& NAOMI: Whitman's Quaker Grandparents Underneath all,
I swear I will stand by my own nativity.
Walt Whitman, 1856
S Reynolds, in his 1995 "cultural biography" of
Walt Whitman, "Walt Whitman's America," says that
for the Good Gray Poet, the history of the Whitman and Van
Velsor families became "for him the quintessential
touchstone of lost agrarian folkways."
Days Walt Whitman takes a walk at his maternal family's
burial grounds, "the burial hill of the Van Velsors,
near Cold Spring, the most significant depository of the
dead that could be imagined without the slightest help from
art, but far ahead of it, soil sterile, a mostly bare plateau-flat
of half an acre, the top of a hill, brush and well-grown
trees and dense woods bordering all around, very primitive,
secluded, no visitors, no road."
cemetery is located down Stillwell Lane in Cold Spring Harbor,
on private property and difficult to find. Buried there,
somewhere on private property behind modern houses, are
such notable figures as Whitman's maternal grandfather and
grandmother, as well as other Van Velsor family members.
known as "The Lane," Van Velsor-Stillwell Road
runs between what is now Route 108 (leading from Cold Spring
Harbor Village past St John's Pond to the CSH Railroad station)
on the east and the Syosset Cold Spring Harbor Road (leading
from the top of Fish Hatchery Hill in Laurel Hollow southwest
to Syosset). According to old accounts, it was built by
John Velsor and Thomas Stillwell. A private road until the
1920s, local government officials started suit to have the
road declared abandoned and within the jurisdiction of the
town. After 11 years in litigation, opposed principally
by Rosalie Jones, the road was declared a public highway.
anyone may drive the length of Stilwell Road and imagine
Walt's footprints there as he sought out his family heritage
- though the location of the graves themselves is not marked
and apparently not accessible to the public.
anyone searching for Whitman's appreciation for his ancestry
- in particular, that of the family of his mother, the Van
Velsors - need not go much beyond this recorded visit to
the old family gravesite, Specimen Days.
in fact, through a close reading of the Good Gray Poet's
creative writing. Here's an example, from section 35 of
Song of Myself.
you hear of an old time sea-fight? Would you learn who won
by the light of the moon and stars?
List to the yarn, as my grandmother's father the sailor
told it to me.
biographers note that Whitman's sources were both the tales
told to him by his maternal grandmother Naomi Van Velsor,
whose father, Capt. John Williams, had served under John
Paul Jones, and the account by Jones himself in a report
to Benjamin Franklin and the Continental Congress about
the battle on Sept. 23, 1779 between his BonHomme Richard
and the British Serapis off Flamborough Head.
mother, as a young woman, was a dairy and daring rider,"
wrote Whitman, in Specimen Days. John Burroughs, Whitman’s
first biographer, notes the importance of the women members
of his family in defining the man and his environment.
ancestors of Walt Whitman, on both the paternal and maternal
sides, kept a good table, sustain’d the hospitalities,
decorums, and an excellent social reputation in the county,
and they were often of mark’d individuality,"
notes Burroughs. "His great-grandmother on the paternal
side, for instance, was a large swarthy woman, who lived
to a very old age. She smoked tobacco, rode on horseback
like a man, managed the most vicious horse, and, becoming
a widow in later life, went forth every day over her farm-lands,
frequently in the saddle, directing the labor of her slaves,
with language in which, on exciting occasions, oaths were
two immediate grandmothers were, in the best sense, superior
women, continues Burroughs, including Hannah Brush, his
paternal grandmother, "noble..a natural lady...early
in life a school-mistress...a great solidity of mind."
But he reserves special praise for Walt's maternal grandmothers,
Amy Williams Van Velsor, "a Friend, or Quakeress, of
sweet, sensible, character, housewifely proclivities, and
deeply intuitive and spiritual."
Quaker connection is significant. Jean Merritt did a study
of the connection between Whitman and Quakerism a number
of years ago in a local Long Island newspaper, and traced
the influence of Cornelius Van Velsor and Amy Williams Van
Velsor - his maternal grandparents - on the Good Gray Poet
in this regard. "Major Van Velsor, like Walt's father,
was a personal friend of Elias Hicks, whose home was at
Jericho," she noted in an article in the Long Islander
in 1924. "Any anecdote concerning the Quaker leader
was carefully preserved by Whitman."
Whitman’s parents were not members of any religious
denomination, Quaker thought is said by some to have always
played a major role in Whitman’s life, in part because
of the early influence of Hicks, and in part because his
Louisa’s family had a Quaker background, especially
Whitman’s grandmother Amy Williams Van Velsor, whose
death-the same year Whitman first heard Hicks-hit young
Walt hard, since he had spent many happy days at the farm
of his grandmother and colorful grandfather, Major Cornelius
is known to have admired Elias Hicks, the great Quaker preacher
who died in 1830 when he was a young boy. Some even say
that aspects of the cadence of his long narrative lines
of poetry were reminiscent of the preaching style of Hicks
and other Quaker speakers. What is clear is that at the
end of his life, Whitman wrote in a publication entitled
"November Boughs" how Hicks and Quakerism influenced
his contemplative nature. "As myself a little boy hearing
so much of Elias Hicks...and more than once seeing the old
man - and my dear, dear father and mother faithful listeners
at the meetings - I remember how I 'd dreamed to write perhaps
a piece about E.H. and his look and discourses, however
long afterward, for my parents' sake."
takes great pains to describe Hicks' life, home, education,
and friendship with the Whitman clan. He describes Hicks,
at age 81, as a "tall straight figure, neither stout
nor very thin, dressed in drab cloth, clean shaven face,
forehead of great expanse, and large and clear black eyes,
long or middling long white hair...a moment looking around
the audience with those piercing eyes, amid the perfect
stillness...then the words coming form his lips, very emphatically
and slow pronounced, in a resonant, grave, melodious, voice,
'What is the chief end of man?'" And he discusses how
the Quakers had solved the problem of how to steer "between
their conviction as patriots and their pledges of non-warring
the place in Walt's heart reserved for his grandfather,
Maj. Cornelius Van Velsor (1762 - 1839), the poet's own
writings suggest important clues. "The Van Velsor people
were noted for fine horses, which the men bred and train’d
from blooded stock," wrote Walt in Specimen Days. "As
to the head of the family himself, the old race of the Netherlands,
so deeply grafted on Manhattan island and in Kings and Queens
counties, never yielded a more mark’d and full Americanized
specimen than Major Cornelius Van Velsor."
poem "I Sing The Body Electric", he writes of
an octogenerian farmer, a figure undoubtedly modeled after
Cornelius Van Velsor. Biographers suggest the poet adored
his Grandfather Cornelius and that this shows in the poem
- where he describes a man who "was the father of five
sons..." and "his sons were massive clean bearded
tan faced and handsome, They and his daughters loved him..."
and Walt may have had similar physical features. They were
both six feet tall and athletic looking, and Cornelius was
said to be a "jovial, red faced" man. The young
Walt spent many hours with his grandfather, who was a driver
of a stage and transport wagon bringing produce from farm-to-market.
For 40 years, he drove to Brooklyn ferry from Oyster Bay,
hauling produce for sale, the young Walt sometimes as his
remembrance of these trips with his grandfather is not always
sweet. According to Paul Zweig, in his biography "Walt
Whitman: The Making of a Poet," the young Walt acknowledged
that he sometimes was made nauseous by the jolting of the
dray cart, and the smell of the tar-covered tarpaulin pulled
over the goods in the back of the wagon.
ever the expansive celebrant, Walt took this in stride,
glossing such incidental discomforts to pronounce his admiration
for the sturdy yeoman qualities of his ancestors.
at age sixty-two he revisited the old family burial hill
on Long Island," writes Reynolds, Whitman mused on
how his whole family history, with its succession of links,
were concentrated on an acre of ground. "In both his
life and his writings, Whitman showed a persistent instinct
to keep strong this 'succession of links' with his family's