assemble my talking points while you read on.

I thought all the bedlam and death and destruction was only a threat to Nancy’s ancestors. I was hard pressed to find a protestant among my father’s catholic ancestors. His Irish Catholic folks were certainly victims of vicious British genocide. The Hughes, Byrnes, Banks and others were starved to death quietly in what appeared to be a potato famine, but was actually a famine brought about by British policy. It was a far less dramatic demise than the beheadings, drawing and quartering that provided grotesque entertainment in both London and Paris circa 1600-1640.

Catholics held the upper hand when this massive protestant migration ignited. But, both protestants and catholics each suffered when the Church of England gained control of the island. The tables turned over the century. When one church gained control of a throne the ‘other church’ paid the price. Protestants turned the tables on the Church of England and the Catholics when Oliver Cromwell seized control of Great Britain in the 1640’s. Cromwell seized Irish Catholic properties and annihilated the population. Protestants seemed to feast on one another in England. A Puritan and Presbyterian could find themselves lodged in debate with one another or with a Baptist or Anglican and all find themselves in a bloodbath. There is some suspicion that Catholics learned how to turn Protestants against Protestants just to keep themselves safe for a moment.

I dug deeper into my blood line looking for victims. My mother’s Lutheran heritage is lost in German record books. But low and behold, I found a French family in my father’s lineage! That’s right! A Huegonot was hiding in the Stille family tree like an apple in a pear tree. No wonder I felt so at home in the Dordogne River valley outside of Boredeaux. John Stille (1715-1790), Olof’s great grandson, married a lady by the name of Grace Fountain. My first thought was that I might be a distant cousin of jazz great, Pete Fountain. So I played the Basin Street Blues on my MP3 player and began researching the Fountain family. Grace wasn’t always a Fountain. They Anglicized their name to save their lives.

My Smith family descends from the French protestant martyr, John de la Fontaine (1500’s). He died, along with his wife and some of his children, in a home invasion conducted by Christians who were simply looking for heretics. His surviving children dropped the “de la” from their surname. The title “de la” could only be used by the rich and famous, and they didn’t wish to flaunt their fame and fortune. Their religious training forbade such ostentatious behavior. God was looking for humility in humanity and the local gendarmes were looking for wealthy Huguenots to plunder and purge. So self preservation may have played a role in their decision. Pete Fountain’s father and Pete also dropped the ‘de la’ from their last name. Another step in Anglicizing and assimilation.

Life for several generations of Fontaines took a series of bizarre twists and turns as they sought safety and religious freedom in a world gone mad with religious persecution. Their travels took them to England, Ireland, and eventually into a neighborhood in the new world known as the Kingdom of Accomack. It was there on the present day Delmarva peninsula that my family of Stilles, VonCouwenhovens, Fontaines, Davis and Smiths would actually find themselves living with the aristocrats of my wife’s family: the Whittingtons, Bowmans, Fassits, Littletons, Southeys and Scarburghs, some of the wealthiest people to first settle in the New World. They ruled Accomack as the royalty did in England.

Of course, Ye Kingdom of Accomack became a colony and the colony a county within Virginia and Maryland. In the 100 years that constitute the 17th century, the growth process and transformation of this small realm, 900 square miles, also known as the Eastern Shore of Virginia was a hot bed of economic and political activity. The Jeffersons, Washingtons, Custis, Randolphs and Marshalls would bring acclaim to the neighborhood in the days of the Revolutionary War. But, the Whittingtons, Littletons and their company of immediate cousins were among the major players in colonial Virginia. They would set the stage for the madcap adventures of the native Sons of Liberty. William Whittington would sign his name to a document that he drafted, when he served notice to Parliament (and the King) that he would tolerate “No taxation without representation” a century before the phrase became popular (true story).

The courthouse for Accomack County, Virginia maintains the written records (wills, deeds, court hearings and other data) dating back to 1634. It is the only courthouse in America with such a substantial, old and complete record of its’ citizenry. Within those records we find references to many of the folk heroes and legends in our nation’s and our own family history. The adventures of William Whittington, Nathaniel Littleton, Henry Southey (Jamestown) and Edmund Scarborough are well documented, as are their ancestors in England and Wales.

The first of George Washington’s ancestors (Nicholas Martiau) arrived in Virginia and received a patent (deed) for land in January of 1639. The French Huegonot (Martiau) gained 50 acres of land for every person (man, woman or child) he brought into the new world. Those were the rules created by Sir Edwin Sandys in his marketing plans for developing the economy of Virginia Colony and financing the venture. Martiau brought 14 pioneers across the sea and acquired 700 acres. That’s enough land to open a nice resort amid the pines of the Charles River. Of course, he did no such thing. But when investors in the Virginia Company, back in London, promoted the development of Virginia they did try to sell the concept of the good life in Virginia to their local population and throughout Europe.

The Jeffersons, Madisons, Marshalls and Monroes; and various surnames of early American leaders dotted the countryside of the great necks of Virginia, sequestered along the backwater of various bays and rivers that fed into the Atlantic Ocean. The heroes who rose to the occasion in 1775 and threw off the shackles of British rule were the great grandsons of our great aunts, uncles and cousins who settled into Westmoreland County in the mid decades of the 1600’s. George Washington shares a common great grandfather with our Whittington line. His ancestors shared property lines with my Smiths, Marshalls and Baileys. The grandchildren of the Westmoreland gentry were not the first to use the rhetoric that rocked colonial America, leading into the Revolutionary War. They were not the first to conceive of liberty or demand “no taxation without representation.” The citizens of Accomack and Westmoreland were shrewd, calculating entrepreneurs whose sense of independence and remote location fueled the growth of capitalism and democratic ideals.

Virginia was a hotbed of political dissent one hundred and fifty years prior to the Revolutionary War. It is a part of history that escapes the efforts of a high school teacher trying to cover the American History textbook in a semester. The names that arose as leaders in the 1600s are largely unrecognizable. They did not have the PR agents and paparazzi that future generations harbored. The villages that cried out for representation in Virginia were not legendary towns like Lexington and Concord and the outcome was quite a bit different. In fact, Virginians were divided as to their preferences when it came time to promote change. Strategic planning sessions did not include all players, agendas were dependent on personal needs and aspirations and goals were dependent on wealth, power and security. It was nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the journey of mankind on the face of the planet. And yet, it was to be an extraordinary adventure in the implementation of democratic principles conceived on paper and in the original cyber space of human reasoning.


We have all studied Jamestown Colony at some point in our not so illustrious career as students. It was a blip on the timeline between the creation of Earth and the coming of Armageddon. We lost some of our ancestors on the road to Jamestown. We lost a few more in the settlement of Jamestown.

Ask any high school student about Jamestown and you will get something like this:

John Smith did something. Pocahontas was discovered and had her 15 minutes of fame. Walt Disney Studios made a movie about her. Disney investors made a large profit and kids bought a lot of Barbie like Pocahontas dolls.

The Revolutionary War?

The Patriots dumped tea in Boston Harbor, won a Revolutionary War and got a great football team named after them. George Washington became the first president. Our nation’s capital is named after him and they got a team named ‘Redskins’ and that would make Pocahontas very happy according to the owner of the team.

For starters, John Smith is not in our family tree. A good number of present day Smiths build their online trees claiming a direct descent from the adventuresome Captain. He stayed long enough in Jamestown to provide much needed structure through hard times and then went on a world tour promoting his book and promoting the opportunity that one could find in the New World market. His strengths were necessary ingredients in the process of creating a colony from scratch. He promoted the entrepreneurial possibilities with accuracy and integrity. He dismissed the possibility of finding gold on the North Atlantic coastline even as the Spanish were finding large deposits of gold and silver in South America. Instead, he talked about the fur, the fish and fertile farmland. He drew awareness to the cod of Newfoundland, the forests of New England and the possibilities of tobacco in Virginia. Grapes for wine were abundant. He really was a good advance man promoting settlement of the new land.

Captain Smith also painted a blunt picture of what it would take to survive: hard work, long hours, and perseverance. It was no place for a panty waist gentleman afraid of getting his knickers bunched up. He was disgusted with the London Company for sending him too many ‘gallants’ in Jamestown and not enough hard working grunts like himself who came up through the cracks amid the clay. He cautioned the New England Company to keep a close eye on the roster of any ship taking passengers to colonies there. No ‘gallants!’ He also knew it was critical to maintain a peaceful relationship with the Native nations and to respect them as human beings.

But why Jamestown? What were the investors thinking? And who was involved behind the scenes? And what role did our ancestors play in the expansion of the colony? One of Nancy’s great grandparents, Richard Halykut, was a principal and original partner in the London Company responsible for the development of Virginia and Jamestown, in particular. British historians point to Halykut’s track record as a geographer, map maker, author and entrepreneur as the key player in the British expansion in the New World. His biography and role is expanded elsewhere in this tome. As a former geography teacher, his name was familiar to me and I had no problem tracking his tie to Nancy’s family lineage.

The historical and global context is critical if we are to understand the birth of North American continent from a white European guy’s perspective and the death of a continent from the Native nation perspective. England had been consumed by the need to find the elusive passage to the Orient. They were bent on the idea of sailing north and west to expedite trade with the Far East. It was an effort driven by Halykut’s corporate England in the boardroom of the London Company. Soon after Columbus visits the Caribbean, the British began probing the American coastline looking for the elusive passage to China. Every bay, estuary and river that headed inland from the Atlantic coast could be the much sought after passageway. It had to be around the next corner. Only the Welsh and British cod fisherman were content to go no further than the Great Banks of Newfoundland and did so during the 1500s.

Trade with China and India was blinding the British to what was right in front of their eyes, a North American continent full of rich resources. While the British were contemplating the Orient, the Spanish and Portuguese were exploiting the South American continent. Perhaps the term ‘exploiting’ is an understatement. The British watched as Spanish ships brought home a fortune in gold and silver, pillaged from the Native Americans of Mexico, Central and South America. The new found wealth allowed the Spanish to bolster their investments in their own army and navy.

The Portugese were cruising around Cape Horn and South Africa controlling that trade route to India and China. They were also carving out a niche in Brazil and competing with Spain for control of the New World resources. The Dutch East India Company was locking into the East Indies and the spice trade of the present day islands of Indonesia. The Brits were sending ships into the ice flow of the Arctic Ocean without benefit of Gore Tex and goose down.

The British could see the writing on the wall. The threat was real. The race into the New World was being won by the Spanish. The Spanish were conquering the territory. They had learned how to enslave the Native American, pillage their communities, destroy their civilization and make an easy profit by running off with their resources. Their business plan was simple and ruthless. The Spanish and Portugese were sending explorers and conquistadors inland on the new continents. They were not interested in trading with the people of the New World. They were heavy into grand theft larceny, murder and mayhem.

The French, on the other hand, were learning to use intimidation and Dale Carnegie techniques for winning friends and influencing people as they moved into the Native lands north of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes. The French weren’t angels, but they did form ‘trade relationships’ with the Native nations. They developed French ports and trade stations to which the Natives could bring fur pelts and exchange those furs for wampum. From a European point of view the French were paying pennies for a treasure trove, quahog shells for fur. The system lent itself to gang violence among the Woodland tribes of Canada and New England.  Warring Native Nations found another reason to beat on one another.  Sachems (tribal chiefs) sought control of waterways and forests that were rich in beaver, otter, mink and other fur bearing critters.  Alliances were forged: military force and economic progress grew out of the barrel of the gun, as Mao Tse Tung would observe centuries later. If not the gun, a few foreign germs could bring down the enemy.

What to Do? The British Game Plan Emerges…..

A few of Britain’s adventuresome mariners developed a multifaceted view of the world scene. In 1572, Sir Francis Drake was employed by her majesty Queen Elizabeth to let the Spanish do all the work. Once the gold and silver was on board a Spanish ship sailing to Europe the British would attack the ship, seize it and pirate the gold and silver off  to the Queen’s coffer.  The Brits would also attack coastal villages in the new world where Spanish treasure was stockpiled waiting transfer to Spain. The strategy worked on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the South American continent. Drake was knighted for his thievery in the name of the British crown. While Drake himself is hard to pin down in terms of his ancestral tree, there were numerous other Drakes who played Pirate for the monarchy. An entire line of them is found in Nancy’s family tree.

In 1582, Walter Raleigh, his half brother Humphrey Gilbert and cousin Sir Richard Grenville were frustrated in their efforts to locate the trade route to China. They were beginning to rethink their approach to exploration and economic opportunity. They wanted to get their foot in the door in the New World and compete for the riches that were in evidence. They pooled their resources and and attracted the attention of venture capitalists in England. They would convince the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, to focus on developing New World colonies. They too are found in Nancy’s Whittington lineage.

The land would be called Virginia in honor of the Virgin Queen.

“Can we call it that?” Walter Raleigh wondered aloud as he splashed Dantzic over his chops  in a backstreet tavern just off the wharf in the heart of London.

“I can’t believe you drink that drool!” his half brother, Humphrey carped. “You might as well be drinking pine tar.”

“Aye. A real man’s drink Humpty. Spruce beer.”

“Don’t call me that!”

“What? Humpty?”

“A man of your refined tastes should be drinking a white beer.  Here try this,” cousin Richard Grenville offered Raleigh his beer.

“No thanks. I’d rather not.  When it comes to beer I prefer what the men of Yorkshire drink.”

“A Polish beer?”

“Doesnt’ get any better,” Raleigh licked his chops and chewed on the leg of an overcooked lamb.

“Back to the original proposition,” Humphrey started.  “We sell the Queen on staking her claim to a piece of the American continent before the Spanish and French develop condominiums and golf courses along the Atlantic coast. We call the region Virginia.”

Raleigh rolled his eyes back and chortled. “Again! I ask.  Can we really call it Virginia?”  Raleigh peered around the room and with a gleam in his eye reported, “Look. I’m not buying the virgin queen bit. She’s in her prime. She’s got this guy Robert Dabney that she has being seeing since childhood.”

“Aye. I know the guy. He’s a decent gent. And man enough,” Francis Drake entered the conversation.  “I can’t imagine that they haven’t done the Texas Two Step on a cold winter night. If you know what I mean.”  Drake’s eyes shifted from Humphrey to cousin Richard Grenville.

Grenville laughed and rolled his eyes. “Say no more. Say no more. Wink, Wink. Say no more.”

Humphrey Gilbert wasn’t laughing. “The Queen was abused by her step father when she was 14,” Gilbert reminded the crew. “I mean repeatedly assaulted. Over time. Sexually, is what I’m saying. She may not have a fondness for men.” Humphrey spoke the unsettling truth with a sense of compassion for the Queen and disdain for Thomas Seymour, the step father whose head had been severed based on the allegations alone. The others recognized that Gilbert’s point had merit.

“Okay then. We call the place Virginia,” Raleigh affirmed. “We ask the Queen to bank roll the effort. We get these heavy hitters from Fleet Street to put some pounds on the table and we use their cash to pay the bills while we make like the Spaniards and find our own pot of gold.” Raleigh downed a whiskey and pounded the glass into the table, shattering both the glass and table. “The Scotch know how to make a man’s drink!”

The enraged barkeep crossed the floor and cursed the privateers. “That’s the last straw, Walter. You and your motley relations get out of here and stay out. You have broken the last of my furniture and glassware.”

Raleigh and company ended their corporate retreat and carried their vision forward. They wrapped their concept of Virginia, minus the golf course and condo, into a strategic plan and soon set the wheels in motion. They coined the term “Forward Virginia,” created bumper stickers and came up with an ad campaign that would rock the financial district. Armed with PowerPoints and pie charts they put on their finest cod piece and secured a business meeting with the best and brightest of London. A vision for America was on the drawing board. It marked the birth of a multinational corporate nation that would carry forth the promise of capitalism, under the guise of democratic rule.

The Queen gave the guys the green light. She could use a cash flow.  Wars had taken a toll on her coffers and she needed a new supply of white paste for her ceramic face.  The stuff was pricey.

Family Links

Richard Grenville (1542-1591) is a second cousin on Nancy’s side of the family tree.  A second cousin 14 times removed, which means 14 generations into the past. The Grenville family in our tree meets the Drake family when Anne Grenville (1513-1577) marries John Drake (1500-1588).  See the family tree to visualize how the Drake line descends from Anne and John to Abraham Pierson, our New England preacher and pioneer.  Grenville is a cousin to Humphrey Gilbert.  Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh are half brothers, sharing Catherine Champernowne as their mother.

Of course, there are many other ways to link to distant ancestors and other off shoots of our tree. As a case in point, when Richard Grenville’s father dies, Richard’s mother marries into the long line of the Arundel family that has littered our tree with all kinds of off spring for several centuries. As one example: William Whittington marries Elizabeth Arundel and they settle into Accomack, Virginia in the 1630s.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace RO, DR3/ 264, is a settlement dated 20th December 1473, made by John Arundel, later Bishop of Coventry and Exeter, in favour of his sister, William Whittington’s widow Elizabeth, and her intended husband Nicholas Brome of Baddesley Clinton


While Raleigh and his relatives continued to search the American coastline for passage to China they also began a long, slow, painful and awkward process of establishing failed colonies in North America. It wasn’t part of the plan, but the first several British attempts to establish colonies were colossal failures, due in large part to the corporate failure to consider the strategic needs of people living in a new and remote environment. The British failed in the Popham Colony in Maine. Three British efforts prior to Jamestown folded, each on Roanoke Island. Many of the settlers of the first attempt returned to England. A second party of 15 soldiers was wiped out and the third attempt was the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Those colonists disappeared (1589) from the island, leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved into timber. The British would continue to send search parties, seeking the missing colonists.

Walter Raleigh was discouraged by a string of events.  His half brother, Humphrey Gilbert, died on a failed attempt to voyage around the north of present day Canada in 1583. Cousin Richard Grenville died in the Caribbean Sea in the Battle of Flores in 1591. Completely outnumbered by a Spanish fleet Grenville and his crew fought to their death rather than face capture.  With his comrades gone, Raleigh gave up on his efforts to establish colonies. King James I (1601) understood the need to move Raleigh’s vision forward. Richard Halykut and his fellow investors hoped to profit from the wealth of the New World. In April of 1606 King James I granted Halykut and Company organizers exclusive rights to settle in Virginia.

The previous failures on the coastal shore of Roanoke forced the Brits to look further inland along the James River. While I spent several years as a classroom teacher exploring the story of Jamestown with my students I never knew until recently that grandparents financed the efforts, grandparents captained ships to the colony, grandparents died in the Massacre of 1622 and grandparents survived the massacre and built the foundation of America.

In understanding our family history it is important to focus on the several elements at play in Europe and in the New World: 1) the impact of the Protestant Reformation, 2) the political battles between protestants and catholics, parliamentarians and royals in England and America and 3) the economic trends driving colonial life.