CORNELIUS & NAOMI: Whitman's Quaker Grandparents Underneath all, Nativity,
I swear I will stand by my own nativity.
Walt Whitman, 1856

David 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."

In Specimen 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."

That 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.

Formerly 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.

Now 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.

But 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.

Or, 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.

Would 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.

Literary 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.

"My 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.

“The 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 not spared.

The 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."

The 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."

While 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 Van Velsor.

Whitman 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."

Whitman 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 peace."

As for 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."

In Whitman's 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..."

Cornelius 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 companion.

The 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.

But 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.

"When 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 past."