THE Van der Kemps bought a farm northwest of Kingston near the Saugerties road in the basin of Esopus Creek. Van der Kemp was aware that its soil had been exhausted by excessive cropping and little fertilizing, but was confident he could farm it successfully and that in a half dozen years “well employed” he would gain for himself and family “an easy and honest subsistence,” the highest reward of his desires.1 His meager farming experience in Holland had been greatly augmented by reading and keen observation. He intended to apply the same intelligent scientific care that George Washington and Robert Livingston gave to their estates.
On February 26, 1789, he bought the farm of Sylvester Salisbury, deceased, for £1100. The house was of blue limestone, one and a half stories high,2 similar to many other Dutch houses along the Hudson. The roof of such a house was of shingles, perhaps white pine, and there were two chimneys—one for the huge fireplace in the kitchen and the other for the parlor. Other downstairs rooms were generally not heated nor was there heat in the sleeping quarters upstairs. Family life centered around the kitchen. Here the cooking was done in the fireplace, the spinning wheel was often busy, the meals were eaten, and intellectual and business interests were pursued.
The Van der Kemp furnishings were better than common. An upper middle class Dutch home usually held a highly polished dining table, good chairs, a Dutch corner cupboard for fine china, high poster beds, and a grandfather clock. Chests held clothing and bedding while open cases held the treasured books Van der Kemp brought so carefully from Holland. Probably he had a desk for writing and business affairs, with the business definitely second to the writing. Engelbartha Van der Kemp was a good Dutch huisvrouw and kept the house spotless—with the possible exception of the desk.
The neighbors looked at the Van der Kemp furnishings and suspected the family of being wealthy. When the prominent Clintons stopped by to visit and the wealthy Livingstons came from Claremont, the last doubt was removed. Van der Kemp, resolved to provide well for his family, spent money in farming not as a Hudson Valley tenant or yeoman but as a country squire or lord of a manor. Census figures for 1790 number seven people living on the Van der Kemp lands in addition to the immediate family.3
Actually Van der Kemp was short of money. His liquidation of assets in the Netherlands did not provide him with all that he hoped. When he purchased the Salisbury farm he was unable to pay for it outright and had difficulty securing money for the payment due in the following summer of 1789. He asked Governor George Clinton for advice and received it immediately. Since the farm was “considerably improved” and 25 per cent of the purchase price had been paid, Van der Kemp could either borrow money for the payment, though Clinton did not have the money to lend and it might be hard to get, or ask the creditors of the Salisbury estate to extend the due date. He assured Van der Kemp of his friendship and urged him to discuss his affair with “Mr. Tappan,” (perhaps Christopher Tap-pan, Clinton’s brother-in-law), the bearer of the letter.4
Clinton had just gone through a strenuous and bitter political campaign in which he had barely managed to defeat Robert Yates in the election for governor. The letter expressing concern and good wishes for Van der Kemp was written by a tired and busy man.
Van der Kemp obtained a loan from Holland, apparently from the firm represented by Nicholas Van Staphorst and Wilhelm Willink5 who handled various loans for the United States government. With this help he continued his new life in the Hudson Valley, the life of a preacher-soldier-scholar turned farmer.
The depleted soil demanded the major portion of his time and energy. Religious activities he reduced to family devotions and friendly discussion, thereby also avoiding antagonizing his Dutch Reformed neighbors. His love of books and learning continued as much a part of his new life as it had been in the old. His military life was over but not forgotten.
Secretary of War General Henry Knox submitted a revised plan for a standing army to President Washington on January 18, 1790, and the president sent it to Congress on January 21. The secretary recognized the sentiment against a professional standing army and proposed a well-trained militia, part of which would be in the service of the national government. The proposed number of troops was 325,000, with about one-fourth to be older men, trained but in reserve. Van der Kemp wanted this militia to succeed in order to avoid a strong standing army. On November 12, 1790, he wrote to General Knox that more training in theory was necessary and should be provided in a military academy similar to those in France and Prussia. The curriculum should include geometry, algebra, trigonometry, geography, engineering, fortification and tactics. He suggested a plan for selecting cadets and outlined library needs and a testing program with medal awards.6
Other people, such as Alexander Hamilton and Frederick W. von Steuben, also had plans for an academy. The idea was debated in the president’s cabinet in November, 1793, and Washington called for the establishment of such a school in 1796. Adams repeated the request but the act of establishment came under Jefferson in 1802.
According to the 1790 census report, the Van der Kemp neighbors were the Ten Broecks, Van Gaasbecks, De Witts, Folands, Jansens, Salisburys and Swartzes.7 There were Beekmans a little farther away but within easy walking or riding distance. Two of the neighbors, Jacobus Van Gaasbeck and Johannis Beekman, had served on the Kingston Committee of Safety during the Revolutionary War, and there were two Beekmans in the militia.8 Nearby Kingston was an outstanding center of Patriot sentiment and activity, having served as the meeting place for the convention which drew up the first New York State constitution in April, 1777. Later in the year the town was burned by General John Vaughan for its activity, but the Patriots were not subdued.9 The home and other buildings of Robert Livingston, chancellor of the state of New York, were burned at about the same time.10 Near the close of the war, George Washington was given a fine reception in Kingston. A year later, in 1783, the citizens offered their village as the national capital.11
When the Van der Kemps settled in Ulster County, American Patriots with Dutch ancestry had common bonds with the Dutch Patriot from the old country. However, these neighbors in Ulster were influenced little by the Enlightenment. They farmed and lived in traditional modes, uninspired by new methods, with little interest in science and philosophy. When John Lincklaen, agent for the Holland Land Company, stopped with the Van der Kemps in 1792, he wrote in his journal,
Mr. van der Kemp, by taking more care to cultivate & clean his grain than his neighbours, has sold it for a shilling the bushel more than his neighbours. He has sold it for 7/6 the bushel, weighing 64 pounds on the spot.12
Van der Kemp discussed farming with George Washington, William Livingston, governor of New Jersey, and many others. In the fall of 1789 he asked Livingston for lima pole beans and offered to send something in return. Van der Kemp happily reported that at least forty out of his sixty apple and pear trees from Europe were alive. He expected another shipment in the spring. A postscript announced the birth of his son Peter, “a part of my payment as an American Citizen.”13
In 1793 Van der Kemp corresponded with Chancellor Robert Livingston concerning the fertilizing of lands. He recounted Schubart von Klefeld’s successful experiments on crops and meadows from 1777 to 1785 through the use of Gips (gypsum) or plaster.
Van der Kemp described his own experiments:
In 1790 I tried it upon wheat and rye, without any remarkable benefit—the same year on clover with no benefit at all—but the soil was exhausted—not manured in several years cold—wet and compacted.
In 1791 I manured ½ of not quit[e] two acres with common dung the other with Plaster—sowed it with Buck-wheat—and gathered from the first part 11 Bush. from five small slu-loads—36 Bush. from six small sluloads—from that manured with Plaster—the straw being uncommon thick—warm sandy soil.
In 1792—a piece of oats of 15 Bush. a 5 part manured with Plaster—the other ⅘ with common dung—The whole piece was sowed with 55 [?] Bush.—No finer Piece of oats in the country—The part manured with Plaster was too heavy and lay down—the produce of the whole was better than 350 Bush—and two years before, this same piece could not pay the expenses when it was planted with corn, though wel[l] fallowed—being three times plowed and well manured. For this last crop it was plowed four times, once in the fall, and three times in the spring.
I tried it again this season in Buckwheat—and Indian corn—had you any success with the Bromus [?] Giganteas? the mice damaged that of last year—this year I was more successful—I shall sow a part this fall on the Oneida—My Astracan Buck-wheat promises much—14
Chancellor Livingston was also an agricultural experimenter and welcomed new knowledge furnished by Van der Kemp’s letters. The administrative position as chancellor of the state was second to the governor in New York State. Though the term of office coincided with each administration, the title of honor was retained for life, much as that of judge. Livingston was the first president of the New York Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures. Among the early topics considered by the society were the uses of lucerne, lime and gypsum. The chancellor was a strong exponent of the virtues of these three aids to good crops.
The gentlemen farmers and learned professional men who composed the membership of the society were impressed with the vital importance of soil conservation. Livingston promoted understanding by sharing his remarkable knowledge of the chemistry of plants and soils. He contributed a great deal to the society by describing his own experiments and evaluating the experiments of others such as Van der Kemp.15
The owner of Mount Vernon faced similar problems and exchanged ideas with many agriculturalists, including Van der Kemp. Two weeks after the latter’s visit to the general, Washington wrote to a friend about attempts to grow white wheat from England at Mount Vernon and the need for improvement of the crop rotation system. He was certain that the common rotation of corn, wheat and hay was ruinous. Instead of three fields, he was using six:
In 1788 for instance, one of them (say No. 1) is planted with Corn 8 feet by 2, single stalks; with Irish Potatoes or Carrots, or partly both between. That Corn planted in this manner will yield as much to the Acre as any other. That the quantity of Potatoes will at least quadruple the quantity of Corn, and that the Potatoes do not exhaust the Soil, are facts well established in my mind. In April 1789 it is sown with Buck Wheat for manure, which is plowed in before Harvest when the Seed begins to ripen and there is a sufficiency of it to seed the ground a second time. In July it is again plowed; which gives two dressings to the land at the expence of a bushl. of B. Wheat and the plowings which would otherwise be essential for a summer fallow. In August, after the putrefaction and fermentation is over, wheat is sown, and in 1790 harvested. In 1791 the best, and earliest kind of Indian Pease are sown broadcast, … [He was going to change this to a mixture of peas, buckwheat, turnips and pumpkins.] In 1792 Spring Barley or Oats, or equal quantities of each, will be sown with red clover; the latter to be fed with light Stock the first year after harvest. In 1793, the field remains in Clover for Hay, or grazing according to circumstances, and in 1794 comes into Corn again, and goes on as before.16
Washington’s experiments sound remarkably like Van der Kemp’s. On September 27 he wrote to Van der Kemp:
The Mangal Root which you saw growing in my garden is not, I believe, of the best sort, it was as you have observed red. That which is marbled, I am told, is the best. If of this kind the Revd. Dr. Doll could spare a little seed it would oblige me, and when you shall be stocked with such other sorts of seed as are not usual in this country, I would gladly participate in your sparings.17
A further interest of Van der Kemp as a scientific farmer was the improvement of livestock, especially sheep. Livingston had given or sold a pair from his excellent flock to Van der Kemp, who was pleased when people admired his sheep. Though he thought the ewe far superior to the ram, he considered their lamb “an excellent animal with fine wool.” He asked Livingston for an additional, better ram if at all possible because he wanted to try to get “more and finer wool.”18 Livingston improved an already good flock by importing merinoes from France in 1802 and, with Elkanah Watson, encouraged Americans to adopt the breed for greatly superior wool.19
The Van der Kemps and Livingstons exchanged occasional visits. His mother was fond of the Van der Kemps and was interested especially in Mrs. Van der Kemp because they were distantly related through the Beekmans. Early in 1790 Margaret Beekman Livingston, in reply to a request, sent the Van der Kemps information about the Beekman family genealogy. The letter included an invitation: “I beg to be affectionately presented to my cousin Mrs. Van der Kemp and to assure her that I shall expect the pleasure of seeing her and yrself here as early as is convenient—”20
Politics were seldom discussed in the Livingston-Van der Kemp correspondence. Their common enthusiasm for experimental agriculture and scientific theory apparently excluded other subjects aside from personal or family news. In only one letter Van der Kemp brought up a different subject by asking Livingston to provide answers to a list of queries about America for a friend who wished to emigrate to America from England.21
With Adams, Van der Kemp corresponded freely on politics and international affairs. Science was a lesser subject in the earlier years of their friendship. He kept Adams informed of his activities although he sometimes feared to impose on the vice president’s busy life. In 1790 he asked advice on the procedure necessary to recover the residue of the considerable amount of money which had been paid on his release from prison. He explained carefully that the money had not been a fine, but a sum levied against possible damages. He thought the stadholder might consider repayment and believed an interposition by President Washington or by Congress would bring restoration of at least part of the money. He argued fluently that his changed citizenship made no difference in a matter of financial justice similar to the Dutch government’s interpositions in behalf of its merchants in foreign lands. Therefore, such action by the president of the United States would not constitute meddling with the domestic affairs of the Dutch Republic. Francis asked for Adams’ help.22 It is improbable that Van der Kemp would have profited from the restitution. De Nys had paid the release money, and Van der Kemp was obligated to make an effort with or without hope of gain.
Adams was mildly optimistic. He advised writing to the president and also asking assistance through the United States minister in the Netherlands “as far as may be proper.” He thought it would “probably produce an Instruction to assist you at least in a private way.”23
The request and explanation were duly sent to President Washington and were handled by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The response was negative, partly because the United States had no minister at the Hague at that time. Jefferson added that he questioned the expediency of interposing for property left behind by an immigrant although he hoped that the Dutch government would be just without an interposition.24 Van der Kemp called it “a polite refusal” and apparently gave up the project.25
Another request to Adams was for assistance to Adam Mappa, former commander of the Free Corps. Late in 1789 Mappa left Europe with a letter of recommendation from Van Staphorst to Adams.26 When his old friend and brother refugee arrived in New York with his family, Van der Kemp wrote to Adams asking for support of Mappa’s plan for establishing a printing business. On the advice of Jefferson, Mappa had brought with him to America a letter foundry for various western and Oriental languages, worth some £3,500. Van der Kemp knew of no similar American type foundries in 1790 and was as hopeful of Mappa’s success as was their mutual friend, Thomas Jefferson. Van der Kemp proposed encouragement of the venture by a tax on the importation of foreign letter-types. The industry would “be of an infinite profit to American literature,” provided Mappa could provide a sufficient quantity of good quality type. The proposed type foundry would result in a small addition to the public revenue, increase literary production and provide for Greek and Oriental books printed in America at a reduced cost. Van der Kemp wrote a second letter dated January 9 asking Adams to introduce the bearer, Mappa, to President Washington.27 Adams replied that he would be happy to make the presentation and “serve in any other Way in my Power.”28 In spite of diligent efforts, Mappa was not successful and his equipment passed to others to be used.29
Van der Kemp recommended two men to the national service while he lived in Ulster County. In 1793 he asked Adams to receive Major Peter van Gaasbeck, recently elected to Congress from Van der Kemp’s district. He believed Van Gaasbeck would support the administration and praised the man generously.30 Adams promised “to see him and converse with him….”31 The other recommendation was for Captain Benjamin Weeks of L’Henriette on which Van der Kemp crossed the Atlantic. The captain’s former passenger heard of the resolve of Congress to arm six frigates and thought Captain Weeks would make an excellent commander of one of the ships. Weeks was unaware of the letter,32 a typically out-going gesture of gratitude and admiration by the amicable scholar, Van der Kemp.
The success of various of his prominent neighbors in land holding and development plus disappointing results in clearing up his financial affairs in Holland seemed to arouse a restiveness in Van der Kemp. In 1790 he made a trip to the western branch of the Delaware River, perhaps accompanied by some of the Livingstons. He described the area in such glowing terms to Adam Mappa that the latter termed it a fanciful description.33 During this time, the development of western lands was a popular topic of conversation. Prices were low and, if peace and prosperity were uninterrupted, a venturesome and industrious man could gain wealth for himself and family.
Van der Kemp had lost a considerable sum of money through the treachery in Europe of a man who called himself his friend. Van der Kemp had depended upon having these funds when he came to America. He now felt he could not provide sufficiently for his family on the farm near Kingston. He said
this would oblige me to retire further to the back-parts of America, in order to insure my own independence, and provide in time for the subsistence of my children which I should not wish to leave in a worse condition in America, than they would have enjoyed in Europe—I intend therefore—to settle on the Oneida Lake [having] made a purchase sufficient, I hope, for my intended purpose, and offered my beautiful and improved farm for sale….
He advertised his farm in the New York Journal and Patriotic Register in July of 1793. He described it as having a large meadow, an orchard of excellent bearing apple trees, a good house, granary, poultry house, smoke house and other buildings, some of them new and all in good order. His letter to Adams said he would leave with regret but expected hardships to be replaced with pleasures in a few years. He did not expect war with Great Britain; otherwise he would not risk his family on the frontier. He was prepared to sell most of his library, which now comprised some 800 volumes, if necessary.34
Van der Kemp did not choose the site for a new home without careful deliberation. In the summer of 1792 he took a leisurely journey to Oneida Lake, and from there to Oswego on Lake Ontario to view the possibilities of good living in the Oneida country. He had prudently sought out information regarding fair prices for western lands, and was reasonably certain the area would be safe from Indians and war. Whether inspired by old world ambitions or new world dreams, he was impatient to see the West and judge its opportunities for himself.
Van der Kemp shared this longing with thousands of his fellow Americans in the region east of the Appalachians. Others traveled by more difficult passages and settled in more dangerous locations, but Van der Kemp made careful inquiries, considering both traveling ease and the future comfort and welfare of his family. Bartha, now forty-six years old, had come to America not by choice but by force of circumstances. Francis was determined to provide a good home—and an inheritance for their children.
Future prospects for roads and improved waterways in the Mohawk Valley were good. His enthusiasm was unbounded as he set forth on his journey of exploration. He had the western fever.