The Dobbs Family and Their Ferry – Part 3 – Manhattan Early Years, 1664 – 1689

We’ve seen the Dobbs family was never on Barren Island, and we’ve seen that the Barren Island myth got started because some of them were on Barn Island (today’s Wards Island).   We jumped over the Manhattan years and dealt with Barn Island, just to kill that Barren Island thing once and for all and show how it got started. Now we circle back and start the true story of the Dobbs family from the beginning.  If you are enjoying this series, please leave a comment!

The year is 1664. The English have just taken New Netherlands colony, including the city of New Amsterdam, and renamed them both New York. We have no idea where anyone in the Dobbs family lived prior to that date. We have no birth records, no immigration records and no marriage records prior to that date. We know they were English, but we don’t know when they came to the New World, nor where they settled first. Perhaps they had already been here for a generation in 1664. Or at the other extreme, perhaps most of them didn’t come over until well after 1664. Perhaps they came first to Massachussetts, or one of the other New England colonies, and then found their way down to New York. This was a common sequence for English settlers. The religious intolerance of the Puritans who dominated New England drove many non-Puritans to the more tolerant New Netherlands/New York.  However, I have searched, and not found any trace of them in New England before they turn up in New York.

Our point of reference for keeping the characters straight is John Dobbs. He is the Dobbs person who came to the future Dobbs Ferry around 1698 and either started the ferry or sired a son or sons who did, and, we believe, a daughter who continued it. John’s mother is Mary Merritt Dobbs; his father is Walter Dobbs Sr.; and he has brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. His most important uncle is William Merritt, his mother’s brother.

William Merritt is the first family member to hit the historical record. He is among the signers of the Oath of Allegiance in which residents pledged allegiance to their new English rulers. There are many historical documents after that placing Merritt in the colony and in the city in the 1670s. These documents tell us he was a sea captain, a businessman, a buyer of real estate and a man interested in government contracts and public office.

Then in 1680, suddenly Walter Dobbs Sr. and another uncle of John Dobbs, Ed Meeks, plus William Merritt obtain liquor licenses at New York’s city hall. At about the same time, William Merritt buys a farm in the Bowery on the only road north to Harlem and beyond, and this farm probably had a tavern. The first European owner of the site, Wolfert Webber, apparently ran a tavern there. So I surmise that buying that site and having the three men buy liquor licenses indicates a Dobbs/Merritt/Meeks tavern was planned on Merritts farm in the Bowery.   Merritt also had a house downtown and it seems doubtful the farm was primarily for him.   My guess is he bought it with the dual purpose of making an investment and creating a home for his two sisters and  occupations for their husbands.

William Merritt will receive a lot of attention in my telling of the Dobbs story. And well he should: He appears to have been the leader and benefactor of his extended family. And he bought and moved to the land opposite Dobbs Ferry at the same time young John Dobbs leased the land at the future Dobbs Ferry. The ferry itself and the choice of location for young John to settle in 1698 may have come from Merritt.

Sources for these facts, and for some I haven’t mentioned that relate to the above:

(1) The earliest mention of anyone named Dobbs in the New World that I could find is an unverified secondary source saying a man named Dobbs who was very industrious was on an early Dutch ship that brought Protestant Belgian colonists (Walloons) to the future Albany and New York City. We have no idea if this is true or, if true, whether he was any relation to our Dobbs family. (History of the City of New York: It’s Origins, Rise and Progress).  The author, Martha J. Lamb, does not tell us her sources.  She also does not tell us why she featured Mr. Dobbs in this paragraph, nor what became of him.

Excerpt from a history book which says a Mr. Dobbs was an early settler in the New York area, though it also mentions some of this party going to the “Fresh River” — the Connecticut River we call it today.

(2)  William Merritt, uncle of John Dobbs, signs Oath of Allegiance, 1664.  No one named Dobbs or Meeks signed.

(3)  We’re going to see Merritt frequently in public records after 1664, but I could find no mention of him or others in the family  by electronic searches of earlier records.   Try for yourself if you like.  I won’t list every source I searched unsuccessfully for them in the Dutch period, but examples of early sources that don’t mention them are  here  and here.   I also search Ancestry, unsuccessfully, for records of their births and their marriages, here and in England.  In 1665 the English made up a list of everyone in the city, planning to quarter troops in their houses.  The residents protested and negotiated that they would be taxed to pay for lodgings for the troops, and lodging arrangements would be bargains freely entered into by landlords and soldier-tenants.   None of the protagonists of our story, not even William Merritt, are on this list.

(4)  In 1668 we have just our second sighting of William Merritt in public records.  He sues someone. This will be the first of many lawsuits involving him in Manhattan and environs. In later cases, we see him in many roles in these court documents — plaintiff, defendant, juror, witness and friend of the court assigned to investigate or mediate.

to be continued