Chapter 1: Who Were the Clarksons?

In England

Clarkson Crest

This family story begins with Robert Clarkson, who owned large estates and nine houses in Yorkshire, England (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 23) during the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The Clarksons had a family crest and were also fervent participants in the church of the day. Robert’s son, David, was a scholar at Cambridge and became a nonconformist minister. Some of David’s sermons were considered so important that they were reprinted through the 19th century (a list is available even on Wikipedia). While at Cambridge, he became friends with Henry Holcroft and eventually married Henry’s sister Elizabeth (84). (See Appendix A for more on Rev. David Clarkson.)

The Holcroft family had claims to royalty from the 1300s (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 79); the claims were periodically renewed. Elizabeth and Henry’s father had been knighted in 1622, was a member of Parliament and was a good friend of the Earl of Strafford, whose execution led to the downfall of the king in 1649 (79). The fall of the king can be said to have given rise to the Potsdam Clarksons.

England was being swept by anti-royalist fervor among Puritans and nonconformists like the Clarksons and Holcrofts. Politics must have been interesting for the Holcrofts, who were royal but not royalists. This political climate was neither safe nor conducive to advancement for either the Holcrofts or the Clarksons. In fact, Elizabeth’s brother Francis spent years in prison for his nonconformist views.

Thus, when David and Elizabeth’s sons reached adulthood, the family may have considered the colonies a safer place to be, especially for Matthew, who was “ardent and impulsive” (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 112). His half-brother, Charles Lodwick, was already in Manhattan, so Matthew joined him there in 1685 (Reynolds, 1024). Matthew worked there for four years as “factor,” or business agent, but as soon as he heard the “Glorious Revolution” had brought peace to England, he returned home (Anon., “Vol. 1,” 113). In the meantime, however, his father had died. No doubt because of this and a myriad of other reasons, he soon petitioned for a commission in the government of the colonies. The bureaucracy worked slowly, but in 1691, he returned to Manhattan as secretary to the governor.

His commission was not as lucrative as he had hoped, so under Lodwick’s guidance, he soon went into trade. He then married into an important Dutch family, securing for his descendants contacts in the key ports in the trans-Atlantic mercantile trade: Amsterdam, New York and London. (See Appendix B for more on Matthew Clarkson.)

In Manhattan

Matthew’s descendants continually expanded the family’s fortunes. They traded or partnered with names that are now much better known: Livingston, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Van Cortland. As mercantilism gave way to finance, the Clarksons participated in developing banks, insurance companies and the New York Stock Exchange. They served in the New York colonial assembly, the provincial assembly and the newly formed United States Senate with names much better known: Jay, Hamilton, Clinton, DeWitt and Colden. They helped create key institutions like Trinity Episcopal Church, Columbia University and New York Hospital (see Appendix C). They financed and fought in the Revolutionary War (see Appendix D).

It was the end of the Revolutionary War that brought Potsdam to the attention of the Clarkson family.