The Holland Land Company is known for its role in settling the western part of upstate New York by acquiring land grants and selling off lots to prospective settlers in the early nineteenth century. Yet its activities in the last decade of the eighteenth century were of a different nature, as the stories of Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen show.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, two young Dutchmen, Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen, travelled through the densely forested lands of upstate New York. They eventually discovered locations fit for the founding of the new villages of Oldenbarneveld and DeRuyter. Put this way, we have a brief and also evocative story that leaves much to be discovered. Who were Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen? What did they think they were doing when they set out on their journey? And why did they choose Dutch names for these villages at the very edge of the New York frontier?
Let’s begin with Gerrit Boon. He was a Dutchman, but he was different from the Dutch who lived in places like Albany, Schenectady, and villages along the Mohawk River—the main transit route from the Hudson River to western New York. Boon was not a descendant of the early colonists who had settled New Netherland in the seventeenth century, however. He was newly arrived from the Old World. Born as the son of a Lutheran minister, he was baptised in Delft in 1768 and he obtained his first employment in the sugar refinery of his brother-in-law, Aernout van Beeftingh, a scion of a well-to-do Rotterdam mercantile family. Boon left Rotterdam when he was twenty-two years old and set sail to the fledgling United States of America. There he was to become an agent for a business venture set up by Amsterdam financiers.
Interest in North America had picked up among Amsterdam banks during the Revolutionary War. In 1782 John Adams had, with some difficulty, persuaded them to support the revolutionary war effort with loans, which, though risky, were met with annuity payments. After the United States adopted its Constitution in 1789, Amsterdam credit became even more important to the federal government, thus providing Amsterdam companies with more leverage to negotiate favorable terms for direct investments, including land purchases. This of course required the use of agents to manage affairs locally. In 1789, therefore, a number of Amsterdam merchant houses joined forces to hire agents for this very purpose. It was the beginning of a collaboration that continued in various forms, collectively (and not always accurately) known as the Holland Land Company.
And so Dutchmen Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen travelled to North America. As agents of the Holland Land Company, they were neither the first nor perhaps the most important. In fact, over the years a number of ambitious Dutchmen were hired as agents of the Holland Land Company. Théophile Cazenove, born in Amsterdam in 1740, was from a French-Swiss Huguenot family and was hired as the first agent of the Company in 1789. Jan Lincklaen, a relative of Cazenove, was also born in Amsterdam in 1768, the same year as Gerrit Boon and, like Boon, he came from a Lutheran family. When he was eleven, his parents sent him to Switzerland to further his education. But when both his father and mother died in quick succession a few years later, alternative plans had to be drawn up. Subsequently, Lincklaen joined the Dutch Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant. In 1790 Jan Lincklaen and Gerrit Boon were hired by Pieter Stadnitski, the primary merchant behind the Holland Land Company, to assist Cazenove in Philadelphia and together they sailed for the United States.
Initially, Cazenove’s duties consisted of managing the investments of his Amsterdam superiors in various American state debts, as well as in canal companies. Diversification of business interests was on the cards, however. The arrival of Lincklaen and Boon was part of a plan to acquire tracts of land in upstate New York for large-scale maple syrup extraction. The aim was to make sugar from maple syrup as an alternative to sugar made from sugarcane syrup, which was produced by enslaved labour on Caribbean plantations. If the plan succeeded, then the demand for slaves would plummet, or so it was hoped. But would the combination of Boon’s expertise, Amsterdam money, and American prove a successful one?
Searching for Sugar
In the summer of 1791, Jan Lincklaen and Gerrit Boon, accompanied by an experienced Colonel of Artillery (whose full name remains unknown) began their exploratory travels through the northeastern parts of the United States. Armed with a letter of recommendation from Alexander Hamilton which Cazenove had procured for them, they left Philadelphia on August 3rd, 1791. After four days of traversing the woods on horseback, they had a surprising encounter:
We saw the first Mapple Tree; we stopped for a moment to admire this, the object of our search. Mr. Boon, at that instant, seemed to descry beneath its bark the treasures of Peru, while I, for my part, would have wished to carve on it the name of my sweetheart,—and Colonel Prop [sic] saw nothing but the simple Mapple Tree, if any idea suggested itself to him on the subject, it would have been whether this tree could serve him in fighting the Indians and transporting his artillery.
Twenty-two year old Lincklaen may have indulged in a little exaggeration here, portraying himself as a romantic soul in the company of more mundane folk. Yet most of his journal is filled with practical details concerning roads and distances travelled, water-powered mills, means of transport, land prices, et cetera. A few days after meeting their first maple tree, the company arrived at the sugar works of John Nicholson, but the place turned out to be a disappointment. It was deserted with just “two chaldrons [..] & some other scattered utensils” and “a simple hut falling to ruins, where we had looked to find extensive works, buildings, & workmen.” And yet the location appeared to be promising. There was “a quantity of fine mapple trees 15 to 20 inches in diameter, in some of which we still saw the holes where they were tapped, & the pipes with the reservoirs where the sap had run.” They eventually found the foreman, John Jones, who informed them that the kettles had arrived too late, but that he hoped to tap two thousand trees the following spring with the help of twelve workmen. According to Jones, a regular maple tree would supply 25 gallons of sap, and five gallons would boil down to a pound of sugar.
Encouraged by Jones’s intelligence, Boon and Lincklaen continued their journey north. They visited several other recently established sugar works and saw mills, and gathered information about production methods, costs, and transportation. Two weeks after setting out from Philadelphia they crossed the state line into New York. Reaching the northern end of Lake Seneca, they turned east and, after several more miles on horseback, arrived at Cooperstown. Hamilton’s letter of recommendation served to gain them access to Judge William Cooper, the main proprietor and founder of Cooperstown, located at the southern end of Otsego Lake. Transporting sugar and other goods produced in the Cooperstown area to New York was relatively inexpensive, Judge Cooper told them. It is likely that Cooper’s information persuaded Boon and Lincklaen to choose land to the north and west of Cooperstown for their various enterprises.
From Cooperstown, Boon and Lincklaen continued east, first to Schenectady and then to Albany. Lincklaen remarked that they passed “through a rich well-tilled country inhabitated by Hollanders who still preserve their ancient neatness in their houses & their garments, although their language has already become much changed.” Next, the pair crossed into Vermont, which is still famous for maple syrup although its production is threatened by global warming. Lincklaen, however, did not consider Vermont the best place for producing maple syrup, as the transportation facilities were below par. In addition, the depth of snow in the mountains prevented the gathering of sap at the proper time. Turning south towards Hartford, Gerrit and Jan visited New Haven and New York, thus completing a journey of over 1300 miles.
The following year, Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen set out again to explore the lands north and west of Cooperstown. They soon reached Fort Schuyler. Gerrit Boon, acting on behalf of the Holland Land Company, had already purchased 2,000 acres of land in this area, and more was to follow. On this trip, Boon and Lincklaen identified many of the tracts which they subsequently purchased as trustees on behalf of the Holland Land Company because the Amsterdam financiers were aliens and thus until 1798 were banned by law from owning land in their own name. In some cases it was not clear who the actual owner of the tracts of land was that Boon and Lincklaen were interested in. As a consequence there were many issues to discuss with Cazenove in Philadelphia. The agents of the Holland Land Company quickly set to work and, using the bank of LeRoy and Bayard in New York for financial arrangements, greatly expanded its land holdings from 1792 onwards.
Acquiring land is one thing, putting it to productive use is quite another. The aim of the Amsterdam investors may have been to buy land in bulk and sell it off in parcels to newly-arriving settlers for a quick profit. It turned out to be a longer process than anticipated, however. Attracting settlers required setting up a basic infrastructure as few were inclined to settle in inaccessible areas without means to transport their produce to markets mostly in cities on the east coast. In addition, before the parcels could be sold off, the land had to be properly surveyed. So Jan Lincklaen and Gerrit Boon had their work cut out for them. In subsequent years they founded several towns and villages and gave them Dutch names. Out of gratitude, Jan Lincklaen chose the name of his family member and benefactor and, thus, Cazenovia was founded in 1793. Tromp Township and DeRuyter followed a few years later and both are named after famous Dutch admirals who fought in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century. These names, then, harken back to an age of Dutch greatness. Gerrit Boon made a similar choice when calling his first village Oldenbarneveld after a seventeenth-century Dutch leader who was executed after a political trial. Another village Boon founded was named Kortenaer, again after a Dutch admiral. Their choice of names, and especially the absence of any references to the house of Orange, was indicative of Lincklaen’s and Boon’s position in the political struggles of their time, which pitted the traditional adherents of the Orange stadtholders against the more democratically inclined Patriot party. By 1787, the political fortunes of the Dutch Patriots had plummeted and many sought refuge in France, while a small number set out to North America to find their fortune there, Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen among them.
Snow and Water
Boon’s proposed village was located at the confluence of the Steuben Creek and the Mud Creek at the location that is now called Barneveld, the epiteth “Olden” being judged inappropriate for a new settlement. He hired dozens of workers who erected various buildings, and tried different ways to expedite the production process. None of this, sadly, met with any real success. Location had something to do with this, of course. The proximity to Lake Ontaria caused extensive lake-effect snow in this part of upstate New York. The harsh conditions during the winter months meant that Boon’s workers had to stay indoors for days, sometimes even weeks on end, and were unable to do any work. And of course they continued to be paid. Perhaps Boon went too far north and unknowingly choose land at a higher elevation less suited to the production of maple sugar. After two winters, Boon aborted the sugar project and turned to the logging trade instead. He went further north and founded the village of Kortenaer. There he erected a sawmill on Mill Creek, but it burned down. The following year, Boon returned to build both a sawmill and a gristmill. But again lake-effect snow intervened. To make matters worse, a punishing winter and a sudden rise in temperatures in spring combined to cause floods which washed both mills away. Thus the Dutch milling efforts of Boon and the Holland Land Company met with a watery end.
It is sometimes suggested that Boon’s failure in the maple sugar project was due to his inexperience and naivity, as he was driven by an admirable desire to abolish slavery. A closer look, however, suggests that this was only partly the case. Gerrit Boon, Jan Lincklaen and their superiors in Amsterdam were by no means the only ones who invested in sugar works in upstate New York. The travel journals show that they prepared themselves very well and they also reveal that many others were interested too. Judge William Cooper was one such person and had been involved in the business for a few years before the two Dutchmen arrived on his doorstep. And in 1790, a group of men in Quaker-dominated Philadelphia published a pamphlet entitled Remarks on the Manufacturing of Maple Sugar. It included extensive details on what equipment was required and it was even claimed that New York and Pennsylvania could supply the whole of the United States with maple sugar, “made by the hands of freemen, [..] whereas the West-India sugar is the product of the unwilling labor of negro slaves.” As a consequence, great expectations were placed upon maple sugar. In 1791, Judge Cooper sent some fine maple sugar to be presented to President Washington. When reports got back to Cooperstown, they included a reference to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. Jefferson thought that “in a few years we shall be able to supply half the world.” Interestingly, he had also received news that “there is a [merchant] house in Amsterdam [that intended] to set up works for the manufacturing of maple sugar” in the United States, a reference to the Holland Land Company.
Profit or Abolition?
And then there is the issue of slavery. Did Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen share the abolitionist aim in replacing West Indian cane sugar with maple sugar and consequently enslaved labor with free labor? It is certainly possible, taking into account the political stance evident in the naming patterns they employed. Yet the available records are predominantly of a business nature and contain almost no clues as to what considerations primarily motivated them. In 1797, when his project was failing, Boon became aware that the calculations of the Philadelphia gentlemen had been exaggerated. Reporting on his efforts, he stated that his aim had not been to produce maple sugar of a quality that could compete with West India sugar, but rather to find out whether it could be done yielding a profit. Perfecting the production process also turned out to be a major problem, as he could not get boiling kettles of the necessary quality. Based on the information of Jones, Boon and Lincklaen may have expected a ratio of five gallons of sap for one pound of maple sugar. Yet modern maple syrup production requires forty gallons for one gallon of syrup. With inferior equipment, this was clearly impossible for Boon to achieve, leaving aside the other difficulties. Despite his apparent emphasis on profit, there is uncertainty as to Boon’s motives. Among his accounts, there is a “List of the Black People and bounded servants”, dated 25 February 1796. A black family, consisting of husband Jack, wife Nancy, son Peter, two girls named Bella and Jenny, and a baby, was transported from New York City to Barneveld. The number of years of their service that Boon purchased is given and suggests that they would eventually be freed, although for Bella, then seventeen years old, it would take another fifteen years, until 1811. The list also includes a white husband and wife, who were supposed to serve for three years. While Boon employed enslaved labor, he may have done so to improve the family’s circumstances and provide them with a secure future.
Although they arrived in the United States together, the lives of Gerrit Boon and Jan Lincklaen took different trajectories. In 1798, after the 1795 regime change that ousted the Oranges, Gerrit Boon left the United States and returned to the Netherlands. It took some wrangling to persuade the Holland Company to pay his expenses and salary, but he ended up with the considerable sum of twenty-thousand guilders. A few years later he married an Amsterdam widow from a good family, but the marriage sadly didn’t last. Eventually, Boon moved to a small village. When he died in 1821, his main legacy was a pile of unpaid bills for wine deliveries. Kortenaer was later renamed Boonville after its founder.
Jan Lincklaen remained in America and became John Lincklaen. He eventually left the service of the Holland Land Company, but he continued to live in Cazenovia and became a reasonably successful landowner, even importing eight Holstein Frisians from the Netherlands. He married Helen Ledyard, daughter of General Benjamin Ledyard, in 1797, with compatriot François Adriaan van der Kemp conducting the ceremony. Lincklaen died in Cazenovia in 1822. The Federal style house that Lincklaen built still exists. Preserved by subsequent generations, it was transferred to New York State in 1968 and is now Lorenzo State Historical Site and is only half an hour’s drive south from Cazenovia, where Jan is buried, to the town of Lincklaen, named in his honour.
Jaap Jacobs (PhD Leiden, 1999) is affiliated with the University of St Andrews. He is a historian of early American history, specifically on Dutch New York. He has taught at several universities in the Netherland, the United States and the United Kingdom. Last year The Dutch National Archives commissioned historian Jaap Jacobs to produce a series of 24 blogposts, 12 written by himself and 12 by co-authors, on the 400 year relationship between the Netherlands and the United States. Click here for the other parts.