My Coney Island Ancestor Who Made “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not”!

One of my ancestors starred in this Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoon!

One of my ancestors starred in this Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon!

Bear with me, Readers! All this reporting on my ancestry feels self-indulgent, but it’s bearing much fruit — it’s inspiring all sorts of creative writing on the side, some historical, some autobiographical, some even comical, and there’ll be a flood tide of product that’ll come out of this within a few months. The current phase is discovery. I’m finding out what there is. There are some things to be proud of, some things to possibly be ashamed of. Some family myths have been affirmed, others have been overturned. New stories have been uncovered.

I’m holding much in reserve for the next few weeks. On July 4, I’ll post about all my ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. And lots and lots of other stuff is awaiting the results of my DNA test which I should have by late July or August. Meantime (apart from participants in the Revolution and possibly the Civil War) we have pretty much wrapped up my mom’s side of the family in the series of five posts that began here. As we have said, this side of my family made their big splash at the very beginning, never straying outside the confines of Massachusetts, Rhode Island or Connecticut for four hundred years. Having built their City on a Hill, they seem to have resolved to stay there. In fact, my aunt is still involved with the church founded by the Puritans who settled her town (our literal ancestors) in the 1680s.  These are people who stay close to home.

By contrast, my dad’s family (which converges in Lincoln County, Tennessee around the early 19th century), turns out to have been much more diverse. I don’t know why, but I was expecting a similarly easily defined narrative for my dad’s side. My mom’s side are nearly ALL Puritans who settled in one region and all at the same time (early to mid 17th century). I was kind of expecting my dad’s side all to have some kind of similar template: all Scots, or Scots-Irish arriving through the Tidewater or the Carolinas, probably mostly as indentured servants in the 18th century. (well I know why I thought that. That’s the usual thumbnail template for the settlement of the south) But the story turns out to be way more varied. Among the shocks I’ve gotten:

* I am FAR less Scottish than I assumed (given my name). It turns out “Stewart” is one of the very few Scottish lines I descend from. The vast majority, as on my mother’s side, are English.

* Many, possibly most of the families on my dad’s side date as far back in America as the early 17th century as well.

* There are rich folks as well as poor folks.

* The families migrated to Tennessee from all over the eastern seaboard, not just Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, but also the  mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, and even Massachusetts and Rhode Island — which strikes me as exceedingly weird.

* In addition to English, I also have German, French and Dutch lineages. Now, I’d already known of a descent from the Medieval French and Germans:  looking through my family tree you find Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Normans, Bretons, Franks, etc. What’s new knowledge is that I have ancestors from the more modern states of France (Huguenots, mostly) and Germany (who settled in Pennsylvania). And though I’d also known that some of my Puritan ancestors had spent time in the Netherlands, I did not realize that I had ancestors who were themselves Dutch (I’ll be writing about one today). So these were revelations.

I also have some theories about other ethnic origins, but these will await the results of the DNA test. But in the meantime,there are a couple of discrete chunks of the narrative I can tell now, and this is one I couldn’t wait to share!

Given that I’m so much a Coney Island booster, I was blown away last to learn that I am descended from someone who not only lived in that area in the 17th century, but is also a sort of mythologized folk heroine.

In 1643 Penelope Van Princis was traveling from her native Netherlands to New Amsterdam (soon to become New York) when the vessel she was traveling in was shipwrecked at Sandy Hook, NJ. Those who didn’t died in the wreck were attacked by Indians. Penelope, grievously injured, survived by hiding in a hollow log for several days. (Robert Ripley tells it much better in the cartoon above). Then she emerged and approached the local Lenape for help. They brought her to New Amsterdam (possibly for ransom) and she married Richard Stout. They lived among the Quakers in Gravesend for many years, raising a large family there. Gravesend is of course the mainland adjacent to Coney Island, an area I spend a lot of time obsessing about so this is exciting to me.


I made a pilgrimage there and took this photo

I made a pilgrimage there and took this photo

They eventually settled in Monmouth County, not far from where she originally washed up on shore. According to legend she lived to be 110 years old, an element of the story I’m inclined to be skeptical about. 110 years old, eh? Coney Island’s first freak!

Nevertheless, for some reason this story has captured the imagination of many. There have been books written about her experience:



and commemorative coins struck:



and monuments erected:



According to Wikipedia, there is a Penelope Lane off Kings Highway in Gravesend named after her, but I don’t find it on the map.

I’ll have some more context about why the Stouts were at Gravesend in the next post. At any rate, you can see why I’m a little excited.

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