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Personal Essays

A View From the Crow’s Wood

You would’ve paid more attention in history class if they taught you what early Dutch settlements were really like. An opportunity to sift through the artifacts at an 18th century Hudson Valley home reveals a way of life that is as odd as it is oddly familiar.

Sitting along a quiet stretch of the Hudson River just across from Albany, N.Y., the old Van Rensselaer family house known as Crailo calls little attention to itself. Constructed in 1704, Crailo—meaning “crow’s wood”—was named after the Van Rensselaers’ country estate back in the Netherlands. Though the family ruled a semi-feudal Hudson Valley fiefdom well into the 19th century, Crailo itself is as unassuming as could be. Despite periodic conflicts with local Indian tribes and the gun ports in the fortified brick walls, there’s no record whatsoever of any actual battles at the house, and the frank stolidity (if not quite good sense) of the early Dutch settlers seems to imbue the place. The hearty influence of the Nieuw Nederlanders with their pipes, pancakes, and goblin tales on the stoop still makes for a pleasantly dreamy atmosphere, where full-bodied lilac bushes flank the lawn much as they did in the manor’s heyday, always leading one’s view down toward the river and its lapping gray tides.

This past month I began a job as a site interpreter and tour guide at Crailo, and while poring through the house’s paneled library and archaic documents, I found a trove of old records and testaments that absolutely defy the quietude of the place. Privateers, massacres, wars, familial spats, and endless litigious nonsense fill the early documents, and a reader soon learns that the riverine settlements (New Amsterdam in what is now Manhattan and Fort Orange in modern Albany) were beehives of stupidity, slavery, greed, fear, and fulmination. Pondering such squalor one afternoon and wishing that the Mahicans had driven the greasy trespassers from their lands, I soon realized that if that had happened, Crailo wouldn’t exist and I’d be out of a job. Faced with the same conundrum of ideology and practicality that has always haunted the New World, I began scouring the old documents in Crailo’s upstairs library for the brightest (or tawdriest) bits of history that caught my eye.

A wretched little trading post, Fort Orange didn’t have much to say for itself, though a few gems came up. A letter dated New Year’s Day, 1661, mentions “ye Dreadfull Comett Starr” which clearly indicates to the commissaries of the city that, “God Threatens us wh Dreadfull Punishments if wee doe not Repent.” After bringing up additional problems such as a “verry great Scarcety of Corne,” the note concludes with a non sequitur, “The Indian Wattawitt must have a Blankett & Shirtt at York.” For the rest of my life I will wonder if poor Wattawitt ever got his shirt.

By the time the place was renamed “Albany” by its English conquerors and later appointed capital of New York state, it showed an admirable influx of quacks and hucksters, most of whom found profitable employment in the state legislature. Happily for residents of the city, shills of a better class also came around, and an 1855 series of volumes I found in the library entitled The Annals of Albany showcases any number of Albanian spectacles:

Though the entry undoubtedly has more to do with newfangled lighting than malodorous vapors, one classic notation from March 27, 1817, reads, “Mr. Trowbridge announced some curious experiments with his gas, such as collecting it in glasses, allowing a person to breathe it, and on application of fire, a flame would proceed out of his mouth.”

Not to be outdone by Trowbridge’s miraculous gas, the year 1819 also saw a curious experiment when, “A Mr. Peloubet gave notice that he would ascend in a balloon from the Capitol.” Things didn’t go as hoped, however, and a few days later the would-be aerialist was forced to apologize because, “in consequence of the high wind the balloon did not rise with sufficient rapidity to get out of the reach of the boys, one of whom threw a stone which penetrated the balloon and brought it to earth.”

Even if just a way post, Albany seemed to have a knack for bringing others down as well: on Sept. 30, 1828, the Annals announce “the famous Sam Patch, who astonished the people by leaps from great heights into the water, arrived in the city on his way to Niagara.” Searching the volume’s indexes, I couldn’t find any further references to the famous Sam Patch, last seen on the road to Niagara Falls where an astonishment of some form or another most certainly occurred.

Far less amusing is an obituary from that same year: “John Easton, aged 23. The deceased was the hope and promise of the family, and only male descendent in the second degree. He was to have been married at the time the winding sheet claimed him for its own.”

That desolate thump you hear is the sound of Eternity closing its door on all of us. It’s also me closing The Annals of Albany for more cheerful materials, namely the earliest minutes from the Common Council of the wicked fortification of New Amsterdam—present-day New York City.

When settlers first came to Manhattan under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company, words such as “abundance” and “paradise” were frequently used in letters home to describe the new situation. It wouldn’t be long, though, before more doleful expressions cropped up, such as “filth,” “stench,” and “rent-controlled forts.” Taverns, tippling houses, and groggeries infested the place, while an epidemic of debauched behavior backlogged the courts. All in all, the rundown fort and scratchy farmsteads were decent harbingers to the once and future Big Apple and its more notorious characteristics.
 

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Say It All the Time

New Yorkers have always been known for their aplomb with insults and four-letter words, and judging from the minutes of the Common Council, New Amsterdam was the rudest, crudest city in the New World. Case after case of slander filled the docks, as apparently everyone in town stood around and said terrible things to each other, then brought up charges afterward in a universal pissing match that left everyone soaked. Maybe the most egregious example is a convoluted nightmare where one man charged with slander counter-charged the plaintiff with the same and brought three witnesses before the council to prove his point. Angered by the turn of events, the plaintiff then charged all the witnesses with slander also, but not ones to take such an insult lying down, the witnesses all responded in kind until everyone associated with the case had both an accusation of slander against them plus charges pending against others.

Litigious knots such as this annoyed the directors of the colony to no end, and they attempted to stem the tide of mudslinging with harsh punishments. A person found guilty of slander would often be forced to “ride the wooden horse,” which consisted of straddling a wooden beam with weights attached to the legs for hours or days on end while everyone around came by to heckle and chuck garbage. Knowing the Dutch penchant for litigation, the wooden horse probably charged the convicted with slander after the victim referred to the plank as “ye Dreadfull Motherfucker.”
 

Beware of Broomsticks and Loose Women

As everyone knows, no trip to the big city is complete without being scared half to death by painted strumpets running wild in the streets, and Fort Amsterdam produced a doozy right from the get-go. A lively bawd of good humor, one Grietje (or, “Little Pearl”) Reyniers originally appears in fall of 1668, when the crew of a departing sloop assailed her with cries of, “Whore! Whore! Two pound butter’s whore!” A witness to this rudeness testified that, “Whereupon Grietje, paying little attention to this, lifted up her petticoat and pointed to her behind.” Reyniers got away with telling those louts to kiss her ass but much grosser charges would soon be brought against her. Grietje continued to scandalize everyone in town, and next spring upwards of 16 witnesses would affirm that Miss Reyniers had very much, “pulled the shirts of some sailors out of their breeches and in her house measured the male member of three sailors on a broomstick.” The Little Pearl refused to be shamed, however, and additional affidavits proclaimed hearing her boast to the entire fort, “I have long been the whore of the nobility, now I want to be the rabble’s whore.”

Knowing the fort would never know peace until the fearless trollop was dealt with, the Common Council ordered Grietje Reyniers banished from the New Netherlands forever, but not before she paid for the cost of her trial. Whether or not the council pointed to their own behinds as the sentence was read is not recorded.
 

If the Omelet Doesn’t Fit…

Though some would claim that “civilization” is defined by art, the theater, paved boulevards, garbage disposal, or restaurant fetishes, nothing confirms urbane status more than a circus trial, and New Amsterdam quickly showed its colors with a manslaughter accusation rivaling the O.J. debacle. The ugly episode began with a brawl between soldiers, when a certain Jochem Beeckman admittedly handed several serious clouts to a fellow guard-at-arms, Jacob Jeuriaensz. Poor Jacob died several days after the brawl, but not before being seen by four witnesses, “[standing] before the door in Fort Amsterdam making his water, having his cloak on, kindled a fire, made an omelet and then drank an entire pint of wine at one draft.” In light of such astounding feats of strength, the council determined the brawl had nothing to do with Jacob’s death and Mr. Beeckman was acquitted without prejudice.

This is a good lesson to any courthouse shyster chasing the ambulance sirens: Pissing in doorways, getting soused, or making fires are fine activities for a supposedly wronged client, but for the love of God, no omelets! Eggs sunny side up, if they must, but even that in secret.
 

We Band of Blockheads

As anyone who’s ever watched Seinfeld knows, every band of Manhattanite brothers and sisters will eventually implode and the one-time comrades will screw each over in ways which are completely unspeakable (unless to a Swiss shrink). Typically the olden times were no different, as shown by one Aert Willemsen when he sought damages from one Kempe Labady in the amount of eight pieces of eight. Given the money in order to purchase butter for Willemsen, Labady was somehow unable to procure butter anywhere in Fort Amsterdam and returned to tell Willemsen his daily bread would have to go dry. A determined Willemsen told Labady to hold onto the coins and buy butter later, but instead Labady wandered down to the docks and gave the fistful of booty to a clumsy sailor named Thomas Dozie, who immediately fell overboard with the loot in hand and drowned. Dozie’s unfortunate death wasn’t viewed as a good excuse and Labady was ordered to pay the pieces of eight back. Why that lazyass, butter-sucking fiend Willemsen didn’t buy his own damned dairy products is a mystery. Then again, when buttery sluts like Little Grietje were still running around, I suppose the situation makes a lot more sense.
 

Abominations in Vogue Among Us

Life wasn’t all omelets, butter, and broomsticks, and the New World colonies were just as war-torn as their European patrons. Threatened by truculent pilgrims in New England, Swedish interlopers along the Delaware River, French frontiersmen creeping down from Quebec, and annoyed sachems on every side, Nieuw Amsterdam existed in a virtual state of siege, with the isolated population often on the verge of panic. Confined at the far edge of the known world and surrounded on every side by enemies that could raid mercilessly from mapless tracts of forest and ocean alike, early Manhattanites would have had no problem relating to the fears many New Yorkers felt after Sept. 11. Much as Americans were forced to expand their global awareness when alien places like Afghanistan came to the forefront of the bloody headlines, so too did the colonists of New Amsterdam find themselves at the mercy of a world growing both smaller yet more foreign with every trail blazed.

Faced with tectonic shifts in reality, our forebears responded much as we have, with a surreal clashing of religious fervor and hedonistic abandonment. When Pieter Stuyvesant ascended to directorship of the colony, he found fully one-quarter of the settlement engaged in alcohol-related professions. Stuyvesant ranted that illegal sales of guns and liquor to Indians continued at an alarming rate even as the walls of the fort literally crumbled around their feet and the granaries went empty. Clearly the inebriated people of New Amsterdam were far more interested in snatching guilders across the brandy barrel than in maintaining the long-term functionality, never mind civility, of the colony.

Determined to transform his temptation island into a Dutch Reformed Jerusalem, Stuyvesant ordered that the settlement undergo a period of intense fasting and prayer. Preaching damnation and hellfire unless their apocalyptic warnings were heeded, in April 1648 Stuyvesant and the Common Council explained the reasons for the measures:
 

Whereas from almost all countries, both in Europe and these northern and southern parts of America, yes even from this province, and other places depending thereon, we hear and receive nothing but sad and doleful tidings and rumors here of severe inundations and floods, burning and pestilential fevers, whereby thousands are swept away by sudden deaths…from which no other conclusion can be drawn than that the Holy and Almighty God of Israel, being just provoked to anger and wrath on account of our sins and those of other nations, threatens us with a just retribution of the treasure of anger and just wrath…unless we turn to our God with the Ninevites in sack cloth and ashes of unfeigned penitence, hating and abandoning all wickedness, all false measures and evil practices, all blasphemy and licentiousness in drunkenness, rioting, swearing, lying, cheating and profanation of God’s most holy name and the sabbath, and many other abominations in vogue among us no less than other nations…

Ever a stickler for details, the priggish director of the Common Council made sure to list all forbidden activities during those crucial days of purgatorial fastness and prayer. First and foremost on the list of heinous crimes, abominations which could determine once and for all whether the wrathful Lord Almighty pronounced blessing or blight upon the sinful isle of Manhattans and its imperfect servants: golf. Thus old New York—a garden of abundance tilled by serfs, malcontents, and slaves, besieged policies dominated by crackpot preachers and remorseless freebooters, self-proclaimed whore to noble and rabble alike—a repeatedly mixed metaphor that, for better or worse, became the stick against which the whole of the New World would be measured. Start spreading the news.
 

biopic

Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon