Hannah Van Buren, Part I

On February 21, 1807, in the town of Catskill, on a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River, Martin Van Buren secretly married his first cousin once removed, Hannah Hoes. The couple had traveled for twelve miles in the harsh Hudson Valley winter to reach the Hoxton House Inn, the country estate of Hannah’s brother-in-law, a former state senator, Judge Moses I. Cantine.

By family standards, Martin was marrying young; Van Buren men had traditionally remained bachelors well into their thirties. Martin was twenty-four; Hannah, one month shy of the same age. He did not want to marry, it was said, until his professional and financial standing were more secure. Having just devoted much of his energies toward Daniel Tompkins’s gubernatorial campaign, he was clearly feeling confident in his future.

The Van Buren and Goes families had ties in the Hudson Valley dating back to the 1640s, when Cornelis Maessen Van Buren and Jan Tyssen Goes—the first of the families’ migrants to reach the New World—shared farmland on an island in the Hudson River. Martin’s parents were Hannah’s godparents. Martin’s father married Hannah’s great aunt. According to lore, Martin and Hannah were intimate since adolescence.

Ah, lore. What would historians do without it? The fact is, we know almost nothing about Hannah and Martin’s courtship. Were they “childhood sweethearts”? I have nothing to confirm this other than those highly unreliable campaign biographies. In John Nivens’ hefty biography, published in 1983, he wrote two things about the blessed day: (a) Van Buren eloped because he didn’t want to have to entertain all of Kinderhook for the wedding, which Dutch bridegrooms were obliged to do in those days; (b) Van Buren’s parents and other close family members attended. Niven footnoted neither assertion. I asked Ruth Piwonka, Kinderhook’s fiercely knowledgeable town historian, what she thought about this. (Whenever I’m stumped—which is often—I go to Ruth. Bless her!) “Where do you find such stuff?” she wrote back. Ruth pooh-poohed both of Nivens’ claims. She had never heard of town weddings that the bridegrooms had to spring for. Furthermore, she highly doubts Abraham and Maria Van Buren attended the wedding. “The whole idea of eloping,” she said, “was that the parents aren’t there.”

Given how little we know about Hannah, it’s interesting to note that most historians have failed to mention something we do know about her. Hannah’s father, Johannes Dircksen Goes (later changed to John Goes), was not only a Loyalist, but perhaps Kinderhook’s most ardent opponent of independence. While some Loyalists merely wanted nothing to do with the conflict, John Goes assisted the British however he could. He was an enlisted soldier in the Van Alstyne Regiment but switched sides, was arrested in the summer of 1778 and ordered to go to enemy-occupied New York City. Before his banishment, however, the authorities decided to keep him in the area to testify in a murder trial. He spent the next five years under house arrest in the town of Schodack, ten miles up the river from Kinderhook. In August of 1780 he was allowed to go as part of a prisoner exchange and fled to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he remained for years.

Most Loyalists in post-Revolutionary Kinderhook accepted the new nation and resumed their lives in full. Goes returned home—Hannah was born after the war, in March of 1783—but he remained a secretive figure. He died in 1789 at the age of thirty-six. The cause of death is unknown. Given the hardships Goes endured after he abandoned the revolution, we can speculate that his pariah status contributed to his early demise. (Many drank themselves to death, though there’s no evidence that this is how he met his end.) Hannah’s mother, Maria, never remarried, and remained a widow for forty-three years. With the family’s three slaves, she raised five children and had a seat in the local Dutch Reformed Church, something very few women did at that time.

Next week: Who Was Hannah Van Buren?