Excerpt from:

Early Memoirs Of The Stilwell Family, Comprising The Life And Times Of Nicholas Stilwell, The Common Ancestor Of The Numerous Families Bearing That Surname. With Some Account Of His Brothers John And Jasper, And Incidentally A Sketch Of The History Of Manhattan Island And Its Vicinity, Under The Dutch, With Some Contributions To A Genealogy Of The Family.

By Benjamin Marshall Stilwell

New York: The National Printing Company, 13 Chambers Street, 1878. Pages iii - xi.

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It has been given to but few, in any age, to achieve greatness; while to have had greatness thrust upon them, has been the lot of a still less number. The mass, therefore, of those who claim superiority over their fellows, must base their pretensions upon the fact that they were born great; that though they have not themselves contributed anything to the treasury of history, they are heirs or of kin to those who have; and with the blood and estates of the latter, they have inherited a portion of the credit due them for their achievements.

Genealogical research, having for its object the investigation and recording of the grounds upon which such claims are founded, is not without its value; for the knowledge that one has even such vicarious claims to superiority, will incite in him a laudable ambition to follow those who have reflected honor upon him, and thus "leave his own footprints on the sands of time."

What it was in the lives of one's progenitors that has been deemed worthy of remembrance, is apparently of little moment, for the whirligig of time brings its revenges, and acts, which in one age are branded as crimes, in the next are lauded as virtues; and deeds, which in former times were done with prayer, by pious men, who hoped thereby to merit the favor of heaven, are looked upon by us with abhorrence.

Vulgar crimes and criminals are soon forgotten; it is only when those who have defied the law, and suffered its terrible penalties, have done so in support or defense of what they behaved to be rights or principles, that their names and acts are embalmed in history; and posterity honors them none the less, though time may have shown that they were in the wrong, or that the cause in which they suffered was unworthy of the sacrifice.

Those who, in the reign of Charles the Second, were executed as malefactors — as murderers of their king — are now honored, as patriots who defended the liberties of their country at the expense of their lives; and those who, in the early days of our history were ignominiously whipped at the cart's- tail, and put to death as "Quakers," are now revered as "men of whom the world was not worthy."

The Stilwell family may justly be proud that they inherit the blood of John Cooke, who, in 1660, was tried and executed as a traitor; for he was one of those known in history as the regicides, who, in 1648, delivered English liberty for a time from the incubus of the house of Stuart. But like all great reformers, they were in advance of their age, and it was not until many years after their death, that England discovered they were in the right, and ratified and consummated their acts by the revolution of 1688.

And with equal pride we trace descent from Nicholas Stilwell, whose opinions in matters of religion, and as to the authority of the priesthood, — equally intolerable to the Puritans of New England and to the Conformists of Virginia,-made him "an outcast of each church and state," and compelled him to seek refuge in the wilderness, among the savages then inhabiting Manhattan Island.

Nor need we blush that our blood was early mingled with that of Obadiah Holmes, whose cruel persecutions and patient sufferings as a "Quaker," have given him a place in history.

But if there were nothing in the lives of our progenitors specially calculated to minister to our pride of ancestry, their history would still concern us; for they were among the pioneers of civilization, who first penetrated these wilds, then known as New Netherlands, and prepared the foundations upon which has been built the metropolis of the western world; and a relation of their sufferings and trials, their contests with the wilderness and its savage inhabitants, and their acts and doings in the infancy of the country, could not be without interest to their descendants.

Down to a recent period, there were but few and indistinct traces to be found, by which we might follow the footsteps of our forefathers, the first English settlers upon Manhattan Island, and their history rested chiefly in tradition; but the documents relative to the early history of New York, which by the liberality of the State government, and the intelligent industry of its agents, have been gathered from the archives of Holland and England, and placed within our reach, have given us full and precise information in regard to all public affairs in which they took part in those early days; while the translation of the Dutch records of the Colony of New Netherland, in the office of the Secretary of State at Albany, and of the records of New Amsterdam, in the public offices of the City of 'New York, have furnished us the means of becoming as well acquainted with the local affairs and transactions of our ancestors upon Manhattan Island and its vicinity, as if we had lived in their midst.

From these sources, and from the general history of the times, in which they acted no inconsiderable part, as well as from private records and received traditions of the family, this account of its early history has been compiled. That portion now submitted, "The life and times of Nicholas Stilwell," its common ancestor, with a sketch of the principal events in the life of his brother John, and some incidental reference to the third brother, Jasper, comprises the history of the first generation of the family in this country, bringing it down to the year 1671, the date of the death of Nicholas Stilwell, the first of the name.

But our forefathers were not only among those who prepared the foundations, they also assisted at each step in building the superstructure of that magnificent fabric, which now fitly wears the title of the "Empire State."

Among the first judges appointed to interpret and administer the Colonial laws of New York, were three sons of Nicholas — Richard, Thomas, and Nicholas Stilwell, the second of the name, who respectively held commissions from Charles the Second, James the Second, and William and Mary. The earliest records of our courts, still preserved, bear witness to the wisdom and impartiality with which they performed their duties; and continuously since, for now two hundred years, some of their descendants have held, and still hold, judicial stations of more or less prominence.

In the legislative and political history of the State the family have occupied no inconsiderable position from the earliest times to the present day Nicholas Stilwell, the second of the name, was a prominent member of the first Colonial Assembly, convened in 1691, the acts passed at which, are the earliest recognized laws of the State of New York.

Richard Stilwell of Gravesend, as a delegate from Kings County, took part in the deliberations of the first Provincial Congress, which met in New York in May, 1775; and since the organization of the State government the name of some member of the family has at all times appeared upon the roll of the legislature ; and we may well point with pride to the fact, that it is to a member of this family that the world is indebted for that great legislative act which will make the nineteenth century conspicuous in the history of the progress of civilization, the "Act to abolish imprisonment for debt," passed in 1831, which, in honor of its author, the Hon. Silas M. Stilwell, is called the "Stilwell Act." Nor will posterity forget its great indebtedness to him for that system of finance, by which the country was enabled to sustain the burthen of the great rebellion.

The reputation of Nicholas Stilwell, the first of the name, as a soldier, has been worthily supported by his descendants. The achievements of General Garrett Stilwell, and of Col. Richard Stilwell, who respectively held important commands during the revolutionary war, will be read with pride and interest, by those of their blood or kin; and whenever, since, the country has called upon its sons to defend her, upon the rolls of honor, have always been found the names of many of the family.

The mantle of John, the regicide, as a preacher, has fallen upon the shoulders of many of his descendants, who have worn it not unworthily. His grandchildren were among the founders of the Baptist Church in America; and the "silver tongue" of his grandson, Richard Stilwell, of Staten Island, was heard in the First Baptist Church in New York, built in 1724, on Golden Hill, in the City of New York.

John Stilwell, the grandfather of the Hon. Silas M. Stilwell, was one of the first and most noted preachers of the Methodist persuasion.

William Stilwell, the grandfather of the Hon. Samuel Stilwell Powell, twice Mayor of Brooklyn, is still remembered among the Quakers as a "great preacher," when the spirit moved him. And it has been the good fortune of many still living to have listened to the eloquence of the late William Stilwell, who for thirty years occupied the pulpit of the Methodist Church, and whose light last shone in the Christie Street Church, New York; a slight measure of whose popularity is found in the fact, that during his ministry he was called upon eight thousand times to perform the marriage ceremony, and seven thousand times to perform the last solemn rites over the graves of those who, while living, had listened to his teachings.

A mass of materials has been collected for the subsequent history of the family, and particularly of the second generation, — those who swarmed from the parent hive and founded the numerous branches of the family, now widely scattered; but the arrangement of these materials for publication has been delayed in the hopes that the appearance of the present volume would induce others of the family, having records or information in regard to the early history of their respective branches, to communicate the same to the undersigned, in order that the history of the second and subsequent generations of the family may be made as complete as possible.


New York, Jan., 1876.