Some people travel with a particular objective in mind: to find the past in the present. It’s an impossibility, of course — you never truly succeed, because the present is so very present. But in a wayward, fast-moving world, a focus on history can root you, and offer perspective. This was my idea on a recent trip when I set out to find New York’s origins.
In the early 1600s, the Dutch founded a colony called New Netherland, with its capital of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. It was the base from which they laid a claim to the New World, and from which they tussled with their archenemy, England, and her colonies in New England and Virginia. The English won the power struggle when they took over in 1664, rechristening New Amsterdam as New York City.
New Netherland may be history, but its legacy is hiding in plain sight. It can be found in old houses and barns, in street patterns and in New York place names, from Harlem to Rotterdam, from “Breuckelen” (now Brooklyn) to Rensselaer. It’s in American culture broadly: “cookies” are Dutch; so is coleslaw. These small-scale legacies mask larger inheritances. The Dutch of the 17th century pioneered the concepts of free trade and religious tolerance, key ingredients in the development of what was to come: New York itself.
Fifteen years ago I wrote “The Island at the Center of the World,” about the Dutch founding of New Amsterdam. Lately I’ve been toying with revisiting that era in another book. To get back into the period, I spent a weekend driving through the former Dutch landscape, which also happens to be one of the prettiest parts of New York State. It wouldn’t be an exhaustive hunt for every remnant — more of a lightly orchestrated drive, stitching together locales, and meeting with historians and others who could give me perspective. It would be a reimmersion in the past, a visit to New York before it was New York.
There are plenty of sites in Brooklyn, elsewhere on Long Island, and in Manhattan that reflect the Dutch era. But I chose to focus on the Hudson Valley, the spine of the Dutch colony. So after a quick walking tour of what had been New Amsterdam, from Battery Park to Wall Street, I got in my car and headed north.
Driving out of Manhattan always presents challenges, but even these had a Dutch flavor. In Chinatown I maneuvered through heavy traffic onto the Bowery, which was once the boerderij, or farm road. Farther north, I skirted Nieuw Haarlem — the village founded in 1658 that would become Upper Manhattan’s Harlem — and made my way onto the parkway named for Henry Hudson, the English mariner who, sailing for the Dutch, first charted the area.
My first stop was at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Much of the year its greensward is taken up with cricketers and soccer players; on this chilly day there was only a skittish flock of gulls. At the far end stands the Van Cortlandt House, dating from 1748, the oldest building in the Bronx. But a century before that, when the East Coast was the Wild West, this land was the estate of the jurist Adriaen van der Donck, who locked horns with Peter Stuyvesant, the last director of New Netherland, over the colony’s fate. Van der Donck was known as the Yonkheer, more or less the equivalent of “Young Sir,” a title that in time morphed into the name of the city of Yonkers. The Saw Mill Parkway that runs past it also echoes this Dutch settler: He was the one who established the mill.
As I crossed the Hudson on the new Mario Cuomo Bridge I felt a twinge of sadness for the passing of its predecessor, whose name, Tappan Zee Bridge, was a lovely amalgam of languages. The Tappan were the native tribe who lived in this region, and zee, Dutch for sea, reflected the settlers’ naming of this widening in the river after their neighbors.
Heading up the west side of the Hudson on a moody spring afternoon, skirting Hook Mountain, which rises from the river with a primordial majesty, got me thinking about the Low Country settlers of the 1600s, who must have been stunned by such peaks. The Hudson Valley was — is — such a big, brooding, hunkering, muscular landscape. The wilderness was so very wild, and, whether from animals or natives who felt threatened by the Europeans, or the profound cold of the Little Ice Age, it was deeply dangerous. Those newcomers were all but powerless.
Today that wilderness is sprinkled with communities, many of whose settlers are escapees from New York City. A drive through the Hudson Valley is one of the most beautiful in the United States, with the river and the blue-black Catskills in the distance evoking the landscapes of 19th-century Hudson River School painters.
There was still a glow in the sky as I drove into New Paltz, dominated by the 6,500 students at the State University of New York campus and the former students who settled there. The result is a mellow, hippyish vibe. You’d have difficulty walking down Main Street without running into a candle shop, pottery studio or tearoom.
Tucked behind the modern city is Historic Huguenot Street, a 10-acre landmarked zone with seven houses from the early 1700s, built by the offspring of the French-speaking Huguenots who settled in the Dutch colony. I had been here many times, but always in summertime, when the place was crawling with tourists. This time I was lucky: the site was closed, and the chilly weather ensured that I would be alone. I paced the meadow, stood in front of the steep-roofed brooding stone edifice of the Jean Hasbrouck House, and listened to rainfall through the branches. I was searching for a sense of the towering serenity, the forbidding isolation that must have enveloped the colonial inhabitants. Eventually I headed back to the town center and shook off the gloom at a cheery little place called Scarborough Fare, which has dozens of varieties of olive oil on tap.
It was dark when I pulled into the Stone House Bed & Breakfast in Hurley, 15 miles north. I had found the place on Booking.com and selected it because it seemed to suit the trip. I could not have chosen better. The owner, Sam Scoggins, looked like an older version of the actor who played another Sam in “The Lord of the Rings,” and remarkably enough had a similar accent. He told me that he and his wife had met on a Buddhist dating website, bought this house 10 years ago and turned it into a bed-and-breakfast.
The house was built in 1705 by Cornelis Cool, a Dutchman, in the Dutch style, with Dutch doors and saw-toothed shapes in the gables called vlechtingen. Mr. Scoggins showed me records indicating that Cool had been the largest taxpayer in the county. He certainly built a rich man’s home: a wandering warren of wide-plank floors leading to snug rooms. The house sits midway between Hurley, which in the early 1700s was predominantly Dutch, and the largely English town of Stone Ridge. Later in the century, Mr. Scoggins said, the owner of the house hosted dances, where Dutch girls from one town met British boys from the other.
For dinner, I settled on a local hangout: Hurley Mountain Inn, a big barnlike bar-and-grill with a pool table in back. In the morning I looked out my window onto an unspoiled New Netherland landscape: the Esopus Creek below, the Catskill Mountains beyond.
With the undulating forested ridges of the Catskills on my left, I headed up the New York State Thruway, crossed the Hudson River at the village of Catskill and made my way east to Kinderhook where I met up with two experts on the area’s early history: the historian Ruth Piwonka, a longtime resident of the village, and Charles Gehring, translator of the Dutch archives of New Netherland. Kinderhook is Hudson Valley quaint, with Federal and Greek Revival houses separated by mountain vistas. It feels top-heavy: a tiny community of oversize houses, many of them weighty with history, including the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, the Benedict Arnold House and the General John Burgoyne House.
But before that history, there was New Netherland. In fact, the name Kinderhook, or “children’s corner,” predates even the Dutch colony, which was founded circa 1625. “The name appears around 1614,” Ms. Piwonka told me. “You see it on explorers’ maps.” The popular story behind the name is that Henry Hudson was met here, on the Kinderhook Creek, by Indian families. “Nonsense,” said Mr. Gehring. “You have to understand that the Dutch named all such places as navigational markers.” He thinks it most likely that the name derives from rocks on the shore, which, from a ship, looked like children.
Next to Kinderhook is the even tinier village of Valatie, whose name presents another puzzle. It was officially named in the 1830s, but Ms. Piwonka said it was actually settled in 1661, when Peter Stuyvesant ordered families to farm the fertile flats along the creek. The name — pronounced va-LAY-shuh — signifies nothing in English. But the original Dutch — valletje — means “little falls,” and there are indeed falls here.
But why call them “little” falls? Ms. Piwonka led me six miles south, where, at the town of Stuyvesant Falls, I discovered two majestic drops in the water. The man for whom these falls were named also sent settlers here in 1661. By plopping settlers down in the area, Stuyvesant hoped to prevent the takeover of the encroaching English; despite his efforts, that takeover would come three years later. In one go, Ms. Piwonka had given me a lesson in geography, power and nomenclature.
After lunch at Magdalena’s, an excellent Mexican restaurant in Valatie, we met Lori Yarotsky, executive director of the Columbia County Historical Society, at a gabled brick house standing alone in a broad field. The Luykas Van Alen House was built by a son of a New Netherlander and was occupied by the same family from 1737 until 1935. Moving through the three meticulously restored main rooms gave me the visceral sense of the past I was looking for: a striking kas, or Dutch cupboard; wide hearths; broad beams overhead; enclosed four-poster beds; a fireplace toaster with its long handle.
I headed north on Route 9, past farmland, meadows and small towns, to the second city of New Netherland, Beverwijck, which became Albany. People like to make fun of Albany — pokey, drab, dull — but I appreciate its charms. There are extensive Victorian neighborhoods, and the old downtown is redolent of the era depicted in William Kennedy’s novel “Ironweed,” a time of speakeasies and flophouses. Albany was my base for visiting the Mabee Farm Historic Site, 20 miles away. Ian Stewart — burly and bearded, the very model of a preservationist/woodworker — was waiting for me. The fact that Mr. Stewart’s company, New Netherland Timber Framing and Preservation, is devoted to saving Dutch-era barns and farmhouses says something about the lasting physical impact of the Dutch.
I had asked Mr. Stewart if he would give me a primer in colonial Dutch architecture, so here we were, on a windswept, sun-washed flatland overlooking the meandering Mohawk River. The Mabee farm dates from 1670; the house itself, from 1702, is what you would charitably call cozy: Its closet-like rooms give you the feeling of the past as another place entirely.
But the star of the property is the barn. Dutch barns, it turns out, are a thing. “There were about 10,000 in America at one time,” Mr. Stewart said as he marched around the vaulted space, gesticulating at the wooden skeleton of the thing. “There are still 600 or 800 of them around.”
The barns are popular — many are repurposed as houses — because of their construction method, which involves an anchor beam with a protruding through-tenon. “It’s a really good way to tighten a joint because you’ve got it both wedged and pinned,” Mr. Stewart said. Doubly securing the central connectors allowed a Dutch barn to be built much larger and higher than an English barn. The result is a truly vast interior space.
Mr. Stewart led me back to downtown Albany to show me something exceedingly rare: a New World example of traditional Dutch urban architecture. Walking around Manhattan’s financial district you see no dwellings from the period — they’ve been swallowed up by development. The same is true for Albany, with one exception: 48 Hudson Avenue, the so-called Van Ostrande-Radliff House. “This is the last timber-framed Dutch house in Albany,” Mr. Stewart pronounced from the empty lot next to the building. “This is a gem.”
It didn’t look like a gem, at least not from the side. But from the front you get the idea, thanks to funds from the Dutch Consulate in conjunction with the New York State Museum, and the dogged work of the Historic Albany Foundation, which has created a scrim that hangs over the facade depicting its original timber-framed, gabled look. Now you get it. You might as well be in old Amsterdam, with swaggering burghers with swords and lace collars and long clay pipes strutting by.
While I was in Albany I walked through an exhibition in the New York State Museum devoted to Fort Orange, the original Dutch structure on the site. It’s a stand-in for a grand permanent exhibition on the history of New York that Mark Schaming, the director, told me should be ready by 2021. The fort exhibition was surprisingly intimate. The archaeologist Paul Huey and his team excavated the site in 1970, uncovering a massive array of artifacts. Here, in pipestems, beads and pottery, the lives not only of the Dutch settlers, but of the natives with whom they traded, and on whom they relied, are laid bare.
To me the most moving item was the cast of a skull of an unknown Dutch woman in her early 40s. Physical anthropologists determined that, besides missing many teeth, she had, in an age without painkillers, suffered from “acute infections, rickets, sinusitis, an upper respiratory infection, arthritis, and possibly gout.” Her bones indicated that this woman of perpetual pain had engaged in a lifetime of hard labor.
My weekend had been an act of recreation: trying to bring places in the past back to life. To help me, I had on my phone images by the historical artist Len Tantillo, who is as meticulous in his reconstructions of New Netherland as any academic historian I know.
As my last stop, I visited him at his studio, in Rensselaer County, where we looked at his painting of the Mabee farmhouse. “A work like that is relatively easy to do because the farm still exists,” he said. “You can go there and look at the buildings.”
But details change over time — a window is added, a door frame disappears — so to recreate it at a particular time, in this case, circa 1800, requires archival work. The Mabee family had slaves, and I noted that Mr. Tantillo had depicted a black man working a plow. “He was a man named Cato,” he said. “He was a slave who was owned by Jacob Mabee’s brother. He escaped, and there was an ad in an Albany newspaper for his return, giving his name and a physical description. He was captured and lived the rest of his life on this farm.”
Mr. Tantillo’s paintings achieve what I try to do in my historical writing, and what travelers of a certain mind-set are looking for. They bring us back. They awaken what, in a magical phrase, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga once pointed to as the basis of all historical work: “our perpetual astonishment that the past was once a living reality.”
Russell Shorto is the author of “The Island at the Center of the World” and “Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom,” among other books. He tweets at @RussellShorto.
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