header
Credit:

Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture

Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture , edited by Roger Panetta, is an accessible and informative collection of diverse essays tracing the Dutch influence on the culture of the Hudson Valley. With an introduction by Russell Shorto, this attractive volume is—not surprisingly—organized around the thesis that Dutch influence was not only important in Hudson Valley history, but lasted far beyond 1664, when the British captured New Netherland and began a long process of Anglicization. The book is divided into four sections: “The Planting” (describing the seventeenth century); “The Persistence of Dutch

Influence,” (eighteenth century); “Romanticizing the Dutch,” (nineteenth century); and “searching for Dutch heritage” (the early twentieth century). Each section includes three nicely chosen and richly illustrated articles (though most of the illustrations are in black and white, the book also includes two glossy color inserts of large, well-reproduced images). overall, editor Roger Panetta has produced a somewhat eclectic—but perhaps for that very reason rather fascinating—assortment of articles covering such varied fields as slavery, material culture, art, architecture, literature, and celebrations. Unlike Russell Shorto’s popular Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan & the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (2004), Panetta’s collection makes no extravagant claims. Each essay stands on its own, contributing evidence of ongoing Dutch influence in a wide range of areas.  

Also contrasting with Island at the Center of the World is Jaap Jacobs’ The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America.where Shorto’s popular history of New Netherland was dramatic and novelistic, Jacobs’ study is a research tome. Anything a reader wants to know about New Netherland—its governmental and religious structure, its population, its economic base, its relationship with the mother country—is here, though you may have to search for it. Where Shorto based his work on the scholarship of Charles Gehring, Jacobs read all of the original documents and translated all of the quotations in the book himself. Shorto, a journalist, tells a story; Jacobs, a scholar specializing in New Netherland, write something very like a textbook. Interestingly Shorto himself praises Jacobs’s book as “essential.”

Both Dutch New York and The Colony of New Netherland reflect a renewed interest in the topics popularized by Shorto, but from very different angles. Dutch New York, though written by scholars, feels almost like a coffee-table book, with its large format and typeface. It is possible to dip into this book, exploring different topics according to one’s interests.

The Colony of New Netherland is far denser and more exhaustive within its narrow focus. Each has significant strengths for different audiences. Jacobs’s monograph answers any question you ever had about New Netherland; Panetta’s collection asks and answers questions you’ve probably never thought of.  

A single comparison: from just the introduction of The Colony of New Netherland (titled “ A Blessed Country, where Milk and honey Flow”) one can learn about how the Dutch viewed the colony’s geography, soil, climate, flora, and fauna, and such aspects of its native Peoples as their tribal organization, body and clothing, eating and housing, government and language, religion and character. We learn that the Mohawks were only the most important of several tribes trading furs to the Dutch; that Indian men considered facial hair so ugly that they pulled it out by the roots; that their main food was a corn mush called sappaen; that the Dutch had so much trouble understanding native languages that one believed “that the Indians changed their language every two or three years” (17); and that Dutch men admired the ability of native American women “to get back to work immediately after having given birth” (17), though they also shared with other Europeans the indignation that “The women are obliged to prepare the land, to mow, to plant, and do everything: the men do nothing but hunt, fish, and make war upon their enemies” (15). Interestingly, Jacobs concludes that the Dutch called indigenous Americans “wilden” primarily because they were thought to have no true religion—“religion, rather than race, was the defining factor” (13). In contrast, William A. Starna’s essay, “American Indian Villages to Dutch Farms,” in Dutch New York focuses on one aspect of Dutch-native interaction, the transfer of land. Here, Starna argues that, unlike other European powers, the Dutch believed “That native peoples were the true owners of the land and that possession could only be obtained through regulated purchase” (78). he finds that as furs were less available for trade, Indians began to exchange land for trade goods (cloth, axes, knives, kettles and hatchets, as well as guns, ammunition, and alcohol), goods which they had come to see as necessary to their life-style. Starna insists that native Americans were not simply victims of European trickery, but that they adapted and adjusted “to the maelstrom of change around them” (85)—at least until increasing European population created tensions over boundaries, as when European animals trampled unfenced Indian fields, or when Indian dogs attacked Dutch poultry. however, though Starna may be correct that “For a short period, there could not have been a more mutually advantageous relationship” (87), in the region of new Amsterdam this period was strikingly short, ending with William Kieft’s war of 1640to 45, only 15years after the peaceful “purchase” of Manhattan. Is this really so different from English relations with Native Americans in Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay? Jacobs’ view of Dutch/native relationships is less interpretive and more factual. However, interestingly, his index has no listings for any of the Indian wars (Kieft’s, the Peach War, the Esopus Wars).  

As a distinguished scholar of New Netherland, and particularly one capable of translating early modern Dutch documents, Jacobs provides some interesting new insights into key moments in the history of New Amsterdam, such as those highlighted in Ken Burns’s New York documentary film. In that production, the narrator tells the story of how in 1654 the Dutch West India Company directed Peter Stuyvesant to accept Jewish refugees from the Dutch colony in Brazil recently captured by the Portuguese. The story highlights Dutch toleration and welcoming of anyone coming to New Netherland to “make a buck.” Jacobs’ careful unraveling of this episode results in a slightly different interpretation. First, he had already carefully explained that religious freedom in New Amsterdam did not include the freedom to practice any religion other than that of the Dutch Reformed Church in public—it only meant freedom of conscience. Second, he re-translates a line previously thought to mean that the Jews should be accepted into the colony not only on account of “reason and fairness,” but also because of “the large amount of capital, which they have invested in shares of this Company [that is, the Dutch West India Company]” (199). According to Jacobs, this line actually means “the large sums of money for which they are still indebted to the company” (200). In fact, the company had used Jews in their Brazilian sugar colony to collect taxes, which had not been collected because of the Portuguese revolt. Therefore, the company hoped these merchants might establish them-selves in New Netherland in order to trade, generate profits, and pay the company the lump sum they had previously promised as tax farmers. As for the vaunted toleration of either New Amsterdam or its namesake in the n

Netherlands, Jacobs points out that Jews were not allowed to practice crafts or keep shops, and one Jacob Cohen was refused the right to open a bakery (202). In fact, he argues that “colonists, city government, the ministers, and director and council were united in their anti-Semitism” (202).  

However, the organization and flow of Jacobs’ text fails to call attention to such insights. This particular revelation appears in a chapter on “Burghers and status,” under the subheading “Jews.” The arrangement of the book is more encyclopedic than narrative and the reader has no sense of following a story line. Some digging is required to uncover the many gems within the covers of this book. Yet, because Jacobs has such expertise in his subject, all sections of his study provide valuable information for those looking for any aspect of the history of New Netherland.  

Within Panetta’s collection, some essays deserve special mention. (In particular, I am highlighting those that inspired most student interest in my Empire State course in New York state history.) Dennis Maika’s “Encounters: Slavery and the Philipse Family: 1680-1751” tells a complex story of the “intertwined” relationships between two generations of the powerful Philipse family and their slaves (35). According to Maika, patriarch Frederick Philipse “knew his slaves personally and chose their tasks deliberately to suit his advantage” (51). In contrast, based on their reactions to the New York “Slave Conspiracy” of 1741, Maika argues that Philipse’s descendants were either ignorant of or indifferent toward their own accused slaves, one of whom was burned at the stake (57). In the following section, “The Persistence of Dutch Influence,” Ruth Piwonka’s “‘I could not guess what she intended to do with it’: Colonial-American-Dutch Material Culture,” introduces the reader to the everyday objects found in Dutch homes between the 1640s and the mid-eighteenth century. Based on both inventories and objects in local museums, this article helps students envision how the Dutch and their descendants lived in the Hudson Valley. The next section, “Romanticizing the Dutch,” includes a fascinating essay on “Imaging Dutch New York: John Quidor and the Romantic Tradition” by Bartholomew F. Bland. Never having heard of Quidor, most readers will enjoy learning about this imaginative painter of Washington Irving’s characters. Finally, the last section of the book includes a fine description of “The Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909” by Roger Panetta himself, as well as Cynthia Koch’s discussion of “Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Dutchness’: at home in the Hudson Valley,” where we learn that FDR was the official historian of the Town of Hyde Park from 1926 to 1931.  

For readers whose taste for the history of Dutch New York was whetted several years ago by Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World, I would recommend either of these books. Jaap Jacobs’ The Colony of New Netherland is perfect for those interested in depth and a focus on the early years of the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, while Roger Panetta’s Dutch New York will be a better choice for those who prefer breadth and are more interested in the Dutch cultural influence over time.

 

Susan Lewis, State University of New York at New P

 

edit