Haunted by History
By Jana Seitz
It’s October, so naturally I’ve been spending some quality time lurking around old bone orchards, the crown jewel of which remains the Old Dutch Church and Burying Grounds in Sleepy Hollow. Not to be confused with the adjacent 85-acre Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the Dutch cemetery covers 2.5 acres. The Grounds are the haunt of the headless horseman from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the final resting place of villagers on whom his characters were based.
I have unearthed a most fascinating connection between “The Legend” and the Dutch influence on America, paralleling the natural timeline of our history-soaked region. Indulge me if you will…
Sailing from the Netherlands in the early 1600s, the Dutch weren’t fleeing religious persecution, famine, or hardship as later immigrants were. Their quest was purely mercenary. They were seeking fortunes built on slavery and spice and anything else that could be discovered and sold. The Dutch East and West India Companies sent exploratory vessels out all over the world. One such was Henry Hudson’s <Half Moon> in 1609 in which he sailed up the Hudson in search of a northwest passage to Asia but found New York instead.
Out of this Dutch expansion came the Van Cortlandts, a founding family of the Hudson Valley. Captain Olof Stevense Van Cortlandt had risen in the ranks of the West India Company and arrived in New Amsterdam in 1637. Another Dutch trader, Frederick Philipse, swore allegiance to the British crown in 1664 when England transformed the new Netherlands into New York. He was granted land in Tarry Town (so named for the menfolk who tarried there on Saturdays) and moved north to build his estate. Philipse bought the Pocantico River valley from the Weckquaesgeek Indians in 1681, founded the Old Dutch Church and Burying Ground around 1685, and used the labor of 23 African slaves to build and run a working farm and mill (the still- intact Phillipsburg Manor), and eventually a shipping company.
After the death of his first wife, Philipse married the granddaughter of the aforementioned Van Cortlandt, Catharine, with whom he amassed an estate of 52,000 acres extending from Spuyten Duyvil (the inlet separating the Bronx from Manhattan) to the Croton River, and from the Hudson to the Bronx River. Catharine was the great woman behind this great man, as she employed liberties typical of Dutch women in the 1600s yet unheard of elsewhere: running businesses, travelling unescorted, and generally enjoying the freedoms of a man…a “she merchant”.
Philipse died in 1702, and his land was divided between his son and grandson. By the time the American Revolution came knocking in 1776, his grandson Philipse III was lord of the manor. He remained true to the British Crown, fleeing to England when American victory was eminent. In 1779 he was charged with treason (in absentia) and the vast Philipse holdings were confiscated by the revolutionary government and redistributed again. The Crown giveth; the Revolution taketh away.
The estate became a no-man’s land during the war. After the Battle of White Plains in October 1776, the land south of the Bronx River was abandoned to the British. The nearest American fortification was north of Peekskill, leaving a thirty-mile stretch of scorched and desolated earth, vulnerable to vigilantes, outlaws and raiders: Westchester County. Skirmishes between the Patriot militia and Loyalist rangers were frequent. The British Light Infantry imported Hessian “Jagers” from Germany to instill fear in the fledgling American patriots. Renowned horsemen and sharpshooters, they galloped through the countryside terrifying the locals. The rare victories of villagers against these huge Hessians became the stuff of legends. In “The Legend”, the Headless Horseman is said to be a decapitated Hessian soldier. His character was most likely based on the actual story of a Hessian losing his head on the Battlefield of White Plains around Halloween 1776.
Fast forward to 1783, Washington Irving (named for George Washington) was born into a prosperous family in New York City. He attended Columbia University, summered on the Hudson in Irvington, and spent much time meandering about the misty beauty of the Hudson River Valley. He was unsure of a career, wanted to be a writer, and was a bit of a practical joker. In 1815, Irving moved to Europe to assist his brother’s failing shipping business. He had been given a letter of introduction from a friend to Walter Scott (not yet Sir) who was living outside of Edinburgh and working on a novel, “Rob Roy”. Scott took Irving under wing, welcoming him into his home and hearth. They hiked the highlands, got caught in a hail storm, and rode it out beneath a tartan plaid…all quite romantic and gloomy…which further set the stage. Irving was now determined to succeed. In 1820 he wrote and published “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” while touring Europe. A collection of 34 essays and short stories, it included “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, a short story cobbled together from tales of wild rides of yore from both sides of The Pond and the culmination of Irving’s character, history, and recall.
You likely remember the ending of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. On a dark and scary night, Ichabod Crane is riding like a demon to safely cross the bridge (over the Pocantico River to the Old Dutch Church) with the Headless Horseman hot on his heels. But what time and tradition have forgotten is that Irving makes it all but clear the Headless Horseman was actually Brom Bones, his competitor for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel (Catharine Van Cortlandt). It wasn’t his head he hurled at Ichabod, but a pumpkin, the pinnacle of practical jokes. That pumpkin has ushered in a whole plethora of Halloween fun and fear in Sleepy Hollow. Go catch some if you can.
The Old Dutch Church
Pocantico River from the Headless Horseman Bridge
Statue in the Old Dutch Church Cemetery
Grave marker for Andrew Carnegie in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery