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CHAPTER I THE WHITMANS OF WEST HILLS
The old writers[4] tell how Long Island was once the happy hunting ground of wolves and Indians, the playing place of deer and wild turkeys; and how the seals, the turtles, grampuses and pelicans loved its long, quiet beaches. Seals and whales are still occasional visitors, and its coasts are rich in lore of wrecks, of pirates and of buried treasure.

A hundred years ago it could boast of hamlets only less remote from civilisation than are to-day the villages of that other “Long Island”—the group of the Outer Hebrides—which, for an equal distance, extends along the Scottish coast from Butt of Lewis to Barra Head. The desultory stage then occupied a week on the double journey between Brooklyn and Sag Harbour. Beyond the latter, Montauk Point thrusts its lighthouse some fifteen miles out into the Atlantic breakers. Here the last Indians of the island lingered on their reservation, and here the whalers watched for the spouting of their prey in the offing.

A ridge of hills runs along the island near the northern shore, rising here and there into heights of three or[Pg 2] four hundred feet which command the long gradual slope of woods and meadows to the south, with the distant sea beyond them; to the north, across the narrow Sound, rises the blue coast line of Connecticut.

It is on the slopes below the highest of these points of wide vision that the Whitman homestead lies, one of the pleasant farms of a land which has always been mainly agricultural. Large areas of the island are poor and barren, covered still with scrub and “kill-calf” or picturesque pine forest, as in the Indian days. But the land here is productive.

From the wooded head of Jayne’s Hill behind the farm, the township of Huntington stretches to the coast where it possesses a harbour. It was all purchased from the Indians in 1653, for six coats, six bottles, six hatchets, six shovels, ten knives, six fathom of wampum, thirty muxes, and thirty needles.[5] The Indians themselves do not seem to have caused much anxiety to the settlers; but a generation later, it is recorded that in a single year no fewer than fifteen of the wolves, which they had formerly kept half-tamed, were killed by the citizens of Huntington.

The next troublers of the peace were the British troops. For here, a century later, during the last years of the War of Independence, Colonel Thompson of His Majesty’s forces pulled down the Presbyterian Church, and with its timbers erected a fortress in the public burying-ground, his soldiers employing the gravestones for fire-places and ovens.[6] They seem to have occupied another meeting-house as a stable. Such are the everyday incidents of a military occupation; arising out of them, claims to the amount of £7,000 were preferred against the colonel by the township; but he withdrew to England, where, as Count Rumford, he afterwards became famous upon more peaceful fields.

In Whitman’s childhood, Huntington was, as it still[Pg 3] remains, a quiet country town of one long straggling street. It counted about 5,000 inhabitants, many of them substantial folk, and in this was not far behind Brooklyn. In those days the whole island could not boast 60,000 people. But if they were few, they were stalwart. The old sea-going Paumànackers were a rough and hardy folk, and travellers remarked the frank friendliness of the island youth.[7]

Inter-racial relations seem upon the whole to have been good; the Indians being treated with comparative justice, and the negro slaves well cared for. Between the Dutch and the English there was friction in the early years. Long Island, or Paumanok—to give it the most familiar of its several Indian names[8]—had been settled by both races; the Dutch commencing on the west, opposite to their fortress and trading station of New Amsterdam (afterwards New York), and the English, at about the same time, upon the east. They met near West Hills, and Whitman had the full benefit of his birth upon this border-line, Dutch blood and English being almost equally mingled in his veins.

As to the Dutch of Long Island, they were marked here as elsewhere by sterling and stubborn qualities. There is a reserve in the Dutch nature which, while it tends to arouse suspicion in others, makes it the best of stocks upon which to graft a more emotional people. Slow, cautious, conservative, domestic, practical, they have formed a bed-rock of sound sense and phlegmatic temper, not for Long Island only, but for the whole of New York State, where, till the middle of the eighteenth century,[9] they were predominant. Perhaps no other foundation could have adequately supported the superstructure of fluctuating and emotional elements which has since been raised upon it.

The Dutch homesteads of the island were famous for their simple, severe but solid comfort, their clean white sanded floors, their pewter and their punches. From[Pg 4] such a home came Whitman’s mother. She was a van Velsor of Cold Spring, which lies only two or three miles west of the Whitman farm. Her father, Major Cornelius van Velsor, was a typical, burly, jovial, red-faced Hollander.

But Louisa, his daughter, was not wholly Dutch, for the major’s wife was Naomi Williams, of a line of sailors, one of that great Welsh clan which counted Roger Williams among its first American representatives. Naomi was of Quaker stock.[10]

The Quakers appear early in the story of the island, whose settlement was taking place during the first years of their world-wide activity. Within a quarter of a century of the first purchase of land from the Indians, an English Quaker, Robert Hodgson,[11] was arrested in a Long Island orchard for the holding of a conventicle. He was carried to New Amsterdam, cruelly handled, and imprisoned there.

In 1663, John Bowne,[12] an islander of some standing who had joined the Friends, was arrested and transported to Holland, there to undergo his trial for heresy. This was in the period when the district was under Dutch control. A year later this came to an end, and when, in 1672, George Fox preached under the oaks which stood opposite to Bowne’s house[13] at Flushing, and again from the granite rock in the Oyster Bay cemetery, he seems to have been met by no opposition more serious than that which was offered by certain members of his own Society.

We read[14] of the settlement of a group of substantial Quaker families near the village of Jericho, where they built themselves a place of worship in 1689; and here, a century later, lived Elias Hicks, perhaps the ablest character, as he was the most tragic figure, in the story of American Quakerism. He was a friend of Whitman’s paternal grandfather, and thus from both parents the[Pg 5] boy inherited something either of the blood or the tradition of that Society which, directly or indirectly, gave some of the noblest of its leaders to the nation. Such men, for instance, as William Penn, Thomas Paine, and, indirectly, Abraham Lincoln.

The earliest of the Whitmans of whom there appears to be any record is Abijah, apparently an English yeoman farmer in the days of Elizabeth.[15] His two sons sailed west in 1640 on the True-Love. One of these, Zechariah, became a minister in the town of Milford, Connecticut, and sometime before Charles II. was crowned in the old country,[16] Joseph, Zechariah’s son, had crossed the Sound and settled in the neighbourhood of Huntington. Either he or his successor seems to have purchased the farm at West Hills, where Walt Whitman was afterwards born; and in 1675 “Whitman’s hollow” is mentioned as a boundary of the township.

The garrulous histories of Long Island have little to tell us of the family. One of Joseph’s great-grandsons was killed in the battle of Brooklyn,[17] that first great fight between the forces of England and her rebellious colonies, when in 1776 Howe and his Hessians drove Putnam’s recruits back upon the little town. Lieutenant Whitman was one of those who fell on that day before Washington could carry the remnant of his troops across the East River under the friendly shelter of the fog.

Another great-grandson, Jesse, married the orphan niece of Major Brush, also a “dangerous rebel” who suffered in the British prison of “the Provost”.[18] Brushes, Williamses and Whitmans all seem to have served in the armies of Independence, and one at least of their women would have cut a figure in the field. For Jesse’s mother was large-built, dark-complexioned, and of such masculine manners and speech that she[Pg 6] seemed to have been born to horses, oaths and tobacco. As a widow she readily ruled her slaves, surviving to a great age. In contrast with her, Jesse’s wife, who also displayed remarkable ability, was a natural lady.[19] She had been a teacher, and was a woman of judgment. Perhaps Jesse himself was of gentler character than his terrible old mother; he had leanings towards Quakerism, and was a friend and admirer of Elias Hicks.[20] So too was Walter, the father of Walt, and one of Jesse’s many sons.

Born in 1789—the year in which the amended Constitution of the United States actually came into force—Walter grew up into a silent giant,[21] a serious solid man, reserved and slow of speech, kindly but shrewd and obstinate; capable too, when he was roused, of passion. He was a wood-cutter and carpenter, a builder of frame-houses and barns, solid as himself. He learnt his trade in New York, and afterwards wandered from place to place in its pursuit. For a time after his marriage in 1816, he appears to have lived at West Hills, probably farming a part, at least, of the lands of his fathers. Their old house had recently been replaced by another at a little distance. This is still standing, and here, three years later, his second son was born. The child was called after his father, but the name was promptly clipped, and to this day he remains “Walt.”
Picture of Walt's mother, Louisa (van Velsor) Whitman at sixty.

LOUISA (VAN VELSOR) WHITMAN AT SIXTY

His mother,[22] Louisa van Velsor, was a well-made, handsome young woman, now in her twenty-fourth year. Fearless, practical and affectionate, hers was a strong and happy presence, magnetic with the potency of a profound nature, as large and attractive as it was without taint of selfishness. She seemed to unite in herself the gentle sweetness and restraint of her Quaker[23] mother, with the more heroic, full-blooded qualities of[Pg 7] the old jolly major. She had a natural gift of description and was a graphic story-teller, but of book-learning she had next to none, and letter-writing was always difficult to her. She lacked little, however, of that higher education which comes of life-long true and fine relations with persons and with things. She had been an excellent horsewoman, and in later years her visitors were impressed by her vitality and reserve power. Her words fell with weight; she had a grave dignity; but withal her oval face, framed in its dark hair and snowy cap, was full of kindness; and about the corners of her mouth, and under her high-set brows, there always lurked a quaint and quiet humour. Little as we know of Louisa Whitman, we know enough to regard her as in every respect the equal in character of her son, whom she endowed with a natural happiness of heart. She became the mother of eight children, and lived to be nearly eighty years old, somewhat crippled by rheumatism, but industrious, charming and beloved to the last.

The first four years of his life, little Walt spent at West Hills. He is not the only worthy of the place, for here, half a century earlier, was born the Honourable Silas Wood,[24] who now and for ten years to come, represented the district in Congress. Already, doubtless, he was collecting materials for his Sketch of the First Settlement of Long Island, soon to appear.[25] But neither he nor his history greatly concerns us.

Some two or three miles of sandy lane separate the old Whitman farm from the present railway station. On an autumn day one finds the way bordered by huckleberries and tall evening primroses, yellow toad-flax, blue chickory and corn-flowers, and sturdy forests of golden-rod among the briars and bushes. In the rough hedgerows are red sumachs, oaks, chestnuts and tall cedars, locusts and hickories; the gateways open on to broad fields full of picturesque cabbages, or the plumed regiments of the tall green Indian corn. It is a farming[Pg 8] country, and a country rich in game—foxes and quails and partridges—and populous now with all kinds of chirping insects, with frogs and with mosquitoes. The wooded hills themselves are full of birds; beyond them there are vineyards.

The road winds to the hills which give the place its name. To be precise, the Whitman farm, as my driver assured me, belongs to the hamlet of Millwell, but the title of West Hills is better known. The other name may, however, serve to recall those cold sweet springs which rise along the foot of the hills and keep the country green, and whose waters are highly esteemed in New York.

The lane passes by the end of an old grey shingled farmhouse, boasting a new brick chimney. A delicate, ash-like locust tree stands by the big gate.

Here, if you turn into the farm road under the boughs of the orchard, and then, through the wicket in the palings, cross the weedy garden square, you may enter under the timber-propped porch into the low-ceiled house where Walt was born. It is small but comfortable, of two stories and a half. The morning sun streams through the open door, blinks in at the sun-shutters, and filters through the mosquito netting. On the left of the hall[26] are a bedroom and parlour, and the dining-room is on the right, where a wing of one story has been added. Beyond this there is a lower extension; and beyond again, extend the chocolate-coloured barns and sheds and byres and stables of the farm. At one corner of the garden palings stands the little well-house with its four neat pillars, and a big bell swings in its forked post by the side gate to summon the men from the fields into which one sees the farm road wandering. The fields run up to the wood. Across the road from the garden is an apple orchard, where the pigs root, and the hens scratch and cluck and scuffle. It was planted by Walt’s uncle Jesse.
Picture of Walt's birthplace at West Hills, 1904.

WHITMAN’S BIRTHPLACE AT WEST HILLS, FROM THE LANE, 1904

This is not the first ancestral cabin of the Whitmans;[Pg 9] that lies at a little distance, nearer to the woods. It belongs now to another farm—the former holding having been divided—and the old cabin has become a waggon-shed. Both farms have long since passed out of the family; but near the first house, on a little woody knoll,[27] you may still see the picturesque group of unlettered stones which cluster on the Whitman burying hill.

Neither Walt himself nor his father and mother are buried here among their relatives and ancestors; but the boy, so early pre-occupied with the mysteries of life, must have often stolen to this strange solitude to commune with its silence and to hear the wind among the branches, whispering of death. There is a big old oak near by, old perhaps as the first Whitman settlement, and a grove of beautiful black walnuts, and this, too, was one of the children’s haunts.

Such was the old Whitman home and country, to which the boy’s earliest memories belonged, where he spent some of the years and nearly all the holidays of his youth and early manhood, and in which his later thoughts found their natural background, his deepest consciousness its native soil. It is, as we have seen, no tame or narrow country, but wide and generous, and it is within sound of the sea. In the still night that succeeds a storm, you may hear the strange low murmur of the Atlantic surf beating upon the coast.[28] The boy was born in the hills, with that sea-murmur about him.


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