The Van Tassel Family, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Washington Irving
Daniel Van Tassel Gives the Results of His Investigations
of Many Years.
To the Editor of the New York Times:
-May 28, 1898-
I have read with much interest the letters which have appeared from time to time in the TIMES'S SATURDAY REVIEW concerning Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow and write under the belief that I can straighten some of the crooked ways of the controversy, and correct a few ancient errors.
I strongly agree with one of the writers that the "geography of the legend belongs to Tarrytown." The description of Sleepy Hollow is correct; the journey of Ichabod Crane "along the sides of a range of hills that look out upon some of the godliest scenes of the mighty Hudson," will be recalled when one now travels over the self-same road; the picture of the old Dutch church and its surrounding territory is remarkably true to nature. The home of Baltus Van Tassel is none other than what afterward was Sunnyside. No one can mistake the author's plain intention. In all of these descriptions are so accurate in detail that one is led to the conclusion that they were not written elsewhere from uncertain memory, but must have come from notes taken upon the spot. Then, again, how remarkably correct is the author as to the return trip of Ichabod Crane up the Highland turnpike, the Andree whitewood tree, Wiley's Swamp, and the brook that crossed the road, formerly Clark's Kill, now Andree Brook; then, further along, the meeting of the roads, west down the hill to the old Dutch church, and east over the rising ground along Bedford Road on the way to Sleepy Hollow. Of course, all through the story runs the varying lines of Irving's witty imagination. Due allowance must be made when we learn of the remarkable collection of articles kept on Baltus Van Tassel's front stoop. And when we read that Ichabod on his homeward way heard the barking of the Nyack watchdogs over three and a half miles of water and a half mile of land, we must only note how very acute disappointment had made his hearing. Nowadays the only sounds which cross the waters are fro the deep-toned church bells when the wind is right.
As to the names used by Irving my knowledge of the records of the old Dutch church, as also of the county, manor, and town records, enables me to say that the name Baltus never was attached to any child in this vicinity. But, while examining the records of the old Albany County churches, I have come across it. Van Brunt is a Long Island name. It does not appear upon our early records, nor did we ever have the family name of Van Ripper. The only name that he uses that is local is the one I bear.
Before, during, and after the Revolution there resided in the upper part of Sleepy Hollow an Abraham Van Tassel, the younger brother of John Van Tassel, my great-grandfather. He was tall, spare, and large boned. To distinguish him from others of the same name then residing hereabout, he was called "Brom Bones." Prof. Bashford, Dean of Columbia College has an original Revolutionary muster roll of Capt. Gabriel Requa's company. This name appears upon the list, "Abraham Van Tassel (Bones.") With this parenthetical word added there could be no mistaking the person meant. Abraham Van Tassel was a man of gentle disposition, with a decidedly religious turn. While his pugnacious brother John fought in the French war and afterward from start to finish in the Revoluton, Abraham never left the Hollow. He quietly cultivated his fields, reared a moderately large family, and regularly of a Sunday attended the services held at the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, of which he was a member, and for some years its voorleser (leader in singing and reading.) A quiet, exemplary citizen, who closed his eyes for the last time in the Spring of 1826.
I believe that Irving got the nickname "Brom Bones" from our locality, but I know that the characters of Brom Van Brunt and Abraham Van Tassel were widely variant. It is possible that as Mr. Harold Van Santvoort says, the original Van Brunt was of Kinderhook. I certainly know of no traditional character of the kind here. This neighborhood used to be a remarkable one for nicknames. Among the Van Tassels we had Cooper Bill, Gentleman Bill, Butcher Bill, Devil Bill, (this latter illustrated his condition when intoxicated.) Crazy Brom, and Hogadine, (proper name John.) Among the Lees there were Smoking Isaac, Peter the Staver, (because he had a large family,) Squire, by nomination Jimmy, (because he had once been nominated for Justice of the Peace and failed of election,) and others. It is easy to see that in a country so rich in nicknames Irving did not need the help of his imagination.
I now come to the Sleepy Hollow schoolhouse. This part of the legend is made up or transplanted from some other locality. The pre-Revolutionary schoolhouses of this neighborhood are well known. The one near us was on the hill back of the First Reformed Church, and not far from the parsonage of the pastor, the Rev. J. K. Allen. It was upon the original line of the King's Highway from New York to Albany, as laid out in 1723. This particular section of the old roadway, beginning at the northwesterly and of the graveyard of the Sleepy Hollow Church, and ending at Franklin Street, Tarrytown, was discontinued about 1700, for the present line of the street, but we find evidence that it was sometimes used during the Revolution. As to Sleepy Hollow itself it is a well-known fact that there never was a log schoolhouse in it. When Fredrick Philip's estate was condemned because of his treason, the State appointed commissioners to sell the land. These commissioners caused to be surveyed and mapped out in 1785 the whole manor of Philipsburg from Yonkers to the Croton River, and from the Bronx to the Hudson. The map is still in existence. It shows every house, church, schoolhouse, and mill building then standing. It does not show the old schoolhouse I have spoken of, because it was destroyed during the war, but it does locate the Straw Schoolhouse on the Bedford Road, near Pleasantville. As to the Hollow, no schoolhouse is shown.
About three years ago, desiring to get at the facts, I made searches of all town and county records and interviewed a large number of old people who were born in the Hollow. The conclusion was that no schoolhouse ever stood in the Hollow until about sixty-two years ago. I found that all of the very old people attended at the Squash Hill School, located on the Bedford Road at Pocantico Hills. Many of them told me that they remembered the erection of the first school building in the Hollow. The official records show that the first trustees of the new Sleepy Hollow School District bought from the owner, Willam Sharpenny, (Champenois,) in the Summer of 1836 a small lot at the corner of the highway and a land, and erected upon it a one-roomed, low-roofed school building. I well remember it, as also do many other residents hereabouts. It was torn down in 1866, and the second school building put up. Lately a third and more modern schoolhouse has been erected, and the Trustees now wish to sell the second building. This has aroused a number of very strange protests. It must be remembered that Irving died in 1859, yet certain uninformed persons have taken up the subject and deceived the sentimental public. We are told that this is the schoolhouse that Irving used to visit, gossip with the teacher, and joke with the scholars. Sleepy Hollow, with its misty past, is entitled to take many liberties, and may impose somewhat upon our good nature, but it should not insist that Irving used to visit in this school building seven years after his demise.
I have for some time known that Jesse Merwin was the prototype of Ichabod Crane, but have often wondered where the log schoolhouse came from. Mr. Van Santvoord says, for so I understand him, that the schoolhouse that Merwin taught in at Kinderhook was built of logs. This answers my oft-repeated query. Irving in his poetic fancy transferred it and its teacher to Sleepy Hollow. We admit his right and gratefully accept his story.
As to the location the author chose none other could be found so charming. Now there is a road leading over an almost level way into the Hollow, but when Irving went there and when I was young all had to go over the pre-Revolutionary highway. As one turns from the Bedford Road to go down into the Hollow by this road a delightfully attractive view of the valley and its wooded sides is before you-a most attractive picture. In boyhood days it was a rare pleasure to wander over its old road bordered with antique homesteads, and tramp along the banks of romantic Pocantico, with its twisting course, its tumultuous rapids, its recessed shaded pools, it stretches of deep water, to be followed again by a noisy whitened tumbling as the stream scurried amid many boulders to a quieter level. I never wondered, either, that Irving loved to linger here or that he should have peopled it with mysteries when preparing his legend.
DANIEL VAN TASSEL
Tarrytown. N.Y. May 21, 1898.