The Hunt for
the Van Horn Fotrune

A Family Folly

Ok...what's this about the legend of the Van Horn family millions that had so many family members excited in the decades of the 1920s, 30s, & 40s? First, before we explore the farce of the "Van Horn millions" we need some background on the family.

Our last Van Horn ancestor was Mary Van Horn (d.1909). Mary was the mother of Jane (Starner?) who married John Boorem. We can trace Mary's ancestry back to the Dutch immigrant Christian B. Van Horn who settled in the new-world Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (New York) in the mid 1650s. Because the Dutch were meticulous record keepers, we know quite a bit about our early Van Horn ancestors. They left wills, business records, and most importantly for our essay here, land records.

The records tell us, among other things, that the family at one time owned a good chunk of what is modern-day New York City. The records show that the Van Horn family at one time owned pieces of Central Park, Harlem (a Dutch word) and the area around the Wall Street financial district. Of course, in those days these areas were mainly fields and cow pastures. It was the lawful ownership of some of this land that we are concerned with.

As Holland's fortunes faded, England became the dominate power in the New World; New Amsterdam became New York, however the Van Horn family still retained much of its ownership of their former pieces of Dutch New Amsterdam. It seems that family eventually arrived at an arrangement with the (state? city?) whereby it leased out some of its property to settlers for a period of 99 years. At the end of the lease ownership of the land was to revert to the Van Horn family.

To make a long story short, by the time the 99 year lease was up it seems that everybody had forgotten about the arrangement, and ownership of the land was deeded by New York to the people who had occupied the land for (by this time) several generations.

Then, in the early 20th century, the old lease (supposedly) resurfaced (was said to be in the possession of a certain Van Horn family member), and further evidence as to the existence of the lease was (supposedly, again) found is certain court records (which mysteriously disappeared before the hearings on the matter). This was enough to convince some family members that the city of New York had illegally deeded the land to the settlers following the expiration of the 99 year lease. Attorney's were hired to look into the matter, with a number of results which will be discussed later.

At about the same time there began a rumor that there was a vast Van Horn estate in Holland being held in escrow by the government, just waiting to be claimed by the legitimate descendants. Naturally, this caused further excitement. First, there was the prospect that the family was owed significant compensation for the violation of the 99 year lease by the City of New York, and second, there was the promise of a fortune waiting in Holland as well.

As word spread among the family descendants were urged to gather in order to discuss what action, if any, was to be taken in regards to these matters. This meeting was the basis for what would become in the mid-1920s the annual Van Horn family reunion.

At this first meeting the main order of business was to form a committee to ascertain if the two claims mentioned above had any validity. It was also decided that in case there was a basis for these claims, it would be wise to begin the process of identifying all Van Horn family members. To do this you had to be able to trace your ancestry back to one of two Van Horn family members, the aforementioned Christian B. Van Horn, or his (bother? cousin?) Abraham Van Horn. The result was an impressive book published in 1928, "The Van Horn Family History," by Francis Marvin, that is loaded with valuable information and lineage for the two main branches of the family. This work has always been by far the most impressive accomplishment of the whole affair, and, despite many inaccuracies, remains a valuable too for the modern genealogist.

The book includes a synopsis of the family claims and the results of the committee's investigations into those claims; the genealogy section of the book provides a lot more information that a standard listing of descendants with dates of birth, marriage and death. In some instances the information reads like a county history, because it includes short stories and brief sketches of some of the family's more prominent pioneering members.

After about a year's worth of investigation the committee concluded that there was no hope of either of the two claims ever amounting to anything. The alleged lease was never produced, and records that had supposedly been in the possession of the city that may have supported the family's position suddenly disappeared.

Although family members claimed that this-and-that relative had the lease in their possession, or this-and-that relative had actually seen and read the lease, no one was able ever to produce the actual document. Another variation on the story says that the family was preparing to bring the lease in for examination, but it was destroyed in a fire. Several branches of the family (including my own) made this claim. My grandmother told me that her father, Hooker Boorem, always told her that his mother's brother Joe Starner was actually in possession of the lease but it had been burned in a fire.

The result was that when hearings were held in New York to determine the validity of the Van Horn claims, all the family could do was provide testimony from people who said they had seen the document and read the contents. No lease was ever produced. For it's part, the city maintained that although the records showed that the family had at one time owned the land in question, the city had in fact deeded the land to the present owners in a perfectly legal manner. The committee formed by the family to investigate the matter also felt that even if the alleged lease could have been produced and authenticated, the family would still have had great difficulty collecting any damages or compensation from the city.

As for the Van Horn estate in Holland, it appears that there had in fact been a valuable family fortune in Holland during the colonial period. Again, as in the case of the disputed lease, many, many years had passed. If the Dutch government had in fact confiscated the estate for a lack of heirs, they either no longer had a record of it or they weren't prepared to admit to it. Either way, this too became a dead issue.

The committee's conclusion and advice to family members was to give up their attempts to claim money that probably wasn't there in the first place. One can't help but feel that in their recommendation the committee did the family a great service. When one looks at the evidence (or lack thereof) its easy to see that the committee was on solid ground in recommending that family members give up the chase for the alleged Van Horn millions. They were able to cut through the hype and money-induced hysteria and render an objective and honest opinion on the matter, and for that the family should had been grateful. Unfortunately, some family members found it difficult to let go of their dreams.

The problem was that, despite the committee's recommendations, many family members were willing to spend their hard-earned money to continue the pursuit of the Van Horn millions. There were some unsuccessful legitimate attempts to revive the issue, but there were more instances of unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of people still hoping for some kind of windfall. For years afterwards, family members or their "attorney's" went around to descendants asking for a yearly donation to help fund the legal fight to recover the family's fortune. It was simple, if you contributed, you moved to the head of the list if and when the funds were recovered. Unfortunately it appears that my own ancestors fell prey to this ruse as well.

The hunt for the Van Horn millions is, at the same time, one of our most silly and fascinating family stories. The events and characters seem to be the stuff that Hollywood is made of. There were millions of dollars at stake. There were allegations of misconduct on the part of the City of New York and the Dutch government. There was the brave fight by descendants to recover what had been wrongfully taken from the family. There was the tragic fire that had destroyed the lease. There was money collected and spent in pursuit of the millions, and there was a parade of greedy and unscrupulous family members who took advantage of people (or is it that they simply took advantage of people's greedy nature?) No Hollywood script needed here!

Jeffrey L. Thomas
jltbalt1@verizon.net


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Text and photographs copyright by Jeffrey L. Thomas, with all rights reserved
e-mail: jltbalt1@verizon.net