DUTCH ANCESTORS ON MANHATTAN ISLAND
This is a chapter within an anthology (1638) that collects all of my son’s ancestors under one umbrella, one roof, so to speak. This chapter (8) relates specifically to the role of Smith ancestral grandparents in the Stille-von Couwenhoven line and their impact on the new world.
Wolfert Gerritse von Couwenhoven was respected as a supervisor for a bowery (farm) in Holland. He managed the Couwenhoven estate of the De Wijs family. In doing so, he earned a fair living. But family interests were diverse. They also operated a bleachery (laundry), cleaning and starching the clothes of the wealthy class. He acquired mortgages and when he built up a little capital he learned how to flip properties. It wasn’t long before Wolfert caught the eye of the financial geniuses who were going to lay the foundation for New York City. The guy was one of the best farm supervisors in Holland. He understood animal livestock and managed people well. He also understood finances and the business world. He would soon play a leading role in the Dutch development of Manhattan Island and Wall Street. This is the family history.
On January 17, 1604 Wolfert married Neeltgen Jacobsdochter in the “Tower of Our Lady”, Dutch Reformed Church, Amersfoort. Her parents were Jacob Petersz and Metgen Jacobsdr . The ‘sz’ at the end Petersz, tells us Jacob was the son of a guy named ‘Peter’. The ‘dr’ on the end of Jacobsdr tells us Metgen was the daughter of a ‘Jacob’. Neeltgen was born in roughly 1584 in Netherlands and she may have died in 1656 in New Amersfoort, Kings County, New York . She may have been a victim of a war her sons instigated.
Court records, including deeds, are often the only documents through which we can find information regarding our ancestors. This is especially true in developing a picture of Wolfert. And by the way, there are several variations on the spelling of his name. On December 15, 1611, in the settlement of Neeltgen’s parent’s estate in Amersfoort, Wolfert tells the court that he is a baker. Our ancestors often used a mark, a seal to identify themselves on official records. Family crests were used by nobility. Wolfert signs paperwork with his stylized ‘A” to distinguish himself as Wolfert Gerritse from Amersfoort. The documents provide assurance that he accepts the property and debts of Neeltjen’s deceased parents. The document also identifies her brothers Herman and Peter, as well as a brother-in-law, Willem Dircx .
Wolfert and Neeltjen lived at the Couwenhoven estate in Hoogland, smack dab in the middle of the agricultural province of Utrecht in Holland. In addition to being a baker he was also a tenant farmer. De Wijs was granted rights to the land by the feudal Lord of Montfoort . This pattern of land ownership evolved over the middle ages in Europe and carried into the New World. We have seen examples of this in previous immigrants: Patents were granted to Mathias Slaymaker in William Penn’s woods (Pennsylvania), and the Davis family in Virginia (Great Neck) and North Carolina. Patents helped establish the Smith family at Bull Run, Manasas, VA and the Round Hill Plantation in Caswell County, NC. The Parkers of Connecticut and Stilles of Delaware all were able to afford tracts of land purchased as parcels of larger patents typically held by nobility, aristocrats or the nouveau riche of Europe.
In some cases the powerful landlords seized the property of Smith ancestors as our ancestral Butler family did when they slaughtered and removed our Fitzgeralds, O’Byrnes and Hughes ancestors from their small farms in Ireland. And as our Scotch Irish, Dutch, British, Welch ancestors did when they came to the New World and removed the Lanape, Cherokee, Shawnee and a multitude of tribes from their sacred hunting grounds. It is life in the fast lane, survival of the fittest, all the cliches about the rich getting richer….
A series of financial transactions, investments and deals culminate with Wolfert and his family leaving Europe for New Amsterdam on present day Manhattan Island . The trail of paperwork begins on April 14, 1615 in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Wolfert took part in what appears to be the settlement of a debt owed him . In the court of Johan Van Ingen in Utrecht, Herman Zieboltz gave Wolfert two morgens (2 to 5 acres) of turf near Cologne in recognition of services rendered. No monetary amount is mentioned for the services or the turf ground. Apparently Zieboltz was unable to pay Wolfert money that was owed him and Wolfert may have agreed to accept the turf as payment enough in his business dealings with Zieboltz.
On May 16, 1616, Wolfert Gerritse, identified as a baker, again appears as a witness in Van Ingen’s court. On this occasion he represents his brother, Willem Gerritse, a miller by trade. Willem and Wolfert testified that Griet Maes was evading the city grain tax. While Willem is not identified in the court record as Wolfert’s brother, Wolfert did have a brother named Willem Gerritse living in Amersfoort.
On October 28, 1616, Janss and Haesgen Thonis made the final payment on a bleach camp they purchased from Wolfert. So Wolfert was also known as a bleacher (a 1615 laundromat operator). A bleach camp was a capital intensive, seasonal business which required the labor of many skilled workers. Three types of bleach camps could be found: wool, clothing and woven fabric. In each case the material was first cooked in a lye solution, and later spread out on green grass for many weeks in small fields surrounding the bleach house where the fabric was kept damp. It was then cooked in a solution of wheat meal before being again spread on the field for a lengthy period. the entire process required about three months. Only wealthy people could afford the services of clothing bleachers. Imagine, waiting three months to get your shirts back from the cleaners!
On January 30, 1617 Wolfert and Neeltgen bought a home at Langegraft, Amersfoort, Utrecht, Netherlands. They purchased the home from Aert Van Schayck and his wife Anna Barents. Records pinpoint the location of the house on Lieverrouwestraet (Dear Lady Street). The house was next door to Hednrickgen Speldemaeckster. I suspect the neighborhood has changed dramatically in the 400 years that have passed! Deeds often identified properties in relationship to the neighbors, landforms and vegetation (e.g. trees).
Within two weeks (February 15) of the purchase of the Langegraft home, Wolfert and Neeltgen begin borrowing money at a pace that indicates they have a plan:
- 100 guilders from the Armen te Amersfoorton. Wolphert agreed to repay the debt at 6 guilders per year. There is no additional detail. Other financial arrangements indicate that 6 guilders was probably the interest rate on the principal.
- On May 16, 1617, Wolfert borrowed another 200 guilders from Cornelis Baecx van der Tommen at a yearly interest of 12 guilders.
- On Jul 25, 1617, Wolfert borrowed 250 guilders from Anna Goerts widow of Franck Frandkss at 15 guilders interest per year.
Only 18 months after selling a bleach camp, Wolfert and Neeltgen purchased another bleach camp outside the Coppelpoort of Amersfoort. Hubert Lambertsz Moll and his wife Geertgen Cornisdochter are identified as their business partners. This may be the reason Wolfert was borrowing to the hilt.
On September 17, 1618 Wolfert and Neeltgen mortgage their Langegraft house. The former mayor of Amersfoort, Coenraet Fransz, provides 100 guilders at an annual interest of 6 guilders, with “the house of Wolfert on the Langegracht as security.” Within a short time, Wolfert mortgages the house three times.
It appears that Wolfert’s brother Willem dies prior to November 5, 1622. Records indicate that Wolfert was appointed guardian over the five minors of his brother Willem. Court documents refer to Wolfert as a “bleacher residing by the Coppelpoort (a bridge) and Harmen Willemsz citizen of Amersfoort as ‘bloetvoochden’ (blood guardians) of the five sons of Willem Gerritsz Couwenhoven.” The children are identified as: Gerridt, Willem, Jan, Harmen, and Willem the Younger. Harmen would appear to be of legal age as he was identified in the court document along with Wolfert as a guardian. The arrangement is agreed to by the mother of the children Neeltgen Willemsdr (the widow of Willem). Her surname indicates that she was also the daughter of a Willem. The honorable Johan de Wijs owner of Cowenhoven Estate also provides assistance. This document indicates that Wolfert‘s brother Willem was also a tenant of the Couwenhoven farm, owned by Johan de Wijs.
It is not unusual to also find police reports and complaints about citizens in the record books. Some are humorous and some very criminal in nature and some defy reason. I have for example a gg grandfather who was put to death for stealing a basket of peas from a porch in Britain. In the case of Wolfert we find the crime involves a bucket of fish.
On March 24, 1623- Beernt Van Munster filed a deposition under oath at the request of the police officer. Beernt testified that on the previous Saturday afternoon he had caught a bucket of fish by the Koppelpoort Bridge. He had given half of the catch to ‘Wolfert the bleacher’ per an agreement. After dividing the catch, Beernt went on to catch an additional small number of fish. Wolfert and Harmen Teut then took these fish from Beernt, and they would not divide them with him. Wolfert kept Beernt’s net and tried to give it to his wife. Harman hit Berrnt in the eye with a weight in the net, and the net was ripped. Beernt then went to the defense of his wife, and Wolfert drew his knife and threatened him without harming him. Beernt then testifies that “Dirck Gerritsz, stevedore, using well-chosen words, separated the people from each other.”
On April 1, 1623 in a follow up to Beent’s complaint, Dirck Gerrisz provides testimony at the request of the investigating officer and submitted a similar deposition under oath. This is the last of the documents related to Wolfert Gerritse in the archives of Amersfoort, Holland. From this point forward his trail leads to Flatbush, Brooklyn (New Amsterdam) and his development as an early version of Donald Trump in New York.
- A manuscript, “L.P. de Boer. The Van Couwenhoven Family in the Netherlands and in New Netherland, 1440-1630 points out that in the marriage record of the Dutch Reformed Church at Amersfoort, which begins with the year 1583, there appears the following entry (Translation by de Boer) “Banns registered, 9 January 1605, Wolfer Gerrit’s son and Neltgen Jan’s daughter, both from Amersfoort, married 17 January.”
- Information on the Van Kouwenhoven family was published in the Central Bureau Voor Genealogie, Part 50 1996 (Dec 16, 1996), The Hague, by M. S. F. Kemp. —Additional information has been obtained from the NYGBR issues of October 1997 and January, 1998.
- Conover Family Genealogy Page, David K. Conover, http://www.rumseyfamily.com/getperson.php?personID=I4913&tree=rums01
- Kelley, Elizabeth Conover: Conover: Pioneers and Pilgrims, (Harlo Press, MI: 1982)
- [Central Bureau Voor Genealogie, Part 50 1996 (Dec 16, 19960] and [Amsfoort Archives] and [Conover Family Genealogy Page].
CROSSING THE ATLANTIC – 1624
The van Couwenhovens were Dutch, with roots in Amsfoort, Netherlands. Wolfert was a jack of all trades, as was his wife Neeltgen. Rotterdam was a financial district for the world at that time (1620) and a bustling port that offered international trade and endless opportunities. The sea was an open highway, inviting dreamers and schemers to seek adventure and fortune along a new world sea coast that ran from Brazil to Nova Scotia. Wolphert had been working “24/7/365,” four hundred years before the phrase would become popular. He was a workaholic with one gear and one gear only: overdrive. Neeltje was an equally accomplished person and perhaps the driving force in the family. Destiny was knocking on the door.
In the annals of history the story of New Netherlands is a short but very important piece of American and world history. The first recorded European guys to set eyes on the Hudson River sailed with Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524. Giovanni had already seen several estuaries along the American coastline and didn’t journey up the Hudson. In 1609 Henry Hudson, in search of the still elusive Northwest Passage to Cathay (China), did sail up the Hudson River to a point (present day Albany) where he could conclude two things: 1) This wasn’t the passage he was hoping to find and 2) there were a whole lot of beaver pelts to be had for a profit back in Europe.
The Frenchman, Jacque Cartier, had initiated a limited fur trade with Native tribes along the St. Lawrence River in the 1530’s. Almost 100 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Basque cod fisherman who dried their catch on Newfoundland shoreline, were acquiring beaver pelts in trades made with the local nations. Eventually the European market paid attention and the beaver pelt became a booming commodity. The Dutch, including Neeltgen van Couwenhoven, would soon learn how to develop partnerships with the Native population in developing a lucrative trade. The Natives would be especially interested in trading pelts for guns and alcohol. This would create some bad karma.
Hudson chose to name the river the Mauritius, perhaps after Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, the man who led the Dutch revolt against Spain in the early 1600’s. The name didn’t stick. The Dutch held a strong interest in developing the lands that Hudson had claimed on their behalf. They would colonize the Delaware estuary, which they called the South River and the Hudson River Valley which they called the North River. Their efforts in the Delaware River settlement would bring them into conflict with Olof Stille and his Swedish community (New Sweden). Their efforts to the east, in the Connecticut River Valley, would bring them into conflict with the British and our Puritan families. Efforts to the north, along the shore of the Hudson River would bring conflict with the Native nations.
The colony of New Netherlands began as a harbor sheltering Dutch ships, pirates, armed by the military industrial complex of the Netherlands. As part of the effort to liberate Netherlands from Spanish control, the Dutch knew they had to put the hurt to Spanish wealth. They had to cut off the New World shipments of gold, silver, sugar, etc. that were providing a revenue stream for the Spanish war machine. Dutch ships did, in fact, inflict serious damage over the decades, capturing over 500 ships and 30 million guilders of coin. An interesting argument was taking place in the corporate board room of the Dutch West Indies Company. Rumors that the Dutch and Spanish could resolve their differences and live harmoniously together created panic for those Dutch who made their profit in war.
Agriculture in New Netherlands could not reap the return on investment that Dutch investors needed. In fact it would be red ink, a drain on the budget. And yet, colonization would be necessary in order to protect Dutch interests on a global scale. The failure to colonize their holdings in Brazil had already cost them the world’s finest sugar harvests. The Spanish had already established a pattern of knocking of British fortresses in the New World. Jamestown had been secluded upstream, on the James River in Virginia for a reason. A fortress and troops would be necessary to protect the New Amsterdam port facility. A fortress and a series of forts could also extend Dutch interests in the territory and create opportunities to befriend the Native population and create military alliances with New World nations.
New Netherlands expanded as a series of trading posts and crude forts with garrisons established to protect Dutch piracy, trade, and military interests. The forts were positioned from Schenectady (now NY) 400 miles south to Swaanendael, Delaware and east into the Connecticut River Valley (present day Hartford). The Dutch West India Company brought back a lot of fur in their first year of operation. The value of that harvest was subject to scrutiny by the Company bean counters. Corporate executives realized that the fur trade would not bring the profits investors needed if peace prevailed and the production of military hardware ceased. War machinery was where the money could be made. Can you say Halliburton?
Unsure of their relationships with local tribes and financial spreadsheets, the Dutch were slow to colonize, to add settlements. However, the obvious efforts of the Spanish, Portugese, British and French to carve up the new world left the Dutch and Swedes with the realization that a stake in the new world would require colonization. Fortresses would require soldiers and services including food, shelter, and other items necessary for survival. For and interesting perspective on the Dutch corporate approach I point you to Donna Merwick’s The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland.
In 1624, at roughly age 40, Wolfert signed up with the Dutch West India Company for service in the colony of New Netherlands  Within a year Wolfert and Neeltgen set sail in the company of four ships in the Verhulst Expedition, bound for New Netherlands. The company ship was loaded with 700 tons of humanity, mackeral, horse, cow and sheep. Documents indicate the ship had a crew of 200 and 32 cannon. It was an era of piracy on the high seas and there was no such thing as a safe cruise. The cannon were necessary to ward off attack. Ships were being captured and passengers taken hostage and traded as slaves in Portugal, Spain and North Africa. Our ancestors, James and Robert Davis captained ships for Britain and their ships had already experienced such perils.
The “crew of 200” probably included colonists who would settle in and develop New Amsterdam and the Dutch patents. Wolfert was listed as one of five head-farmers in the expedition. His experience as a tenant farmer/businessman at Couwenhoven had caught the eye of management. The five head farmers were identified in company documents as Walich Jacobsz, Jacob Lourensz, Mattheus de Reus, Wolffaert Gerritsz, and Jan Ides. “Wolffaert Gerritsz” being another spelling of our ancestor. Notice that the ‘sz’ and ‘se’ suffix are used interchangeably within a family and even for a single person.
Instructions for the journey were laid out in writing by the directors:
“The cattle, horses, and other animals shall remain undivided during the voyage and in that country be distributed by lot, under the direction of the Council, to the head-farmers with the drawing of lots each one shall have to be content, it being his duty to care for the allotted animals to the best of his ability, without disputing about the matter in the least, on pain of being punished therefor by judgment [of the Council]. To each head-farmer and his family shall be allotted four horses and four cows to be selected from the best that are being sent over, and the rest and the others belonging to the Company shall be dealt with as explained hereafter.” .
Nicholaes Janszoon Van Wassenaer gave a detailed account illustrating the traditional Dutch orderliness and cleanliness on board the ships to New Netherlands:
Each animal had its own stall, and that the floor of each stall was covered with three feet of sand, which served as ballast for the ship. Each animal also had its respective servant, who knew what his reward was to be if he delivered his charge alive. Beneath the cattle-deck were stowed three hundred tons of fresh water, which was pumped up for the livestock. In addition to the load of cattle, the ship carried agricultural implements and “all furniture proper for the dairy,” as well as a number of settlers .
The Verhulst Expedition established the first farms and settlement on Manhattan Island  in 1624. His arrival several years after the Mayflower docked in Plymouth, precedes Olaf Stille’s arrival in New Sweden by roughly 18 years. The Dutch colonies were well financed by the heavy hitters of Netherlands. The land leases (patents) on Manhattan Island ran for six years in the manner of the patroonship established by the Dutch. Wolfert’s previous experience working the Couvenhoven estate in Amsterfoort was invaluable to new world settlers. It appears the Dutch learned something from the bitter experience of the British at both Jamestown and Popham Colony (Maine). Ancestors John and Robert Davis, and Stephen Hopkins were instrumental in saving colonists at each of those sites after bitter start up experiences.
Wolfert was assigned to supervise operations on the company’s farms at Bouwerie Three . The Dutch term ‘Bouwerie’ was anglicized decades later when the British took ownership. We are all familiar I think with the present day Bowery section of downtown New York City. Imagine living there four hundred years ago! Or even 100 years ago.
Wolfert and Neeltgen’s talent as entrepreneurs blossoms in Manhattan. While Wolfert supervised a successful farm operation and began dealing in real estate, Neeltgen engaged in fur trading, long before Wall Street bartering dominated corporate America. Her successful tactics are obvious in this letter from the West India Company secretary to the Company in Holland:
“We live here very plainly; if there is anything to be had it is the colonists who get it. It happened one day that the wife of Wolfert Gerritsz came to me with two otters, for which I offered her three guilders, ten stivers. She refused this and asked five guilders, whereupon I let her go, this being too much. The wife of Jacob Lourissz, the smith, knowing this, went to her and offered her five guilders, which Wolfert’s wife again told me. Thereupon, to prevent the otters from being purloined, I was obliged to give her the five guilders. Should your Honors desire to remedy such and other similar practices, it will be necessary to send me and the Schout and other instructions and to order the Council to assist us better” .
A ‘Schout’ was a local official.
In 1629 Wolfert sailed back to the Netherlands to renegotiate his contract with the Dutch West India Company. On January 8, 1630, while still in the Netherlands, he signed a six year lease with the company for Bouwerie No. 6 (about 91 acres) . Two weeks later Patroon Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy jewelry merchant and director of the West Indian Company picked up Wolfert’s contract and made him the manager of his vast estate. Wolfert was now supervising thousands of acres along the North (Hudson) River including most of present day Albany .
Van Rensselaer, an absentee landlord, realized from the beginning that the success of his enterprise depended on self-sustaining farms and that a trading post was unlikely to prove profitable over time. Consequently he forbade his agents and employees to enter the fur business and urged them to establish families on farms. He also understood that Wolfert Gerritsz was not only familiar with conditions in New Netherland but he was also an experienced farmer .
In a follow up instruction to Bastiaen Lanssz Crol, van Rensselaer directs that Crol and Wolfert make every effort to secure the lands surrounding Albany along the North River and have the house built at the place he dictated. Rensselaer sends Wolfert back to New Netherland with his first settlers, the party sailing on the ship ‘de Eendracht’ (The Unity), which set sail on March 21, 1630, and arrived at New Amsterdam on May 24th.
Within 18 months, on January 9, 1632, van Couwenhoven wrote to van Rensselaer in Amsterdam, asking to be released from his contract. The administrator in New Amsterdam, Coenraet Notelman, a cousin of the Patroon, recommended to van Rensselaer that the arrangement with Wolfert be brought to an end, and van Rensselaer did it with a friendly letter, dated July 20, 1632: “I had hoped that you would have settled in my colony, but, as I am told, your wife was not much inclined thereto” . The reference to Neeltgen makes one wonder if she refused to end her career as a fur trader as had been required by van Rensselaer.
From July 1632 until July 1638, Wolfert Gerritse van Couwenhoven operated the bowery number six on the north end of Manhattan Island, known as Geurdt van Gelder’s farm. It was bounded by present day Division Street on the north, the East River on the east, Oliver Street and Chatham Square on the south, and the Bowery on the west. When Van Gelder yielded it to Van Couwenhoven, the farm had six mares, ten cows, and a bull . Finding such a wealth of information is a tribute to Dutch record keepers and historians.
During the time Wolfert Gerritse had to manage affairs at Rensselaerswyck, the patroon’s cousin, Coenraet Notelman, seems to have been in charge of Bouwerie No.6. But in July 1632, Wolfert Gerritsz took full charge and held the place until July, 1638. His lease must have expired in 1636 and it was in that year that he acquired the property on Long Island where he was to spend the rest of his life. As for Bouwerie No. 6 it was released on March 31, 1639, to Jan Van Vorst, and on March 18, 1647, patented to Cornelis Jacobsz Stille . Notice the last name. It is the first indication that our Dutch von Couwenhovens and Swedish Stille families are about to merge.
In the mid 1630’s Wolfert begins to deal in land acquisitions that would be the envy of Donald Trump. On July 20, 1633, Andries Hudde sells a deed to Gerrit Wolfertsen (van Couwenhoven) for 50 morgens of land at Achterveldt on Long Island.
It is now time to unleash one of the coolest pieces of Smith family history and American history one could hope to find in the annals of time.
On June 16, 1636– Wolfert and Andries Hudde, an officer of the New Amerstdam government, received an Indian deed for a tract of land called ‘Kestateuw.’ This acreage known as the Great Flat, containing 3600 acres of arable land, much of it meadow, extended from Bedford Creek northwest to present day Foster Avenue, west to the Gravesend Village line (East 17th Street) south to present day Bay Avenue, and southeast to Gerritsen Creek. Hudde and Wolfert named their newly acquired estate “Achterveldt”, meaning hindermost field . The term ‘Kestateux’ meant ‘where the grass is cut and mowed,’ in the native Canarsie nation.
- O’Callaghan, M.D. The Documentary History of the State of New-York, Vol. IV (Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1851.), p. 116.
- Instructions for Director Willem Verhulst and the Council of New Netherland, April 22, 1625.
- Nicolaes Van Wasenaer. “Historisch Verhael” from Original Narratives of Early American History: Narratives of New Netherland 1609-1664 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909) pp. 67-96 found online at google books.
- Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes. The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909, Vol, 5. (New York: Six volumes. originally published from 1915-1928 by Robert H. Dodd), p. xvii.
- Lincoln C. Cocheu. “The Van Kouwenhoven-Conover Family” from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Vol 070, No. 3, July 1939 p. 232.
- Letter from Isaack de Rasiere to the Amsterdam Camber of the West India Company September 23, 1626 from Documents Relating to New Netherland, 1624-1626
- Lincoln C. Cocheu. “The Van Kouwenhoven-Conover Family” from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Vol 070, No. 3, July 1939, p. 232.
- Van Rensselaer Bowerie Manuscript: 218)], and [LincolnC. Cocheu, “The Van Kouwenhoven-Conover Family” from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Vol 070, No. 3, July 1939.
- Karen Sivertsen. Babel on the Hudson: Community Formation in Dutch Manhattan dissertation Department of History Duke University.
- Lincoln C Cocheu, The Van Kouwenhoven-Conover Family from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Vol 070, No. 3, July 1939 ff citing the Calendar of Dutch Manuscripts.
- Lincoln C Cocheu, The Van Kouwenhoven-Conover Family from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Vol 070, No. 3, July 1939 ff citing the Calendar of Dutch Manuscripts.
1638: DEVELOPING THE ACHTERVELDT ESTATE
The year was 1638. As Lady Katarina at the Penningby Estate in Swedend counted the days leading to Olaf Stille’s departure from her farm and life, Wolfert Gerritse von Couwenhoven and Andries Hudde took possession of 3600 acres of land on the east end of Long Island. The tract was called “Kestateuw.” They became the first European settlers to swing a recorded land deal with the native Indians of Manhattan and Long Island. To this day, the deed remains the oldest existing, written record of a land transaction in Anglo-America.
Wolfert had come a long way in his rise to riches. Once hard pressed to buy a home and laundry, he now owned the land upon which the financial center of the world would be built. His first home would be several city blocks from the present World Trade Center site. Wolfert didn’t waste any time putting his axe to work. He soon built a fine home behind a high palisade of upright timbers that provided a fortress for his family. They had some sense of false security when the natives were either provoked or provoking.
Wolfert Gerritse and Andries Hudde took possession of 3600 acres of land on the east end of Long Island. The tract was called “Kestateuw.” This acreage was known as the Great Flat. The description contains roughly six square miles in the heart of the present day borough of Brooklyn. The deed references boundaries including Gerritsen Creek, Bay Avenue, 17th street, Foster Avenue and Bedford Creek. Look at a map of present day Brooklyn on Google Earth . Ask the software to take you to Gerritsen Creek and you will realize that Wolfert and Neeltgen made their dreams come true in the New World. Gerritsen Creek is now a rare green space in the New York metropolitan area: Gerritsen Creek Gateway National Recreation Area. It stands next to the Barren Island Naval Base. From baker and bleacher and tenant farmer to supervisor for the Patroon and then “Lord of Flatbush” is quite an accomplishment. Look at that Google Earth satellite view of Brooklyn and understand how many dwellings, businesses, and parks occupy Wolphert’s original land holding. How much would that all be worth today?
Wolfert and Andries Hudde chose the name Achterveldt for their ‘farm.’ The farm is identified as farm number 36 on the Manatus Map of New Netherlands. It is depicted near the Indian long house to the Kestachau tribe. As soon as the purchase was complete Wolfert and Neeltgen built a home and began to farm at the site located today at the intersection of Kings Highway and Flatbush Avenue in the community of Flatlands, Brooklyn. Again, zoom in on the street view of the intersection on the Google map and you will find a Baskin Robbins on the southeast corner, a Junior Bellas Pizza and Pasta shop on the northwest corner and gas pumps available at nearby service stations. We call it progress.
Wolfert surrounded his house with a palisade, a wall of lumber fencing that served as a fortress. He named the village New Amersfoort, and it was later called Flat Lands. On September 16, 1641, Wolfert buys Hudde’s interest in Achterveldt. Wolfert and sons farmed the 3600 acre Achterveldt until Wolfert’s death in 1662 .
The 1639 Manatus map, of which this is a section, is the earliest image of our present day Manhattan. Believed to be the work of cartographer Johannes Vingboons, this piece was probably produced as a flyer circulated in Holland to encourage Dutch settlement . The plantations and small farms would lure the dreamer in Europe into thoughts of a new life. Such advertising was produced all over Europe by profiteers, landlords and speculators seeking to sell off their landholdings. Slaymakers were drawn to Krakow, Poland and into Silesia with such marketing materials. The Davis, Smith, Stille, Osborne, Parker and Whittington families all got the urge to pick up and move with the promise of cheap land and greater freedom. Brochures drew pioneers west across the Great Plains in America.
The widely dispersed settlements in this Manatus map are keyed by number in the lower right-hand corner to a list of land occupants. The list of references includes a grist mill, two sawmills and “Quarters of the Blacks, the Company’s Slaves.” That is correct, slaves were found in New England in the 1600’s and into the 1700’s. Slaves were kept on Long Island and the white masters feared the rumors of slave rebellions in New Netherlands just as they did in Virginia and the Carolinas. Slavery did not really cease in the New England area until the aftermath of the American Revolution.
The Manatus map shows the few roads (represented by dashed lines) and four Indian villages situated in Breucklyn (Brooklyn). The number “36” on Long Island indicates Wolfert Gerretse’s land as settled in 1639. The Manatus Map was the result of the first careful survey of Manhattan and vicinity by the colonists. It provides a glimpse into the lives of the first pioneers in present day New York .
The Dutch were businesslike in every aspect of their approach to settlement of New Netherland. A 1638 land survey reveals the van Couwenhoven’s house “was 26 feet long, 22 feet wide, 40 feet deep, with the roof covered above and around with plank; two lofts above one another, and a small chamber at their side; one barn, 40 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 24 feet deep; and one bergh with five posts, 40 feet long. The plantation was stocked with six cows, old and young, three oxen and five horses” .
On August 22, 1639 Wolfert Gerritse’s family responsibilities increased as he was named guardian of Lambert Cornelissen Cool. Wolphert shared those responsibilities with his son Gerrit Wolfertsen who was brother-in-law to Lambert Cornelissen. The legal document coming out of the court proceeding reveals that Lambert is asking to move out from underneath his father, Cornelis Lambertsen. Wolfert and his son testify that as guardians of Lambert they support the move and
“cannot perceive that he will earn anything, much less prosper so long as he remains with his father, Cornelis Lambertsen, we have therefore considered it advisable to permit him to do something for himself in company aforesaid.” The ‘aforesaid’ is a reference to another brother-in-law Claes Jansen with whom Lambert will “take up together some plantation or farm” .
In February 1643, several settlers, including two of Wolfert’s sons, Jacob and Gerrit, petitioned the director and council for permission to “ruin and conquer” the Indians. Director Kieft refused their request, but they did it anyway, killing several Indians. The request to “ruin” the Indians led to Gerrit’s demise. A war ensued, and much of the settlement was destroyed. Wolfert and Neeltgen survived, because his house was protected by that stockade and soldiers. The hostilities ended in 1645, but his eldest son, Gerrit (age 35) was killed during the turmoil.
On March 11, 1647, van Couwenhoven received a patent for Rechawieck “on the marsh of the Gouwanus Kil, between the land of Jacob Stoffelsen and Frederick Lubbertsen, extending from the aforesaid marsh till into the woods….” [Patents, GG, 172] The deed goes on referencing other neighbors, points on the marsh and kil (stream). Through an accounting of morgens and rods one finally can compute the extent of Wolfert’s acquisition: roughly sixty acres of land, or so (give or take a few morgens). The location is again fascinating. Wolfert bought up another stretch of Flatbush Avenue or the Kings Highway through the village of Breuckelen, down to the site where the Ferry operated. At this point in his life Wolfert began flipping properties, buying and selling. He sells this piece to Nicholas Jans, the baker, on the same day he bought it, March 11, 1647.
In 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, Director of the West India Company, re-confirmed Wolfert’s land holdings. Such confirmation was necessary from time to time in the colonies where government patents and trade companies were directly involved with land ownership. With the population growing, Wolfert subdivided his land and sold individual lots. Achterveldt became Amersfoort in honor of Wolfert’s native city in the Netherlands.
In 1655 several thousand area Natives went on a three-day rampage. Over one hundred Dutch settlers were killed. More than 150 were kidnapped. Neeltgen died during this time frame. Whether she was a victim of the violence is not clear. Wolfert survives. The insurrection had a decisive impact on the colony. The residents pleaded with the Dutch West India Company for increased protections. They asked the Dutch government for greater protection to no avail. In light of the Indian uprisings, the New Netherlands citizens were left feeling insecure and vulnerable. This failure by the Dutch government and the holding company would not be forgotten by the citizens when England showed an interest in seizing New Netherlands.
On December 6, 1656, Pieter (Smith ggf), the son of Wolfert, asked for an injunction against the execution of a judgment obtained against his brother Jacob. It appears that father Wolfert had co-signed a debt Jacob incurred. Pieter objected to any collection against his father until his mother’s estate had been distributed to him and to the estate of his deceased brother Gerrit. 
On April 18, 1657 Wolfert was granted Small Burgher rights, one of the first to receive this recognition in New Netherlands. This entitlement allowed him to conduct business in New Amsterdam. Through this privilege, he provided his neighbors with merchandise, credit and capital. His ‘store’ became both the economic and the social hub of the community. 
Between 1657-1668, New Amsterdam created a system of citizenship, meant to protect the interests of the citizen against the commercial competition of non-resident traders. The system was a carry over of the European caste system. The colony had its slaves, indentured servants, freemen laborers, craftsman, artisans and they recognized ‘great burghers’ and ‘small burghers’. A great burgher was a super sized small burgher. Sort of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. This confirmed the pecking order in the colony. The most powerful families in the colony maintained their status and pocketbooks. The title of ‘great burgher’ was hereditary and allowed one access to the highest public positions in the colony. Democratic principles did evolve. Everyone could become a citizen of both types – if certain requirements were met and with the payment of a fee, a a bit like buying a seat on the stock exchange. In 1657, 216 folks became ‘small burghers’. At this time Wolfert’s sons, Jacob and Pieter, had each been given the rare status of Great Burgher. For a listing of Burghers, Mayors, Aldermen please go to the Burgher Chef website.
On August 27, 1658, Pieter was granted a status of schepen (alderman) and named a member of the court, he again mentioned his father’s guarantee and said that his mother Neeltgen’s property “is not yet divided” . Why Neeltgen’s will had not gone through probate and who was delaying action on her estate is not clear.
On October 20, 1661, Wolfert Gerritse van Couwenhoven was named in a suit filed by Frans Jansen regarding a dispute over a contract in which Jansen was to buy land from Wolfert.
Sometime between March 2, 1662, when an action was recovered against him, and June 24, 1662 when his heirs were sued for non-performance , the death of Wolfert Gerritse Van Couwenhoven most likely occurred . The estate was still unsettled as late as May 27, 1664, when Covert Loockermans sued for debt and was informed by the New Amsterdam Court that nothing could be done as the money and property “do not rest here in this place” . At his death Wolfert had seen New Netherland grow from a military port and small trading post to a colony of free men and women with the right to own their own lands, conduct business and exercise a voice in local affairs.
The history of New Netherlands ended for a moment in time as the British, in keeping with their imperialist tendencies, swept in with their navy to claim the Dutch colonies as their own. On August 27, 1664, four English frigates, sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor and demanded New Netherland’s surrender. The previous failure of the Dutch government and the West India Company to protect their citizens made New Amsterdam defenseless. The situation created an opportunity for Director Peter Stuyvesant to seek terms with the British that might actually improve the safety and security of his citizenry. The Brits provided protection and religious freedom in the area of New Amsterdam. However, the Brits were ruthless in their conquest of settlements along the Delaware River where settlers were captured and sold into slavery. As an example of terrorist activity, the Mennonite village near Lewes, Delaware was annihilated. In 1673 the Dutch recaptured New Netherlands and changed the names of everything British back to Dutch. In 1674 the Dutch could not afford to maintain the colony. Their economy tanked after a decade of warfare and they turned the settlements over to the British. The Brits promptly renamed everything.
- LincolnC. Cocheu. “The Van Kouwenhoven-Conover Family” from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record Vol 070, No. 3, July 1939 234.
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress Memories found online at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm068.html
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress Vol. 1, p. 20, of Dr. O’Callaghan’s manuscript translation of colonial records; N. Y. Col. Docs. XIV. 10; Stiles,
- History of Kings County,I.65, 66.
- From the Archives of Amersfoort, Copied with slight variations from E.B. O’Callaghan’s manuscript translation of the original in the New York Colonial MSS., Vol. I, p. 155, which was destroyed in the Capitol fire of March 29, 1911, Albany, October 4, 1933; signed A.J.F. van Laer.” on Aug 22, 1639.
- Lincoln C. Cocheu.
- Lincoln C. Cocheu.
- Colonial Dutch Manuscripts, 177.
- Holland Society Year Book, 1900, I42.
- Berthold Fernow, ed. The Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674, (The Knickerbocker Press, New York: 1897), I, 5:67.
A large thank you to David Kipp Conover for his efforts over the years. He has compiled much of the research related to the Descendants of Gerritt Jansz Couwenhoven found online at
I have simply paraphrased, quoted and condensed and then interjected my cynicism, jaded attitude, pensive moments as well as raucous sense of humor.