To the Editor of the Knickerbocker.
SIR: I have observed that as a man advances in life, he is subject to a kind of plethora of the mind, doubtless occasioned by the vast accumulation of wisdom and experience upon the brain. Hence he is apt to become narrative and admonitory, that is to say, fond of telling long stories, and of doling out advice, to the small profit and great annoyance of his friends. As I have a great horror of becoming the oracle, or, more technically speaking, the “bore,” of the domestic circle, and would much rather bestow my wisdom and tediousness upon the world at large, I have always sought to ease off this surcharge of the intellect by means of my pen, and hence have inflicted divers gossiping volumes upon the patience of the public. I am tired, however, of writing volumes; they do not afford exactly the relief I require; there is too much preparation, arrangement, and parade, in this set form of coming before the public. I am growing too indolent and unambitious for any thing that requires labor or display. I have thought, therefore, of securing to myself a snug corner in some periodical work where I might, as it were, loll at my ease in my elbow-chair, and chat sociably with the public, as with an old friend, on any chance subject that might pop into my brain.
In looking around, for this purpose, upon the various excellent periodicals with which our country abounds, my eye was struck by the title of your work—“The Knickerbocker.” My heart leaped at the sight. DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER, Sir, was one of my earliest and most valued friends, and the recollection of him is associated with some of the pleasantest scenes of my youthful days. To explain this, and to show how I came into possession of sundry of his posthumous works, which I have from time to time given to the world, permit me to relate a few particulars of our early intercourse. I give them with the more confidence, as I know the interest you take in that departed worthy, whose name and effigy are stamped upon your title-page, and as they will be found important to the better understanding and relishing divers communications I may have to make to you.
My first acquaintance with that great and good man, for such I may venture to call him, now that the lapse of some thirty years has shrouded his name with venerable antiquity, and the popular voice has elevated him to the rank of the classic historians of yore, my first acquaintance with him was formed on the banks of the Hudson, not far from the wizard region of Sleepy Hollow. He had come there in the course of his researches among the Dutch neighborhoods for materials for his immortal history. For this purpose, he was ransacking the archives of one of the most ancient and historical mansions in the country. It was a lowly edifice, built in the time of the Dutch dynasty, and stood on a green bank, overshadowed by trees, from which it peeped forth upon the Great Tappan Zee, so famous among early Dutch navigators. A bright pure spring welled up at the foot of the green bank; a wild brook came babbling down a neighboring ravine, and threw itself into a little woody cove, in front of the mansion. It was indeed as quiet and sheltered a nook as the heart of man could require, in which to take refuge from the cares and troubles of the world; and as such, it had been chosen in old times, by Wolfert Acker, one of the privy councillors of the renowned Peter Stuyvesant.
This worthy but ill-starred man had led a weary and worried life, throughout the stormy reign of the chivalric Peter, being one of those unlucky wights with whom the world is ever at variance, and who are kept in a continual fume and fret, by the wickedness of mankind. At the time of the subjugation of the province by the English, he retired hither in high dudgeon; with the bitter determination to bury himself from the world, and live here in peace and quietness for the remainder of his days. In token of this fixed resolution, he inscribed over his door the favorite Dutch motto, “Lust in Rust,” (pleasure in repose.) The mansion was thence called “Wolfert’s Rust”—Wolfert’s Rest; but in process of time, the name was vitiated into Wolfert’s Roost, probably from its quaint cock-loft look, or from its having a weather-cock perched on every gable. This name it continued to bear, long after the unlucky Wolfert was driven forth once more upon a wrangling world, by the tongue of a termagant wife; for it passed into a proverb through the neighborhood, and has been handed down by tradition, that the cock of the Roost was the most hen-pecked bird in the country.
This primitive and historical mansion has since passed through many changes and trials, which it may be my lot hereafter to notice. At the time of the sojourn of Diedrich Knickerbocker it was in possession of the gallant family of the Van Tassels, who have figured so conspicuously in his writings. What appears to have given it peculiar value, in his eyes, was the rich treasury of historical facts here secretly hoarded up, like buried gold; for it is said that Wolfert Acker, when he retreated from New Amsterdam, carried off with him many of the records and journals of the province, pertaining to the Dutch dynasty; swearing that they should never fall into the hands of the English. These, like the lost books of Livy, had baffled the research of former historians; but these did I find the indefatigable Diedrich diligently deciphering. He was already a sage in year’s and experience, I but an idle stripling; yet he did not despise my youth and ignorance, but took me kindly by the hand, and led me gently into those paths of local and traditional lore which he was so fond of exploring. I sat with him in his little chamber at the Roost, and watched the antiquarian patience and perseverance with which he deciphered those venerable Dutch documents, worse than Herculanean manuscripts. I sat with him by the spring, at the foot of the green bank, and listened to his heroic tales about the worthies of the olden time, the paladins of New Amsterdam. I accompanied him in his legendary researches about Tarrytown and Sing-Sing, and explored with him the spell-bound recesses of Sleepy Hollow. I was present at many of his conferences with the good old Dutch burghers and their wives, from whom he derived many of those marvelous facts not laid down in books or records, and which give such superior value and authenticity to his history, over all others that have been written concerning the New Netherlands.
But let me check my proneness to dilate upon this favorite theme; I may recur to it hereafter. Suffice it to say, the intimacy thus formed, continued for a considerable time; and in company with the worthy Diedrich, I visited many of the places celebrated by his pen. The currents of our lives at length diverged. He remained at home to complete his mighty work, while a vagrant fancy led me to wander about the world. Many, many years elapsed, before I returned to the parent soil. In the interim, the venerable historian of the New Netherlands had been gathered to his fathers, but his name had risen to renown. His native city, that city in which he so much delighted, had decreed all manner of costly honors to his memory. I found his effigy imprinted upon new-year cakes, and devoured with eager relish by holiday urchins; a great oyster-house bore the name of “Knickerbocker Hall;” and I narrowly escaped the pleasure of being run over by a Knickerbocker omnibus!
Proud of having associated with a man who had achieved such greatness, I now recalled our early intimacy with tenfold pleasure, and sought to revisit the scenes we had trodden together. The most important of these was the mansion of the Van Tassels, the Roost of the unfortunate Wolfert. Time, which changes all things, is but slow in its operations upon a Dutchman’s dwelling. I found the venerable and quaint little edifice much as I had seen it during the sojourn of Diedrich. There stood his elbow-chair in the corner of the room he had occupied; the old-fashioned Dutch writing-desk at which he had pored over the chronicles of the Manhattoes; there was the old wooden chest, with the archives left by Wolfert Acker, many of which, however, had been fired off as wadding from the long duck gun of the Van Tassels. The scene around the mansion was still the same; the green bank; the spring beside which I had listened to the legendary narratives of the historian; the wild brook babbling down to the woody cove, and the overshadowing locust trees, half shutting out the prospect of the great Tappan Zee.
As I looked round upon the scene, my heart yearned at the recollection of my departed friend, and I wistfully eyed the mansion which he had inhabited, and which was fast mouldering to decay. The thought struck me to arrest the desolating hand of Time; to rescue the historic pile from utter ruin, and to make it the closing scene of my wanderings; a quiet home, where I might enjoy “lust in rust” for the remainder of my days. It is true, the fate of the unlucky Wolfert passed across my mind; but I consoled myself with the reflection that I was a bachelor, and that I had no termagant wife to dispute the sovereignty of the Roost with me.
I have become possessor of the Roost! I have repaired and renovated it with religious care, in the genuine Dutch style, and have adorned and illustrated it with sundry reliques of the glorious days of the New Netherlands. A venerable weathercock, of portly Dutch dimensions, which once battled with the wind on the top of the Stadt-House of New Amsterdam, in the time of Peter Stuyvesant, now erects its crest on the gable end of my edifice; a gilded horse in full gallop, once the weathercock of the great Vander Heyden Palace of Albany, now glitters in the sunshine, and veers with every breeze, on the peaked turret over my portal; my sanctum sanctorum is the chamber once honored by the illustrious Diedrich, and it is from his elbow-chair, and his identical old Dutch writing-desk, that I pen this rambling epistle.
Here, then, have I set up my rest, surrounded by the recollections of early days, and the mementoes of the historian of the Manhattoes, with that glorious river before me, which flows with such majesty through his works, and which has ever been to me a river of delight.
I thank God I was born on the banks of the Hudson! I think it an invaluable advantage to be born and brought up in the neighborhood of some grand and noble object in nature; a river, a lake, or a mountain. We make a friendship with it, we in a manner ally ourselves to it for life. It remains an object of our pride and affections, a rallying point, to call us home again after all our wanderings. “The things which we have learned in our childhood,” says an old writer, “grow up with our souls, and unite themselves to it.” So it is with the scenes among which we have passed our early days; they influence the whole course of our thoughts and feelings; and I fancy I can trace much of what is good and pleasant in my own heterogeneous compound to my early companionship with this glorious river. In the warmth of my youthful enthusiasm, I used to clothe it with moral attributes, and almost to give it a soul. I admired its frank, bold, honest character; its noble sincerity and perfect truth. Here was no specious, smiling surface, covering the dangerous sand-bar or perfidious rock; but a stream deep as it was broad, and bearing with honorable faith the bark that trusted to its waves. I gloried in its simple, quiet, majestic, epic flow; ever straight forward. Once, indeed, it turns aside for a moment, forced from its course by opposing mountains, but it struggles bravely through them, and immediately resumes its straightforward march. Behold, thought I, an emblem of a good man’s course through life; ever simple, open, and direct; or if, overpowered by adverse circumstances, he deviate into error, it is but momentary; he soon recovers his onward and honorable career, and continues it to the end of his pilgrimage.
Excuse this rhapsody, into which I have been betrayed by a revival of early feelings. The Hudson is, in a manner, my first and last love; and after all my wanderings and seeming infidelities, I return to it with a heart-felt preference over all the other rivers in the world. I seem to catch new life as I bathe in its ample billows and inhale the pure breezes of its hills. It is true, the romance of youth is past, that once spread illusions over every scene. I can no longer picture an Arcadia in every green valley; nor a fairy land among the distant mountains; nor a peerless beauty in every villa gleaming among the trees; but though the illusions of youth have faded from the landscape, the recollections of departed years and departed pleasures shed over it the mellow charm of evening sunshine.
Permit me, then, Mr. Editor, through the medium of your work, to hold occasional discourse from my retreat with the busy world I have abandoned. I have much to say about what I have seen, heard, felt, and thought through the course of a varied and rambling life, and some lucubrations that have long been encumbering my portfolio; together with divers reminiscences of the venerable historian of the New Netherlands, that may not be unacceptable to those who have taken an interest in his writings, and are desirous of any thing that may cast a light back upon our early history. Let your readers rest assured of one thing, that, though retired from the world, I am not disgusted with it; and that if in my communings with it I do not prove very wise, I trust I shall at least prove very good-natured.
Which is all at present, from
To the Editor of The Knickerbocker.
Worthy Sir: In a preceding communication, I have given you some brief notice of Wolfert’s Roost, the mansion where I first had the good fortune to become acquainted with the venerable historian of the New Netherlands. As this ancient edifice is likely to be the place whence I shall date many of my lucubrations, and as it is really a very remarkable little pile, intimately connected with all the great epochs of our local and national history, I have thought it but right to give some farther particulars concerning it. Fortunately, in rummaging a ponderous Dutch chest of drawers, which serves as the archives of the Roost, and in which are preserved many inedited manuscripts of Mr. KNICKERBOCKER, together with the precious records of New-Amsterdam, brought hither by Wolfert Acker at the downfall of the Dutch dynasty, as has been already mentioned, I found in one corner, among dried pumpkin-seeds, bunches of thyme, and pennyroyal, and crumbs of new-year cakes, a manuscript, carefully wrapped up in the fragment of an old parchment deed, but much blotted, and the ink grown foxy by time, which, on inspection, I discovered to be a faithful chronicle of the Roost. The hand-writing, and certain internal evidences, leave no doubt in my mind, that it is a genuine production of the venerable historian of the New-Netherlands, written, very probably, during his residence at the Roost, in gratitude for the hospitality of its proprietor. As such, I submit it for publication. As the entire chronicle is too long for the pages of your Magazine, and as it contains many minute particulars, which might prove tedious to the general reader, I have abbreviated and occasionally omitted some of its details; but may hereafter furnish them separately, should they seem to be required by the curiosity of an enlightened and document-hunting public.
A CHRONICLE OF WOLFERT’S ROOST.
FOUND AMONG THE PAPERS OF THE LATE DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER.
About five-and-twenty miles from the ancient and renowned city of Manhattan, formerly called New-Amsterdam, and vulgarly called New-York, on the eastern bank of that expansion of the Hudson, known among Dutch mariners of yore, as the Tappan Zee, being in fact the great Mediterranean Sea of the New-Netherlands, stands a little old-fashioned stone mansion, all made up of gable-ends, and as full of angles and corners as an old cocked hat. Though but of small dimensions, yet, like many small people, it is of mighty spirit, and values itself greatly on its antiquity, being one of the oldest edifices, for its size, in the whole country. It claims to be an ancient seat of empire, I may rather say an empire in itself, and like all empires, great and small, has had its grand historical epochs. In speaking of this doughty and valorous little pile, I shall call it by its usual appellation of “The Roost;” though that is a name given to it in modern days, since it became the abode of the white man.
Its origin, in truth, dates far back in that remote region commonly called the fabulous age, in which vulgar fact becomes mystified, and tinted up with delectable fiction. The eastern shore of the Tappan Sea was inhabited in those days by an unsophisticated race, existing in all the simplicity of nature; that is to say, they lived by hunting and fishing, and recreated themselves occasionally with a little tomahawking and scalping. Each stream that flows down from the hills into the Hudson, had its petty sachem, who ruled over a hand’s-breadth of forest on either side, and had his seat of government at its mouth. The chieftain who ruled at the Roost, was not merely a great warrior, but a medicine-man, or prophet, or conjurer, for they all mean the same thing, in Indian parlance. Of his fighting propensities, evidences still remain, in various arrowheads of flint, and stone battle-axes, occasionally digged up about the Roost: of his wizard powers, we have a token in a spring which wells up at the foot of the bank, on the very margin of the river, which, it is said, was gifted by him with rejuvenating powers, something like the renowned Fountain of Youth in the Floridas, so anxiously but vainly sought after by the veteran Ponce de Leon. This story, however, is stoutly contradicted by an old Dutch matter-of-fact tradition, which declares that the spring in question was smuggled over from Holland in a churn, by Femmetie Van Slocum, wife of Goosen Garret Van Slocum, one of the first settlers, and that she took it up by night, unknown to her husband, from beside their farm-house near Rotterdam; being sure she should find no water equal to it in the new country—and she was right.
The wizard sachem had a great passion for discussing territorial questions, and settling boundary lines; this kept him in continual feud with the neighboring sachems, each of whom stood up stoutly for his hand-breadth of territory; so that there is not a petty stream nor ragged hill in the neighborhood, that has not been the subject of long talks and hard battles. The sachem, however, as has been observed, was a medicine-man, as well as warrior, and vindicated his claims by arts as well as arms; so that, by dint of a little hard fighting here, and hocus-pocus there, he managed to extend his boundary-line from field to field and stream to stream, until he found himself in legitimate possession of that region of hills and valleys, bright fountains and limpid brooks, locked in by the mazy windings of the Neperan and the Pocantico.1
This last-mentioned stream, or rather the valley through which it flows, was the most difficult of all his acquisitions. It lay half way to the strong-hold of the redoubtable sachem of Sing-Sing, and was claimed by him as an integral part of his domains. Many were the sharp conflicts between the rival chieftains for the sovereignty of this valley, and many the ambuscades, surprisals, and deadly onslaughts that took place among its fastnesses, of which it grieves me much that I cannot furnish the details for the gratification of those gentle but bloody-minded readers of both sexes, who delight in the romance of the tomahawk and scalping-knife. Suffice it to say that the wizard chieftain was at length victorious, though his victory is attributed in Indian tradition to a great medicine or charm by which he laid the sachem of Sing-Sing and his warriors asleep among the rocks and recesses of the valley, where they remain asleep to the present day with their bows and war-clubs beside them. This was the origin of that potent and drowsy spell which still prevails over the valley of the Pocantico, and which has gained it the well-merited appellation of Sleepy Hollow. Often, in secluded and quiet parts of that valley, where the stream is overhung by dark woods and rocks, the ploughman, on some calm and sunny day as he shouts to his oxen, is surprised at hearing faint shouts from the hill-sides in reply; being, it is said, the spell-bound warriors, who half start from their rocky couches and grasp their weapons, but sink to sleep again.
The conquest of the Pocantico was the last triumph of the wizard sachem. Notwithstanding all his medicine and charms, he fell in battle in attempting to extend his boundary line to the east so as to take in the little wild valley of the Sprain, and his grave is still shown near the banks of that pastoral stream. He left, however, a great empire to his successors, extending along the Tappan Zee, from Yonkers quite to Sleepy Hollow; all which delectable region, if every one had his right, would still acknowledge allegiance to the lord of the Roost—whoever he might be.2
The wizard sachem was succeeded by a line of chiefs, of whom nothing remarkable remains on record. The last who makes any figure in history is the one who ruled here at the time of the discovery of the country by the white man. This sachem is said to have been a renowned trencherman, who maintained almost as potent a sway by dint of good feeding as his warlike predecessor had done by hard fighting. He diligently cultivated the growth of oysters along the aquatic borders of his territories, and founded those great oyster-beds which yet exist along the shores of the Tappan Zee. Did any dispute occur between him and a neighboring sachem, he invited him and all his principal sages and fighting-men to a solemn banquet, and seldom failed of feeding them into terms. Enormous heaps of oyster-shells, which encumber the lofty banks of the river, remain as monuments of his gastronomical victories, and have been occasionally adduced through mistake by amateur geologists from town, as additional proofs of the deluge. Modern investigators, who are making such indefatigable researches into our early history, have even affirmed that this sachem was the very individual on whom Master Hendrick Hudson and his mate, Robert Juet, made that sage and astounding experiment so gravely recorded by the latter in his narrative of the voyage: “Our master and his mate determined to try some of the cheefe men of the country whether they had any treacherie in them. So they took them down into the cabin and gave them so much wine and aqua vitae that they were all very merrie; one of them had his wife with him, which sate so modestly as any of our countrywomen would do in a strange place. In the end one of them was drunke; and that was strange to them, for they could not tell how to take it.”3
How far Master Hendrick Hudson and his worthy mate carried their experiment with the sachem’s wife is not recorded, neither does the curious Robert Juet make any mention of the after-consequences of this grand moral test; tradition, however, affirms that the sachem on landing gave his modest spouse a hearty rib-roasting, according to the connubial discipline of the aboriginals; it farther affirms that he remained a hard drinker to the day of his death, trading away all his lands, acre by acre, for aqua vitae; by which means the Roost and all its domains, from Yonkers to Sleepy Hollow, came, in the regular course of trade and by right of purchase, into the possession of the Dutchmen.
Never has a territorial right in these new countries been more legitimately and tradefully established; yet, I grieve to say, the worthy government of the New Netherlands was not suffered to enjoy this grand acquisition unmolested; for, in the year 1654, the local Yankees of Connecticut—those swapping, bargaining, squatting enemies of the Manhattoes—made a daring inroad into this neighborhood and founded a colony called Westchester, or, as the ancient Dutch records term it, Vest Dorp, in the right of one Thomas Pell, who pretended to have purchased the whole surrounding country of the Indians, and stood ready to argue their claims before any tribunal of Christendom.
This happened during the chivalrous reign of Peter Stuyvesant, and it roused the ire of that gunpowder old hero; who, without waiting to discuss claims and titles, pounced at once upon the nest of nefarious squatters, carried off twenty-five of them in chains to the Manhattoes, nor did he stay his hand, nor give rest to his wooden leg, until he had driven every Yankee back into the bounds of Connecticut, or obliged him to acknowledge allegiance to their High Mightinesses. He then established certain out-posts, far in the Indian country, to keep an eye over these debateable lands; one of these border-holds was the Roost, being accessible from New Amsterdam by water, and easily kept supplied. The Yankees, however, had too great a hankering after this delectable region to give it up entirely. Some remained and swore allegiance to the Manhattoes; but, while they kept this open semblance of fealty, they went to work secretly and vigorously to intermarry and multiply, and by these nefarious means, artfully propagated themselves into possession of a wide tract of those open, arable parts of Westchester county, lying along the Sound, where their descendants may be found at the present day; while the mountainous regions along the Hudson, with the valleys of the Neperan and the Pocantico, are tenaciously held by the lineal descendants of the Copperheads.
The chronicle of the venerable Diedrich here goes on to relate how that, shortly after the above-mentioned events, the whole province of the New Netherlands was subjugated by the British; how that Wolfert Acker, one of the wrangling councillors of Peter Stuyvesant, retired in dudgeon to this fastness in the wilderness, determining to enjoy “lust in rust” for the remainder of his days, whence the place first received its name of Wolfert’s Roost. As these and sundry other matters have been laid before the public in a preceding article, I shall pass them over, and resume the chronicle where it treats of matters not hitherto recorded:
Like many men who retire from a worrying world, says DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER, to enjoy quiet in the country, Wolfert Acker soon found himself up to the ears in trouble. He had a termagant wife at home, and there was what is profanely called “the deuce to pay,” abroad. The recent irruption of the Yankees into the bounds of the New Netherlands, had left behind it a doleful pestilence, such as is apt to follow the steps of invading armies. This was the deadly plague of witchcraft, which had long been prevalent to the eastward. The malady broke out at Vest Dorp, and threatened to spread throughout the country. The Dutch burghers along the Hudson, from Yonkers to Sleepy Hollow, hastened to nail horseshoes to their doors, which have ever been found of sovereign virtue to repel this awful visitation. This is the origin of the horse-shoes which may still be seen nailed to the doors of barns and farmhouses, in various parts of this sage and sober-thoughted region.
The evil, however, bore hard upon the Roost; partly, perhaps, from its having in old times been subject to supernatural influences, during the sway of the Wizard Sachem; but it has always, in fact, been considered a fated mansion. The unlucky Wolfert had no rest day nor night. When the weather was quiet all over the country, the wind would howl and whistle round his roof; witches would ride and whirl upon his weathercocks, and scream down his chimneys. His cows gave bloody milk, and his horses broke bounds, and scampered into the woods. There were not wanting evil tongues to whisper that Wolfert’s termagant wife had some tampering with the enemy; and that she even attended a witches’ Sabbath in Sleepy Hollow; nay, a neighbor, who lived hard by, declared that he saw her harnessing a rampant broom-stick, and about to ride to the meeting; though others presume it was merely flourished in the course of one of her curtain lectures, to give energy and emphasis to a period. Certain it is, that Wolfert Acker nailed a horse-shoe to the front door, during one of her nocturnal excursions, to prevent her return; but as she re-entered the house without any difficulty, it is probable she was not so much of a witch as she was represented.4
After the time of Wolfert Acker, a long interval elapses, about which but little is known. It is hoped, however, that the antiquarian researches so diligently making in every part of this new country, may yet throw some light upon what may be termed the Dark Ages of the Roost.
The next period at which we find this venerable and eventful pile rising to importance, and resuming its old belligerent character, is during the revolutionary war. It was at that time owned by Jacob Van Tassel, or Van Texel, as the name was originally spelled, after the place in Holland which gave birth to this heroic line. He was strong-built, long-limbed, and as stout in soul as in body; a fit successor to the warrior sachem of yore, and, like him, delighting in extravagant enterprises and hardy deeds of arms. But, before I enter upon the exploits of this worthy cock of the Boost, it is fitting I should throw some light upon the state of the mansion, and of the surrounding country, at the time.
The situation of the Roost is in the very heart of what was the debateable ground between the American and British lines, during the war. The British held possession of the city of New York, and the island of Manhattan on which it stands. The Americans drew up toward the Highlands, holding their headquarters at Peekskill. The intervening country, from Croton River to Spiting Devil Creek, was the debateable land, subject to be harried by friend and foe, like the Scottish borders of yore. It is a rugged country, with a line of rocky hills extending through it, like a back bone, sending ribs on either side; but among these rude hills are beautiful winding valleys, like those watered by the Pocantico and the Neperan. In the fastnesses of these hills, and along these valleys, exist a race of hard-headed, hard-handed, stout-hearted Dutchmen, descendants of the primitive Nederlanders. Most of these were strong whigs throughout the war, and have ever remained obstinately attached to the soil, and neither to be fought nor bought out of their paternal acres. Others were tories, and adherents to the old kingly rule; some of whom took refuge within the British lines, joined the royal bands of refugees, a name odious to the American ear, and occasionally returned to harass their ancient neighbors.
In a little while, this debateable land was overrun by predatory bands from either side; sacking hen-roosts, plundering farm-houses, and driving off cattle. Hence arose those two great orders of border chivalry, the Skinners and the Cowboys, famous in the heroic annals of Westchester county. The former fought, or rather marauded, under the American, the latter under the British banner; but both, in the hurry of their military ardor, were apt to err on the safe side, and rob friend as well as foe. Neither of them stopped to ask the politics of horse or cow, which they drove into captivity; nor, when they wrung the neck of a rooster, did they trouble their heads to ascertain whether he were crowing for Congress or King George.
While this marauding system prevailed on shore, the Great Tappan Sea, which washes this belligerent region, was domineered over by British frigates and other vessels of war, anchored here and there, to keep an eye upon the river, and maintain a communication between the various military posts. Stout galleys, also, armed with eighteen-pounders, and navigated with sails and oars, cruised about like hawks, ready to pounce upon their prey.
All these were eyed with bitter hostility by the Dutch yeomanry along shore, who were indignant at seeing their great Mediterranean ploughed by hostile prows; and would occasionally throw up a mud breast-work on a point or promontory, mount an old iron field-piece, and fire away at the enemy, though the greatest harm was apt to happen to themselves from the bursting of their ordnance; nay, there was scarce a Dutchman along the river that would hesitate to fire with his long duck gun at any British cruiser that came within reach, as he had been accustomed to fire at water-fowl.
I have been thus particular in my account of the times and neighborhood, that the reader might the more readily comprehend the surrounding dangers in this the Heroic Age of the Roost.
It was commanded at the time, as I have already observed, by the stout Jacob Van Tassel. As I wish to be extremely accurate in this part of my chronicle, I beg that this Jacob Van Tassel of the Roost may not be confounded with another Jacob Van Tassel, commonly known in border story by the name of “Clump-footed Jake,” a noted tory, and one of the refugee band of Spiting Devil. On the contrary, he of the Roost was a patriot of the first water, and, if we may take his own word for granted, a thorn in the side of the enemy. As the Roost, from its lonely situation on the water’s edge, might be liable to attack, he took measures for defence. On a row of hooks above his fire-place, reposed his great piece of ordnance, ready charged and primed for action. This was a duck, or rather goose-gun, of unparalleled longitude, with which it was said he could kill a wild goose, though half-way across the Tappan Sea. Indeed, there are as many wonders told of this renowned gun, as of the enchanted weapons of the heroes of classic story.
In different parts of the stone walls of his mansion, he had made loop-holes, through which he might fire upon an assailant. His wife was stout-hearted as himself, and could load as fast as he could fire; and then he had an ancient and redoubtable sister, Nochie Van Wurmer, a match, as he said, for the stoutest man in the country. Thus garrisoned, the little Roost was fit to stand a siege, and Jacob Van Tassel was the man to defend it to the last charge of powder.
He was, as I have already hinted, of pugnacious propensities; and, not content with being a patriot at home, and fighting for the security of his own fireside, he extended his thoughts abroad, and entered into a confederacy with certain of the bold, hard-riding lads of Tarrytown, Petticoat Lane, and Sleepy Hollow, who formed a kind of Holy Brotherhood, scouring the country to clear it of Skinner and Cow-boy, and all other border vermin. The Roost was one of their rallying points. Did a band of marauders from Manhattan island come sweeping through the neighborhood, and driving off cattle, the stout Jacob and his compeers were soon clattering at their heels, and fortunate did the rogues esteem themselves if they could but get a part of their booty across the lines, or escape themselves without a rough handling. Should the moss troopers succeed in passing with their cavalcade, with thundering tramp and dusty whirlwind, across Kingsbridge, the Holy Brotherhood of the Roost would rein up at that perilous pass, and, wheeling about, would indemnify themselves by foraging the refugee region of Morrisania.
When at home at the Roost, the stout Jacob was not idle; but was prone to carry on a petty warfare of his own, for his private recreation and refreshment. Did he ever chance to espy, from his look-out place, a hostile ship or galley anchored or becalmed near shore, he would take down his long goose-gun from the hooks over the fire-place, sally out alone, and lurk along shore, dodging behind rocks and trees, and watching for hours together, like a veteran mouser intent on a rat-hole. So sure as a boat put off for shore, and came within shot, bang! went the great goose-gun; a shower of slugs and buck-shot whistled about the ears of the enemy, and before the boat could reach the shore, Jacob had scuttled up some woody ravine, and left no trace behind. About this time, the Roost experienced a vast accession of warlike importance, in being made one of the stations of the water-guard. This was a kind of aquatic corps of observation, composed of long, sharp, canoe-shaped boats, technically called whale-boats, that lay lightly on the water, and could be rowed with great rapidity. They were manned by resolute fellows, skilled at pulling an oar, or handling a musket. These lurked about in nooks and bays, and behind those long promontories which run out into the Tappan Sea, keeping a look-out, to give notice of the approach or movements of hostile ships. They roved about in pairs; sometimes at night, with muffled oars, gliding like spectres about frigates and guard-ships riding at anchor, cutting off any boats that made for shore, and keeping the enemy in constant uneasiness. These mosquito-cruisers generally kept aloof by day, so that their harboring places might not be discovered, but would pull quietly along, under shadow of the shore, at night, to take up their quarters at the Roost. Hither, at such time, would also repair the hard-riding lads of the hills, to hold secret councils of war with the “ocean chivalry;” and in these nocturnal meetings were concerted many of those daring forays, by land and water, that resounded throughout the border.
The chronicle here goes on to recount divers wonderful stories of the wars of the Roost, from which it would seem, that this little warrior nest carried the terror of its arms into every sea, from Spiting Devil Creek to Antony’s Nose; that it even bearded the stout island of Manhattan, invading it at night, penetrating to its centre, and burning down the famous Delancey house, the conflagration of which makes such a blaze in revolutionary history. Nay more, in their extravagant daring, these cocks of the Roost meditated a nocturnal descent upon New York itself, to swoop upon the British commanders, Howe and Clinton, by surprise, bear them off captive, and perhaps put a triumphant close to the war!
All these and many similar exploits are recorded by the worthy Diedrich, with his usual minuteness and enthusiasm, whenever the deeds in arms of his kindred Dutchmen are in question; but though most of these warlike stories rest upon the best of all authority, that of the warriors themselves, and though many of them are still current among the revolutionary patriarchs of this heroic neighborhood, yet I dare not expose them to the incredulity of a tamer and less chivalric age. Suffice it to say, the frequent gatherings at the Roost, and the hardy projects set on foot there, at length drew on it the fiery indignation of the enemy; and this was quickened by the conduct of the stout Jacob Van Tassel; with whose valorous achievements we resume the course of the chronicle.
This doughty Dutchman, continues the sage DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER, was not content with taking a share in all the magnanimous enterprises concocted at the Roost, but still continued his petty warfare along shore. A series of exploits at length raised his confidence in his prowess to such a height, that he began to think himself and his goose-gun a match for any thing. Unluckily, in the course of one of his prowlings, he descried a British transport aground, not far from shore, with her stern swung toward the land, within point-blank shot. The temptation was too great to be resisted; bang! as usual, went the great goose-gun, shivering the cabin windows, and driving all hands forward. Bang! bang! the shots were repeated. The reports brought several sharp-shooters of the neighborhood to the spot; before the transport could bring a gun to bear, or land a boat, to take revenge, she was soundly peppered, and the coast evacuated. This was the last of Jacob’s triumphs. He fared like some heroic spider, that has unwittingly ensnared a hornet, to his immortal glory, perhaps, but to the utter ruin of his web.
It was not long after this, during the absence of Jacob Van Tassel on one of his forays, and when no one was in garrison but his stout-hearted spouse, his redoubtable sister, Nochie Van Wurmer, and a strapping negro wench, called Dinah, that an armed vessel came to anchor off the Roost, and a boat full of men pulled to shore. The garrison flew to arms, that is to say, to mops, broom-sticks, shovels, tongs, and all kinds of domestic weapons; for, unluckily, the great piece of ordnance, the goose-gun, was absent with its owner. Above all, a vigorous defence was made with that most potent of female weapons, the tongue. Never did invaded hen-roost make a more vociferous outcry. It was all in vain. The house was sacked and plundered, fire was set to each corner, and in a few moments its blaze shed a baleful light far over the Tappan Sea. The invaders then pounced upon the blooming Laney Van Tassel, the beauty of the Roost, and endeavored to bear her off to the boat. But here was the real tug of war. The mother, the aunt, and the strapping negro wench, all flew to the rescue. The struggle continued down to the very water’s edge; when a voice from the armed vessel at anchor, ordered the spoilers to let go their hold; they relinquished their prize, jumped into their boats, and pulled off, and the heroine of the Roost escaped with a mere rumpling of the feathers.
The fear of tiring my readers, who may not take such an interest as myself in these heroic themes, induces me to close here my extracts from this precious chronicle of the venerable Diedrich. Suffice it briefly to say, that shortly after the catastrophe of the Roost, Jacob Van Tassel, in the course of one of his forays, fell into the hands of the British; was sent prisoner to New York, and was detained in captivity for the greater part of the war. In the mean time, the Roost remained a melancholy ruin; its stone walls and brick chimneys alone standing, blackened by fire, and the resort of bats and owlets. It was not until the return of peace, when this belligerent neighborhood once more resumed its quiet agricultural pursuits, that the stout Jacob sought the scene of his triumphs and disasters; rebuilt the Roost, and reared again on high its glittering weather-cocks.
Does any one want further particulars of the fortunes of this eventful little pile? Let him go to the fountain-head, and drink deep of historic truth. Reader! the stout Jacob Van Tassel still lives, a venerable, gray-headed patriarch of the revolution, now in his ninety-fifth year! He sits by his fireside, in the ancient city of the Manhattoes, and passes the long winter evenings, surrounded by his children, and grand-children, and great-grand-children, all listening to his tales of the border wars, and the heroic days of the Roost. His great goose-gun, too, is still in existence, having been preserved for many years in a hollow tree, and passed from hand to hand among the Dutch burghers, as a precious relique of the revolution. It is now actually in possession of a contemporary of the stout Jacob, one almost his equal in years, who treasures it up at his house in the Bowerie of New-Amsterdam, hard by the ancient rural retreat of the chivalric Peter Stuyvesant. I am not without hopes of one day seeing this formidable piece of ordinance restored to its proper station in the arsenal of the Roost. Before closing this historic document, I cannot but advert to certain notions and traditions concerning the venerable pile in question. Old-time edifices are apt to gather odd fancies and superstitions about them, as they do moss and weather-stains; and this is in a neighborhood a little given to old-fashioned notions, and who look upon the Roost as somewhat of a fated mansion. A lonely, rambling, down-hill lane leads to it, overhung with trees, with a wild brook dashing along, and crossing and re-crossing it. This lane I found some of the good people of the neighborhood shy of treading at night; why, I could not for a long time ascertain; until I learned that one or two of the rovers of the Tappan Sea, shot by the stout Jacob during the war, had been buried hereabout, in unconsecrated ground.
Another local superstition is of a less gloomy kind, and one which I confess I am somewhat disposed to cherish. The Tappan Sea, in front of the Roost, is about three miles wide, bordered by a lofty line of waving and rocky hills. Often, in the still twilight of a summer evening, when the sea is like glass, with the opposite hills throwing their purple shadows half across it, a low sound is heard, as of the steady, vigorous pull of oars, far out in the middle of the stream, though not a boat is to be descried. This I should have been apt to ascribe to some boat rowed along under the shadows of the western shore, for sounds are conveyed to a great distance by water, at such quiet hours, and I can distinctly hear the baying of the watch-dogs at night, from the farms on the sides of the opposite mountains. The ancient traditionists of the neighborhood, however, religiously ascribed these sounds to a judgment upon one Rumbout Van Dam, of Spiting Devil, who danced and drank late one Saturday night, at a Dutch quilting frolic, at Kakiat, and set off alone for home in his boat, on the verge of Sunday morning; swearing he would not land till he reached Spiting Devil, if it took him a month of Sundays. He was never seen afterward, but is often heard plying his oars across the Tappan Sea, a Flying Dutchman on a small scale, suited to the size of his cruising-ground; being doomed to ply between Kakiat and Spiting Devil till the day of judgment, but never to reach the land.
There is one room in the mansion which almost overhangs the river, and is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a young lady who died of love and green apples. I have been awakened at night by the sound of oars and the tinkling of guitars beneath the window; and seeing a boat loitering in the moonlight, have been tempted to believe it the Flying Dutchman of Spiting Devil, and to try whether a silver bullet might not put an end to his unhappy cruisings; but, happening to recollect that there was a living young lady in the haunted room, who might be terrified by the report of fire-arms, I have refrained from pulling trigger.
As to the enchanted fountain, said to have been gifted by the wizard sachem with supernatural powers, it still wells up at the foot of the bank, on the margin of the river, and goes by the name of the Indian spring; but I have my doubts as to its rejuvenating powers, for though I have drank oft and copiously of it, I cannot boast that I find myself growing younger.
1. As every one may not recognize these boundaries by their original Indian names, it may be well to observe, that the Neperan is that beautiful stream, vulgarly called the Saw-Mill River, which, after winding gracefully for many miles through a lovely valley, shrouded by groves, and dotted by Dutch farm-houses, empties itself into the Hudson, at the ancient drop of Yonkers. The Pocantico is that hitherto nameless brook, that, rising among woody hills, winds in many a wizard maze through the sequestered banks of Sleepy Hollow. We owe it to the indefatigable researches of Mr. KNICKERBOCKER, that those beautiful streams are rescued from modern common-place, and reinvested with their ancient Indian names. The correctness of the venerable historian may be ascertained, by reference to the records of the original Indian grants to the Herr Frederick Philipsen, preserved in the county clerk’s office, at White Plains. [back]
2. In recording the contest for the sovereignty of Sleepy Hollow, I have called one sachem by the modern name of his castle or strong-hold, viz.: Sing-Sing. This, I would observe for the sake of historical exactness, is a corruption of the old Indian name, O-sin-sing, or rather O-sin-song; that is to say, a place where any thing may be had for a song—a great recommendation for a market town. The modern and melodious alteration of the name to Sing-Sing is said to have been made in compliment to an eminent Methodist singing-master, who first introduced into the neighborhood the art of singing through the nose. D. K.
3. See Juet’s Journal, Purchas Pilgrim.
4. HISTORICAL NOTE.—The annexed extracts from the early colonial records, relate to the irruption of witchcraft into Westchester county, as mentioned in the chronicle:
“JULY 7, 1670.—Katharine Harryson, accused of witchcraft on complaint of Thomas Hunt and Edward Waters, in behalf of the town, who pray that she may be driven from the town of Westchester. The woman appears before the council. . . . She was a native of England, and had lived a year in Weathersfield, Connecticut, where she had been tried for witchcraft, found guilty by the jury, acquitted by the bench, and released out of prison, upon condition she would remove. Affair adjourned.
“AUGUST 24.—Affair taken up again, when, being heard at large, it was referred to the general court of assize. Woman ordered to give security for good behavior,” etc.
In another place is the following entry:
“Order given for Katharine Harryson, charged with witchcraft, to leave Westchester, as the inhabitants are uneasy at her residing there, and she is ordered to go off.”