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Here’s how a Riverside writer learned more about her Manhattan roots at the UCR library

There was a rumor in my family that we owned Manhattan Island. My grandmother, Florence Vermilyea, received (and lost) a letter claiming that in the eighteenth century the island was stolen from the 23 families that owned it. Huh? The search to solve that mystery would launch me on a writing project that has woven through five decades.
In the mid-1960’s I spent my lunch hours browsing the UC Riverside library (now the Rivera Library). I hung out in the Colonial History section, specifically seeking information on New Amsterdam and New York. Coming upon the encyclopedic Documentary History of the State of New York, I searched for the name Vermilyea, and hit pay dirt!
Riverside writer Laurel Cortes is a regular contributor to Inlandia Literary Journeys.
There I found 17th century wills and documents pertaining to Isaac Vermeille (father) and Johannes Vermilye (son). For weeks I combed each volume, followed the children’s paths, wondering which of them would lead to my father, Veblen Platte Vermilyea.
In 1908, my dad — a non-Native American — was born on a Sioux Indian reservation, in a town that no longer exists called White Rock, South Dakota. From age six, he worked with his father and brothers on a ranch in Wyoming, sunup to sundown. As homesteaders, all five of them shared a one-room shack with a dirt floor.
Perhaps as a shield, the Vermilyea kids each developed a fantastic sense of humor. They went to school in tandem, every two or three years, and my dad graduated from sixth grade at age 19. His life changed when he married my mother, whose aunt owned the ranch they worked for. She brought him to California, kicking and screaming. But he was always a Wyoming cowboy at heart.
Back at UCR, I noticed that the village of New Harlem was often mentioned in the Vermilyea wills. One day, weeks into my search, I looked up on the top shelf of the next bookcase and spotted a book sporting a faux alligator cover — “History of Harlem.” I called home that night — my mother answered.
“Guess what I found in the UCR library? A book called, ‘History of Harlem.’ I opened it up in the middle of the book, and guess what I found?”
“The entire genealogy of our family from 1662 to 1903! The Vermilyeas and 22 other families were the first patentees of New Harlem. The genealogies of all 23 families are in that book.”
“You’d better talk to your dad.”
Finding that book was the best thing I ever did for my father — except, possibly, buying him the Stetson hat he wore every chance he got. The book changed his life, and his perspective on himself and his family. He took immense pleasure in informing his siblings, one by one. Each of their families somehow found a copy of the precious volume.
The original book, “Harlem,” was written in 1881 by James Riker; in 1904 a lawyer named Henry Pennington Toler republished Riker’s book, adding the 23 genealogies. Toler paid for assistants who interviewed family members throughout the U.S. His purpose? To gather enough signed proxies to sue the City of New York, reclaiming the common lands and waterways of the independent Village of New Harlem, which were never sold to or incorporated by New York City.
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The court ruled in New York’s favor, blocking the lawsuit brought by descendants of the original Harlem patentees. The land in question was worth millions; now it is worth billions.
I now have an entire heritage library of my own. I’ve written about the Vermilyeas for fifty years, delivering talks at family reunions we hold every three years. My dad learned that he was related to the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and the gracious Queen still sitting on the British throne.
All because of the UCR Library. Can you imagine how excited I am that the new Riverside Public Library will be built within walking distance of my home?

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