By Patricia and Edward Shillingburg

This is a series of stories about people from the past. Those with bold-faced names were buried on Shelter Island. New material about early members of the Sylvester, Havens, and Nicoll families (and others) will periodically appear here. (Edited 11/24/2013)

Uncertain Future
Catharine Nicoll was six years old when her mother Anna Van Renssaelaer died in 1715. Her sister Frances was four. Catharine did not remember her mother suddenly dying. She thought she had been sick forever and got sicker and sicker until she was no more. The household was in total disarray. Catherine’s oldest siblings Mary and Benjamin were now adults with spouses and children of their own, but the four youngest were still children, including William, age 13, who was about to go away to school to prepare for college, and Renssaelaer who was nine.

The solution was to send Renssaelaer to Albany to live with his Aunt Marie Schuyler and for Catharine’s father to hire Ruth Dwight, a young widow with no children, to care for the two little girls. Mrs. Dwight also warmed her employer’s bed and produced children of her own –Edward and John -- during the eight years of her employment before Catharine’s father’s death in 1723.

Catherine’s father William Nicoll was a very successful New York attorney and over time had accumulated 60 square miles of land that he called Islip after his ancestral home in England. He had also purchased about a third of Shelter Island called Sachem’s Neck, from Giles Sylvester and as executor of Giles’ estate had gained possession of most of the rest of the Island, except for 1,000 acres that Giles’ brother Nathaniel had sold to George Havens. Giles’ nephew Brinley Sylvester had instituted a suit to get his land back, an acrimonious suit that would last for at least another decade.

William Nicoll bequeathed Islip to his son Benjamin, to William all of his Shelter Island holdings except for the Menantic, which he bequeathed to his son Renssaelaer, who would continue to live near Albany and would also eventually inherit his Van Renssaelaer uncle’s estate. (He also bequeathed the Sylvester home farm to Ruth Dwight’s son Edward with gifts to son John, but those bequeaths were never fulfilled.)

Each of William’s daughters, Mary, Catharine, and Frances, received £750 each. His oldest son's wife Charity Floyd also received a financial gift for her "mounring" which suggests that Benjamin was already expected to die soon, which he did within months of his father's death.

But none of that was of much interest to Catharine and Frances who were more concerned with their dolls, their school lessons, and the people around them.
William’s Will had given Ruth a year to continue living in his house in Islip, but Benjamin who had inherited it and his wife Charity Floyd were anxious to take possession. Catharine and Frances were aware of the tension, which got decidedly worse when their brother Benjamin died in 1724, leaving Charity a widow with three small children. Within a year, Charity was remarried to Charles Johnson who was a kind and generous man. Dr. Johnson had been a professor at Yale and was now creating Anglican parishes in Congregational Connecticut, and he moved Charity and her children William, Benjamin and Gloriana to Connecticut. (Later Samuel Johnson would move to New York and with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin founded Kings College – now Columbia University. Charity Floyd Nicoll Johnson was buried in Trinity Church when she died in 1758.)

Catharine’s brother William, who had finished his studies at Yale the year his father died, 1723, and had now completed his law studies in New York City, was 23 years old, responsible for the care of his two sisters Catharine and Frances who were 16 and 14 years old, and ready for an adventure.

Into the Wilderness
William was taking his sisters to a wilderness. His father had willed him all of Shelter Island except for the 1,000 acres owned by the Havens family and the Menantic which he had willed to William’s brother  Renssaelaer. There was also the question of Brinley Sylvester’s suit against his father’s estate, but he had a deed on Sachem’s Neck and felt confident that it was his. But it had no house on it and the 2,000 acres were still unexplored as far as he knew. The nearest villages were Southold and East Hampton and he was unsure how the locals got supplies. So, he planned for rough living. He went to the best outfitter he knew in New York and bought the cooking utensils, bedding and clothing he knew that he and his sisters would need.

Although it meant additional lives to plan for, he may also have bought a slave or two in the New York market to be extra hands in the wilderness.
He was a good shot and he was confident that his neighbors would sell him the food he needed and would not allow his little family to starve.

With supplies in hand, William arranged transportation either by stage coach or sloop and the three with their slaves in tow made their way to Shelter Island. The sloop owner probably knew some of the inhabitants on the Island – mostly members of George Havens’ family because he periodically brought them the supplies they ordered from New York, so he would have signaled his arrival or beached his boat and walked a path to find help.

William would have probably found shelter for his sisters with one of the Havens families before he set forth to build a cabin on his land at Sachem’s Neck. He would not have found shelter for his slaves for they would be expected to find their own shelter in the woods. (Slaves were not considered human and were often treated more like domesticated animals than men.)

William knew his sisters would be welcome in the Shelter Island community because although Frances had not yet completed her course of study, she was far enough along that Catharine could tutor her and both girls were well prepared to be teachers to the Island’s children, relieving the mothers for other important work.
William and his sisters knew that their grandfather Matthias Nicoll was one of the founders of the New York colony and had been mayor of the City and the Colony’s chief justice. They bore themselves with the dignity of the aristocracy but also knew that everyone was a pioneer and survival required humility and a willingness to share responsibilities.

While William was exploring his land and looking for sources of fresh water for his home site, the girls quickly made themselves useful and found that the community had developed its own patterns for work and entertainment.

Brinley Sylvester and his wife Mary Burroughs were renting his father’s house, the home farm, from William in anticipation of winning his suit. Other families were buying land from George Havens including John and Joel Bowditch, Thomas Conklin, Samuel Hudson, Edward Gillman, Elisha Payne, Sylvester L’Hommedieu, Noah Tuthill, Samuel Hopkins, Abraham Parker, Daniel Brown, and Samuel Vail.

It was not long before Jonathan Havens, son of Hannah Brown and Jonathan Havens and grandson of Eleanor Thurston and George Havens, who had been born the same year as Catharine. 1709, started paying particular attention to her.

On January 27, 1728, Jonathan Havens and Catharine Nicoll, both nineteen years old, were married.

Frances, now seventeen years old, at some point, decided that there was no future for her on Shelter Island, and she moved back to New York City, possibly to her sister Mary’s home which she shared with her husband Robert Watts whom she had married in 1706. In 1739, Frances married the wealthy widower Edward Holland from Albany who would later move his business to New York City where he was active in the affairs of Trinity Church. He had been mayor in Albany and he was to become also mayor of New York. When Frances died in 1787, she was buried at Trinity Church.

Beginning a New Family
With Catharine and her new husband Jonathan setting up their household and Frances back in New York, William settled into the cabin he had built in Sachem’s Neck and put his slaves to work clearing land to make fields to support a farm. He was now twenty-six.

Having observed the process of Islip becoming a town in 1720, William knew how to do the same for Shelter Island. With the agreement of the others living on Shelter Island, he used his lawyering skills and his acquaintance with many of the members of the Colony’s assembly, to gain permission for the Town of Shelter Island to incorporate in 1730. He served as Supervisor for the first three years, and thereafter, for two decades, shared the responsibility with Brinley Sylvester, Jonathan Havens, and Daniel Brown. He also served as a member of the Colonial Assembly beginning in 1739. He served continuously in that capacity until his death in 1768, the last ten years as Speaker.

The suit with Brinley Sylvester was settled in 1735. The court gave Brinley Sylvester 1,000 acres including the home farm where Brinley immediately began building a grand home which still stands today in 2013. The suit settled, William now owned nearly three-quarters of Shelter Island.
William never married.

Catharine and Jonathan had four children, three daughters, Anna, Elizabeth, and Catharine, and a son Nicoll born on February 10, 1733.
In 1732, the town was anxious to build a meeting house and Jonathan Havens provided an acre of land in the middle of the Island. It is on that plot of land that a meetinghouse has stood ever since.

In 1771 there was a census made of the Island’s population. Jonathan was the Constable in charge. There were a total of 167 people living on the Island, 140 white and 27 black. Jonathan and his cousin Obediah each owned one female slave. His father owned six slaves, Thomas Dering, five, Daniel Brown, three, and William Nicoll, eight.

Jonathan died on November 1, 1774 and Catharine in May 1779. They were both buried in the Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.

Although a number of people died between 1771 and 1776, the next census, the population of the Island actually changed very little, except, perhaps, the distribution of the slaves. The white population was 138. Thomas Dering owned five slaves; Nicoll Havens, fourteen; Daniel Brown, two; William Nicoll, ten; and Obediah Havens, two.

Many Important Lives
The male heir of Catharine Nicoll and Jonathan Havens, Nicoll Havens, lived through extraordinary times and although he was only 50 years old when he died in 1783, his mark on Shelter Island was extraordinary. Not only was he prosperous from the rewards of his land and slaves, he served his community as Supervisor twice, from 1770 to 1776 and in 1783 until his death later that year. He married twice, Sarah Fosdick and Desire Brown, and had ten children, some of whom made considerable contributions to the Island’s community. Nicoll and Sarah were buried in Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.

His children were:
1.) Shelter Island has not again had a politician equal in stature to their first born son Jonathan Nicoll Havens. Jonathan pursued classical studies and graduated from Yale in 1777. He was the town clerk in 1783 and served as the Island’s supervisor from 1785 to 1792. In 1786 he was elected to the State Assembly where he served for nine years. He served as chairman of the committee that established public schools in New York State. In 1795 he was elected to the United States Congress where he served until October 25, 1799 when he died, unmarried, at age 41/42. He is buried in the Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.
2.) Esther, born in 1759, died in 1762.
3.) Esther Sarah, born on January 31, 1763, married Brigadier General Sylvester Dering, son of Thomas Dering, who distinguished himself in the Revolutionary War. He was born in 1758. He served in the State Assembly for Suffolk County from 1803 to 1804 and became the first vice-president of the Suffolk County Agricultural Society in 1818. In 1820, he fell from his horse and died. Esther Sarah and Sylvester Dering are both buried in the Presbyterian Church North Cemetery. Their children included:

  • Margaret Dering, who married Richard Floyd Nicoll and had ten children, was buried in the Presbyterian Church North Cemetery;
  • Charles Thomas Dering married Eliza Floyd Nicoll and had no issue. He made a fortune as a merchant and investor in whaling ships out of Sag Harbor where he built a magnificent neo-Classical house on the road to East Hampton in 1810, which still stands. They are both buried in the Presbyterian Church North Cemetery;
  • Sarah Frances Dering who died unmarried;
  • Nicoll Dering who became a doctor and practiced in New York City until he burned himself out and moved to Rome, New York where he continued to practice medicine. He had two wives, Frances Huntington and Sarah Strong and fathered seven children;
  • and, Henry S. Dering who married Harriet Eliza Hulse and had four children. They were buried in Presbyterian Church North Cemetery.

4.) Mary Catherine, born on September 25, 1765, became the 70 year old Ezra L’Hommedieu’s second wife on June 15, 1803. Ezra attended Yale, studied law in New York City and then settled where he had been raised in Southold. He was a patriot and an early advocate for separation from the English Crown. His list of national, state and local political positions is extensive: delegate to the Provincial Congress 1775-1777; member of the New York State Assembly 1777-1783; member of the Continental Congress from 1779-1783 and 1788; member of the New York State Senate from 1784-1792 and again from 1794-1809; member of the state constitutional convention in 1801; Suffolk County Clerk from 1784 to March 1810 and from March 1811 until his death in 1811; and Regent of the University of the State of New York 1787-1811. 

His grandmother was Patience Sylvester. He and Mary Catheirne had one child, Mary Catherine L’Hommedieu who married Samuel Smith Gardiner who bought Sylvester Manor from the Dering Family on the auction block. Mary Catherine Havens was buried in the Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.

5.) Catherine Mary, born on April 20, 1771, who married Henry Huntington and had ten children. Their daughter Frances married Dr. Dering, son of Esther Sarah and Sylvester Dering (above).

6.) Renssaelaer, born March 13, 1773. He had two wives, Anna Jenkins and Catherine Cebra Webb, and 14 children. He was a prominent New York City merchant, a ship-owner, and founder of an insurance company. The story is that during the War of 1812, he fitted the privateer General Armstrong, which reaped havoc on the British fleet in the Azores and caused it to be late reaching New Orleans and thus meant defeat for the British Army against General Andrew Jackson. His daughter Katy (Catherine) wrote a diary when she was ten years old, which she published when she was eighty years old, Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, and beautifully describes life in New York in the 1850s. Another daughter Charlotte ran a school for young ladies on West Ninth Street, which was attended by Gloriana Nicoll of Shelter Island in the 1850s. Renssaelaer, who lived to be 80, his first wife Anna, his wife Catherine who lived to be 100, and his daughter Katy who also lived to be 100, are all buried in the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.

7.) Gloriana, who was born on December 11, 1774, married at age 20 the Reverend Whitfield Cowles of Rhode Island with whom she had two children. She died in 1802.

And, Frances, Watson, and Henrietta who all died as children. All three young children were buried in the Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.

Renssaelaer Havens
Won the War of 1812

Renssaelaer Havens, born in 1773, was the son of Desire Brown and Nicoll Havens. His grandparents were Catharine Nicoll and Jonathan Havens who provided a half acre of land for the Island’s first meeting house, which later became the Presbyterian Church. His siblings included Jonathan Nicoll Havens who became a congressman, Esther Sarah Havens who married General Sylvester Dering, and Mary Catharine Havens who married Ezra L’Hommedieu.

He left Shelter Island to go to New York as soon as age would allow him to do so. He had no interest in college to become a lawyer or a preacher. He wanted to make money. So he arrived in New York City fresh off the farm in 1794 and started as a clerk with the shipping company Minturn and Champlin, which did business at 214 Front Street.

Then Renssaelaer started a large dry goods business upon his own account, at 169 William St. He continued in that until he became a partner of the old house of Jenkins and Havens at 189 Front St. His residence was at 100 Chambers St. The house of Jenkins and Havens did a very extensive shipping business. The partnership lasted until after 1815.

During the war of 1812 they fitted out a number of privateers including the armed brig General Armstrong. [The Captain was Samuel Charles Reid.] Her desperate fight against superior odds in the port of Fayal has become a matter of history. This one privateer took 18 prizes – some of which were highly valued -- during the war. The total number of American prizes against England between 1812 and 1814 was ninety-four.

The British attempted to sue the United States for its losses at Fayal, a neutral port, but failed.

Apparently the ruckus there caused the British fleet to arrive in New Orleans too late to protect the British forces and caused them to lose to General Andrew Jackson’s army.

In the list of contributors to the  loan of $16 million to the United States in 1813, there stands the name of Rensselaer Havens, for $20,000. He came forward promptly when President Madison became embarrassed for want of means to carry on the war.

His contemporaries joked good heartedly that he single handedly won the war of 1812.

In  1815, after the war, Renssaelaer withdrew from active commercial life, and devoted himself to works of philanthropy. He assisted in the foundation and became a trustee of the Public Schools Society, the New York Sunday School Union, and Mariners Church. For more than a quarter century he served as an elder of the Old Brick Church, under the care of the Rev. Dr. Gardner Spring.

He moved his family to West Ninth Street.

In 1819 Renssaelaer was appointed to a committee of prominent New York merchants, to enter into a correspondence with citizens in various parts of the union, with a view to devise some plan for checking the spread of African slavery. Archibald Gracie, a Scottish born shipping magnate and builder of Gracie Mansion, Matthew Clarkson, a Revolutionary War general, and Henry Rutgers, a Revolutionary War hero and great philanthropist for whom Rutgers College was named, served on the same committee.

In 1825, Mr. Havens obtained the charter of the Howard insurance company. He was chosen president, and held the office 29 years, or until his death in 1854.

Renssaelaer carried that company safely through two terrible New York fires, in 1835 and 1845, when the city suffered so badly and many fire companies were ruined. He established the company firmly in public confidence. (The company went out of business, in good standing in 1888 when Henry A. Oakley, who served the company for 46 years, was president.)

He died when he was 81 years of age. He left a large family, having been married twice. His first wife was Anna Jenkins of Hudson, New York. Gen. William Jenkins Worth was a near relative of her family. His second wife was Catherine Cebra Webb of East Hampton and New York. His 14 children included Charlotte Mary who ran a school for young ladies on West 9th Street for many years and Catherine Elizabeth who kept a diary when she was ten years old and turned it into a book about a little girl in New York 70 years later.

According to Walter Barrett in the 1858 The Old Merchants of New York City, pages 359-381, “No merchant or citizen ever stood higher in the city than the venerable Mr. Havens. In his old age, his appearance was grand and striking. His death was felt as a public loss.”

Renssaelaer, both of his wives, and his daughter Catherine (known as Katy) are buried in Presbyterian Church South Cemetery.