The First American in Africa

Cape Town, 14 April 1675.

On this day a marriage is solemnized in the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town. The entry in the marriage book intriguingly reads:

—“Den 14 Aprill: Hendrick Evertsz Smidt geboortigh van Eupenbieren j.m. en Adriaantje Sterevelt geboortigh uyt Nieuw-Nederlandt jonghe dochter.”

Translated and decoded, it reads,

—“14 April: Hendrick (Evert’s son) Smidt born in Eupenbüren young man and Adriaantje Sterevelt born in New Netherlands young maiden.”

New Netherlands was, of course, the name of the Dutch Colony at New York, the town itself being called New Amsterdam. “Eupenbüren” is most likely Ibbenbüren just west of Osnabrück in Germany.

Three years earlier, on 22 may 1672, Adriana’s older sister, Cornelia, also married in the same church with her origin given as New Netherlands. In earlier Church documentation at the Cape the two are revealed to be orphans. There is no direct evidence of how exactly they came to be at the Cape of Good Hope.

AmaCover2As part of the research effort for AmaBhulu, the author had to research this family. These two orphan siblings constitute the earliest link between South Africa and the United states. This is important, because the book retains a link between the two countries all the way through. Interestingly, in the late 1600s a British officer at New York refers to the Dutch farmers in Upstate New York as “Boers”, the term used by the British in the 19th century for the Afrikaners of South Africa. It is also the source of the title of the book, which is the isiXhosa corruption of the term “Boere”. The prefix “ama-” means “people” and “Bhulu” was the closest the amaXhosa could get to “Boere”, hence “amaBhulu”; the Bhulu people.

On Manhattan

It took some years to get clarity on these two girls, but eventually the secret was revealed. They were the daughters of New Amsterdam resident Adriaen Huybertsz Sterrevelt, son of Egbert Huyberts of Segwaart near Soetermeer in Holland. Their mother was Judith Robberts. Cornelia was baptized in New York on 12 August 1657 and Adriaentje on 29 August 1660. After the death of Judith around late 1662/early 1663, likely in childbirth, Adriaen married widow Thysje Gerrits on 3 May 1663.

The couple owned Aris Otto’s Tavern on Hoogh Straat in New Amsterdam, which was then confined to the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Wall Street was then known as de Cingel and ran along a wooden palisade which bounded the settlement. Back then, their home was one street removed from the East River. See the 1660 Castello plan (click on the map image). Today Hoogh Straat is the blocked off and cobbled/bricked section of Stone Street used for street cafes in the shadow of the imposing Goldman Sachs building. This is shown in the aerial view below.The Stadthuys (City Council Building), the seat of city government, was on the southwestern corner of Stadthuyslaan and ‘t Water, the road along the East River. in other words, it was right round the corner from the Sterrevelt home.

CatelloInteractiveAn absolutely fantastic website providing an interactive map of 1660 New York is available online. Do try it; it is truly  superb, and specifically lists Aris Otto’s tavern, the Sterrevelt home. Just click on the image.

Their home, Aris Otto’s erstwhile tavern, stood more or less halfway along today’s Stone Street (then Hoogh Straat), on the northwestern side. In her time as 3-5 year-old, Ariaentje could watch Governor Peter Stuyvesant ride past their front door on his famous Flanders mare. This was because the street was the most direct route to the all important ferry to Breukelen, which would later become Brooklyn, across the East River. Click on the image to see the full-sized described image.Stone _Street

Their neighbors included Burgermeester Olaf van Cortland, who lived across the road at one point, and negotiated the surrender of New York to the English in 1664. Two others, either side of their house, signed the “Remonstrance” to the tough old Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who meant to oppose the English attack of September 1664. The Remonstrance appealed to Stuyvesant not to endanger the population in this pointless resistance. The document reads,

But (God help us!), whether we turn us for assistance to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west, ’tis all vain! On all sides are we encompassed and hemmed in by our enemies.

Fig.2-3The painting included here is the famous fictionalized scene of the stubborn and ornately peg-legged Stuyvesant standing on the ramparts of the fort, ready to order his men to fire on the Fleet of the English Colonel Nicholl, while the womenfolk and Dominee Megapolensis plead with him not to do so. Note the Indian gunner and the man with the lit match at the ready. Stuyvesant was completely outnumbered in guns and men and powder, but was severely criticized for the surrender. The English came with 600 men while the Governor had a few men and his town militia. He was a tough old guy, but it is said he agreed when he saw his own son’s signature on the Remonstrance.

So, our ancestral Sterrevelts found themselves right in the middle of a pivotal point in American history. Some months later, Sterrevelt left for Holland, recording for posterity that he “no longer knew how to make a living here“. We can trace his arrival in Amsterdam when he registers as a “Tobacco Merchant from Soetermeer”.

The next thing we have is several months later, when the two girls appear at the Cape as orphans. Ariaentje’s life in New Amsterdam is described in more detail in AmaBhulu.

The little Chinese doll

The complete story of the family may be found in AmaBhulu. The genealogical research may be seen (in English) in the paper “Ariaentje geboortigh van Nieuw Nederlandt.” The entire PDF may be downloaded from that site.

copy-tablemountain2.jpgAriaentje would eventually marry three times. In 1690 she and her last husband would be accused of assaulting a boarder at their home in Cape Town. For this they were going to be banned for life to the “tropical hell” of Mauritius, where Ariaentje had been as a young girl in the care of Mr Smiendt, Caretaking Governor of the island.

To avoid this fate, Ariaentje and husband Joost Luns fled the Cape on the 6 June 1692 Return Fleet from the Far East, leaving all the children with the family Smit. The excruciatingly detailed contents of Ariaentje’s home in 1692 may be studied in the Luns Estate Inventory. It is fascinating. The author’s own father used to call a crowbar (koevoet) an “uintjiesyster”. In this inventory it is referred to as “1 ijser om uijen te graven“; clearly the same implement. Some things die slowly.

This author’s wife is descended from Ariaentje’s daughter from her first marriage, Judith, named for Ariaentje’s mother who died in faraway New York in 1663. My family hereby claims its 17th Century American ancestry via Ariaentje’s daughter deserted in Africa.

If anyone knows what happened to our Chinese doll that another of my ancestors  got, please let me know. To understand this strange question, you’ll have to read the paper linked above and live Ariaentje’s life for an hour as I did for many months of research. It wil also allow the reader to find out what likely eventually happened to Ariaentje. As to the missing horse, I have absolutely no idea.

So, tell me that bit again about history and genealogy being boring…(!)