I’ve written before about the most famous family in the history of Schaghticoke, the Knickerbackers. I will say again, if you haven’t visited the KnickerbockerMansion, you must! Look at their website: www.knickmansion.com for information on upcoming events. The Knickerbackers, Dutch from Albany, were among the first few European families to settle in Schaghticoke in 1708. In the next generation, John or Johannes Knickerbacker was Colonel of the local militia regiment in the Revolutionary War. His son John was among the ten wealthiest residents of town in 1800.
It was John’s son Herman, who knew author Washington Irving. Irving made Knickerbacker into an iconic name, a symbol of being a New Yorker. Herman or Harman Knickerbacker or Knickerbocker was born on July 20, 1779. He was the sixth child of fourteen of John Knickerbacker, Jr. and Elizabeth Winne. Three of the children, including an earlier Herman, born in 1770, did not survive childhood. Herman had three brothers, William, John, and Abraham. Perhaps because Herman would not be the principal heir, or perhaps because he just was more ambitious or more academically inclined than his brothers, Herman studied to be a lawyer. Of course, John, a wealthy man, could afford to have his son be a student rather than go right to work. Herman was a child of privilege.
According to one of his obituaries, Herman studied law with John V. Henry in Albany and John Bird in Troy. Both were important men. John V. Henry was the son of a merchant in Albany. Born in 1767, he was admitted to the bar in 1791. In 1800 he became Comptroller of New York State and was later the state Attorney General. John Bird, born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1768, was a graduate of Yale, who came to Troy in 1793- very early in its history. He was a Federalist, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1799. Herman had two powerful mentors in these men. He also became a Federalist, and jumped into politics even as he was admitted to the bar in 1803.
As an ambitious young man, Herman leapt into many things at once. Though he lived in Schaghticoke, Herman had his own law firm in Albany, in partnership with Job Pierson. Job was a newcomer to Schaghticoke, and a graduate of WilliamsCollege. He completed his training to become a lawyer in Herman’s office in 1815. They were partners until 1835. Knickerbacker was appointed a Captain in a new troop of cavalry in the local militia in 1801. Fellow residents Bethel Mather and John Vanderspiegel were appointed Lieutenants. Mather lived where the M & T Bank is in Schaghticoke now, and Vanderspiegel was the founder of Speigletown, the southern section of the town of Schaghticoke. . Continuing his military career, in 1810, Herman was appointed Major in the 3rd Regiment of Cavalry. An item in the “Troy Post” of October 15, 1816, announces the annual review of the squadron of cavalry of RensselaerCounty at Lansingburgh on October 17 at 10 o’clock in the forenoon by order of H. Knickerbacker, commandant. Herman must have been an excellent horseman. So now Herman had a career as a lawyer and entrée into his community as a leader in the militia.
This portrait, courtesy of the New York Historical Society, shows Herman Knickerbacker as a young man. Doesn’t he look confident?
Herman Knickerbacker as a young man. Portrait in the New York Historical Society
Herman became a trustee of the new Presbyterian Church in Schaghticoke in 1806, soon after its founding in 1803. He was chosen at a meeting of the church’s founders at the home of Bethel Mather, with whom he was also in the militia. Pews in the newly constructed meeting house were sold in 1820. This was how the building was financed. Herman bought pew 35 for $35 and pew 36 for $36. A couple of other men bought two pews, but Herman’s was one of the higher monetary totals. His law partner Job Pierson also bought a pew. Perhaps this religious involvement was somewhat politically motivated, as none of Herman’s children was baptized in the Presbyterian Church. Even two children born after the pew purchase were baptized in the old-line Dutch Reformed Church.
Herman also entered politics. He served as Supervisor of the town of Schaghticoke for the first time from 1805-1806. He also served in 1813, from 1818-1823, and from 1825-1826. Knickerbacker reached what turned out to be the pinnacle of his political career when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1809. He followed his mentor Bird by only eight years, and directly followed another town resident, Josiah Masters. Like them, he was a Federalist. At the time the major political issue of the day was the coming War of 1812. The Federalists opposed the war. President Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Congress imposed an embargo on U.S. trade with Great Britain in 1807. The embargo devastated the economy, though it did encourage the development of domestic industry.
According to an 1833 newspaper article, Herman’s maiden speech in the House was against the continuance of the Embargo. He spoke of the negative effects of the embargo on the citizens of Schaghticoke. “It is said that he painted the suffering of his constituents so pathetically, and with such a masterly hand, that he threw the House of Representatives into convulsions of laughter.” Herman only served one term in Congress. It seems that many people today serve for many terms in Congress, but during this period, it was common for a Congressman to serve just one term.
After his time in Washington, Herman continued to be very active in politics. In the “Troy Post” in 1813, there was an advertisement for the “Assembly Peace Ticket”. The Federal Republicans (Federalists) of RensselaerCounty met to nominate men to run for the N.Y.S. Assembly. Bethel Mather of Schaghticoke was one of the nominees, and Herman Knickerbacker was the secretary of the group. They called for “Peace, Liberty, and Commerce.” Herman continued in this role. In 1815, with the war over, the Federalists ran a long campaign ad, listing the many debts incurred and taxes imposed by the Republican government during the war, with nothing to show for it in the peace treaty ending it, and encouraging all to vote for the Federalist ticket.
Herman served one term in the New York State Legislature in 1816, winning by a considerable margin over his Republican foe. There was a controversy over seating one of the legislators of the opposite party in a disputed election. Herman participated in a walk-out with other Federalists over the affair, saying “it was our duty; when we perceived that reason and argument were impotent to withstand the lust for office and the madness of faction.” This sounds like something that could happen today!
Knickerbacker ran for the NYS Senate in 1819 and 1822, but by then the Federalist party was losing sway, and in fact disappearing. He lost to the Republican candidate each time. Meanwhile he was serving as Supervisor of the town of Schaghticoke. In 1828, Knickerbocker changed his politics and became a Democrat and supporter of Andrew Jackson. According to his obituary, he carried with him “a large majority of the Federalists in his town” as he did. The obituary adds that “he was a great admirer of the late DeWitt Clinton and enjoyed the confidence and friendship of that eminent statesman.” In 1828 he was also named First Judge of Rensselaer County, a position he held for the rest of his life. He was referred to thereafter as “Judge Knickerbacker.”
Throughout, he was an active attorney, farmer, and industrialist. Basically every early 19th century deed or will of a person in Schaghticoke which I have examined has Herman’s name in it somewhere- either as a creditor or a lawyer. For example, while examining the probate papers of Andrew Diver, a well-off local man who died in 1809, I found that Herman Knickerbacker was the attorney. When Josiah Masters, the local man who had served in Congress just before Herman, died in 1822, Knickerbacker was the administrator of the estate. I have found two deeds where bankrupt people sold their land to Knickerbacker and partners, unable to pay back loans to them. They would have to sell the land to recoup their loans. In 1828 William and Olive Slocum of Schaghticoke sold all their real and personal estate to Herman and a couple of others to satisfy their debts. Knickerbacker had endorsed several of Slocum’s promissory notes, which Slocum was now unable to pay, and had been awarded a judgment of about $5000 in Supreme Court.
When the Rensselaer County Agricultural Society was founded in 1819, Herman was chosen the first Vice President, illustrating his involvement both in agriculture and politics. In census listings, Herman listed his occupation as “farmer.”
In 1811, Knickerbacker became the President of the Farmers Manufacturing Company, incorporated at Schaghticoke Point (the village of Schaghticoke) to make “woolen, cotton and linen goods, and for making glass and from ore bar-iron, anchors, mill irons, steel, nail, rods, hoop iron, and ironmongery, sheet lead, shot, white lead, and red lead.” The trustees were Jonathan Mosher, Aaron Bemus, Ebenezer Deval, Harmon Groesbeck, and Joel Tallmadge. Richard P. Hart took over as President by 1819, and it became part of his huge mill holdings in the gorge of the HoosicRiver. It was one of the earliest industrial ventures trying to take advantage of the power of the HoosicRiver, and Herman got in at the start. Perhaps it was a case of the investors wanting a prominent person as President, and Herman, just finishing a term as U.S. Congressman, would have been that. But as will be seen later, Herman had other mill ventures.
Herman’s father, John, died in 1827. He left 1,166 acres around the KnickerbockerMansion, divided into three farms. William, the eldest son, had the first choice, and sons John and Abraham inherited the other two. Abraham ended up with the 332 acre home farm and the mansion. Herman inherited “Gailord’s land”, and the rights to a mill that his grandfather had had. An 1826 codicil left Herman a farm that had belonged to James VanAntwerp. One of these pieces of land may have been where he actually lived on the Tomahannock Creek. Law partner Job Pierson lived nearby.
Besides his involvement in beginning a mill on the Hoosic River, Herman constructed mills himself, located near his home on the Tomahannock Creek, just to the east of where it crosses Route 40. An 1833 newspaper article reports that Knickerbacker “resides about a mile south of the village at the Point, on a singularly wild and romantic spot, upon the bank of Tomahnnock Creek. His ample brick mansion Knickerbacker embosomed in a grove, which he planted with his own hands, forty years ago. ..Below his mansion, Judge K has a number of mills, and likewise a Satinet Manufactory, all his own. He oversees these works himself, and likewise cultivates several extensive and very rich and beautiful farms.” (Satinet was an imitation satin, made of cotton.) To develop the mills, he would have had to construct a dam and its associated water courses. An 1839 deed records Herman selling some land on the Tomhannock to a principal in the Powder Mill. It discusses water rights, noting that Herman gave the buyer the right to use 1/3 of the water from HIS dam, and that he, Knickerbacker, was responsible for maintaining the dam.
So you can see that Knickerbacker was involved in all aspects of his community, and indeed his county and state. But he was also a very busy and involved family man. He married his first wife, Arietta Lansing in 1801. She was a daughter of Abraham Lansing and Else VanRensselaer of Albany. Thus Herman married into two of the most prominent Albany families. They had five children before her death in 1814. They had four children baptized in the Schaghticoke Dutch Reformed Church: Abraham Lansing, born in 1802, with godparents Abraham and Elsie Lansing Jr.; Elizabeth Maria, born in 1805; Catharine, born 1808; and Rebecca, born in 1813. The 1810 census of Schaghticoke lists H. Knickerbacker with a family of 2 males, 3 females, and 4 slaves.
Arietta died in April 1814. Herman married Rachel Wendell in December. He needed a mother for those five small children. Rachel was the daughter of John H. Wendell and Catherine VanBenthuysen of Albany. Wendell had been an officer in the Revolution, called “General” in later life, though he had not really achieved that rank. He was a prominent attorney who served in the N.Y.S. Assembly and as Albany County surrogate, treasurer, and justice of the peace. I find it interesting that Herman again married a girl from a well-known Albany family rather than from Schaghticoke. Herman would assuredly have known a fellow member of the bar in Albany. He and Rachel had five more children. Daughter Arietta was born in November 1815. Cathalina Wendell, born in 1817 had her grandfather Wendell as godfather. Daughter Maria VanVeghten was born in 1819, son John in 1821, and daughter Rachel Jane in 1822. All were baptized in the Dutch Reformed Church in Schaghticoke. Now there were three sons and seven daughters.
At a time when public education was just becoming established, and many girls received little or no education, Herman aspired to more for his daughters. Four of his daughters by first wife Arietta attended the Troy Female Seminary, now EmmaWillard School. Elizabeth attended Emma Willard’s first school in Waterford in 1820. Emma Willard was a pioneer in education for women. Elsie attended her Troy Seminary in 1822, Catharine in 1824-1825, and Rebecca in 1828. Arietta, a daughter of Herman and second wife Rachel, attended from 1830-1832.
Herman Knickerbacker sent his daughters to be educated by Emma Hart Willard at her groundbreaking school in Troy.
The 1820 census lists Herman with a family of 1 male between 16 and 18, 1 between 16 and 26, 4 females under 10, 3 from 10-15, and 1 female slave from 26-44 years of age. Just a note on slaves: Slavery was gradually abolished in New YorkState, beginning in 1799. Blacks born after that date would be free after a certain number of years, with all to be free in 1827. A second note: Herman may have lived in a house near his brothers at this point, as they all appear on the same page of the census.
Herman’s second wife died in 1823. He married a third time on July 20, 1826, to Mary Delia Buel, at her church in Troy. She was the daughter of attorney David Buel and Rachel McNeil of Troy. Mary Delia was born in Litchfield, Conn., the seventh child of her parents. They had moved to the new city of Troy in 1798. Interestingly, one of Mary’s sisters was the second wife of Herman’s mentor, John Bird. Again, Herman would have known his father-in-law before the marriage through the bar association.
In the 1830 census, Herman had a family of 1 male under 5, 1 20-29, 1 30-39; 2 females under 5, 2 from 5-9, 1 from 15-19, 3 from 20-29, and 1 from 30-39. He was 51, his wife in her 30’s. Herman and Mary had four children of their own, two boys and two girls: Sarah Bird, Charlotte, David, born 1833, and Herman. I don’t know where they were baptized. Herman and Mary’s daughters also attended the Troy Seminary: Sarah Bird from 1841-1844 and Charlotte Buel from 1846-1848. Sarah continued there as an assistant after graduation and until her marriage. Herman had a total of fourteen children. Eleven survived childhood, just three of them boys: Abraham, the eldest child, born in 1802, and David Buel, and Herman, children of his third wife. David and Herman had uncles younger than they were, children of Abraham.
Herman continued to live in a houseful of young people. In the 1840 census, he had a family of 2 males from 5-9, 1male 15-19, 1male 20-29, and 1 female under 5, 1 female 10-14, 1 female 15-19, and 1 female 30-39. By 1850, this activity was winding down. The 1850 census lists “Harman” a farmer aged 73, with an estate of $6,000, his wife Mary B., age 53, daughter Charlotte, age 18, and two servants, Ann Hopkins, age 30, who was Irish, and Eve Wolf, age 50. The other children were all off on their own.
So far, I have given a purely factual recitation of the career of Herman Knickerbacker. It is wonderful to know so much about a 19th century figure, but even more amazingly, we can also fill out the personality of this man. Washington Irving was one of the major American authors of the 19th century. He found inspiration in Herman Knickerbacker. In his Life and Letters, Irving gave a good summary of Herman’s life. He described him as “living hospitably, and filling various stations: a judge, a farmer, a miller, a manufacturer, a politician.” Irving is said to have introduced Knickerbacker (in Washington as a U.S. Congressman in 1807-1809) to President Madison facetiously as “my cousin Diedrich Knickerbocker, the great historian of New York.” Irving visited him several times at his home at Schaghticoke Hill. All of this clearly shows that Herman was Irving’s inspiration for the character of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the fictional author of Irving’s satirical “History of New York,” and that Herman was known not just for his accomplishments, but also for his hospitality. His obituary in an Albany newspaper stated, he is “remembered rather as a companionable man than as a scholar or statesman.” The Troy “Times” obituary added that he was “noted for his keen wit, his original humor, which made him a favorite in social circles even in his old age.”
Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809. He used Herman Knickerbacker as his inspiration for Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Illustration of Diedrich Knickerbocker from Washington Irving’s satirical “History of New York,”
An 1833 newspaper article describes a tour by the paper’s correspondent around the Saratoga area. He reports, “I have recently returned from a very pleasant visit to Schaghticoke, where I had the happiness of dining with the Prince of that Palatinate, Gen. H. Knickerbacker, in his own hospitable castle. He is a merry sovereign….The Prince has long been celebrated for his hospitality, his humor, and his amusing eccentricities.” Scribner’s Dictionary of American Biography reports that at his estate in Schaghticoke, “he lived so perfectly the part of the ‘lord of the manor,’ dispensed hospitality with so lavish a hand, and showed himself as liberal in his charities that he became widely known as the ‘Prince of Schaghticoke.’”
Herman’s official Congressional Biography also notes his hospitality and generosity. However, none of the sources mention that Herman was involved in a large number of business and legal affairs in his community. As I noted earlier, basically every will or deed I have looked at from about 1810 to 1830 includes Herman in some way. He was the lawyer, the administrator of the estate, the lender of money, the partner of others in some legal wheeling and dealing. Knickerbacker’s influence may also be seen in the fact that his neighbors Hannah and Peter Grant named a son born in 1810 Herman Knickerbacker Grant.
I found several 19th century newspaper articles where people had written to ask about the source of the term “Knickerbocker” to refer to a New Yorker. All traced it to Herman Knickerbacker via Washington Irving, though none cited any sources for their information. An 1876 article said that Herman was a practical joker. Once when entertaining the mayor and council of Troy, he pretended he had forgotten the date, and was overheard asking the cook how they could make one chicken stretch to such a huge number of guests, just before “the dining room doors opened on a most sumptuous repast.” This story came from an article written by General Ebgert L. Viele for “Harper’s Magazine” in the same year, titled “The Knickerbockers of New York Two Centuries Ago.” Viele’s mother was a Knickerbacker. An 1890 article stated that Herman was “a man of wit as well as fortune, and extremely fond of practical jokes.”
Herman died January 30, 1855 in Williamsburgh, New York City, at the home of his daughter Sarah Bird Knickerbacker and her husband Reverend Samuel Haskins. His wife Mary had died at Sarah’s home just a few weeks earlier, on December 6, 1854. His obituary notes that he suffered paralysis soon after his wife’s death and “gradually failed” up to the date of his death. Sarah herself died later that same year in Saratoga, where she had gone for her health. While Mary was buried in OakwoodCemetery, where there was already a Buel family plot, Herman was interred in the KnickerbackerCemetery, across the street from the Mansion, next to his first two wives. There has been some speculation that a rift between the couple may have been responsible for this separation, but given that the couple was cared for in the same child’s home until death, I feel this is unlikely. Perhaps finances were more the reason, or perhaps Mary’s relatives thought she should be with her own family, rather than in a row with Herman’s first two wives.
A lengthy obituary for Herman appeared in the Troy “Times” on February 2, 1855. There were few obituaries in the newspaper in that era, so this was a sign of Herman’s importance. And the obituary could not have been more laudatory. The Rensselaer County Bar Association held a special meeting to mourn Knickerbacker. Long-time law partner Job Pierson chaired the meeting and began by saying that for the first twenty years of their partnership, he and Herman had been political opponents, “yet never during that time did we ever entertain personally an unkind feeling the one to the other. During all his life time never had, indeed could not have had a personal enemy. His kindness was his only fault.” Others went on to note he was “an honorable and honest man in all the walks of life.” General Viele said “a more benevolent and philanthropic could scarce ever beamed upon oppressed and struggling humanity.” The paper added that “the quaint stories and laughable anecdotes of which the Judge is the hero are almost innumerable.” The bar association voted to wear mourning badges in his honor for thirty days.
Ironically for a lawyer and judge, Herman died without a will. But there is a probate file connected with sorting out his estate. The file notes that Herman died with eleven grown children and no widow. David and Herman, sons by Herman’s third wife, were administrators of the estate, along with Clarence Buel, who may have been a brother-in-law, and M.C. VanBuskirk.
It does seem that Herman Knickerbacker was a generous man, perhaps too generous. Former law partner Job Pierson stated in his funeral speech that “it was his misfortune through life to risk his credit for his friends until at length …at the close of life he was robbed of that affluence which ….had enabled him to entertain his friends with princely magnificence.” The Surrogate placed notices in the local papers calling any creditors to come forward. Herman’s estate was inventoried and its contents had to be sold at a public auction and a private sale in February 1855, so that expenses of the estate could be paid. The public sale brought $620. The real estate brought $2,350. Funeral expenses were about $110, including $40 for a modest tombstone, paid to grandson John Hale Knickerbocker; $27.50 for a mahogany coffin; and $7 to Reverend Roberts, who officiated at the funeral. Son David received $507 to cover his expenses, and the attorney got $90. Old law partner Job Pierson received about $110, from an old dispute, and physician Ezekiel Baker, $55.
A closer examination of the inventory shows a library of about 150 volumes, including biographies of famous people, such as Jefferson and Washington, 17 volumes of Shakespeare, and an 8-volume history of England. The most valuable piece of furniture was a marble mantle clock valued at $10. Possible proof of the entertaining Knickerbacker did is seen in the total of 83 chairs of different types in the inventory! How many chairs do you have in your house?
I would love to see the “old Dutch Clock” listed, worth $2, or the several “pictures” and “paintings,” or the mahogany cradle worth $3. Was that clock a family heirloom? There was also a teapot, sugar, and creamer valued at $20, the largest single sum on the list, and a wide variety of other household belongings. There was little in the way of farm implements, and no farm products (except for a ton of hay) or animals. Evidently that had been sold or given away earlier. There were several vehicles: a lumber wagon, two cutters (sleighs), and one “covered carriage” valued at $15. All in all, this seems a paltry estate for such a prominent man. It also seems sad that there wasn’t a will, where there could have been personal bequests to his many children. Perhaps he took care of that in life, giving mementos and financing to his children as they grew up and moved away.
Let me add a note on a couple of Herman’s sons. Abraham, born in 1802, is listed in the 1850 census as a farmer with an estate of $15,000. He and his (second) wife Mary had two sons living at home. John Hale, age 21, was listed as a student, and son Henry, 17, as a farmer. Mother-in-law Mary Hale lived in the home, along with one Irish farm hand, one black laborer, and two Irish serving girls. Jon Stevens of Easton, the absolute expert on Knickerbockers, says that Abraham had also been involved with his father in manufacturing.
Herman’s son David Buel, born in 1833 and older than nephew John Hale, attended TrinityCollege in Hartford, Connecticut, then the General Theological Seminary in New York City. Perhaps he was at school when his father died in 1855. The next year, David went to the new town of Minneapolis, Minnesota, population 300, as a missionary. He remained there for 27 years, and then became the 3rd Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Indiana. He died in 1894.
Looking back, though Herman lived a full life, and was a credit to his community, his much greater legacy is as the inspiration for Washington Irving’s Diedrich Knickerbocker, and as the source for the use of “Knickerbocker” as a symbol of a New Yorker.
Bibliography for the whole series:
“Annals of Albany, 1850-1856” p. 316.
Bielinski, Stefan, biography of John V. Henry and John Wendell online
Congressional Biography, online
Scribner’s Dictionary of American Biography, online
“Troy Post” articles: April 13, 20, 1813; Apr 18, 1815
“Goshen Patriot”, Apr 6, 1819
“Geneva Gazette”, Feb 28, 1816
“Military Minutes of the Council of Appointment of NYS” 1801
“Albany Evening Journal” Apr 30, 1833
“NY Sun”, Feb 9, 1908
“St. Lawrence Plain Dealer”, Nov 30, 1876
“Emma Willard and her Pupils”, ed. By Mrs. Fairbanks, 1898.
Records of the Schaghticoke Dutch Reformed and PresbyterianChurches
Website of the Knickerbocker Historical Society
Various census records for Schaghticoke
Probate records in Rensselaer County Historical Society
“Troy Times” Feb 2, 1855
Cemetery records, town of Schaghticoke
Deeds with Herman Knickerbocker as grantor/grantee: Rensselaer County Courthouse annex