Found in translation: The Dutch embryo of some American ideals

We humans have an innate need to record what is important to us. On the walls of caves tens of thousands of years ago, prehistoric humans recorded, among other things, the animals they hunted. Modern people are left to puzzle over the meaning of their paintings.

Written words made what people recorded more precise. But those words from long ago need to be translated for their meaning to be unlocked. 

Even words from four centuries ago can be lost to us. We spoke with a remarkable man for this week’s Enterprise podcast: Charles Gehring.

His life’s work has been devoted to translating the more than 12,000 pages of records that the English found in the fort at New Amsterdam when they took over from the Dutch.

Russell Shorto spent two years poring over Gehring’s work to write his book “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan & the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America.”

Shorto posits simply enough that history is written by the winners and writes, “We are used to thinking of American beginnings as involving thirteen English colonies — to thinking of American history as an English root onto which, over time, the cultures of many other nations were grafted to create a new species of society that has become a multiethnic model for progressive societies around the world. But that isn’t true.”

Shorto goes on to write of New Netherland, “It was founded by the Dutch … but half of its residents were from elsewhere … its muddy lanes and waterfront were prowled by a Babel of peoples — Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Jews, Africans (slaves and free), Walloons, Bohemians, Munsees, Montauks, Mohawks, and many others — all living on the rim of empire, struggling to find a way of being together, searching for a balance between chaos and order, liberty and oppression … This island city would become the first multiethnic, upwardly mobile society on America’s shores, a prototype of the kind of society that would be duplicated throughout the country and around the world.”

The written records, translated by Gehring, which allowed Shorto to write the narrative he did, correcting our view not just of New York but of American history, took a perilous journey to their current resting place at the New York State Library in Albany.

In 1664, when Peter Stuyvesant surrendered the Dutch colony, the volumes were important to the English because of the land records, Gehring said. In 1685, under King James, the records traveled to Boston by stage coach or, Gehring opined, wagon. Then, three years later, under William and Mary, they traveled back again.

When Fort George was torched in 1741, during a slave revolt, the records were tossed out a window. Some of them scattered in the wind, Gehring said. During the Revolutionary War, they molded in a ship, ending up in the Tower of London.

After the war, the victorious colonists wanted them back. In 1801, the New York State Assembly wanted them translated, the directive written by Aaron Burr. A translation was underway by 1818 but the handwritten document, which was not accurate, burned in a fire.

By the early 1900s, an accurate translation was finally undertaken but it was derailed by the 1911 fire in the state’s capitol. Gehring said that scholars in the Netherlands enjoyed hearing his story — “I got applause,” he said — about how the Dutch records, considered less important, were protected in the fire by the English records stored on the shelves above.

Gehring works now with pages that are singed on the edges and where the script is difficult to read because of the damage caused by the fire, dimming the contrast between the paper and the ink.

He can read the unusual script — as regular as a typewriter — the Dutch developed for secretarial use. And Peter Stuyvesant’s nearly illegible handwriting is instantly discernable to his eye. “Stuyvesant’s handwriting is the worst,” he said. The documents are indecipherable to modern Dutch speakers since language changes over time.

Gehring has been working on the project since 1974. For the first 30 years, he was constantly scrambling for funding. He had a wife and child, he notes, but no health insurance or pension. “It was very tough going,” he said.

Gehring is 80 now and estimates he has translated about three-quarters of the pages. He is still at it. His work has spurred scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1999, the pages he is translating were declared a national treasure by the United States Department of the Interior.

Not only did the 12,000 pages take a circuitous route to get to the state library in Albany, so did Gehring. He was studying in Germany, for a dissertation on Germanic mystics in the Middle Ages, when he found on the shelves in a study room there a 1938 book called “Crumbs From an Old Dutch Closet,” on the Dutch dialect of old New York. 

“Lights went off in my head,” said Gehring.

The words written by L. G. Van Loon, M.D. not only changed Gehring’s thesis topic, but also changed the course of his life. He set about discovering the way a majority language has an impact on a minority language. 

“Old nouns taken into our speech from another tongue represent in a manner of speaking, a paradox, inasmuch as they are scarce and yet worth nothing (that is, as a commodity), and further, they belong to whosoever chooses to use them,” wrote Van Loon of the remnants of the Dutch language that survived from the 17th Century in what was once New Netherland.

The language, we can see, is similar to the history. We speak the victor’s language just as we learn the victor’s history, but the remnants remain for those who search for them.

The parts of the 12,000 pages that had been translated previously over the centuries, Gehring said, were what was of interest to the “great white fathers,” documents that have to do with land ownership and who was holding power.

But Gehring has translated, too, pages that describe more about the “social nature” of the Dutch colony, he said. Others had considered that secondary and not to be bothered with, he said. “I was amazed by the detail and amount of information in these records.”

Gehring realized “this would be an eye-opener” for people who thought of the Pilgrims as setting the course of American history. The picture of the society that emerges from the records Gehring has translated reflects the “Dutch freedom of conscience,” he said, as opposed to the narrow or intolerant views held by the Puritans and Pilgrims who had fled England.

Gehring notes that, after fleeing England, the Pilgrims lived in the Netherlands for 13 years where they were accepted but they left for the New World because they didn’t want to be assimilated into the Dutch society; their children were learning not just the Dutch language but Dutch ways.

The Netherlands was multiethnic, he noted, as people came there from all over Europe. “The reason they left,” he said of the Pilgrims who journeyed to the New World, “was because they were basically intolerant and they didn’t want anybody to be sort of contaminated with other religious ideas.” The Puritans would severely punish or even hang those who differed from them on religion.

“The Dutch never hanged anybody,” said Gehring, noting that seven of the provinces in the Netherlands had broken with Spain as it forced Catholicism; their pact stated “no one will be persecuted or prosecuted for their beliefs,” said Gehring.

Gehring said you can see in the early records “the embryo of certain ideals we have as Americans,” including not only tolerance but the idea of social mobility.

In England, he said, a person’s class is immediately recognizable by his or her language. In the Dutch colony, he said, there was a blending of different cultures. He contrasted that with the English colonies in Massachusetts. In the Dutch colony, people who started with little could become powerful and important.

Gehring cited a butcher from Lithuania who became one of the Dutch colony’s biggest landholders. “Social mobility is a major feature in America; if you’re smart, if you have ambition, you can rise to the top,” he said. 

When we asked Gehring what advice he might have for those of us interested in history, he said, “Look in your attic.”

He meant this literally. He is currently on a search for old Dutch Bibles, not for the text of the scriptures, which were translated into Dutch in 1628 but, rather, for what might have been written by those who owned the Bibles.

He explained that a Bible was often the only book a household in New Netherland would have — weighing 18 pounds with metal clasps — and that paper was scarce.

So the blank pages were used to record family histories — births, marriages, deaths — and more. For example, a three-mile flood in Albany in the 1720s that nobody else apparently recorded was noted in a Bible. So was a description of snow up to the eves of houses, and an earthquake in the 1750s was recorded, too.

Photographs are being taken of these records found in old Bibles that will eventually be put online, Gehring said.

Such is the work of a man we see as an explorer. The new world Gehring is discovering and charting for us to follow isn’t like the continent unknown to Europeans that explorers like Henry Hudson claimed for the Dutch. Rather, Gehring’s work is giving us the tools to better understand our history.

Long-ago residents, just like the prehistoric cave painters, felt the need to leave a record of what was important to them. Gehring has spent a lifetime unlocking 400-year-old government records but is also interested in what you have in your attic, what events were remarkable enough to record in the only paper at hand — the family Bible.

We are grateful for his labors and hope his work continues to enlighten. The more we understand of our past, the richer our future will be.​

More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.