The Gentenaars of Nieuw Nederland
As we close on the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s landfall to the shores of the river that bear his name, I hope to recount the personal tales of Flemings who came here first. No different than today’s Flemings scattered across the globe, these hardy folk were multilingual, culturally adaptable, and assimilated easily into their surroundings. So easy in fact that were it not for the occasional scattered parchments their stories would be lost to us today.
Today, July 18th, is the beginning of the Gentse Feesten. From all over Flanders – and indeed, Europe – people – perhaps as many as 2 million – flock to Gent to celebrate life. The singing, feasting, and other joyous distractions have turned this into the 3rd largest festival in Europe. As the son of a Gentenaar, this premier medieval Flemish cloth center holds a special place in my heart.
So in a respectful nod toward Gent as we approach a momentous anniversary in the Flemish contribution to America, I begin my recounting of the first Flemings in America with brief biographies of some of the first Gentenaars to settle in 17th century Nieuw Nederland.
No one knows who the first Gentenaar in America was. It may have been a dedicated monk or priest in the 10th century, who guided newly Christianized Norsemen to build a duplicate of St. Baaf's (St. Bavo's) Abbey in Rhode Island. If not then, that first Gentenaar may have been one of the cod fishermen involved in trans-Atlantic fishing and exploration from the “Flemish Isles” (as the newly discovered Azores were known as) during the 1450 – 1500 period. Perhaps one even played a part in the earliest Flemish sponsored fur trading expeditions to the northeast Atlantic coast of America which began no later than 1598 and continued annually into the 1600s. It may even have been that one of the three Flemings with Henry Hudson was from Gent. My personal belief is that it was a monk from St. Baaf’s Abbey in Gent. But any likely pre-17th century Gent immigrants have unfortunately been lost to time and amidst a greater milieu of Flemings financed and led primarily by Antwerpenaars.
Sadly, only scattered records remain from the first “Dutch” settlements in America. In part this is because of the low value placed on retaining the records of the WIC (de West Indische Compagnie = the West India Company) by successive generations. French revolutionary troops used some of the records in the late 18th century as musket wadding. In the 1820s many WIC documents directly connected with the settlement of Nieuw Nederland were unwisely sold for scrap. A severe fire in late 19th century Albany destroyed a great number of the balance of these priceless archives. Still, partial records of a small number of the immigrants have survived to the present and since the 1970s have been painstakingly translated by Charles Gehring and his assistants in the New Netherlands Project.
Nieuw Nederland ofte Nova Belgica
During the 40 years (1624-1664) the Dutch flag flew uninterrupted over the colony’s scattered settlements from the Delaware River to the Connecticut River, at most 10,000 Europeans resided in Nieuw Nederland – as the amalgamation of privately-sponsored colonies was known. Modern school textbooks often describe New Netherland as “Dutch”. That description is accurate only from the official allegiance owed. Like the Netherlands today, Nieuw Nederlands’ society was comprised of Africans (“Angolans” and Moroccans), South Americans and Iberian Jews. Croatians, Poles, Lithuanians, Scandinavians, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Walloons and of course Flemings were included in the mix. As the martyred Jesuit, Father Isaac Jogues wrote about , Nieuw Amsterdam in 1643, the 400 or 500 non-native inhabitants represented at least “18 nationalities”.
Unfortunately, many of these scholarly studies appear to significantly understate the Flemish cultural contribution to Nieuw Nederland. For example, in David Steven Cohen’s seminal study, the table he compiled suggested that the origin of only about 3% (31) of the 904 colonists he was able to obtain records for began in the Flemish provinces of the Spanish Netherlands. But this dramatically undercounts those of Flemish origin who listed their last residence in the Netherlands as well as mis-classifying Flemings living under French rule (eg, from Mardyk and Dunkirk). For example, Cohen is only able to identify 5 from the province of Antwerpen. My count shows more than 30 from the province of Antwerpen and more than 100 from Flanders itself.
Further, a number of individuals whose last residence was in the United Provinces of northern Netherlands were actually of Flemish extraction. To cite only a few of many such cases, Jan Bastianszn van Kortrijk lists his last residence as Leerdam, but as his name suggests, he was from Kortrijk. Jan de Carpentier is officially a native of England since he was born in a Flemish enclave there in Sandwich, but he was the son of a mother from Brugge and a father from Ieper. Others in the Netherlands were one step removed from Flanders as children of Flemish Protestant refugees. Notable here would be names like Johanna De Laet, probably born at Leiden, whose Antwerpenaar father, Johannes De Laet, published the first written account of New Netherlands – as well as the first maps to ever show Manhattan.
The majority of these Flemings arrived in the 1650s to 1660s. Of those whom today we would call Flemings, the majority came from Antwerp, the next largest contingents hailed in decreasing numbers from West Flanders, then East Flanders, Brabant and Limburg. These men and women shared several traits: self-reliance, a willingness to take risks, and a belief in the divinely-ordered reason for their being in the New World.
From Gent and Aecken near Gent I have only been able to identify seven individuals (five from Gent, two from Aecken). Of these individuals only a few left a enough of trail in the notarial record that hint at the flesh and blood personalities behind the written name. Below, then, please find my simple bio-sketches of a few of these men.
Adriaen Vincent/Van Sant
The first Gentenaar we know to have settled in New Netherland was Adriaen Vincent. Born about 1605 “at Aecken near Gent”, he, like many other Protestant Flemings at that time, first left Flanders for England. We do not know the specific circumstances that brought him to migrate to the New World. In 1634 he arrived from London on the English ship the “Mary & John”. Unlike many other immigrants, Vincent appears to have remained in New Amsterdam (Manhattan). At first Vincent served as a soldier. By 1646 he was listed as ‘an old burgher’. This was quite a leap up in social scale, since the reputation of soldiers was poor and the attainment of ‘burgher’ status connoted an appearance at least of propriety, some recognized financial success, and a say in local affairs.
In 1654 Vincent received a license to sell brandy, which may later have become a source of trouble. He sued and was sued in the late 1650s. In 1659 he successfully sued for slander, when a former adversary began spreading gossip that he was a bigamist. After the English conquered New Netherlands, Governor Nichols, in 1667, granted land to Vincent on Prince Street in Manhattan. Occasionally Vincent’s name is transcribed as “Van Sant”. His wife Magdalena may have also been Flemish. We do not know a specific date of death but circumstantial clues suggest the late 1660s or early 1670s. Vincent’s four children remained and prospered in New York City.
Jan Coster van Aecken
Like Vincent, Coster (or Koster) was born at Aecken near Gent. Coster may in fact have been related to Vincent, but we have no proof. If they were related it must not have been very close because Coster did not arrive until seventeen years after Vincent, in about 1651. Moreover, when Coster did arrive he moved far north to the frontier at modern-day Albany, NY, away from Vincent in Nieuw Amsterdam. At that time, because of its critical role as an entrepot for beaver skins traded from the Indians, Albany was then called Beverwijk. Coster supported himself and his wife, Elsje Janse, and their children as both a blacksmith and as a beaver fur trader. With his smithing talents Coster repaired damaged muskets – most likely intended for the Dutch’s Indian allies, the Maquas (what popular history calls the Iroquois nation of the Mohawks).
Coster was not an educated man. In fact he may have not been able to read until 1662 – when he started signing his name instead of a sophisticated mark. But this did not prevent him from amassing wealth and vigorously pursuing the letter of the law. For example, on April 18, 1667 Jan Tyssen Goes said he owed Jan Koster van Aecken 38 beaver pelts valued at 167 guilders. Coster rolled these profits into the acquisition of land. Although it may not be entirely accurate, Coster gained a reputation in his community as something of a land speculator.
But Van Aecken was no mean scrooge. When three young girls orphaned from a sudden Indian attack were ransomed back (to which fund it seems he most likely contributed), Coster not only provided a home for one child (Ytie Hendricks), but also taught her how to read and write.
Ferdinandus Van Sycklin
Ferdinandus Van Sycklin was born in Gent about the year 1635. He arrived in Nieuw Nederland while still a boy, in 1652, the year after Van Aecken landed. He may have been following another Van Sicklen (Antoine) who is recorded as arriving in 1635 (with no further record I am aware of). However, he made his home closer to the English villages on Long Island. In what might clearly be one of the first inter-racial marriages for Flemish Americans, Van Sycklin married the half-Moroccan Eva van Salee (daughter of Anthony Janszen van Salee) about the year 1660. Their descendants include the Van Sickle family and maybe even Gen Dan Sickles of Civil War fame. Van Sycklin died on April 20, 1712 at his home in Flatlands, Long Island.
Pieter Winne or Winnen is one individual whose life was well chronicled in Nieuw Nederland. Born in 1609, he was baptized at Gent's St. Baaf’s Cathedral on April 14, 1609. Like many Flemings he adapted to living almost anywhere in the world. In the 1640s he and his first wife, Aechie Jans Van Schaick, were living in Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, where his oldest son Pieter was born. Around 1650 he was trading Indians for beaver pelts in Nieuw Nederland. By 1657 Winnen had returned to the Netherlands (Friesland) where he married his second wife, Tannetje Adams. In 1659 Winnen was again a settler at Beverwijk.
Many settlers were jacks of all trades and Winnen was no exception. In the 1650s he traded beavers, farmed, and later operated a saw mill. When Winnen served as Beverwijk's night watchman he was paid 550 guilders in sewant (the beaded shell currency of the Euro-Indian trading region) plus 50 guilders worth of beaver pelts.[xxii] The primary export and main currency of exchange within New Netherlands – and indeed, throughout the English colonies as well – was beaver pelts.
In the 1670s he had as immediate neighbors Robert Livingston (Secretary of Albany in 1677 and forefather of the famous Revolutionary War family) and Martin Van Buren, forefather of the 8th American president of the same name. (After Pieter Winnen’s death (before 1693) his neighbor Van Buren became his wife’s second husband.) To the half-island he shared with Van Buren he added the purchase of a sawmill from Nicolas Van Rensselaer (the patroon family who in fact became lords in colonial America) in 1677. Winnen also found the means to bail his eldest son out of debt and to serve as a magistrate, as he noted in his second will (drafted in 1684).
At Beverwijk Winnen was also known as “Pieter de Vlamingh” [Peter the Fleming]. A local creek near his home was known as “Vlamings kill” which over the centuries has been corrupted to “Vloman’s kill”. Today his home still stands in the Albany suburb of Bethlehem (please see map above and picture below). Modern day telephone books show his descendants can still be found in the region.
Pieter’s neighbors and descendants later established (in 1735) the town of Ghent, NY. The town’s boundaries eventually expanded to include much of the village of Kinderhook, birthplace of our eighth president, Martin Van Buren. Van Buren's home later became the childhood home of Jenny Jerome, Winston Churchill's American mother. The name of the town Kinderhook reputedly was coined by Henry Hudson as he watched Mohawk (Maquas) Indian children (kinderen) playing at this furthest point of the bend (hoek) in the Hudson River that he visited.
Pieter Winnen’s will named his twelve surviving children and his second wife as his heirs. Pieter’s descendants married into the Loockermans family (from Turnhout), the Van Winkle’s, the Van Ness family and the Fondas (of 20th century acting fame). Winnen's other direct descendants include Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The Gentenaars continued to arrive even after Nieuw Nederland was traded away to the English for an East Indies nutmeg island. After the Duke of York siezed the Dutch settlements (as a means to provoke war with the Dutch Republic) in 1664, Immigrants from Gent continued to trickle into the Dutch-speaking settlements. Individuals such as Marcus Tibaut, proved that Gentenaars’ contribution to the establishment and growth of America continued unabated.