Why do you need to go all the way to Italy to explore your ancestors when you have ancestors right here?”
My friend Thea and I were sitting at the kitchen table in her Rhinebeck home. She posed the question after I told her I planned to visit Sicily to explore my roots. Thea and I share a fascination with history, and moments earlier we had found Hugo Freer, an original patentee of New Paltz, in my family tree. I had visited Huguenot Street a few months before, unaware of the link, though immediately taken by the spare, solid structures that seemed to hug the earth. It felt like home.
I also had recently learned that another relative, an eighth great-grandfather named Jan Jansen Van Amersfoort, helped build the stockade at Wiltwijck, later Kingston. He arrived at the settlement in 1658 from New Amsterdam, to which he had sailed as a boy from Amersfoort in the Netherlands.
I first visited the Hudson Valley right after college, and I have been visiting friends here ever since. When we were young we spent late nights in Poughkeepsie bars and old-school diners. History nerds even then, we toured the mansions and imagined life in the Gilded Age. Later, my partying days behind me, I declared in a travel article, “There’s no mistaking, the Hudson Valley has a mystique all its own.” I praised its quaint architecture, its roads that wind through the woods and hug the hills.
Thea’s question made me think. I changed my travel plans and went to the Netherlands instead. And on a sunny day last fall I boarded a train out of Amsterdam for Amersfoort, Jan’s hometown. Until I was across an ocean, standing on a brick-paved street gazing at a house that looked almost exactly like one I had seen a few months before in New Paltz, the full import of taking a journey of that distance hadn’t hit me. I tried to imagine what Jan was feeling as he stepped onto a boat 400 years ago. What did he know about where he was going?
When I got home I did some research. Jan was surprisingly easy to find. Translated Dutch court records preserved in the Ulster County Archives show that, for all of his apparent usefulness as a carpenter, Jan also was a lastpost — a persistent troublemaker. He was arrested 70 times in New Netherland, including for beating his pregnant wife, Catharyn, nearly to death. She and the baby survived. Jan was banished from Wiltwijck and fined 500 guilders.
That didn’t stop him. Three years later brought more of the same in a petition by Catharyn: “She is no longer able to keep house with her husband on account of his greatly abusing her every day,” the records state — pushing, beating, chasing, threatening to kill her. This time the court ordered he be sent away on the next ship for a year and six weeks.
What was going on with Jan? I will probably never know. But no longer is the Hudson Valley simply a charming place to me, with its comfortable old inns and low stone walls. It is alive with all the messy moments of the people who have come before me. I hear their echoes in the stories, and sometimes my heart aches for them. My roots are sinking deeper.
Sally Parker is a freelance writer and editor specializing in history, business, environment, and higher education.
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