Joseph Smailes (1847-1934) and the Vernooy family

Joseph Smailes (1847-1934)

  • Born Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, England
  • Died Ellenville, Ulster County, New York, United States
  • Married 1870 in Ellenville to:

Mary Magdalene Vernooy (1848-1935)

  • Born Wawarsing, Ulster County, New York, United States 
  • Died 1935
  • Eight children

Joseph Smailes emigrated from County Durham to the United States in his early twenties, the only member of his family to leave English shores. After being processed at the immigration center on Ellis Island, he made his way 100 miles north from New York City to the forests and farms of Ulster County where several new and booming businesses were opening up small townships. Within a few months, this young Englishman with no particular profession or noteworthy background, married into  one of the most recognized pioneering family names in that part of the state of New York.  His bride's name was Mary Magdalene Vernooy.

Old Wawarsing cemetery, just off Highway 209, Ulster County, New York.
Dutch family burial plot, Wawarsing, New York. Photo: Michael Otterson.

ABOUT 200 yards off historic Highway 209 on the edge of the township of Wawarsing in upstate New York is an old, now largely disused cemetery, completely hidden from the road. Except for some of the long-time residents of this beautiful part of the Hudson River Valley, most of the locals seem to be unaware that it even exists.

The cemetery (shown above) was once the private burial plot of the Vernooys (pronounced Vern-oy), one of the Dutch pioneering families of upstate New York, and was donated to the public many years later. Now replaced by several much larger cemeteries in Wawarsing and the village of Ellenville, it can be accessed only by a public right of way through a small private farm and along a dirt track.

The Vernooy name is still much in evidence in the area. A huge tract of heavily wooded land - three and a half thousand acres on the north side of Route 209, part of which is pictured below - is named the Vernooy Kill State Forest, "kill" being the old Dutch word for a small river or stream.  The Vernooy Kill itself crosses Route 209 as it flows down from the state forest in a cascade of waterfalls, some with significant force. Taking the narrow road into the forest from 209, a Vernoy Drive appears on the right hand side, and a smattering of Vernooy gravestones can be found in other cemeteries in the area.

Street sign for Route 209, Hudson Valley, New York.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Vernooy Kill sign at the point where the stream crosses Route 209, Wawarsing, New York..
Photo: Michael Otterson
Vernooy Kill as it runs through Vernooy State Forest.
Photo: Michael Otterson

The Vernooy family name in this part of New York State originated with its first pioneering immigrant, Cornelis Cornelissen Vernoij, born in 1643 in the Netherlands.  With his wife Annatje Cornelisse Van der Cuyl and a nursing daughter, Cornelis boarded the ship Faith in 1664 and headed for what had been, to the global-trading Dutch, the lucrative settlement of New Netherland, with its colony of New Amsterdam on the southern end of what is now Manhattan Island. In that very year, however, four British frigates carrying 150 sailors and 300 redcoat soldiers easily forced the surrender of the decades-old Dutch colony, which gave up without a fight after the citizenry prevailed on the governor to avoid bloodshed and economic ruin. New Amsterdam was promptly renamed New York, and New Netherland, which roughly stretched from Cape Cod to the Delaware River, was soon to become part of British Colonial America.

That didn't deter Dutch immigration. European settlers had long been trading for furs and buying land from the Indians up and down the Hudson River as far north as modern-day Albany, and immigration would be unabated well into the 20th century. 

Cornelis decided on Wiltwyck (later renamed Kingston by the British) as the place for his family to live. It was one of three large settlements along the Hudson River. New Amsterdam (later New York City) lay to the south, and Beverwyck (Albany) up river to the north. Wiltwyck became the primary residence for the first Vernooy family, with all of Cornelis and Annatje's 12 children being born there. 

Cornelis acquired substantial amounts of land in the valley, including in the town of Rochester, which lay not far to the southwest (not to be confused with the large city of the same name which today sits on the banks of Lake Ontario). Part of Cornelis's land acquisitions included 400 acres in Rochester which would later become part of the town of Wawarsing and the site of a crucial and successful Vernooy business venture.

By the early 1700s, the number of farms in the fertile, well-watered and wooded hills around Wawarsing was increasing with the arrival of more Europeans. The Indian name itself means "the place where the stream twists and turns" - an apt description. Despite the growing population, there were few grist mills in the region, and none anywhere near Wawarsing. Cornelis Vernooy took the initiative soon after buying land in Wawarsing of building the first grist mill in the area, a prudent act that endeared him to the scattered farming community.  Grist is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding, and without a grist mill, farmers and settlers were forced to grind coarse meal laboriously with a hand pestle. As a result, people came to the Vernooy mill from miles around despite limitations of transport.

Hunter Vaklkley with three Dutch settklements.
Courtesy Google Maps, with overlays by Michael Otterson.

Above: Map of the Hudson Valley, New York, courtesy of Google Maps. The overlaid names show the original three largest Dutch settlements in the 1700s and 1800s, at Albany, Kingston and New York.

Old grist mill, Ulster County, NY.
Photo: Michael Otterson

A Dutch Reformed church was built in Wawarsing from logs in the 1730s to meet the increasing number of Dutch immigrants, and a decade later it was replaced by a more durable stone church. From the farms across the area, the Dutch parishioners would travel for miles each Sunday for worship at the church, by foot, horseback or, more commonly, by wagon.

These early Dutch settlers tended to have huge families. Cornelis and Annatje had 12 children, the first seven being daughters. Over the next 25 years these children gave their parents no fewer than 70 grandchildren. Many of those grandchildren also had large families, frequently marrying into other Dutch pioneer families whose names are still found in streets, buildings and landmarks throughout the region. Not all the families were Dutch, of course. Other Europeans, especially English, Irish, German and Scandinavian settlers, were discovering the promises of a new land rich in natural resources.

Fast-forward some 130 years to 3 October 1870*, and the arrival at the Ellis Island immigration center in New York of the SS Colorado, crammed full of European immigrants. On board was a 22-year-old Englishman whose name appeared - incorrectly on the ship manifest - as Joseph Small. He was one of hundreds of immigrants squeezed into steerage for the unpleasant voyage from Liverpool, England, and Queenstown, on the south coast of Ireland, to New York.

Commemorative plaque at old Grist mill, Gardiner, NY, a historic site.
Photo: Michael Otterson

Left:  The grist mill that Cornelis Vernooy built in Wawarsing was sold in the mid-1800s and burned down in 1895. But the mill at what was once Tuthilltown, now Gardiner, was built in 1788 and conveys how these vital additions to the Hudson Valley community exploited the streams and topography of the region.

Below: The Dutch Reformed Church as it is today in the village of Ellenville. The congregation's first service was in 1841.

Dutch Reformed Church in Ellenville, NY
Photo: Michael Otterson

His correct name was Joseph Smailes, youngest son of John Smailes, a carpenter who worked for himself in County Durham, and his wife, the former Jane Pearson. The family had lived in the small town of Houghton-le-Spring for about a decade before Joseph was born. As a boy, Joseph worked as a grocer's apprentice in his home town, but in later life he would turn his hand to a variety of jobs as they became available.

Sadly, Joseph's widowed mother died in the same month that he arrived in New York. And eight months later he would lose his elder brother, John, an engine wright at a coal mine in their home town, when John was crushed between the heavy tubs on rails that were used to move coal from the pit. He was 38 and left a wife and six children.

Exactly why Joseph went north along the Hudson after his arrival in America isn't known. Like so many others, he may have sensed opportunities for a carpenter where forests were being cleared for farms, where townships were emerging and where industry was attracting all kinds of immigrants. Certainly, a life outside of bustling New York City with all of the big-city squalor and challenges of the 19th century must have appealed to this young man who had lived his whole life in a small English town.

In any event, Joseph settled quickly in the township of Wawarsing, which encompassed about 130 square miles of hamlets and farms, of which Ellenville Village was one of the more significant. Most surprising is the fact that Joseph was married less than two months after his arrival from England, in what must have been a whirlwind romance. His bride was Mary Magdalene Vernooy - "Maggie" as she was often known - five generations removed from Cornelis Vernooy, the pioneering immigrant who was her third great grandfather.  She may have been working at an Ellenville hotel when Joseph arrived in the area, and that may possibly have been how he met her.

Welcome sign at entrance to Wawarsing township, New York.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Welcome sign at entrance to Ellenville, New York.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Smailes, Joseph, and Vernooy, Mary Magdalene, cropped

Above: Joseph Smailes and Mary Magdalene Vernooy, from a daguerreotype, the earliest form of commercial photography, probably made in the late 1800s.  From a public member tree on

View of Hudson Valley frtom Sam's Peak, near Ellenville.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Knife Museum at Wawarsing, New York
Photo: Michael Otterson
Display case in Wawarsing knife museum, New York.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Methodist church at Ellenville, New York.
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above:  View of the area of the Hudson Valley seen from Sam's Peak, near Ellenville.  Left:  Wawarsing Historical Society's Knife Museum acknowledges the huge role that knife-making played in New England employment for 150 years. Joseph Smailes' son, John, was in the knife trade. Today the industry has no active presence in the area.

Joseph and Maggie were married on 1 December 1870 at the home of the Rev. McElhone on the McElhone Estate in Ellenville Village, but their first home was in Wawarsing where Joseph worked as a tanner in one of the  industries that had recently come to the area.

By 1880, the year of the first US census in which Joseph appeared, the couple were living just two doors away from Maggie's parents and had four children - Benjamin, John, Lydia and Grace. John, named after his father and possibly his deceased brother, was given a middle name of Houghton - an obvious nostalgic reference to Joseph's home town of Houghton-le-Spring in England.

On the same census form, Joseph described himself as an engineer, but later census documents showed that he eventually hired himself out as a day laborer. There were plenty of opportunities for work as more and more businesses came to Wawarsing, and to the village of Ellenville, where the family moved in 1885.  Knife-making became a major industry for the next century, brought by expert knife makers from Sheffield in England, and well suited to an area where there was plenty of hardwood for knife handles, water for power and steel imported from Pennsylvania.

Notwithstanding his wife's Dutch ancestry, Joseph's family became active in the Methodist Episcopal church (above), in an area which showed significant religious diversity in churches of various denominations. 

Joseph and Maggie would go on to have eight children, though they lost two as infants. Daughter Mary died after only a few weeks of life in 1888. Son Albert lived for less than 18 months and died in 1894.

Both Joseph and Maggie lived to a good age. Joseph died in the summer of 1934 at his home in Eaton Court, in the village of Ellenville, after an illness of about four years. He was 87. Maggie followed him a year later at the same age.  Their graves are in the large, well maintained Fantinekill Cemetery in Ellenville, marked by an obelisk with the name "Smailes" at its foot. A marker with the name of Joseph Smailes was retrieved under several inches of soil, cleaned and replaced by Mike and Cathy Otterson at its foot in 2021, with the help of Todd Wilhelm, a member of the cemetery board. The corresponding marker for Maggie has been lost, however.

Eaton Court, Ellenville, Joseph Smailes last home.
Photo: Michael Otterson

As for the Smailes children, their own families spread out from Wawarsing to other villages in the Hudson Valley. His son, John, stayed in Ellenville and remained single all his life. All of the others married and relocated with their own families. Benjamin stayed in Wawarsing, Grace moved to South Fallsburg, 20 miles to the west.  Emma lived in Rhinebeck and Lydia in Poughkeepsie, both small towns on the east side of the Hudson River. Nell moved the furthest - to Newark, New Jersey, close to the metropolis of New York City.  As far as is known, no families with the name of Vernoy or Smailes still live in Ellenville.

It isn't known if Joseph ever returned to England, or how much contact he had with the brothers and sisters he left behind.  According to brief references in Kingston newspapers, he and Maggie were socially active in their community, especially at church. At his funeral at the Fantinekill Cemetery, members of the Methodist church's officiating board served as pallbearers for their longtime parishioner.


* The 1900 and 1910 US federal censuses give the immigration year for Joseph as 1868, but this is a mistake. There is no shipping or immigration record that suggests this date, but there is significant documentary support for immigration at the end of 1870, including the 1930 census. Well before 1900, however, Joseph had become a naturalized American citizen.

Joseph Smailes grave marker at Fantinekill Cemetery, Ellenville, Ulster County, New York.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Joseph Smailes nameplate at foot of Smailes Obelisk, Fantinekill Cemeterty, Ellenville, NY.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Grave marker for Joseph Smailes, cleaned up after being buried by dirt for years.
Photo: Michael Ottersion
Grave of Magdelene Vernooy, Joseph Smailes' mother in law.
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above left: Eaton Court, Joseph and Maggie Smailes' last home in the village of Ellenville.

Top: Smailes memorial markers in Fantinekill Cemetery, Ellenville. 

Above:  The grave of Maggie's mother, Magdelene Vernooy, born 1822. This grave is in the former family burial plot, now Wawarsing Cemetery. Unlike this one, most of the grave inscriptions there are now unreadable.

                                                                       OTTERSON ROOTS 
                                                Relationship of Joseph Smailes to Webmaster 

                                                 Thomas Smailes (b.1770) md. Isabel Stevenson    
                                                   John Smailes (b.1799)    md.     Jane Pearson
                                                             |                                                |
John George Smailes (b.1833) md. Sarah Jane Shaw / Joseph Smailes (b. 1847) md. Mary Magdalene Vernooy
        Mary Jane Smiles (b.1857) md. Lewis Dix         
John James Dix (b.1874) md. Elizabeth Lawson Garwood 
          Doris Dix (b. 1912) md. Robert Otterson
            Michael Otterson (living) - Webmaster