The Source of the Clarkson Names
The Clarksons used the same names in each generation and bestowed surnames as middle names. This tradition helped maintain the web of connections. The names Matthew, David, Elizabeth and Streatfeild are English in origin, while the names Levinus, Lavinia and Freeman are Dutch. The Dutch were the first colonists of New Amsterdam from 1626 until 1664, when the British won control, renaming it Manhattan and New York. Despite British control, the Dutch remained the majority of settlers as the English comprised only 30% of the population by the end of the 17th century (Goodfriend, 53).
Reverend David Clarkson and Elizabeth Holcroft: Progenitors of the American Line
David (1621-86) was a student at Cambridge with Henry Holcroft. Through Henry, David became quite close with the Holcroft family, marrying Henry’s sister, Elizabeth, later in life (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 84). After completing his studies, he became a professor at Cambridge, where, from 1947 to 1950, he taught two students who became famous: John Tillotson and Francis Holcroft. Tillotson went on to become the Primate of England (Archbishop of Canterbury, principal leader of the Church of England), while Francis Holcroft was imprisoned for his sermons (76). David himself was also a minister; some of his sermons were considered so important that they were reprinted through the 19th century. His sermons and publications criticized the Church of England, which he felt demanded too much uniformity and centralized control. Because of his views, David was considered a nonconformist, critical of the Church of England, but part of it.
Matthew Clarkson and Catharina van Schaick: The First American Clarksons
One of Rev. David and Elizabeth’s sons, Matthew Clarkson, was impetuous and imprudent (112). In 1685, political tensions were still running high with the abdication of King James II and the threat of invasion by William of Orange. The family may have considered it safer for Matthew to travel to the New World. He joined Charles Lodwick, variously called a half-brother (Reynolds, 1024), step-brother or brother-in-law (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 113), and possibly the son of Elizabeth Holcroft by an earlier marriage. Matthew remained in the colony for four years (115), returning home as soon as he had word that the invasion had become “the Glorious Revolution” peacefully accepted by the English (113).
Matthew soon petitioned the king for a royal commission. The petition was signed by, among others, Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe (116). Matthew received the commission to be secretary to the governor in 1689 (120), but due to political delays, didn’t arrive in America until early 1691 with the new Gov. Henry Sloughter (Reynolds, 1024). They arrived to a rebellion. A faction led by Jacob Leisler, which included Charles Lodwick, had deposed the governor and formed its own government: a “democracy” against the English “aristocracy” (McCormick, 210). Sloughter eventually arrested the Leislerians, executing Leisler but pardoning most of the others, including Lodwick. However, unrest continued, exacerbated by apparent extortion on Sloughter’s part and then his sudden death (368). “Consequently [Matthew] became engaged at once in an acrimonious struggle to obtain and maintain position, which resulted in holding office nominally while denied the emoluments. It was an unpleasant predicament, especially to hold such position with any degree of dignity, and yet he succeeded in winning great respect, for he did not rely upon office for standing” (Reynolds, 1024). Periodically, he did receive emoluments of office, like large tracts of land in Westchester, but when new leaders took office, he was nearly dismissed (Anon. “Vol. 1,” 137). Ten years passed before the political situation calmed down (McCormick, 370-1).
Unable to depend on the emoluments of office, Matthew moved into trade: skin and fur for wine and spirits from the Azores and metal from London (Anon., Vol.1,” 136). He was no doubt aided by Lodwick, who was a prosperous merchant and also served as mayor of Manhattan (118). Matthew built his home at Pearl and Maiden Streets and had his office in Fort William Henry near the current Bowling Green. In 1692, he married Catharina van Schaick, who belonged to a prosperous Dutch family. Their children spoke Dutch and English and the family attended the Dutch church (133). However, Matthew was also a founding member of Trinity Church in 1698, the first Episcopal church in Manhattan (138). The church proved to be a vital institution in strengthening the sense of an English community in New York. Until then, not many English immigrants stayed for long in the colony (Goodfriend, 53-55, 85). Perhaps the importance of the church to the Manhattan English community also explains the importance of the church to the Potsdam Clarksons, who modeled the Fall Island Trinity Church on the one in Manhattan.
In 1702, both Matthew and Catharina died in a yellow fever epidemic — a disease that often swept the settlement (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 140). Their children, David, Matthew, Levinus and Anne, were taken in by Catharina’s sister, Marguerite van Schaick, who “engaged in mercantile adventures,” becoming very wealthy (144).
Reverend Bernardus Freeman (1658-1741)
In 1705, Marguerite van Schaick married Rev. Bernardus Freeman, bringing the name Freeman and his estate in Flatbush, New York, into the Clarkson family. The house is on what is now called Clarkson Avenue, and many Clarksons are buried in Flatbush. Flatbush was considered a country estate. Rev. Freeman was an important Dutch clergyman who had ministered to settlers and Native Americans in Schenectady for years. He spoke Mohawk elegantly, even translating the Bible into Mohawk (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 146). He retired to a parish and home in Flatbush. His and Marguerite’s daughter, Ann Margaret, married David Clarkson.