On Saturdays, the folks that make their way up the hill towards the Old Dutch Church do so with various intentions – or no intentions at all. Some find themselves walking through the church doors not really knowing why they came. They know nothing of Irving, The Legend, the Dutch, or the history, but they show up, as if answering a summons from On High. I try to leave them a little more enlightened, but truthfully, if they experience a respite from the noisy world and some moments of peace within these historic walls, that makes the climb worth it. I think that’s what may have drawn Irving to this place when he described the church in these lines from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:
It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity, beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson.Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
The walls are no longer white-washed, but Irving would recognize his old friend. And he would have been happy to welcome the descendants of the Van Tassel family that arrived today to locate the headstones of ancestors who were among the first families of Philipsburg Manor. They knew the story of Cornelius and Petrus Van Tassel and that fateful night when they engaged a Hessian unit bent on looting Cornelius’ farmstead and who in the course of the scuffle lit the house on fire. Little Leah, baby of Cornelius and Elizabeth, was thought to be inside the house, but happily, the baby was returned unharmed into the arms of her mother by one the Hessian soldiers. Petrus and Cornelius would spend the next 11 months in a British prison. But they would survive and make their way back home. A footnote to this story is that legend has it that following the fire the Van Tassels discovered the headless corpse of a Hessian solider and thinking back to the soldier who saved the child, requested that the church bury the soldier. The Elders finally capitulated to the request with the caveat that the grave remain unmarked by headstone or monument. It’s possible that Irving would have heard this story and perhaps we can imagine that the author had this unfortunate Hessian in mind when writing his Legend. But Petrus, his wife Catriena Ecker, Cornelius and his wife Elizabeth Storm were real and they are remembered by headstone and epitaphs, most of which can still be seen today.
Epitaph of Petrus Van Tessel (Soldier of the Revolution) d. 1784
Long Long this stone & mould,ring clay / Shall melt thy wife & childrens eyes / And to each other shall they say / Here a tender friend and father lies.
His wife Catriena Ecker (whose name may have inspired the name Katrina in The Legend) d. 1793
Who can grieve too much! / What time shall end, / Our mourning for / So dear a friend.
Epitaph of Lt. Cornelius Van Tassel (Soldier of the Revolution) d. 1820 and his wife, Elizabeth Storm (shared headstone) d. 1825
In vain your tears ye faithful mourners rise / Your friends is safely lodg’d within the skies.
You don’t have to be a Van Tassel to be inspired by these frontier tenant-farmers who fought and suffered for the patriot cause. While baby Leah and her mother survived the fire that destroyed their home, Cornelius Jr died from illness caused by exposure that night. Petrus lived one more year after peace was declared, his health affected by his war-time incarceration. Lt. Cornelius Van Tassel was able to purchase his property from the New York Commission of Forfeiture and lived until 1820, his wife following him five years later. In the almost 40 years that separated the death of these two couples, headstone engraving styles would change. Gone is the “Soul Effigy” that signified the ascent of the soul to heaven in the colonial headstones – in it’s place a lettering style with more flourishes.
Note: The family name Van Tassel is the same as Van Tessel, and Van Tassell.