Find the true thread of your past

Schoolchildren this time of year often fashion Pilgrim hats and collars of stiff white paper or make Indian headdresses, the feathers cut from many colors of construction paper.

We’ve printed their pictures on the pages of our paper many times. The children’s faces are different but the story is always the same. They are taught about the Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, setting sail from England on the Mayflower and landing in Massachusetts in 1620. The brutal first winter in Plymouth killed many; half of those in the colony died of starvation or disease.

The children learn about how the Pilgrims survived in part because the American Indians taught them to plant native crops — corn and beans and squash. We’ve taken pictures, too, of the “Three Sisters” gardens at local schools.

The Pilgrims celebrated their survival with the Indians who helped them at a harvest festival in 1621, the children learn.

“History is written by the victors,” as Winston Churchill succinctly put it.

We thought about this as we interviewed Harold Miller, a man with deep Hilltown roots who has devoted his life in recent years to researching those roots. He has published a book this week on the original Helderberg settlers — all of them were German-speaking.

His book starts with the early Dutch settlement of the Hudson Valley and gives a detailed history of the Palatines’ convoluted journey to Schoharie. Much of the Hudson Valley had been settled by the Dutch in the 1600s.

In 1621, the same year the Pilgrims were celebrating their first Thanksgiving, the West India Company was chartered and given a monopoly of the fur trade in New Netherland; patroonships were set up from the Connecticut River to Delaware Bay. The Dutch supported and traded with the Mohawks.

After England took over New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it New York, Englishmen, mortal enemies of the Dutch, wrote early American history.

The land above the Helderberg escarpment, however, remained wilderness because of its poor soil and inaccessibility. The first Hilltown settlers were German speakers from the rich river-bottom land along the Rhine, forced out after the Protestant Reformation by high taxes and devastation — burned barns and ruined vineyards — from religious wars.

Both Catholics and Protestants made a mass exodus in the winter of 1709, first to Holland then England. A plan was hatched to ship the Palatines to New York where they would make tar from pine resin to waterproof British ships. Toward the end of December 1709, about 3,300 Palatines were packed into the holds of nine ships; they stayed in the crowded and unsanitary confines until setting sail in April 1710; hundreds died of typhus.

After arriving in New York harbor, they continued to suffer and die, placed in camps near the Hudson. After working, as agreed, on the pitch-pine project, the refugees were close to rebellion, living in tents on meager rations, when 150 families left without permission from the English governor, Robert Hunter, to travel to land the Indians had sold Queen Anne, now Schoharie.

“They called it the Promised Land,” said Miller. The meaning was literal. “They weren’t allowed to take farm implements, cattle, even their guns,” said Miller. They pulled their few possessions, by hand, on sledges with iron runners. When winter came, to make homes, they dug into the ground a couple of feet and then built, with logs, shelters that stood two or three feet above the ground.

They had nothing to eat but what they could kill or gather from the wilderness, or were given by the Indians. “Governor Hunter was very angry they had left without permission,” said Miller. “Germans are very stubborn people, and they refused to leave the lands they had settled.”

Many of the descendents of those Palatines who settled in Berne and Knox are still living there today. Through his careful research, Miller discovered he was related to half of his classmates at Berne-Knox.

As we listened to his wonderful story unfold, we realized it was just as rich as the story that has become like myth — of the Pilgrims’ difficult journey and later celebration in the New World.

As we gather together with those we love this Thanksgiving, we urge celebrants to tell stories of their own heritage, stories that embrace the wealth of America’s diversity.

In my own family, my grandmother, long since dead, could tell the story of her father, John Rugge, my great-grandfather, who left his family’s farm in Wersebe, Germany when, at the age of 14, he was faced with a choice between the military training demanded in Germany and making a life for himself in America.

His parents’ had little money to spare so, after paying his passage, the story goes, they had just one coin left to give him. He clutched it tightly as he neared America. On his first site of land, he dropped it over the rail and into the sea. He could not keep back the tears.  He cried and cried. A stranger gave him another coin — an American quarter.

With that coin as his sole wealth, John Rugge entered America. He spoke no English but found a job as an errand boy for a stern German grocer. He slept on the floor behind the store’s counter, and saved every penny he could.

New stories like that of my great-grandfather are unfolding in America every day.

Certainly, schoolchildren can learn lessons from the mythic Thanksgiving story of the Pilgrims — lessons about following beliefs, overcoming hardship, and sharing. But those same lessons and more could be taught to Hilltown children descended from the Palatines — lessons about persistence, daring to thwart oppressive authority, and the value of stubbornness.

It’s important to realize our history as Americans has been made up of many cultures from its start, from the diverse tribes that peopled the land before the Europeans, also diverse, set foot on the continent.

The threads are many and varied. The tapestry is still being woven.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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