FRANCIS Van der Kemp was a typical European patriarch in his family and usually seemed to have the last word. He did not consider himself an autocrat, however, but the intelligent male head of the family who made the decisions after due consideration and what he called free discussion. Being an enthusiastic talker, he no doubt stifled discussion at times without realizing it. His wife understood him, and deferred to his opinions. Only twice did she want to “have her own way” on major decisions; she would not leave Holland when Francis first suggested it, and hers was the determining voice in the move from Oneida Lake.
Bartha considered that her position of wife and mother required her to be economical and efficient in running the house. Francis praised her for this and as a gracious hostess to their guests. She admired his gardening efforts, and appreciated a fine head of cauliflower as much as a lovely rose. She also catered to the whims of her husband. When he grew exotic vegetables, she cooked them. When he caught fish, they had fish for dinner. When he considered the poor state of his health required veal chops three nights in a row, that is what she prepared. Of course, Francis could and probably did wax eloquent about the exquisite taste of the food she prepared and even more so about the improved state of his health after the veal chops. If she discounted some of his compliments, she at least accepted them as a pleasant way of life.
Apparently Bartha never delved into the intellectual pursuits of her husband. She did not read the histories or science or even Scott’s romances. She no doubt listened to his frequent “loud thinking,” said yes at the right time, and tried to calm him when he became excited—a frequent occurrence. She also knew that housecleaning chores did not include tidying his desk. And she left his library alone, “every book of which he could identify in the dark.”1
Francis admitted that he was frequently carried away in conversation and writing to the point of bluntness. He was a champion of free speech and free thought and seldom failed to exercise it. He had a loud voice which must have carried beyond the walls of his cottage and probably by its volume carried many a point within the family circle. He never expected members of the family or others to resent his booming opinions or his bluntness.
The Van der Kemp children went to public school when they lived on Esopus Creek and probably attended the little school in Oldenbarneveld. Francis took a great interest in their education, attending personally to religious training and teaching fine principles of living. He wrote essays for them and conducted family devotionals. The three children had access to his extensive library of excellent books.
John was the most promising of the children. He apparently learned easily and had the desire to excel in the pattern laid out for him in the family and in the community. He was an obedient son, accepting parental guidance without great frustration or rebellion. As a teenager he became clerk to Adam Mappa and learned well both the mechanics of land company business and the perplexities of handling personal income. When he was twenty-one he received the appointment at the Holland Land Company’s main office in Philadelphia where he was equally successful. Francis was proud of John and confident that he would fulfill his responsibilities.
In 1809 Van der Kemp joyfully told Adams of John’s approaching marriage:
My Eldest Son John at Philadelphia did ask me two days past for my consent in his marriage with a Miss Julia Taylor, of a respectable family and connections with a moderate fortune, adequate to his wishes. His former prudent conduct made me not hesitate one instant to comply and grant him this boon. You are father, and can place yourself in my situation. My decline of life is crowned with happiness. What can I wish more in my retirement—your exalted distinguished friendship, the friendship of a few worthies, the happiness of a beloved son—the certainty that in all events He will be in Gods hands the tutelar angel of my remaining family! What a rich fund of gratitude towards a good God! Now I can lay down my head in peace.2
John Van der Kemp had respectfully followed the old custom of asking his father’s consent, even though he was twenty-six years old and had been in an independent position in Philadelphia for almost five years. He worked for Paul Busti, one of his father’s good friends. Busti considered John his protégé, and demonstrated his fondness for the Van der Kemp family in many ways. The success of his son banished fear of poverty and dependence from Van der Kemp’s mind, “soothed by domestic enjoyments and remaining literary amusements” in his “humble cot.”3
Cuneira, or Betsy, was also a conformist to the family organization, although she had wider interests than her mother. She was a dutiful daughter, a religious liberal like her father, and intellectual enough to help her father when his eyes began to fail. In addition, she acquired a good knowledge of domestic arts from her mother. Perhaps her conformity was to her disadvantage in backwoods America; she seems to have attracted few beaux. John Mappa accompanied her a few times to various places but married someone else.
A story about a honey party may be sufficiently true to indicate why Van der Kemp, referred to as “the Old Judge,” was considered stern and extremely careful about his daughter and her associations. The young people of the area often went in sleighs to Garrett’s Tavern to have hot biscuits and honey. One of the young men of the village ventured to invite Betsy to go along to a honey party in his cutter. Betsy said she would like to go if the young man asked permission. Van der Kemp consented but on the condition that she be brought home by twelve o’clock sharp. The party was successful and the couple started home. On nearing the village the young man looked at his watch and reported, “Four minutes to twelve.” Betsy replied, “I hope we will be on time.” The horse was encouraged to a faster pace and they drew up in front of the cottage at twelve. There stood the judge on the outside step waiting. The youth saved his “bacon” and his “credit for promptness.”4
Peter Van der Kemp did not seem to be as intelligent as the two older children and probably was less of a conformist. He had the same education as his brother but made little impression in the village life with his industry. Father and son discussed vocations without agreement. Farming had not the scientific appeal to the son which it had for Francis. At last, when he was twenty-one, Peter decided to try commerce. Francis wrote to John in Philadelphia, to Paul Hochstrasser in Albany, and to Benjamin Walker, hoping he could survey possibilities in New York City. Van der Kemp told Walker, “His intellectual endowments are rather indifferent—his moral character without a spot—without any vicious propensity thus far—his manners decent—his affectionate regard towards his mother and superiors has thus far unequivocally been exemplary—”5
John had written that his brother ought to start in “a good store above a Merchants Counting House.” John and Francis presumed that Peter “might make a good storekeeper but not a merchant.” However, in such a position over a counting house the boy, “by uninterrupted assiduity perhaps,” might become a merchant. If efforts to get a place failed in the cities, Francis would try in Utica and Whitesboro although he thought these places “too near his old abode.”6
These prospects did not materialize, as Peter was conscripted by the militia and marched to Sackett’s Harbor in 1814. He returned home, apparently taking up again the tasks of helping his father on their ten acres of land. Peter had an easy-going, amiable disposition, and earned the reputation as a joker, perhaps in his youth. He may have had a few tries at store jobs, but no work is mentioned for him after the war except on the little home farm and a one-year appointment as poundmaster (to take care of stray animals) in the town of Trenton in 1824.7 Both Peter and Betsy lived at home, and neither married. Though Peter may have tried Francis’ patience, his fatherly affection never wavered. Peter’s death by drowning in the Erie Canal at Syracuse in 1857 was an ironic aftermath to his father’s interest in “Clinton’s ditch.”
Benjamin Walker, to whom Van der Kemp applied in behalf of Peter, was an influential businessman of Utica. He originally came from England but served in the American Revolution under Von Steuben. Later he took over the care of Von Steuben’s lands near Oldenbarneveld. Walker had a good library which Van der Kemp was welcome to use but borrowings were limited to the infrequent visits of the two men and to an occasional request for a book to be transported by a friend. Among those borrowed were some of the works of Laurence Sterne which Van der Kemp reread with “fresh pleasure,” no doubt reading choice excerpts to his family.8
In one letter Van der Kemp asked for an article from the Quarterly Review or the Edinburgh Review on looning, the ability of seafaring people to sense the arrival of ships at some distance away. Van der Kemp was intrigued with this early treatment of extrasensory perception and wanted to recheck the article. Later he asked for Lee’s Memoirs if Walker had it.9 When the allies captured Paris, Van der Kemp congratulated Walker for the safety of his daughter there. Van der Kemp had corresponded with her a few years earlier. Then he asked Walker to get him some sherry wine.10 Toward the end of 1814 Walker made plans to leave Utica for retirement in Madison County. Van der Kemp suggested that maybe Varick would get that keg of wine for him—sherry, not above $2 the gallon. Very sincerely he told his friend, “I hope as soon as you are settled—and can leave home—that you will come and see us—was it even only for one or two days.”11
When John Mifflin died in 1813 Van der Kemp was oppressed with grief. Not only had the man been a good friend to him, but he had also assisted John Van der Kemp when he first went to Philadelphia. John helped to bury Mifflin and Francis notified one of Mifflin’s close dependents. Francis thought how few of his oldest friends still lived—Adams, Cau and DeGyselaer. He had heard it said that one grows insensitive in old age. He declared he felt sorrow and grief and happiness to the same excess as when he was young.12
Perhaps the keen sensitivity to grief, frustration and other stimuli common to his life caused some of the numerous headaches through the war years and thereafter. He complained to Adams of violent headache in April, 1814, and again in June. His daughter thought it was because of overwork. She scolded him that he went too fast and could never rest until nothing remained to be done.13 The headaches plagued him through the fall, and by December he had become despondent. He turned to reading. It was ineffective. He sketched a history of plagiarism, being the only one of the times who realized that the Latin phrase about Franklin—Eripuit caelo fulmen; mox sceptrum tyrannis—attributed to various contemporaries, was stolen from Manilius. He grew tired of this sketch and put it aside to immerse himself in ancient history. Yet he found nothing to relieve his anguish except chatting with friends or family or leading family or neighborhood devotionals.14
Some of Van der Kemp’s trouble may have been caused by the frustrations of the war, as he improved rapidly after peace was declared. He wrote happily:
It shall give you some pleasure—that this is the third day I am relieved by my unrelenting Antagonist—He called this morning—but I stopt my ears—unwilling to admit him—although in a heavy snow storm—and at length tired and disappointed he must have sneaked of[f]. So that I have preached this morning for my family—and read and wrote the remaining part of the day—A guard of kind interesting letters—and a barrel of cyder—from my old friend Scriba … must have intimidated the fellow….15
His headaches did recur, though not so intensively, but he now also suffered from pain in his shoulder. John Adams added his scolding for Van der Kemp’s overwork and worry and closed one letter with “Vivamus, Scribamus, bibamus, atque amamus”—Let us live, let us write, let us drink and let us love.16 A few months later to a remark by Van der Kemp “alas! what avails me now this vain knowledge—” Adams replied with encouragement and the words,
You have a Talent, at the Pathetick, which I could never equal, if I would; and which I never would equal, if I could. Who can read your excursion to Oneida Lake without Tears? I could give you histories too, of domestic separations! But I forbear. “That way Madness lies.”! …
But your endeavours to do good will not be in vain. Neither your Letters nor mine will be lost.17
Adams’ reference to “domestic separations,” when duties to his country took him from his Abigail for extended periods of time, was kindly intended to remind Francis of the blessings of his own family life. He appreciated his friend’s concern and once said, “It shall be a part of my Sunday’s devotion to give you my sincere thanks for your kindness, which I received in your letters….”18
In the summer of 1815 Bartha went to Philadelphia to visit John and his family and the Bustis. She traveled with Adam Mappa and his daughter, Sophia. John Van der Kemp, with help from Paul Busti, had offered to pay his mother’s expenses. Francis said it was a great satisfaction to see her “obtain an object, for which, I doubt not, she secretly wished, although her delicacy prevented its utterance, when she deemed it unfeasible.” Then Francis received both a payment for translating and a legacy and was proud to be able to pay the expenses himself.19 Mrs. Van der Kemp undoubtedly had a wonderful time. However, she found that at her age (69) she could not always cope with two “sprightly boys,” her grandsons, particularly the younger. Mrs. Busti declared that the visit had contributed greatly to her convalescence from a long illness.20 Francis and Betsy made a little trip, too, towards the end of the summer to Oneida Lake. Mrs. John Bernhard wanted to see them because she thought it might be her last summer. The Scribas and many other old friends also lived in the area. The Bernhards had prospered, chiefly by their hard work and that of their son.21
The garden still demanded Van der Kemp’s time, frequently to his annoyance, but he kept some interest in specialties. He sent Brussels sprouts seeds and Egyptian rye grains from his own farm to his friends in Massachusetts. In the fall he worked in the rain and his shoulder pain came back.22 He caught a bad cold after that but said he cured it with “good roastbeef and an excellent Spare-rib.” Cider or wine was included—“wine is the medicine of life for old age.”23 He called this cold influenza in another letter and said that if he got his shipment of herring and Bordeaux wine from Holland, he would either “pickle or drown” the disease.24 His cures were so excellent that for the next two months he accomplished more work than in the preceding two years. Only occasionally did his bursitis and headaches recur.25
John Van der Kemp’s younger son died of an unknown disease in early April, 1818. The loss plunged the Van der Kemps into deep sorrow, particularly the grandmother and aunt “who doated upon the boy.” Francis knew John and Abigail Adams would sympathize and sought relief in telling his sorrow to his friends.26 Abigail, who had already exchanged several friendly letters with Van der Kemp, sent a wonderful letter of consolation praising the family for their firmness under such heavy trials.27
In the fall of 1818 Abigail herself was ill. She became progressively worse, and asked Harriet Welsh to write to Van der Kemp and return some of his papers. Shortly thereafter she died. Van der Kemp consoled John Adams not to “mourn without hope” of a future life when they would be reunited.28 John replied, “I wait for my Summons with resignation—You may rest assured that you will never be forgotten—though I have lost my dearest Friend who frequently reminded me of you—and who never forgot you.”29
Van der Kemp’s ailments and pains continued to come and go. He hurt one of his legs while working in his garden in late October, 1817, and during part of the winter was confined to a chair. Betsy was sick at the same time but recovered and nursed her father.30 By spring he was in his garden again planting some of his crops for the third and fourth times because of late frosts and early worms. He found time, however, to complete his autobiography for his son and his friends. In July, while he was weeding his garden, he was pleasantly surprised by a visit from the Guilds of Boston. They dined at his cottage and renewed the friendship begun at Boston in 1813.31
Betsy made a trip to Philadelphia in the summer and brought back the demand by Paul Busti that her father come down.32 Francis decided to go and set out in late September. As the stage descended Triphill (Tribeshill), something went wrong and the vehicle upset, injuring six passengers, Van der Kemp the worst. He received bruises on his forehead, left thigh and shin, his right elbow was somewhat mangled and his right shoulder was dislocated. For an hour the pains were excruciating until a doctor was secured to set the shoulder and dress the wounds. In his typically philosophical manner, he considered himself fortunate that the horses were quiet until released from the stage, probably saving them all from much greater injury. The journey continued without ill effects except for the slow-healing shin. He stopped a few days at New York where he renewed a number of old acquaintances, some going back to the months the Van der Kemps lived there on arrival in America. One visit at least he paid to a library to peruse the travels of Ledyard in manuscript.33 On his safe return home he recalled for his friends the wonderful trip:
The courteous and distinguished reception I met with exceeded far my most sanguine expectation, and my children shared in their father’s enjoyments. Often it seemed a dream, and brought the days of a former epoch to my recollection. My friend Busti, who … charged himself with the expenses of my journey, made me a handsome present of Italian writers—old and new. L’Abbe Corea, Dr Whistar, John Vaughan, Dr Collins vied with another to render my residence agreeable, while Mrs. Mifflin with her amiable Daughters and Mrs. Gibson formerly Miss Bordley—with a few female connections of my children, made me loose sight of the attention I owed in return to scientific men. In New York this happiness was continued—De Witt Clinton—Drs Hosack and Mitchell filled up several gaps in my Library and even Dr Romain paid a visit to his Father’s friend—while several of my Utica neighbours—then in the metropolis charged themselves with the burthen of seeing me again home in safety. But I have, in recompense for all the favours—bestowed with such a liberal hand—be loaden as the ass of Tekhunen—with solicitations and demands which I could not decline, but for whose accomplishment one winter shall scarce be sufficient.34
Apparently Jonas Platt and his wife enjoyed the friendship and the intellectual pursuits of the Van der Kemps fully as much as did the Adams. However, there are only scanty records of their relationships, as most of the correspondence between them concerned business. Van der Kemp first met Jonas in Whitesboro when he made his “Western jaunt” in 1792, with a letter of introduction from George Clinton to bring them together. Forever after the two were close friends; Van der Kemp once classed Jonas as one of his two very best friends. When Platt had occasion to go to Oldenbarneveld, he stopped to see Francis, and they sometimes met in Utica or Whitesboro. Jonas often corrected the writings of his friend.
One visit to the Van der Kemp home occurred in the summer of 1817, when Jonas and his wife stayed overnight. The conversation led to the Adams family. Jonas thought Abigail’s letters should be published (as indeed they later were). Some of John Quincy’s poetry was read aloud, including “Lines to a Mother on the Death of Two Infants.” “Both [the Platts] were all attention—and—at last—tears bedewed their cheeks—perhaps from the recollection of their own similar situation.” Van der Kemp ascribed Platt as “a man of uncommon worth—and a bright ornament of the Bench.”35 Again Van der Kemp said of him: “Judge Platt is one of the noblest characters I have become acquainted with—I knew him since 25 years—I love & respect Him—to Him alone in this State I communicated the Biographical Sketch—He is my warm Friend.”36
Adam Mappa and his wife were like members of the Van der Kemp family. The Mappas lived in the beautiful Mappa Hall with its stately columns, its delightful fireplaces and grand stairway. The spacious gardens and lawns were just across the road from the Van der Kemp gardens. The families went in and out of the two homes without hesitancy, sometimes held religious services together, and exchanged garden produce. Sophia Mappa and Betsy Van der Kemp enjoyed a warm, close friendship that lasted throughout their lives. When Mappa was in severe financial trouble because of the business inefficiency of his son, Van der Kemp consoled his friend over a period of months. He knew it was a “hard trial indeed for a man in his advanced age—so much—so deservedly respected—so sociable—and possessing, all it did seem, what a mortal could wish.” Through the son with many good qualities but not “energetic ability and commercial prudence,” Adam was held for debts. Van der Kemp said, “I will not complain and rather endeavour to sooth—where I cannot heal.”37 Van der Kemp charged items in New York City to Mappa’s account and he and his son always paid.
Van der Kemp never tired of old friends or of making new friends, among them the granddaughter of John Adams. John once wrote:
You have many friends whom you justly celebrate. I have a few to whom I can never do Justice. You have no Enemies. I have many, and have had more, among the most mean insidious and dastardly of whom have been some of your confidential Friends and Correspondents.38
John was afraid that the infirmities of his old age would reduce him to insanity, complete invalidism, “a Sniveling Baby.”39 Ven der Kemp feared isolation and loneliness more than invalidism. He wrote to John,
I ardently pray, that my days may not be so far prolonged—that I should stand—mournful helpless—alone, even poverty is not so dreadful. This may be soothed, may be ennobled by kind affectionate regards—but betray’d by friends—or who stated themselves so—or forsaken by relatives—by children—what horrible situation! God forbid—that a similar lot fall to … [me].40
In 1819 Van der Kemp made a visit to Oneida Lake where he went “to bid a last farewell, to a friend decaying in mind and body”—John Bernhard. They had been fast friends since the winter when the Van der Kemps had shared their log house at Kempwick with the Bernhard family. He also visited George Scriba, no longer a wealthy man but happy and contented, enjoying the respect of all who knew him. He thanked Francis cordially for the visit and Francis was so warmed by it that he wrote, “What a blessing! to possess friends.”41
If Van der Kemp had remained on the lands at Oneida Lake, he might have become as wealthy as Bernhard. But it would probably have been at the expense of his intellectual contacts and to the detriment of his own health and that of his family. Ultimately he sold his Oneida lands, apparently at a profit, to add to family comfort in their cottage at Oldenbarneveld (after 1833 named Trenton). The village had its stores, taverns, church, and a doctor—but best of all were neighbors and friends.
The Van der Kemps earned an honored place in the village, sharing in its excitements, its joys and its sorrows. Francis was sometimes the leader and spokesman for the village, but he was always the leader and spokesman for the Van der Kemps.