Beekman House at Mt. Pleasant & Nathanial Hale

The Beekman mansion was built by James Beekman (1732-1807) in1763; some sources list 1764. Like many wealthy New Yorkers, it was constructed as a second or summer home in the countryside of Manhattan Island north of New York City.   Though modest in exterior, its interior was considered one of the most elegant in all the colonies. It boasted of exquisite marble mantelpieces, imported tiles, stained glass windows, mahogany foyers and staircases; all meticulously ornamented. The furniture was imported from the finest craftsmen of Europe as was the dinnerware. It was where the social elite of New York gathered for elaborate gatherings and where colonial and European dignitaries paid their respects upon visits to New York.

During the American Revolution, George Washington paid his respects to the Beekman family and attended social events during his army’s defense of New York. He continued to do so after the war. The coach that drew him to his inauguration as first president of the United States was the Beekman carriage, the most impressive in all the states. The home, labeled Mt. Pleasant and situated on a bluff that overlooked the East River, became the military headquarters of British commanders during their seven years occupation of New York City. It is where an American spy, Nathanial Hale, was brought to the commanding general of British Forces in America; General William Howe. The young scholar spent the night in the estate’s greenhouse prior to hanging the next day in a nearby orchard.

The Beekman family played a role in American development and politics from the earliest history of the colonies. Wilhelmus (William) Beekman, founder of the Beekman family, upon arrival in New Holland and New Amsterdam, soon became embroiled in local and European politics swirling the new lands. He also was energetic in acquiring vast land holdings in what became New York and New Jersey.

The Beekman Family’s Early History

Wilhelmus (William) Beekman. The Beekman ancestors, from the thirteenth century, were residents of the country of the Rhine and a branch of the family were Barons of Berlgium. The name Beekman is from ‘beck,’ the Dutch for ‘mouth,’ and the English ‘beak’ (considered an abbreviation of the Dutch ‘bekken’) which means basin.

Wilhelmus or William Beekman, the great grandfather of James Beekman, the builder of the estate at Mt. Pleasant, was born at Hasselt, Overyssel, Holland, on April 28, 1623 and died New York City on Sept. 21, 1707. He was the son of Hendrick Beekman, a prominent merchant of some wealth. He left Europe during a time it was engaged in religious wars and Protestants had begun to seek refuge from persecution.  , arrived New Amsterdam (Dutch colony that became New York City) in 1647. He arrived New Amsterdam from Holland on May 27, 1647 in the same vessel, Princess, that brought the Director General (later Governor Peter Stuyvesant) of New Holland.  William Beekman was the benefactor of a number of poor persons of good family from the Rhine region who accompanied him on the voyage. They became firm supports of William who they considered their leader.

William was a man of some wealth and personal charm. He soon became good friends with Governor Stuyvesant which secured him many advantages including treasurer of the Dutch West India Company. Within two years of arriving, he furthered his rich land holdings in New Holland by marrying Catalina de Boogh, a belle in the New Amsterdam society and daughter of the wealthy Hendricks de Boogh of Albany, NY. It was his purchase of vast lands in the city and what became New Jersey, including upstate New York, which became the foundation of the Beekman’s perpetual wealth and influence in America.

Colonel Gerardus Beekman. Gerardus was the third child and second son of William Beekman. He was born on August 17th, 1653 and died October 10th, 1723. He married Magdalena Abeel of Albany on August 29th, 1677.   Gerardus became a physician and surgeon and resided in New York City and Flatbush, Long Island. He would also travel to his large estate along the Millstone River in New Jersey.  In 1685, he became the Justice of King’s County, New York. He was a leader of militias; Captain of Flatbush militia in 1681 and later Major of all the horse and foot in Kings County.

In 1690 and 1691 was a member of Leisler’s Council and became embroiled in Holland’s politics that stemmed over to America.   Colonel Sloughter arrived New Holland as Deputy Governor in 1691 to succeed Deputy Governor Nicholson, whose government of the colony, after the accession of William of Orange to the throne, had been overthrown by Leisler.  Beekman, along with others, were arrested. The unfortunate patriot Leisler was hanged.   Dr. Beekman spent seventeen months in prison before he was pardoned.   Beekman may have escaped the gallows by astutely preparing and delivering an address in pacification that supported Colonel Sloughter.

It is remarkable that during the disturbing politics of the time, Dr. Beekman was popular with the people and received important offices at the hands of several colonial governors. Earl Bellomont (Richard Coote), governor of now New York, appointed him Colonel of militia in 1700.  In June of 1710, Governor Hunter arrived in New York when Colonel Beekman became president of his council, a position he retained until his death. Besides Flatbush, he left his family three large farms and estates in New Jersey.

Dr. William Beekman. Son of Colonel Gerardus Beekman and father of James Beekman (who built the Beekman mansion at Mount Pleasant) was born August 8, 1684 and died April 26, 1770. He married Catherine Peters de la Noy (1691-1765). She was sister to Mary De Lanoy who married William’s brother Christopher. Both brothers inherited large farms not far from Princeton, New Jersey. William graduated Princeton College and practiced medicine in New York City.

James and Jane Beekman. James Beekman was the fifth son of Dr. (Colonel) William Beekman. He was born on March 5, 1732 and died April 6, 1807.   Though his father had rich land holdings in New Jersey, a good deal of the family’s time was spent in New York City where his father practiced medicine. James married Jane Keteltas (b.Oct. 1734 d. Feb. 7, 1817) in October of 1752. She was the daughter of Abraham Keteltar and Jeanne d’Honneur. Jane was also born and raised in New York and soon became an important member of the city’s social life with her marriage to James. The Beekman family’s prosperity aided James in his business ventures that blossomed into a highly successful dry goods business that added substantially to his already significant wealth.

Jane was bright and a canny businessperson in her own right. She presided over the education of their twelve children and according to John Austin Stevens (Revolutionary War historian and founder of the ‘Sons of the American Revolution’), she was a ‘very clever and accomplished woman’.   Besides instructing her children, she also served as bookkeeper for James’ business. Stevens writes, ‘…on one occasion, when a ship arrived in her husband’s absence at Philadelphia, she had transacted all the custom’s business perfectly before his return.’

James and Jane lived at Hanover Square at 240 Queen Street (now Pearl Street). Like most well off New Yorkers, they escaped the oppressive summer months in the city to the open countryside just a few miles north of the city limits. Their country residence was labeled Mount Pleasant and it soon became the most significant country estate on Manhattan.       

The Beekman House at Mount Pleasant

The house was built in 1763 (some sources state 1764, while others 1765) on a large estate labeled Mount Pleasant. The land was four miles north of the Beekman town home in the city. Mt. Pleasant was between ‘Kissing Bridge,’ where according to an old custom, young men and women would meet, and the East River near the northwest corner of present 1st Ave. and East 51st. Street.

The House sat on a rise overlooking Turtle Bay on the East River (just north of Kip’s Bay where British forces landed on Sept. 16th, 1776 during their invasion of Manhattan). To the south was John Watt’s Rose Hill (present 29th and Park Ave.) and John Murray’s county seat’Inclenberg’ (the block between 36th and 37th Streets on Park Avenue). North were the mansions of the Schermerhorns, Lawrences, Rhinelanders, to name a few.

The exterior of the mansion was modestly designed reflecting the old Dutch colonial mansions of an earlier century. It was built of thick wooden planks and brick. The two-story structure with extensive basement had an attic under a Dutch-style hipped roof.   Formal gardens wrapped around the mansion and greenhouse – the first in the colonies. Housed in the greenhouse were orange trees and oleander among many other tropical and scarce plants.

The interior was in stark contrast to the exterior, homely Dutch cottage design of James’ forefathers. Within were all that the world then made available in luxury and comfort.   Schribners Monthly described the spacious interior as ‘adorned with black marble mantels bearing elaborate carvings of scroll and foliage. The fireplaces were ornamented with Dutch tiles, representing Scriptural subjects.’ The article went on to say, ‘…nothing more costly could be found in the colony, and it bore the additional merit of having been imported across the ocean.’ In the dining room, 17th century-style carved oak pediments surmounted the doors which were flanked by Tuscan columns, and the ornate carved oak fireplace rose to the ceiling.   The carved railings of the staircase were capped with solid mahogany banisters and upstairs, the sitting rooms and bedrooms were decorated with molded plaster of Paris ceilings and dutch-tiled fireplaces. Two years after the house was completed, James added the attached kitchen.

The Beekmans regularly entertained the social elite of the city. Their guests were all of one class and personally acquainted. Many families had immigrated to America since New Holland and knew each other intimately, either by close business dealings or through intermarriage.   Lamb acknowledges in her History of New York that ‘certain formalities… were never ignored; and the etiquette of foreign courts was observed with a nicety which we, of this later and more democratic generation, can scarcely comprehend.’

Revolutionary War and Nathanial Hale

The idyllic life at Mount Pleasant was shattered by the American Revolution.   James was a Whig and an active patriot for the American cause. He was a member of the Committee of One Hundred from May 1, 1775 to 1777 (forerunner to the New York Provincial Congress). He was 2nd lieutenant in Captain Lett’s Company of Colonel Lasher’s New York Regiment. After the disastrous Battle of Long Island and with New York under the threat of a British invasion, Washington, a regular guest of the Beekman’s, urged James to flee Manhattan with his family.

The family gathered their valuable household goods such as the silver plates and flatware and stashed them in a secret closet built into an upstairs room. As the American army began evacuating New York, so did the Beekmans abandon their home at Mt. Pleasant; not knowing if they would ever see their country estate again. In their rush, Jane Beekman had left several of her gowns in an upstairs wardroom. They spent the war years leasing a farm in Euopus, Ulster County, New York near present day Kingston (James’ great-great grandfather Wilhelmus had purchased large land holdings in Euopus a century earlier).

Shortly after, on September 15th, General William Howe invaded Manhattan and immediately took up residence at Mount Pleasant making the Beekman mansion army headquarters. It was the evening of September 22nd, the day after a quarter of New York City was burned in a horrific fire, that a young scholar was brought to the Beekman House. The young man had been apprehended by Robert Rogers of the famed ‘Rogers Rangers’ of the French and Indian War. He admitted that he was an officer in the American army and intentionally disguised himself as a civilian to secretly obtain military information. Without a trial, General Howe ordered that he be held that night in the greenhouse on the estate grounds near the DeVoor Mill River. With first light, he was to be taken to a nearby farm and hanged as a dishonorable traitor and spy.

Nathanial Hale, a captain in Colonel Knowlton’s Rangers (a newly formed regiment that probed enemy lines to gather intelligence), spent the evening writing letters to supposedly his mother and brother. The next morning, he was taken to a large butternut tree on a nearby farm marking the fifth mile marker from Whitehall; some historians believe it was the old Turtle Bay farm just south of Mt. Pleasant and owned by the heirs of Sir Peter Warren. Provost marshal Captain Cunningham (a ruthless man who would starve American prisoners to death while pocketing the allowance set aside for their food) destroyed the letters in Hale’s presence. Cunningham also denied him a clergyman and bible. Hale was allowed last words in which he quoted Cato’s now famous line; ‘I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’   He was hanged and as was custom, left dangling for some days until taken down and buried in an unmarked grave.   Note: Cunningham would eventually suffer the same fate as Hale some years later.

The Gardener of Mt. Pleasant remained on the estate and kept a record of tenants during the seven year British occupation of NY: General Howe – seven months beginning September 15th 1776, General Clinton – three years, six months, General Chester (no time period listed), General Robertson – until May 1782, General Carleton – five months until British evacuation of NY.   During General Clinton’s tenure at Mt. Pleasant, Major John Andre was a regular guest. He slept in an upstairs bedroom the night before sneaking off to meet Benedict Arnold; the mission that would cost him his life. In the summer of 1780, Clinton turned the house over to Baroness Reidesel. Her husband, Major General Reidesel was held prisoner at Saratoga. The Baroness wrote favorably of the estate describing the farm with its orchards of peaches and apricots, grapes, renowned gardens and the stately mansion’s interior.

The Beekmans did not return to their home at Mt. Pleasant until November, 1783; an absence that was two months shy of seven years.   Despite the large number of tenants, the home was perfectly intact. Soon after arriving, Jane and James looked to the hidden upstairs closet where, to their pleasant surprise, all their hidden treasures were untouched. Also, not one of Jane’s elaborate gowns were disturbed. Irritated that their townhouse and country estate was occupied without their consent, the Beekman’s sent a rent bill to the British Government. History does not report if Parliament acknowledged the debt.

After the War           

After the war, James resumed his dry good business at the family’s city residence in Hanover Square. In 1784 he partnered with his sons. He became a member of the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York and served in the Chamber of Commerce. He also aided in drafting a Constitution for the State of New York.

General George Washington and his officers, on the occasion of their ‘triumphal entry into New York,’ stopped at Mt. Pleasant to enjoy a glass of fresh lemonade, made from lemons grown in Jane Beekman’s greenhouse. It was this close relationship with the future president of the United States that guaranteed their participation in the first Inauguration proceedings held on April 30, 1789 in New York City.

Washington rode to his inauguration in the Beekman’s elegant coach drawn by four cream white horses. The carriage, bought in 1771 for £138 from Peter Burton, a London sea captain, was considered the finest in all the colonies and has since been preserved by the New York City Historical Society. The Inauguration Ball, to recognize Washington’s presidency, was quoted in Rufus Griswold’s The Republican Court as an event where “The collection of ladies were numerous and brilliant, and were dressed with consummate taste and elegance…. Mrs. Beekman [was] among the most distinguished woman at the ball.

On his death bed, James left the estate at Mt. Pleasant to his nephew James William Beekman. Later decades, as the city’s grid plan of streets and avenues inched northward, the Mt. Pleasant home was threatened. In 1840, it sat squarely in the course of 51st Street requiring it be demolished. Unwilling to see the old family home destroyed, the Beekmans spent several thousand dollars moving it a block to the south. A new foundation was created on a high rocky outcrop twenty feet above the sidewalk at 50th Street and 1st Avenue upon which the house was reset. Though the gardens, orchard, and greenhouse were gone, the house was preserved.

The Beekman heirs lived at Mount Pleasant until a cholera epidemic forced them to move in 1854. It was leased to a dentist, Dr. Morey and his wife who spent a considerable amount of their own money preserving the architectural features of the house. Walls were carefully scraped down so the original colors prevailed, woodwork was meticulously polished, and the interior furnishings restored to its former elegance.

However history and architecture could not compete with land values. The house that sat high above 50th Street with its deteriorating picket fence stood in the way of urban development. A wrecking crew began demolishing Mt. Pleasant on April 20, 1874.   Some artifacts were preserved.   The Dutch tiles from the mantels were removed and the drawing room was dismantled to be preserved by the New York Historical Society.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

SOURCES

 Aitken, William B., Distinguished Families in America, Descended from Wilhelmus Beekman and Jan Thomasse Van Dyke. 1912: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY.

Bergen, Tunis Garret. Genealogies of the State of New York: a Record of the Achievements, Vol. I. 1915: Lewis Historical Press, New York, NY.

Dunlap, William. History of the New Netherlands, Providence of New York…, Vols. I & II 1839: Carter & Thorp Exchange, New York, NY.

Lamb, Martha J. History of the City of New York, Vol. I. 1877: A. S. Barnes & Company, New York, NY.

Roberts, James A. New York in the Revolution as Colony and State. 1898: Press of Brandow Printing Company, Albany, New York.

Stevens, John Austin Jr. Colonial Record of the New York Chamber of Commerce, 1768-1784 with Historical and Biological Sketches. 1867: John F. Trow & Company, New York, NY.

Valentine, David T. History of the City of New York. 1853: G. P. Putnam & Company, New York, NY.

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