Historical Context in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in his 1819 story collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. At the time, in the decades following the Revolutionary War, the United States was in the process of constructing a national identity. Many Americans felt that the young nation lacked a cultural identity, as well as a national mythology and folklore. When Irving’s Sketch Book came out, many Americans heralded the stories as the birth of American fiction. The folk tales of the New York Dutch settlers were uniquely American in origin, providing Americans with a folklore to call their own. Another important aspect of the story’s historical background is the tension between the different ethnic groups in early America. The eastern seaboard of the United States was first settled by settlers from two European nations: England and the Netherlands. In particular the state of New York, where “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” takes place, was a mix of English and Dutch settlers. Ichabod Crane represents an American of English stock entering into the world of Dutch-stock settlers.

Setting: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” takes place in the Hudson River Valley of New York, specifically in the vicinity of Tarrytown, at the turn of the 19th century. The village of Sleepy Hollow itself is described as lying north of Tarrytown. In reality, the exact nature and location of Sleepy Hollow is disputed. The town of North Tarrytown decided to go by the name of Sleepy Hollow in 1996, but many have claimed that other locations, such as Kinderhook, New York, represent the true Sleepy Hollow. It may be the case that Washington Irving invented Sleepy Hollow, despite his claims to have visited the village as a teenager, soaking in its local ghost stories. In any event, the rural setting offers one of the crucial themes of the story, that of country versus city. The local Dutch farmers find Ichabod Crane’s urbanity and erudition suspect.

Historical Context Examples in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:

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"the powers of the air..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Before we learned how diseases spread, popular belief held that there could be areas of bad air that caused disease and pestilence. Since bad air could cause disease and death, many attributed “the powers of air” to the work of the devil and evil spirits.

"being as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Historically, the term “Tartar” referred to any of the nomadic peoples from the land of Tartary, which included present-day Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria, among other areas. They allied with the Mongol Empire, greatly expanding their territory in Asia. Because of the Tartars’ nomadic lifestyle, they were known to be excellent horseback riders.

"the neighboring village of Sing Sing,..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

The village of Sing Sing has since become the town of Ossining, which lies along the Hudson River north of Tarrytown. “Sing Sing” is the Algonquin name for a nearby creek, “sing” meaning “stone” in the Algonquin tongue.

"Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Raven Rock is a real location in the Pocantino Hills near Tarrytown, NY. The story told by Irving’s Dutch farmers also comes directly out of local lore. According to History of the Tarrytowns by Jeff Canning and Wally Buxton:

The lady in white was a girl who got lost in a snowstorm and sought shelter from the fierce wind in a ravine by the rock... A more ancient legend tells of an Indian maiden who was driven to her death at Raven Rock by a jealous lover. Her spirit is believed to roam the area, lamenting her fate.

"There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed forth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Irving’s metaphor of ghostly presences and forces as “a contagion in the very air” draws on the historical context of his writing. When Washington Irving was a teenager, there were occasional outbreaks of yellow fever in his hometown of Manhattan. As a result, his parents sent him up to spend the summers in Tarrytown, where he discovered Sleepy Hollow, its ghost stories and Dutch settlements. Contagion and witchly hauntings were intertwined in Irving’s mind.

"Cotton Mather..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Cotton Mather was a real historical figure who is most associated with the Salem Witch Trials in the 1600s. Though not present for the majority of trials, his writings on witchcraft and the occult are believed to have laid the groundwork for gathering evidence against those accused of witchcraft. By the 1800s, when Irving composed “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” belief in witches had mostly died out; by saying that Crane fervently believes in witches, Irving paints him as a superstitious, irrational fool despite his education.

"Saardam..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Saardam is an antiquated name for the city of Zaandam, in the northern reaches of the Netherlands. Considering that the Van Tassel family—along with many of the families of the Hudson River valley—is of Dutch lineage, it makes sense that Katrina’s great-great-grandmother would have come from the old country.

"How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him!..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

The central folktale presented in Irving’s story is that of the “Galloping Hessian,” or the “Headless Horseman.” While Irving presents a fresh, uniquely American take on the folk legend, the figure of the Headless Horseman has appeared in various forms in European folklore since the Middle Ages.

"They are like those little nooks of still water, which border a rapid stream, where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor, or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current...."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is set some number of years following the American Revolutionary War. Immigrants from Europe continued to settle across the US, though the New York area was primarily dominated by the Dutch. Some “Yankee” settlers—those from areas south of New York—began to venture toward Dutch territory at this time, leading to tension between the rustic farmers and the change represented by Yankee immigrants. Like a calm eddy along the bank of a rapid stream, Sleepy Hollow is fairly undisturbed by these developments.

"Hessian..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

The adjective “Hessian,” originally meaning a German inhabitant of the region of Hesse, came to refer also to any German mercenary soldier involved in the American Revolutionary War, typically employed by the British.

"Master Hendrick Hudson..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Since Irving’s fictional narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, is relating the events of another fictional narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who is Dutch, it is fitting that he refers to 17th-century English explorer Henry Hudson as Hendrick Hudson, the name by which the Dutch knew him. At the behest of the Dutch East India Company, he explored large swaths of the northeastern United States and parts of present-day Canada in search of a passage to Asia. The Hudson River was named after him, and his explorations furthered the claim of Dutch settlers who arrived to the area.

"the Sabbath..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Many Dutch immigrants were Christian, usually of the Protestant denomination. The Sabbath—a holy day of the week dedicated to religious worship and rest—falls on Sundays.

"Tarry Town..."   (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Situated along the Hudson River, “Tarry Town” (now known as Tarrytown) was first established by Dutch immigrants and traders in 1645. Originally, the Dutch called it Terwe Town (“Wheat Town”) but corrupted pronunciation led to its current name. Now, its current population is about 11,000.