The Meanest Man Who Ever Lived in Bay Ridge

Simon Cortelyou's Grave
Photo by Jenn Corker for Hey Ridge

People passing the old Revolutionary War Cemetery on Narrows Avenue and Mackay Place—the remnants of the old Barkaloo family plot, in the northeastern corner of the Xaverian parking lot—can make out names on two surviving markers: Harms Barkulo (var.) and Simon Cortelyou, the latter being one of the meanest, rottenest men who ever lived in our community.

Simon (March 11, 1746–August 15, 1828) came from one of proto-Brooklyn’s most prominent families. The first in the New World line, Jacques Cortelyou, came to the other side of the Atlantic in 1652 with Cornelis Van Werckhoven—the Dutch West India Company man who first negotiated with the Nyack tribe for the land that became New Utrecht, one of the six original towns that make up present-day Brooklyn—as the tutor to his son, but rose to become Werckhoven’s assistant and eventually the surveyor of Nieuw Netherlands. When Woerckhoven died on a trip back to Holland, Cortelyou took over the nascent settlement. Simon was his great-great-grandson. (Jacques had Pieter who had Jacques who had Peter who had Simon—and his brother Jacques.)

Simon wound up buried in the Barkaloo family cemetery because he married Jacques Borkuloo’s widow when his own wife died. The two families were both prominent in New Utrecht and had intermarried before. (The original Jaques Cortelyou had a daughter Maria who married Willem Barkaloo.) Simon settled in a family house near the present-day foot of the Verrazano Bridge, which his grandfather Pieter had built ca. 1700 but which would be known later as the Simon Cortelyou homestead. It was tore down by the federal government around the turn of the twentieth century, to expand the army base.

British Invasion and Simon Cortelyou House
From Brooklyn Eagle, November 1946

It was near this house—on Simon’s third-cousin Isaac’s farm—that thousands of British troops landed when invading the colonies before the Battle of Brooklyn, which kicked off the Revolutionary War. In fact, the Cortelyou family was somewhat involved, Charlotte Rebecca Woglom Bangs writes in her 1912 social history Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus.

Tradition and fact in the Cortelyou family have it that Nancy Corteljau, seeing the soldiers landing, impulsively rushed out on the rough ground near her home and enthusiastically waved to them, using her red petticoat for a flag. Red was the British color. It appeared like a welcome to them. They responded. At any rate, Nancy’s warm greeting has been handed down as a matter of history, being part cause of Cortelyou descendants understanding their ancestors were Tories. Nancy was not a young girl, but a grown woman.

Other accounts are more colorful, including this one, syndicated in newspapers in 1927:

Nancy Coteljau…had climbed to the top of a high hill near the Narrows and waved her petticoat in greeting to the incoming troops. The English troops considered the girl’s greeting a favorable omen…To [British General] Howe, ever attracted by a petticoat, it suggested pretty girls and the social life of the community. Howe, the general and soldier, felt it presaged good will and allies to further his cause.

I can’t figure out who this Nancy Corteljau/Cortelyou was, but I’d guess “Nancy” is an Anglicization of Nelthe or Neeltje, of which there were several in the family. Pieter had a Neeltje in 1712 (though she was married to a Johnson in 1745); her brother Jaques had a Nelthe (b. 1726), who was Simon’s aunt.

Simon Cortelyou Homestead
The Simon Cortelyou Homestead. Photo by George Bradford Brainerd, 1877. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum; misidentified as “Cropsey House.” See a closeup here, courtesy the NYPL.

One Cortelyou descendant in Bangs’s book claims later that the family wasn’t loyal to the British—they had remained neutral. This doesn’t account for the fact that the two houses around Simon’s, the Bennett and the Denyse houses, were damaged during bombardment from British ships while Cortelyou’s home remained untouched; it doesn’t account for British General Howe’s presence at the Cortelyou home the night after the British landed; nor does it account for the punishment that Simon and his older brother Jacques received from the Americans.

The Revolutionary Captain Marriner was famous for raiding Tory strongholds in New York and capturing or taking money from loyalists—including Simon and Jaques Cortelyou! Bangs puts it politely, for comic effect:

[Marriner] visited Simon Cortelyou of New Utrecht and took him to New Brunswick, Marriner’s repayment for uncivil conduct to some American prisoners. The trip to Jersey, while planned as a trip of “payment” nevertheless resulted in Simon Corteljau being relieved of his tankard and other articles of value, which Captain Marriner forgot to return.

But it was worse than that. According to contemporary accounts, quoted in Henry Onderdonk’s Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties:

The prisoners [the Cortelyou brothers, “two famous tories in the enemies’ lines”] are on parole at Brunswick, and are to be exchanged for two citizens of Jersey, in captivity with the enemy…[Simon’s house] was robbed of cash to the amount of £200, besides a large quantity of linen, blankets, &c. The marauders behaved with their usual insolence and inhumanity, and frequently threatened the terrified children of the family, then in bed, with immediate death.

Revolutionary War Hessians
Typical Hessians during the Revolutionary War. Via Wikipedia

Simon Cortelyou was anti-American in the most basic, literal way. But he was even more anti-American in spirit, as illustrated by a story in which he interfered with true love. The only mention of his daughter Jane that I can find comes from Bangs; most genealogies make none. The story appears to have been village lore, which Bangs does her best to relate accurately. (The below is assembled from the multiple tellings in Bangs’s book; the Hessians were German mercenaries who fought alongside the British in the Revolution with a reputation for mercilessness—Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman was a Hessian.)

Regarding what has sometimes been related as the first elopement in the town and been more or less twisted in the telling, is the story of Jane, a fairy young daughter of the house of Corteljau. Jane did not elope; she was secretly married to a young Hessian officer, whom she had met and loved at sight. His name was [John] Conrad. He was a fine fellow, of unblemished character, and of note in his army service…Only good was recorded of Conrad, he being anxious to prove to Simon Cortelyou that a Hessian could be good as a Dutchman…[he] went to England to secure a permit to leave the British Army and return to claim his Bride…the Simon Cortelyou family was deeply angered. Jane was denied sight or sound of her lover and husband. In vain the officer showed the marriage papers; in vain he pleaded; in vain Jane added her pleadings—the Corteljau father remained obdurate and refused to allow Jane out of the house…Finally, after that last bitter interview, with its unsuccessful termination to the love story, the young officer, leaving a curse for Simon Cortelyou, walked from the house to the bluff overlooking the Narrows and there shot himself. The effect upon Jane was saddening…Another story has it that Jane was forced to marry another man, being told her British officer was faithless…His tragic death and the fact that he had been faithful to her, affected Jane’s mind…Her child was known as Hannah Conrad. This love story and tragedy have been made to appear in various ways but here is the true one, gleaned from documents…

Simon Cortelyou could not forgive Jane for marrying a Hessian. That was the hard part for the proud Corteljau father. It has been told that Jane was kept in her room, locked there, so that she could not meet her young lover, which part of the pathetic story was true. At any rate Jane died broken hearted, her husband’s tragic death blighting her young life. Thus the Simon Corteljau homestead by the Narrows had a tale apart from any British intruders.

…Mrs. Rime Stewart, near neighbor of the Simon Cortelyou’s, had the young officer buried upon her own farmland, with all the military honor of his station. Jane is said to have had the body removed, later on, to the village cemetery…Jane Cortelyou, or in reality Jane Conrad, had a warm sympathizer in Rime Stewart. This fact, never before told in history must go down as data of two women’s hearts.

Simon Cortelyou Homestead
Simon Cortelyou homestead. Via Charles Andrew Ditmas’s Historic Homesteads of Kings County

The Cortelyou legacy lives on in Brooklyn in Cortelyou Road, the main strip in Ditmas Park, whose popularity was renewed in the last decade as more hipsters moved deeper into Brooklyn to settle down. But otherwise the family seems to have left the borough, in body and in name. First, physically. “The Cortelyou family burial plot was, like other family cemeteries[,] near the home,” Bangs writes. “When Garrison improvements [at nearby Fort Hamilton] were underway some human bones were discovered and the find announced, but nothing remained to tell a single item about whose bodies the bones represented[,] and as the United States Government was in no mood for halting work of Defence [sic] lines for its big Fort, the little family cemetery was wiped out of existence.”

Second, namely. “It was the opinion of [two surviving Cortelyous] that their ancestral name was slowly dying out, so many intermarriages into other families having been made,” Bangs writes. A check of online white pages found no Cortelyous living today in Brooklyn—just a few on Staten Island and in New Jersey.

All that’s left in Bay Ridge is a fading tombstone, feigning participation by Simon in a rebel cause he actively opposed.

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Simon Cortelyou's Grave
Photo by Jenn Corker for Hey Ridge