At the southern end of Upstate New York is the Lower Hudson Valley. It is a region of blended histories for its European settlers and their descendants, beginning with its initial exploration by Englishman Henry Hudson on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Even after the English acquisition of New Netherland in 1664 and the formation of the United States in 1776, the regional population long remained predominantly Dutch. In the wider public imagination, the region’s Westchester County is especially notable due to the literary contributions of American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859).
Irving is renowned nationally and internationally for his short stories Rip Van Winkle (1819) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), which were featured in the collection The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. The Legend is the longest story of The Sketchbook, fundamentally influenced by the cultural-religious histories of what are today the modern Villages of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown in Westchester. Although The Legend became synonymous with hauntings and the supernatural, its themes also vitally consider the temporal, primal tensions found between homogeneity and the outsider as well as between tradition and change.
Irving’s life was spent in and out of both New York and the United States, but his initial, formative visit to Tarrytown, to escape a yellow fever outbreak in New York City, was as a teenager in 1798. Tarrytown was already a formal Village at the time, but the northern area where the Pocantico and Hudson Rivers meet was only colloquially known as Slapers Haben (Sleepers Haven), a name first given by Adrien van der Donck (1618–55). “Sleepy Hollow” was only popularized, and further formalized, much later because of The Legend. Three historic churches in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown exemplify the seminal intertwining and proliferation, via Irving, of local culture into universal literature.
Old Dutch Church
The Old Dutch Church is the oldest extant church edifice in New York State. The Church and its Burying Ground are on land originally belonging to Lenape Native Americans, purchased by Dutch settlers in the 17th Century. The edifice was first built in 1685, designed and financed by Frederick Philipse (1626–1702), the Bohemian-Dutchman who became Lord of Philipsburg Manor in 1693. Philipse’s second wife, Catharine van Cortlandt Derval (1652–1730, married 1692), assumed the role of Church patron and is listed as the first member of the Church in its historic register. She eventually procured a pastor, which culminated in the Church being formally organized as Dutch Reformed in 1697 and enhancements being made to the edifice during 1697–9.
The Church served the Manor until after the Revolutionary War, when the lands of the Philipse family were confiscated because they were Loyalists of the British Crown, leaving the Church without formal patronage. The New York Commission of Forfeiture deeded the Church to its Minister, Elders, and Deacons in 1787. Significant changes were made to the edifice after a fire in 1837, with the main portal moved from the southern facade to the western, the windows and portal reshaped with Gothic pointed arches, and the northern gallery removed for an expansion of the western one. Furthermore, the original ceiling beams and pulpit were replaced, but renovations for the Church’s 1897 Bicentennial reversed these changes, restoring the original ceiling and reproducing the design of the original pulpit.
The Church and Burying Ground are the principal settings for The Legend, which drew upon the existing local culture of lore that arose in light of the area’s unique position in the Revolutionary War. Most of what is now central Westchester County was known during the War as the Neutral Ground, a benevolent label for a veritable no man’s land between the British in the south and the Patriots in the north, vulnerable to sporadic skirmishes and unchecked raiding. This history manifestly influenced the concept of a headless, undead Hessian rider arising out of the Burying Ground.
The Burying Ground predates the Church, having already held 50 burials upon the initial arrival of Philipse in 1683. Among its notable burials are Philipse and van Cortlandt, though not de Vries whose burial location is currently unknown. The Burying Ground also holds Eleanor van Tassel Brush (1764–1861) and Catriena Ecker van Tessel (1736–93), who have both been considered as possible inspirations for Katrina van Tessel in The Legend. The former is considered by some as the personality prototype for Katrina, but the latter has been more popular among visitors. The Burying Ground is often confused with Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Irving is buried, as they are contiguous but separate entities with the latter incorporated in 1849.
The Church remains a major tourist attraction and hosts special events during the Halloween season, but its own independent congregation declined with the passage of time. However, it remains an active house of worship owned and maintained by the growing Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns, which began as a branch of the Old Dutch. The congregation of the Reformed Church now serves as its successor, using the Old Dutch for Summers, Holidays, and special events.
Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns
The Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns was first built in 1837 as the Second Reformed Church of Tarrytown, established as a branch expansion of the Old Dutch Church. The congregation of the latter became the First Reformed Church of North Tarrytown, which was the former name of Sleepy Hollow since formal incorporation in the 19th Century. Initially, the Second Reformed Church shared a single Minister with its mother congregation while maintaining its own Elders and Deacons, but became independent in 1851.
The decline of the First Reformed congregation led to the merger of the two Churches, which became the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns on May 5, 1991. The Church has experienced a notable increase in membership under its incumbent Pastor, The Reverend Jeffrey Gargano, who has served the congregation for the past decade. In light of the popular legacy of the community, North Tarrytown was renamed Sleepy Hollow in 1996. Beyond common cultural history, the two Villages have shared a school district and other services, with a potential merger often discussed, but difficult due to the Villages legally belonging to different Towns.
In parallel to the local congregational shifts were larger institutional changes for Dutch Reformed Christianity in the United States. During 1628–1819, Dutch Reformed Christians were organized as the North American branch of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, thereafter independently incorporated as the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church and finally renamed the Reformed Church in America (RCA) in 1867. RCA maintains a presbyterian polity and is in full communion with Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
The cultural history between the Villages has certainly been elevated in the wider public imagination because of Irving’s work. However, he was merely honoring the communities he came to love as a relative outsider, because he was neither a Dutchman nor a Christian of the Reformed persuasion. Rather, he was of English-Scottish extraction and, in 1848, became a prominent member of Christ Episcopal Church in Tarrytown. This period, between 1846–59, was the last stage of his life, spent in Westchester at his Tarrytown estate of Sunnyside, which is now maintained by Historic Hudson Valley.
Christ Episcopal Church
Christ Episcopal Church was founded as a collaboration between Nathaniel Holmes and Dr. William Creighton (1793–1865). Holmes, a former bookseller who had just retired to Tarrytown in 1835, convinced Creighton, former Rector of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, to establish a new church. With formal incorporation on August 8, 1836, Holmes became Senior Warden and Creighton became inaugural Rector of the Church.
The edifice was built in 1837 with the conventions of Early English Gothic Revival to resemble the quaint parishes of the English countryside. The ivy growing on the facade was Irving’s gift to the Church from Sunnyside, but was itself originally a gift to Irving from the Abbotsford House of Sir Walter Scott in England. The Church has further preserved Irving’s Pew, featuring it as part of the Memorial to him within its Sanctuary.
Most of the years before Irving’s 1846 return to Sunnyside were abroad in Europe. Following the 1819 breakthrough of Rip Van Winkle while in London, Irving had notably long stays in England and Spain. These stints were both personal and professional in nature, the latter on behalf of the American Government with Irving appointed as Legation Secretary in London (1829–32) and Minister to Spain (1842–6).
The years apparently took their toll on Irving. In a May 1844 letter to Thomas Wentworth Storrow (1779–1862), Irving viscerally outlined his fatigue and disenchantment. “The last ten or twelve years of my life,” Irving wrote, “passed among sordid speculators in the United States, and political adventurers in Spain, has [shown] me so much of the dark side of human nature, that I begin to have painful doubts of my fellow man; and look back with regret to the confiding period of my literary career, when, poor as a rat, but rich in dreams, I beheld the world through the medium of my imagination and was apt to believe men as good as I wished them to be.”
Although most of the public may only ever know Irving for his fictional works, his later years saw a sustained shift toward historical scholarship, likely a result of the disenchantment he was feeling. Irving’s altered focus resulted in historical biographies on, among others, George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith, and even Prophet Muhammad. Irving died of a heart attack at Sunnyside on November 28, 1859 and, according to legend, his last words had earlier been “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another night. When will this end?”
Irving was six years old when, by a happenstance encounter in New York City, he met his namesake George Washington, who blessed him. In turn, Irving blessed national and international publics with stories that stir emotions and imaginations primordial to all of humanity. Nothing is diminished by his use of supernatural fictions, for such literature has, in parallel to revelations arisen from religion, compelled human hearts to honor and cherish the temporal nonfictions of life that would otherwise be forgotten. Together, religion and literature have long formed an essential framework for human selfhood, a dualistic foundation of lore that has made human civilization a product of both faith and history.
These photos were taken on three nonconsecutive days utilizing both a wide angle lens and a standard zoom lens. Lighting differed between days due to weather, with the second day of unbroken cloud cover proving advantageous for exterior photography of the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns. Divergences between other exterior photos curated were circumstantial due to partial obstructions on the first and third days, notably parked cars and event decorations respectively, at Christ Episcopal Church. The headstone of Washington Irving was photographed from afar because his lot is restricted from public foot access.
Acknowledgments and gratitude go to Dorothée Caulfield, Christ Episcopal Parish Administrator, as well as Stephanie O’Dea and Deborah McCue, Reformed Church Congregants and Old Dutch Church Docents. Dorothée promptly followed up on the personal inquiry regarding the Chapel Triptych. Stephanie kindly allowed the photography from the restricted Organ Gallery at the Old Dutch. Deborah, as Chief Docent, shared a great wealth of information via conversation and her blog, further graciously reviewing the draft of this photo-essay. Deborah proudly served as a Deacon when the Consistory voted to give Hulda of Bohemia a headstone.
Additional thanks go to The Reverend Susan Copley, Christ Episcopal Rector, and The Reverend Julia Doellman-Brown, Reformed Church Pastor to Children and Youth, for their warm greetings during my visits.
Cheers to the Black Cat that crossed my path during October in Sleepy Hollow.