Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rev. Johann Polhemus' deadly scrapes

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

He survived war, bubonic plague, trans-Atlantic travel, 20 years in the equatorial rainforest, two pirate attacks, two years' separation from his wife and children, and he was the first minister of the first Dutch church on Long Island.

Johann Theodorus Polhemus (or Polheim), born in 1598 near Wolfstein, Bavaria, was a Protestant minister who trained at Heidelberg University and ministered as a young man in or near his native town. The Spanish (Catholics) besieged and then held the Bavarian Palatinate (Protestant Calvinists) where Johann’s family lived during the 1620s. A woodcut of the era shows Protestants being hanged in their shirts and underpants by Catholics (note the priests), with their uniforms, boots, and hats heaped on the ground.

Johann married in the 1620s, and his first wife bore him a daughter, who was baptized in the Netherlands in 1629. Nothing more is known of the mother or baby; they could have died of childbirth complications, or perhaps contracted the bubonic plague, which was spread by troop and refugee movements. The plague flared across central Europe during the Thirty Years War, and hopped the Channel to Britain, as well. Plague killed 30,000 Londoners in 1630, and thousands more across the country, but it was much worse on the Continent.

Rev. Polhemus, now a widower, returned briefly to minister in Bavaria, before accepting an assignment by the Dutch West Indies Company, to minister to Recife or Itamaracá, on the easternmost cape of equatorial Brazil. He was aged 37 when he moved to South America in January 1635 as minister to the sugar planters, traders, and Dutch military forts there. 

The Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) set up company towns in Brazil, New Netherland (New York/New Jersey), and of course in the Caribbean. These were settlements primarily for farming, development, and trade for profit, and the territories were owned by the company. The governors were administrators of the business of the WIC, and the pastors, like Polhemus, were meant to minister to the employees of the WIC. Polhemus wasn't "called" by a congregation, but sent by the company who employed him.

Johann Polhemus' important locations:
A. Amsterdam, Netherlands
B. Recife, Brazil
C. Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York
At this time, and throughout the 1600s and 1700s, civilizations all over the world were experiencing the worst effects of the Little Ice Age, when seaports froze and extreme weather caused famine and then disease. It must have been an absolute shock to Johann's system to end up in the tropical rainforest eight degrees south of the equator!

The 17th century was a bloody era. With Spain at war with the Netherlands, thousands of people emigrated from Europe to North and South America. Spain and Portugal were under a united reign until 1640, and ruled Brazil; the Dutch invaded and took over the Recife region for several decades, but the area was far from peaceful. European wars and repression followed refugees to the New World. The Dutch were well known for religious tolerance, and they allowed Jewish refugees from Inquisition Spain and Portugal to practice their faith and culture as they wished, both in European Netherlands and in New Holland, Brazil (not as much in American Dutch settlements). After the Dutch governor was recalled by the WIC board in 1643, Portuguese planters organized a revolt against the Dutch and took control of the plantations and colonies.
Portrait of a Scholar, 1631, by Rembrandt.
This could be how a Dutch minister dressed.

Rev. Polhemus probably didn't wear velvet and lace
in the tropics, though!

In 1643, the 45-year-old Johann Polhemus married 19-year-old Catherina Van Werven, a Dutch woman living in Recife, Brazil. (Her father was Johann’s age.) She bore four children to Johann at their home on the island of Itamaracá, between 1644 and 1649. Then there was an 11-year gap before she had three more children. Perhaps she miscarried several times in the 1650s; in addition, she and her husband were separated by economic circumstances, she in Amsterdam and he on Long Island, for two and a half years. The last three children were born a year apart in Brooklyn, New Netherland.

Johann preached in Dutch, French and Portuguese while in Brazil; he also knew German and Latin, and probably other languages.

In December 1653, the Dutch lost Itamaracá, and the next month they surrendered Recife to Portuguese domination. In January 1654, they’d been given three months to convert to Catholicism and become Portuguese citizens—or leave. Mevrouw (Mrs/Mme) Catherina Polhemus and the little children sailed for the safety of Amsterdam, to collect on Johann’s overdue wages from the Dutch West Indies Company. (Perhaps her father took her there and she lived with him.) Reports there said that “She is a very worthy matron, has great desire to be [with] her husband, and has struggled along here in poverty and great straits, always conducting herself modestly and piously.” I suppose the reference to poverty means she was unsuccessful in her quest to collect wages from the WIC.

Johann Polhemus and the company of Portuguese Jews were
detoured by pirates twice on their journey from Recife to Brooklyn.
 At the same time, Johann Polhemus sailed on a Dutch trader bound for New Netherland (New York), to minister to the Dutch people on Long Island. However, as the ship sailed up the coast of Brazil, or along the Caribbean windward islands, a Spanish privateer (a pirate with licensed wartime powers from his government) took the Dutch ship, its sugar cargo, crew and passengers and their freight, captive to the Cape Verde Islands, off Mauritania in Africa! It’s unknown how long Rev. Polhemus was held for ransom or when he was released, but when he resumed his journey, the ship that carried him and 23 Portuguese/Brazilian Jews was again pirated by a French man-o-war, the St. Charles, which arrived at New Amsterdam in September 1654, four to five months after the refugees’ departure from Brazil. In a September 1654 lawsuit, the French captain sued the Jewish refugees for their "passage" on his ship, but Dominie [Master] Polhemus and other Dutch passengers had already paid their ransom. 

One genealogical website writes that 
“The Dutch dominie [Johann Polhemus or a colleague] complained to the authorities in Holland, asking them not to permit any more Jews to come to the New Netherlands as there was plenty of trouble already with the Quakers, Mennonites, and Catholics. Governor Stuyvesant was told by the Dutch West India Company to leave religious issues alone and to permit the Jewish emigrants to trade in furs in any part of his province, provided they looked after their own people.”
That's very interesting to me because if it was Johann Polhemus, the founding pastor of three Dutch Reformed churches on western Long Island (why not--he wrote other letters to the WIC and church leaders in Amsterdam), his grandmother's maiden name was Hammerstein. Perhaps her family was from the nearby community of Hammerstein Castle. Many Jews have that place name for a surname, too. Did the town give its name to Jewish families later, or did it take its name from them? At the time, Jews didn't usually use surnames, but patronymics, like the Scandinavians: Per Svensson (Peter son of Sven). Jews often used Isaac ben Avram or David ben Jakub--or they used a place name.

The Long Island town where Johann was installed as minister was called Midwout, but is now known as Flatbush, Brooklyn. Johann was the first minister of Flatbush's, Flatlands/Amersfort's, and Brooklyn's first Dutch Reform churches. Dutch Reform beliefs were Calvinist, which (in broad terms) held that the faithful person showed he was part of those predestined to be saved to eternal life, by perfectly keeping God's law. Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians were also Calvinist.
Rev. Polhemus' parishes are at the left (west) side of Long Island
on this 1660 map..

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant, an employee of the Dutch West Indies Company, ordered the Flatbush church to be built so the residents wouldn't have to travel to Manhattan for religious services, and the structure was finished by about 1658. From Johann's letters, it looks like the Dutch WIC loaned the congregation the construction funds, but they paid it back in church tithes and taxes before 1663. The church was 60 or 65 feet long, 28 feet broad, from 12 to 14 feet under the beams, and built in the form of a cross. The minister's dwelling was at the rear of the church. The Flatlands and Brooklyn Dutch Reform churches were organized and built a few years later, and were also Polhemus’ congregations.

Apparently, clergy and missionaries, both ancient and modern, have entered their profession or answered the gospel commission for the promise of eternal reward--not to get rich in this life! Johann couldn’t afford to bring Catherina and children to America for two years. They arrived in September 1656. In 1658, he wrote to his ministerial governing board in the Netherlands.

Rev. Johann Theodorus Polhemus to the Classis of Amsterdam.

Reverend, Very Learned, Most Pious Gentlemen, the Ministers of the Classis of Amsterdam:
Tendering to you my fraternal and respectful salutations, I would express my affectionate regards, with thankfulness to God. I still continue in the discharge of my appropriate duties, seeking to build up the Church of Jesus Christ in this place. We daily trace and observe with increasing clearness, the blessing of the Lord, in the increase of members, and the prevailing good order. We hope you have received favorable reports and testimonies in relation to us. This will comfort me in my old age. I must also, through the advocacy of your Rev. body, secure the provision from the Hon. Company for the satisfaction of my salary yet remaining due for services in Brazil; and for the reunion and support of myself, wife and children. My salary in the new church here, is also so small that it will go a very little way. I cannot keep silent about it any longer. I commend your Rev. body in general, and each member in particular, to the blessing of Almighty God.
Given at Midwout [Flatbush] in New Netherland, June 4th, 1658.
Your Reverences much obliged brother,
J. T. Polhemus.

The Classis (a religious governing division of the Dutch West Indies Company) tossed the salary matter around for several years upon appeals from Polhemus and even Pieter Stuyvesant, but ultimately refused to pay the salary from 1654-1657, saying that Polhemus was no longer in their employ! Even so, Polhemus addressed his reports and letters to the Classis (who also ruled the New Netherland colony) just as he did the above letter: with respect. 

1660, Sept. 29th.
Rev.  J. T. Polhemus to the Classis of Amsterdam.
Rev., Very Learned and Pious Sirs, the Ministers of the Rev. Classis of Amsterdam: —
After offering you all, collectively and individually, my respectful salutations, I would inform you by this of my welfare. I still continue in the discharge of my duties, in my church at Midwout and Amersfort, in New Netherland. I regularly preach every Sunday morning at Midwout, and alternately at each place in the afternoons. I thank God who gives me strength and bestows his blessing upon me, and upon my brethren in the ministry in this country. If it please God to assist me, I shall continue in my work, faithfully performing my service according to the forms and customs of the parent church of the Netherlands. I remain meanwhile
Yours affectionately,

Johannes Th. Polhemus.
When Johann was 72 years old and still preaching part-time, Stuyvesant ordered "forebear ye taxing or levying any sum upon any parte of ye Estate of Domine Paulinus [Polhemus] your Minister until further order." His ministry was still a valuable service to the churches. He died at age 78 in the summer of 1676, when a fellow pastor wrote to the Classis, "The death of Domine Johannes Theodorus Polhemus, the aged minister in the churches of Breukelen, Midwout and New Amersfoort, all on Long Island, gives us occasion to trouble you again" for more pastors to be sent. The congregation had grown to more than 300 members (not counting attendees) during Polhemus' tenure. 
Polhemus Place street sign

Catherina Van Werven Polhemus lived until 1702. Johann and Catherina were buried in the churchyard at Flatbush, 890 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New YorkThe site holds the record for the longest continual use by its congregation and is now listed as a New York City landmark. There are several streets named Polhemus in Brooklyn and Queens, in honor of Rev. Johann Polhemus. 

If you enjoyed this article, you'll probably enjoy the author's books, as well.
http://amzn.to/18zlbtt (Amazon author page)

Author of the books:
·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Hutchinson, American Founding Mother (2018)

Johann and Catherina Polhemus are my ancestors, 11 generations back on my paternal lines. I descend through their eldest child, Adrianna, who was married to Jan Roelof Seibring in her father's church at Midwout/Flatbush.
Polhemus section of the author's pedigree. Click image to enlarge.


  1. Christy ! manna from heaven !!! Absolutely fantastic ! I have been investigating the history of Johannes and this is the most information that I've happened upon in two years .... you ought to see the silly grin on my face ! I live in Vila Velha on the island of Itamaracá in Brazil, we simply must get in touch the history of this tiny village is amazing... it was also the site of the first sefardi synagogue in the americas , and not the one in Recife as commonly thought ! my email is christopher.sellars@gmail.com .... loads of fotos on my Facebook page :- https://www.facebook.com/christopher.sellars.96

    Hoping to hear from you soon, Chris.

  2. Janice Polhemus JessupDecember 4, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    Your rendition of Johannes is not entirely correct. I am a Polhemus and have done quite a research on my ancestor over the past few years. I continued the work that my Grandmother started and have been to Holland where JTP lived and preached before going to Brazil.

    1. Janice, can you be specific? I'm more than willing to edit the article if you have documentation or can point me to correct sources.

  3. Janice Polhemus JessupDecember 4, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    Check these links
    No site is going to have it totally correct but this rings true,,, there is more information that I have but this is a good starter for you... Where do you live?? I am in Virgina Beach, Va




  4. Oh my goodness!!! We are related!!! My ancestry also comes from Jan and Adrianna! WOW! My maiden name is Sebring. Jan and Adrianna are my 10th greats. I am researching the lineage in preparation to traveling to Holland via NY. I wanted to know more about Adrianna's father and loved your blog entry, thank you for wonderful information. What an amazing life the reverend led. Raelof is the son my family descends from. I'd love to get in touch and find out which sibling you are related to. Please contact me.

    1. Unlike genealogy blogs and ancestry pages, my aim is to discover the stories about who these people were, what they did, and find something remarkable about them. The 17th century was a rich time in world history, for war, hegemony, religious development, natural events, politics, bigotry, swindling--all the elements of life in the 21st century, as well. Fashions change, but people don't.

      Thanks for looking me up. I've answered your message privately.

  5. It looks like JTP is my 12th great grandfather! Talk about crazy.

  6. My granddaughter has the same ancestry .I would like to know if any of you have something about the descendants of the Sebrings, Mary Sebrings who married Mordecai McKinney in NJ. Daniel McKinney who married Margaret Coffey. James Collins McKenney who married Rebecca Tuttle

    1. Sorry, Ana, but I don't. As I wrote above, I'm more about the stories than strings of names and dates. My mother did the research in the 1970s and 80s, from genealogy libraries, so I don't have the documentation. And since what you're looking for isn't on my lines, I have nothing to help you. My Sebrings are:
      Roelof Lucassen Sebring b. 1590
      son Jan Sebring m. Adrianna Polhemus
      son Roelof Sebring m. Christina Volkertse
      son Cornelius Sebring m. Annetje van Arsdalen
      dau. Catherine Sebring m. Harmon Vanderipe

    2. I happened across this wonderful site with information about my ancestors--I only discovered my "new" ancestry from Adrianna Polhemus Sebring this past weekend and noticed the post from June 14th (also this past weekend) today.

      I am descended from Daniel McKinney and Margaret Coffey--Ana if you would like to discuss your granddaughter's ancestry I would be glad to help in any way...

      Thank you Christy for this interesting history!

  7. Beautiful telling of this story. I too descend from Johannes, through his daughter Margarietje and this is the most thoroughly researched and clear information I have ever found.

    1. Evan also wrote: "Loved your blog on Johann Polhemus. Makes sense. I descend from Margarietje Polhemus. Have a big tree on ancestry. Where can I find for "evidence" for Catherina Van Werven, living in Recife, Brazil before meeting Johann? I would like to update my tree. Evan"

      Many of the Ancestry.com and Geni files have Catherina's father being born in Brooklyn, New Amsterdam, decades before the Dutch settled Manhattan in 1626. (Neat trick! Try a timeline next time, folks!) Johann Polhemus went to Brazil in 1635 as a widower, and married Catherina Van Werven in 1643, when she was 19 years old. Their children were born the next year, in Brazil. That tells us that Catherina's father lived in Brazil at that time, probably working for the Dutch West India Company, or as a planter selling his produce to the Dutch WIC. When the Dutch were forced out of Brazil in early 1654, Daniel Van Werven may have returned to Amsterdam with Catherina and her children (my hunch), or he may have gone to New Amsterdam with Johann Polhemus.

      Many genealogy files have Daniel Van Werven dying in Flatbush, Brooklyn. But they're the same files that have him being born in 1580 or 1598 in Brooklyn, when it was solidly Native American and wilderness, so... People need to *think* and create realistic timelines, not just copy stuff because it was on the internet.

      Glad you liked my article, Evan!

  8. thanks for this fascinating information...I too am a descendant through his son Daniel.

    1. Theadore Polhemus was my husband's 8th ggrandfather. Fascinating history!

  9. love this--i too am a descendant through Daniel Polhemus and then down on to my great, great grandmother Dora Little.

  10. Thanks for the piece, which I just stumbled upon. Nicely written.

  11. Comment from Anonymous. I checked the included website, but it required a login, so I deleted it from the comment. (Moderator)

    "Rev. Johannes Theodorus Polhemus 1598-1676 would be my 9th Great Grandfather. Enjoyed reading this. I have been researching & would like to share & compare information. Thank you , Brenda"

  12. I'm descended from daughter Anna Polhemus b. in Itamaraca c 1649 m. Cornelius Barentse Van Wyck. I've always wondered why Rev Polhemus was on the ship with the Jewish employees of the Dutch West India Company instead of travelling with his family. I don't think they planned to go to New Amsterdam, but were headed back to Amsterdam when they were captured by the Spanish pirates. When they were "rescued" by the French ship, they were taken to Amsterdam because that is where the French ship was going. It has been suggested that Rev Polhemus had a Jewish connection through his mother whose surname may have been Hammerstein. I've travelled to Recife and Itamaraca and visited Fort Orange and the chapel that may or may not have been the same one where Rev Polhemus preached before the Portuguese rousted the Dutch. I'd like to think it was.

    1. The info on Polhemus' mother being named Hammerstein and possibly Jewish: There's a town of Hammerstein not that far from Johann's hometown of Wolfstein, Bavaria. It's *possible* that she was Jewish, as I have a 2% Eastern European Jewish splash in my AncestryDNA. But it's equally possible that a community of Jews lived in Hammerstein and later took their surname from their town, not the other way around. It's my understanding that for centuries, they identified as "Isaac ben Abraham" not with a place name like many Gentiles did.
      I think Johann took ship with the Portuguese Jews because he was going to his next job in New Netherland (New York), not because he was related to them or sympathetic to their cause. He wrote letters to the WIC that indicated he was unhappy about more Jews being allowed to emigrate from Europe (see story above). Sure, there's a possibility, but by the letters that still exist, it doesn't seem likely. Further, he expected to be paid a salary by the WIC during the time his family was in Amsterdam, his wife was campaigning that he be paid his back wages, and that shows that he intended to go to America to work. Maybe he was invited to his parish by the governor and not the WIC, or maybe the WIC was just trying to stiff him from 3,000 miles away. But Johann didn't go to old Amsterdam on the French pirate ship--he and the Jews definitely went to NEW Amsterdam (New York), where they paid a ransom to be redeemed.

  13. Message through my website:

    I'm also a descendant of him (he's my 10th great grandfather) via his daughter Adrianna and grandson Cornelius Sebring. :) - Helena Brown

  14. Rev.Johannes Theodorus Polhemus is my 8th greatgrandfather thru his 4th child Theodorus Polhemus born in Brazil in 1646. Thank you for writing this article.

    1. You're welcome, Anonymous cousin. I was researching some background history for the books I was writing, and came across Polhemus' name, which I recalled from my family tree. So I took off on this rabbit trail and the blog article was born.

  15. Wow! I stumbled across this wonderful blog, thank you! I am hoping to gain more knowledge and info. I am related to Adrianna and of course many other and just got started doing geniology, it's fascinating. -Janelle Tyson (Thomas)

    1. So glad you liked it, Nelly (or Janelle?). This article on Polhemus is one among many unrelated stories in this Rooting for Ancestors blog. I research and write the articles not because they're just MY ancestors, but because countless thousands of people SHARE them!

      If you enjoy this type of cultural background, you might like another blog I write, about 17th century founders of New England: William and Mary Barrett Dyer (and their associates, of course), at http://MaryBarrettDyer.blogspot.com

  16. “The Dutch dominie [Johann Polhemus or a colleague] complained to the authorities in Holland, asking them not to permit any more Jews to come to the New Netherlands..." I realize you are quoting here, but this seems like quite a leap, unless there is real evidence to suggest that Polhemus was the real source of this complaint. I realize that he was a 17th century man, but he also had shared hardships with the 23 Jews he landed with, and I like to think he'd be more sympathetic. It was bad enough that he owned slaves.


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