Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Boscobel Story, 1: The Short, Troubled Life of States Morris Dyckman


His life reads more like Henry Fielding's picaresque novel Tom Jones than actual history. The son of a failed Manhattan innkeeper, he was one of only two or possibly three members of the extensive Dyckman family to side with England during the revolution.

Fleeing to British-occupied New York City, he became a quartermaster clerk for the British army and discovered that bills were being kited and funds siphoned off by high officers. By later enabling the officers to fight off attempts by Parliament to force restitution through what was tantamount to blackmail, he eventually gained a personal fortune.

But even as he assured them that all incriminating documents had been destroyed, his baggage bulged with hundreds of such documents he had brought to London with him, ready to be put to use if needed. He returned to America from England with the fortune that was his due--but he would have only a couple of years to enjoy it.

As a young bachelor, he fathered a son out of wedlock. In middle age he wed a girl 21 years his junior and only three years older than his illegitimate son. She would raise the boy as her own. After his 14-year-old sister Catalina was married to merchant Daniel Hale, a "bossy blowhard," and became a drug addict after the birth of her first child, he sheltered her and her son, and paid for her treatment.

He suffered most of his adult life from painful attacks of gout, a systemic disease that causes needlelike crystals of uric acid to be deposited in the joints. It incapacitated him for long periods. Although he had no formal training in architecture, he began the building of Boscobel, one of the loveliest Federal houses ever built in the Hudson Valley. The supreme irony was that he never lived to occupy his beautiful creation.

His name was States Morris Dyckman. This is his story.

The Black Horse Tavern
Sixth of nine children, Staats Morris Dyckman was born in 1754 or 1755 at his father's inn, the Black Horse Tavern, in Harlem. Located near the 7th milestone on the King's Highway leading to Westchester and New England, the site today is in Central Park, just west of Fifth Avenue at 105th Street.

The tavern was not far from Benson's race track (at what is now 110th Street), patronized by a sporting crowd that included Lewis Morris, third lord of the Manor of Morrisania, and later a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A New York newspaper, The Mercury, reported a win by the Morris stable on April 27, 1767, when Lewis Morris's "Mare, Strumpet, beat Smoaker and Jimcrack, for £30, carrying Weight for Age."

Lewis Morris’s younger brother, Staats Long Morris, was a 27-year-old bachelor for whom this fourth son of Jacob Dyckman may have been named. Later in life, Staats Morris Dyckman would Anglicize his name to States Morris Dyckman.

His father was Jacob Dyckman Jr., born about 1720. His mother was Catalina Benson, born in 1725. She would die 75 years later at the Westchester farm of her son, States, while he was in England.

Another Tavern--and a Bridge
When young Dyckman was still an infant, Jacob Dyckman sold his tavern to his sister-in-law, Catherine Benson McGowan, widow of sea captain Daniel McGowan. The McGown name would later be applied to the narrow break in the escarpment through which passed the road to Kingsbridge. It is still called “McGowan’s Pass.”

Dyckman trekked north with his family and built another tavern not far from Frederick Philipse's King's Bridge over Spuyten Duyvil Creek, located near what is today 225th Street and Broadway. Philipse owned all the land from the Creek north to the Croton River, and his bridge, built in 1693, was perhaps the first bridge in America to charge tolls. Philipse's tolls made travel expensive: nine pence for a carriage, three pence for each horse or head of cattle, and a penny for a pedestrian.

States’s father later helped to finance and build with blacksmith Benjamin Palmer a rival bridge called the Free Bridge, also known as the Farmer's Bridge or Dyckman Bridge, opened on January 2, 1759. His bridge, leading to land not cotrolled by Philipse, broke the Philipse monopoly, but it also bankrupted Jacob Dyckman when local subscribers failed to honor their obligation.

Deeply in debt, his father sold the inn near the King’s Bridge to Caleb Hyatt in 1772. Staats Morris Dyckman was then 17 years old and may have learned accountancy skills as an apprentice in a mercantile establishment. Three of his mother's female relatives had married wealthy merchants: John Kelly, Anthony Duane and James Henderson.

Two years later, on Feb. 17, 1774, Rivington’s Gazette, a Loyalist weekly that appeared each Thursday, announced, “Mr. Jacob Dyckman in returning home to Harlem from this city fell from his horse at the bottom of the hill below Mrs. McGown’s and fractured his skull in such a manner that his life is despaired of.”

At the beginning of the Revolution, States Morris Dyckman was apparently working for the colonial government in Albany, where he was part of a small group of Tories that included Mayor Abraham C. Cuyler, County Clerk Stephen De Lancey and Deputy Postmaster Richard Cartwright.

On June 4, 1776, young Dyckman celebrated King George III's birthday at Cartwright's Inn with the toast, "Damnation to the enemies of the King." Two days later, he was arrested and jailed for refusing to pledge support for the Continental Congress.

From Albany to New York City
Upon being released on parole, the 21-year-old Dyckman made his way to New York City, where he found employment as a clerk in the offices of the British Army's Quartermaster General, first under Lt. Col. William Sheriff and then under Brig. Gen. Sir William Erskine. Here he showed an aptitude for figures and accounts that made him invaluable to his superiors.

British Army quartermasters in the colonies received only a small salary. In a practice dating back to Braddock's expedition in 1758, they were permitted to own horses and wagons they rented to the British army, as well as supplying drivers. The expense vouchers presented to commanders were pure fiction, of course. It was a system that made for fraud, but one that army commanders winked at and tolerated.

To split the proceeds among participating officers, a separate set of books was kept. In these the true amounts of receipts and expenses were recorded and from them the quartermasters' profit was tallied. Young Dyckman was not supposed to be privy to this knowledge, but somehow he became aware of the truth. Quartermasters were skimming a profit of 75% of the money the Crown was spending for transport. Such enormous graft may have played a role in the eventual British defeat.

Young Dyckman so impressed the Quartermaster General that when Sir William Erskine retired in the summer of 1779, 24-year-old Dyckman was invited to accompany him to England. The account books of Erskine's time as Quartermaster General had to be readied for inspection by British government auditors.

A Child Is Born
In 1779 Dyckman sailed with Sir William Erskine to Cork in Ireland aboard the "Cork Fleet," a convoy of ships bearing British officers and officials returning to England guarded by heavily armed warships. The Irish destination was to keep the Atlantic crossing as short as possible and avoid attacks and capture by French frigates or American privateers.

A few months after States Dyckman's departure, a son was born to Eleanor Brewer, a young woman with whom he had been friendly. Dyckman dutifully accepted parental responsibility. A will drafted for him in England in 1781 by attorney Peter Van Schaack included Eleanor Brewer. “now or late of New York” and included her son “States Brewer, now about two years old to whom I am godfather” as a principal heir. "Godfather" was a euphemism that fooled no one.

Once Sir William Erskine's accounts were accepted and approved, he offered young Dyckman the choice of a lump sum payment of 1,000 pounds or an annuity of 100 pounds semiannually. States chose the latter.

States was called back to New York in 1781. With a British victory over the rebellious colonists becoming less likely, scrutiny of accounts intensified--eventually developing into a full-scale investigation. Sir Henry Clinton, concerned about increasing costs of running the war and mounting evidence of irregularities in accounting practices, convened a Board of General Officers to set new rules for handling accounts. The Board created rigorous directives for operating the Quartermaster General's office. In the future, purchases had to be backed by vouchers. Only the commanding general could approve payments.

Dyckman returned to London in the summer of 1782. Delays and interruptions in his work were frequent, and he used his free time to travel and see the sights of England and Scotland. He also crossed the Channel to visit France and the Netherlands. He was enchanted by Holland, whose people and customs reminded him of the Dutch traditions of his childhood.

Upon his arrival back in London, he turned down a job offer as an auditor and began to think of returning home. His attorney friend Peter Van Schaack had written from New York that it was now safe to return. "The distinction of Whig and Tory is no more," Van Schaack assured him. He had been promised a generous settlement when all quartermaster accounts were approved. His annuity from Sir William Erskine was arriving regularly at his bank. He now felt financially secure and decided to return to the new republic.

Coming Home
Still troubled by painful attacks of gout, he chose a southern route home, traveling by way of Lisbon, Madeira and Jamaica. He reached New York in June of 1789. His first action was to buy a farm at King's Ferry, near the 44th milestone on the Albany Post Road and not far from the farms of his brothers. Defiantly, he called it King's Grange. He joined the reopened St. Philip's Church in the Highlands in Garrison, which had been closed in 1775 because of Loyalist sympathies.

Financial problems loomed. Annuity payments from Sir William Erskine became irregular. Other members of the Dyckman family became dependent on him: his brother Benjamin and his family of four sons and a daughter, his widowed older sister Jane, whose husband had died during the war, and his mother.

On February 1, 1794, in New York City’s Trinity Church, States Morris Dyckman, married Elizabeth "Betsey" Kennedy, the ward of Peter Corne, her grandfather. Dyckman was 39 or 40; she was 18. That union would result in two children: a boy, Peter Corne Dyckman, born in 1796, and a girl, Letitia Catalina, born in June 1799 and named for her two grandmothers.

In his Journal of a Tour in the United States of America, 1794-1795, English agriculturalist and traveler Sir William Strickland left us a picture of contemporary Cortlandt, where houses "are in a general way much out of repair, and there is an appearance of want of substance in the owners which disables them from improving their houses and cultivating their lands. They seem in general to possess little more than mere necessities. Not a gentleman's seat is met between Dobbs Ferry and Peekskill." States approached agriculture with the same diligence that he had devoted to accounting. He improved the soil with "Plaster of Paris" (lime) and planted cover crops like vetch and clover that were tilled into the soil to improve it.

Strickland described States Dyckman's 240-acre farm as being "improved as far as possible according to the ideas of the country." He found it "in a high state of cultivation . . . and extremely well planted with the best kinds of fruit trees, now in high condition and full bearing, with a good house upon it."

The Dyckmans prided themselves on their hospitality. One traveler, Benjamin West, who had been a guest, wrote to States from Philadelphia: “The manner of doing a thing is certainly not of such trivial importance as is very much imagined here . . .. It either enhances or detracts from a favor,” He then drew “a contrast between the truly friendly attention I experienced at Kings Ferry, and the formal reception of many on whom I have a better claim.” West attributed the difference to “good breeding.”

But there was trouble in paradise. Strapped for cash, in 1793 Dyckman sold his precious library of identically bound books to Chancellor Robert Livingston, and they disappeared upstate. During a 1795 visit to Livingston's house at Clermont, he noticed the distinctive books he had once owned among the volumes in Livingston's library. Next he sold the furniture he had brought back with him from his ten-year stay in England and then his farm animals. He even sold part of his property at King's Ferry and mortgaged the rest.

London Again
Sir William Erskine had died in 1795, and his unstable son, also a general, ceased to honor his father's obligations. Strapped for cash, in an attempt to collect the monies owed to him by the other quartermasters, Dyckman returned to England toward the end of May in 1800 aboard the ship Three Sisters, having waited for the birth of his daughter. In the ship's hold were stowed the papers Dyckman had collected and stashed away during his years of working for the several quartermasters.

As it turned out, his presence in London was propitious. The cooked books of the other quartermasters had come under scrutiny. Thanks to Dyckman's intimate knowledge of their accounts, he was able to reach favorable settlements for them--and a rich reward for himself without resorting to the incriminating papers he had brought. In the meantime, his wife suffered through a series of calamities back home, including the death from scarlet fever of their daughter, Letitia Catalina, and the deaths of his sister Jane and his mother.

States proudly wrote to Peter Corne, his wife's grandfather, telling him that he now had eight thousand pounds sterling, or about some $36,000 (today the equivalent of more than a half million dollars). After an absence of nearly four years, again choosing a southerly route because of his gout, on Oct. 7, 1803, States Morris Dyckman boarded the Tippo Sahib to set sail for home by way of Charleston, South Carolina. He reached New York on January 1, 1804.

Dyckman immediately set about to live in the style he had always dreamed about and that his wealth now made possible. Using patternbooks he brought from England delineating Robert Adam's style of architecture then supplanting the Classical style, he described to his cousin, builder William Vermilye, the beautiful mansion he would build to be called Boscobel. Its name was taken from the Forest of Boscobel, where a legendary giant oak tree had sheltered English King Charles II after his defeat by the forces of Oliver Cromwell.

Unfortunately, he never lived to occupy the house. On a visit to New York City, States Morris Dyckman died on August 11, 1806, at the age of 57 years in the Dyckman farmhouse of his cousin Jacobus in upper Manhattan . Mourners consumed three gallons of sherry, one gallon of brandy, plus “pipes and cigars,” all with a total value of two pounds, 13 shillings and six pence.

Following the practice of the time, he was buried in the Dyckman-Nagle Burial Ground located between 212th and 213th Streets and between Ninth and Tenth avenues in the upper Manhattan neighborhood later called Inwood.

Betsey composed the inscription on his tombstone: "His manners were polite, his taste refined, his conjugal love was pure, his parental strong, his hospitality sprung from benevolence, his charity from feeling and sense of duty. Highly esteemed in life, he was sincerely lamented in death."

Boscobel was still little more than a waiting foundation with 382 panes of glass, 4,000 bricks, 10,000 shingles and a supply of lumber stored nearby. We shall probably never know the identity of the designer of the exquisite jewel of a neoclassical Federal style house that is Boscobel, although William Vermilye was an experienced builder and probably had a hand in its design. The only surviving floor plan is a rough sketch of a more conventional building drawn on the back of an 1804 grocery bill. After her husband's estate was settled in March of 1807, work resumed on Boscobel. Working closely with builder William Vermilye, Betsey saw the house through to completion.

The main feature of the balanced facade of Boscobel is a recessed two-story columned portico with bays on each side and tripartite windows on the first and second floors. A triangular pediment with a semicircular window caps this portico. Above the cornice, the remainder of the roof edge is trimmed with a delicate balustrade.

The exterior is painted yellow with white trim. Unique carved-wood stylized swags, a motif representing the awnings of Palladian houses, fill the spaces between the slender columns. One-third of the area of the facade is made up of windows, giving a surprising brightness to the interior.

Visitors enter a large light-filled central hall. On the right are two drawing rooms; on the left, a dining room and a butler's pantry. At the far end of the hall, a graceful stairway ascends to a landing. Here the stairway splits, each narrow stairway curving to lead to the upper floor.

The second floor contains a front sitting room, bedrooms, a bath and a dressing room. Sarah Wilkerson, a free black servant to the family affectionately called “Sill,” used one bedroom. Two years after States Morris Dyckman's untimely death, his wife and son moved into the sparkling new house.

Editor’s Note: In Part Two of The Boscobel Story, we follow the checkered lives of the descendants of States Morris Dyckman and learn the fate of the house, saved from destruction by the efforts of a small but determined group of concerned citizens.

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