A Famous Family in Chocolate


The 1767 Ratzer Map of New York (detail)

When I set out in search of chocolate in the oldest part of the city, I assumed it had already found its place in Dutch-era New Amsterdam. Though hard evidence of its appearance in those early years has yet to reveal itself, we know it was being traded and processed by the turn of the 18th century. One famous family of Dutch roots, however, was likely among the first in New York to grind cacao.


Johannes Roosevelt (1689-1750) operated a mill on the lower end of Maiden Lane near the neighborhood known as ‘Golden Hill’ and the busy ‘Fly Market’ – home to butchers, fishmongers, and various ‘hucksters’ crowding the street. Roosevelt and his partner Johannes van der Huel processed linseed oil and flour in addition to chocolate; multi-purpose milling was a common practice during the colonial period. We know the mill was active in the 1730s: the January 10, 1736 edition of the New York Weekly Journal  reports a fire affecting his “Oil-Mill, Chocolate-Mill and Bolting-Mill… ” Roosevelt also served as city alderman during this period.


After his death, Johannes’ sons Oliver and Cornelius also worked in chocolate, and nephew Isaac Roosevelt was one of the first large-scale sugar refiners in the city, at 159 Queen Street. And Johannes was an early ancestor of what is referred to as the ‘Oyster Bay’ branch of Roosevelt family, that of descendants Theodore and Eleanor. Chocolate would play a role in Teddy’s rise to political fame – sort of –  150 years after his third great-grandfather processed it in Manhattan’s early days.


Though historians argue whether the 1898 quote should be attributed to Roosevelt or a political ally, the notion that President William McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair” would remain associated with Teddy in popular culture for decades.

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