Walking in the footsteps of the past

The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, New York was built in 1652, one year before my ancestor Willem Traphagen arrived in the New World. Almost certainly he saw this house but could not possibly imagine me standing there. It would be like me imagining a descendant there in the year 2376. Mitch Traphagen Photo


I stood in front of the oldest house in one of the oldest cities in America and tried to open my mind to the past.  The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn was built in 1652, only a year before my ancestor Willem Traphagen arrived in the New World. From where the port was to where he eventually settled, he almost certainly would have passed this house. As there were relatively few structures at that time, he likely stopped for a look. Back then, the population of what would become New York City was only a few thousand people, spread out among farms and small, developing villages.

There is no way he could have imagined me, his direct descendant, standing in front of the same house in 2013. There is no way he could have imagined 2013. That would be like me trying to imagine one of my descendants standing in this same place in the year 2376. People sure as hell better have flying cars by then.

Genealogy is the study and history of families. Seeking out the roots of your family, the lineage from whence you came, can do much to help explain who and what you are today. Despite our technological society that Willem Traphagen could never have imagined 350 years ago, many of the problems and challenges we face today have already been faced and solved by those who came before us. More often than not, what is old is new again.

My journey in finding my past was a fairly easy one. First and foremost was that an enormous amount of research had already been done by a man from Kansas City named Christopher Brooks. He has been researching my family name for at least two decades, even making visits to Germany to search ancient records. At last report, he had traced the name back to two brothers who had leased a lake in the 1300s.

Secondly, my ancestor Willem had what must have been thought of as a tendency to make waves. And, as a child from a family of considerable means, he also felt compelled to have much of his life documented in official records — including a somewhat premature last will and testament made before a court in New York in the 1680s. He left his family home in Germany during what were likely the darkest years of the Thirty Years’ War, arriving in Amsterdam to become a journeyman baker.

Rhinebeck, New York. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Soon after, he made his way to the New World to start all over again. He was one of 23 men who signed on to charter the community of Bushwick, now part of Brooklyn, New York; he made things happen, got into trouble, lost everything and worked his way back — more than once. He was the essence of what could be considered an American more than a century before there was an America.

His grandson, William, who also opened the Traphagen Tavern, now the Beekman Arms, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the United States, founded the town of Rhinebeck, New York. I visited the Beekman Arms in the hopes of finding ghosts, which unfortunately proved elusive. On the upside, I had the rare experience of not having to spell out my name when I made a dinner reservation at the hotel’s Traphagen Tavern restaurant (since renamed and reduced to…a “Traphagen Burger”).  More, on that trip I made contact with an archivist from New York State who later managed to find Willem’s will in the state records, bringing his words and sentiments forward through the centuries.

Willem was likely in his 70s or early 80s when he passed away, a remarkable feat in a place and an age when life expectancy was only 40 or so years. Through his failures, successes and words, he lives on today. For me, that is fortuitous as he carries with him lessons on life. From him, I know the worst can be overcome, that life isn’t merely any given moment, it is a collection of times good and bad with things tending to work out in the end.

Moving through the centuries, I found that Henry Traphagen was the mayor of Jersey City in 1874, Ethel Traphagen, a New York fashion designer, is credited with bringing shorts and slacks for women into the mainstream in the early 1900s and Dake Traphagen, a luthier, is still building beautiful, high-end classical guitars in Washington State.

Although I’ll hopefully never be tied to a stake in the town square, as Willem was in Bushwick, I’d survive it, too. I wonder if they still do that? Eh, things would work out.

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