May 2, 2007

Book Review: Fort Orange Records, 1656-1678

Left: 1704 portrait envisioning Fort Orange in 1634

Gehring, Charles T. (editor and translator)

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000, 293 pages

The records in this collection are the oldest surviving archival papers of the Dutch community of Fort Orange, which was the first permanent Dutch settlement in New Netherland. While the Dutch first visited the area in 1609, official records were not maintained until 1652 by clerks in the patroonship of Rensselaerswyck. These documents primarily cover the activities of the klein bancke van justitie (“inferior bench of justice”), recording such information as real estate transactions, acknowledgements of debt, warrants, and powers of attorney. Fort Orange Records is available in both book and searchable electronic formats, and provides researchers with primary source material on a period of colonial America that is among the least studied segments of American history.

Typical of the real estate transactions was the notation of the conditions of sale of the house of an Albert Gerritsen in 1658:
First the house shall be delivered to the buyer from the said Albert Gerritsen, bordering on the north side Gerrit Banck[ers] house, on the south side his own house where Jan van Eeckelen dwells, width behind and [in front] twenty board feet with a lot ninety-four feet long and twenty board feet wide, with a bakery, which house and lot shall be delivered with all permanent fixtures the 10th of May 1658.

Payment shall be made in good, whole, merchantable beavers in two installment, the first payment on the last of June 1658; the last or second payment the same year 1658 on the first of September.
Debts could be recorded in the klein bancke van justitie, assuring that there was legal recourse should the debtor not follow through with the remittance of agreed-upon payments. The following is typical of the types of debt acknowledgements contained in the Fort Orange Records:
On this 18th of December 1673, there appeared before me, Johannes Provoost, secretary of Willem Stadt, in the presence of the honorable Cornelis van Dijck, schepen of the same court, Henderick Lambertsen, who declares by these presents that he is honestly and clearly indebted to Sr. Gerrit Schilchtenhorst for the sum of thirty-two guilders in beavers, which he promises to pay within the space of two months from this date, specifically pledging for it his cow, at present standing in a stall at Schanhechtade at Adam Vroman’s, in order, if required, to recoup payment of the aforewritten sum without cost and loss.
An examination of the Records might lead one to surmise that currency shortages were common in New Netherlands. Documents often describe transactions that use exchange media other than state-issued currency. Beaver pelts were a common item used in the exchange of property and merchandise, and the following passage on the 1675 sale of a house notes some of the multifarious methods by which transactions could be completed:
Jan Coneel acknowledges that he has sold and James Penniman that he has bought from him, his, Jan Coneel’s, house and lot located here in Willem Stadt where he, the seller presently dwells, for which he, the buyer, promises to pay to the seller the sum of seventy-two pounds sterling in Boston money, and that in two installments, the first of which shall be in the month of July 1675 and a sum of thirty pounds sterling to be received by the seller in Boston, together with thirteen ells of serge for his, the seller’s, wife, for a dress, and the second installment, a year after, being 1676, also in the month of July, the sum of thirty pounds sterling, to be paid in New Orange, in rum at three shillings six stuivers per gallon, besides also ten pounds sterling which the buyer shall pay in hats at market price…
Native Americans occasionally appeared in the records of the klein bancke van justitie, both as independent agents and also as peripheral participants in transactions. In the following passage, the court noted the presence and testimony of a Native American representative in a business transaction with Dutch merchants:
Before me, Johannes Provoost…there appeared a certain Katskil Indian, commonly called by the Dutch Schermerhoorn, having established himself as surety and principal for various Indians, both Esopus and Katskil, and that for the benefit of Sr. Jan Clute, burger of this city, on account of certain goods and moneys disbursed, which sum with others amounts to eighty good, whole merchantable beaver pelts, and fifteen good otter pelts, which aforesaid sum he promises to [pay promptly to said Jan Clute… but if he, Schermerhoorn… has not paid… Clute or his order may take to himself in complete ownership his, Schermerhoorn’s, and his participant’s land, being half of the land belonging to the Indians at Katskil…
While there are certain conveniences in using the electronic version of this text, readers should be advised that the system allots 15-minute increments by which users might access the Fort Orange Records. For lengthier periods of research, the clothbound or paperback versions of the text eliminate the annoyance of timing out and getting booted from the server. In either version, however, readers can peruse snapshots of life in and around the Hudson River of the seventeenth century.


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microdot said...

Hah!NEeD fANcY FRenCH wINe ChEEEp? I'm squeezing a blog addiction fix this morning here in Neac. The owners of the chateau let me use the computer to check my email and I'm just cruising and checking my favorite blogs. I have another week of work here...we are doing 2 hectares of vines a day with a very small group.
I think the Fort Orange Records is a nother book for my collection on Early American History. I have been reading lot of Dutch History and a friend just gave me the massive Epic of New York City by Howard Ellis which begins with Verrezano, but really details the Dutch history of the city.
Great to read this stuff from both sides of the Atlantic.