The first Roosevelt, Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, arrived from Holland in the I640s when New Amsterdam was a tiny settlement of 800 huddled in some eighty houses at the foot of Manhattan. Who Claes Martenszen was, whether solid Dutch burgher in search of larger opportunities or solemn rogue "two leaps ahead of the bailiff," as his witty descendant Alice Roosevelt Longworth has suggested, is not known. In either case, by the eve of the American Revolution when New York had become a bustling port of 25,000, there were fifty Roosevelt families, and Claes's descendants were already showing an "uncanny knack" of associating themselves with the forces of boom and expansion in American economic life.
In the Roosevelt third generation two of the brothers, Johannes and Jacobus, took the family into real estate with the purchase of the Beekman Swamp, a venture that was to have "a lasting effect on the city and their own family fortunes." It was these two brothers, also, who started the branches that led ultimately to Oyster Bay (Johannes) and to Hyde Park (Jacobus). The pre-Revolutionary Roosevelts were prosperous burghers but not of the highest gentry, and in civic affairs they were aligned with the popular faction against the aristocrats.
The first Roosevelt to achieve gentility and distinction was Isaac, the great-great-great-grandfather of Franklin, who for his services to the American cause was called "Isaac the Patriot." Isaac was a trader in sugar and rum but ended his business career as president of New York's first bank. At his death Philip Hone, the diarist, spoke of him as "proud and aristocratical," part of the "only nobility" the country had ever had.
It took the Johannes-Oyster Bay branch of the Roosevelts a little longer to advance from trader to merchant prince. Isaac's cousin James, after service with the Revolutionary army, founded Roosevelt & Son, a hardware business on Maiden Lane that swiftly expanded into building supplies. When James's grandson, Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt, was head of the firm, it imported most of the plate glass that was used in the new homes being built in the prospering nation. Cornelius' chief distinction was his wealth; he was listed among the five richest men in New York. His son, on the other hand, the first Theodore, retired from business early in order to devote himself to civic activity and was one of the most esteemed men in the city.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the Roosevelt family was one of the oldest and most distinguished in the United States. Its men had married . . .