EARLY in June, 1794, Francis Van der Kemp stood for the first time as owner on his own estate, a thousand acres of virgin land. His family was staying with the Adam Mappas in Oldenbarneveld, a good day’s journey to the east. Seven years before, the number of houses in this whole area west of the ford at Old Fort Schuyler was twenty-one, some of them mere huts. Now the movement to the Genesee country had begun and villages dotted the area. In 1794 more than six thousand people lived on farms and in villages, with Whitesboro, Fort Stanwix, Clinton, New Hartford and Old Fort Schuyler as the centers of population. A little to the west of Van der Kemp’s land was the Indian town of Oneida with 500 or more inhabitants. Few of the white settlements had more than 200. Also to the west, but north of Lake Oneida, was the beginning town of Rotterdam. General stores and taverns had been established in the villages, but the closest grist mill to the Oneida Lake lands was at Fort Stanwix. Roads were chiefly the cleared paths from village to village.
Van der Kemp had purchased his land from George Scriba, owner of a large tract lying between Oneida Lake and Lake Ontario. Originally the state had sold this land to John and Nicholas I. Roosevelt in 1791, but when the Roosevelts failed to fulfill the contract, Scriba was allowed to buy a large part. Scriba was from Germany and had become a successful merchant in New York City. He decided to speculate in Central New York lands and obtained the patent in 1792 and 1794. In these first years Benjamin Wright, an early surveyor, had laid out the tract into twenty-four townships with “great lots.” The section of the north shore of Oneida Lake purchased by Van der Kemp was called Scriba’s Location. George Scriba moved to nearby Rotterdam where he opened a store, and promised land and road improvements to prospective settlers. Thus, he convinced Van der Kemp to buy the choicest great lot bordering the lake, No. 130, and in 1795 sold him three adjoining lots, farther back from the lake on high ground, in the names of the three Van der Kemp children.
Van der Kemp’s land was covered with hardwood trees and in one section had a gentle rise to a pond. The soil was sandy and well drained. Near the lake shore was a flat area, some twenty feet higher than lake level, where he would begin his buildings. As he viewed his land and planned the locations of his buildings, he thought of Hugh White’s success at Whitesboro and of the way in which Des Wattines had made his island bloom. Perhaps he thought also of Robert Livingston and George Washington with their fine houses and noble estates. Here he began the building of his family estate and named it Kempwick.
The first task was to clear a patch of land and put up buildings sufficient for modest living. He engaged local woodsmen to fell trees but they failed to do more than a small part. Folk stories have it that the wealthy Van der Kemp brought a large number of Negro slaves with him. But the scholar was not wealthy and owned few slaves, perhaps one family. There is brief mention of a Negro child dying in 1796 and the sale of a Negro “wench.” He hired carpenters and other choppers. After modest shelter was completed, Van der Kemp moved from the Esopus farm. He transported household furnishings, stock, and farm supplies to Kempwick, and brought his family to stay with the Mappas until he could fashion a home good enough to share with Bartha, John, Betsy, and little Peter.
No existing records explain which route the Van der Kemps traveled from the Esopus Creek to Oneida Lake with their possessions. They could have gone by sloop to Albany, from there by bateau to Fort Stanwix and then overland to his lands. It is more probable that the hardy pioneer-scholar went by road the entire distance of about 175 miles, a difficult trip taking from three to four weeks. Two or three oxcarts were carefully loaded with Mrs. Van der Kemp’s prized furniture and other household goods along with seeds and farming equipment. Chickens were in cages, and cows were tied to the backs of the carts. Francis rode on one horse with five-year-old Peter in front of him, while Bartha rode double on another horse with Betsy, now nine years old. Young John Van der Kemp helped herd sheep along the road or took turns riding on one of the carts. He was eleven.
Francis had planned the trip carefully. He knew where to stop for rest, for the best food, and for the night. However, no amount of planning could make pioneer traveling easy or comfortable. Rain increased the depth of the mud and raised the level of the river at the several fords along the route. The well-packed cargo sometimes shifted, requiring a half hour to adjust it. An axle, wheel, cart tongue, or perhaps only a piece of harness could break, causing frustrating and tiring delays. More than once friends, old or new, stopped the family to talk. When the party reached Old Fort Schuyler, Bartha and the children, with one of the hired hands, turned to the north to stay at Oldenbarneveld. Francis continued west, superintending the moving of his goods over the last part of the journey. Here the road was worse, scarcely more than a wide trail with churned mire, frequent boulders, and overhanging tree limbs switching the faces of the cart drivers. Fish Creek was forded on the initial journey, as the bridge across it was not finished until early July.
At last the creaking oxcarts arrived at the clearing. Francis had little time to savor his satisfaction at the completion of the long journey, as it was necessary to care for the animals and carefully put the furniture under roof.
His mind had been busy with plans during the difficult trip. After an inspection of his clearing, he was ready for the next stages of pioneering.
He did not expect perfection in one season. He had written in May,
… Mrs. Van der Kemp is great-minded enough to dare encounter this new and difficult struggle and sacrifice, with out reluctance, the comfort of society and the allurements of an applauding circle, to the calm pleasure of domestic happiness and a retir’d life. A beautiful situation, a fertile soil—three beloved children and a selected library shall be our amusements and our ambition, to reap all the possible advantages from these united sources and spread so much happiness around us, as our narrow circle shall allow—1
His buildings were planned as intelligently as his most arduous research project. He constructed the small house of logs, probably with a loft overhead. The scholar-turned-carpenter built his barn of solid Dutch construction, 60 by 26 feet, 6 feet high at the eaves and 18 feet high at the main posts. The chicken house was 16 feet square, with a peak for pigeons.2
Construction difficulties on the frontier were many, and took strange twists. At one time, he ran out of nails and instructed Leonard Gansevoort & Company at Albany: “[S]end me with all possible speed … [since] the carpenters shall be waiting on them in a week forty thousand 9d nails of the first quality for putting on shingles.”3 The carpenters could not use the local nails because they were too short to fasten securely Van der Kemp’s better than ordinary shingles.
A month of hard physical labor passed and the house was not yet ready to receive his family. He wrote in a spare moment, perhaps when it was raining, to John Adams:
The situation here is delightful—the soil rich enough—and my seat in particular would admit every improvement of taste if my finances were adequate to it…. All will be surmounted in time if once I may be happy enough to see my family on the spot. Mrs. Van der Kemp is still … with the family of Mr. Mappa where she shall stay till I have prepared the outhouses and a convenient log house, as was intended for a temporary residence. She is resolved to make few sacrifices more, and more yet, if by necessity it is required…. To avoid this however and to make our retirment more comfortable to my worthy consort as accustomed to another manner of living, I am resolved to repair for a small part of our losses to offer my Library for sale in the hope that the amount shall be sufficient to build a conventional house. … I value it between 400 and 500 £ and shall prepare the Catalogue this winter.4
Only store records of fall purchases signify the completion of Van der Kemp’s buildings and the arrival of his family at Kempwick toward the end of the summer. During this period of the writer’s life his pen was laid aside for much of the time. The daylight hours were too short for the tasks to be done, and the night too short to rest his tired body. Supplies for the family were obtained from Scriba’s store at Rotterdam and George Huntington at Fort Stanwix. In one of Scriba’s account books are listed for Van der Kemp one barrel of pork and two of beef, two barrels of country rum, one barrel of gin, groceries, seeds and trees, and a “washing machine” purchased from Domine Gross.
When Bartha came, she directed the arrangement of furniture for more comfortable living. A small stream nearby furnished water until some later time when a well was dug. Probably the chinking of the house had to be redone to be sure the cabin would be warm for Bartha and the children during the long winter.
In another of Scriba’s account books, for September and October, are listed three pairs of hinges, 1992 feet of boards, 50 common boards, nails, sugar, rice, molasses, tea, a decanter, a dozen cups and saucers, yellow flannel, three blankets, brandy, mustard, vinegar, flour and thread.5 Some hunting and fishing was necessary to supplement the supplies. Firewood had to be cut. The fences for the animals had to be kept in repair, and hay cut or bought for their winter feed. Always there was clearing to be done for the spring planting. But Van der Kemp embraced all of these activities as part of the developing frontier with his usual vigor and enthusiasm. His beloved books would have to wait until winter.
Rotterdam, a few miles to the west, was the main village established by Scriba. Solomon Waring settled there in 1793 and opened a tavern within a year or two. In 1794 Scriba had a road cut from Rotterdam to Vera Cruz on Lake Ontario at the mouth of Little Salmon Creek. Scriba built a sawmill and gristmill in 1794–95 and set up a store soon after.6
In 1795 John Bernhard brought his family and tried to live on what is now Bernhard’s Bay in a poorly built and abandoned log hut. The Van der Kemps compassionately invited the Bernhards to live with them during the winter. With two families closely confined by bitter weather in a small house, perhaps it was inevitable that trouble should arise. During the course of the winter, Van der Kemp and Bernhard had a sharp political disagreement, and the Bernhards went back to the hut in anger. But they chose a poor time. A heavy snow with wind came that night drifting snow through the holes in the roof and walls. Van der Kemp welcomed the family back under his roof. In the spring the Bernhards built a good house on the bay and the two families were friendly ever after.7
In June, 1795, the French Duke La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt visited this area but remembered it adversely.
Rotterdam is a new establishment begun … by Mr. Scriba, a wealthy Hollander, and a merchant, … At present his establishments amount to but little. A dozen poor log houses, built almost entirely at Mr. Scriba’s expense, constitute all there is of the city of Rotterdam, so named in honor of the native place of its founder. The dams for the use of the mills that he has built have cost much money, and being always poorly built he has been obliged to recommence them several times. The grist mill is not yet built, and the dam appears too feeble for the pressure it will have to sustain. Some work and considerable money has been expended at the mouth of the creek to make a landing, but the accommodation is very poor. They estimate that Mr. Scriba has expended over eight thousand dollars here, and if the work had been well applied it would be a profitable investment. Mr. Scriba is now building a fine frame house in which he intends to place a store. In this he will share the profits with two associates whom he has as his agents for all these works….8
In 1796 Rotterdam’s building program progressed, but the town suffered from lack of business as a lake port. The agent wrote to Scriba that the boats had passed by in the middle of the lake all summer. “There seems to be a combination at Ft. Stanwix against Rotterdam.”9
Management of his estate kept Van der Kemp busy during the first year at Kempwick. He paid for materials purchased in Albany chiefly through the payments for his Esopus farm by Abraham Van Gaasbeck. Transportation for articles from Holland had to be arranged, one lot containing 52 pairs of wooden shoes and some optical instruments.10 The latter were lenses for magnification or use in telescopes, while a ten years’ supply of wooden shoes for the Van der Kemps, hired hands and tenants resulted in a rather large order.
Van der Kemp also arranged for a box containing farm tools and ordered a beehive.11 With other citizens of the region he signed a petition to the state assembly asking for the improvement of the roads in the “Western district.”12 In January of 1795 he became Scriba’s agent for land sales in the vicinity of Kempwick.13
The dispensation of justice also demanded some of the energy of the champion of liberty. Van der Kemp’s Oneida Lake property was in Herkimer County. By 1794 the people were sufficient in number to require a term of the court of common pleas and general session. In January the first court session was held in the meeting house at Whitestown with Henry Staring as judge, Jedediah Sanger and Amos Wetmore as justices and twelve others having the position of assistant justice and justice of the peace (a combined office).14 In September, 1794, Van der Kemp was added to this list by the council of appointment at Albany. In addition to handling minor cases of local justice and attending sessions of common pleas, justices presided over town, district, and precinct meetings. When Van der Kemp accepted the post, he proudly informed Adams that his “particular situation, in an infant settlement in the Western parts with other considerations” had overcome his resolutions to stick to the development of his estate. He recognized these duties would take time and even some little expense but declared he would try to do a good job.15 On October 21 he purchased for three pounds, six pence a copy of the Law of the State of New York and two weeks later paid two pounds for his commission.16 A month before the appointment was made, he wrote, “Though I place so much confidence in the principal rulers that I am less anxious to trouble myself with the subalterns [,] I love to make me thoroughly acquainted with the principles on which good government must be conducted—” He had been studying local justice and deserved the title of judge that the new position gave him.17
The majority of court cases at this time were assault and battery or eviction from lands. This was the West in the 1790’s, and the first inhabitants were mostly men of self-reliance who sometimes exercised justice with their fists or with clubs and who insisted on “natural” rather than legal rights to land. In these adolescent years there were at least two murder trials, one an Indian defendant, and one case of the theft of a yoke of oxen.18 The lawyers, the constables, the sheriff and the justices, particularly those who held the general respect of the community, no doubt settled a great many disputes on the frontier. Van der Kemp said he was giving considerable attention and effort to establish “some order and decency in the court where ignorance and stupidity prevails.”19
A description of a session in Judge Sanger’s court in New Hartford reveals the rather startling informality of some of the frontier courts and explains Judge Van der Kemp’s resolution to establish “order and decency”:
A gentleman who attended the court as a spectator informed me that the day was one of those cold “January days frequent in our climate,” and that in the afternoon, and when it was nearly night, in order to comfort themselves in their by no means very well appointed court room, and to keep the blood at a temperature at which it would continue to circulate, some of the gentlemen of the bar had induced the Sheriff to procure, from a neighboring inn, a jug of spirits. This, it must be remembered, was before the invention of temperance societies. Upon the jug’s appearing in court, it was passed around the bar table, and each of the learned counsellors in his turn upraised the elegant vessel, and descanted into his mouth, by the simplest process imaginable so much as he deemed a sufficient dose of the delicious fluid. While the operation was going on, the dignitaries of the bench, who were no doubt suffering quite as much as their brethren of the bar, had a little consultation, when the first Judge announced to the audience that the court saw no reason why they should continue to hold open any longer, and freeze to death, and desired the crier forthwith to adjourn the court. Before, however, this functionary could commence with a single “Hear ye,” Colonel Colbrath jumped up, catching, as he rose, the jug from the lawyer who was complimenting its contents, and holding it up towards the bench, hastily ejaculated: “Oh, no, no, no, Judge,—don’t adjourn yet; take a little gin, Judge; that will keep you warm; tant time to adjourn yet;” and suiting the action to the word, he handed his honor the jug. It appeared there was force in the Sheriff’s advice, for the order to adjourn was revoked, and the business went on.20
Although exploitation of the soil and other frontier resources was prevalent, Van der Kemp continued his interest in scientific farming while at Kempwick. He took his fine sheep with him, his numerous experimental seeds, and a good stock of chickens and cows. He apparently made converts in the area, resulting in a meeting in Hugh White’s tavern at Whitesboro for the formation of an agricultural society. On April 7, 1795, the interested citizens met with Van der Kemp. In June they had an organizational meeting at which Van der Kemp delivered an address which led to the formation of the Agricultural Society of the Western District of New York. The state society had not been organized yet but a group had been formed in Albany in 1791.
At the Whitesboro meeting Van der Kemp expressed his objective to be “no less than the erection of a Society of Agriculture and Natural History, in these western parts.” He spoke with feeling about how country living invigorated one’s health and strengthened “the faculties of our soul,” eliminating the petty passions of long-settled regions and accenting in the country the rigorous and bold. The eminent statesmen, lawyers and heroes, including the foremost—Washington—were from the country. Van der Kemp mirrored his own life in the statement:
What pleasure! what raptures we enjoy in the contemplation of a cleared, fenced acre of the first crop of corn, wheat or grass, that ever covered that spot, since the creation!
He continued a bit later:
In the evening he [the farmer] endeavors, if possible, to keep his family employed to advantage, or instructs his children in the duties of rural and domestic life, acquaints them with the history of his country, with our laws and government, with the precepts and excellence of virtue and christian religion; or studies a Sidney—a Locke—a Montesquiou—an Adams, and cryes out, by comparing their doctrine with human nature and experience of past ages and modern times, in extasy—I too am a free American.
It is unlikely that more than one or two of his hearers had read or heard of Sidney, Locke and Montesquieu. Perhaps Jonas Platt was so educated, if he was there. Van der Kemp pointed out that the greatest handicaps to success were indolence, ignorance and “prejudices against all improvements unknown to their fathers.” An agricultural society would combat all three, but especially the ignorance and prejudices. He outlined a constitution and suggested a number of projects including correspondence with other agriculturists in Europe and America. Then he said that he could not be active in the society because “the subsistance of my family requires my continued presence and uninterrupted labour, in order to preserve our contentment and independence.”21
Perhaps the society did not prosper because the energy and guidance of Van der Kemp were not available. However, the address was published and the society gave encouragement to better farming for a few years. The historian, Hedrick, says this effort paved the way for the New York State Agricultural Society founded a few years later.22 Van der Kemp said of his efforts:
The Society is established—not in every part as I could desire—but a trial to controul other inclinations would have destroyed the whole. There may be in time raised a more permanent and lofty edifice upon the foundation I laid.23
During this first busy year, Van der Kemp found time to read and to write letters, in spite of protestations to the contrary. He wrote to New York, Philadelphia and to John Adams in an effort to obtain a copy of Adams’ Discourses on Davila. At this time they had been published only in the United States Gazette at Philadelphia and Adams had no copy. Van der Kemp also tried to get a copy of Danema’s Revolutions of Greece and Italy. He read the Works of King Frederick the Great and from the writings of Condorcet. And he eagerly read newspapers and materials on law and agriculture whenever they were available.
In the summer of 1796 Jeremy Belknap and Jedediah Morse made a journey to western New York. Adams gave them a letter of introduction to Van der Kemp, who was delighted with the prospect of receiving them at Kempwick. However, the two men got only as far as Old Fort Schuyler and decided to turn back. Philip Schuyler of Albany wrote to Van der Kemp that he could not persuade the two men to go any further.24
Van der Kemp made a trip to Cazenovia in February, 1797, to preside at the wedding of his friend, John Lincklaen. This appears to be the only marriage ceremony performed by Van der Kemp after coming to America.
As agent for the Holland Land Company, Lincklaen had done much to develop the Cazenovia area. The beautiful falls of Chittenango Creek first attracted Lincklaen and he made the first settlement there in 1793. The following year Lincklaen persuaded the Holland Land Company to build a saw and grist mill at the site.25 The fine house, still standing, which Lincklaen built for himself at Cazenovia a few years later, overlooked Cazenovia Lake across a spacious lawn and rivaled the house that Mappa built. Lincklaen never failed to stop for a visit with Van der Kemp on trips from Cazenovia to the east, and the Van der Kemp and Lincklaen women became close friends.
On another occasion Van der Kemp left Kempwick for a trip to Oldenbarneveld to join Adam Mappa and Harm Jan Huidekoper, both employed by the Holland Land Company, on a business trip to Kortenaer (Boonville), eighteen miles to the north. Van der Kemp persuaded young Huidekoper to visit Kempwick and the young man reported his observations. He went by road through Fort Stanwix, which had recently been renamed Rome. He was impressed with the increase in number of houses, some of them of three stories. He viewed the canal works along Wood Creek as an outstanding and pleasant sight in this rough, undeveloped country. The land to the north of Oneida Lake appeared to be less fertile than elsewhere and even unhealthy in the Rotterdam region. “The exhalations from the marshes and the stagnant water cause[d] a fever among the inhabitants” which seemed to him very much like the Zeeland fever. Poor soil, the fevers, and bad management were cited as the reasons why Rotterdam was growing so slowly.26 Probably another reason was the superior attraction of available lands farther to the west, especially the Genesee country, and the improvement of the road south of Oneida Lake.
Van der Kemp had some difficulties getting special orders delivered to him from Albany or farther away. Usually arrangements were made for small boxes to be sent with some large shipment for a local merchant, or to be left with a merchant or friend in Whitesboro, Old Fort Schuyler or Rome. Van der Kemp relied upon Jonas Platt, John Post, or George Huntington. Huntington and his brother had set up a store in the tavern at Fort Stanwix in 1793. By the time Van der Kemp was settled at Kempwick, the Huntingtons had built a store and a house and thereafter carried on the business for a long time.27 Since George Huntington became a judge of the Common Pleas in 1798, he probably was associated with Van der Kemp on problems of justice as well as business. Van der Kemp had stayed overnight with Post in 1792.
Van der Kemp had written in 1794, “Rather a laborious life of a forgotten farmer in the Western Parts than the brilliant greatness of those Parisian leaders, who today are Patriots and tomorrow traitors—and rather the approbation of few honest neighbours than the noisy applause of an infatuated mob—”28 In spite of this sincere sentiment, the physical labor and hardships of frontier farming often dismayed the scholar. Although he complained very little, he admitted in 1796 that his strength of mind and body were much impaired.29 A later letter concerning his neighbor Des Wattines also discloses the loss of animals of considerable value to the frontier farmer.
George Scriba had given the Frenchman, Des Wattines, a small farm in the vicinity of Kempwick, where he first prospered, then deteriorated in “manners and worth.” Van der Kemp wrote:
Through the carelessness of one of my men a yoke of my oxen was drowned in the Lake—after a fortnight—Des Vattines on a morning before breakfast came to ask what I intended to do with my drowned oxen “leave them in the ice” Parbleu they are worthy to be taken care of “at your service” if I was in earnest “yes” would I permit him to take hold of this advantage—”yes” and away he went—with a stout Canadian Frenchman—skinned the oxen, and returned with the skins and about 40 weight of meat, which you could smell at a distance—all was carried to his Seat—and he told me a few days after—it made une soupe excellente. His dogs had destroy’d [at a later time] two of my ewes, on which I placed a high value, as an extraordinary breed—and a present of Ch. Livingston. I wrote him a line requesting him to be more watchful—as the damage could neither be paid nor repaired by him.30
Van der Kemp mentioned the illness of his wife and children late in 1795, and it seems that Engelbartha never did become accustomed to the frontier hardships and simple society. It grieved her to see her husband and children without common comforts. It must have humiliated her when Francis had to send for four yards of cloth saying his drawers were “actually and entirely worn out” and that she would be “greatly obliged” if the store sent the cloth soon.31
On one occasion a large moose came to the Van der Kemp clearing, and Tom, apparently an Indian of the vicinity, frightened Mrs. Van der Kemp. When sickness occurred, it was sometimes impossible to persuade the doctor to come from Rotterdam. Although the family had less sickness in 1796 than in the previous year, Van der Kemp wrote to Scriba that the situation was alarming and promised nothing but sadness.32
Although Bartha knew Francis’ dreams for the development of the estate, she could not bear to see the formidable hardships of frontier life sapping his strength and energy. He had little time for books, and few contacts with well-educated friends for the intellectual conversations he enjoyed so much. But worst of all was seeing him work in spite of ailments. Life in this isolated area was a struggle for a man with a family.
At last she must have broken down. Francis agreed to move. He loved her dearly and he wanted the best for their children.
The brief paragraph in the autobiography eloquently expresses the mental struggle and the sacrifice:
There once more duty compelled me to make my greatest sacrifice of all my prospects—of which I sometimes yet feel the sting—to the peace and comfort of your excellent mother, and conducted her, who had given up country and ease, and relatives and friends, to follow her consort to the Western hemisphere, to Oldenbarneveld, to enjoy there the society of our few friends, Gerrit Boon, and Mr. and Mrs. Mappa, and there, I expect the end of our course.
Leaving a tenant in charge of Kempwick, the Van der Kemps made their way during the early winter of 1797 across the hills to Oldenbarneveld.