In the Pasadena Public Library you will find a book entitled Van Alstine Family History.* It outlines the generations of this Dutch settler family from before 1655, the time when Jan Martense Van Alstine built a homestead at Fort Orange, in the Hudson River Valley near what is now Albany, NY. On page 439 of this book you will find my name. On page 317 you will find the name of my umteenth cousin thrice removed, John Van Alstine.
I became aware of John through a fascinating on-line discovery. Someone posted an historical record about him on the “Scoharie County NY GenWeb Site.” It’s entitled The Life and Dying Confession of John Van Alstine. It appears that John’s mother, Nancy Quackenbush Van Alstine, was seen as a Revolutionary War heroine through her action in saving seven families who were threatened by a British-supported Indian attack.** John shrank from her fame and became a quiet farmer supporting his wife and family. His only vice was betting on horse races, and his troubles started with an $8.40 betting loss in early 1819. The Deputy Sheriff was sent to collect the debt and, when John couldn’t come up with the cash, he threatened puting a lien on his property. This sent John over the edge; he picked up a stick and whacked hm on the back of the head. One swing, all over; charge of first degree murder.
If you have time, click on the website. It’s a good read. It includes a play-by-play of the jury selection, including John’s peremptory challenges, the prosecutor’s questioning and witnesses’ testimony, as well as the judge’s solemn pronouncement of guilt. The account of the court proceedings is followed by John’s Life and Dying Confession, apparently written in his cell shortly before his execution by hanging. Finally, there is a detailed account of the actual hanging from notes taken by a court reporter.
In the portion he wrote in his cell, John recounts his life in a humble, matter-of-fact way. Then he recounts the events of the encounter with the deputy sheriff in great detail. He has already been found guilty; his words are not intended to justify himself, but to clarify his thoughts and motives. Finally, he talks frankly about his spiritual journey since the trial, guilty verdict and sentencing. Here are his concluding paragraphs:
Not satisfied with the crime I had committed, the tempter of mankind beckoned me on to the last act which should complete my eternal misery. After I was taken up at Buffalo, I was repeatedly tempted to take my own life. Once I put my handkercief to my neck and pressed it against my throat, but as it produced no effect, I took it away again. On the road to Schoharie, some wikid spirit told me at one time to seek a stone or some place where I could cast myself from the carriage and end my troubles with my existence; at other times that I should dash my brains out against a post or break my neck by rushing headlong down stairs. But at every time, some invisible power seemed to check me and say there would be time enough when I should approach nearer home. When I reached home these temptations grew weaker and weaker, and had, when I arrived, entirely forsaken me. It appeared to me at different times on my journey, that I could not live without the Bible; and one night I actually called for it but was not heard. Feeling then relieved, I did not repeat the call.
The next morning after my arrival here, I asked for a Bible, which I have constantly perused, and found my desire to peruse it increased; it seemed to give me some relief, and inspire me with a love of Christ. Nights I tried to pray, but had no words to express my prayers, and knew not what to say; I pinched my hands and cried, still believing there was one who could relieve me from the insupportable burden that oppressed me. By degrees I appeared to gain strength and be able to pray more. There seemed to be a God I had read and heard of, who had given up his only Son to save me, who would pity my distress. In him I could hope. This hope has strengthened, and I feel that my heart is changed–that I have become a new man–and through the merits of redeeming grace, I may enjoy eternal happiness. I now resign myself to the will of that God, and trust myself and my immortal hopes in his hands. He is a just God, and will do with me as seemeth him good. Amen.
Good death, Cuz! I’m proud to be your kin.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*By Lester Van Alstine, Pub. By J. Grant Stevenson, Provo, Utah, 1978.
** Her interesting story can be read at http://montgomery.nygenweb.net/history/nvanalstine.html