Story of the Dobbs Family and Their Ferry Part 2 (with sources)

Below we resume the story of the Dobbs Family.  Part II focuses on the family members who moved to Barn Island (today’s Wards Island), giving rise to the mistake historians made placing them on Barren Island.  See Part 1 elsewhere on this site.  Note that the division into parts here does not line up with the division into articles of my series in The Ferryman newsletter.   I had to divide these online articles based on technical constraints.  Just to be crystal clear about chronology, the events in this section are happening simultaneously with young John Dobbs and/or his offspring operating the ferry in its early years.  A topic we will cover later.   If you are enjoying this series, please leave a comment!

B. References Showing Some of the Dobbs Family Moved to Barn Island In the East River (Wards Island)


If I were going in chronological order, I would be giving Manhattan references before Barn Island references. But I focus next on Barn Island, because the natural question after disproving the Barren-Island-Brooklyn myth is, “If they weren’t there, why do so many writers say they were?”

Let me give you a highly-condensed summary of what took place:  The Dobbs children grew up in Manhattan while their uncle, William Merritt (brother of their mother Mary Dobbs) rose to wealth and power in Manhattan society. He was on the anti-Leislerite side in Leisler’s Rebellion which gripped the province 1688-90 and was even jailed for a time.  After Leisler was hanged in 1690, Merritt  resumed his  rise to power, attaining the mayor’s office 1695-98.  When the Leislerites returned to power with the appointment of a pro-Leislerite royal governor in 1698, Uncle William left the city for Orange County (today’s Rockland County) and much of the Dobbs/Merritt family dispersed.  Mary’s husband Walter had died on Manhattan and so had her second husband Nathaniel Pittman. Her son John Dobbs moved to the future Dobbs Ferry, opposite his uncle William Merritt.   Merritt built his house “Cheer Hall” at the future Snedens Landing (Palisades, NY).  John’s sister Mary also moved to the future Dobbs Ferry as Mary Dobbs Hughson. John’s brother William stayed in Manhattan, working as a shoemaker, Sexton of Trinity Church (the Episcopal Church his Uncle William helped found), street cleaner and public bellman (watchman). John’s other brother Walter Jr. moved to Barn Island and married Eda Parsell, of the Parsell family that owned that well-located and fertile island in the East River off Harlem. His brother William (the shoemaker I just mentioned) married another of the Parsell girls, Catherine, who was by then Catherine Slot, a widow. Their boys’ mother Mary Dobbs went to live on Barn Island with, or near, Walter and Eda, and that is where she died in 1737 at age 104 (or so it was reported in the newspaper of the day).

Historians saw the marriage records listing brides from some island that looked on the page to be variants of “Barren Island,” and listing Walter as being from that same island, and saw the newspaper story about Mary’s death on “Barn Island,” and leaped to a wrong conclusion — wrong on two counts:

(a) Where these marriages and this death took place in the 1700s is not where the family lived in the 1600s (they lived in Manhattan, as I will show in Part 3) and

(b) the island in question was today’s Wards Island in the East River off Harlem, not Barren Island Brooklyn.

Barren Island was sometimes called “Barn Island.” Probably, those making this mistake did not know there was another “Barn Island” in the 1700s, and so did not hesitate to place the family on Barren Island. Had the East River Island kept the name “Barn” instead of being renamed “Wards” historians probably would not have made the mistake.

Of course, I can’t just tell you all this. I have to prove it with citations to primary sources. I am up against many respected historians whose writings contradict what I have just told you, placing the Dobbs family on Barren Island in Brooklyn as their first landing spot in the New World and their home many decades thereafter. To prove them wrong, I have to show a strong connection of the Dobbs family to the Parsell family and a strong connection of the Parsell family to Barn Island in the East River, and show all the clues that led other writers to Barren Island, actually lead more plausibly to Barn Island (Wards Island).  I have already shown (in Part 1) the story of them being on Barren Island is highly implausible given other facts about that desolate place.

The Sources:

(1) Let’s begin this story of the Dobbs Family on Barn Island at the end, with Mary Dobbs’s death notice. The article appeared in the New York Gazette with the dateline of March 22, 1737 but in an issue that is indexed online with the date March 15, 1737 (go figure!). Here’s the link to the beginning of the article (very bottom of page 3 of the newspaper) And here is the link to the continuation at very top of page 4 of the newspaper
The article is so fascinating, I want to reproduce it below and save you the trouble of clicking through on the links:

Article in 1737 New York Gazette on death of Mary Dobbs.

The sister who is 102 years old and who can walk from one end of New York City to the other “without a stick in her hand” would be Sarah, first married to Ed Meekes and later to Henry Crabbe and widowed again. Sarah appears regularly in our story, getting remarried in Manhattan at the same time Mary does in 1689, moving to Orange County with her brother William Merritt around 1698, and withnessing baptisms of some of the Dobbs children who were her grand nieces and grand nephews at the Tarrytown Dutch Reformed church. That she is back in Manhattan, at a spry 102 years old going about her daily outings, is interesting. Also note the reference to Sarah’s and Mary’s brother William Merritt, former mayor.

(Above) Screenshot from a distance-measuring website shows Wards Island is 7.1 miles from downtown Manhattan (today’s City Hall). In Part 1 we showed the equivalent map for Barren Island, with a distance of 13 miles.

Note: The article says that Mary died on Barn Island, 7 miles from the city, not Barren Island, 13 miles from the city. We know “Barren Island” was sometimes called “Barn Island,” but no slip of the tongue is going to move Barren Island 6 miles closer to Manhattan to make it fit the location this 1737 Newspaper article assigned to her abode.  Also note that, while legally New York City incorporated the whole island of Manhattan and Barn Island as well, in common speech and writing at the time, “the city” was the urban area at the tip of Manhattan.   Most of the rest of Manhattan was either wild or farms, with small village-like settlements at the Bowery and Harlem.  As late as 1749, there were only about 1800 houses on the entire island of Manhattan, and fewer than 10% of those (131) were north of the Bowery.

This seems like a good spot for some pictures of old New York in the 1700s to help you put yourself in the scene, and appreciate why “the city” meant only the southern tip of Manhattan.

Looking north on the upper west side of Manhattan, as drawn by the British soldier Archibald Robertsen c. 1776.  Part of the city legally, but not in casual speech.

Looking across the East River from Queens at Hell Gate in 1776. Apparently, the island is Barn Island (which by 1776 had become Buchanan Island and is today Wards Island).  But the geography of the composition seems a little off.   This depicts the bombardment of the “rebel works at Walton’s mansion,” on the site of today’s Gracie Mansion.   If we are looking across from Queens at the site of Gracie Mansion,  one would expect Wards Island to be too far north to be in our field of view.   Gracie Mansion’s site is at 89th street while Wards Island has its southern tip opposite  100th St.  Artistic license? Note the little house on the island.  Artist: Archibald Robertson, British soldier.  The mansion was a total loss.  Washington withdrew.

An inn or tavern drawn by the same artist as above, located at about today’s 120th street and 8th Avenue. Title is “In Harlem Lane.”

(2) Now let’s look at the marriage record for Walter Dobbs Jr. and Eda Parsell:

Marriage record of Walter Dobbs Jr. to Ed Parsell at the Dutch Reformed Collegiate Church in Manhattan

This is a record in the Manhattan Dutch Reformed Church for Nov. 21, 1707. Please note something I will have to say repeatedly in later installments: Church records (and many other records of early New York) were written by Dutchmen, and whether written in Dutch or English, these men heard names through Dutch ears and processed them through Dutch brains that Dutchified the pronounciation and therefore the spelling. Spelling was anarchic back then, even of names — even of your own name. You didn’t spell your own name the same way every time your wrote it ( 6 signatures of Shakespeare survive and no two are spelled the same way, not even the three of them that appear on his will, and none are spelled the way I just did) and you certainly did not correct anyone else’s spelling. So “Dobbs” in original historic records is rendered “Dopse,” “Dops,” “Dob,” “Dobs,” “Dop,” etc. and island names are similarly free form.  (This certainly lessens the value of electronic word search and this one factor alone probably doubled the time it took me to do the research for this project!)

You can find these marriage records in the original image like this on (membership required), bearing in mind the caveat above about name spellings.

I will translate the above marriage record for you: “Walter Dobbs, single man (J.M.), of Barn Island and Eda Parsell single woman (J.D.) of Barn Island”
(For how to translate Dutch marriage records see )

(3) How do I know this is Walter Dobbs jr. and Eda Parsell and that Eda is the daughter of Thomas Parsell who owned Barn Island? Many ways, but let’s start with

(a) the abstract of the will of Thomas Parsell, which confirms Walter Dobbs married Eda Parsell :

” Thomas Pearsall.

“Of Spectacle Island, otherwise called Harts
Island.” Leaves Legacy to son Nicholas. Leaves
to son Henry, “a certain Island called Spectacle
Island or Harts Island, situate in the Sound, in the
Manor of Pelham.”

Legacies to son John, and daughters Eda wife of
Walter Dobbs
, and Hannah wife of John Lanyon.
Makes Thomas Pell and Hermanns Rutsen, and son
John executors.
johanes roelofsen
Jane Francis
Dated April 20, 1723.
Proved April 6, 1732.
Liber 1 1. P. 229. “

You can find the above here, in the Abstracts of wills of Early Westchester:

Don’t be confused by the reference to Hart’s Island (a.k.a. Spectacle Island) in Long Island sound. He liked islands. After raising his kids on Barn Island in the East River, he bought and moved to Hart’s Island and left the adult children to have Barn Island.

So the above corroborates my translation of the marriage record.

(b) The above-named son John Parsell’s 1751 will, in New York Will Abstracts, is instructive because he identifies his home as “Barn Island.”
Abstracts of wills on file in the Surrogate’s office: city of New York page 371, Liber 18
And we know from other sources that John Parsell bought the northern half of today’s Wards Island from his father, while the southern half went to a Parsell daughter and her husband.

(c) And here we have the 1705 record of William Dobbs, brother of Walter Jr., marrying the widow Catherina Slot, whom I discovered was Eda Parsells’s sister, through deed research on a transaction between her father and her. The Dobbs brothers marrying Parsell sisters reinforces the inference that the boys’ mother, Mary Dobbs, would live on the island the Parsells owned, surrounded by family, not on desolate Barren Island.

Translation: William Dobbs, single man of New York [City] Catherina Slot, widow, lives on G. Beer Island [not sure what the symbols at the far right of the first line mean, but I think they mean “married June 12”, the date in the far left margin being not the wedding date but the date the banns were published]
The image is from (membership required) and if you are searching for it, here’s a tip: It is indexed under “Catharina Stot” and “William Sops”

What is the “G.” in the name of Catherina’s home island? It stands for “Great.” As we will get into later, the island was first named “Great Barent Island” after a very big Dane named Barent who tended livestock on it. The “Barent” morphed into “Barn” but was variously written as “Baron,” “Baern,” “Barnes,” etc. along the way. Today’s Randolph Island was smaller and, being right next to Great Barent it became “Little Barent” or “Little Barn” and that reverberated into Great Barent sometimes being called “Big Barn Island.” And so it went in an age with many illiterate people, and many people of many different native languages and accents living in close proximity, and no standardized spelling of anything.

So this further cements our perception of a strong connection between the Dobbs and Parsell families. It is also interesting because history has a keen interest in a son of this couple, another William Dobbs, because he served George Washington well as a spy and ship’s pilot during the revolution and was praised by General Washington in letters. No writer has previously to my knowledge figured out that his mother was a Parsell and his father was a shoemaker (as we shall see below).

I discovered Catherine Dobbs was a Parsell while reading old deeds in the deed office on John Street in Manhattan. I came upon deeds between Thomas Parsell and William and “Katherine” Dobbs that identified “Katherine Dobbs” as daughter to Thomas and wife to William. Images of parts of two of these deed are below, and I have underlined the relevant phrases.

You can also see that another Parsell daughter, Hannah, and her husband Jeremiah Redding were involved, if you read farther in this deed excerpt.

Here is another deed in which Thomas Parsell “of Bearin Island in the County of New York” gives “in consideration for the natural love and affection which I bear to my beloved daughter Katherine, wife of William Dobbs” some land on Manhattan. In this deed we learn William’s occupation is “shoomaker.” See sections of the text that I underlined. (From other sources we know he was also sexton of Trinity Church, and at times a city bellman and scavenger — watchman and street cleaner.)

The deed goes on to identify the parcel as being 81 feet x 21 feet and being in “Smith’s Valley,” outside the gates of the city (meaning north of Wall Street) and lying between a parcel owned by Thomas Parsell and another owned by Jeremiah Redding. Smiths Valley was at Maiden Lane, leading down to the East River. When I sat at the microfilm reader discovering this deed on the 13th floor of 66 John Street, I was within a very short walk of this parcel. Smiths Valley was near (or perhaps overlapped with) a 17-acre area known as Shoemaker’s Pasture because it was a center of hide tanning activity and was owned by shoemakers. In some of the deeds involving the Dobbses, the Parsells and the Reddings there are references to the “tanning pitts of the shoemakers.” In the early 1700s the shoemakers subdivided Shoemakers Pasture into 163 lots to be developed for homes and businesses. A number of these were willed to the Dutch Reformed Church of Manhattan and are now worth about half a billion dollars. See for history of this area of Manhattan. Whether this is one of those lots, I don’t know.

(Above) Artist’s conception of the Smiths Valley section of lower Manhattan near the East River where William Dobbs’s wife received a small parcel from her father Thomas Parsell by the nearest deed above.

Deed references: Lib. 30 Page 23 & 24 dated 1708 recorded 1719. Also relevant are Dobbs to Redding Lib. 30 page 78

(Above) The old deeds office on John St. in lower Manhattan.

The old deeds are on microfilm, in hand-lettered boxes, jumbled in drawers in no particular order.

Scrolling through the films in search of Dobbs family history.

(d) More examples of the many names and spellings of Barn Island, and the many connections of the Parsells to that island:

(i) When Eda’s and Catharina’s brother Nicholas Parsell married in 1700, the church record said he lived on “Beeren” Island.

(ii) When “Jeremias Reddin” marries “Anna Paersils” she is said to be of “Baeren Ylant” (In English, he is Jeremiah Redding and she is Hannah Parsell, sister of Eda and Catherina who married Dobbs brothers. Soon after, it is recorded that William Dobbs and Catherine attended the baptism of Jeremiah’s and Hannah’s first baby: p. 341

(iii) When in 1712 “Nicholas Parcell” (brother of Eda and Catherina) is appointed a pilot for Hellgate, he is said to be “of Great Barn Island.” See Calendar of Historical Manuscripts if the Office of the Secretary of State p.411 Hellgate is the treacherous channel between Barn Island and Queens, to the east of the island. Today, it is less treacherous thanks to removal of many rocks. A pilot is someone who is expert in the navigation of particular waters and who goes aboard ships just to take them through that area.

(Above) Map shows Hellgate. Today, Barn Island is Wards Island and it has been joined to Randalls Island (a.k.a Little Barn Island) to its north with landfill.

Here is how Jasper Dankaert, the Dutch traveler we have quoted before, wrote about Hellgate in 1679:

“6th, Friday. We remained in the house during the forenoon, but after having dined we went out about two o’clock64 to explore the island of Manathans. This island runs east and west, or somewhat more northerly. On the north side of it is the North River, by which it is separated from the main land on the north; on the east end it is separated from the main land by a creek, or rather a branch of the North River, emptying itself into the East River. They can go over this creek at dead low water, upon rocks and reefs, at the place called Spyt den Duyvel. This creek coming into the East River forms with it the two Barents Islands. At the west end of these two running waters, that is, where they come together to the east of these islands, they make, with the rocks and reefs, such a frightful eddy and whirlpool that it is exceedingly dangerous to pass through them, especially with small boats, of which there are some lost every now and then, and the persons in them drowned; but experience has taught men the way of passing through them with less danger. Large vessels have always less danger because they are not capable of being carried along so quickly. There are two places where such whirling of the stream occurs, which are on account of the danger and frightfulness called the Great and Little Helle Gadt. “

(3) Background on Barn Island, a.k.a Great Barent Island, a.k.a. Wards Island.

This quote from the 1923 Annual Report of the American Scenic & Historic Preservation Society (p33) will get us started on the histor of this island:

Delaval had been mayor of New York City and crossed paths with William Merritt several times. For example, Merritt captained a ship Delaval owned, The Rebecca & Sarah, which sunk in Westchester Creek off Long Island Sound, not far from Barn Island, sometime before 1673 But so far as we know, this is just coincidence.

In a further coincidence, Delaval’s bookkeeper had been Jacob Milbourne, and Milbourne arranged the sale of the island to Thomas Parsell after Delaval’s death. The coincidental part is that Milbourne was Leisler’s number 2 man in Leisler’s Rebellion, which Merritt opposed, landing  Merritt in Leisler’s jail. Milbourne was hanged with Leisler in 1690.

Until Parsell bought the island it was undeveloped. But it had lots of potential and Parsell apparently did a bang-up job of realizing that potential. Now we’ll let another published source pick up the story:

The above is quoted from Revised History of Harlem (City of New York): Its Origin and Early Annals …
By James Riker, Henry Pennington Toler, 1904, Appendix I (pp. 809-810) Revised History of Harlem, by Riker, 1904

Today, Wards Island has parks and walking paths. The best access from Manhattan is a footbridge at 103rd St.

Map for visitors to Wards island.

Wards Island seen from the 103rd Street footbridge joining Manhattan and Wards. There are no historical markers to tell you the Dobbs family was there, back when it was called Great Barent Island, or more commonly Barn Island. Maybe we should start a petition?

The author, Jim Luckett, far right (with beard); author’s wife, Betty MacKenzie; and friend of the author from back in the 1960s when they both hailed from Dobbs Ferry, Alan Pakaln.

(4) Did the Parsell connection go futher than Barn Island? Loose ends!

What follows is a collection of loose ends that suggest more connections between the Parsells, Dobbses, Snedens and Slots than we know. I’m getting ahead of my story, but just so you have context, a brother of William and Walter Dobbs named John moved to the future Dobbs Ferry and he or his descendants started the ferry that gives the town its name. The ferry was taken over by Robert and Mary Sneden in the mid 1700s and we believe Mary was a daughter of John Dobbs. The Snedens operated it from the west bank, and it is believed the occupied the house that William Merritt had built there, Cheer Hall. The Dobbs surname also made it across the river.

There were Parsells in Snedens Landing opposite Dobbs Ferry and there were Sloats in the area too. “Slot” was Catherine Dobbs’s surname in her first marriage, before she was widowed and remarried to William Dobbs. “Slot” and “Sloat” are variant spellings of the same family name. Did the Parsells and Slots of Barn Island go with the Dobbs family members who settled at Dobbs Ferry and Snedens Landing?

This Parsell family tree website says Nicholas Parsell had business in New Jersey (Snedens Landing is in New York, right at the New Jersey line, so perhaps some Parsells got to Snedens Landing by way of New Jersey).

Here’s another loose end: Nicholas Parsell married a daughter of Rip Van Dam. Rip Van Dam was an ally of William Merritt in opposing Leisler’s Rebellion. Coincidence? Or were political alliances and marriage alliances running in parallel channels?

This website says Delaval bought some of Barn Island from one Jan Pietersen Slot in 1669, a Dane. It talks about the immigration of Slot and Jan Sneden in the same sentence, and about connections to Orange and Rockland County: The mention of Sneden is on p. 2 and the claim that Slot sold land on Barent Island to Delaval is at the bottom of page 5.

The above photo, from the Palisades, NY Free Library, is identified as a 19th century photo of “Parsells House at Snedens.”

In later installments we will see the surnames Parsell, Dobbs, Sneden among the people living at Snedens Landing.  We’ll also see connections between Snedens Landing  and other characters in the Dobbs family saga — characters who will be introduced in our installments on the Dobbs family in Manhattan.   Be on the lookout, in particular, for the Corbetts and the Lockharts, who enter the story in its Manhattan chapter but play important roles in Snedens Landing later.

Continue to Part 3, Click Here, about the Dobbs Family in Manhattan