Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Secret Origins

I live in a small, somewhat storied town in the lower Hudson River Valley called Tappan. Having a history isn't much of an achievement - hang around for long enough and you're sure to end up with a story to tell. Of course, Tappan is home to yet another place where Washington wintered during the war, where Andre was tried, held and hung, and all that stuff.

Ah, who am I kidding? I love it. I'm beyond fascinated by the history of our town. But you don't learn much in school about it - the perfunctory Revolutionary War coverage was all there was.

Of course, many others share my fascination. Unsurprisingly, there's a Tappantown Historical Society that wields considerable official weight - heaven help you if you want to make any repairs to your house in the Historic District if you haven't had their okay. You're not even allowed any say in your own holiday decorations - one measly electric candle in each window is all they'll allow.

So I had mistakenly thought that their book on the history of Tappan - published roughly to coincide with the town's 300th anniversary in the mid-1980's - would be the definitive work on the subject. On the origins of the town, it was somewhat mute: someone was granted a land patent. Of course, the book has a lot more to say on Washington and Andre.

A couple of years ago, I found a book in the local library about the history of the Hudson Valley. Pretty fascinating read (it's a pretty fascinating area), but there was one passage that stuck out for me. I can't quote it verbatim, but the gist was that the Tappan Patent had been granted to (in period terms) 'eight white men and three free negreouws from Greenwich Village.'

Got that? Tappan had been partly founded by three black ex-slaves and no-one ever bothered to tell us. Well, hell. That's exactly the sort of thing I want to know.

Unfortunately, that second book had such a wide field to cover that it didn't dedicate more than a few lines to Tappan. Beyond that fragment, the only other item of interest that it gave up was that the original Patent was pretty damn big, going all the way from the Hudson (the current-day Tappan is three towns inland) to present-day Paramus, New Jersey.

So, today, on a trip to the library, I found a book in the history section called Slavery in New York, and immediately took it down and scanned the index. Sure enough, now we have names: Jan DeVries II and Nicholas Manuel. It's a little vague beyond that; again, the topic is so wide (slavery in New York being a sadly lengthy theme and an even more sadly underreported one), that we don't get more than a few lines out of a 400 page book, but it's something.

But it opens up so many other areas of questioning: Why are there no descendants of these families in this area? Why is this such hard information to come by? Is it because of the influence of the German Masonic Group, who pretty much laid defacto claim to the mantle of historical preservationists in the area? Guess who maintains the DeWindt House, essentially as a shrine to General Washington.

The first question is the most perplexing and sad one, to me. Imagine an area in New York with a black family with a history that goes back to pre-Revolutionary times, with names and traditions as much a part of the fabric of the area as the single candles in holiday windows. Instead, there's next to no black presence in the town. Three and a half centuries later, the issue of race as a separator is still strong enough that there's a valid question as to whether or not a black candidate can carry the electorate because of the color of his skin - and because he's perceived as being an outsider, not American, somehow.

God, I only wish that we had enough of a memory in this country to know that black Americans have been here a lot longer than most of our own families. My father's and mother's families came over in the early 1900's. I've only lived in Tappan for thirty-eight years. What is that compared to actually being brought over on a slave ship, earning your freedom and then saving up enough money to buy land and then found a town? A town, the Tappantown Historical Society and Masonic Chapter will be happy to tell you, where General Washington wintered while fighting for our freedom from British rule. The signs all over the town pointing out where Andre was kept, when the Manse Barn was built, when this thing or that thing was founded and by whom and what it all means.

I know it's an important story, and a good story. But isn't the story of DeVries and Manuel and the nameless third - indeed, all the founding families - interesting enough to tell, too?

Now, if only someone could definitively tell me whether the name of the town came from the local Indians, or if it came from the common German surname, we'd be getting somewhere.


P.S.: I note with some satisfaction that the Tappantown Historical Society website now makes mention of this aspect of the town's interesting founding. Not bad, folks. Keep trying.

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