Conference on New York State History

The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley

Jansson-Visscher_mapWhat did the world of the seventeenth-century Hudson Valley look like? At the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History, historians Leslie Choquette, Jaap Jacobs, Paul Otto, and L.H. Roper grappled with what the region looked like from Native American, Dutch, English, and French perspectives.

In this post you will discover what these scholars had to say about life in the Hudson Valley during the seventeenth century.


Rise of English vs. Dutch Competition

Jaap Jacobs discussed how the decentralized nature of the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company worked well: Decentralization allowed investors to send Dutch ships into the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans to take advantage of new trade opportunities in an organized way.

Jacobs admitted that the Dutch benefitted from the English Civil War (1642-1651) because the English turned their attention inward while the Dutch turned their attention outward. Likewise the Spanish and Portuguese devoted their attentions to their colonies and the closing years of the Eighty Years War. By the 1640s, the Spanish no longer had the means to defend its colonies. With its main competitors distracted, the Dutch expanded their trade networks around the globe.

The Dutch began to face serious competition for global trade during the 1650s. Between 1652 and 1674, the Dutch and English engaged in three wars known as the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Jacobs succinctly expressed the outcomes of these wars:

1st Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654): Marginal victory for the Dutch. • 2nd Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667): Victory for the Dutch although the Dutch lost New Netherland. • 3rd Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674): Narrow escape for the Dutch that effectively ended their activities in the Atlantic World.


The French

Leslie Choquette outlined the differences between New France, New England, and New Netherland.

The French commenced their North American forays in 1534, when Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence River. Between 1598 and 1608, the French attempted to found trading settlements in New France, all proved unsuccessful. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec with twenty-eight men.

Le_Canada_ou_Nouvelle_FranceChoquette argued that New France had two characteristics that distinguished it from New England and New Netherland.

1. The people of New France formed an alliance with indigenous peoples.

New France suffered from hostility and warfare, but the New French fought distant Native Americans, not those who lived nearby.

2. New France suffered from a very low rate of European immigration, which hampered its development as a colony.

Choquette discussed the need for scholars to move away from nationalistic histories of New France.

English nationalistic histories suggest that New France experienced low immigration because the French were incompetent. They also posit that the French had great relations with the “savages” because they were “savages.”

French nationalistic histories assert that the people of New France coexisted well with their Native American neighbors because the French were a tolerant people. They address low immigration rates to New France by suggesting that no Frenchman wanted to leave “Belle France” and that England experienced high rates of migration to its North American colonies because what Englishman would not want to leave England?

Choquette stated that French-centered histories discount the fact that the French could be just as ruthless as the English and Dutch when it came to dealing with Native American peoples who were not their allies. Both the English- and the French-centered histories also discount the fact that de Champlain had to enter an alliance with Native Americans on Native American terms. He entered the alliance not because the French were tolerant, but because Native American nations controlled the territory outside European colonial settlements.


Native Americans

Paul Otto wants historians to understand that economic, religious, and social norms structured the seventeenth-century encounter between Native American and European peoples in the Hudson Valley.

Otto believes that if historians can understand Native American economic, religious, and social structures then they will have a better sense of what took place in the colonial Hudson Valley; European interactions with Native Americans and Native American participation in those interactions made the formation of societies in the Hudson Valley possible.

Otto asserts that historians must understand two things if they are to understand how colonial society developed around the Hudson Valley:

wampum101. The Iroquois

The Iroquois occupied lands inland from European settlements. The distance between the Haudenosaunee peoples and Europeans gave the Iroquois time to adapt to European settlement before European diseases ravaged their populations.

Historians must also develop a understanding of Haudenosaunee society. Prior to European colonization, the Iroquois had brought their five different linguistic and cultural groups together into one metaphorical longhouse. In this communal longhouse, the Haudenosaunee peoples developed rituals for how to negotiate and deal with their differences. One ritual revolved around wampum and the exchange of wampum to settle disputes and seal agreements.

2. Where did wampum come from?

The Iroquois peoples did not make wampum. They traded for the beads which Munsee peoples along the coast of Long Island and southern New England made from the whelk and quahog shells they found along their beaches.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Munsee and Iroquois interacted and exchanged wampum. This trade demonstrates that North America was not a land where people lived in isolation from one another, but a land made up of diverse peoples with sophisticated trade and diplomatic networks.

Otto believes that once historians understand how Native American societies functioned before the arrival of Europeans, they will better understand why European settlements developed as they did because many formed in response to their interactions and relations with the Native American societies around them.

*Picture of wampum belt courtesy of the Iroquois Museum


Q&AAudience Q & A Highlights

Both the French and Dutch were seventeenth-century peoples who held similar Christian world views, but why did the Dutch seek to avoid interaction with Native Americans while the French sought close interaction?

Leslie Choquette attributed the close interactions the French had with neighboring Native American peoples to the fact that the French had “lucked out” when they settled in the St. Lawrence Valley. The French settled in an area devoid of Native American farming communities. Sometime between the 1540s and 1600, Native American warfare pushed the Iroquois peoples out of the St. Lawrence Valley. The Iroquois practiced sedentary farming.

The people who inhabited the St. Lawrence Valley when the French arrived lived nomadic and semi-sedentary lives. This meant the French faced little-to-no competition for land. Without competition for land resources, the French had an easier time establishing good relations with the peoples who lived near their settlements.

Choquette also described a major difference between French conceptions of land ownership and Dutch and English understandings of property ownership. The people of seventeenth-century France thought about land in feudal terms. The king owned all the land, but it was possible to farm the king’s land. This feudal conception of property ownership accommodated the idea that both the French and Native American peoples could “own” the same land at the same time.

Paul Otto added that the Dutch and English sent colonists to settle in areas populated by Native American peoples. The Dutch and English sought to farm land that Native Americans also farmed. Competition for the land increased proportionately with the expansion of Dutch and English settlement. He hypothesized that if Dutch and English settlement had occurred on a smaller scale as it had in New France then there would have been less conflict because there would have been less competition for the land.


[simpleazon-image align="left" asin="1438450974" locale="us" height="400" src="" width="232"]Want to Know More?

The panelists collaborated to write [simpleazon-link asin="1438450974" locale="us"]The Worlds of the Seventeenth-Century Hudson Valley[/simpleazon-link]




Fact and Fiction: Writing Historical Narratives

Writing-HistoryDo you know what skills you need to craft a good historical narrative? On Thursday, June 12, 2014, I attended “Fact and Fiction: Writing Historical Narratives,” a panel at the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History. The panel consisted of chair Michael McGandy (Editor, Cornell University Press) and 3 authors: Jessica DuLong, Tom Lewis, and Christine Wade.

In this post you will learn what these authors had to say about the skills they needed, and the challenges they faced, to produce strong historical narratives, memoirs, and historical fiction.


The Memoirist

Jessica DuLong came to write history accidentally.

After being laid off from her dot-com job as a journalist, DuLong found herself in the engine room of the antique fireboat John J. Harvey during a volunteer day. Her day of service led to a job.

[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="B005FOIBXO" locale="us" height="400" src="" width="221"]DuLong worked in the engine room of the John J. Harvey as it plied the waters of the Hudson River and New York Harbor. Her work led her to wonder what Americans had lost as they shifted away from hands-on work to more intellectually-based work. These musings prompted her to write [simpleazon-link asin="B005FOIBXO" locale="us"]My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America[/simpleazon-link].

As a journalist, DuLong approached her writing with a desire to put the “story” back into history. She found her story in the people she described. For DuLong, “the lifeblood of your story is the people.”

Every time DuLong became stuck in her writing, she returned to the interviews she recorded and re-listened to them. This act helped her reconnect with both the people in her story and the history she wanted to narrate.

DuLong closed her remarks by telling the audience that writing is not easy because writers have a tough job, they must “convince the reader to keep reading with every sentence.”


The Historian

Tom Lewis, the author of 4 books, including [simpleazon-link asin="0300119909" locale="us"]The Hudson: A History[/simpleazon-link], laid out his 4-step approach to research and writing.


Step 1: Identify a Topic

Lewis finds choosing a topic to be the hardest part about writing.


Step 2: Disregard and Discard Preconceived Ideas

Lewis aims to write fair and impartial narratives. He has found that in order to be impartial he must disregard and discard all of his previous ideas about his chosen topic.

By creating and keeping an open mind, Lewis allows the sources he finds to direct his writing.


Step 3: Conduct Interviews

[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="0300119909" locale="us" height="430" src="" width="302"]Lewis conducts interviews to get at the heart of his stories.

He cautioned that the person who conducts the interview must remember that people lie.

Lewis suggested that interviewers should get control of their interviewee quietly. He acknowledge that this involves a bit of manipulation.

A good interviewer will always find a way to bring out new memories. New memories are less prone to false information because the interviewee has not had the same opportunity to modify these new stories like they do with those that they tell repeatedly.


Step 4: Don’t Drown in Your Research

Lewis acknowledged that this step is easier said then done.

In the age of the internet, “we stand under a Niagara Falls of information.”

Lewis tries to take control of his topic by walking around the issue. He researches people and events related to his topic before he studies his topic directly. This way he knows which angles of his story are worth pursuing and which angles he should avoid.


Lewis concluded his remarks with 3 tips:

1. Write like a homebuilders. Words serve as the building blocks for any narrative. You want to build an inviting house that has an elegant structure and creates an inviting place where readers want to spend time.

2. "Revise, revise, revise.” Only through revision can you shape your book.

3. Trust your editor. Editors can help you craft an excellent book if you let them.


The Novelist

[simpleazon-image align="right" asin="1451674708" locale="us" height="500" src="" width="322"]Christine Wade works as an epidemiologist and she approached the research for her award-winning novel, [simpleazon-link asin="1451674708" locale="us"]Seven Locks[/simpleazon-link], as she would a scientific problem.

Wade admitted that the best part about writing historical fiction is that it is fiction. She does not have to be accountable for portraying the history with 100% accuracy.

With that said, Wade stated that works of historical fiction must have 2 components: strong characters and strong context.

While novelists can play with historical accuracy, they still need to research the period of their setting to make their work feel real.

Wade situated Seven Locks at the foot of the Catskill Mountains just before the American Revolution. In order to give her setting and characters a period feel, Wade read a lot of 18th-century works such as Washington Irving’s [simpleazon-link asin="0143105612" locale="us"]A History of New York[/simpleazon-link], Laurence Sterne’s [simpleazon-link asin="0141439777" locale="us"]The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman[/simpleazon-link], and the works of Samuel Johnson.

Wade also had to develop an authentic voice for her characters, an element that would help her characters to serve the history and story she wanted to tell.

Wade found her voice by relying on her linguistic abilities. Wade does not speak Dutch, but she speaks a different northern European language (she did not say which one) and she used her knowledge of this language to shift the syntax in her character’s speech just as she would move the syntax if she attempted to speak her other language.

Wade concluded her remarks with a bit of advice she acquired from Samuel Johnson: the task of the author is to teach what is not known, or to shed new light upon what is known by offering a new perspective.


Q&AAudience Q & A Highlights

Should you begin writing or find an editor first?

DuLong: DuLong wrote a book proposal, which she used to find an agent.

She wrote a 70-page proposal for her first book. The proposal required her to think about the structure and narrative of her book. She met with agents at writing conferences and submitted her proposal to the agents she spoke with.

Presently, she is writing a second book about 9/11. She had no intention of writing the book, but an editor reached out  after they read an article DuLong had posted on Huffington Post.

Lewis: Lewis started with an idea and his friend helped him find an agent.

Lewis wrote his first book about the history of radio. A friend encouraged him to get the project into the hands of an agent. When Lewis seemed slow to do so, his friend put in a call to her agent and the agent asked Tom for a proposal. Tom wrote a 6-page proposal and sent it to the agent who shopped the book around.

Wade: Wade finished her book and then looked for a publisher.

Wade did not plan to write a novel. However, an idea came to her while she was between jobs and she wrote the book on a whim because she thought it would be fun. She did not even tell her family that she was writing a book until she had finished it.

Wade got a new job before she finished her book and had to develop an early-morning writing ritual that allowed her to finish it. Her ritual consisted of an hour of writing each morning before work and thinking about her book as she rode the train to work. When she arrived at her office, she would write down all of the ideas she had thought of and she would use those notes during her writing time.

Wade sent her book to agents and received a lot of rejections. Eventually she found an agent willing to read her book, but the agent said it would take her 3 months to get to it. In the meantime, Wade found out that she won an award for her novel. The agent got back to her after 3 months and helped her publish her book.


Question for Tom Lewis: How do you psychologically prepare yourself to shed information that you cannot put into your story? How do you know when documents won’t help you tell the story you want to tell?

Lewis: Lewis stated that he views the writing process as he does a Rubik’s Cube; he wants all of the faces of the cube to line up. Lewis tries to see the shape of his book and then attempts to fit all of his evidence and ideas into that shape. If an interesting document doesn’t work on his Rubik’s Cube, Lewis leaves it out be because ultimately you cannot fit every piece of evidence into your story.



DuLong, Lewis, and Wade approached the panel from 3 different historical genres. However, each offered similar advice that related to the fact that “story” makes history fun and enjoyable to write and to share with readers.


ThoughtfulManWhat Do You Think?

Which tip or piece of advice did you find most helpful?