Augustin Heřman: First of the First Bohemian-Americans
Augustin Heřman in America
After escaping the persecution by the Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Church in Bohemia, the Heřman family settled in the Netherlands.
It would appear that Augustin received an excellent education, either in Bohemia, the Netherlands, or perhaps both locations. It is reported in the 1891 Edition of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Volume XXII, No. 1, that young Augustin was a Latin scholar, spoke Czech, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, English, and was proficient in literature, mathematics, and drawing. This same work reports that Augustin first was employed by the Dutch West India Company. Reportedly being a lover of travel, while with the Dutch West India Company Augustin traveled to such destinations as Corsica, Sardinia, Brazil, Suriname, Argentina, and the Antilles, including at least Martinique, St. Christopher (now known as St. Kitts), Curaçao, and Barbados.
As far as our currently known historical records can tell us, Augustin Heřman was the first Bohemian settler to come and establish himself and his family in what would become the United States of America. If he wasn’t the actual first, he was certainly amongst the very earliest and the first to leave any substantial historic record for us to find and follow.
In a letter from Augustin to Governor Stuyvesant in 1654, Augustin makes the statement that he was instrumental in establishing the earliest trade in tobacco in Virginia in 1629. This appears to be borne out by the fact that the Dutch West India Company issued a vote of thanks to Augustin for that very reason in the same year.
In 1633 Augustin must have been in good standing with the then-governor general of New Netherlands, Wouter van Twiller, since he was an official representative of van Twiller on an expedition sent to the Delaware River.
Records show that Augustin, as a member of the vibrant Dutch community in America speculated in land and traded not only in Nieuw Amsterdam, but also in New Jersey, in New Amstel on the Delaware River, and in the English colonies of what would later become northern New York state, along the Connecticut River, and in present day Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.
In either 1643 or 1644, Augustin made his way to live permanently in the New World Dutch settlement of Nieuw Amsterdam. Once here he displayed what today we would definitely call an entrepreneurial spirit. He became an agent for the very substantial Dutch trading company, Peter Gabry & Sons. His trade included such goods as groceries, ships’ stores, beaver pelts, cotton, tobacco, and even some privateering.
It is suggested that Augustin, with his early land holdings in Nieuw Amsterdam was the first person to introduce indigo (the plant which provides blue dye) to American soils on his plantations. This first plantation, with peaches and indigo, apparently was located at Pine Street in the future Manhattan, New York. Augustin was a well respected member of the community and was in equally high demand by the leadership of Dutch Nieuw Amsterdam. In John Romeyn Brodhead’s 1853 book, History of the State of New York, First Period 1609-1664, the author notes that “Augustine Heermans”, Bohemian, was one of the leaders of the colony as well as a member of the highly regarded council, called ‘Nine Men’. He was also seen as an indispensable asset to Governor Stuyvesant. Augustin was sent as an Ambassador to Lord Baltimore in Maryland and to the Governor of Delaware. Additionally Governor Stuyvesant suggested to others in his inner circle that they should “avail themselves of the aid and tongue of Augustine Heermans” in their work (page 683).
In 1659-1660, Augustin was sent by Dutch governor, Pieter Stuyvesant, to negotiate with the governor of Maryland, Josias Fendall. While these sessions ended in the continued stalemate over the issue at hand, during these sessions Augustin became friends with a man destined to become an early governor of Maryland, Philip Calvert. He was also a man who would become instrumental in the coming years of Augustin’s life.
Due to a longstanding disagreement between the Dutch, the Swedes, and the English, Augustin agreed to map the disputed area (the lands surrounding Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries). He made his offer to both Governor Stuyvesant and Governor Fendall of Maryland, but it was Fendall who first realized the value in such a map and quickly agreed and did so for the price of some 5,000 acres of land that would be part of the area Augustin would survey and map. It took Augustin 10 years, from 1660 to 1670 to complete this map, but it was exceptional and as noted above was one of the first accurate maps of any portion of America. His ‘payment’ also ballooned to some 6,000 very valuable and attractive acres on a peak overlooking the Bohemia River. All told, Augustin would accumulate some 20,000 to 30,000 acres here.
Why would Augustin forsake Nieuw Amsterdam and his life there for untamed wilderness in Maryland? Some historians say it was due to Augustin’s belief that the Dutch colony was doomed due to the mismanagement by Stuyvesant. Some say it was Augustin simply being an opportunist and his desire for more land. Some say it had more to do with some now unknown bitterness between Stuyvesant and Augustin, Stuyvesant’s attempts to ruin Augustin, or the fact that he was imprisoned by squatters (at Stuyvesant’s behest?) on this own lands. Augustin’s imprisonment and daring escape not only captured the interest of the general public, but even resulted in an epic poem being written in 1899 by George Alfred Townsend titled “Herman of Bohemia Manor”. Your can read this enjoyable poem by clicking here.
Whatever the reason or reasons, shortly after the ten years it took him to complete his now famous map, Augustin forsook his positions, lands, etc. in Nieuw Amsterdam and took leave to permanently settle on his newly acquired lands in Maryland, which he immediately named “Bohemia Manor”. Eventually Augustin would become the very first naturalized citizen of Maryland.
In case you are thinking Augustin was not all that well known, according to Maryland Historical Magazine, William Penn wrote to Augustin from London, England in 1681 seeking his support for enlarging Pennsylvania by ceding his lands from Lord Baltimore. Augustin was equally adept negotiating with the governors of Virginia and Maryland as he was the Native American leaders of the Susquehannock and other tribes as he continue to add to this land holdings.
Augustin and his family (two sons, Ephraim George and Caparus, and three daughters, Anna Margaretta, Judith, and Francina) lived at or near Bohemia Manor for generations. While the Heřman surname extinguished following the death of Caparus’ son, who died sometime around 1775, there are still descendants of the female sides of the family in America today.
Unfortunately sometime in the early 1800s the original manor home burned down. The most detailed references to this loss, besides time and again being said that Bohemia Manor ‘burned down long ago’, are found in Janice E. McKenney’s book Women of the Constitution: Wives of the Signers, Scarecrow Press, 2012, which mentions that Bohemia Manor burned down “not long after the Bassetts’ deaths”. These deaths occurred in 1815 and 1819, so it would appear that the Manor burned sometime close to 1820. Ms. McKenney references A History of the Rise of Methodism in America, John Lednum, Philadelphia, PA, privately printed, 1859. In his book, Lednum, a historian of the Methodist Church in America, states “Soon after Mr. Bassett’s death, his old mansion (Bohemia Manor) burned down…” (Page 278, which does not match the footnote reference by McKenney). While the original Manor was destroyed, it is said that the replacement Manor home was built on the same foundation as that of the original Bohemia Manor.
Much like the mystery surrounding Augustin’s birth there is also mystery regarding the date of Augustin’s death and his final resting place. This is especially true about the location of his grave and grave marker. His death is estimated to have occurred about 1686, based on the date his will was probated and ownership of Bohemia Manor was descended to his eldest son. While there are a myriad of references to the burial vault being on the grounds of Bohemia Manor and being topped with a large engraved stone reported to be 3 feet by 7 feet and etched with “Augustin Herman, Bohemian, first founder and seator of Bohemia Manor, Anno 1661”, there are almost as many stories about the bodies being moved, the graves being dug up by those seeking his final resting place, the stone being broken into three pieces, used elsewhere, having been requested to be sent to the National Museum in Prague, etc. No one knows where it is that Augustin actually lies at this time. The most detailed description of the grave’s location seems to have been written in the 1888 manuscript “Ancient Families of Bohemia Manor; Their homes and their graves” by Charles Payson Mallery. In this paper, written at the request of the Historical Society of Delaware, Mallery states “I doubt whether three persons, besides myself, are living to-day who could tell just where Herman lies buried. I may remark in passing that the grave is about five hundred feet due north from the house, long ago destroyed by fire…” (Page 17).
The Philadelphia Enquirer (Philadelphia, PA) on August 24, 1906 reported the following:
“The exact location of the grave of Augustine Herman has been lost and his descendants are endeavoring this week to find his remains by excavating in the yard where he is known to have been buried. Thousands of visitors are expected to visit the Manor on Sunday next.”
About a year later in an article dated October 20, 1907 again in the Sun is the following:
“The site of his (Augustin’s) grave is conjectural and even the tombstone he carefully designed is removed from its place. Cracked, weather beaten and defaced, it lies several hundred yards from the supposed site of Herman’s grave, having been removed many years ago to serve as the door to the burial vault of the Bassett family, who at that time owned the manor house graveyard.”