The First Families Of Westchester
The Van Tassels. The Jays. The Purdys. The Meads. These are the clans who settled our history-rich county—but where are they now?
The expansive Mead family poses at one of their many homes in Waccabuc.
We see their names on street signs, in schools, and at train stations. The families who cobbled our county together from Native American land were Dutch settlers, English aristocrats, and French Protestants seeking religious freedom. Their legacies are all around us, if we know where to look. Here are the stories of four First Families, as seen through the eyes and memories of the descendants who still live here.
A Founding Father’s legacy may live on in history books, but the women of
the family have their own stories to tell.
Born in New York City in 1745 and raised in Rye, the grandson of a Dutch patroon’s daughter and a French Huguenot who fled religious persecution to settle on the shores of the New World, John Jay would make history as a Founding Father, a diplomat, the second governor of New York, and the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. His sons and grandsons were abolitionists, diplomats, philanthropists, social movers and shakers.
Photos by Stefan Radtke
Seven generations of Jays called Bedford House home. Now the John Jay Homestead, the property has been a state historic site since 1959.
But for Purchase resident Nonie Reich, a seventh-generation descendant of John and Sarah Jay, it’s their wives she most admires, particularly their sacrifices and courage in the face of unrelenting loss. “I have a huge sense of wonder at the women of this family,” says Reich. “They weren’t the ones at the Continental Congress, at the table voting, yet they had to have faith to see this whole thing through. I don’t know how they did it.”
It begins with Sarah Van Brugh Livingston Jay. The daughter of New Jersey’s first elected governor, William Livingston, she married John Jay, then a lawyer, in 1774. Five years later, when John was named Minister to Spain, she traveled with him to Europe on seas patrolled by British frigates. They left their young son, Peter Augustus, behind with relatives, for his safety. In 1782, at Benjamin Franklin’s request, John Jay departed for Paris to help broker the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.
Sarah Jay’s European sojourn was four and a half years of tragedy and wonder. She had become pregnant on the voyage to Spain, but her baby daughter later died. She bore two more girls, one in Madrid and one in Paris. (Sarah would have five surviving children altogether, two sons and three daughters.) When not enduring the perils of childbirth, Sarah attended the opera with Marquis de Lafayette, and watched, with Franklin, the first hot-air balloon rise above the rooftops of Paris.
From left: John Jay and his wife Sarah Van Brugh Livingston Jay lived together in Bedford House for only one year before she died in 1802, at age 46; Eleanor Iselin Wade, known as Weenie, was a noted artist.
When the Jays returned to New York, John worked to wrangle the colonies into a country while Sarah played the role of statesman’s wife with consummate grace. She hosted popular soirées and oversaw the construction of their country house in Bedford, traveling two days by carriage from the City to oversee every aspect of the work, from choosing the perfect millstones to ensuring the foundation was properly laid. “In the country,” she wrote to her husband, from whom she was often separated, “my heart is animated with confidence & joy & love.”
Seven generations of Jays lived in that house. They were descendants of William Jay, the younger son. (Peter Augustus Jay’s descendants lived in Rye, in the magnificent Greek Revival mansion he built in 1838 to replace The Locusts, the house John Jay grew up in.) It’s now the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, but “the family always called it Bedford House,” says Reich.
Eleanor Jay Iselin, center, on the steps of Bedford House with her daughter Dorothy (right) and her granddaughter Barbara, and Barbara’s son Oliver, in 1953.
She is sitting in the library along with Allan Weinreb, the Homestead’s Interpretive Programs assistant and curator. As Weinreb sees it, “The Jay women are the women who made this a fashionable area. This is where Bedford becomes chic.” John Jay II’s wife, Eleanor Kingsland Jay, who lived here in the second half of the 19th century, “made this home fashionable, which utterly changed the character of this part of Westchester County.”
The last Jay descendant to live in Bedford House fulltime was Eleanor Jay Iselin, Reich’s great-grandmother. She was a civic leader and philanthropist, a socialite, and an early trustee at the Rippowan Sisqua School. In 1946, when the newly formed United Nations was searching for a permanent home, Iselin offered her property. While her offer was entirely genuine, on personal matters, Reich says with a laugh, “She sometimes considered herself Queen of the Hudson Valley.”
Jay descendant Nonie Reich and her daughter Eleanor with a portrait of Eleanor Jay Iselin, Reich’s great-grandmother, who occupied Bedford House (now called the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site) in the first half of the 20th century.
Eleanor Jay Iselin extensively renovated the old Homestead, adding a ballroom to one end, which she called “the big room.” Touring the house, Reich stands in the middle of that room, remembering her wedding reception here; how she wore a veil of Brussels lace handed down from her great-grandmother and danced with her new husband surrounded by oil portraits of her illustrious kin. Almost three centuries later, the family resemblance is startling: Reich has the Jay aquiline nose and regal carriage.
Reich, whose given name is also Eleanor (it’s a family name) never knew Iselin, who died in 1953. She does remember Eleanor Iselin’s daughters, Dorothy Iselin Pascal and Eleanor Iselin Wade, who went by Weenie. A dedicated horsewoman and noted equestrian sculptor, Weenie left an unhappy marriage and went out West with her daughter Hope. There she married a cowboy named Cactus Wanny Wade, bought a Montana ranch, and raced horses on the West Coast. “Everyone in Montana called her Lady because of her East Coast roots,” Reich says. “I wouldn’t mind showing up at a cocktail party on the arm of a gorgeous cowboy named Cactus, chatting about my foals and their prospects on the track! Her sister, my grandmother Dorothy, was less fiery, more thoughtful, and warm. They were independent souls.”
Memorial services for Wade were held in Montana and at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Bedford, which was built on land that John Jay donated money to acquire. The Bedford Jays, from William’s side, are buried here. Jay himself, and descendants of Peter Augustus, are buried in the family plot behind the Rye mansion, now called the Jay Heritage Center. (Reich’s mother, Deedee Paschal, was one of five women who helped save that house from demolition in the 1970s.)
At the Jay Homestead, Reich enters a charming bedroom on the second floor. This is where Sarah Jay died, only a year after she and John finally fulfilled their long-held dream of retiring here. The room is much the same as it was then—red toile wallpaper and a canopy bed—and it’s easy to imagine John, a deeply religious man, sitting at his wife’s bedside, surrounded by his family, praying for her eternal soul. He lived in Bedford another 28 years, never remarrying.
As for Reich, she tries to carry on the legacy of the Jay women through the importance of family. “I believe that is the heritage. Why are we in Westchester other than to raise our families and do everything in our power to introduce them to values and engage in the world they’re going to carry forward?”
Spoken like a true Jay.
How one family founded—and protected—the hamlet that bears their name.
On a cold winter’s day in 1955, Thomas L. Purdy Jr. drove from his home in North Salem to the Woolworth Building offices of the Public Service Commission in lower Manhattan. Determined to streamline the railway, the Commission wanted to reduce passenger service and completely cut freight service to tiny Purdys Station. But in his pocket, Thomas Purdy had his trump card: a document, dated 1847, signed by his grandfather, Isaac Hart Purdy, and Isaac’s wife, Mary. They had granted The New York and Harlem Rail Road Company right of way through Purdy land for one dollar, with the agreement that Isaac “establish a Depot and stopping place” and that freight and passenger trains “regularly stop” at Purdys Station.
Isaac Hart Purdy owned 1,000 acres in North Salem and built Purdy’s Depot after striking a land deal with the railroad.
That small parcel represented a fraction of the thousand acres that Isaac’s great-grandfather Daniel had bought from the vast Van Cortlandt Manor in the mid 1700s. But Isaac knew that a village would sprout up around the railroad, and he was right. (He promptly opened a post office and appointed himself the postmaster.)
Isaac Hart Purdy.
The hamlet needed Purdys Station to attract commuters and maintain property values. Now, in 1955, the State was looking to back out of the deal, claiming that, after 108 years, the covenant was moot.
Thomas (Tim) Purdy III and his daughter, Sophie Purdy Meili, by the hearth at the old Purdy homestead. It’s now Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish restaurant.
Thomas Purdy III, who goes by “Tim,” remembers his father’s description of what happened at the hearing.
“He sat in the back and waited until the very end of the meeting. He put up his hand and asked if he could approach the bench. He said, ‘Your honor, I think you should look at this document before you make a decision.’ The judge looked at it and dismissed the hearing right then and there.”
At 74, Tim Purdy is a rarity, a sixth-generation descendant who’s stayed on his ancestral lands. Only 20 acres of that original 1,000 remain in the family; the rest has been sold over the years. The old Purdy homestead, at the intersection of Routes 22 and 116, is now Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish, the latest restaurant to occupy the 225-year-old structure that had been home to six generations of Purdys. Tim’s grandmother, Anne Beeson Purdy, was the last Purdy to live there. Tim remembers holiday meals in the parlor (now the main dining room), and the Irish cook named Katy who made such delicious desserts: chocolate cake for him, custard for his sister. Today, diners dig into produce grown on terraced plots behind the restaurant, all that’s left of the Purdys’ rich farming history. “When I was a boy, there were five working dairies in North Salem,” Tim recalls. “Now, the milk bottles are at the historical society. The cow barns are horse facilities.”
While Tim may be the last Purdy in Purdys—his daughter Sophie Purdy Meili and her family live in Dutchess County, where she raises livestock—there’s no dearth of people in Westchester who bear that name. The first Purdys, Tim explains, were French Huguenots, their name pronounced Per Dieu, “for God.” They fled France for England and, in the 1600s, Francis Purdy sailed for Massachusetts. The father of all Purdys in this region, Francis, settled in Fairfield, Connecticut. His progeny drifted like dandelion seeds in the wind, landing throughout Westchester, from Rye to Croton-on-Hudson. (Craig Purdy, co-owner of Croton’s Ümami and Tagine Restaurant & Wine Bar, is also a descendent.) His five sons were among the first settlers in Rye, and their progeny helped found White Plains. “My branch of the family had a farm in Harrison, where the Westchester Country Club is now,” explains Tim. “They kept moving north. They bought this land because it was the confluence of the Titicus and Croton Rivers, and they needed the river to float logs to the Hudson.”
The Purdy homestead has survived since 1776, though the “hanging tree,” where Tory loyalists were strung up, has not; Tim Purdy, in 1942, with his parents Ellen and Tom Purdy Jr. and his sister Ellen.
The American Revolution divided all those Purdys into two camps: for England, and against. No fewer than 28 Purdys signed a declaration in White Plains supporting King George III. The North Salem Purdys were fierce patriots. Daniel’s son Joshua disowned his own son, a Loyalist, and left the land to his grandson Joseph, who built the homestead in 1775. During the Revolution, Joseph and some compatriots captured a Tory cattle thief and strung him on a giant oak in front of the homestead, once, twice, three times, trying to extract information. The tree is long gone, but the legend lives on. After the war, in 1782, Westchester’s Loyalist Purdys boarded boats for Canada. “That’s why there’s a Purdy’s Wharf in Nova Scotia,” Tim quips.
Tim’s grandfather, Thomas Purdy Sr., and his son, Thomas Jr., were gentlemen farmers, overseeing their land while holding prominent positions in the village: bank president, councilman, chamber of commerce president. The family has farmland in Iowa as well. “My maternal grandfather was a circuit court judge who traveled through Iowa before it was a state,” Tim explains. “He bought up tax liens. We’ve had the land for 150 years, growing corn and soybeans.”
He runs the Iowa farms from his offices 100 yards from the homestead, sitting behind the same desk where his father spent his last morning, balancing his checkbook before passing later that day at the age of 93. Old family photos hang on the walls, and Tim can dig up the old deed that his father relied on to secure Purdys Station. While he clearly values his inheritance, he downplays being one of the Purdys who founded Purdys: “What I tell people is I found a town with the same name as mine and moved here. That way I wouldn’t get lost.”
A little slice of suburban heaven got its start as one (very large) family’s summer resort.
Susan Henry (in pink shirt), the only Mead left in Waccabuc, stands with other descendants on the steps of the Mead Memorial Chapel. They make up a board that meets every year.
In 1776, Enoch Mead and his new wife, Jemima, a distant cousin, set out from Connecticut on a “journey of exploration,” looking for a place to settle. The descendant of an English émigré, Enoch had kin in Lewisboro, so they came to investigate. As the story goes, on the way back to Connecticut, their horse died near Long Pond (now Waccabuc Lake). Since they loved the area, they stayed, built a house, opened a tavern, started a family, built another house, and began to buy up farmland around them.
Their son Alphred and his wife, Polly, had seven children. One of them, George Washington Mead, had 12 children, 11 of whom lived to adulthood. The Meads were extraordinarily close-knit, and Waccabuc became their summer colony, where they built lovely homes and embraced a lifestyle rooted in the outdoors and family bonds.
George Mead was born in 1827 at the family homestead. A whiz at real estate, he bought land in New Haven while a student at Yale. He spent summers “laboring daily at all kinds of farm work upon his father’s farm with the workmen,” as he wrote in an autobiographical sketch. He became a lawyer and married Sarah Frances Studwell, daughter of a man who’d made his money in lumber. They wintered in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights but spent summers on his ancestral land in Waccabuc. In 1856, his brothers, Erastus and Martin, built a lakeside hotel that drew fashionable city dwellers on the new railroad that stopped at Katonah and Goldens Bridge. The resort had fishing and boating, fresh eggs and milk, but no “tramps, bars, or malaria.” It burned down in 1896.
In 1895, the Meads completed Tarry-a-Bit, a grand Queen Anne large enough to hold their growing family. One by one, the 11 Mead children built their summer homes on or near Mead Street. They traveled frequently—Egypt, Ceylon, Europe—but Waccabuc was their North Star, a rural paradise where they could ice-fish in the winter, canoe on the lake, and drive their Model Ts down the dirt road, unpaved until the 1970s. Their corporation, the Kings and Westchester Land Company, grew to include 1,200 acres in Waccabuc as well as property in New Haven and Brooklyn.
Today, there is only one Mead ancestor left on Mead Street. Susan Henry, age 81, lives with her husband in the 1820 Alphred Mead Homestead. Her father, Earl Smith, was the son of Loretta Josephine Mead, one of George’s six daughters. He managed the properties and ran Pinecroft Farm, “the Croft” for short. “I grew up there in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s,” says Henry. “I gathered eggs as a girl. It was quiet, but I didn’t lack for friends.”
Clockwise from top: The tiny post office still stands on Mead Street. George Mead (near right, with his dog) and his sons by the lake. George’s wife, Francis Studwell, commissioned the chapel in her husband’s memory.
As the Depression depleted their fortunes and their children’s children left home, bit by bit, the family sold off their property to sustain themselves. Real estate developments in Connecticut and Brooklyn failed to pay off. “The Meads were not wealthy,” says Henry. “They had to work. As time went on, they became land-poor. Some factions of the family wanted to sell it; others, like my father, wanted to move slowly, think it out, plan it.”
Mead Street today is a sort of outdoor residential museum, with nature conservancies and three-acre zoning. The old Mead houses still stand, lovingly restored by new owners. On a driving tour of Mead Street, Susan Henry points out the houses by name: Elmdon, Fairacres, Hendy Hap, Tradinock. Tarry-a-Bit sits on a private road, past the tiny dollhouse of a post office.
Of course non-Meads were allowed to live on Mead Street, says Henry. But in the 1920s, after a wealthy Manhattanite built a cabin and an outhouse to be “rustic,” the Meads were so appalled by its primitiveness that they asked new homebuilders to submit their plans for approval.
She pulls in at Waccabuc’s landmark, Mead Memorial Chapel. Sarah Mead commissioned it to honor George, who passed away in 1899. It gives the street a reverential air, interrupted only by the throaty purr of luxury sedans. There aren’t enough Meads left to hold weekly worship, so it’s used mostly for weddings now. “People love the chapel,” says Henry, gazing fondly at its stone façade. “It’s a great place to start a new life.”
The Van Tassells
Behind “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” lives a flesh-and-blood clan descended from the early Dutch settlers.
"If not for Washington Irving,” says Tara Van Tassell of Tarrytown, her ancestral moniker “would have been like another Dutch name. It might have gone the way of New Amsterdam, for all we know.” Instead, her surname became part of literary history, blurring fiction and fact, legend and myth. Countless iterations of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”—cartoons, movies, the popular prime-time series on Fox—have made Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel cultural icons. Every Halloween, Tara gets calls from strangers asking if she’s related to Katrina Van Tassel. “I tell them, ‘She’s a fictional character!’”
An 18th century headstone for Catriena Van Texel in the Old Dutch Church burying ground; Tara Van Tassell (left) and Katrina Van Tassell with the Headless Horseman during peak season in Sleepy Hollow. Both descendants of the same Dutch settlers, the two women had never met before this photo was taken.
Van Tassell, 45, an IT manager at a multinational bank in Manhattan, grew up in Yorktown, weaned on stories of how her family went all the way back to the first Dutch settlers. After moving to Tarrytown in 1999, during a visit to the historical society, she found a thick blue binder. It was the Van Tassell family genealogy, compiled at the dawn of the 20th century by one Daniel Van Tassel, a local newspaper editor and historian. The binder lists every known Van Tassel born in America from 1625 to 1900, with every variation of the name’s spelling: Van Texel, Van Tessel, and the Anglicized version, Van Tassel, with one “l” or two. There are 2,458 family members. Tara found a great-grandparent (No. 1785) and followed the genealogical crumb trail back 400 years, “all the way to Jan,” she says. That would be Jan Cornilessen Van Texel, the first American-born ancestor, or “No. 1.”
Jan’s father, Cornelius Jansen Van Texel, was one of countless Dutchmen who came here to help the Netherlands solidify its grasp on the New World. He married Catoneras, an Indian chief’s daughter, on Long Island. In 1657, their son Jan married and moved to what is now Verplank. He and his wife, with whom he had nine children, attended the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. Their son Cornelis had 14 children by two wives; they went forth and multiplied, exponentially. They were salt-of-the-earth people: carpenters, shoemakers, tavern keepers, tenant farmers on Philipsburg Manor. They fought in the French-Indian War and the American Revolution, and afterward bought their farms from the Commissioner of Forfeiture. Many of them are buried in the Old Dutch church yard.
Tara volunteers at the local historical society and the Old Dutch Church, where she helps lead tours of the historic cemetery. When one of the tours comes across a Van Tassell, Van Tassel, or Van Texel headstone, Tara likes to explain that they are related somehow, in the mists of time, “though not so close that we couldn’t marry.”
Washington Irving is buried in the neighboring Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. His is the grave everyone comes to see. The story is well known. In 1798, Irving’s parents sent him to Tarrytown to escape the yellow fever that swept through Manhattan every summer. He’d play among the headstones and read the names inscribed thereon. Irving based many of his characters on real Sleepy Hollow denizens, and, in 1819, while living abroad, he would publish the story that made him famous and give the Van Tassels literary immortality.
By the time Irving returned to Tarrytown in 1835, he had made the Van Tassels a household name. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), he bought the land for Sunnyside from a Van Tassel. Otherwise, the Van Tassels of the Tarrytowns never prospered from their famous name. “They were working people,” says Tara, the kind of solid citizens who give the fabric of a community its warp and weft: steamboat workers and Civil War veterans, highway commissioners and village treasurers, newspaper editors and police officers. “In Washington Irving’s story, the Van Tassels have money, but it’s a story, based on several real people and a name taken from a gravestone,” she says.
Clockwise from top: Katrina Van Tassell’s family lived in Webber Park in what was then North Tarrytown. Her father Oliver worked at the GM factory, and Katrina was christened at the Old Dutch Church. Tara Van Tassell’s great-grandparents, William and Margaret Van Tassell, married in 1904; he was a chauffeur for the New York Telephone Co.
Even the Van Tassel Apartments in North Tarrytown (now Sleepy Hollow), built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1929 as affordable housing, are named not for real Van Tassels but fictional ones: It was his daughter Abby’s idea to name the building after Katrina. No wonder some people think Katrina Van Tassel is real, says Tara.
Actually, the real Katrina Van Tassell lives in Armonk. She is 63 and was born in Tarrytown. She and Tara don’t know each other. Katrina’s mother named her for the fictional character and she was christened at Sleepy Hollow Church. Her father, Oliver Jr., worked at the GM plant; his father, Oliver Sr., a motorcycle cop, died after being struck by a motorist on Route 9. The family moved to Hawthorne in 1957, but Katrina pines to return to Tarrytown. She remembers how her mother would dress her as Katrina for Halloween, how she was a question on a test in school (“Which classmate is named for a character in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?’”), how she and her friends would ride their bikes through the old cemetery, scared that the Headless Horseman might appear and take chase. “We never were there after sundown,” says Katrina, eyes widening. “No way. We got creeped out.”