Such is our proud, though oft-diluted, Dutch heritage

An Extract from John Updike’s A Letter to My Grandsons

The Updikes came to this continent in two installments. The first and more distinguished, the Wesel Updikes, arrived in New Amsterdam, in the person of Gysbert op den Dyck, before 1638. Gysbert — like Peter Minuit, the first governor of New Netherland — came from Wesel, a small city located on the lower Rhine, where it meets the Lippe. Wesel (which was all but demolished by air raids in World War II) is now part of Germany; in 1605, when Gysbert was born there, it was part of the duchy of Cleves, and though officially neutral in the Dutch-Spanish war, suffered incursions and hardship. A continuous line of Op den Dycks there went back to Henric, a Burgomaster and City Treasurer born late in the thirteenth century. Though no certain connection can be proved, the Wesel Op den Dycks are thought to be related to the family of the same name in Essen, which was of knightly rank, used armorial bearings (involving a pineapple, a star, and what seems to be a serrated tongs), and became extinct in the sixteenth century, ‘leaving their name attached to an estate and to a castle.’ For six generations after Henric, Op den Dycks occupied civic office in Wesel; in the seventh, Lodowick (b. 1565) became a brewer and an innkeeper. The Op Dyck Genealogy (compiled by Charles Wilson Opdyke, published in 1889) assures us, ‘An explanation of his undertaking these somewhat humble occupations is to be found in the great decadence suffered by Wesel in his life-time.’ The war and the confusion arising from the death of the Duke of Cleves without male issue had curtailed commerce and finally resulted in the siege and occupation of the town by a Spanish army in 1614. The Spanish stayed in Wesel for fifteen years, until 1629. After 1615, Lodowick disappears from the Wesel town records, and it seems probable that he and his son Gysbert, then aged ten, joined the many refugees seeking asylum in Holland, which had already thrown off the Spanish yoke.
Gysbert makes his first appearance in the records of the New World as an officer of the Dutch West India Company, and specifically as the Commander of Fort Hope, on the present site of Hartford. It was his ungrateful task to hold this fort while the English colonists from Massachusetts were overrunning the fertile Connecticut Valley. Failing to receive the reinforcements he needed, he resigned in late 1640 and ‘returned to the Fatherland,’ only to reappear in New Amsterdam in 1642 and, the following year, to marry Catherine Smith, the daughter of Richard Smith, the possessor of vast tracts on the West side of Narragansett Bay.

Land was easily laid hold of in the New World; Gysbert himself owned all of Coney Island — then three separate sandy masses, of which the easternmost was called ‘Gysbert’s Island’ — as well as two farms on Long Island and a residence on Stone Street, in lower Manhattan. One’s holdings were not always secure, however; the more numerous English brushed aside the Dutch claims to Connecticut, and the Indians were still a threat. Gysbert frequently sat on the Governor’s Council and helped fashion Indian treaties; he advised against the petition, in 1643, of the Long Island settlers for permission to attack the Marreckawick Indians near Breucklen (Brooklyn); nevertheless, attacks and plunder occurred, and the Indian reprisals included the massacre of Anne Hutchinson and her family and the devastation of Richard Smith’s extensive colony at Mespath. Both Hutchinson and Smith had sought refuge among the Dutch from religious persecution in the English colonies to the north; both New England and old England were jealous of the Dutch colonies. In 1664, Charles II awarded a patent for all New Netherland to his brother the Duke of York, and the Duke’s ships plus Connecticut troops compelled the unpopular government of Peter Stuyvesant to surrender. Dutch rule on the North American continent ended. ‘After the English capture, nothing further is found on the records concerning Gysbert… The tradition is doubtless correct that he went with his children to Narragansett, after the death of Richard Smith, Sr., in 1666, to take possession of the lands about Wickford bequeathed to the children of Gysbert’s deceased wife Catharine.’

Thus began the notable, even glamorous line of Rhode Island Updikes. Gysbert, whose name became Anglicized to Gilbert Updike, was called ‘Doctor,’ though he was probably not a physician. ‘He was well educated; his associations, official positions, reports, even his signature, show this. He must have spoken German from his birth, Dutch from his emigration, and English from his marriage.’ The eldest son of that marriage, Lodowick (b. 1646), laid out the town of Wickford, once called ‘Updike’s New Town’; his son Daniel (b. 1694) was tutored at home, visited Barbados and mingled in ‘the first circles of Society on the Island,’ studied law, married the daughter of the Governor, and was repeatedly elected Attorney General of the colony. His son Lodowick (b. 1725) was ‘regarded in his time as one of the most eminent citizens of Rhode Island. His qualifications were such as fitted him to shine either at the Bar, in political, or in military career. But he preferred the dignity and scholarly leisure of the private life of a large landed proprietor.’ The thirty thousand acres of wilderness John Smith had purchased from the Narragansett Sachems in 1639 had become, augmented by marriage and subdued to cultivation, the basis of a plantation society akin to that of the South and like nothing else in the North. Wilkins Updike, Lodowick’s grandson, wrote:

Their plantations were large, many containing thousands of acres, and noted for dairies and the production of cheese. The grass in the meadows was very thick and as high as the tops of the walls and fences; two acres were sufficient for the annual food of each cow. … Large flocks of sheep were kept, and clothing was manufactured for the household, which sometimes exceeded seventy persons in parlor and kitchen. Gramin was shipped to the West Indies. The labor was mostly performed by African slaves, or Narragansett Indians.

In this American Eden, roads and carriages scarcely existed, and the planter families rode horses back and forth through each other’s fences in an incessant round of festivity and fox chase, entertainment and dance. The black slaves (among whom you, Anoff and Kwame, might have found distant relatives of your own — men and women speaking Twi like your African grandmother or Ga like your African grandfather, brought here in manacles from the Gold Coast) were allowed a reflection of such brilliancy:

In imitation of the whites, the negroes held a mock annual election of their Governor; when the slaves were numerous, their election was held in each town. … The slaves assumed the ranks of their masters, whose reputation was degraded if their negroes appeared in inferior apparel or with less money than those of masters of equal wealth. The horses of the wealthy landholders were on this day all surrendered to the use of the slaves, who with cues, real or false, head pomatumed and powdered, cocked hat, mounted on the best Narragansett pacers, sometimes with their master’s sword, with their ladies on pillions, pranced to election at ten o’clock.

Lodowick — ‘tall and fine-looking; always wore wig and small-clothes, and was said to resemble George tit’ — had eleven children, who lived to the average age of eighty years. The eldest, Daniel (b. 1761), became Attorney General of Rhode Island the same year, 1790, that the state ratified the Constitution; thus he served an independent commonwealth in the same office his grandfather had held in the King’s colony. Lodowick’s youngest child, Wilkins (b. 1784), served for many years in the General Assembly, which upon his death in 1867 passed a resolution saying: ‘Resolved, that in the decease of Hon. Wilkins Updike, has passed away from earth almost the last of a generation of true Rhode Island men, worthy of our respect and imitation in the walks of private and of public life.’ And indeed, in the nineteenth century the noble line of Rhode Island Updikes did rather suddenly shrivel and diminish, as if their Narragansett paradise, with its lush grass and powdered wigs, its abundance of cheese and sheep and slaves, had been something of a dream. The genealogy for the Wesel family sputters out in a chord of unmarried bachelors and men moved to Pittsburgh. When, a few years ago, I visited Wickford, or North Kingston as it can be called, the only Updike in the telephone book was an ‘Updike Laundry’ on Route One; the young woman behind the counter told me that ‘Updike’ was an old name for Wickford, and that nobody of that name worked in the laundry. Even before the turn of the century, when Charles Wilson Opdyke visited the vicinity of Richard Smith’s fabulous holdings, he found the family all but vanished: ‘A hundred years ago, Wickford contained so many of the name that it was often called ‘Updiké Town.’ Very few of the blood and none of the name now reside there.’
Yet Wilkins, the youngest of eleven, himself had fathered twelve children. One of his sons was grandiosely named Caesar Augustus, and he ‘was a fine public speaker, inheriting much of his distinguished father’s wit and humor, and like him was a thorough Rhode Islander.’ Caesar practiced law in Providence, and became a member of the city Common Council, a member of the lower House of the General Assembly, and from 1860 to 1862 Speaker of the House. But at around the age of fifty he died suddenly, of heart disease, leaving his widow, who had been Elisabeth Bigelow Adams, and a teen-aged son. That son was Daniel Berkeley Updike, born in Providence in (like Hartley) 1860. Daniel’s middle name commemorates the warm friendship between his great-grandfather – the colonial Daniel – and George Berkeley, the Anglo-Irish cleric-philosopher, in those years, 1728-31, during which the future bishop resided in Newport.’
Young D. B. Updike was frail and shy, with protruding ears and a religious disposition — the Rhode Island Updikes were keen Episcopalians. His father’s premature death necessitated that he abjure higher education and go to work; he began as an errand boy for Houghton Mifflin in Boston in 1880 and showed a fine aptitude for the niceties of typography and printing. He set up as a freelance designer in 1893, and founded the Merrymount Press in 1896. He undertook all sort of jobs but specialized in ecclesiastical work: the 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer was printed by him. A lifelong bachelor, he was meticulous, fastidious, and learned. He utilized and helped revive the historical roman and italic faces Caslon, Scotch, Janson, Bell, Poliphilus, Bodoni. From 1911 to 1916 he gave lectures on printing at the Harvard Business School, and these were the basis of his two-volume Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use, a work not only classic but still unsurpassed in its field. Daniel Berkeley Updike was, when I was a boy, the only famous Updike — the only one who could be found in the back of the dictionary.

Yet he, and all the Rhode Island Updikes, were not really my relations, or yours. No genealogical connection has been established between the Wesel Updikes and our own ancestors, the Holland Updikes, who came, it is all but certain, from Elburg, in Gelderland, on the eastern shore of the Zuider Zee. Op den Dycks left their traces on records there since the fourteenth century, and the baptismal names Louris, Johan, and Albert recur in both the Elburg records and the first American generations. Louris Jansen Opdyck came to New Netherland before 1653, at which time he resided in Albany and bought land at Gravesend, Long Island. His Holland antecedents are indicated by written petition of 1653, in which he complains that the English inhabitants of Gravesend were determined ‘that no Dutchmen should get into the Magistry there,’ and by his widow’s appealing, in 1660, to the ‘law of Holland’ in claiming half of his estate. Our genealogist takes Louris’s Dutchness as reason to launch a patriotic rhapsody, as of the seventeenth century:

The cattle of Holland, grazing on the bottom of the sea, were the finest in Europe, its farm products the most valuable, its navigators the boldest, its mercantile marine the most powerful. Where of old were swamps and thickets, now dwelt three millions of people, the most industrious, the most prosperous, perhaps the most intelligent, under the sun; their love of liberty indomitable; their pugnacity proverbial; peaceful and phlegmatic, they were yet the most irascible and belligerent men of Europe.

Such is our proud, though oft-diluted, Dutch heritage.
The Netherlands Louris participated in the fur trade with the Iroquois at Fort Orange, a Dutch fort dating from 1614, on the site of Albany, and was granted by Governor Stuyvesant a small lot there. But his main activity seems to have been at Gravesend, a farming colony dominated by the English. Gravesend was the only Long Island settlement to defend itself successfully in the Indian uprisings that destroyed Mespath; in 1655, another Indian war made Gravesend unsafe, and Louris resided with his family in New Amsterdam, on Pearl Street. The population of Manhattan was then one thousand people, of whom a quarter lived on Pearl Street. Money was so rare that purchases were made with beaver skins; the first brickyard and the first paved street had just come into existence, and cows were driven through the town gate at Wall Street to the public pasture at the present City Hall Park. The meadow for Gravesend was Coney Island, and one imagines that in this cozy wilderness community Louris and Gysbert must have sometimes met, and may have known each other well.
The lines diverged, however: one went northeast to Rhode Island, and the other southwest into New Jersey. Louris was dead by 1660, we know from a document whereby his widow, Christina (already engaged to marry again), divided his considerable estate of twenty-one hundred guilders among her three sons, Peter, Otto, and Johannes. The farm at Gravesend was sold and the family with its stepfather moved to Dutch Kills, in the jurisdiction of Newton, in what is now the Long Island City section of Queens. Peter disappears from the records after the English captured New York and may have returned to Holland; Otto apparently never left Newton. It was Johannes, the youngest, a boy of nine when his father died, who in the early summer of 1697, by this time the father of seven and the grandfather of three, led his family into the fertile territory of West Jersey, where, a contemporary report had it, ‘you meet with no inhabitants but a few friendly Indians, where there are stately oaks whose broad-branched tops have no other use but to keep off the sun’s heat from the wild beasts of the wilderness, where is grass as high as a man’s middle, that serves for no other end except to maintain the elks and deer.’ It was, an early settler sent back word, ‘as good a country as any man need to dwell in.’
In wagons and carts, with horses and oxen and farming utensils, the Opdyke party — which included Johannes’s sisters Tryntie, Engeltie, and Annetie, who were all married to brothers called Anderson — made their way across the hills to Flatbush to a ferry at the narrows, across Staten Island, up the Raritan to the old Indian trail called ‘the King’s Highway,’ which they followed across the future state to the two hundred fifty acres Johannes had bought that April, ‘above the falls of the Delaware.’ The land lay near the present town of Lawrenceville, just above Trenton, in an area then called Maidenhead. Here Johannes lived and farmed and bought and sold land for thirty years, until his death at seventy-eight in 1729; and here, in the vicinity of Trenton, Princeton, and Pennington, Updikes stayed for two more centuries, their name passing from the land only in my father’s generation. The New Jerseyites were more tenacious of the Dutch spelling of the name than the Rhode Islanders; Johannes signed his name Johannes Lourense, using the patronymic in the Old World style, and his children were entered into the church and civic records as op Dyck, or Opdyck, unless an English clerk did the recording.
Louris Jansen op Dyck had begot Johannes Opdyck, who begat Lawrence Updick (1675-1748), who begat John Updike (1708-90), who begat Peter (1756-1818), who begat Aaron (1784-1861), who begat Peter (1812-66), who begat Archibald (1838-1912), who begat Hartley (1860-1923), who begat Wesley (1900-72), who begat me (b. 1932), who begat Elizabeth (b. 1955), who begat you (b. 1985, 1987). On your mother’s side, then, you are thirteenth-generation Americans, offspring of a favored white minority. The Dutch colony had lasted a mere forty years; after it surrendered in 1664, without a shot being fired, the English Governor was instructed to treat the several thousand Dutch inhabitants generously, letting them keep their lands, language, and religion. Soon they were intermarrying with the English and forgetting their Dutch. It was an easy assimilation. And you, my grandsons, how will you fare here?

From Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989)
By John Updike

First published in The Low Countries, 2006


1. He was there waiting for his proposed American University to be funded, a university he wished to see located in Bermuda and devoted largely to the education and coversion of American Indians. The vision was never realized, but in 1866 Berkeley’s name descended upon a relocated California college and its town, which it continues to adorn. It was Berkeley who wrote the famous line ‘Westward the course of empire takes its way’ and in his Principles of Human Knowledge set forth the arresting idea that ‘All the choir of heaven and furniture of earth — in a word, all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world — have not any subsistence without a mind.’
2. Almost no Updikes survive in Europe. The genealogist in 1888 found two families called Oppedyk living in Friesland, one of which adopted the name under Napoleon; the other family had been living in Ylst since 1654. When I visited the Netherlands in 1977, the only Updike my publisher could turn up was my first cousin Jean, who had married a Dutchman called Kramer and listed herself with the double name Kramer-Updike.