colonial America

Book of the Week: Between Two Worlds

Between Two WorldsThis week I am reading Malcolm Gaskill's [simpleazon-link asin="046501111X" locale="us"]Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans[/simpleazon-link]

Description from

In the 1600s, over 350,000 intrepid English men, women, and children migrated to America, leaving behind their homeland for an uncertain future. Whether they settled in Jamestown, Salem, or Barbados, these migrants—entrepreneurs, soldiers, and pilgrims alike—faced one incontrovertible truth: England was a very, very long way away.

In Between Two Worlds, celebrated historian Malcolm Gaskill tells the sweeping story of the English experience in America during the first century of colonization. Following a large and varied cast of visionaries and heretics, merchants and warriors, and slaves and rebels, Gaskill brilliantly illuminates the often traumatic challenges the settlers faced. The first waves sought to recreate the English way of life, even to recover a society that was vanishing at home. But they were thwarted at every turn by the perils of a strange continent, unaided by monarchs who first ignored then exploited them. As these colonists strove to leave their mark on the New World, they were forced—by hardship and hunger, by illness and infighting, and by bloody and desperate battles with Indians—to innovate and adapt or perish.

As later generations acclimated to the wilderness, they recognized that they had evolved into something distinct: no longer just the English in America, they were perhaps not even English at all. These men and women were among the first white Americans, and certainly the most prolific. And as Gaskill shows, in learning to live in an unforgiving world, they had begun a long and fateful journey toward rebellion and, finally, independence.


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]




New Netherland Seminar: Emerging Scholars Roundtable

In July, the New Netherland Institute invited me to participate in its new Emerging Scholars Roundtable. The roundtable will foster interaction between graduate students, junior scholars, and established scholars. I jumped at the opportunity to participate because my dissertation-to-book revision project extends my period of study backward to 1615. As a scholar of Revolutionary and Early National America, I need all the advice I can get about New Netherland.

Emerging Scholars Roundtable

The Roundtable will take place on October 4, the day before the Annual New Netherland Seminar (October 5). Ruth Piwonka, Jaap Jacobs, Firth Fabend, David W. Voorhees, Janny Venema, Charles Gehring, and Walter Prevenier will serve as the panel of established scholars.

The emerging scholars submitted 5-7-page project descriptions to the roundtable participants. The descriptions outline each emerging scholar’s area of research and the conceptual and/or research problems they face.


GezichtOpNieuwAmsterdamMy Proposal

What did I put in my proposal?

I asked the established scholars for assistance with the first chapter of my book.

In my first chapter, I will discuss the characteristics of the New World Dutch identity created by the people of Beverwyck (Albany, pre-1664). Roughly 51% of the colonists in New Netherland were born in the Netherlands, the remaining 49% came from all over Europe. Many scholars use “Dutch” to describe the 7,000-8,000 colonists who settled in New Netherland. I have never been comfortable with that.

New Netherlanders were Dutch in the sense that they lived under Dutch authority, but culturally they comprised something different. Wherever they settled, New Netherlanders created community identities that allowed them to avoid cultural disputes. In the case of those who settled in Beverwyck, the colonists developed highly adaptable self-understandings that allowed its diverse population to live and trade with each other and the Native American peoples who lived around them.

The secondary-source literature states that Dutch culture inalterably changed the cultures of Native Americans and non-Dutch colonists. Dutch culture profoundly influenced the self-understandings of the people of Beverwyck. However, the culture of Native Americans and non-Dutch colonists also inalterably changed the culture of the Dutch colonists. The secondary-source literature does not discuss these cultural contributions.


Netherlands-CrestMy Book

In my book, I would like to mention how Native Americans and non-Dutch colonists affected the creation of New World Dutch cultures. Admittedly, this topic deserves more than a mention and could fill many dissertations and books.

I hope to gain ideas from the scholars on the roundtable about the cultural contributions Native Americans and non-Dutch colonists made to New World Dutch cultures.

Understanding these contributions is crucial because New Netherlanders handed down a flexible culture that informed how the people of Albany adapted old self-understandings to create new self-understandings as New Yorkers, Britons, and citizens of the United States.


Identity: What's in a Surname?

Every morning I wake up, prepare breakfast, and go straight to my computer to enter 1 page of data into my spreadsheet. I am compiling the baptismal records of the Dutch Reformed Church of Albany. The records stretch from 1683-1809. Netherlands-CrestAt first, I started entering the data because I wanted to see which Albany families switched their religious affiliations from the Dutch Reformed to the Anglican Church between 1754 and 1775. Anyone who wanted to curry favor with royal officials for land grants or sinecures attended the Anglican service during the French and Indian War, when the British Army used Albany as a military headquarters. Attending the Anglican service showcased the Albanians’ Britishness.

With nearly 7,000 data points entered, I have come to realize that I will be able to glean much more information than I thought I wanted. I will be able to determine ratios of male and female children, how many children carry the name of a parent or godparent, the number of slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans the church baptized, and the relative number of intermarriages between the Albany Dutch and the English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, French, & German newcomers.

Crest-of-Great-BritainThe thought of obtaining concrete demographics for the ethnic makeup of colonial, revolutionary, & Early Republic Albany has me both giddy and perplexed. Surnames yield so much and yet so little information. The record keepers of the Dutch Church sometimes converted English surnames into Dutch surnames: Yates became Jaets or Jeets. Long-time families like the Gansevoorts, Van Zandts, and Pruyns identified as Albany Dutch even when their forefathers came from Germany, Portugal, & France (respectively).

Many Albanians proclaimed a dual identity. For example, in August 1775, Philip Schuyler wrote to his cousin and Abraham C. Cuyler, a loyalist & the last royal mayor of Albany, “it is much to be lamented that, the admirable [English] Constitution which our Virtuous Ancestors have purchased with their best Blood, has of late been most Notoriously trampled upon…” None of Philip Schuyler’s ancestors spilled their “best Blood” to preserve the English Constitution. His bloodlines emanated entirely from the Netherlands.

TreeI use "Albany Dutch" to describe long-established Albany families because so many of them expressed a composite identity with both the culture of their forefathers and the politics of where they lived. Perhaps herein lies the solution to my problem.

Rather then labeling a surname by its ethnic origins (if it can be determined), I should consider how far back a family’s roots stretch in the history of Albany. If they go back 2 generations or more the family likely identified as both Albany Dutch and as a subject/citizen of whichever nation New York belonged to. This proved to be the case with the English Yates family and the German Gansevoort family.

I have plenty of time to think about this question as I am only up to 1755 with my data entry. 72 years down, 54 to go. Of course, then I have to start entering the records St. Peter's Anglican Church.


What Do You Think?

Have you ever dealt with a similar, objective problem in your research? If so, how did you choose to solve it? I welcome any and all insight on my quandary.



Why Colonial America Suffered from a Currency Shortage

While reading up on the economy of colonial America, I finally discovered why the American colonies suffered from a specie or currency shortage. (Something I had always wondered about, but lacked the time to research.) The English government banned the exportation of its sterling coins to the colonies. The Crown prohibited exportation of its coin because in addition to subscribing to the mercantilist idea that colonies should send wealth too their mother country, not vice versa, the English economy experienced periods of inadequate coin. (The Bank of England helped to rectify this problem after its firm establishment in 1715.)

Economic historians attribute the English currency shortage to two causes:

Ship1. Culturally, the English people valued gold more than silver and as a result English merchants seized every opportunity to trade away silver coins to countries with higher silver exchange rates. Although the trade in silver increased merchants' buying power, it also removed most of the nation's small coin from circulation. This proved to be a major problem. England had plenty of gold coins in circulation, but most English people could only afford to use silver coins. Therefore, the English government banned the exportation of sterling coins to its colonies, in part, because it needed to keep small coins in circulation at home.

Hammered-coins-300x1722. Prior to 1695, the English economy suffered from a debased silver currency. Two kinds of silver coin circulated in the seventeenth-century English marketplace: hammered and milled. English Treasury employees minted hammered coins by hammering the treasury’s official die (usually a depiction of the reigning monarch) into a sheet of silver. As a result, these coins tended to be thin, irregular in shape, and have a good sized blank border around the imprinted design. The English people preferred hammered coins because they could "clip" the metal around the coin's irregular edges anytime they needed to make change; both the coins and their “clippings” served as legal tender. “Clipping” caused the coins to lose weight and therefore their face value. As a result, the English people valued the coins by measured weight, or tale, instead of their minted value.

King-Charles-ShillingThe Treasury tried to stop "clipping" by introducing milled coins, which received their design from a mechanical press. Aside from manufacturing thick coins with a high relief design, the press also produced uniformly circular-shaped coins because it cut-off the excess metal around the coin’s design. This mechanized cut left a milled, or reeding, pattern around the coin's exterior edge. The coin’s thickness and its patterned edge prevented people from tampering with the metal content of the coin. As coin "clippings" enabled people to make exact change, the English disliked milled coins because they could not be clipped. Of course, merchants preferred the milled coins for their export trade.

Until the Crown sorted out its home currency problems, it could not deal with those of its colonial economies.