Theodore Roosevelt Unlike Ancestor

Theodore Roosevelt, Member of the Holland Society of New York from 1885 to 1919

by Milton L. Van Slyck,

From de Halve Maen, November 1952


Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-sixth President of the United States and member of The Holland Society of New York from April 1885 until he died on January 6, 1919, would have groaned had he been a witness to the first recorded public appearance of his immigrant ancestor, Nicolas Martens, because Nicolas was in the public eye for something the very antithesis of the famed Roosevelt motto to “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

It was on August 26, 1638, that the Council of New Netherland had met in the Council Chamber of Fort Amsterdam to dispense justice, according to the very excellent account of proceedings appearing in The New Netherland Register of January 1911.

On that warm Summer morning, the cases before the Council were the usual collection of petty charges and grievances—most of them hardly significant enough to claim the attention of our present police courts.

One of these cases involved Philip Teyler vs. Nicolas Martens. Mr. Teyler alleged that the Roosevelt ancestor had slandered him, something which Claes Martens said he did not do, would not do and, apparently, apologized for, because the case seemed to have been settled to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Claes Martens was not a man of imposing physical stature and in fact, he must have been quite small because in the records generally he is referred to as Klein Klaasje or Little Claes. Perhaps his small stature was the reason he relied on his tongue and wits, as the court record would indicate, rather than brawn.

Nicolas Martens does not show up on the early records again until some 12 years later when his first child, Christiaen, was baptized. Then his name appeared as Claes Martenszen. Only twice was the full name, Claes Martenszen Van Rosenvelt, used. His descendants dropped the Van and, generally, took the name of Roosevelt.

This first immigrant ancestor may have had a romantic episode in his life, as explorer, map maker and captive of Indians for some historians feel that it is not improbable that he was the “Kleintjen” who, in about 1616, contributed much information later utilized in preparation of one of the earliest existing maps of New Netherland.

Later on, Little Claes settled down to the more sedate life of farming and it was as a farmer that he married and sired five children. He died soon after the birth of his fifth and two years later his wife, Jannetje, daughter of Thomas Samuels, died, leaving besides some property, five minor children, as recorded in the Orphans’ Court, December 10, 1660.

According to The New Netherland Register, the Roosevelt name nearly died with Little Claes. Here is the account:

“It was not a rare occurrence in those early days for children of the same parents to adopt entirely different family names, and this seems to have been done among the descendants of the first Roosevelt. Neither Christiaen, nor any of his three sisters, appears to have taken their father’s name.

“Nicolaes who, thanks to the tender care of his kind foster mother, Metje Grevenraet, grew up to man’s estate, married at the age of 24, Hilletje Jans Kunst of Albany. He was the only one to retain the family name, as his descendants seem to have done after him. Shortly after his marriage, he removed to Kingston, where he was still living at the census of September 1, 1689, and where his name is put down as Claes Roosinfelt. Not long thereafter he returned to his paternal city, where he carried on the business of a miller and bolter. He probably erected his mill at the Fresh Water, operating it by means of its water power, which may account for the name of the present Roosevelt Street, which is located near or on the bed of this once small but important stream.”

Like that stream, Theodore Roosevelt’s ancestor may have been small, but — in the light of the indelible mark made upon the American — and even the world — scene, it is self-evident that he was important. For, undoubtedly, the years of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency constituted a turning-point in the history of the United States.

The mark made by the “Big Stick” advocate is measured and meticulously by Professor Elting Morison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his work, “The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt.”

Much attention has been paid to the persistence and willpower by which Theodore Roosevelt transformed himself from a sickly youth into a virile, muscular man of daring and active leadership. All his exercise with the bars and, later, in the amateur boxing ring, formed the background for his later exploits which created the “Rough Rider” concept of the man so dear to the people.

President Roosevelt appeared on the American scene at a time when vitality largely had been drained out of political leadership. His forceful mien and vivid personality; his knack for direct action were the Roosevelt hallmark. Hence, his impact upon the American public was immense. But this descendant of an early Dutch immigrant was not all wind and muscle; he possessed to a high degree the political astuteness which marked the diplomatic dealings of an earlier President of Dutch heritage — President Martin Van Buren.

Through his adroit and delicate handling of the Algeciras Conference, President Roosevelt not only staved off war between Germany on the one hand and England and France on the other, but he cut a line of action which today is a model for careful study by any person planning a career in public life.

Although President Roosevelt’s fame rested on many accomplishments, including the building of the Panama Canal, the fact is that it was his directness, his “perfectly natural” reactions, which endeared him to the people. For, as historians have noted, when a man prominent in public life does the natural thing, the public rejoice.

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