Fitting the Past into the Present
- by Bruce E. McKinney
On a busy day in November in Boston in 2014 I visited the Shadow Fair and stopped to speak with Cheryl Needle, a displaying dealer and long time research member of AE. She said she had something for me, an Ulster County, New York item: a 22 page petition dated August 6th, 1821 addressed to the Supreme Court [of New York] to partition the [Town of] Shawangunk lands of Cornelius Bruyn to three heirs. Several foldout maps on the final 4 pages situate the parcels in relation to the Wall Kill or Paltz River. The stenciled wallpaper-cover was visually appealing even before I opened the document. I had never seen anything like it before.
Any document of this type relating to the Hudson Valley would be interesting but the fact that the document is a Shawangunk transfer on the Wallkill River that a few miles north flows through New Paltz on its way to the Hudson River at Rondout/Kingston made it one of the most complex southern Ulster documents I had ever seen. I grew up in New Paltz, collecting local material and such material is impossibly rare.
In looking it over I realized the challenges to understanding it would be substantial but that it would also test the many printed and online resources I’ve accumulated over the years. For books the AED provides immediate clarity on often obscure sources and questions. But genealogy which would be at the heart of this study is another thing altogether. For that I would need genealogy.com, ancestry.com and politicalgraveyard.com.
So this would be a challenge.
The petition, on behalf of three heirs, Morris Bruyn, Sylvanis J. and Sylvanis M. Bruyn’s representatives following his death in 1815 asked the state to recognize the division of his Shawangunk land and explains the division, in addition to providing detailed descriptions also with maps that place the Bruyn properties on what we now call the Wallkill River. So who was Cornelius Bruyn and where was this land in the Shawangunk of his day? I ask this because the maps predate development of the town.
Cornelius was an heir himself to a storied history of patriots and politicians. The Bruyn family traces its connection in Ulster County to the earliest days under the British who took control of New York from the Dutch in 1664. Hoe’s Registers of the Old Dutch Church of Kingston, New York mention the baptism of Hester to Jacob[us] and Geetruy 1650-1719 [Gertruyd Yselsteyn 1650-1719] Bruyn in 1683. Jacobus would die in 1694 after they moved to Shawangunk but leave an ambitious widow we now identify as Gertrude who obtained a royal patent for a substantial tract of land given to her and her three children Jan, Jacobus and Esther. Jacobus, the younger, [1680-1744] would marry Katrina and she bear fifteen children down through which, three generations hence her great grandchildren would become the principal heirs to her grandson Cornelius’ land division and transfer in 1821.
Cornelius would become the link between the extraordinary early history of the Bruyn family and his heirs who would receive portions of these Bruyn lands.
As to what role these early generations of Bruyns played in the history of Ulster county, New York State and nation here is a short list. For the sons born to Jacobus and Jane [Graham] Bruyn four sons, including Cornelius, would dominate the local New York Assembly seat for most of two decades [1770-1790] and serve in the New York State Senate for a decade. Johannes, his brother, would be a presidential elector in 1792 with the opportunity to cast his vote for George Washington for a second term. Cornelius served two years in the Assembly: 1793-4. He seems the least political of the brothers.
In their time the Bruyns were important people but as the family’s presence reached one hundred fifty years in th county they began, as this document confirms, to divide their properties into smaller and ultimately unsustainable parcels. We in part know this from their omission 45 years hence in the list of Shawangunk men who served in the Civil War [Slyvester's History of Ulster County]. And we also believe this because today there are no Bruyn surnames in the current Wallkill [Shawangunk] phone book. But they did not go easy. In the 1871 Ulster County Directory there were three:
Edmund Bruyn [Bruynswick], lumber dealer and farmer.
Edward H. Bruyn [Shawangunk] groceries, dry goods, boots, shoes, crockeryware etc
Mrs. Harriet Bruyn [Ulsterville] farmer
And in the 1885-6 Crum & Fowlers Ulster County Directory 4:
Edward Bruyn, farmer Bruynwick
John O. Bruyn Brunswick
Mrs. Margaret Bruyn, Wallkill
Bruyn [William] & Russell, felloe manufacturers Dwaarskill
And today there are none living under the Bruyn surname in Shawangunk and the various hamlets within its borders.
As to the property of Cornelius Bruyn that was divided and gifted we can place his parcels on the Shawangunk map in the Walker & Jewett Atlas of Ulster County .
We can see what was a toll bridge across the Wall Kill and the location of his homestead nearby. We also know from the 1875 Atlas that a paper manufacturer was later built on his land.
But a question remains. Within Shawangunk where are these lands that are so precisely mapped in this petition to the court? For the answer I sent copies to Harold Van Aken, an engineer and web master of the wallkillhistory.com site. He was able to precisely place the Cornelius Bruyn lands along the east side of the Wall Kill River where a waterfall would have facilitated one of the early Bruyn endeavors, a grist mill.
This family name has since receded leaving only place names to remember them. In one part of Shawangunk there is the Brunswick Turnpike and in another the hamlet of Brunswick. And they who look west can see the outcropping jutting south along the ridge line that divides Minnewaska State Park from the town to an outcropping called Gertrude’s nose, named for the feisty widow who at the beginning of the 18th century secured for her descendants the land that Cornelius’s representatives deeded to his heirs in 1821.
So this document and its maps are precisely what a collector would want, a document that is simply the entry point to an exploration that tells a story and illuminates both the past and present.
This article has been made possible by the help and cooperation of Harold Van Aiken, who in addition to being an engineer, is also the webmaster various New York State historical sites:
With Harold the past and the present are a continum. If your passion is history and your focus Ulster county you can reach Harold by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.