From the beginning, this great nation was peopled by immigrants. Your ancestors came from somewhere, mine do, and so did Herman Melville’s. This story of Melville’s roots will connect those dots from Europe to Albany, Lansingburgh, Pittsfield and to other well-known Capital District names.
His mother’s side
The town of Ganzvort sits on the border dividing Germany and Holland. The first time the name Ganzvort appeared on this side of the Atlantic was in 1660 when Harme Van Ganzvort and wife, Marritje, settled in Catskill. In 1677, they relocated to Albany, purchased a lot on Broadway and Maiden Lane, and built a brewery/residence. Along the way, Ganzvort becomes Gansevoort.
His namesake grandson also opened a brewery and, in addition, entered politics to help shape Albany’s future. He married Magdalena Douw, a great-grand-daughter of Killiaen Van Rensselaer and Maria Van Cortlandt—family names well-known in the Capital Region.
In 1749, monumental to the future of New York was the birth of Pieter. He grew to serve as Brigadier General in the United States Army and is best-remembered for commanding Fort Stanwix, now a beautiful museum. In nearby Rome, a bronze statue of the hero graces East Park, and a town near Saratoga Springs bears his name. Pieter married a daughter of the Van Schaiks, another of Albany’s renowned families. They had a number of children, a daughter, Maria, among them. She’ll connect the dots for us.
His father’s side
At this point, we jump over to Scotland. It is 1728 and a son, Allan, is born to the Melvills of Scoonie, a town within the Kingdom of Fife on the shores of the Firth of Forth. Allan ships out to Boston and marries there. His son Thomas joins the Sons of Liberty, takes part in the Boston Tea Party and fights at Bunker Hill. The fourth child of the Thomas Melvills, Allan, married Maria Gansevoort, Colonel Pieter’s daughter. Allan and Maria’s first child is named Gansevoort, in honor of Grandpa Pieter. By 1819, they were living in New York, where Allan made a good living importing and re-selling fine goods. Their second child, Herman, was a shy, quiet boy, who grew into something of a loner. Allan lived beyond his means, his business went belly-up in 1830 and he re-settled his family in Albany. He died two years later, leaving his family knee-deep in debt. To make matters worse still, the Panic of 1832 gripped the nation.
Perhaps an attempt to distance himself from his father, Herman chose to add an “e” to his last name. He got a job clerking in a bank. In 1835, he enrolled at Albany Academy, also attending classes at the Albany Classical School. Times got tighter. The family could barely afford food, so tuition was out of the question.
Herman found a job teaching school in Pittsfield but returned to Albany three years later. Still struggling, the family moved to less expensive quarters in Troy where Herman studied surveying at Lansingburgh Academy, which he hoped would prepare him for a position working on the Erie Canal. It didn’t pan out.
His brother, Gansevoort, learned that there was a need for a cabin boy on board the merchant ship, St. Lawrence, which was scheduled to leave New York for England. Herman got the job. It lasted only three months. The financial situation for the Melvilles hadn’t improved and Herman’s return translated into another mouth to feed.
Heading toward Moby Dick
Herman yearned to return to the sea, so it was off to the whaling capital of the world, New Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1840, Captain Pease, in command of the whaler, Achushnet, was putting together a crew for a three-year journey to the South Pacific. Herman applied and was hired, but Pease proved to be a harsh taskmaster. Pease was probably the model for Captain Ahab.
In 1842, the ship weighed anchor in Polynesia and Herman jumped ship, blending into the untamed wilderness. After six weeks, he signed on with another whaler, Lucy Ann. It proved to be a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Captain Pease was sweet and gentle compared to his new Captain. When the Lucy Ann weighed anchor in Tahiti, 11 men, Herman included, were thrown into a local jail for their part in a failed mutiny but Herman escaped. Desperate to leave Tahiti (a phrase you don’t hear very often), he signed on with yet another whaler.
Docking in Honolulu, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the frigate United States. Finally, he was going home. In 1844, the United States docked in Boston and Seaman Melville was discharged. Before his passing in 1846, Herman’s brother Gansevoort managed to do his brother one last good turn by finding a publisher for Herman’s book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. It sold well. Gansevoort’s body now rests at Albany Rural Cemetery, as do his parents and namesake grandparents.
In 1847, Herman and Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Lemuel Shaw, met, married and settled in New York City where they developed friendships with other cultured, well-read folks. Elizabeth knew people of a similar mind in Massachusetts and one day, in 1850, they invited the Melvilles to a picnic in Stockbridge.
One of the picnickers was Nathanial Hawthorne. As the story goes, he and Herman went off to quietly walk and talk. Like a now well-worn movie scene, a thunderstorm hit, driving the two to seek shelter. Two hours later, a great friendship was sealed. Soon afterward, the Melvilles bought a 160-acre farm in Pittsfield, just a few miles south of Hawthorne’s home in Lenox. They named it Arrowhead and this is where Moby Dick was completed, which, unlike Melville’s earlier works, didn’t sell well and wasn’t popular until long after his death.
Many have read Moby Dick in school, unaware that it was very probable that Melville created the story by drawing on his own seagoing experiences, not to mention two other sources: The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex and a magazine article that appeared in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker about Mocha Dick, a huge, white, sperm whale.
Furthermore, Melville may have heard the story of a whale that, in 1647, swam up the Hudson, entered the Mohawk River and beached himself on an island below the falls in Cohoes.
Life after Moby
In 1863, financial considerations led Herman to sell Arrowhead to his brother Allan. Herman and Elizabeth purchased Allan’s New York City home. Herman’s life between 1863-1891 was a time of turmoil. Speaking tours, poetry, articles—virtually nothing he did worked out for him. The couple lived out the remainder of their years there. Herman passed on in 1891 as a virtual unknown. Elizabeth passed on in 1906. Both are interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Finally, in 1984, the U.S. Post Office included him in its Literary Arts series and his portrait appears on a postage stamp. In 1992, the house in the Lansingburgh area of Troy on 114th Street, home to the Lansingburgh Historical Society and open to the public, was listed on the National Register.
— By Arthur Einig
Signs of Melville today
Melville home – 3 Clinton Square, Albany (Clinton Square at North Pearl and Orange streets) – home 1834-38. Noted with a NYS Museum Historic Marker
Melville House – 2 114th Street, Lansingburgh – home 1838-37. Now maintained by the Lansingburgh Historical Society and on the National Register of Historic Places. lansingburghhistoricalsociety.org/melville_house/
Lansingburgh Academy – 27 114th Street Lansingburgh (at Fourth Street) – Lansingburgh Academy – Melville enrolled in surveying program. 1820 building – rare example of academy architecture. Now branch of Troy Public Library. thetroylibrary.org/?p=17
Arrowhead Farm – 780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield, MA. Home 1850-63 – maintained by Berkshire Historical Society. berkshirehistory.org/arrowhead-farm/
Monument Mountain – Off Route 7 between Great Barrington and Stockbridge, MA. Hiked by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. 2-hour round-trip hike. berkshirehiking.com/hikes/monument_mountain.html
Melville Trial – Areas in the Berkshires visited by or woth a connection to Herman Melville. berkshirehistory.org/herman-melville-arrowhead/melville-trail/