FRANCIS Adrian Van der Kemp was a writer, minister and political leader of some prominence in his native Holland when he fled from religious and political persecution in 1788 to settle in central New York. He became one of the area’s important citizens during its formative period.
When he arrived on the shores of Oneida Lake, Van der Kemp was the only scholar in the region. As a friend to both noted and common men in central New York, he provided a bridge between scholarship and responsible citizenship for many years. His active, inquiring mind ranged far beyond his rural village. Politics, religion, history, government, scientific agriculture, geology, the Erie Canal, the conduct of the War of 1812, and any threat to political or religious freedom stimulated him to research and writing.
On the national scene, Van der Kemp’s opinions influenced many of the great leaders of America. John Adams credited him with a “vast view of civilization” and respected his advice. His warm friendship with John and Abigail Adams endured till their deaths, and John Quincy Adams continued the relationship. He shared Washington’s interest in scientific agriculture after a visit to Mount Vernon, and persuaded Thomas Jefferson to publish one of the latter’s religious works.
De Witt Clinton, an early acquaintance through his uncle, Governor George Clinton, sought Van der Kemp’s views on the building of the Erie Canal. John Lincklaen of Cazenovia counted him as a valued friend. Jonas Platt, who rose from the position of a struggling young lawyer at Whitesboro on the frontier to state Supreme Court judge, relied heavily on Van der Kemp, while Chancellor Robert Livingston made use of his knowledge of agriculture, conservation, and geology.
He was a member of learned societies, published numerous writings in leading religious journals, and moved easily in academic circles. He set a climate of scholarly pursuit stretching from the nation’s capital to the frontier, from the banks of the Potomac to the banks of obscure Cincinnati Creek. Van der Kemp provided a dignity for scholarship from his wilderness that inspired leaders to apply learning to the problems of development.
As a justice of the peace, he helped to give decorum and integrity to the courts of the New York frontier. Deeply religious, he helped to establish one of the first churches in the area. As a translator, he rescued the early records of the Dutch colony of New Netherland from oblivion.
Van der Kemp already had a university education and theological training when he came to America. In his new country he applied himself diligently to intellectual search and research. His numerous letters probed for ideas and knowledge. His correspondence with John Adams over a period of forty years, largely intact, gives the best view of the scholar’s intellectual strivings. A lengthy correspondence with De Witt Clinton, shorter exchanges with Thomas Jefferson and Robert Livingston and fragments of writings exchanged with many others help to round out the picture. Van der Kemp’s own publications and manuscripts show gratifying results of his scholarship. A short autobiography and many records help to reconstruct his extremely busy life into an understandable, admirable picture of a man who, in spite of the handicaps of the frontier, an adopted language, and financial hardships, contributed much to the development of America.
Van der Kemp was always the scholar, whether in political or religious conflict, applying scientific knowledge to agriculture, or acting as intelligent observer of military tactics. He was firm in the belief that knowledge was a force for good and that ignorance was evil. By studying the past, Van der Kemp believed that he and other scholars could lead the way to a better future. By studying natural science, he believed that he and other scholars could design better and greater uses of natural resources. By studying religion, he sought to make a simple tie between good works on earth and a heavenly reward.
The Van der Kemp manuscripts owned by the Oneida Historical Society first provided the possibilities for study of his life. A careful reading of his autobiography, edited and enlarged by Helen Lincklaen Fairchild, encouraged the research for a full biography. The aid of Francis Cunningham, curator of the Oneida Historical Society, has been invaluable over the several years of study.
Utica College encouraged the project with favorable schedule arrangements, secretarial assistance and two summer grants. Miss Mary Dudley, the college librarian, was helpful in the search for materials. Dr. Robert V. Anderson assisted directly in the search, continually offered suggestions and responded to questions on the project. Mr. Craig R. Hanyan helped with the De Witt Clinton materials. Mrs. Dorothy Judd Sickels criticized parts of the manuscript and made valuable suggestions. Mrs. Marian Inglis typed rough drafts at both convenient and inconvenient times. Members of the Unitarian Church in Barneveld, Van der Kemp’s church, have encouraged the biography by their interest. Their minister, the Reverend Frank Edson Robertson, has allowed the author to spend much time in the parsonage, imagining how it was when the Van der Kemps were its residents. To all of these people and to friends and family who have aided in less tangible ways, I am deeply grateful.
HARRY F. JACKSON
Utica, New York