Magazine of The Dutch Colonial
Period in America
Vol. lxi, No. 4, 1988
Vol. lxii, No. 1, 1989
Vol. lxii, No. 4, 1989
Published by the Holland Society of New York
123 East 58th Street, New York, N.Y.
Cornelius Comegys (1630-1708): Young Man From Lexmond
His Career and His Family
by Robert G. Comegys
Dr. Robert G. Comegys is Professor Emeritus of History at California State University, Fresno.
On the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay in Kent County, Maryland. Comegys Creek drains into Comegys Bight, a small cove on the north shore of the Chester River. The names of the two waterways perpetuate the memory of an enterprising young Dutchman, Cornelius Comegys from "Lexmond in the land of Vianen" who came to the Eastern Shore in 1661 and who, during a busy lifetime, acquired some 4800 acres of land and held numerous offices of public trust. His last name is also retained by two well-known eighteenth century houses constructed by a son and grandson respectively. Comegys House put up in 1708 stands at a crossing of the Chester River near the town of Crumpton. Comegys Bight House built in 1768 stands on Utrick, a misspelled version of Utrecht, and a tract of land acquired and named by the Dutch immigrant.
A more important evidence of the vigorous Dutchman is provided by those who have his last name. Comegys was the father of five sons who in turn made him the grandfather of ten young men. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776 the Comegys were a family firmly established in Kent County. At least seven Comegys men enrolled in military units during the Revolution, and as the young republic grew and prospered in the nineteenth century members of the family participated in the general expansion. By 1988 possibly 500 individuals, sprinkled between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, claimed the name of the young Hollander who left Lexmond more than 300 years ago. Since the Comegys were initially a southern family and shared in the great American tragedy of slave holding, some of these people are Black. All in all, the Comegys are a representative American family of business and professional people, farmers, laborers, artists and clergymen whose lives reveal in small detail the major features of the American experience.
The origin and early history of this small but interesting family can be traced in broad outline through the records of Lexmond, New Amsterdam, the colony and state of Maryland. Above all, the archival records of Maryland and the judicial and land records of Kent County are remarkably complete for the seventeenth century.
There are gaps in the story. Papers of the Dutch West Indies Company that might have provided details of emigration and early settlement in America have been lost. Unfortunately the circumstances under which Comegys bought and then lost a farm on Manhattan Island are not completely known. Few church documents for seventeenth century Kent County have survived, but very little can be found concerning Comegys' three wives. Dutch naming practice in the years before surnames had been firmly established and the vagaries of early Dutch and English spelling challenge one's understanding. But thanks to the generous assistance of the historical society Het Land Van Brederode of Vianen and the diligent scholarship of Drs. J. Heniger who researched Lexmond records housed in the General State Archives, The Hague, the family background and many details of the early history of Cornelius Comegys are now known.
Documents from Maryland, New Amsterdam and Lexmond discussed in reverse chronological order prove that Cornelius Comegys, the Maryland planter, was born in year 1630, the son of a prominent Lexmond villager identified sometimes as Cornelis Comen Ghysen, at other times as Cornelis Gijsberts. But as the documents are reviewed one must keep in mind old Dutch naming practice and remember that in the years before family names had become common that men often identified themselves in two ways. Sometimes they combined their Christian name with the genitive form of the father's name. On other occasions they added the father's occupation or some other special Identifying description.
An Act of the Maryland Assembly dated October 10, 1671 links the Maryland planter to Lexmond. In that year, Cornelius Comegys "bome in Lexmond" and his wife "Millimente" (sic) of Barneveld received all the rights of "natureall borne people" in the province. Another link between the Dutchman and Lexmond can be found in the marriage records of New Amsterdam's Dutch Reformed Church. March 29, 1658 Cornelis Cornelissen of Lexmond in the land of Vianen married Williamentje Gysbert from Barneveld on the Veluwe. The similarities of names prove that Cornelius Comegys of Maryland was the Cornelis Cornelissen of New Amsterdam. Finally, the Baptismal Record of Lexmond's Reformed Church notes October 10, 1630 the baptism of Cornelis, the child of Cornelis Comen Ghysen.
Remembering seventeenth century naming practice and the easy spelling of those times three pertinent bits of information can be drawn from the Lexmond baptismal record. First, the child's first name, Cornelis, when combined with the possessive form of the father's Christian name explains the Cornelis Cornelissen used in the New Amsterdam marriage record. Second, it clarifies the origin of the family name Comegys. This patronymic is derived from two good Dutch words---comen, sometimes spelled coman, meaning according to use trader, merchant or peddler, and Ghysbartus (Gilbert) shortened to Ghys and spelled variously Gis or Gvs. Obviously Comen Gvs reduced easily to Comegys. Third, the father's name tells us something about the grandfather of the little Marylander to be. The grandfather's name was Gijsbert, however spelled, and if comen describes his occupation then he was a trader. Lexmond's records support this conclusion. There are indeed references to a certain Gijsbert Janz in 1610 and 1611, further identified as kremer - a synonym for comen.
That the references in Lexmond's records to Cornelis Comen Ghysen refer to the father of Cornelius Comegys, the Maryland planter, there can be no doubt. But in those years of the seventeenth century Lexmond's records frequently refer to a prominent villager. Cornelis Gijsberts whose father's name, of course, was Gijsbert. Could Cornelis Gijsbert and Cornelis Comen Ghysen be the same man?<
Two more records must be considered: the first, taken from a copy of the original Baptismal Book of Lexmond's church and housed in the Lexmond City Hall is the baptismal record dated "in Maitio" (May 6, 1626) of Garrike, the daughter of Cornelis Comen Ghijsen (sic). The second taken from Lexmond's judicial records is the attestation of Cornelis Gijsberts dated May 30, 1634 in which he refers to his deceased wife, Jannegen Jans, and names his five children including a youngest son, Cornelis, and a daughter, Gerrichgen. Gerrichgen is the diminutive form of Garrike. The Garrike of Cornelis Comen Ghijsen is the same young girl as Gerrichgen of Cornelis Gijsberts. In a little village of only a few hundred people Cornelis Gijsberis and Cornelis Comen Ghijsen have too much in common for the similarities to be a coincidence. Both men had a father, Gijsbert: a son, Cornelis, and a daughter, Garrike or Gerrichgen. The two names refer to the same man and therefore to the father of the young Lexmonder who made his way in Maryland.
Lexmond, the home village of the Comegys, lay on the south bank of the river Lek in a flat flood-plain called the Betuwe. Perpetual strife between the Counts of Holland, the Bishops of Utrecht and the various rulers of the Holy Roman Empire colors the early history of the region around Lexmond as each of the medieval rulers sought political and economic control of the land. By the thirteenth century the Count of Holland claimed the area and had given it in fief to the powerful Bishop of Utrecht who in turn sub-infeudated to local noblemen.
As early as 1133 Lexmond existed as a small fortified place, but in that year it was burned down in one of the wars between the Count of Holland and the Bishop of Utrecht. Thereafter it, was a little unwalled village of a few hundred people with houses grouped around the church. In these same years, or a little later, there are references to settlement at Vianen. This more important town was founded in 1335. It lay about three miles upstream near the castle of the local lord who sometime in the late 1200's acquired Lexmond. After 1415 and until 1684 the aristocratic Van Brederodes were lords of Vianen and therefore of little Lexmond. A typical medieval contest went on in these years with the Van Brederodes denying their dependence on the Bishop and the Chamber of Vianen demanding special privileges from the Van Brederodes such as sanctuary, safe conduct and freedom from tolls.
In 1630 when Cornelis was born Lexmond was part of Landen Van Vianen en Ameide, a tiny principality about 3000 acres in size. From their impressive town-castle, Batestein, in Vianen the Van Brederodes provided a leadership based on law and custom for the respectful inhabitants of Land of Vianen. In Lexmond political administration lay in the hands of a board of seven aldermen headed by a schout, an official who exercised administrative, judicial and police powers and whose closest English equivalent is mayor. All these officials received appointment from the lord.
When the storm of the Protestant Reformation and the famous Dutch revolt against Spanish Hapsburg autocracy swept across the Low Countries the rulers and people of Land of Vianen moved with the winds. Count Henry Van Brederode (1531-1568), an experienced cavalryman, witty and of easy morals, was an important leader in the initial Dutch resistance. As a result Vianen, identified as one of the centers of conspiracy and insurgency, suffered occupation by a Spanish regiment and supervision by a Spanish intendant for nine Years until 1576. During the brutal campaigns of siege, marching, counter-marching and sea raids of the Eighty Years War (1568- 1648) Land of Vianen cooperated closely with other rebellious Dutch states but never formally joined the so-called Dutch Republic. Meanwhile the fires of Calvinism leaped from village to village, from city to city. Brederode removed icons from Vianen churches in 1566 and presumably from Lexmond as well. Fifteen years later, and with the Spanish intruders gone, Calvinist doctrines officially supplanted ancient Catholic ceremony in the Lexmond church.
A rural routine of living, little changed from one year to another, continued during these times in the low lying land along the Lek. Land-plats of Vianen and vicinity plus seventeenth century sketches portray natural and man-made features of the terrain and well illustrate the pastoral life. Cattle and horses grazing, resting or standing at alert in the moist pasture land testify that cattle breeding was the chief occupation of these Dutch farmers and that the area drew praise for its splendid horses. Orchards with their regularly ranked trees reveal that the Betuwe soil raised good fruit. Orderly rows in narrow strips of land suggest cereal production and quite probably hemp for the rope walks of Vianen. Small garden plots where the peas, beans, cabbages and other vegetables for the seventeenth century table could be raised lie around the outskirts of Vianen and behind houses within the city.
In this scene of centuries old buildings and of orderly, cultivated fields that contrast so sharply with the tangled American wilderness Cornelis, later to be Cornelius Comegys and his family made their home. The father, Cornelis Comen Ghysen (Cornelis Gijsbert) was obviously a man much respected in the little unwalled village of Lexmond. At the baptism of the little Marylander to be Claes van der Linge, alderman between 1620-1628 and schout in 1631 stood sponsor. The father also held alderman's office at least four times between 1631-1654 and served six times as warden in the church where the pious and God-fearing families worshipped.
Young Cornelis was certainly a member of an extensive family although names are not always given in the documents and precise relationships cannot always be determined. Besides his father Cornelis and his mother Janegenn Jans, he had three brothers (Jan, Remmert and Gijsbert), a sister, Garrike and an uncle Heyndrick Gysberts Koos. The gravestone of a child who may well have been a younger half brother, Hermen Cornelissen, who died August 21, 1640 the son of Cornelis Gvsbertsen can be seen today in the Lexmond church. The mother died sometime before May 30, 1634 because on that date "Cornelis Gijsbertz, widower of Janegen Jans" promised that his children would receive their maternal inheritance and that "Cornelis Comelisz" his fifth and youngest child would receive "the sum of three hundred Carolus guilders as soon as he will attain his majority." According to common practice this would be when the four year old youngster had turned twenty-five in year 1655.
Some details of family life and business affairs can be found in the records. The brothers Cornelis Gijsberts and Heyndrick Gijsberts Koos lived in houses side by side in the northwestern part of Lexmond; in 1635 Jan, eldest son of Cornelis, occupied a third house. The record of five mortgages showed that each brother owned more than one property and were willing and able to borrow. It is also clear that they cooperated from time to time in business matters. In 1613 Cornelis Gijsberts described as a "skipper" purchased a fishing boat for 454 guilders. Nine years later in 1622 Heyndrick took it over and must have fished or shipped or both for many years because thirty years later in 1652 he was described as a "skipper." The brothers mortgaged their houses jointly in 1627 for 100 guilders - a debt liquidated twenty years later. In 1654 Heyndrick gave a bond of 37 guilders to his brother and on two other occasions mortgaged his house. Cornelis Gijsberts gave one other mortgage and his son Jan also mortgaged his house.
From father, uncle and older brother young Cornelis Cornelissen had an opportunity to observe and learn from men willing to borrow, to exchange property, to fish, transport and trade along the river. Vianen's weekly market and three annual fairs where the people haggled and bantered with friends, neighbors and tradesmen also provided opportunity for practical education. In addition Cornelis, like most Dutch children, received some formal schooling in his early years. At a later date he occasionally wrote letters, a skill that distinguished him from many of his Maryland neighbors who were unable to write their names and were obliged to sign documents by making their mark. Vianen along with Utrecht dominated this section of the Low Countries and Cornelis knew and admired both of them. Many years later in far off Maryland he named his two choicest tracts after these two cities.
Until Cornelis was eighteen years old the Dutch Revolt, now entwined with the wider Thirty Years War, dragged on. Land of Vianen escaped battles and campaigns during these years but the inhabitants were well situated to hear stories of disease, fire and death. At least seven cities within an eighty-five mile radius of Lexmond sustained siege between 1632-1644. The lord, Johan Wolfert van Brederode, commanded Dutch Republic artillery forces in 1636 and six years later served as field marshal and second in command of all forces. The more distant exploits of Dutch sea-raiders on the coast, shipping losses suffered at the hands of Dunkirk privateers, the naval victories of Admiral Tromp or fighting in Brazil also provided tales for a sea-faring people.
Strange as it may seem the war gave a mighty boost to Dutch maritime and financial enterprise. A Golden Age of economic expansion dawned as Dutch traders, especially those from Amsterdam and the northern cities, pushed their low, fast frigates along the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the East Indies, westward to the Caribbean Islands, to North America or wherever these sharp-witted navigators hoped to turn a profit. Not all cities gained equally in this commercial explosion. While Amsterdam in the north became the most important commercial and banking center of Europe, Utrecht and Vianen like other southern cities remained relatively dormant. In consequence many of the "southerners" followed a classic pattern of migration and moved to where work could be found - northward to Amsterdam, to England, to France or to Dutch enterprises around the globe. News of New Netherland and of its chief trading center, New Amsterdam, circulated in the Land of Vianen as proved by the many people from Utrecht who settled in New Netherland. Against this mixed background of overseas adventuring, general Dutch economic vitality along with local "southern" stagnation. Cornelis came to manhood. For an ambitious younger son greater opportunities and perhaps adventure lay elsewhere. He left Lexmond.
By 1658 Cornelis was in New Amsterdam as can be conclusively proved by the record of his marriage to Willimentje and four documents that give the name Cornelius Comegys and pertain to the purchase and subsequent mortgage of a farm on Manhattan Island. But a reference to Cornelis Cornelissen and another reference concerning the land which we know that Cornelis had acquired by 1658 show that he may have arrived in New Amsterdam by 1655 or earlier and may have received his inheritance of 300 guilders. March 8, 1655 a certain Cornelis Cornelissen and Tomas Lambaertsen disputed with a landlord concerning the terms of rent for a small house. June 7, 1655 Pieter Van de Linde, an old man, was called before the overseers of fencing "but sent another man who bought his land." Since we know that Cornelis became the registered owner of the Van de Linde tract in 1658 it is quite reasonable that the other man here mentioned was Cornelis (Comegys) who had reached an agreement with Van de Linde but had not yet made full payment. Common sense (and Comegys' later career in Maryland proves that he possessed it in abundance) indicates that if he received 300 guilders of his inheritance he would apply it in different parts to the purchase of land, cattle or perhaps trade in furs or tobacco. Additional evidence that the Lexmonder had arrived prior to 1658 comes from the records of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1657 a Cornelis Cornellissen stood sponsor at the baptism of the child of Jan Gerritszen Van Boxtel.
The New Amsterdam to which Cornelis came was a wretched little town of about 1000 inhabitants and some 120 brick and wood houses huddled at the lower tip of Manhattan Island. Pigs rooted in streets made nasty by offal and privies. Goats destroyed gardens laid out in Dutch style behind step-gabled houses. A polyglot population of soldiers, traders, seamen. Company servants and settlers dickered in the streets and roistered in the seventeen taverns. Indian men and women, ever-ready for trade, moved within the town. But outside the town and in the nearby forest the European colonist dared not forget that renegade savages or hostile tribesmen threatened murder, capture or robbery. When Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Netherland, sailed in 1655 with seven ships and 600 soldiers against the Swedes on the Delaware River, about 1200 Mahicans, Pachemis and other aborigines rampaged through New Amsterdam and outlying farms, killing fifty persons and capturing approximately 100. Another outbreak occurred in 1658 and still another six years later.
But sporadic depredations halted neither the intruding Europeans nor Indian tribesmen from trading with each other. New Netherlands's official seal showing a beaver encircled by a string of wampum beads appropriately symbolizes the dominant interest of New Amsterdam's busy population. Despite some efforts by the directors of the West Indies Company to broaden commercial exchange and to encourage more farming, most immigrants traded all or part of the time. The documents are replete with references to the fur traders described as peddlers or occasionally as bosch lopers (wood runners) who swapped European made metal ware and fabric for beaver and other pelts brought in by Iroquois middlemen and the nearby Algonquin tribesmen. Beaver and trade could never have been far from the minds of New Amsterdamers.
Certainly young Comegys plunged directly into the commercial hurly-burly of New Amsterdam. January 11, 1658 Comegys borrowed from Wilhelmus Beeckman in order to purchase the 59 1/4 acre tract of Pieter Van de Linde on Manhattan Island. As was true in all North American colonies, little specie circulated and commercial transactions were commonly negotiated in tobacco, furs or some other commodity. Comegys received from Beeckman tobacco worth 650 guilders and promised to repay "on the arrival of the first ship next year". . ."with wares purchased in Holland." The "last of May" he borrowed an additional 121 guilders from Jan Aarsen van Nieuhoff promising to repay in "good picked tobacco." June 12, 1658 Comegys recorded his deed to the Manhattan farm. By September 20 he had repaid Aarsen and on the day following gave security for the January contract by a mortgage covering land, dwelling and cattle. October 28 Beeckman petitioned the Burgomasters and received an order from them permitting him to lease land and house belonging to Comegys. In due time Beeckman became the owner.
The farm that Comegys purchased whether in 1655 or 1658 was three and one-half miles north of the houses of New Amsterdam near the periphery of untouched brush, trees and rocks that still covered most of Manhattan. It lay roughly between modem day 34th Street and 27th Street and stretched inland from the beach "till to the footpath in the woods" (near 3rd Avenue.) Today the United Nations building lies one-half mile to the north and the lofty Empire State Building and Chrysler Building are within an easy walking distance of where Comegys and his bride started their home. However valuable the area is today, in 1658 it was a poor piece of farm land - marshy in spots, rock outcroppings elsewhere. What is more, 1658 was a bad year for business. The burgomasters and schepens speak of the "sober condition of trade," loans of long standing that have not been repaid."
Whether the terms of the contract with Beeckman were reasonable or no, Comegys could not repay the cost of the farm in one year's time. He failed to make payment and moved south to the tobacco producing colonies of Virginia and Maryland. He settled first in Virginia near Jamestown, but his experience here was also unsatisfactory. Years later he spoke disparagingly of Virginians. Once again he moved with family, increased by Cornelius, his first child, and had arrived in Maryland by 1661. In the meantime, Beeckman had taken possession of the Manhattan farm. He obviously cared little for the Manhattan tract and no doubt hoped to use the courts of one or another of the two English colonies to the south to enforce payment of the debts in goods from Holland according to the January 1658 contract. He turned for help to Augustine Herrman, an influential New Amsterdam merchant, a skilled cartographer, and a man of affairs. Herrman, who was about to move to Maryland and had friends in both Virginia and Maryland, could not assist. At an uncertain date, probably the spring of 1661, he wrote to Beeckman:
"Nothing could be done about Cornelius Comegys this year. It will have be done next year"
July 30, 1661, Comegys, accompanied by Willimentje and little Cornelius, was admitted as a denizen of Maryland, a legal status that permitted him to acquire and to bequeath property. Ten years later he and his family, now increased by a second son, William, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Hannah, received citizenship. Willimentje died sometime prior to 1679 and Comegys married two more times, first to an English woman named Mary who may have been the mother of his third son, Nathaniel. His third wife, the widow Rebecca Smith of Cecil County, brought to the marriage two tracts of land totaling 250 acres and bore him two sons, Edward and Ghysbert, and four daughters, Rebecca, Martha, Mary Ann, and Sarah.
Comegys was thirty-one years old when he arrived in Maryland. In the next forty-seven years he acquired enough land to give a total of approximately 1500 acres to three of his children during his lifetime and to bequeath some 3340 acres plus £332.09.04 to his wife and children on his death. He served frequently as one of the appointed Gentlemen Justices or commissioners of Kent County after 1676 and in 1689 amidst the crisis of the Glorious Revolution, was appointed Captain of a militia company. He performed jury duty many times and from time to time served in other civil capacities. There can be no certain measure of social status but the adage that the Atlantic crossing raised one's position seems to be confirmed by Comegys' story. In his last years the word gentleman frequently followed his name on public documents.
The province or palatinate of Maryland to which Comegys had come was controlled by the Roman Catholic Calvert family, Lords Baltimore, who in an effort to protect their fellow religionists offered religionists freedom to all Christians and had established no state church. From the now vanished settlement of St. Marys on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay these English aristocrats and their henchmen controlled the Provincial Council and appointed the leading officials of the province.
The Eastern Shore, at mid-seventeenth century, provides an example of American frontier conditions to be repeated many times in the future, and Cornelius was only the first of many Comegys who followed the frontier line westward converting wilderness to farms and towns. Europeans, perhaps 360, had just begun to penetrate the Chester River area where they inevitably displaced the Indians who farmed, fished and hunted along the streams. Maryland did not suffer a general Indian uprising as did Virginia in these years but this did not spare isolated settlers from occasional depredation and murder by small wandering bands of aborigines.
The most serious threat to the incoming Whites in Kent County came from the little known Wicomisses, but in 1669 an expedition of perhaps 410 men mercilessly hunted them down and shipped the remnants to the Barbadoes. Except in 1676 when Marylanders marched against the Nanticokes, the provincial government maintained a precarious peace. For most settlers Indians were a small hazard that did not deter settlement or planting.
Kent County, far removed from the country gentleman's fox-hunting world that emerged one hundred years later, was at this early period an unkempt and primitive area of tall trees, shrubs and vines. European first-comers lived in wooden one-room houses, perhaps 500 square feet in size, that lay scattered along the creeks and rivers. Here and there a few acres lay bare where the first farmers or planters had occupied fields abandoned by the Indians or had painfully removed the trees and grubbed out the underbrush in order to cultivate the great cash crop, tobacco, a commodity that also served as the principal medium of exchange.
Land was abundant. Labor was dear in this new country, a typical frontier condition that offered special opportunities for enterprising men. Planters sold their tobacco or purchased tools, cloth and other goods from skippers whose ships glided up the rivers to private landings or negotiated with merchants who had briefly rented houses for that purpose. Tobacco prices generally declined from 1661 to 1708, but shrewd and forceful planters could profit from seasonal variations or evade provincial dues and English trade regulations by reaching an agreement with one or another of the Scottish and Dutch traders who moved aggressively into Chesapeake waters. Land, the source of profits and the badge of status, was coveted above all else by these men who dreamed of living like English country gentlemen. From the Council they claimed the right to acreage according to provincial land policy and regularly bought and sold from each other, transactions made them more complex because land warrants granted by the Council, served, like tobacco, as a medium of exchange.
When Comegys began his climb up the economic ladder he was neither one of the English aristocrats who received grants of 6,000 acres and more plus manorial privileges, reminiscent of an older feudal period, nor a penniless indentured servant forced to rely on his muscles for the clothes on his back. He fits nicely into a position midway between these two extremes. Comegys was, to use an old English phrase, a middling man.
What were his assets in 1661?
First. He came as a freeman and certainly with some resources remaining from his earlier New Amsterdam or his Virginia experiences. He was thus spared the customary four years of indentured service required of the less fortunate and was ready for immediate production of tobacco.
Second. In contrast with most newcomers he came with wife and son, a comfort, and when one remembers the multitudinous tasks of fanning in a wilderness and the hand labor required for raising tobacco an economic asset.
Third. He was blessed with good health. At a time when forty-one percent of immigrant men were carried off by diseases such as malaria or other grim killers, the bloody flux (dysentery) and the fevers (typhoid), before they reached forty and seventy percent before their fiftieth birthday. Comegys lived to be 78 years old. An able man he thus had a longer than average time to increase his holdings and to remain available for appointment to local government office.
Fourth. He was a person of considerable personal force possessed of at least the rudiments of an education, and he brought to the Eastern Shore a family tradition of buying and selling. For what was required to get ahead in seventeenth century Maryland it was entirely appropriate that his name derived from an old Dutch word meaning trader.
On a modest middling scale Comegys moved ahead by the conventional means of advancement in the colonial Chesapeake world: acquisition of land, tobacco planting coupled with trading, political preferment and finally a fortunate marriage that increased his resources.
Maryland's records of land and judicial affairs provide glimpses of Comegys's career. A total of five law suits in 1662 and 1665 in which he appeared, at times as a defendant, at other times as a plaintiff, show him selling tobacco, buying an indentured servant and merchandise - sure proof that he had some capital and was raising tobacco. Most important of all, he claimed land under the terms of the head-right system and by 1668 was in lawful possession of 350 acres.
The most common legal steps for acquiring a grant of land from Lord Baltimore must be briefly explained. Until 1683 the Calverts offered a head-right of fifty acres for every settler brought into Maryland. Then according to usual policy the Council recognized the claim and issued a General Warrant which entitled the recipient to claim untaken land. Following this procedure Comegys first claimed 150 acres for himself, Willimentje, and Cornelius, Jr. At some time prior to 1668 he claimed an additional 200 acres for transporting four others, who, judging by their names, were either Dutch or German. In all probability Comegys had long before occupied a site north of the Chester River, east of Langford Bay, in an area known today as Quaker Neck, where his descendants were to dwell for many generations.
In the following years Comegys added steadily to his holdings. Although Maryland's records usually show only conveyance of ownership without reference to terms or price, it is clear that he readily bought, sold, and exchanged land. Thus in 1671 he and a fellow planter, Nathaniel Evetts, received 200 acres from a well-to-do "citizen and surgeon" of London, Richard Tilghman. The two men must have been well pleased with their bargain because they named the tract The Reward (a name retained to this day), but they promptly sold once again. Warrants for land circulated among the planters and, of course, provided opportunities for gain or loss. On one occasion Comegys accepted a warrant for 1250 acres. He then sold (assigned) in two transactions 500 and 400 acres of the claim, retaining 350 acres for himself which he eventually combined with other claims to acquire a large contiguous tract."
His largest single acquisition resulted from purchase of the well-situated 900 acre Sewell tract. Comegys discovered a gross surveying error, a not uncommon occurrence in this frontier society of hasty, slap-dash methods. He recorded a "caveat" or warning to others, paid for a re-survey, and by husbanding small claims in the manner already described became the owner of 1,224 contiguous acres. This was his most splendid addition, and like a good Lowlander who took pride in cities, he renamed it after southern Holland's most splendid city, Utrecht, a name recorded as Utrick. His second largest tract of 600 acres, combined from several transactions and gained by 1684, lay twelve miles up the Chester River. Remembering the distinctive features of the little city on the Lek--the gate, the castle, and possibly the girls with whom he had flirted, he called it Vianen, again a word possibly not understood and recorded as Vianna.
As the years went by, Comegys drew the respect of his neighbors and the confidence of the Provincial Council. He may, as family tradition staunchly asserts, have held a military command in 1664, a post connected in some way with danger from the Indians. He witnessed the wills of neighbors. Walter Spencer named him one of three executors of his estate and trustee for his son. He served many times as juror, and as member of a grand jury indicted an unfortunate woman for witchcraft. On other occasions he was overseer of highways in the Langford Bay area and instructed to improve a ten foot wide trail dignified by the Assembly as a highway, and at another time served as a commissioner instructed to purchase land and to lay out a town on the Chester River. In 1676 he received appointment as one of the ten Gentleman Justices of Kent County and thereafter was re-appointed at least four times in the ensuing fifteen years. As one of Justices he combined administrative and judicial duties, serving as a judge in small cases, determining the county's poll tax, and awarding commissions for various kinds of duties.
The seat as Gentleman Justice now opened to Comegys a new avenue for small income attractive to a middling man. The Justices performed important duties connected with the estates of the deceased that included proving or probating wills. They could appoint from their own ranks administrators for those who died intestate and name trustees to protect orphans or to assist executrixes. The surety or bond required of administrators and executors eliminated those without a ready store of tobacco or propertied men willing to vouch for them. Thus Richard Willington, executor of the estate of Richard Gray, asked to be relieved of his responsibilities and suggested that "Mr. Comegys" "or some other person who your Honors shall think fit" be appointed. Comegys received the commission and gave bond of 8,770 pounds of tobacco. On the other hand the fee of ten percent plus "reasonable costs" that an administrator received was too little for the most powerful men. Comegys received only 512 pounds of tobacco for administering the £ 110 estate of Isabella Broadrib. The records show that he was administrator of at least three estates, served as trustee three times, and proved two wills."
An unusual opportunity to learn of Comegys' routine of living can be found in the Journal of Jasper Danckaerts. Danckaerts, a follower of Jean de Labadie, came with his fellow Labadist missionary, Peter Sluyter, to Maryland in 1679 in search of a site for a communal religious colony. Members of the Voetian or evangelical wing of the Dutch Reformed Church, these rigid and austere men had visited Augustine Herrman, now the master of 6,000-acre Bohemia Manor on Great Bohemia River, and then had walked southward seeking their fellow Dutchman, Cornelius Comegys.
Wearied from an all-day's journey, late in the afternoon of December 7, 1679, they found the son of Comegys, the younger Cornelius. Let us accompany the missionaries, seeing the Eastern Shore through their eyes and drawing meanwhile on additional explanatory information.
Cornelius, Jr., an "active" Dutch-speaking young man, about twenty years of age, already farmed a small acreage and had registered his mark in order to identify the rangy pigs and cattle that roamed freely in the woods. He took the Labadists across a creek in a canoe, a craft copied from the Indian dug-out, and they found the elder Comegys on a nearby plantation where he and his people (servants) had been bringing slaughtered meat across a body of water. Comegys offered the travelers some cider, the most common beverage of this excellent fruit-producing region, and then took them to his dwelling where they arrived about eight o'clock. Here they were "well entertained" and on the next day conversed with Comegys.
Several facts emerge from the report of Danckaerts. The holdings of a typical planter such as Comegys were widely scattered. He had received the missionaries at one plantation, a two or three hour walk from his home plantation. He had several servants. Slave-holding had not yet been firmly established in Maryland and it is doubtful if any of his people were Negro slaves, although the inventory of his estate taken after his death in 1708 refers to four blacks. Legal records show that he had male and female indentured servants and also freemen who worked for him. Under the most customary contract or indenture a master received four years of labor in return for payment of transportation to Maryland, board and lodging, and, upon completion of service, a cap, suit of clothes, shoes and stockings, three barrels of corn meal, a broad hoe, a narrow hoe, and one ax. From the proprietary government the former servant, now a free man, received fifty acres of land. The master was also responsible for the servant's behavior. Bastardy among women servants was a common offense and on one occasion Mary Brown, one of Comegys's servants, was so charged.
Comegys contacted at least once with the master of an indentured servant for the man's services and in another transaction hired a certain Hans Harmon. Harmon may have been the more willing to accept an offer because he had prior knowledge from his wife or a kinswoman of Comegys's household. Ariana Harmon had been one of these transported to Maryland and for whom Comegys had claimed a headright. Whatever the reasons, legal complications followed. Gerritt Van Swearingen sued Harmon, asserting that had contracted to perform two years of service for him but "had made his crop" with Comegys instead. Harmon was ordered to return to Van Swearingen.
While the missionaries made inquiries concerning the land to the south, Comegys declined a written invitation to accompany Michael Miller, a fellow Justice, "to the ships" - a reference to the trading vessels that remained in the Bay during the winter and evidence once again that Comegys had a head respected for business. A number of small occurrences revel Comegys to have been on congenial terms with Nathaniel Evetts and his neighbor, Henry Hosler. It is equally clear that Comegys said no as readily as he said yes and that in the cut and thrust of Eastern Shore enterprise he could hold his own. Thus one planter charged that Comegys had responded with "abuse and gross language" and another charged that Comegys had missed opportunities to sell his tobacco crop and thereby to pay off a debt. Here was a situation that Comegys's ninth-generation descendants who combined country banking with wheat ranching on the savannahs of eastern Washington State would have understood completely. Comegys was awaiting a better price for his crop, and in the short term the creditor could do little except curse.
Although Comegys prospered in the raw, seventeenth century Kent County frontier-land, he also underwent an unpleasant experience common to non-English immigrants to America. Maryland's population was distinctly more heterogeneous than that of nearby Virginia. Dutchmen, Swedes, Germans, and Irishmen had moved into the Eastern Shore, but the inhabitants were predominantly English. These were the years of the Anglo-Dutch wars and Comegys was far from the familiar Dutch Reformed Church or a neighborly Dutch village. Loneliness and resentment, a familiar feature of the immigrant experience aid quite as typical as the buoyancy of the American frontier, spill out of Danckaert's Journal.
Comegys warned the missionaries against settling in Virginia. The land was poor, Virginians were "Godless and very crafty." "The Dutch Labadists would be among people who could not speak their language, and for his part he "would rather live at the Cape of Good Hope than here."
"How is that," asked Danckaerts, "when you have such good land here?"
"True," replied Comegys, "but if you knew the people here as well as I do you would be able to understand why."
Despite this outburst the former Lexmonder remained cautious, Danckaerts noting that he "dared not work for us with an open heart." Comegys might grumble in private to a fellow Dutchman, but in the public arena he was sufficiently circumspect and his neighbors flexible enough so that in later years he continued to serve as Justice and in other official capacities.
Danckaerts referred briefly to Comegys' wife, an "English woman," noting that his first spouse had been Dutch, a reference of course to Willimentje. To this brief statement a few more details of family life and routine can be added. Of the second wife only her first name, Mary, survives. Sometime after 1687 Comegys married once again, taking as his third wife Rebecca, widow of Benjamin Smith, a "marriner" from Biddeford, England, who had died in 1687. A young woman, she brought to Cornelius the use, but not the ownership, of 250 acres from her first marriage. Rebecca now bore six children for her second husband, signed her name with a good firm hand, and after Comegys's death married for a third time. She died in 1737.
The inventory of Comegys's personal estate, made twenty-nine years after the visit of Danckaerts and Sluyter, show the usual equipment of a farm - plough, cart, churn, cheese press, and other small items. He had at this time 2,647 pounds of stored tobacco plus sixty-one cattle, thirty-two hogs, six horses and colts. Seventy-seven sheep provided quiet evidence that by 1708 Kent County's frontier had passed. The wolves were gone and the fields were now safe for sheep. There is also evidence, sad and regrettable, of the growth of slavery. Comegys owned four blacks - an infirm woman and her child valued at £ 30, and two 'lively negroe boys" valued together at £ 30.
The conventional names assigned to rooms reveal that the dwelling was a two-storied house of four rooms with an attached "shed room" and a low single story extension used as a kitchen. Curtains and valances around the windows, two rugs, chairs, chaise, tables including an oval table, and a large looking glass, punch bowl and glasses, and a "parcel of books," all reveal a life markedly more comfortable than that enjoyed by most Maryland planters when Comegys had arrived in 1661. Throughout Comegys' life in Maryland growing children were always around him, and the sleeping arrangements of his home reveal provisions for a big family. The house contained a cradle, a trundle bed, a small feather bed, three feather beds, and tow bedsteads. Every room had at least one bed; the "inner room" contained three beds, and a "negroes bed and furniture" lay in the Kitchen.
The following ten paragraphs were not printed in de Halve Maen.
Apex of Comegys' public career came during the excitement of the Glorious Revolution in 1689. The news that William of Orange and Mary had ascended the English throne sparked long standing political grievances as well as anti-Catholic fears and led to a "little" revolution in Maryland. A Protestant Association toppled the proprietary government and thereafter the colony acquired a royal governor and, for the first time, an official religious establishment, the Church of England. Clearly the insurgents considered Comegys to be a reliable supporter. He remained Gentleman Justice during the crisis and significantly received command of a foot company of militia men.
In the 1690's Comegys turned for a short time to ship building, a decision influenced no doubt by declining profits from tobacco, a growing Chesapeake maritime enterprise and memories of similar projects on the river Lek. The site, called the Ship Yard, lay within Utrick on the eastern side of Shipping Creek and was part of a tract previously given to Comegys' oldest daughter Elizabeth, wife of Edward Frye. In 1696 a ship was in stock and references to finishing and outfitting vessels provide a clue to Comegys' intentions. The project could not have long continued. No reference to ship-building or equipment is in Comegys will or the inventory of his estate, but the site was well chosen and evidence of ship and boat building by Comegys or by others could be seen as late as the 1930's
The way in which Comegys distributed his property reveals a man protective of his family. During his lifetime he conveyed property to at least three of his children, probable as was customary among the more affluent planters when the children married. To his "beloved son" Cornelius he gave a General Warrant for 300 acres in 1680. The young man moved northward into Cecil County where he came into possession of the looking Glass (Glass Hous?), a 500 acre tract that had been purchased by the elder Comegys in 1684. Since Comegys will states that his eldest son had already received the full portion of his inheritance, the Looking Glass may also have been a gift to Cornelius, Jr.
To William, the second son, went Vianna and Presbury (750 acres) in 1690. In addition, Cornelius, Sr. successfully represented William in court claiming for William the "goods, chattels, and credits" of George Reid who had died intestate and was the half brother of William's wife. The most interesting provision was a grant to his eldest daughter Elizabeth. To her he gave 200 acres of Utrick in 1692 with the proviso that her husband was to have the use of the land in his lifetime "provided the said Edward Frye live lovingly with my daughter." Then with an eye to the fortunes of his descendants he added that in the event of the "death of my daughter without issue" the land was to return to "ye Comegoeses" (sic).'
Weak and bedridden for "several years" Comegys provided for final distribution of his property by his will signed November 20, 1707. The law distinguished between land and personal property, and protected wives so that they received one-third of personal estate and, during their lifetime, the use of one-third of real property. Whether bequests of real estate should be divided among heirs or pass undivided to one heir (usually the eldest son) were two legal principles each of which was followed in different parts of England at this time. In Maryland no law in 1708 prevented division of real estate and, since holdings were seldom contiguous, partition of land was reasonable.
When Comegys set out to make his will in this fluid legal arena he provided for three sons of legal age, two minor sons, four minor daughters and his wife. He made no provision for his married daughter Elizabeth Frye or for his second oldest daughter, Hannah, presumably married or deceased. His real property totaling about 3,340 acres in eight tracts lay widely dispersed from the east branch of Langford Bay to the headwaters of the Chester River and his personal property as revealed in the inventory already discussed amounted to £ 332.09.04.
Comegys distinguished between the children of Willimentje and Rebecca adhering to the principle of seniority in each case. Comegys acknowledged his first son, Cornelius, Jr., and bequeathed to him "my gold ring" but added as previously noted that he already received his full portion. To William, the second son of Willimentje, went twenty shillings and 300 acres bringing to approximately 1,050 acres the total received from his father. Nathaniel, the third son, and either the child of Willimentje or possibly Mary, received five shillings and approximately 250 acres.
The will is notable for the respect and consideration shown to Rebecca, "my loving wife" and the means taken to protect her six minor children. Rebecca was named executrix and the children placed under her care. She received one-third of the personal estate as the law required with the remaining two-thirds to be divided equally and given to the minor children as they came of age. Rebecca also received the use of the dwelling and a major portion of Utrick in her lifetime, a provision also consistent with law. Beyond these legal requirements she and the children received approximately 500 acres to be sold for their use and another 175 acres to be leased or sold to "pay the rents".'
The "back part" of Utrick (about 200 acres) was to belong to Edward, eldest son of Rebecca, at age twenty-one and the remaining part (about 774 acres) was to pass quietly to Edward at Rebecca's death. Here was a shrewd means of protecting the interests of son and mother. She would be able to oversee the property during her son's minority. He would be able to manage for her in old age and, of course, a sizeable inheritance would remain undivided and in possession of Comegys' son. Somewhat similar protective measures govern the remaining properties. Comegys granted equal shares in two tracts near the head of Chester River to brother and sister, brother and sister-provisions well designed to protect the interests of a daughter and facilitate conveyance of the property to a son if the girl decided to sell. The two youngest daughters received equal shares of a 370 acre property south of the Chester River but near the watchful eye of their mother and their brother Edward. A final provision of the will left land to neighbor and friend Dennis Clark, so that he would receive "full complement" for a tract of 150 acres for which he had previously bargained.
Comegys died sometime before July 3, 1708, when Rebecca, Dennis Clark and Henry Hosicr, Jr., appeared in court and were bound in the sum of "three hundred pounds worth money of England", the first legal step in conveying the estate that Cornelius had acquired in the forty-seven years since he and Willimentje and son Cornelius had set foot on the Eastern Shore.'
Comegys Family Epilogue
Comegys has remained a familiar name in Kent County from 1708 to the present. Large families of seven or eight children were the rule in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the Comegys family conformed to the norm, so that it is impossible to review all of the members' activities or to trace accurately their lines of descent from the Lexmonder's five sons. In early America most Comegys were farmers or small businessmen who have left few traces of their quiet lives, but the records that have surfaced reveal family members who have participated fully in the great American expansion. To review the documents is to receive a lesson in North American geography and to glimpse the many diverse themes of United States history.
The story of the Comegys family on the Eastern Shore contrasts with the common experience of Dutch families in the area round Albany, New York. There the Dutch language and a distinctive Dutch style of living persisted well into the nineteenth century. But on the Eastern Shore there was never a Dutch Reformed Church, a Dutch village, and few young Dutch women or men to marry. For the Comegys there is little to suggest a Dutch heritage except the name Cornelius Comegys that has passed down through the generations. Indeed it is fair to say that there has never been a time since 1661 when there has not been one or more men named Cornelius Comegys living out orderly and constructive lives in America. The careers of three of the most prominent men who retained the traditional name follow.
Cornelius Comegys (1754-1844), a descendant of William, served as an Ensign under George Washington and became one of the secretaries to the Continental Congress in the 1780's, later a junior partner of the financier Robert Morris, he died a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. A profile engraving of him retained by the Pennsylvania Historical Society shows him dressed in the gentleman's style of the early 1800's. Cornelius Parsons Comegys (ca. 1780-1851), a gentleman farmer, commanded a regiment in the War of 1812, served in the Delaware legislature, and became Governor of Delaware. His son, Cornelius George Washington Comegys (1816-1896) and one of three prominent brothers, was a nationally known physician who translated Renourd's History of Medicine and other books from the French language and was closely identified with the organization of the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Academy of Medicine. The list of men who have kept the name of the Lexmonder could be vastly extended. In 1983, for example, there were at least two men who bore the traditional name.
By contrast the good Dutch name, Gijsbert, has not survived, although an English adaptation, Gias Bartus, or sometimes Bartus, can occasionally be found. Benjamin Bartus Comegys (1819-1900) was son of the Delaware Governor. President of the Philadelphia National Bank. and a man who vigorously supported the public school system and wrote instructive books for adolescents. Today his library with the original furnishing held by The Smithsonian Institution, the equivalent of America's national museum, as an example of the tastes and collecting, interests of a well-read nineteenth century gentleman.
Many themes of United States history can be illustrated in the story of less prominent members of the Comegys family. A few examples follow:
Cornelius (ca. 1659-1711), eldest son of the first Comegys, served as interpreter in treaty negotiations with the Susquehanna Indians and on another occasion was charged with trading illegally with the aborigines. He defended himself vigorously and successfully, claiming that he had been wrongfully blamed, " that he had been obliged to leave " his wife and children on a frontier plantation" in Cecil County "exposed to the (Indian) enemy." After the young man had received "gentle reproof and advice" from the judge the case was dismissed.
The way in which William Comegys (ca. 1665-1735), second son of the Lexmond immigrant, and fourth son Edward Comegys (ca. 1690-1761) disposed of their estates reveals the economic and social transformation of the Eastern Shore. As time had passed land had become less plentiful and society more stratified. When William signed his will in 1735 he bequeathed, like his father before him, his real estate in various parts to his sons. By contrast the will of the younger half-brother, Edward, probated in 1761, reflects the growing scarcity of land and the country gentleman's dream of a secured landed family estate. Utrick passed undivided to Edward's eldest son, and the four younger sons' inheritance was in money.
The contrasts between the two branches of the family continue. Comegys House erected in 1708 by William is a sturdy utilitarian brick farmhouse, but Comegys Bight House built in 1768 by a grandson of the first Comegys is a far more pretentious dwelling characterized by superb carpentry and elaborate woodwork in the interior. Finally, the two families illustrate the religious diversity of Maryland. William emerges as a staunch Anglican. Just as his grandfather had served many times as warden in Lexmond, he served for sixteen years as vestryman of Shrewsbury Parish, meanwhile buying, selling, and planting like his father. Edward (Rebecca's son) or his son, on the other hand, became a Quaker. These good people, rightfully famous as leaders of reform in America, spoke out early against slavery. In 1781, to their eternal credit, four Comegys (the brothers Edward, Jesse, Joseph, and a Mary Comegys-either a sister or wife) freed eighteen slaves. At a later time, the first owner of Comegys Bight House joined with other Kent County Quakers to "extend care" to Negroes and "to labour with those amongst us who hold slaves.
In the nineteenth century enterprising young men left the Eastern Shore, as we have already seen, to take up business and professional careers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Camden, New York, and other cities. Thus we can read of the efforts of a certain Cornelius Comegys and his son John, Baltimore merchants, who claimed insurance on the $5,000 cargo of the ship Nancy seized by the British during the Napoleonic wars. Joseph Comegys, the third distinguished son of the Delaware Governor, turned to law, served briefly in the United States Senate, and became Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court. John Gleaves Comegys (1782-1819), a young man with big hopes and a little money, set up a mercantile establishment in St. Louis with P. Falconer in 1805. The firm became involved in a lawsuit with Manuel Lisa, a well-known fur trader of the upper Missouri River, and Comegys and Lisa engaged in a street brawl, fighting with "whips, fists, pistols and dirks against the dignity of the United States." Comegys later became one of the founders of Cairo, Illinois - a venturesome and largely unsuccessful effort to capture the trade that flowed down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
While these men were taking up business and professional callings, land-hungry farmers followed the stump-ridden roads over the Appalachian Mountains in search of virgin, cheap land. Pioneers named Comegys settled in the midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. Others took a more southerly route, moving into Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, whence they moved farther afield. Abraham Comegys (ca. 1768-1826), his wife Ann Smith, and their children well illustrate the westward movement of restless Americans. Abraham left Kent County in 1795 and moved four times in his lifetime, dying in St. Charles County, Missouri, the owner of 208 acres of land and a grist mill. From this mid-continental location two of Abraham's sons, the widows of two more sons, and a nephew - all with their family's, made the six-month, 2,000 mile journey across the western plains to distant Oregon. They moved in covered wagons, made familiar nowadays on the television screen, in three groups and arrived at their western destination in 1848, 1850, and 1854 respectively. In the next generation some family members moved once again - southward to California, and northward across the Columbia River to Washington Territory.
Always, like the immigrant from Lexmond, these true frontiersmen sought unoccupied land and profited as the surrounding areas filled with settlers. Farmers first of all, they also turned to many other enterprises as well - buying and selling land, borrowing and lending money, prospecting for silver in the hills of Idaho, and driving cattle in one of the longest drives of the American West from Oregon to the California market. Amidst these activities three family members, although none whose last name was Comegys, were killed by Indians. Meanwhile the men held various local government offices. Jacob Comegys was tax assessor and first judge of the probate court, Yamhill County, Oregon. Presley Comegys was county commissioner of Lane County. George Comegys was Speaker of the House of Representatives, Washington Territory, and later a delegate to Washington State's Constitutional Convention. All in all Abraham Comegys' family made a comfortable living and fulfilled it's civic responsibilities.
America's wars have found Comegys men enrolled in the fighting forces. During the fratricidal Civil War William Hughlett Comegys served as Lieutenant Colonel of a Maryland regiment and other family members from Ohio and Indiana fought for the United States, but Edward Freeman Comegys was Captain of Company E, 43rd Alabama Infantry, and William Crawford Comegys also marched with a Confederate regiment. Comegys men fought and died in World Wars I and II.
In 1982, 321 years after the first Comegys came to the Eastern Shore, a canvass of readily available sources reveals family members following many different pursuits, as one would expect from a ten or twelve-generation American family. There were distinguished attorneys in cities as far apart as Los Angeles and Boston, a stage and movie actress, two Episcopalian clergymen, corporation executives, regular army officers, two Ph.D.'s with university posts, engineers, doctors, salesmen, farmers, and craftsmen.
The genetic contribution of Cornelius Comegys, enterprising young man from Lexmond near Vianen, has been widely dispersed, but his name and his example of competent Service to American society continues.
Posted with permission - Comegys Family - 2001
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