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

2) This National Park Service publication on Jamaica Bay also says the island was uninhabited in the 1600s, although it incorrectly says Elbert Elbertsen leased it, when, as we shall see, he in fact had a claim of ownership. The confusion about perhaps leasing it arose from the fact that he subsequently bought out a competing claim of ownership. The NPS author probably saw that later transaction and did not think of the possibility that Elbertsen was buying a deed to an island he already claimed to own. p. 14

3) Elbertsen first acquired his claim to Barren Island from the Gerritsen family around 1662 (contract of sale, 1662; deed date 1666). A Gerritsen ancestor was granted a patent on a large tract by the Dutch authorities in 1636 (jointly with a partner named Hudde, who was bought out later). The boundaries of this patent are poorly described, and many later analysts concluded Barren Island was not part of this tract, but Elbertsen believed it was and was able to convince others of his time that he owned the island based on his acquisition of the entire Gerritsen tract. Here is the Gerritsen 1636 patent:

The Gerritsen- Hudde patent for a large tract which Elbertsen claimed included Barren Island

4) In 1667, soon after the English took New Netherlands and renamed it New York, Elbertsen received an English patent from the English governor of the colony (Governor Nicolls).  This English patent confirmed, without alteration, his title derived from the Dutch patent of the land he acquired from Gerritsen. Whether this new patent included Barren Island was as unclear to later analysts as it had been in the Dutch patent. Two other men, Spicer and Tilson, had a deed to the island from some Indians.  No government authority had recognized this deed, but jgust to make sure, Elbertsen bought out their claim in 1681. This source on Colonial patents discusses these matters on page 26 (note that “Equindito” and “Broken Lands” are alternative names for Barren Island according to this source; other sources say “Broken Lands” refers to the group of islands close by the Long Island south shore, of which Barren Island is one of the largest):

“There is an unrecorded Indian deed dated May
13, 1664, of ” a certain Island commonly called by
the Indians Equindito and by the English the broken
Lands ” to ” John Tilton Sen’r and Sammuell Spicer
of Gravesend,” with a conveyance dated May z, 168I,
by John Tilton and Samuel Spicer to Elbertsen endorsed
on the deed. (The Underhill Society of
America, Thirty-Sixth Annual Report, pp. 35, 36;
Stiles’s History of Kings County, New York, W. W.
Munsell & Co., 1884, pp. 77,78.) So far as has been
found, this deed was not ” Renewed or Confirmed”
by the English, and perhaps this may be taken to
indicate that the tract described in this deed was included
in the tract described in the patent dated
November I, I 667, by [Governor] Nicolls to Elbertsen (PATENTS,
I, p. 91) ;

Note: Elbertsen also bought out the claim of nearby Bergen Island from the same Spicer and Tilson, so don’t be confused if you run across a reference to that transaction. It’s a different deed to a different, but nearby island.

5) The text of the Spicer and Tilson Indian deed to Barren Island is here, and it is fun to read for its colorful details:

6) The story of how Elbertsen acquired the Gerritsen claim (he married Gerritsen’s widow and reached an agreement with the guardians of Gerritsen’s children), and of his disputes over boundaries, can be found in this book entitled History of the Town of Flatlands, toward the end of page 3. (The book display app opened with this link is going to say p 12/46 at the bottom of the page, but the printed page number at the upper right is “3”). Enlarge the text by clicking the “+” magnifying glass icon when page opens.

The text of the English patent to Elertsen is here, starting on p. 135

7) The journal of Jasper Dankaert, a Dutch traveler looking for a place to plant a religious colony, describes a visit to Elbert Elbertsen’s house, Oct 3, 1679. This anecdote proves nothing, but I include it just for fun. p 61

Screen shot of Google Translate. The Dutch word for “bears” sounds like our word “barren.” So, was the island named for its infertility? Or for some early ursine denizens?  Don’t know.  The translation of Dankaerts Journal renders the island name as “Bears,” suggesting he called it Beren.  The island lay between an English town (Gravesend) and a Dutch town (Nieuw Amersfoort — A.K.A. Flatlands), but was claimed by Elbert Elbertsen, who was Dutch. So I tend to think it was first named “Beren” meaning “Bears” and then anglicized into “Barren” because that English word both sounded like the old name and was appropriately descriptive.

8) The journal of Jasper Dankaert for September 29, 1679 comes so tantalizingly close to definitively settling the matter of whether Barren Island was occupied, but stops just short. He says nobody lives on Coney Island, which is next to Barren Island, and then he mentions “Bear’s Island,” by which he means Barren Island. (He wrote in Dutch, and “Beren” or “Beeren” is Dutch for “bears.” Whether this is Dankaert’s error, or the name “Barren” is actually derived from the Dutch word for bears, I do not know.) But he is silent on whether “Bear’s Island” is also unoccupied. Perhaps we can infer that it was unoccupied since the two island are similar and adjacent and if one could not attract settlement, it’s likely the other could not also; and if it had been occupied it is likely Dankaert would have remarked on that difference and probably visited the inhabitants. But, that’s all speculation. Nevertheless, it’s fun to have this eyewitness account: p. 51

Here is a screen shot incorporating the relevant passage in Dankaert’s journal mentioning Coney and “Bears” islands. This excerpt is also interesting for its mention of the ferry between Long Island and Manhattan, which William Merritt, uncle to John Dobbs, sought to take control of and perhaps did operate in the 1680s:

(above) Jasper Dankaert’s 1679 sketch of the entrance to New York Harbor, complete with spouting whales. Dankaert describes making this sketch on p. 59 of the above-linked publication of his journal. The title refers to points he labels with letters you can see going across the horizon. The title: “Views of the land on the southerly and southwesterly sides of the great bay between the Neversincks and Long Island [?] miles from New York. (A) Coney island (B) The opening to enter (C) Sandy hook (D) Rensselaer’s hook (E) Some trees serving as a land mark. In order to sail in between the shoals keep SSW from them, (DEF) The land called the Neversincks (F) Kil van kol . All as it appears from Jacques Cortelyou’s house on Long Island.” The vantage point (Jacques Cortelyou’s house) would be today the landing point of the Verrazano Narrows bridge (Fort Hamilton). Kil Van Kol is the water separating Staten Island from Bayonne, NJ. We are looking south from Long Island. Barren Island is not visible, because it would be behind Coney Island, to the left.

9) A major 20th-century lawsuit centered on the question of what was included in Elbert Elbertsen’s patent — did it include the “Broken Lands” — the islands off the southern coast of Long Island including Barren Island — or did it stop north of there? This case and related ones that followed caused a lot of historical research on the history of the area which was helpful to my research. None of the judges’ writings mention any habitation of Barren Island. The modern case records inform us of a 1679 suit in which Elbertsen successfully defended his title to the island from a claim by the town, and successfully pursued a case against trespassers who put their horses on the island:

“In 1679, two years after the issuance of this confirmatory patent and of a patent to the town of Flatlands, it appears that cross-actions were brought by certain inhabitants of the town and Elbert Elbertson, the complaint of the former being that Elbertson ‘Layes claim to a certain Tract of Land’ and Elbertson in turn complaining ‘of a Trespass That the said persons have contrary to his order put their Horses upon his Island called Bearn Island to his Damage.’ The matter was referred to a jury, which found for Elbertson, and so it appears that he did claim Barren Island which, fronting on the ocean, was and is, as hereinbefore set forth, the single most southerly island of the broken lands.”

The record of this case also tells us Elbertsen’s title was upheld after his death in a 1688 arbitration. “The arbitrators [in 1688] then point out a conveyance from Hudde and Gerritsen as lying on “the south end of the fflatts of fflatlands towne” and the adjudication in favor of Elbertson as to title to “a Certaine tract of land,” apparently referring to Barren Island,”

It goes on to say that the island was not subdivided for another 150 years, approximately (1835).

The point of all this for our purpose is to establish that the Dobbs family and their relatives the Merritts and Meekeses were not land owners on Barren Island. Elbertsen owned all of it, so they couldn’t have owned any of it.   We have shown others owned the island in its entirety from its 1636 acquisition from some Indians, recognized in a Dutch patent, through its first subdivision in 1835, well after our time period of interest. And just for good measure, we have other Indians claiming they owned it and selling their claim to Spicer and Tilson, who in turn sold that dubious claim to Elbertson.

The case record goes on to discuss how undivided interests in the island passed down through the generations, landing in the hands of 5 parties by 1835, who then made the first subdivision of the island that had ever been made.

Along the way, it is notable that at least one deeding of interests in the island called it “Barn Island.” This is notable because if Barren Island was sometimes called “Barn Island” it contributes to the confusion between this island in Brooklyn and the island in the East River which actually did have a connection to the Dobbs Family, and which was also called Barn Island at times. Here’s the relevant quote on the name:

“These deeds are of the undivided interest in ‘the aforesaid Island commonly called and well known by the name of Barn Island,’ which is a plain restriction to Barren Island,” the judge writes.

This case was reconsidered a bit later in the 20th century (1939). If you really want to delve into it, see I found the dissent of Justice J. Hagarty, which appears at the end, to be the best for our purposes, because he gives a clear recitation of the history of the title to Barren Island. 258 App. Div. 191, 205 (N.Y. App. Div. 1939

10) If the Dobbs family and the Merritts and the Meekeses (William Merritt being Mary Dobbs’s brother and Sarah Meekes being her sister) were not land owners on Barren Island, as I have shown by the sources above they were not, then either

(a) they were not there or

(b) they were tenants of Elbert Elbertsen.

If we can show (b) was not the case, we have proven (a) — they were not there. Fortunately, Elbertsen’s account books survive and they have been thoroughly mined for names as part of a project to list the names of every early resident of King’s County. The compiler of this list was Teunis Bergen. Bergen mined every tax roll, church record and business account book he could find in his long career of studying colonial Kings County (where Barren Island was located). The list is here: There are no Dobbses, no Merritts and no Meekeses. The book is equipped for electronic word searching if you wish to verify the absence of these surnames. That Elbertsen’s account books were among Bergen’s sources is in a footnote on page 18. The breadth of Begen’s sources and his goal of compiling the names of every early resident is described in the Preface at the beginning.

For more about Elbert Elbertsen and his account books, from the same author, including the story of Elbertsen’s relationship to Barren Island, and a mention that it was also called “Baern Island,” see the footnote on page 248 of this book:

Page from Elbert Elbertsen's account book. Though Elbertsen owned Barren Island and he also ran a store in nearby Flatlands, no mention of the Dobbs Family is in the accounts, indicating they were not his tenants.

Above: Photo of a page from Elbert Elbertsen’s account book.  Though he owned Barren Island and he also ran a store in nearby Flatlands, no mention of the Dobbs Family is in the accounts, suggesting they were not there. If they had been his tenants and/or done business at his store, they would be in his accounts.

For more about Elbertsen and his account books see:’_Paradise_A_Comparison_of_Kings_County_New_York_and_Inland_Flanders_Economies_in_the_Seventeenth_and_Eighteenth_Centuries

Other papers belonging to Elbertsen are here: Many names of persons he did business with are in the titles of these documents. Again, no Dobbses, no Merritts, no Meekeses.

11) This next reference gives an eyewitness description of the island in the 1700s. By all evidence, Barren Island was unoccupied because it was so inhospitable — a low-lying, marshy mass of shifting sands, with scant vegetation, no roads and no structures. In light of how unattractive the island was, the story of the Dobbs family living there defies credulity. Even as late as 1762, well after our period of interest as Dobbs historians, it was described as vacant by one William Moore, who had been taking sand from the island for sale for the previous 16 years and sought a firmer legal basis for his sand business. Moore leased the island from the town of Flatlands, but found his supposed landlord did not own what it was leasing. He then contacted descendants of Elbert Elbertsen, who did claim to own the island, but they showed no interest in proving their title nor in leasing to Moore. Moore applied to the authorities to have them clear up the title, but found no help there either. His failed petition to the royal governor describes the island as unoccupied, with much of it regularly flooded by the tides. The petition is reproduced in the book

    Keskchauge, or the First White Settlement on Long Island

starting on page 207, available on (membership required),914,2071,982;79,994,281,1049;727,1567,1008,1622;1007,1568,1242,1626;377,3010,779,3067;1774,3324,2051,3382#?imageId=dvm_LocHist006098-00161-0

Here is the relevant excerpt, for those without a membership:

Note that he asserts Barren Island is unpatented, but we know a court found in 1679 that it was within the Gerritsen patent that Elbertsen had acquired.  Perhaps this is why his petition was denied.


12) The distance from downtown New York City and Barren Island is going to become relevant when we read the 1737 newspaper article on the death of Mary Dobbs, mother of John Dobbs, the man who brought the family name to Dobbs Ferry. That article places Mary Dobbs on Barn Island, identified as being 7 miles from the city. So I reproduce below an online map that calculates that distance to Barren Island at over 13 miles. Anyone who wants to believe that poor Mary lived out her golden years on desolate, marshy, lonely Barren Island, evading the watchful eyes of Elbert Elbertsen’s heirs, has to deal with that distance discrepancy.

Click here for part 2, Dobbs Family Members on Barn Island 

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