Oh, how long I’d successfully resisted my siblings’ siren songs of the vortex! My stated objection to these family exercises in historical & genealogical distractions was that it would prevent me from making a living. But in actuality it was utter fear: this is what old people do. And as I do get old and my energy and relevancy diminish, am I looking for self importance in a few select deeds of my ancestors? As a homeless person with little savings and an uncertain future, I can’t deny the seduction.
For what if not bittersweet consolation to reflect on the 2 or 300 acre tract our 7th great-grandfather owned in Brooklyn, with sweeping views of New York harbor? The house itself was unique, built of stone, and for a time the oldest structure in the borough. As a remnant of the Dutch knickerbocker heritage of New York, The house and Simon’s hospitality come up frequently not just in modern accounts but also in the historical record, thanks to a band of wandering Labadists, Jasper Dankers, Peter Sluyter, and possibly another named Gerrit. The troop visited New Amsterdam in 1679-80 and made detailed accounts of their visit with Simon and his Dutch-American wife Giertje Cornelissen Van Der Hard:
“On the 29th the explorers made a journey to Long Island. They describe their route from the ferry as ‘up a hill, along open roads and woody places, and through a village called Breuckelen, which has a small ugly church standing in the middle of the road!’ Peach-trees were everywhere numerous, and laden with fruit; in some instances actually breaking down with their treasures. They visited the oldest resident, a woman who had lived in this country over half a century, and who had seventy children and grandchildren. They spent one night at the house of Simon DeHart, where they supped on raw and roasted oysters, a roasted haunch of venison, a wild turkey, and a goose, and sat before a hickory fire blazing half-way up the chimney, all the chilly autumn evening. The house is still standing, having been in the possession of the descendants of Simon DeHart ever since. In the morning they went out through the woods to what is now Ft. Hamilton, where the Najack Indians resided upon land which Jacques Cortelion had long since bought of the sachems and at present rented to them for 20 bushels of corn yearly.” (7)History of the City of New York – Its Origin Rise and Progress by Mrs. Martha Lamb and Mrs. Burton Harrison, Vol. I (New York City Public Library).
Another account from the same visit gives more detail:
“We proceeded on to Gowanes, . . . where we arrived in the evening at one of the best friends of Gerrit, named Symon (footnote identifies Simon deHart). He was very glad to see us, and so was his wife. He took us into the house and entertained us exceedingly well. We found a good fire, half way up the chimney, of clear oak and hickory, of which they made not the least scruple of burning profusely. We let it penetrate us thoroughly. There had been already thrown upon it, to be roasted, a pailful of Gowanes oysters, which are the best in the country. They are quite as good as those of England, and better than those we ate at Falmouth. I had to try some of them raw. They are large and full, some of them not less than a foot long. . . . everybody keeps the shells for the purpose of burning them into lime. They pickle the oysters in small casks, and send them to Barbadoes and the other islands. We had for supper a roasted haunch of venison, which he had bought of the Indians for 3 ½ guilders of zeawan (i.e. 15 cents) and which weighed 30 lbs. The meat was exceedingly tender and good, and also quite fat. It had a slight spicy flavour. We were also served with wild turkey, which was also fat and of a good flavour; and a wild goose, but that was rather dry . . . We saw here, lying in a heap, a whole hill of watermelons as large as pumpkins, which Symon was going to take to the city to sell . . . It was very late at night when we went to rest in a Kermis bed, as it is called, (footnote states that “Kermis was a great fair or festival, in the Low Countries, with much dancing and frolic. A Kermis bed would be an extra bed for such occasions when the house was full of company.”) in the corner of the hearth, alongside of a good fire.” Next morning, after their host and hostess had gone with their marketing to the city, our three friends made their way on foot to Najack …” (3)The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America by John Fiske, Vol. I and II, 1899 (New York City Public Library).
Both of the above sources are lifted from this narrative, which is itself a trove on the early DeHart clan. For reasons unknown, those ancestors seem to have left Brooklyn and with it New Amsterdam & New York’s high society. The house passed to the more prosperous Bergen family when apparently the last DeHart Knickerbockers passed away.
The fine stone house held up for over 200 years before falling into decay. It was demolished in the 1880’s as the area became America’s busiest shipping port, and its roots are currently covered with the asphalt of a Costco parking lot. The sweeping vistas of Gowanus Bay turned to an industrial wasteland, dumping ground for mob victims, and ultimately a superfund cleanup site, mocked in popular culture as the pinnacle of toxic excess. A few contemporary street cobbles remain.
By the 1990s, it was recognized as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Owing to pollution with high ratios of fecal coliforms, deadly proportions of pathogens, and a low concentration of oxygen, it is generally seen as incompatible with marine life. A variety of extremophiles have been observed in the Gowanus Canal as well.Wikipedia
The early DeHarts, who harvested a bounty of oysters and game, also owned some of America’s most valuable commercial real estate. Perhaps that made this environmental spiral inevitable. Yet exploring their paths helps me reflect on my own environmental legacy. Loudoun County, where other ancestors lived a similar colonial lifestyle and allowed me to do likewise, is also one of America’s most prosperous places, by various metrics. I can lament what was lost in Brooklyn, or celebrate what was preserved in Loudoun. The DeHarts of Brooklyn moved on, and so shall I. There may be a few DeHart ghosts kicking about, but I’ll try to make peace with mine.