Thursday, February 3, 2011

(my) Writing Wednesdays #4: In their own words...

I am wallowing a bit in my writing... the downed power lines in the recent storm have not helped my productivity one bit, thank you very much! And it is COLD!

However, continuing in the context vein from last week, one thing that I have begun to do as I finalize a given chapter of the family history is to include contemporary quotes either to begin the chapter or in a side bar strategically placed within the chapter. These quotes – by contemporaries of the family members – reflect day to day issues as well as the grander issues associated with the wars and hostilities of life on the frontier. Of course, what I like about the accounts of the contemporaries of the settlers is that these accounts are written the the voices of the people who observed these events as they unfolded. As a result, they provide a perspective that we might otherwise ignore or misunderstand. Sometimes, our “modern” eyes views things quite differently – for example, in last Wednesday's post, I used the example of attitudes towards divorce – then – and now. These accounts help put a family member in their own time period. Knowing how they may have experienced something “then” is, in my mind, an important part of coming to know “who” they are and in identifying with them, enriching the family history.

Today I am briefly sketching out a few of my my favorite context providers on life in colonial New Netherland. So I have selected some contemporary quote sources (with exemplar quotations) – that might provide some of that very personal view by hearing about the area, the community, the historic events – in the “voice” of someone contemporary to my family member. Of course, better yet is to hear something in their own words, but we do not always have that luxury (unless, of course, our family lines included not only pack rat genes, but also the knowledge for preserving those 300+ year old documents!)

Some of the sources I am using include these contemporary voices:
  • In 1665, Adriaen van der Donck wrote his Description of New Netherland (which has since been translated into English) – it is a wonderful account of New Netherland and surrounds by one of the very earliest settlers, and includes rich descriptions of flora and fauna as well as his indigenous new neighbors, the Native Americans. In one passage he describes the birds, including, “...The woodpeckers fine multicolored plumage and a big crest. People call them boompikkers, because that is what they do, and with such force that from afar in the woods it seems as though someone were knocking on the trees with a wooden mallet...”
  • Maria (Cortlandt) van Rensselaer was, perhaps, one of the “she-merchants.” Upon the death of her husband, she became the defacto patroon of Rensslaerswyck – a patroonship which was still rendering rents into the early 20th century, in part because of her creative approach to the rents owed the patroon. Maria overcame many obstacles and defied the odds, succeeding where many of her brethren failed. The Correspondence of Maria van Rensslaer 1669 – 1689 details the letters written to and from this remarkable woman as she managed the vast holdings of the patroonship. The translated collection includes her mundane as well as the not-so-mundane experiences and observations. In November of 1679, Maria wrote to her brother, Stephen, “...Friday, toward noon, cries were heard that the farm of the Hooge Berg was on fire, so that many people at once rand toward it and found it to be true. Before any one could get there, everything was burned, the house, bart, two barracks full of grain, yes, even the pig sty...”
  • If the observations of the voyage of Henry Hudson tickle your fancy, then the journal of his first mate, Robert Juet, just might fill the bill. It provides not only the mundane details of the trip up the Hudson (weather, speed) but also impressions of the land and the Native Americans they met along the way: “ the morning, was faire weather, and our master sent John Colman, with foure other men in our boate...The lands, they told us, were as pleasant with grasse and flowers and goodly trees as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them...”
  • The Van Rensselaer Bowier manuscripts, being the letters of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, 1630-1643 (online in Google Books) include the letters written to and by the original patroon himself. These manuscripts are a wealth of information, with leases, lists of livestock, ships manifests and passenger lists, as well as letters back and forth between the colony and the Netherlands. In one latter, Wm Kieft complained about the difficulty in getting the livestock sent for the colony by van Rensselaer “up river” to the Patroon's lands: “...I have had a shallop loaded and it has gone up the river with the people; the horses are still here in the charge of a man and a boy; all the bricks, coal and iron are also here yet but will be sent by the next shallop. I am troubled about how to get the horses up the iver, as we have no vessel in which they can be sent... it is not possible to transport them in the scow, so that I shall send them up in an open lighter, which however will hardly hold two and oblige us to make many trips...”
  • If you want to understand the workings of the colony of New Netherland from the horses mouth, then the two volumes (one covers 1647 – 1653 and the other 1654 to 1658) of Petrus Stuyvesant's surviving correspondence (including both what he wrote and received). His correspondence provides many of the details of the operation of the colony, with inventories, quarrels with neighboring settlements, and day to day concerns about the colony by the company in Amsterdam and Petrus in New Netherland. Always concerned both with the profitability of the colony to the West India Company as well as the safety of the colonists (physical & spiritual), in one letter Stuyvesant stated that, “...Certaine reportes comeing to my eares that, some of my countriemen and otheres using to trade with the natives of your partes, doe indirectlie sell unto the said natives powder, gunnes and lead, and that in aprticular one Govert Lockoman had done it, and withall had indeavoured to instigate the Indians there agains the English, I could doe noe lesse then in discharge of my duty to God and my neighbour, but seriouslie to enquire into it...” [Correspondence 1647 – 1653]
Enjoy – more progress next week (I hope) after my fingers have unfrozen a bit... we are expecting below zero temperatures tomorrow morning... something not seen in these parts since the 1990s (OK, I know you Minnesotans thing “big whoop” but I am used to thinking the powers that be have shat upon me when it falls below 30 degrees!)

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