Spuyten Duyvil Meaning – On this day in Kingsbridge: July 16th, 1781

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      One thing I like about history is an unsolvable mystery.

      The origin of the name Spuyten Duyvil has been one of those mysteries.  Sure, you could Google it but you will only get a secondary source.  “Devil’s Spout,” “Devil’s whirlpool,” “In Spite of the Devil,” “To Spite the Devil,” were all offered as translations–and there are several explanations for the name as well.  The most popular origin story was popularized by Washington Irving and is that of Anthony Van Corlear, the New Amsterdam trumpeter.  In 1642, Corlear vowed to cross the creek “In Spite of the Devil” to warn of an English attack on New Netherland.  According to the legend, he drowned in the creek.

      Historians scoff at Washington Irving as his stories mostly served to confuse local people about the true history of their city.  He used historical figures and wrote mythologies around them that were taken as fact.  With that in mind, I never gave the Van Corlear story much credence.

      However, after finding a reference to “Speyt den Duyvel” from 1653, I thought to ask an expert translator about it.  I sent an email to Charles Gehring of the New Netherland Institute and asked “what ‘Speyt den duyvel’ would have meant to a 17th Century speaker of Dutch?”  Dr. Gehring has spent decades translating colonial Dutch documents and is THE authority on the topic.  His reply:

      To spite the devil would have indicated that this was a very dangerous place to cross the waterway. According to Bernoulli’s principle, this narrow mouth to the Hudson would cause a strong undercurrent. The expression probably arose after several failed attempts to cross at this point.

      In other words, Washington Irving was not far off!

      Today I was surprised to learn another interpretation.  This one comes from Heinrich Carl Philip von Feilitzsch, who was a Hessian soldier fighting for the British during the Revolution.  On July 16, 1781 he wrote in his diary:

      We marched at seven o’clock, about six miles to the redoubt on Spitting Devil (in German, because the hill is so high that one can speak to the devil.) This is the point where York province begins. All the heights have redoubts, forts, or blockhouses. We are very secure. The enemy can not attack us without suffering heavy losses. However, we are not here as defenders, but rather to attack, but the French fleet still lies near Sandy Hook. God grant that they will be defeated, otherwise we are lost.

      Funny that he figured Spuyten Duyvil was German as opposed to Dutch.  Spoiler Alert: the French fleet off Sandy Hook did not end up laying seige to New York City in 1778 as the channel into New York harbor was not deep enough to accommodate their ships.  Here is a good explanation of that event.


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