Charles De Witt: Founding Farmer, A Life of Service
Colonel Charles De Witt knew that he might be killed within days, so he wrote:
"Considering the uncertainty of life, especially in these times of trouble, and as I am in a few days to go down to New York, where I may fall a victim to British Tyrants who are arrived in order to invade that Metropolis, it may be uncertain whether ever I return to make and publish this my last Will and Testament."
De Witt was known by the British as an advocate for independence, even while serving in the Colonial Assembly under the Royal Governor. When the Assembly refused to provide funds for quartering British troops, the Governor dissolved the Assembly and ordered new elections, in hopes that more of his supporters would be elected. Over his objection to their nomination because "they are fiery young radicals," voters elected both De Witt and George Clinton, rejecting the Governor's own son.
De Witt cemented his commitment to the new nation on his way to the Battle of New York, voting as a member of the New York Provincial Congress to ratify the Declaration of Independence. This was just one of many ways that he participated in the American Revolution, but his achievement that I'm most fond of is surviving the Battle of New York, because Colonel De Witt is my five-times great-grandfather.
His other accomplishments include:
- Serving on the committee that wrote the first constitution of New York State, chaired by John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States.
- Being named by New York as a delegate to the Continental Congress, serving with Thomas Jefferson in the Maryland State House in Annapolis.
- Having been elected to the Colonial Assembly under British rule, he then was elected to the New York State Assembly.
- Providing flour to the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War, including during their winter at Valley Forge.
The pedestal of George Clinton's statue in the U.S. Capitol.
His career was closely connected to many prominent early American patriots, including the two who represent New York in the National Statuary Hall Collection: Robert Livingston and George Clinton. After his election with De Witt, Clinton went on to become the governor of New York for over 20 years and was elected Vice President of the United States under two Presidents. As Vice President, Clinton presided over the Senate in two of its former chambers in the U.S. Capitol. His statue stands today outside the historic Old Senate Chamber.
Livingston served on the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence, administered the Oath of Office to George Washington when he assumed the presidency in 1789 and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase as U.S. Minister to France. Livingston famously observed that, "We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our whole lives... The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the world."
Every day that I come to work, I pass the chambers that Clinton presided over and the statues of both these Founding Fathers, and I'm reminded of my ancestor's contributions to the founding of our country.
Starting in the 1650's, the De Witt family settled in and around Kingston, New York, and was prominent in the early history of Ulster County. However, the Livingston family could be credited with extending De Witt's career beyond his home county. De Witt succeeded his cousin as manager of the extensive Livingston estate, collecting rent and taxes from tenants, paying workers their wages and purchasing tenants' produce and shipping it to New York City. When Charles De Witt decided in 1754 to leave the estate, he wrote in his diary that Mr. Livingston agreed to "put in a joint stock with me if I set up at a place." That investment, and others, helped secure De Witt's continued success.
A sign and a millstone bench are now markers for where the De Witt house was once located.
By the start of the Revolutionary War, in addition to his public service, De Witt was running a prosperous flour mill near Kingston, powered by the Greenkill River, which never froze, no matter how cold the winter. This proved to be a strategic advantage for George Washington and the Continental Army when they were starving through a bitter winter at Valley Forge.
Washington appealed to Clinton, "with great reluctance... on a subject, which does not properly fall within your province." This letter was truly Washington's last resort. He wrote that all the food in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland would not sustain the army for a month. Clinton was now the Governor of New York, and he directed farmers to bring their grain to De Witt's mill, which could run through the winter. After the grain was ground, the flour would be transported in sleighs to Valley Forge.
Just a few months prior, British General John Vaughn called Kingston, the first capital of New York, "a nursery for almost every villain in the country," and said he reduced it to ashes, "not leaving a house." Despite this, De Witt continued to supply General Washington's army with flour through the winter, his home having been spared the torch because of its location outside the town center, at the mill.
Throughout his life, De Witt hosted guests at his home, including Jay, who later recalled, "I always met with a cordial reception and that under his hospitable roof we passed many agreeable hours together." Jay also wrote of a time during the war when there were reports that the British, "were marching in a direction that led toward the place where Mrs. Jay then was with her father's family" in New Jersey. As Governor, Jay was in the capital, Kingston, near Colonel De Witt's home in an area often referred to as Esopus.
Hearing of the danger his wife was in, Jay, "thereupon concluded to fetch her from thence without delay." But he was unable to hire a horse, so he turned to "the Colonel to assist me in procuring one... He immediately supplied me with a good one that was working on his plough." When Jay returned safely with his wife and attempted to pay Colonel De Witt for the use of his horse, "He declined it, saying that the pleasure of serving me on such an occasion was a sufficient compensation. This made an impression upon me which time has not impaired."
Jay concluded, "My opinion of the Colonel has undergone no variations. I have uniformly believed him to be a worthy gentleman — of good understanding — of a good disposition, and of determined Patriotism. I was a sincere friend to him and am persuaded that he was a sincere friend to me."
The Senate House State Historic Site in Kingston, New York.
Following the war, De Witt's service—and flour—were well remembered. In January 1783, he received this order, "His Excellency Genl Washington has applied to the contractors for a quantity of the best superfine flour. Mrs. Washington has a preference for the flour manufactured at Esopus." The state of New York also named him as a delegate to the Continental Congress, so he reluctantly departed his native state to serve his term in Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress met in the State House.
De Witt regularly wrote to his children as well as both Livingston and Clinton, updating them on the actions of Congress, with specific mentions of Jay and other mutual friends as well as the effects of actions on New York. Writing to Livingston he expresses ambivalence about his colleagues, "there appears to be many wise men in the body tho some do not appear to have the greater abilities that I ever saw." De Witt also succinctly depicts a false civility, "An almost constant sound of the word Honorable attacks my ear. When I listen to debates and look at the faces it is difficult for me to tell the meaning of the word."
However, he is warmer in regard to his family, writing to his son Gerret that, "I never felt more happy at any place than I do this day here, by the receipt of a pkg of letters from my dear family." Colonel De Witt is happy to send family news from his journey, "Baltimore is a flourishing town and very handsomely situated, Cousin Thomas De Witt now keeps a Coffee House there, he and his little fat wife both look exceedingly well, they treated me with great kindness and were extremely glad to see me."
Although De Witt always expressed an eagerness to return to his native northern climes, he admitted Annapolis had a certain appeal:
"Annapolis is a small city beautifully situated on the great Chesapeake Bay which affords a most grand prospect and is a striking evidence of the greatness of its Maker, there are many ordinary buildings and some very elegant ones; The State House in which Congress sits is the most superb, it is thought, in any of the United States."
When I visited the State House with my family, my children shared the opinion of their six-times great-grandfather, although they were unaware of their familial connection to the building. Having read Colonel De Witt's affectionate letters to his children, I can only imagine that he would have enjoyed seeing his young descendants gazing up in wonder at the towering wooden dome he served under. He surely would have been glad to know that the freedoms he worked so hard to win and the country he founded with his patrons, neighbors and friends continues to rank among the first powers of the world.
The cemetery where Charles De Witt is buried.
When that session ended, Colonel De Witt was able to return to his beloved children and home, where he lived out the remainder of his days. When he died in 1787, he had lived 11 years after the Battle of New York, where he knew that he may "fall victim to British Tyrants." During that time, De Witt had served with founding fathers in battle and in Congress, fed the army to keep it from famine and defeat and provided fellow patriots sound counsel and sincere friendship.
As I pass the statues commemorating my ancestor’s friends and countrymen, I am grateful to them and the good fortune that protected him and his family, especially those generations who followed him down to my mother. I’m sure this founding farmer would have had the same wish for them as he did for his own children as he wrote from Harlem Heights, awaiting the attack of the amassed British army, "May angels guard you while I am traveling through these dangers… I am your ever loving and most affectionate father."