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About historic Sleepy Hollow and its environs…

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Old Susan of Sleepy Hollow

by Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow

A woman's face

A woman’s face

The portrait of Old Susan will, of necessity, be only a fragment.  As in piecing together a few shards of ancient pottery we can only attempt to suggest the whole.  It may seem strange to contemplate a subject where the bare facts are exceedingly bare, but Old Susan peers out at us from a distance of over three hundred years and we might take a moment to see if we can bring her into better relief.

The will of Philipse

The will of Philipse

Our knowledge of Old Susan’s existence hangs on a slender thread—a passing mention in the will of Frederick Philipse I, signed October 26, 1700.  The Philipse will provides us with a few facts and a few possibilities.  History gives us other clues which help in sketching some of the vague outlines of her life.

Mill and manorhouse

Mill and manorhouse

Old Susan was an enslaved African-American who lived and worked at the Philipse Upper Mills in 1702.  The Upper Mills was, roughly speaking, what we know today as the Village of Sleepy Hollow.  Old Susan was one of a number of enslaved persons who, upon Frederick Philipse’s death in 1702, were conveyed as property to the ownership of his son, Adolph.  There were other enslaved persons also mentioned by name in the will: Symond, Charles, Towerhill, Samson, Claes, Billy, Mingo, Hendrick, Bahynne and Hector—these were the men; there was a boy named Peter; and there were other women, Susan the Younger and Mary.  There was also a Native American woman named Hannah and her child (who was not named in the will).  By what law or practice these Native Americans became enslaved is not clear.  All these enslaved persons appear to have lived and worked at Sleepy Hollow.

Frederick Philipse

Frederick Philipse

For some reason, possibly due to her age, it would appear that Philipse singled out Old Susan for at least a kind of special treatment.  The language of the clause is strong and clear, “Then I will and order that ye negroe woman, old Susan, shall dwell and continue in plantation at ye upper mills soe long as she lives.”  From what we know of Philipse, he was not a  sentimentalist; he was an able, hard-boiled businessman who did not miss a wrung on the ladder to commercial success.  During his life he acquired enormous wealth and political power.  He arrived at New Amsterdam in 1647, at about the age of twenty-one.  Early on as a yeoman carpenter and an assessor he found favor under the administration of Peter Stuyvesant, after which he entered the shipping trade.  Philipse married a wealthy widow, Margaret DeVries.  He also made a seamless political transition after the British took possession of New Netherlands in 1664.  By 1675, the year he became a member of the governor’s council, Philipse was said to be the wealthiest man in New York.  Later, on the death of his first wife he married an even wealthier widow, Catherine Derval,  a daughter of the powerful Van Cortlandt family.

Vessel carrying enslaved people

Vessel carrying enslaved people

In time Philipse became an energetic shipper of enslaved persons to New York and elsewhere.  His large fleet of ships commonly made the run to Madagascar and other points in Africa to take on human beings as cargo.  It is unlikely that he would pay a premium for that which he could easily import.  He and his son Adolph were  also notorious evaders of the customs authorities, unloading his human cargo off-shore and smuggling it into the colony on smaller vessels.  Not exactly the portrait of a “benevolent” slave holder.

Dutch fluyt

Dutch fluyt

Recent evidence suggests that Old Susan was brought to America by a Philipse ship, the Charles, perhaps so named as a homage to the British king, Charles II, or possibly named after a Philipse child, Charles.  It seems probable that at the time of Frederick Philipse’s death the enslaved woman, Old Susan, had been put to work with the Philipse Family for more than a few years.  It appears that she arrived at the Upper Mills (today, Sleepy Hollow) in 1685, five years after Philipse struck a deal on the Pocantico Purchase with leaders of the local Weckquaesgeck Tribe. 

Angola shoreline

Angola shoreline

New details suggest that Old Susan may have come from the area today known as “Angola” or the neighboring “Congo.” Soyo was apparently the coastal slave trading center for that region, and the Charles dropped anchor there in 1685.  (This was also the year stamped on the bell of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, which was cast in Holland.)  The Charles, captained by Thomas Singleton,  had been owned (and managed) by Philipse’s first wife, Margaret.  This ship had been described elsewhere as a “small flute-ship.”  The Dutch-designed “fluyt” was a dedicated commercial transport vessel, not designed for potential adaptation as a war ship.  It therefore offered roughly twice the cargo space of other vessels.  After taking on this “cargo,” the Charles sailed for Barbados, presumably the intended destination for all the Africans it had taken on.  But only 105 remained at that island, and for some reason—not entirely clear—nine of them continued on to the colony of New York.  Of these nine, eight would in due course arrive at the Upper Mills of Philipseburgh, but not by the route that one would expect. 

Mill dam

Mill dam

Rather than unload its cargo at New York or ascend the Hudson as far as the Tappan Zee, the Charles dropped these people on the east shore of Westchester County, somewhere near modern-day Rye.  They were then marched about fifteen miles across the greatest breadth of the county to their ultimate destination on the Hudson River shore.  In so doing, Philipse and his son Adolph were later accused in a New York court of evading import taxes.  It is said that the enslaved Africans were immediately put to the work of constructing the plantation with its church, mill, and milldam, although some sources state that a mill of some sort might have existed on the site before Philipse bought The Pocantico Purchase from the Weckquaesgeck Tribe.    

Philipsburg millstone

Philipsburg millstone

One could imagine that Old Susan was already of at least middle age when she came to the new plantation.  If she was indeed old or advanced in years at the time of the will, she might have been about Philipse’s age.  The specific provision made for her seems to imply that remaining at the Upper Mills would be perhaps more satisfactory to her, but that is certainly unclear.  The idea that she might be sold is not even entertained in the document, although an enslaved woman of average years was valued by New York commerce at approximately 15 pounds—equal to three years’ rent on a typical Philipsburg tenant farm.  The will also seems to imply that she had already been situated there for some time and may have viewed the place as a kind of home.  It is likely that she participated in and witnessed the construction of the mill, the dam, and the church.  It is probable that she observed the funeral of Philipse at the Upper Mills in December, 1702 and possibly had some role in it.

Manorhouse garden

Manorhouse garden

According to early records, Old Susan was one of approximately 150 African enslaved persons living in all of Westchester County in 1700 (which included the Bronx at that time).  There is a strong chance that Old Susan died and was buried at the Upper Mills.  Where? We do not know.  Enslaved persons were not generally memorialized with handsome markers and evocative epitaphs.  In fact, no markers at all survive from that period in Sleepy Hollow; the markers installed for members of the local Dutch Reformed congregation were, no doubt, made of wood in the early days.  If she was not buried in the Old Dutch Burying Ground (which is highly probable), then perhaps across the post road on the fringes of today’s Philipse Manor, in an area which might have been set aside for the burial of enslaved persons.  There is a tradition of such a plot being located on the easternmost block of DeVries Avenue, but there does not appear to be any reliable documentation to support that.

Eyes

A woman’s eyes

By how many years did Old Susan outlive Philipse?  What illness eventually claimed her?  Exactly what was she tasked to do as a job at the Upper Mills?  We do not even know who had the idea of giving her a special mention in the will—Philipse?  Or maybe Mrs. Philipse, Catherine Van Cortlandt, or Adolph Philipse, both of whom survived Frederick Philipse.  We do know that Old Susan was one of the first non-Native American inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, a tiny but emerging social, commercial, and religious outpost.  Despite her enslavement, she was one of a handful of people who made up the life of that new center.  But, like many of the one-line epitaphs in the church burying ground, Old Susan’s one line of recognition in the Philipse will is the only clear story left to us.

 

[Copyright © 2006 & 2019 Henry John Steiner]

Herodotus “The Beginning”

By Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow

A Personal Beginning

I have strange reading habits—more on that in another post…  As an undergraduate student, I studied literature—English literature—and I started out in a Catholic university named Saint Bonaventure.  I confess that, at the time, I had little interest in continuing my formal education. This was after graduating from Sleepy Hollow High School…

HJS—freshman

HJS—freshman

One of the things that most attracted me to literature, particularly the classics, was the historical component, be it the writings of Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, or pre-Shakespearian drama.  People who are aware of my role as Sleepy Hollow Historian often assume that I was a college history major.  History has always been a passion of mine, and I have searched for it in out-of-the-way places.  I don’t know specifically how I contracted the history “bug.”  It might have been my father’s early morning tales of World War II—he occasionally threw a war story off on his way to work.  He usually told me the funny ones—about his buddies in the army counter-intelligence corps—not the tragic ones.  Or maybe it was my mother who connected me with history, who had taught school in France, who sat telling me stories of ancient Greek myths and the “Song of Roland,” the stalwart knight of Charlemagne. 

Somehow or other history and stories of the past seeped into my veins.  Many years later I found a kindred soul in Washington Irving himself—his not so crazy mix of history and story.  Who can blame me for my history “habit,” seated as I have been with a front row seat on the lower Hudson River, with an unobstructed view on the scene of America’s War of Revolution?  Here I can easily see where so many of the players in that epic struggle left their footprints.  So little time, so many stories of the past!

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A Local Native American Creation Story

Commentary by Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow

“…God was with the woman who dwells with him, and no one knows when that was, or where they had come from. Water was all there was, or at any rate water covered and overran everything… What then took place, they say, was that the

Creation Spirit Woman

Creation “Beautiful Spirit Woman”

aforementioned beautiful woman or idol descended from heaven into the water. She was gross and big like a woman who is pregnant with more than one child. Touching down gently, she did not sink deep, for at once a patch of land began to emerge under her at the spot where she had come down, and there she came to rest and remained. The land waxed greater so that dry patches became visible around the place where she sat, as happens to someone standing on a sandbar in three or

Creation waves

Creation waves

four feet of water while it ebbs away and eventually recedes so far that it leaves him entirely on dry land. That is how it was with the descended goddess, they say and believe, the land ever widening around her until its edge disappeared from view. Gradually grass and other vegetation sprang up and in time, also fruit-bearing and other trees, and from this, in brief, the whole globe came into being much as it appears to this day. Now, whether the world you speak of and originally came from was then created as well, we are unable to say.

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An Interesting Map

By Henry John Steiner

Historian of Sleepy Hollow

The writer, Henry John Steiner, at the NYPL many years later

The writer, Henry John Steiner, at the NYPL many years later

Many years ago, during the 1980s, I would occasionally take my lunch hour at the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. What attracted me to the “Main Branch” was its impressive map division, located in the bowels of the enormous library, which one could access on the 42nd Street side.  As conscious as I was of its riches, I was acutely aware that I really did not know how to properly access its resources.  I would “fish” through the catalogue searching for intriguing maps relating to the history of Sleepy Hollow or Tarrytown, but, all in all, my process was pretty much hit-or-miss.

My allotted lunchtime would often be gone before I could hit on something especially interesting.  Walking up to the service counter, I would submit my request and wait with my fingers crossed, counting the minutes until my order materialized—or until I got word that it could not be found.  The sands of time drifted away, and, if I was lucky, I would be called to pick up my selection.  A quirk of the process was that a successful search for a promising map was not necessarily repeatable.  A cartographic gem plucked from the labyrinth of the map department might simply be misplaced in the collection when I returned for it.  Depending on who behind the counter put it away and who was called upon to produce it once more—I might not see it again.  “Sorry, it seems to be temporarily missing.”  I acquired a touch of gambler’s exhilaration when I could actually access the same item twice.

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The Mystery of “M. E. J.” or Insanity, Suicide, and Grief in the Gilded Age

 

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

About 9:30 PM, Friday night, June 20, 1891, a home owner named Abraham Anderson saw her walking by his house in Croton. Whether she walked directly to the Hudson River, or waited until morning is unclear. Shortly after 9 AM, Philip Schnell arrived at his waterfront brickyard and noticed a woman’s straw hat and veil out on the dock. He dragged the water with a rake and discovered the clothed body of a “handsome” young woman.

Our ideas of the 1890s in America tend to call up images of decadence and high living among the “captains and kings” of industry and society. There is, however, another less familiar side to that picture, one that reveals the lives of workers and “ordinary people.” These are lives referenced in the period literature of novelist Theodore Dreiser and journalist Jacob Riis among others. The Gay Nineties predated the development of modern psychiatry and the use of antibiotics; it was the height of the industrial revolution, confronting Americans with accelerating social changes.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

The Mystery Woman, M.E.J.

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“Seven Dollars in My Pocket”

JameskPaulding

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

Some time between 1796 and 1797, eighteen-year-old James Kirke Paulding boarded a market sloop at Tarrytown with seven dollars in his pocket. He was headed for Manhattan to seek his fortune. Paulding was a homegrown Tarrytowner, and he knew the people and the landscape by heart. His family lived by Tarrytown Bay. The Pauldings were forced to flee from Tarrytown during the Revolutionary War years and settle into self-imposed exile in northern Westchester. James K. Paulding was born at Great Nine Partners near Peekskill, in 1778.

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The Celebrated Wife — At Home in Sleepy Hollow

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

AUT_5204

Years ago, I got tired of writing about prominent nineteenth century males. The women were out there somewhere, but they often operated behind the scenes. How do you write about nineteenth century women if they are required to live in the shadows of men? Jessie Benton Fremont provided an unheard of solution; she wrote about herself and her life.

This woman led a momentous, varied, and courageous life in which her finances swung between wealth and poverty. In the end, she was forced to support herself and her family by writing. Jessie spent some of her happiest years and most stressful days in Sleepy Hollow.

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A Book About the Real Sleepy Hollow

coverIn the years following the reclaiming of the name of Sleepy Hollow in 1996, I received many inquiries for information about the real, historic village of Sleepy Hollow.  As the village historian, I found it difficult to reply to them all.  Many of the questions I received had to do with how the historic village relates to the famous story.  It was then that I began to write the material included in The Historically Annotated Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though it was actually many years before the book was published.  It is now available…

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Artist in Residence: Robert Havell

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

 If today you started out from Main Street in Tarrytown and headed north along Broadway (Route 9), you would pass the now vacant carpet shop of T. F Andrews. The shop sits at the corner of Dixon Street where the road intersects with Broadway. Traveling further north you would come to the Warner Library. Then, continuing on a few blocks, you would pass Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at College Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. If you strolled a mile further, you would come to the office of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and not far from that building is the grave of Robert Havell, an artist of the Hudson River School.

Havell lived the last years of his life in a house near the corner of Dixon Street. He took leisurely walks to the church at the corner of College Avenue (then called Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church). Two fine examples of his artistry and craftsmanship hang prominently in the Warner Library. His mortal remains lie undisturbed and virtually unnoted in the cemetery.

If, on a Sunday in the 1870s, you took the same route along Broadway, you might have seen an elderly couple strolling toward the church just mentioned. Robert and Amelia Havell were from England, and Robert had made his reputation and his fortune as an artist.

Born in Reading, England, about forty miles west of London, Robert Havell, Jr., was the son of an engraver and publisher, who in turn was the son of an engraver and publisher. Entering his father’s business at an early age, Robert learned the artistry and technology of aquatint and the business of publishing.

portrait-cropped

Havell as an elderly man

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Irving, Dickens, and Christmas Spirit

By Henry John Steiner

 Historian of Sleepy Hollow, New York

 I have long been familiar with the life and writings of American literary great and local celebrity, Washington Irving. Yet at times I am newly surprised at the range of influence that this genial and easygoing man had on his contemporaries. It was an influence born of his genius, cordiality, and personal appeal. In Irving’s day, his company and friendship were widely sought after, particularly in America, but also in England and continental Europe. It was Irving who first brought American letters to the world. So, it should come as no small surprise to find Irving’s influence in the spirit of our holiday celebrations.

But, how do we celebrate Christmas as a society? Are we disposed to resist the “unholy” call to commercial frenzy and espouse the spirit of peace, abundance, generosity, and mirth? How did the Christmas spirit begin to manifest itself in us this year? Did it begin with an emotionally uncomfortable Black Friday, or a sprig of evergreen in the lapel? Is there any sign of the spirit at all? I think most of us would prefer a holiday that is not the culmination of a Black Friday starting gun, we would prefer a Christmas day where we are not too depleted to savor and reflect upon the celebration’s finer associations and to join in some light-hearted reveling.

irving1

Washington Irving

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