Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Why Did the Settlement at West Chester Planted by Thomas Pell Reportedly Display the "Parliament's Arms"?


The story of the first English settlement planted on the lands acquired by Thomas Pell from local Native Americans on June 27, 1654 is fascinating.  The settlement was known as West Chester by the English.  It was known as Oostdorp (East Village) by the Dutch. It was located near today's Westchester Square in The Bronx.  I have written about this settlement on many, many occasions, given its importance to the history of our town.  Here are a few of many examples.

Tue., Apr. 24, 2018:  Important New Scholarship on the Men to Whom Thomas Pell Sold Part of the Manor of Pelham in 1654.

Wed., Aug. 19, 2015:  Dutch Records Regarding Thomas Pell's Settlement at Oostdorp, Known by the English as the Village of West Chester.

Fri., Apr. 24, 2009:  Dutch Authorities Remove the Settlers At West Chester in March, 1656.

Fri., Jan. 02, 2009:  An Account of the Dutch Capture of Westchester in 1656.

Thu., Oct. 18, 2007:  April 19, 1655 Dutch Protest Against Thomas Pell's Efforts To Settle Englishmen on Lands the Dutch Called VreedLandt.  

Mon., Oct. 16, 2006:  17th Century Papers Relating To Westchester County Published in 1849 Contain References Important to Pelham.

Thu., Apr. 13, 2006:  Rumors in 1657 That Thomas Pell Manipulated Local Native Americans To Protect His Land Acquisition From Incursions by the Dutch.  

Mon., Aug. 17, 2015:  Buyer's Remorse:  After Thomas Pell Bought Pelham From Native Americans, He Wanted His Money Back!

For a general history of the English plantation once known as Westchester, West Chester, Oostdorp, Oost-Dorp, East-Town, East-Towne, Easttowne and by many more names, see the following: 

The Borough Towne of Westchester -- An Address Delivered by Fordham Morris, on the 28th Day of October, 1896, Before the Westchester County Historical Society, in the Court House at White Plains, N. Y. (White Plains, NY:  Privately Printed, Ca. 1896).  


Thomas Pell’s successful negotiation of the so-called "Indian Deed" with local Native Americans for the purchase of the land that subsequently became known as the Manor of Pelham had enormous implications for the dispute between the English and the Dutch over control of the area. The tract was vast -- about 50,000 acres. The Dutch claimed some of it.   Effective dominion over the lands could block any further northward movement of Dutch settlers – at least along the shore of the Long Island Sound westward to an area just beyond the Hutchinson River.   As one judicial authority has said in examining the acquisition, Thomas Pell’s purchase was “a bold attempt to extend English hegemony in the New World at the expense of the Dutch.”

Pell soon arranged settlement of a portion of the area near its western / southwestern border directly on the fault line between the feuding Dutch and English colonies.  The Dutch called the larger tract within which the settlement was located "Vreedland” (among other spellings including Freedlant, Vreedlandt, Vreelant, and Vreedlant).  Indeed, the lands that later became today's Pelham were first called "Vreedlandt."

Within months after Thomas Pell obtained his so-called "Indian Deed" to the land, he made land available to English settlers who planted a settlement at the mouth of today’s Westchester Creek in what is known now as The Bronx.  The Dutch and others later called the little settlement “Oostdorp” or “Easttowne”.

The enormity of Pell’s move was not lost on Dutch authorities.  Almost immediately they took steps to halt it.  At a meeting of the director general and council of the New Netherlands, it was resolved:

“that whereas a few English are beginning a settlement at a great distance from our outposts, on lands long before bought and paid for, near Vreedlant, to send there an interdict, and the attorney general, Cornelius van [Thienhoven], and forbid them to proceed no farther, but to abandon that spot. . . .”

On April 22, 1655, Dutch authorities served a formal protest dated April 19, 1655 on the settlers at Vreedland.   According to Lockwood Barr, who wrote a popular book on the history of Pelham and its surrounding area, the protest was served on Thomas Pell.  That is unlikely since it seems to have been served on leaders of the community in which Pell never resided.  Written in Dutch, the protest laid claims to the lands Pell had bought.

The response, reportedly delivered on behalf of the settlers at Vreedland, suggests both their strength of character and resolve on behalf of the Commonwealth and, presumably, for personal gain. The Dutch official named Claes van Elslant who delivered the protest returned to the Dutch authorities with the following reply ascribed to the settlers:

“Why doth not the Fiscal write English?  Then we could answer in writing; we expect a settlement of the boundary between Holland and England; until then, we abide under the State of England.”

The Dutch were unwilling to ignore such a dismissal of their demand.  They invaded the settlement and removed many of the Englishmen to a prison ship near Fort Amsterdam.  Eventually, the settlers were released and forced to pledge allegiance to the Dutch in order to be permitted to settle in the area under Dutch authority.  In March, 1656, however, the Dutch Fiscal presented a statement to the Director-General and the Council of New Netherland summarizing Thomas Pell’s “intrusion” at West Chester and asking that he be ordered, once again, to quit the area.

When the Dutch official (the official "Court Messenger") named Claes van Elslant appeared at the newly-planted settlement at West Chester on April 22, 1655 to deliver a warning from the Dutch Director General and his Council, he observed a number of things according to his later report of the incident.  He observed "houses" near where he could "land" his boat.  He was met by four "armed men" who tried to stop him from landing and stepping onto the land of the settlement.  He stepped out anyway to read the Dutch protest.  He then was held there until the "leader" of the group of New Englanders was brought forward, armed with a pistol and accompanied by eight to ten armed men "more."  Claes van Elslant was with a colleague referenced as "Albert the trumpeter" who accompanied him presumably to call an assembly with a horn if necessary.  

The two Dutch men were, for a time, placed under guard in a "hut on the shore well guarded by men."   The English told the two men that if they had any wine they would have shared it, but they had none.  The English then, in an apparent show of force, "discharged their guns all round."

In his subsequent report of the events, Court Messenger Claes van Elslant reported that he tried to gain some intelligence about the little settlement against which the Dutch planned to take actions to expel the settlers.  He reported as follows:  "I had also inclined to see their houses and fixtures; also, the Parliament's arms, which the English say hang on a tree, carved on a plank; but they left us standing in a hut on the shore well guarded by men.  Done as above."  Immediately below is van Elslant's brief report to Dutch authorities, in its entirety.  


"This day, 22d April, 1655, have I, Claes van Elslant, Court Messenger, by order of the Hon ble Fiscal, Cornelis van Tienhoven and the Supreme Council of New Amsterdam, in New Netherland, protested against those who were building the new village on the Company's land called Vreedlant; four armed men came to meet me at the ill, demanded what I was after?  I said, Where best could I land; near the houses?  They answered, You shall not land.  I said, Let me land, I am cold; and I sprung ashore.  Whereupon I and Albert the trumpeter, were placed under a guard and warned not to advance a foot further, until he who had the command came to us with a pistol, holding the barrel forward in his hand, accompanied by 8 @ 10 armed men more, to whom I read the Protest, word for word, and handed him the same, who gave for answer:  I cannot understand Dutch; why did not the Fiscal send it in English?  If you send it in English, then shall I answer in writing.  But, said he, that's no matter; we expect the ships from Holland and England which are to bring the settlement of the boundary.  Whether we are to dwell here under the States or under the Parliament, time will tell; furthermore, we abide here under the States of England.  Whereupon we took our departure.  They said, if we had a sup of wine we should offer you some; but we have not any.  And they discharged their guns all round.  I had also inclined to see their houses and fixtures; also, the Parliament's arms, which the English say hang on a tree, carved on a plank; but they left us standing in a hut on the shore well guarded by men.  Done as above.

(Signed), 

CLAES VAN ELSLANT."

Source:  O'Callaghan, E. B., ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York; Procured In Holland, England and France by John Romeyn Brodhead, Esq., Agent, Vol. II,  p. 161 (Albany, NY:  Weed, Parsons and Co., 1858).   

I have indicated on the 1868 map of the Town of Westchester immediately below roughly where I believe this tiny little settlement stood in 1654.


1868 Map of the Town of Westchester With Red Outline of Area
Where This Author Believes the First Huts Were Built in Late 1654
to Plant the Settlement of West Chester Begun by Thomas Pell.
Source:  Beers, Frederick W., "Town of Westchester, Westchester
Co., N.Y." in Atlas of New York and Vicinity from Actual Surveys By
and Under the Direction of F. W. Beers, Assisted by A. B.
Prindle & Others, pg. 14 (Philadelphia, PA: James McGugan,
1868). NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

The brief report of Claes van Elslant to the Director General and his Council in Fort Amsterdam is fascinating for a host of reasons.  It affirms that on April 22, 1655, only six or seven months after the settlement was planted, there were at least fourteen to sixteen armed settlers present and that they already had built "houses" and a "hut on the shore."  It further demonstrates that the houses were "near" a shore where a boat could have landed.  It affirms that the settlers knew they were on disputed land and even recognized that they believed that news from England would arrive any day with an indication of precisely where the disputed boundary between New Netherland and New England would be settled.  Thus, the leader of the settlers reportedly stated:  "we expect the ships from Holland and England which are to bring the settlement of the boundary.  Whether we are to dwell here under the States or under the Parliament, time will tell."

In short, the settlers understood that Thomas Pell had planted them on lands claimed by the Dutch.  They also recognized that depending on where their nations, through negotiations, settled on the boundary between their colonial holdings known as New Netherland and New England, they might eventually be subject to local Dutch rule or local English rule.

The reference to Parliament by the leader of the New England settlers is also important.  Oliver Cromwell (a "Roundhead" or Parliamentarian) had played a significant role in the defeat of the Royalists during the English Civil War and, on December 16, 1653, became the "Lord Protector" of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  In short, there was no English King to which the New Englanders could profess allegiance -- hence the references to whether they would "dwell here under the States [i.e., Dutch dominion] or under the Parliament."

Even more fascinating is Claes van Elslant's report that while he was present in the tiny settlement he tried to see "the Parliament's arms, which the English say hang on a tree, carved on a plank."  What were these "Parliament's arms" and why did they convey such significance that van Elslant felt compelled to report to Dutch authorities in New Amsterdam that he had tried to determine whether they, in fact, had been carved on a plank and were hung in the settlement by the English?

The concept of marking territory with Royal Arms almost like a boundary or no trespassing sign was important to the Dutch.  In the case of the English at that particular time, however, they had no King (rather, they had a Lord Protector).  Thus, they had no "Royal" Arms as previous English Kings had had.  It seems likely that the reference to "Parliament's arms" is a reference to the "Arms of His Highness By the Grace of God and Republic, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland" that represented the dominion of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.  

Those arms are described as follows:  

Crest:  "A demi lion issuant argent, holding in his paws a broken spear proper" 

Escutcheon:  "Quarterly of six: first, sable, a lion rampant argent; second, sable, three spear-heads argent imbrued proper; third, sable, a chevron between three fleurs-de-lis argent; fourth, gules, three chevrons argent; fifth, argent, a lion rampant sable; sixth, argent, on a chevron sable a mullet of the field."  

An example of an image of the arms is depicted immediately below.



Coat of Arms of Oliver Cromwell (1599 - 1658).  English Military
and Political Leader and Later Lord Protector of the Commonwealth
of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Source:  Wikipedia.  NOTE:  Click
on Image to Enlarge.





One scholar recently has emphasized the importance to the colonial Dutch authorities and to the West India Company of affixing the Arms of the States General "in prominent places along the coast" in the region over which the Dutch exercised dominion in New Netherland.  Thus, of course, for settlers from another nation to affix the arms of their nation along the coast in an area claimed by the Dutch as part of New Netherland would have been viewed as a direct slap in the face of Dutch authorities and, indeed, a hostile action.  

As Professor Andrew Lipman recently wrote in his important study entitled "The Saltwater Frontier:  Indians and the Contest for the American Coast":  

"To establish the bounds of their trading zone Dutch colonists affixed 'the Arms of the States General' in prominent places along the coast.  Soon these shield-shaped plates of metal adorned spots from Cape Cod to the current site of Philadelphia.  The historian Patricia Seed points out that since the Middle Ages Dutch market towns used 'municipal arms as equivalent to modern 'No Trespassing' signs.'  Posted around the outskirts of town, they allowed a city to assert 'its freedom from the local lord, warning revenue, judicial, and military officers to 'keep out' for the town administered these functions.'  These metal plaques served as warnings that any violation of Dutch commercial territory would be answered with force.  Amsterdam's emblem, adorned with three diagonal crosses in a kind of triple-X shape, is the most famous of these medieval seals.

The exact appearance of the States Arms is unknown, but most were likely fashioned from copper, and they almost certainly featured De Nederlandse leeuw (Dutch lion) holding seven arrows in its right paw, representing the seven provinces united against Spanish tyranny.  As the historian Simon Schama points out, this heraldic climbing leeuw was a ubiquitous symbol in seventeenth-century Dutch visual culture.  Lions appeared in relief on silver coins, pressed into sealing wax, etched in woodcuts, and traced on maps that arranged the seven provinces into the form of the iconic leeuw, while the animal itself was shown holding raised swords, bounding from the sea or surrounded by a stockade wall in defiance of Spanish sieges.  Perhaps a few centuries-old leonine images are still scattered somewhere deep in the soil near Manhattan; in 1972 an excavation at the footprint of Fort Amsterdam unearthed a finely made clay pipe dating to the 1660s with a maker's mark on the heel featuring the triumphant great cat.

The copper lions the West India Company affixed to trees were subject to frequent vandalism.  'Mischievous savages' from the Delaware Bay had pilfered one of these arms near the Swanendael settlement in 1631, possibly as a protest against an act they recognized as staking out territory or perhaps to reuse the valuable copper.  The furious Swanendael colonists demanded that the Indians bring them the head of the thief.  The Natives obliged the request, but the Dutch remained suspicious:  a colonist later assumed the incident was the cause of the eventual destruction of the settlement by Indians.  Colonial competitors were likewise known to have defaced the arms on multiple occasions.

The West India Company's belief that marking their trading zones with metal seals would reify the borders of New Netherland was just as compromised and self-serving a ploy as the opportunistic claims of vacuum domicilium by the English.  There was a basic ideological chasm between the rivals on the topic of possession.  The Dutch tended to believe that trafficking where Indians were still present would grant them ownership and authority over the territory, while the English gained a purchase on the mainland by opportunistically repopulating and replanting the ruins of a devastated Native landscape.  To put it in the most simple terms, the Dutch leadership presumed that American territory could be theirs through commerce, while the English liked to think their chosen corner of the continent was a gift given by God."

Source:  Lipman, Andrew, The Saltwater Frontier:  Indians and the Contest for the American Coast, pp. 119-121 (New Haven, CT and London:  Yale University Press, 2015) (endnotes omitted).

Thus, on April 22, 1655, Claes van Elslant looked for the "Parliament's arms" that he had heard had been carved on a plank and hung by the New Englanders in the tiny little settlement of West Chester.  Though there is no evidence he saw such arms, he noted that he was held in a hut near shore and was not allowed to look around.  Clearly van Elslant understood that if such arms were present and he reported that fact back to the Dutch authorities, it would incense them even further -- though they already were furious that the New Englanders had settled on Thomas Pell's lands that the Dutch claimed as theirs.

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