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Phebe and the Commodore Change the World

18th to 19th

Centuries 1

Phebe Hand was born in Rahway, N.J., April 15, 1767, the daughter of sea captain, Samuel Hand.  She was moderately well educated for the time.  When she and Cornelius, Sr. first met she was living in Port Richmond as a mother's helper in the home of our Church's pastor, Rev. William Jackson.  They married February 5, 1787.

In 1791, Phebe cashed out a Continental bond to purchase a small farmhouse, at the end of present day Port Richmond Avenue overlooking the Kill Van Kull, where the Commodore, the fourth of her nine children, and the second of her two sons, was born. 

6th generation Cornelius, The Commodore, born May 27, 1794

   Phebe Hand Vanderbilt                                          Cornelius Vanderbilt

    New York Historical Society                                           Matthew Brady  1844-1860

                                                                                              Library of Congress

Cornelius, the Commodore, was baptized in 1794 at the house of John Garrison,

four years after the final entry into our Voorlezer's Book. 

As late as 1823, Cornelius was still regularly contributing to the support

of our Old Dutch Church and our Rev. Peter Van Pelt.

The World The Commodore Came From

Phebe and the young Commodore lived in Port Richmond, that most ancient kind of community—a farming village, its air pungent with the smell of animal manure and open fires, its unpaved paths thick with mud from the season’s rains. It sat on the northern edge of Richmond County better known as Staten Island, a sprawling, sparsely occupied landscape of not quite four thousand souls who still governed their affairs with town meetings.  The islanders tilled the steep green hillsides, let pigs wander and forage or themselves, and built their houses close to the soft, swampy shore that crumbled into the kills- the tidal creeks that wrapped around the island’s edges.  Her husband ran a small farm and a sailboat ferry to Manhattan. 


New York City the little seaport came to reflect the commercial orientation of the Netherlands, the most industrious nation of 17th century Europe.  As in the mother country, the primacy of trade, foreign trade in particular, had fostered a tolerance of strangers and disparate creeds and that tradition persisted.


Dutch women were very independent, which may have been why Phebe found herself attracted to Cornelius Sr. Dutch law extended substantial autonomy to women, compared to British.  Dutch women conducted business in their own names.  Phebe proved more Dutch than most. “She was not only the family oracle, she was the oracle of the neighborhood, whose advice was sought in all sorts of dilemmas, and whose judgement had weight." 


She was also as much a creature of the marketplace as her husband, as she sent her vegetables and sewing and whatever else she produced to town in her husband’s boat.  When cash came in, she would count the silver coins, march to her tall grandfather clock, and stow them within.  She lent money at commercial rates of interest, and once foreclosed on a widow’s mortgage - - the widow being her own daughter.   Daily life was filled with buying and selling, borrowing and lending, earnings and debt. 


The Commodore’s family lived within sight of the place of the most dense concentrated possibilities in North America, the city of New York.   

by T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

The World The Commodore Created

The future Commodore showed a skill for riding horses and sailing at an early age. When his brother Jacob died at age 18 years, the family took Cornelius, just 11, out of school so he could work, under the tutelage of Phebe, who now doted on her only remaining son.

Phebe has been given much credit for her husband's, as well as her son's success.  Strong of character and body she was energetic, reliant, efficient, pious and greatly loved by her family, especially her son, Cornelius.  His father gave him a blunt straightforward demeanor; his mom frugality and hard work.  

White clapboard farmhouse Bay Street.  House demolished in 1929 to make way for a theatre.  Staten Island Historical Society.

The story of Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794–January 4, 1877), commonly known as Commodore Vanderbilt, is one of great riches. 

He was the richest man in America during his life and generally ranks No. 2 or No. 3 on the list of all-time richest Americans of the pre-tech age, behind John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

The Commodore's residence

in Stapleton on Bay Street, a short distance from his childhood home.  Demolished.

Vanderbilt's transportation empire began with his Staten Island ferry service and expanded to giant shipping lines that fueled the California Gold Rush through their fast and inexpensive runs to the West Coast.  Later he acquired huge stretches of railroad and consolidated them into efficient, though monopolistic, railroad networks.  His N.Y. Central System connected New York, Boston, Chicago and St. Louis.

From 1863 onward, Vanderbilt transferred his interest to railroads and established a railroad empire in New York City and Staten Island. He had his son, William, take control of the operational management of the railroads including what is now the Staten Island Railway. Cornelius and William consolidated ferry and rail operations on Staten Island under the control of the Staten Island Rapid Transit until the end of the 19th century.

His life spanned a period of breathtaking changes  1794 to 1877

From the days of George Washington to those of John D. Rockefeller  


He began his career in a rural, agricultural, essentially colonial society in which the term “businessman” was unknown.  He ended it in a corporate industrial economy.” – for which he was largely responsible, and which he had personally molded. 

“Probably no other individual made an equal impact over such an extended period on America’s economy and society.”  In his 66 year career he created three pillars of the corporate economy: paper currency, corporations, and securities.  His transportation network altered our perception of geography.

Family Residences
Vanderbilt homstead.png

In 1841 The Commodore's son, Billy, quit Wall Street to run a farm near New Dorp.

His splendid work on the Staten Island Railway led his father to take him into full business partnership.

In 1883 the Commodore's grandson Cornelius Vanderbilt II built the largest private residence in NYC at 1 W 57th. 

It had 137 rooms and took up an entire city block, now the site of Bergdorf Goodman at 754 Fifth Avenue.

Phebe died June 22, 1854 on Staten Island.

She was moved to the family mausoleum in the Moravian

Cemetery ca. 1885.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and his son, William Henry Vanderbilt,

donated roughly 12 acres (which was subsequently greatly

expanded) for Staten Island's Moravian Cemetery.

Located within the Vanderbilt family’s private section of the cemetery (not open to the public) is a large mausoleum designed by noted American architect Richard Morris Hunt in the Romanesque style, reportedly a replica of a church in Arles, France. 


It was completed the year after William's death in 1885. (His father, the Commodore died in 1877.)  To be interred you must have the last name Vanderbilt.


The surrounding landscape was designed by the Vanderbilt family's landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who  formed his landscape principles while living on a farm on Staten Island.  Gloria Vanderbilt was buried in the Cooper family section in 2019.    


Photo 1892.  Unknown.

The carriage was the great recreational institution of the New York's rich.

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