Decoding the Dutch
Charles Gehring is clutching a magnifying glass and poring over a piece of yellow parchment. He stares at the angular letters packed onto the sheet so tightly that they look like a series of etchings. Beside him is a cart housing dozens of other such papers, all of them rendered brittle by age, fire and ice. For the last thirty-eight years, Gehring has struck a similar pose—delving into these crumbling documents, and coaxing them into giving up their secrets about a forgotten world.
Four decades ago, however, was a completely different story for Gehring and his endless stacks of old paper. In the summer of 1974, then thirty-four, Gehring found himself unemployed and saw no job prospects on the horizon. He had just been denied tenure at the University at Albany, where he had taught German and linguistics for the previous six years, keeping his wife and young son afloat on his meager earnings.
Thirteen years earlier, Gehring had quit his pursuit of a degree in civil engineering in order to follow his love of languages, and he had finally earned a PhD in German. His dissertation focused on the decline of the Dutch language in colonial New York—not exactly an area that made him readily employable outside the halls of academia. (And, in fact, it wasn’t exactly marketable inside its halls either.)
When Gehring’s application for a teaching position at West Virginia University was rejected, he found out that there had been more than four hundred applicants for the job. Dispirited, he started working at his in-laws’ farm in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, and putting his historical knowledge to use as a guide at Fort Klock, a restored Dutch homestead nearby.
One evening, while he was making hay on the farm, a family friend came to see him. Peter Christoph was in charge of the manuscripts department at the New York State Library in Albany, where Gehring had worked while researching for his PhD. The library was hiring a translator to transcribe and translate documents and records written in the seventeenth century Dutch language, and Christoph thought Gehring was the man for the job. Was Gehring interested?
“Why not?” Gehring said. After all, he wasn’t doing anything else. The rest was, quite literally, history.
* * *
Over the next few decades, Gehring became further immersed in Dutch New York than he ever would have imagined, and in the process his translations overturned many long-held assumptions about the city’s—and America’s—history.
Textbooks and popular belief have long held that America’s roots lie in the Pilgrims’ can-do spirit, and that this country inherited its spirit of enterprise from British colonists’ sense of adventure in the age of exploration. The Dutch had been in New York for only fifty-four years—most historians had written off this period as “a bunch of wild fur traders stabbing each other for their furs,” to use Gehring’s words. This, historians long agreed, had been the dark ages, enduring until the British captured New York and went on to civilize America.
When the Dutch aren’t spoken of as savages and pirates, they are often portrayed as caricatures: The clueless tyrant Peter Stuyvesant with his wooden leg and the fanciful buffoonery of Diedrich Knickerbocker, the protagonist of Washington Irving’s satirical “A History of New York.”
Gehring washed away centuries of historical understanding, as he established how present-day New York’s wild multiculturalism and mercantilism–often considered a microcosm of Americana–sprang from Amsterdam, not London.
For instance, the recorded minutes from New Amsterdam city council meetings that Gehring translated relayed how the Dutch allowed all citizens to file petitions, come into court, share and address their grievances. These documents show that the Dutch actually had a system of representative government that inspired our own—overturning the long-held view that Dutch New York was a motley collection of lawless barbarians.
These minutes, a tiny scrawl of fading grey packed into yellowing, disintegrating paper with blackened edges, were a diary of sorts of the fledgling colony. Housing deeds showed its planned, deliberate growth week by week, Personal correspondence illustrated that New Netherland was teeming with non-Dutch people and that they spoke in languages from all over Europe. Marriage records showed how common intermarriage was. It became increasingly evident that New Netherland was less a lawless new world and more a growing settlement following in the footsteps of Amsterdam, the leading trading city in the world at the time, and a global center of culture.
* * *
Gehring works out of a spacious corner office in the eleven-story marble building of the Cultural Education Center in Albany, which houses the New York State Library. He is 73, six feet tall and slightly stocky, and bespectacled with thinning grey hair. He speaks with a slow, unhurried tone that feels like he has all the time in the world.
“Today is the coldest day of this year—minus five degrees!” Gehring exclaims on a late morning in early January, his speech quickening only slightly.
Framed maps of Manhattan, New York State and the Netherlands cover the walls of his office. Two large sets of windows overlook Albany, draped in white after a recent storm. A black portable radio sits atop his table.
Gehring was born into an Italian-German family in 1939 in Fort Plain, a Mohawk Valley village full of German families and Dutch place-names—the Lackill river (from “laag kill,” meaning “low stream”), Fly Creek (from “Vly creek” or “marshy creek”), and of course Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Gehring didn’t think much of these names until his first vacation as a seven-year-old, when his parents took him to Massachusetts in their new car.
“You go over the Berkshires and suddenly you’re in a different country,” he says. “I remember sitting in the backseat with my sister and talking about how different everything was—people, the words they use, the accents, the houses, the place names and so on. It was like I’d gone to Turkey.”
That first vacation showed Gehring how unique the culture of his native upstate New York was. “It was simply because we were all non-English to begin with,” he says, a conclusion that is central to his work as a historian.
As he grew up, Gehring learned a lot of German and Italian in addition to English, because these were all spoken in his immediate vicinity, an area home to both nineteenth century European immigrants and more recent arrivals. But he stayed away from language classes because “only girls took language classes in school. In all my years, there wasn’t a single boy who took language classes,” he says with a slow laugh.
Gehring went to college at Virginia Military Institute. “In the ’50s, everybody was building bridges and highways. My advisor in school said civil engineering is where you’ll make all the money,” he remembers. As it happened, all students of civil engineering had to study German as a scientific language. “I eventually got to take a language course. After all those years, I fell in love with German,” he says with his leisurely laugh. “And in a military school there aren’t any girls, so I didn’t have to worry!”
German proved to be more than just a casual fling. Soon, Gehring quit his civil engineering course to study the language full-time. He got a bachelor’s degree in German in 1962, followed that up with a master’s in ’64, after which he won a Fulbright fellowship at Freiburg University in Germany.
“My interest was not in literature but in how languages are put together and how they relate to one another,” he said of his time at Freiburg. “I studied Indo-European languages from Sanskrit to Celtic, really concentrating on Germanic languages—Swedish, Norse, Dutch, Old Norse, Danish, Afrikaans, Gothic and East Germanic languages.” Next, he received a three-year fellowship to complete a PhD at Indiana University.
Along the way, Gehring met his wife, Jean, who was from the village of St. Johnsville, seven miles from where he’d grown up.
“She was with her girlfriends in a bar in the countryside called the Century Tavern,” Gehring remembers. “I was there with a couple of friends. We met in 1959, dated for a couple of years and got married in 1962.” Later that year, their son Dietrich was born.
Supporting his wife and son on meager academic stipends wasn’t easy. “We had to live in Germany on $400 a month. Rent was $200, almost half of what we were getting,” he says. “In Indiana, we had to live on $3,000 during my last year there. We were living in these trailers, these tin boxes that comprised university housing. We tried buying an air conditioner at Sears, but we didn’t have any credit and couldn’t afford it.”
So, the $18,000 a year salary that the New York State Library offered him, as a translator, wasn’t too difficult for him to stomach. “I didn’t have very high expectations of money. I really liked the work—this was what I’d grown up around,” he explains.
* * *
The Dutch ruled New York State (then New Netherland) for just over fifty years, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 to the surrender of Peter Stuyvesant to the British in 1664. The British had preserved sale deeds, letters, court records and other documents from this period, which ended up in the manuscripts section of the New York State Library in Albany, but only after a tumultuous multi-century journey.
Many documents, including the council minutes from 1648 to 1652, had disappeared. Gehring once humorously speculated that they had tumbled out of a bouncing wagon going to or from Boston. In March 1911, the west end of the State Capitol in Albany burned down, taking with it much of the contents of the New York State Library that were housed there, including documents and manuscripts from the Dutch period. Twelve thousand pages of Dutch manuscripts survived the fire, around ninety percent of the total.
Those that survived were in frightfully bad shape. Water, fire and ice had left scars atop those already there from age: Corners and margins of many pages were only smears of black; yellowing pages had crumbled. What little knowledge was available about the Dutch period had stood teetering on the precipice of oblivion.
Another of the Dutch champions was Ralph DeGroff Sr., a Baltimore-based executive who went on to become a managing director of the securities firm DLJ. DeGroff was also a trustee of the elite Holland Society, founded in 1885 “to collect information respecting the settlement and history of New Netherland.” Membership is not easy to come by: Inductees must be able to trace their paternal genealogy in New York back to at least 1675.
DeGroff, who was proud of his Dutch origins and eager to unearth more details about his ancestors, knew about the Dutch documents and manuscripts. In 1974, he spoke to fellow Holland Society member Cortlandt van Rensselaer Schuyler, who persuaded his friend and former New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller to pull strings to approve funds to hire a translator to examine these papers. Very quickly, Gehring realized that he was on to something significant. Since childhood, he had known that New York was culturally different from neighboring Massachusetts and Virginia, but as he started to grasp the significance of the Dutch rule through his documents, the jigsaw pieces started to fall in place.
“I could see this was what I wanted to do, because nobody knew about the material or the importance of the Dutch period. The story hadn’t been told yet,” he said.
Gehring matched letters between the Dutch West India Company and its officers in New York (then New Netherland) with their responses. He read through court records. He waded through personal letters. He pored over records of sale of houses, land, ships and traded goods.
Over the years, as his work progressed in his room in the New York State Library, the blank canvas of New Netherland was filled with brush strokes that, in due time, created a vivid, colorful picture of its past.
“Put seventeenth-century Beverwijk (present-day Albany) in any place in the Netherlands and people would recognize it as a Dutch village. Tradesmen, blacksmiths, coopers, hatmakers, shoemakers and others would operate just as in the Netherlands,” says Gehring. “You’d see the same types of buildings, with the same type of gables. The only differences would be mountains and snow in the background and hundreds of Indians moving around.”
The Dutch history of New York was forgotten because the Dutch had been defeated by the British. In any war, after all, the victors write history.
What is largely forgotten is that the Dutch were a leading trading power before the British, controlling key parts of Sri Lanka, India, Africa, Southeast Asia, Brazil and of course North America. “You could say the sun never set on the Dutch empire,” Gehring notes.
The Netherlands’ status as a trading superpower was evident both on the streets of its capital and in its outposts. Amsterdam was a melting pot of people from all over Europe. As a mercantile power, the Netherlands opened its doors to all who had the monetary wherewithal to trade with it. The babel of German, Danish, Polish and other languages was heard in Amsterdam. New York (then New Amsterdam) had followed Amsterdam’s footsteps; more than eighteen languages are said to have been spoken in New Amsterdam in 1640. The colony’s raison d’ etre was to make money for its overseers at the Dutch West India Company. To refuse to trade with someone on the basis of his or her ethnicity would be bad business.
This wasn’t the case in neighboring areas under British rule, where the only language you heard was English.
“In Boston you would never enter Brahmin or high society. In Philadelphia you’d never be accepted into an aristocratic upper class if you weren’t born in to it,” Gehring says.
Amsterdam’s liberalism stood on the bedrock of a free market—and inspired a similar economic system in New York. Amsterdam had thought up the novel idea of allowing citizens to support entrepreneurs by purchasing shares in companies—effectively establishing the world’s first stock market in 1602. New York was infected with this unfettered mercantilism.
Gehring’s work on the Dutch manuscripts over the course of the following decades slowly started to unveil what this world looked like. It wasn’t easy. The manuscripts and documents were stubborn; they did not give up their secrets easily. Handwriting was almost illegible, having weathered the successive waves of time. Papers were smudged or blackened. The language itself was alien—seventeenth-century Dutch is incomprehensible even to present day Dutch people. In one letter written by Peter Stuyvesant, characters are packed together for economy of space and paper; to an untrained eye it looks more like a scribble on peeling yellow than any recognizable alphabet.
“I’d spend hours deciphering the handwriting. I’d be writing it out, leaving things blank that I couldn’t understand, going back and filling it in. I had to keep at it until it all made sense. Gradually over time I understood the idiosyncratic nature of the handwriting, and of the language,” Gehring says.
The more he worked, the more assumptions the documents dispelled about the Dutch in New York. For instance, the town council minutes and documents revealed that Peter Stuyvesant was not as much of a tyrant as has been believed. In fact, he was often voted down in council meetings and had to argue his position.
“When the Dutch captured New Sweden(the Swedish colony along the Delaware river), the West India Company wanted to disperse the Swedes, but Stuyvesant allowed them to stay in peace, saying ‘we have to win their hearts and minds.’” says Gehring. “In such cases he shows his feelings.”
Gehring’s work also highlighted the role of another man about whom almost nothing was known—Adriaen Van der Donck. Gehring translated letters written by Van der Donck to Amsterdam, bringing to light how Van der Donck had lobbied for a city charter, how he had led peace negotiations with the Indians, about his conflicts with the colony’s directors, Willem Kieft and Stuyvesant.
Gehring’s work erased the image of New Netherland as a colony in the wilderness run by a roughshod tyrant. replacing it with a nuanced portrait of a growing colony in flux, portraying a more humane Stuyvesant alongside Van der Donck, whose presence in the colony as a counterweight was almost forgotten.
* * *
New York State had provided funds to hire Gehring as a translator for only one year. As that year drew to an end, he stared down the barrel of unemployment yet again. Gehring decided not to quit. If the government funding was running out, he would raise grants to support his work, which he decided to call the New Netherland Project. “When they set us free in the woods, we had to look for private sources of funds,” he said, noting that working the phone to woo potential donors, and writing grant proposals became a large part of his work.
Ultimately, in 1978 the New Netherland Project received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but this didn’t take the load off Gehring’s shoulders. Whatever amount the project received from the NEH, Gehring had to commit to raising the same amount from private donors—or lose the funding. His supporters were typically wealthy people of Dutch descent who were interested in knowing, and publicizing the story of their ancestors.
Then, in 1984 the NEH, expecting to come under pressure from the Reagan administration to reduce funding, told Gehring that the New Netherland Project had one week to raise matching grants—if not, its federal support would be cancelled.
“We were $25,000 short, and there was nobody I could call on,” Gehring remembers. “That was our lowest moment.” He had invested ten years into the project—after more than a decade in graduate school studying languages—and it looked like it would all suddenly fall apart.
“I was cleaning my desk out, and putting everything in a box. That was it. I was going to go home and work on my in-laws’ farm,” he said. “It was 4:30 in the evening. I was about to leave to catch my five p.m. bus, when a man came in with a telegram,” announcing that Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, through his philanthropic Bernhard Foundation, had pitched in with a grant of $30,000.
“It was like the cavalry coming over the hill to save the wagon train,” Gehring says.
* * *
Still, the prospect of the project shutting down hung over Gehring at all times. If he fell short of funds in any year, he would have to pack up.
But, he says, “I liked doing what I did so much that it didn’t bother me.”
From the very beginning, The New York State Library gave the project office space and use of electricity and utilities, thus saving valuable grant money for the research itself.
Yet, Gehring had difficulty finding someone to help with fundraising and translation since he had no job security to offer an employee.
But, serendipity came to his rescue again in the form of Jansje “Janny” Venema, a schoolteacher of seventh-grade Dutch history in the town of Haarlem in the Netherlands. In 1984, while visiting her boyfriend in Albany, she wandered by the New York State Library and asked if there was anything of interest about the Dutch rule. Of course, she was introduced to Gehring.
“All you had to do was say the word Dutch and you’d be sent up to the eleventh floor to see me,” Gehring says, chuckling.
Venema learned about the translation project and offered to help, transcribing and translating the manuscripts alongside Gehring. In 1986, she relocated to Albany to work on the project full-time, her position financed by grants. Also that year, the non-profit Friends of New Netherland (now called the New Netherland Institute and manned by four part-time staffers), was formed to help Gehring with the advocacy, outreach and administrative work of the project.
This relieved Gehring and Venema to do what was most important to them. “We do most of the translation and transcription work. They do all the things we don’t want to do,” Gehring says with a smile.
Eventually, both Gehring and Venema were put on the payroll of New York State’s education department, freeing them from the uncertainty of grants.
Yet, the New Netherland Project’s biggest challenge remains getting the word out and generating awareness outside of academic circles. Currently, Gehring is attempting to have his findings integrated into fourth- and seventh-grade history textbooks, to make sure that, he says, “the entire Dutch story is told, not just about Peter Stuyvesant and his wooden leg.
Over the last decade, Gehring’s outreach efforts received an unexpected boost, thanks to writer and historian Russell Shorto. Shorto had come across Peter Stuyvesant’s grave in the church of St. Mark’s In The Bowery. He wondered about Stuyvesant and Dutch New York, and, when he dug deeper, found out about Gehring and his tireless research.
Amazed that the body of work unearthed by Gehring was hardly known to the general public, Shorto started to write a book about the history of Dutch New York. He would travel once a week to the State Library, spending the day with Gehring in his office, which was then located on the eighth floor and accessible only by a “secret elevator” not open to the public. (Gehring has since moved to a different office on the tenth floor, which is publicly accessible.)
Shorto’s 2004 book, “Island at the Center of the World,” was a popular success, and, Gehring says, it “gave us tremendous visibility. The book was so readable, so accessible, especially to people who would complain that history books put them to sleep. It told a story of Dutch New York that the general public could relate to.”
He goes on: “Now, when most people call me for the first time, they say that they just got through reading ‘Island at the Center of the World.’ The first thing they ask when they visit me in my office is to see my erstwhile eighth-floor office and the secret elevator.”
The New Netherland Project, though, still has an uncertain future.
“I’m not going to last forever,” says Gehring. “Janny is about nine years younger than me, and will take over from me. But someone has to follow her. Our biggest challenge is, who is going to do what we do and where is the money going to come from for that?”
Stacks upon stacks of documents still remain to be translated—and, Gehring insists, the story is far too important to not be completely told. “You need to know your past so that you can prepare for the future. This story tells us why we are who we are,” he says.
* * *
Shamanth Rao is a writer and a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the travel editor for Mint Lounge, the partner newspaper of The Wall Street Journal in India. He curates the travel writing project Wndrlist.