The Story of the Dobbs Family and their Ferry (With Sources) – Part 1: The Barren Island Myth

By Jim Luckett   About The Author


Dobbs Ferry, NY is a village on the east bank of the Hudson River, about 20 miles north of midtown Manhattan, with a long and interesting history.   It is named for the ferry service from there to Palisades, NY (a.k.a. Snedens Landing)  on the west bank, directly opposite.  The ferry began sometime around 1700 (no one knows for sure when) and ran through at least 1944. The end date is also murky — the boat sank in 1944, but records indicate the operators were at least trying to operate it in 1945 and only gave up completely in 1946.  Among its passengers were John and Sam Adams (for sure), Martha Washington (most probably) and Laurence Olivier (likely, since he took flying lessons at Dobbs Ferry while living at Snedens Landing)

Members of the Dobbs family started the ferry.  Yet for most of its life it was Snedens operating it, based on the west bank.  The two families were intertwined and perhaps joined by marriage.  I set myself the task of researching and writing the history of the Dobbs family and their ferry, starting as far back as possible, well before they came to the site of the future village .  The result is a series of articles in the village historical newletter, The Ferryman, that begins with the Fall 2019 issue.

Poster approximating the ferry’s appearance in the early 1800s, when it was a large periauger. Artist is Jon Neilsen of Dobbs Ferry.

There isn’t room in a newsletter article to say much about sources.   So in this online article, and others to follow, I will provide the references to back up what I say in The Ferryman articles.  I’ll also use this space to elaborate on some of the storylines and fun details that would not fit in the newsletter.  There is not an exact correspondence between the articles here and the articles as they appeared in the Ferryman.  You can go to the table of contents on this site (Quickreference.info) and see the listing of Dobbs historical articles I have written here.    In addition, I have a Google Sheets spreadsheet, sorted by date, which just lists sources, with links.

I’ll do the references in these articles with hyperlinks rather than sending you to the library, so you can just click on a link to jump right into the source. I hope you catch some of the thrill of research and discovery that I felt as I amassed this information and figured out the many puzzles it presented. Please leave a comment!

Of course, others have researched and written up the same subject before me, but I found much that others have written is incorrect. And no one before seems to have pieced together the story I unearthed of their lives in Manhattan and elsewhere, in addition to Dobbs Ferry.  This makes it doubly important that I show my sources. Unfortunately, most previous writers on this subject have not revealed their sources.

For the work of others on Dobbs History, see below (bearing in mind I don’t agree with some of the facts they present):

Historian Jean Fritz in the 1990s wrote a 3-part series in The Ferryman on the Dobbs family and the ferry. Wonderful articles, despite some inaccuracies, including the Dobbs-on-Barren-Island myth. http://dobbsferryhistory.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/026-1993_November.pdf and http://dobbsferryhistory.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/027-1994_March.pdf and http://dobbsferryhistory.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/028-1994_May.pdf

The Dobbs Ferry Register newspaper in the 1950s published a history of the village and it is available online at this URL (note: This website is frequently down, so keep trying): http://fultonhistory.com/Newspaper%2017/Dobbs%20Ferry%20NY%20%20Register/Dobbs%20Ferry%20NY%20%20Register%201954-1958/Dobbs%20Ferry%20NY%20%20Register%201954-1958%20-%200076.pdf

Robert Bolton, a 19th century historian, is the source of much misinformation on the Dobbs family and the ferry. If you read somewhere that John Dobbs (or more likely “Jan Dobbs”) was a Swede, and that his son Jeremiah Dobbs was the first ferryman, those errors trace back to Bolton. See: pp 181-182,  https://archive.org/stream/historyofcountyo01bolt/historyofcountyo01bolt_djvu.txt  (highly inaccurate!) Margaret Lane (see next entry) took on the task of debunking of Bolton in her article “They Say Dobbs Ain’t Melodious.” [You’re going to land in a fanciful poem about Dobbs Ferry when you open this link. The Lane article comes after that, on p. 77].

Margaret King Lane was a Dobbs descendant who wrote in the 1970s about the family history based on oral tradition in her family and on her own genealogical research. She died in 1997.  See: Lane Dobbs Genealogy. Her grandfather was Captain John King, who operated a sloop on the Hudson, based at Dobbs Ferry, and her grandmother was Eliza Ann Dobbs. The sloop was named the “Eliza Ann.” [Interesting sidelights — Dr. Harold A. Storms, beloved physician of Dobbs Ferry who practiced medicine there for nearly 40 years, until his death in 1957, was also a grandchild of Captain King and Eliza Ann, and therefore Margaret Lane’s cousin.  (I remember raising money as a child in Dobbs Ferry for the Dr. Storm’s Memorial Fund by having a lemonade stand on Grandview Ave. and Bellwood Ave.)  In addition to operating his sloop, Captain King had a pickle factory in Ardsley. Ardsley was originally named “Ashford” after Capt. King’s birthplace in England, but that name now only survives on the name of the avenue connecting Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley.   More on this: http://www.ardsleyhistoricalsociety.org/assets/pdf/ArdsleyHistoricalSocietyVol26No2.pdf and https://www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/king/13865/]

Grenville MacKenzie researched and wrote about Westchester history, including Dobbs, in the mid-20th century. His work is  in the files of the Westchester Historical Society and is frequently cited. Unfortunately, he gives no sources and there are errors in his work. I think it is quite likely he was the first writer to make the mistake of placing the Dobbs family on Barren Island, and the myth propagated from there. See: “The Settlement of Phillipsburgh” and “The English Families of Philipse Manor in Westchester County, New York” of which I here make available the cover page and the pages covering the Dobbs family (pp. 216-218).  Margaret Lane wrote that MacKenzie was at one time a Dobbs Ferry resident, and so my mind immediately sought to connect him to James Cameron MacKenzie, who founded the MacKenzie School for Boys in Dobbs Ferry in 1901 (sold to Mother Cabrini in 1913), but my research finds no such connection and in fact places him in Connecticut for almost his whole life.

Snedens Landing history is covered by Alice Munro Haagensen, in this 1986 work: http://www.hudsonrivervalley.org/library/pdfs/articles_books_essays/palisades_and_snedens_landing.pdf

A Story of 3 Islands

The true story of the Dobbs family before Dobbs Ferry is a story of three islands:

(1) Barren Island in Brooklyn, where they were not, but where most writers mistakenly say they were in the 1600s.

(2) Barn Island in the East River off Harlem, where some of the family went in the early 1700s, when others went to the future Dobbs Ferry and the future Sneden’s Landing on the opposite bank of the Hudson from Dobbs Ferry. The Barn/Barren name similarity gave rise to the myth that they had been on Barren Island. Barn Island is today’s Wards Island.

(3) And Manhattan Island, where they definitely were living, from at least 1680 until about the end of the 1600s (and for some, much longer), and where a richly detailed story lay waiting for me to discover in land records, city council meeting minutes and other historic documents. It was my pleasurable adventure to discover this story and piece it together and will soon be my pleasure to share it with you as more articles in this series are published.

So, the first task here is to prove with sources that they were never on Barren Island, Brooklyn.  Everyone else says they were.  I say they were not.  Check my sources and my logic and see if you agree with me, or with the consensus of other writers.

It’s not easy to prove a negative. The best method would be if I could prove they were somewhere else, which I can do from 1680 onward, when they first appear in Manhattan records, but I have to use other methods to prove they were not on Barren Island prior to 1680. Fortunately, that’s possible, because I can cite sources indicating Barren Island was uninhabited in the 1600s. Moreover, it was owned by one man, Elbert Elbertsen, living in the nearby town of Flatlands, who brooked no trespassers and had no tenants on it. It is our extraordinary good fortune that Elbertsen left clear documentary evidence of these facts.

A. References Debunking the Myth that the Dobbs Family Once Lived on Barren Island in Brooklyn:

1) Barren Island in modern times was incorporated into Floyd Bennet Field, a naval air station. The following reference is a master’s thesis tracing the history of the area and the following quote is from page 5:

“Floyd Bennett Field is located in the tidal estuary of Jamaica Bay. Prior to construction, the area of Floyd Bennett Field was comprised of approximately fifteen small islands separated by several creeks, bays and channels. Barren Island was one of the largest in the coastal island system of Jamaica Bay. As its name suggests, Barren Island was a flat, expansive island. While
settlers occupied the city of Brooklyn, Barren Island went uninhabited until c. 1800, when a private resident opened a hotel to accommodate local fishermen. Industrial development emerged soon after.”

The island was uninhabited until 1800, according to the above. Therefore, the Dobbs family did not live there in the 1600s and 1700s, if this writer is correct.

http://www.esf.edu/cclp/documents/Cody_Balancing_Past_Present.pdf page 5 This is admittedly a secondary source, but it is a scholarly work and a good overview.

The early facts as told in the above reference are corroborated by this source:

    History of the Town of Flatlands

p. 14 – 15. Begin at the subhead “Barren Island” toward the end of p. 14 https://archive.org/stream/historyoftownoff00dubo#page/n33

(Above) Map showing where Barren Island was. I say “was” because it has been substantially altered and connected to Long Island with land fill to make Floyd Bennet Field, a naval air station.

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Documents from Philipsburgh Manor

Town Book of the Manor of Philiphsburgh and related historic documents.


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