Transcript for Uncovering America's Forgotten Colony: The New Netherland Project

On-screen text:

Mogul One Productions Presents
In association with
The New Netherland Institute

[Images of Charly Gehring, Janny Venema, old documents and maps, a sailing ship.]

Uncovering America's Forgotten Colony: The New Netherland Project

[Video showing scenes of modern-day Manhattan]

Narrator: Manhattan -- skyscraper national park. It's like no other spot on the planet. From the beginning, New York City has been a vibrant center of commerce with no pretense of excessive gentility and no mercy for those with delicate sensibilities. From the start it was a rowdy community of flying elbows holding its brawny arms open in welcome to the hardy, to the energetic and to those with big dreams, itchy feet, strong backs -- and thick skins.

[Images of Hudson, the Half Moon and other ships, old maps of the region, a ship in a storm.]

Narrator: The discoverer of what became New York was a headstrong mariner named Henry Hudson, an English sea captain and navigator in the employ of Dutch business interests. In 1609, he sailed his ship, the Half Moon, into New York Harbor and up the river to the west of a long, slim island, hoping to find a passage to Asia. When his voyage stalled at what is now Albany, he turned around, sailed back down the river and out to the sea through the harbor.

[Images of the colony from the Dutch era.]

Narrator: Before long, the enterprising Dutch decided that the fine harbor and wooded islands he'd discovered was ripe with opportunity to exploit Europe's growing demand for fur.

What the Dutch called the New Netherland colony began as a harsh desolate trading outpost in an untamed land, but by the 1650's it became a bustling, prosperous settlement devoted to capitalism and freedom. The new colony eventually lured thousands of displaced men and women to a bold new life. It was a spirited, pulsating environment, in many ways like the New York of today.

[Images of Native Americans and Pilgrims, British warships, British flag, map of New York, Dutch documents.]

Narrator: Sharing the continent with both the Indians and English settlements in New England and Virginia, the thriving New Netherland colony lasted until August 27, 1664. That was the day a fleet of warships entered the harbor, aimed its cannon at the little fort at Manhattan Island's southern tip and demanded the surrender of the colony to the English Empire. As the English flag first fluttered over what the invaders promptly renamed New York, English soldiers found 48 thick, leather-bound volumes of deeds, wills, the minutes of meetings, petitions, contracts and correspondence – the meticulously maintained, handwritten autobiography of America's first multicultural society.

[Images of the British and the Dutch in New York, a colonial flag, and ships.]

Narrator: The English found those painstakingly maintained documents most valuable in their use in substantiating land titles. More than a century after the English took final possession of New Netherland, as all 13 British colonies erupted in rebellion against English rule, the documents were gathered and deposited for safekeeping in the holds of two British warships in New York Harbor.

[Images of the American Revolution, ships in a storm, rats, horse-drawn wagons on the road, and an early photograph of the New York State capitol building.]

Narrator: After passing into the hands of the English -- and then the new American government -- the records endured countless hazards.  They were threatened by damage from water, ship rats and fire, by movement of the volumes between New York and Boston. Many were simply lost. Ultimately, long after their creation, the documents found their way to the New York State library in the capitol in Albany by the 19th century.

[Images of the great 1911 fire at the capitol, a close-up of one of the documents with burned edges.]

Narrator: In March, 1911, the State Capitol, containing the state library, caught fire destroying 450,000 books and 270,000 manuscripts, including some of the Dutch colonial papers. What remained of many of the records were only heaps of charred, baked papers, water-damaged and frozen into black clumps. Others, however, blackened at the edges and margins and faded by the assault of flame and water, remained essentially intact. Ironically it was a stack of English documents that fell on top of the Dutch papers and in essence saved them from total destruction.

[Image of books of transcribed Dutch documents.]

Narrator: Over the decades efforts were made to translate the surviving documents from their 17th Century Dutch transcription into English, but no acceptable translation ever emerged. The result: the vital story of the New Netherland colony has remained for centuries the great untold tale of America's history. America's Dutch history needed both a translator and a story teller and they finally found one in Dr. Charles Gehring.

 [Video of Charly Gehring moving through the New York State Library to his office, where he sits down at his desk, rolls up his sleeves, and begins to examine a document.]

Narrator: Charly Gehring is a linguist, historian and a Fulbright scholar. His specialties are German and Dutch. In 1974, fresh off a teaching stint at the State University at Albany, Gehring moved into space in the New York State Library and began the painstaking task of translating into English from their original 17th Century Dutch some 12,000 surviving, handwritten documents created three and a half centuries before by the rulers of New Netherland. To Charly Gehring, the events they chronicle are current, and he speaks of them in the present tense.

[Video of Charly studying a document and taking notes.]

Charly: Dutch has evolved just as English has evolved from Elizabethan times, let's say. If you read Shakespeare you think you know what is being said until you read the notes at the bottom, and you find out that, well, it's not quite what you thought it was.

 [Video of Charly in the interview.]

Charly: The Dutch started printing sources much earlier than the English. There's a lot to draw on from Dutch sources going back 16th, 17th century, so that you have an incredible depth of meaning for every word. And this is invaluable.

[Video of Charly opening a Dutch dictionary, followed by still images of Dutch New York.]

Narrator: The long-lost world Charly Gehring is exploring through these ancient, handwritten documents was vastly more vital and compelling than most Americans know. Until Gehring's work began, most historians of colonial America tended to dismiss the Dutch colony in a few lines or relied on English sources. After all, the English were engaged in wars with the Dutch for control of the seas and trade routes. As a result, the English got to tell their American story. Meanwhile, the Dutch -- their language, and their once-thriving colony -- withered into three centuries of shadows and distortion.

[An image of Washington Irving followed by images of illustrations from his books.]

Narrator: In the early 19th Century it was the whimsical pen of Washington Irving that did a disservice to America's Dutch era. With stories like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and his fictional history of New York, Irving used America's Dutch experience to become America's first best-selling author, but his quaint caricature of America's Dutch period entered the general imagination as fact. The cultural heritage of the Dutch boiled down to the fanciful buffoonery of its Knickerbocker image.

[A closeup of a handwritten Dutch document, video of Charly Gehring and Janny Venema working on transcriptions and translations of a document.]

Narrator: New Netherland has been called "the forgotten colony," "a lost world," and "history's debutante." The reasons for this veiled role is that the records are in seventeenth century Dutch, making them impenetrable to all but a handful of scholars. This simple language barrier eclipsed the Dutch story, preventing historians from giving it its full and rightful exposure.

[Images of handwritten documents, Peter Christoph, and books of Dutch records.]

Narrator: When historian and librarian Peter Christoph became curator at the New York State Library he found it frustrating to have in his custody tens of thousands of ancient Dutch documents that nobody could read. When he met Dr. Charles Gehring at a history conference in the early 1970s, he knew he'd found the solution to his problem. This meeting ultimately led to the establishment in September 1974 of the New Netherland Project, under the sponsorship of the New York State Library and the Holland Society of New York, with Gehring as translator and editor of New York colonial documents.

[Video of Charly in the interview.]

Charly: When I started I figured I would be doing this for one year and that was it. It was almost that because our money ran out after one year. But I became so intrigued with the Dutch – with this information – and knowing that people didn't know about this at all. For me as a Germanic linguist and a historian, I was very -- what better combination could you have than translating Dutch documents of a historical period that few people knew about?

[Video of Charly and Janny at work.]

Narrator: Partial funding for the New Netherland Project came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Friends of New Netherland now known as the New Netherland Institute and is continued by generous private donations.

Narrator: The documents Gehring is translating are the official records comprising the remains of the archives kept in the Provincial Secretary's office in the fort in New Amsterdam. They cover the whole of New Netherland, not just the events on Manhattan Island.

[Video of Charly in the interview and working with documents, sometimes with Janny.]

Charly: Everything that we translate is published by Syracuse University Press. We provide each manuscript with an introduction, with a subject index and other scholarly apparatus, and the purpose is for people who can't read 17th Century Dutch to have access to the information in the records in the best way possible.

I used to do this in longhand back in the dark ages before computers and so forth. I did everything on yellow legal pads. Now Janny simply types it in onto disk – the transcription. We do a transcription exactly as it's laid out on the page.

After the transcription is made I get the printout of the transcript, and I start translating. Already at that point we're starting to work on problems of translation.

But the major problem is what's missing – what has been burned away or has been cut away or lost as a result of the mishandling or various fires they've gone through.

[Close-up of handwritten document.]

Narrator: For a novice attempting to follow in Gehring's translating footsteps there are other issues in addition to the condition of the documents themselves.

[Video of Charly in the interview, and images of the documents and the handwriting he's discussing, and of Stuyvesant.]

Charly: This is the first obstacle that a student, for example, runs into if they want to learn 17th century Dutch – is cracking the code of the handwriting. But it can be learned, and it's not impossible. It's very regular. Once you learn it it's like … reading a typewritten page, it's so good. The person who has the most difficult handwriting is and apparently never learned the secretarial style is Petrus Stuyvesant. His handwriting is very, very difficult.

[Images of the colony, pastoral scenes, ships at sea.]

Narrator: Washington Irving's whimsical literary image of the New York Dutch is undergoing a stark transformation as the New Netherland Project translation unfolds.

[Video of Charly in the interview, and still images of the Dutch and the Indians in their colony.]

Charly: People have taken this satire to be history, unfortunately. The Dutch devolve into this fat burgher sitting on his porch smoking a clay pipe and watching the world go by, as if all the Dutch were of that sort in New Netherland – that you couldn't really take them seriously.

The textbooks from the time I was growing up would dismiss New Netherland in just a couple of words; Minuit bought the island for twenty four dollars: Stuyvesant had a wooden leg. And then you're on to the revolution. And that was basically it. Now we can tell a much more interesting story.

[Images of colonists, Native Americans, slaves, Peter Stuyvesant, people of a variety of ethnicities; video of Charly in the interview.]

Narrator: Part of that story is that long before there was an Abraham Lincoln there were Dutch emancipators on the North American continent freeing slaves who had been taken from Spanish and Portuguese ships by Dutch soldiers and sailors. Gehring discovered in council minutes that the Dutch began freeing captured slaves in 1648.

Charly: Almost a year after the English take over in 1665 in the last volume of council minutes in April of 1665 Stuyvesant is just about to leave to return to the Netherlands to defend his actions of surrendering New Netherland.  He draws up a document to show that the blacks who are living on these farms along the road to his bouwery are free – are freed slaves, are manumitted slaves and they go through each family mentioning their names, and when they were manumitted and where the location of their land is.  They want to make it very clear to the English when the English come in that just because they are black doesn't mean they are slaves.

If I were to say one thing that probably had the most significant impact on the Hudson Valley and the territory administered by the Dutch is the variety of people they brought over here.  Here you have Germans, you have Slovaks, you have Poles, Lithuanian Jews and Scandinavians, French, all living in the communities with one another and they are forced to make accommodations according to the cultural values that they bring over with them.

[Images of colonial and present day New York City, Dutch Documents]

Narrator:  It is the Dutch who introduced a melting pot of humanity that took root in the Hudson and Delaware Valley. Today people from many nationalities thrive among the hustle and bustle of present day New Amsterdam now known as Manhattan the financial capitol of the world and also Fort Orange now know as Albany the place where Charlie Gehring is meticulously translating the lost Dutch documents and finally revealing to the world a story that has remained untold for far too long.


On-screen Text (closing credits):

Written by Dan Lynch and Paul Rutherford
Produced by Paul Rutherford
Directed by Robert W. English
Edited by Jordan Forkey
Executive Producers: Paul Rutherford, Dan Lynch
Narrated by Dr. Richard Norelli
Featuring: Dr. Charles Gehring, Dr. Janny Venema

Mogul One Productions

The New Netherland Institute

Uncovering America's Forgotten Colony: The New Netherland Project

Music by Jordan Forkey

Camera operators: Sonya Stark, Robert Shenise
Post production consultant: Jim Sefcik
Visual FX supervisor: Nick Donion

Thank you to the following for their contribution to the film:

  • Albany Institute of History and Art
  • W. Douglas McCombs, Ph.D.
    Allison Munsell
    Rebecca Rich Wulfmeyer
  • Remco Bos
  • Nancy Curran
  • Shenise Productions
    Pilotgirl Productions
    Luzerne Productions
    Infinidon Media
  • Executive Consulting Services

Thank you to all the companies, institutions and individuals who make the New Netherland Project possible:

  • The government of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and in particular the Dutch Embassy in Washington and the Consulate in New York.
  • The Board of Directors of the New Netherland Institute
  • The New York State Library
  • The New York State Archives
  • Rabobank International-Americas
  • Royal Philips Electronics
  • Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
  • The Holland Society of New York
  • The Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York
  • The Doris G. Quinn Foundation
  • Sora Fund of the Cleveland Foundation (Dr. William P. Steffee and Mrs. Erica Collins)
  • The Netherlands America Foundation/Dr. Hendrik Muller's Vaderlandsch Fonds
  • Matthew and Phoebe Bender
  • The Bender Family Foundation
  • H.L. Funk Consulting
  • The Netherlands America Community Trust, Inc.
  • The Lucius N. Litauer Foundation, Inc.
  • The William Gundry Broughton Charitable Private Foundation, Inc.
  • The Wright Family Foundation, Inc.
  • Siena College
  • Mary Van Orsdol, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
  • Charles W. Wendell, Ph. D.
  • Marilyn E. Douglas
  • The Klaassen Family Foundation
  • John and Sally Van Schaik
  • William J. DeWitt, III, Ph.D.
  • Jippe and Annette Hiemstra
  • Kenneth Chase
  • City of Albany Arts Grant (Mayor Gerald D. Jennings)
  • Peter Hess (Albany Steel)
  • Alex & Marine Zagoreos
  • Orde van den Prince, Afdeling Manhattan
  • Oremco, Inc.
  • C. Carl Pegels, Ph.D.
  • Elisabeth P. Funk, Ph.D.
  • Association of Blauvelt Descendents
  • Swyer Companies
  • Mr. & Mrs. James F. Sefcik
  • Hollie Haswell
  • Golub Foundation/Price Chopper

A special thanks to Len Tantillo for his kind contribution of his artwork highlighting the Dutch presence in America.

Last Updated: March 5, 2012