With the advent of the Internet, researching one’s family history has become a more popular and accessible hobby than ever before. But not every document ever recorded has made it to electronic format as yet, and amateur genealogists can find themselves frustrated pretty quickly by enticing bits of information that lead to dead ends. If you’re going to take this pursuit seriously, you’ll need to take your research to the real world of town halls and county courthouses, long-established churches and local historical societies. Or if you’ve got more money to spare than time, you can hire a genealogical consultant to assist you.
That’s where Jane E. Wilcox comes in. A member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, she runs a business called Forget-Me-Not Ancestry and hosts a radio show on Poughkeepsie’s WHVW-AM titled The Forget-Me-Not Hour: Your Ancestors Want Their Stories to Be Told. Her clients have included the producers of the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, who needed her expertise for a pilot program involving genealogy mysteries. Wilcox also gives talks on local history in the Hudson Valley and beyond, and she brought some of the fruits of her labors to Vineyard Commons in Highland on Monday, Feb. 4. A large crowd gathered to hear her lecture and slideshow titled “Up the North River: An Overview of Pre-1800 Hudson Valley Ethnic Groups and Churches,” sponsored by the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society. A survey course in the waves of early immigration to our region, the presentation wouldn’t have pointed you to exactly where great-great-great-great-Grandma Gertie was buried; but if your forebears have been settled in the Northeast for more than a century or two, it sure might help to know an Antinomian from an Anabaptist.
The array of different ethnicities and religions arriving in 17th and 18th centuries to the valley of what was then called the North River (to distinguish it from the South River, a/k/a the Delaware) is rather mind-boggling, to judge by Wilcox’s talk. And a remarkable number of these pioneers first landed within the span of a few decades in the mid-17th century, when hostilities among religious denominations in Europe reached a bloody pitch. A major factor in New Netherland becoming a gateway for future American diversity was the relatively liberal religious attitudes of the early Dutch settlers, who saw themselves as products of the Enlightenment.
That is to say, most of the early Dutch settlers: Governor Peter Stuyvesant was a notoriously cranky exception. “Stuyvesant hated the Quakers,” said Wilcox, noting that although the arrival of a new group of settlers was typically greeted with a cannon salute, he denied that traditional gesture of welcome to the Quakers who landed in New Amsterdam in 1657. He didn’t much like Jews, either: When a boatload of Sephardic refugees arrived from Brazil in 1654, the peg-legged prig grudgingly let them in, but for the first few years prohibited them from owning land, trading or even establishing a cemetery.
Other Dutch governors were much more tolerant — especially compared to the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — and one ethnic or religious minority after another poured into the Hudson Valley, finding their own footholds throughout the region. As early as 1630, a Moroccan given the mistaken misnomer of “the Turck” had brought the very first copy of the Quran to the US via New Amsterdam. Seeking a place to live unmolested, unpopular Quakers and Baptists colonized a remote area along the Connecticut/New York border known as the Oblong, from its shape on maps of the era.
When the Palatinate region of Germany, which had served for a while as a refuge for religious dissenters, began to suffer repeated invasions by French troops in the late 17th century, many Huguenots fled from there to the Hudson Valley, settling not only New Paltz and Hurley but also New Rochelle in Westchester. Impoverished German Palatines sojourned for a while in England and Ireland as guests of the sympathetic Queen Anne, but by 1709-10 had worn out their welcome and arrived by the thousands in the Hudson Valley. They were settled in the communities still remembered as East Camp, near Germantown, and West Camp, near Saugerties, to work off the price of their sea passage by boiling down tree sap to make pitch for Her Majesty’s navy.
New Netherland also became a haven for folks who had trouble fitting into the rigid social structures of other New World colonies. Wilcox cited one Isaac Allerton, who had come over on the Mayflower but gotten banished from Plymouth due to some sort of dicey business dealings. And we all learned in elementary school history class about the famously uppity preacher Anne Hutchinson getting kicked out of Massachusetts by the Puritans and founding a more tolerant new colony in Rhode Island with Roger Williams; but who knew that not long after, she had to leave Rhode Island as well, and ended up in the Bronx? Hutchinson and most of her family were ultimately killed by the Siwanoy band of the native Wappinger tribe — victims of a conflict known as Kieft’s War, after Willem Kieft, the Dutch West India Company director who had instigated it via repeated massacres of Lenape people.
Wilcox shared anecdotes about a number of other luminaries of local history in her presentation, including George Clinton — New York’s first governor and vice president of the US under both Jefferson and Madison, now buried on the grounds of Kingston’s Old Dutch Church — and Abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth. But the bulk of her lecture dealt with the many waves of immigration that passed up this valley one after another in the early years of European colonization. It was a great refresher course for those of us who haven’t sat in an American history class in a long time, and a basic starting point for those who want to know more about who their ancestors were and how they lived.
For more about Jane Wilcox and her work, visit www.4getmenotancestry.com.