A Look Into Westchester County’s Dutch History and Roots

If the English hadn’t taken control in 1664, we’d likely be living in a county called Oostdorp.

From 1624 to 1664, much of New York State, plus parts of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware, was the Dutch colony of New Netherland. While New Netherland only lasted 40 years before Britain sent warships to Manhattan and took over, the Dutch legacy persists today.

Of course, Native Americans, in this case Munsee Lenape, lived here first. And not all parts of Westchester were settled by Dutch colonists. Some were settled by the English, and New Rochelle was settled by Huguenot (French Calvinist) refugees, according to Patrick Raftery, librarian at the Westchester County Historical Society. But throughout the Hudson Valley, in Westchester and further north, Dutch families made their mark.

Philipse Manor Hall was owned by a few individuals before becoming the Yonkers Village Hall and later, Yonkers City Hall, and finally, a museum
Philipse Manor Hall was owned by a few individuals before becoming the Yonkers Village Hall and later, Yonkers City Hall, and finally, a museum. ALT55-VictorM, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of New Netherland’s brightest stars was Adriaen van der Donck. A lawyer, he emigrated in 1641 from Holland to help administer patroon (i.e., a landholder with manorial rights to tracts of land) Kiliaen van Rensselaer’s manor near Albany. He fell out with Van Renssalaer but was tapped by Director (governor) William Kieft to help negotiate an end to Kieft’s War against Native American tribes. In return, Kieft granted Van der Donck an estate roughly comprising present-day Yonkers as well as Spuyten Duyvil, Riverdale, and nearby.

- Advertisement -
Adriaen van der Donck
Adriaen van der Donck. National Gallery of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Kieft’s successor, Peter Stuyvesant, appointed Van der Donck to his advisory Board of Nine in 1649. Van der Donck began to protest Stuyvesant’s authoritarian style and the Dutch West India Company’s running of New Netherland as a for-profit enterprise, and advocated representative government and economic freedom. He went to Amsterdam to present his case and his plans were approved, but the First Anglo-Dutch War put them on hold.

Returning to his estate, he was known as the Jonkheer (“young gentleman”), pronounced Yonkherr. Thus, Yonkers bears his name.

The Philipses were a Westchester Dutch power family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Founder Frederick Philipse I came over in the employ of the Dutch West India Company as a carpenter. He married Margaret Hardenbroeck de Vries, a widow who had worked as a debt-collecting and business agent.

The Old Dutch Church, built around 1685, still has an active congregation
The Old Dutch Church, built around 1685, still has an active congregation. Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Philipses became merchants and bought Van der Donck’s former estate in 1672. In 1683, they purchased the rest of Philipsburg Manor, which stretched from Spuyten Duyvil to the Croton River, according to Sarah Wassberg Johnson, interpretive programs assistant at Philipse Manor Hall. They owned a fleet of cargo vessels, and were also slave traders. From their manor house in Yonkers, the family presided over a household of enslaved Africans as well as tenant farmers on their property.

A front view of Van Cortlandt Manor. By1697, Oloff Van Cortlandt’s son, Stephanus, had grown the family’s landholdings to 200 square miles from Croton Bay north to the highlands and east to the Connecticut line
A front view of Van Cortlandt Manor. By1697, Oloff Van Cortlandt’s son, Stephanus, had grown the family’s landholdings to 200 square miles from Croton Bay north to the highlands and east to the Connecticut line. Dmadeo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the Revolutionary War, three Philipse siblings of that generation were Tories, or British sympathizers. Their lands were seized by the victorious Revolutionaries, and they left for England. A fourth sibling, says Wassberg Johnson, died before the war, so his family was allowed to stay.

- Partner Content -

Another important Dutch family were the Van Cortlandts. Oloff Van Cortlandt arrived in New Netherland in 1638. Well-educated and from a prominent family, he held a succession of important government positions. He also became a successful brewer and acquired large tracts of land, according to the New Netherland Institute. One son, Jacobus, founded a branch of the family centered around parts of Westchester and what is now Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest Bronx. Another, Stephanus, founded a branch holding land farther north from Croton-on-Hudson to Peekskill.

For years, Dutch-Americans kept their culture and language. However, says Raftery, “it seems like Dutch culture in Westchester changed somewhat after the Revolutionary War. For example, the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow started keeping its records in English instead of Dutch after the war.”

Aad Zeeuw, Dutch immigrant, Westchester resident, and local historian, adds, “The Dutch people were mostly merchants and farmers. Both are no longer in Westchester. Merchants went south to New York, and farmers went north to cheaper grounds.”

Raanan Geberer is a semi-retired journalist living in New York City with his wife, Rhea, and cat, Bernie. He is a history buff as well as an amateur rock musician. He has been interested in New Netherland since he read a book on the subject at age seven.

Westchester’s Dutch Architectural Treasures

Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, operated by the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, was the family’s main residence. Exhibits tell their stories with multiple viewpoints: the Philipses, the Munsee Lenapes, enslaved Africans, and tenant farmers. After the Philipses left for England, the house passed through several owners, at one time serving as Yonkers City Hall. It was saved from destruction in 1908 and opened as a museum in 1911.

- Advertisement -

The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built in the seventeenth century and designed by Frederick Philipse I, is still used for worship from June to September. The rest of the year, its congregation, the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, holds services at the “clock tower” church in Tarrytown. The Old Dutch Church is famous for its role in Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where Ichabod Crane hopes to escape the Headless Horseman by reaching the church bridge.

Philipsburg Manor House, in Sleepy Hollow, was also owned by the Philipses and is now owned by Historic Hudson Valley. It was the family’s business address and was used to process grain for export and to manufacture butter using the labor of enslaved African Americans, according to Catalina Hannan, research librarian at Historic Hudson Valley. A nearby grist mill, where flour was ground, is part of the exhibit. The complex is open from May to December.

Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson is a seventeenth-century manor house built by the Van Cortlandts and now owned by Historic Hudson Valley. In addition to the manor house, the grounds contain a tavern that later was turned into a residence, and a reconstructed tenant farmer’s house, Hannan says. Van Cortlandt Manor is currently under repair and should reopen sometime in 2024.

Related: Hiring Trends to Note in Westchester for 2024

Our Westchester Home Design Awards event is June 26!

Our Wine & Food Festival returns June 4-9!

Our Wunderkinds event takes place on May 23!

Our Best of Business Ballot is open through May 15!

Our Healthcare Heroes Awards event takes place on May 9!

Our Westchester Home Builders Awards take place on April 4!

Our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Forum is March 14!

Unveiled: A Boutique Bridal Brunch is February 25!

Our Best of Westchester Elimination Ballot is open through March 6!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.