The Strange Case of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert

When he arrived in Manhattan in 1630, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert had a promising future. But cannibalism, sodomy, and a pet bear (not for sale) forever changed his life, and legacy.

This is the first of a two-part series. The second part is here.

Part 1: This White Man is a Magician

In the winter of 1647-48, an Iroquois village in the wilds along the Mohawk River, west of what is now Albany, N.Y., was the setting for one of the most remarkable events of the period. In a clearing amidst the snowy forest, a ragtag posse of Dutch colonists dragged the fugitive Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert from a burning longhouse. The Indians could have only watched in despair as van den Bogaert battled with his captors while their precious supplies went up in flames, the smoke reeking of burnt meat, singed wampum shells, and scorched peltries.

Van den Bogaert’s tale continued beyond the burning barn, and by the time it was over, the New Netherland court at Manhattan Island referred to his demise as “sad and miserable.” How van den Bogaert, who’d risen early in life to become a respected surgeon, commissary of stores for Fort Orange, groundbreaking explorer of the Iroquois hinterlands, and married father of four, came to such an ignominious downfall involved, to one degree or another, sodomy, slavery, jail breaks, exorcism ceremonies, cannibalism, barroom brawls, a Jesuit martyr, privateering, a long-anonymous chronicle of the wilderness frontier, and one pet bear not for sale at any price. All in all, the surgeon’s life remains a strange and illuminating early colonial case study.

Only 18 years old when he arrived in New Amsterdam on lower Manhattan Island in 1630, van den Bogaert was listed as “barber-surgeon” and posted to the Hudson River trading post at Fort Orange, now Albany. There he’d have found a settlement more akin to the anarchic liberties of Deadwood than the Puritanical stays of Plymouth. Despite the best efforts of the West India Company and Kiliaen van Rensselaer—patroon and absentee lord of the massive Rensselaerswyck colony bordering Fort Orange—smuggling, drunkenness, and debt plagued the Dutch settlement. That warring Mohawks and Mohicans surrounded the outpost didn’t help matters. A bitter lesson had already been learned in 1626, when foolhardy Capt. Daniel van Crieckenbeeck disobeyed direct orders to stay neutral regarding any Indian business and sided with the Mohicans during a raid into Mohawk territory. Traveling west from Fort Orange, the war party was quickly ambushed, and reports soon made their way back to the fort detailing how Crieckenbeeck and three other Dutchman were slaughtered, with one cannibalized by the exultant Mohawks “after having well roasted him.”

The young surgeon must already have shown his mettle, otherwise he never would have been allowed on such an important assignment.There’s no doubt that legends of the grisly picnic still circulated in 1634, when van den Bogaert was commissioned to investigate rumors of French Indian traders doing business in those same Iroquois territories. The young surgeon must already have shown his mettle, otherwise he never would have been allowed on such an important assignment; always on the verge of financial calamity, the New Netherland settlements couldn’t afford any loss of trade whatsoever. Thus, in the dead of winter with nothing positive learned from Criekenbeeck’s ill-starred expedition, van den Bogaert and two companions, Jeronimus de la Croix and Willem Thomassen, literally went where no Dutchmen had gone before, passing Crieckenbeeck’s furthest exploration and venturing into the uncharted and potentially murderous wilderness of the interior.

Thankfully for history, van den Bogaert kept a daily journal of his trek into Iroquois country. On Dec. 11, 1634, the first day of the journey from Fort Orange, van den Bogaert related the reason for the mission among the Mohawk (sometimes called Maquasen) and Oneida (or Sinnekens) tribes. “The Maquasen and Sinnekens have often come to our Commissary Marten Gerritsen and me, saying that there were French Indians in their country, and that they have called a truce with them…because the Maquasen wanted as much for their furs as the French Indians. Therefore, I asked Sr. Marten Gerritsen’s permission to go there and learn the truth of the matter…because trade was going very badly.”

The party’s troubles started early on the second morning, when van den Bogaert writes that his Mohawk guides “would have left us there if I had not noticed it; and when we intended to eat something, their dogs had eaten up all our meat and cheese so that we had nothing but dry bread to travel on.” So much for reliable help, but things turned around later that afternoon. After crossing the flooded and ice-filled Mohawk River, they ran into a party of Indians who were so surprised by the appearance of the Dutchmen that they dropped their packs and hid in a marsh. Van den Bogaert and Co. wasted no time ransacking the goods, finding and devouring “a small loaf of bread baked with beans.”

Aside from delays caused by heavy snow, things went smoothly for the next week as the company came upon numerous “castles,” as the Dutch called the fortified Iroquois villages. Traveling from village to village, van den Bogaert chronicled incidents great and small and compiled a small dictionary of the Iroquois language, including numerous sexual terms indicating he received special favors among the natives. Feasting on venison and beans, peaceably trading small goods like awls and scissors, often putting on gunpowder displays for the delighted tribes, and confirming that Huron tribesmen, the “French Indians” the party had been dispatched to investigate, had indeed come down from the north to trade French goods in the area, van den Bogaert ran the full gamut of Dutch-Iroquois culture shock. As he was consistently led by his stomach, not least of his observances was an interest in the Iroquois dietary ways. On Dec. 17 he noted at one Iroquois village that “…a bear was being fattened. It had been there almost three years and was so tame that it ate everything given to it.”

Traveling from village to village, van den Bogaert chronicled incidents great and small and compiled a small dictionary of the Iroquois language.The next afternoon revealed less savory aspects of life among the Wilden, as the Dutch sometimes referred to the Indians: “Three women came here from the Sinnekens with some dried and fresh salmon, but they smelled very bad.” The evening took a turn for surreal when van den Bogaert concludes his entry with the non sequitur, “Jeronimus told me that an Indian was planning to kill him with a knife.” Why an Indian had it in for Jeronimus isn’t given, nor is the threat mentioned again.

Life among the Iroquois was unpredictable, to say the least. On Dec. 20, van den Bogaert justifiably gripes, “This evening I got a [mountain] lion skin to cover myself with; however, in the morning I had at least 100 lice.”

The 22nd offered more discouragement. With stockings and shoes frozen “as hard as armor-plate” after crossing an icy stream, the company came to a small village that had “14 houses and a tame bear.” Seeming to desire an exotic pet rather than meat, van den Bogaert mentions, “I wanted to buy the bear, but they would not part with it.”

Perhaps the surgeon’s most invaluable entries, though, regarded Iroquois healing ceremonies. His log for Christmas Eve includes one of the earliest European descriptions of Iroquois medicine on record:

24 Dec. Since it was Sunday I looked in on a person who was sick. He had invited into his house two of their doctors who were supposed to heal him. They were called SUNACHKOES [meaning “to exorcise the devil”]. As soon as they arrived they began to sing and kindled a large fire, sealing the house all around so that no draft could enter. The both of them put a snakeskin around their heads and washed their hands and faces…Taking a bucket of water in which they had put some medicine, they washed a stick in it [and] stuck it down their throats so that the end could not be seen, and vomited on the patient’s head and all over his body. Then they performed many farces with shouting and rapid clapping of hands, as is their custom…

If the Iroquois doctors were rough, at least they didn’t charge exorbitant fees like European physicians, whose standard methods included blisters, leeches, amputation, and astrology. Intrigued and somewhat frightened by this elaborate combination of medicine and exorcism, van den Bogaert witnessed another healing ceremony later in his journey:

Two men came to me and said that I should come and see how they would drive out the devil…When we arrived, the floor of the house was completely covered with tree bark over which the devil-hunters would walk. They were old men who were all colored or painted with red paint on their faces because they were to perform something strange…In the middle of this house was a very sick person who had been languishing for a long time, and there sat an old woman who had an empty turtle shell in her hands, in which were beads that rattled while she sang. Here they attempted to catch the devil and trample him to death, for they stomped all the bark in the house to pieces…After much stomping and running, one of them went to the sick person and took an otter [fur] from his hand, and for a long time sucked on the sick man’s neck and back. Then he spit in the otter and threw it to the ground, running away with great excitement. Other men then ran to the otter and performed such antics that it was a wonder to see; indeed, they threw fire, ate fire, and threw around hot ashes and embers in such a way that I ran out of the house.

Van den Bogaert wasn’t merely relating wondrous antics; he was documenting early ceremonies later incorporated into the masked False Face societies of Iroquois medicine men. Today’s historians should be thankful the surgeon remained in the room of fiery “devil hunters” as long as he did.

Van den Bogaert eventually entered the heart of the Iroquois tribes when he reached Lake Oneida, more than 100 miles from Fort Orange. There, the company faced what could have been its deadliest scare. Obviously wanting to intimidate the Dutchmen, the Iroquois brought them into a longhouse and crowded “so close to us here that we could barely sit.” After showing off some French goods, the threats worsened as, “an Indian once again called us scoundrels…he was very malicious so that Willem Tomassen became so angry that the tears ran from his eyes.” With Crieckenbeeck in mind and the surgeon reporting, “They could have easily grabbed us with their hands and killed us,” it’s a safe bet that Willem’s tears sprang from terror rather than righteous indignation. Van den Bogaert saved the day, however, when he shouted back at the Indian, calling him a scoundrel in return. The bluff had been called, and tensions eased when the brave turned flatterer, telling the surgeon, “You must not be angry. We are happy that you have come here.”

The surgeon’s reappearance was surely lauded by the Dutch, especially when they learned of his monopolistic trade agreement.Van den Bogaert was then tested by a tribal elder. The old man put a hand to the surgeon’s chest, and feeling a steady heartbeat confirmed that van den Bogaert was not afraid. Mutual respect finally assured, the two groups sat down to business. The Iroquois explained that though they received good prices from the French for their furs, they feared and disliked the Huron agents (despite the traditional enmity between the Huron and Iroquois, the French didn’t dare navigate the immense woodlands by themselves) and preferred to work with the Dutch. Prices for wampum and cloth were haggled over, with the sachems so pleased by the resulting handshake deal (made official that summer by the West India Company) that they concluded the meeting with a chant in honor of van den Bogaert: “This white man is a magician. He has leave to go around to all the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, and lie down safely among them. This is a useful thing for the Iroquois League.” The transcription of the chant in van den Bogaert’s journal is the earliest written documentation of the famed Iroquois Confederacy.

With a slew of accomplishments under his belt, van den Bogaert returned to Fort Orange and concluded his journal with a hearty, “praise and thank God, the 21st of January Anno 1635.” The surgeon’s reappearance was surely lauded by the Dutch, especially when they learned of his monopolistic trade agreement. As for the journal, it was sent to Kiliaen van Rensselaer and stored with the rest of his voluminous records.

The journal had one crucial omission, however: van den Bogaert’s name. Nowhere in the chronicle did van den Bogaert sign his name or otherwise reveal himself. After being shipped back to Europe, the chronicle disappeared completely until 1895, when General James Grant Wilson, a Scottish-born scholar and officer with the 4th U.S. Colored Cavalry, discovered it in Amsterdam among the van Rensselaer family archives. Authorship was then mistakenly assigned to a van Rensselaer agent, though the agent didn’t arrive in Rensselaerswyck until 1637. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that van den Bogaert began to receive credit thanks to the research of historian A.J.F. van Laer. The delay in recognition is a shame. After the Iroquois expedition, van den Bogaert’s career became a tragicomic mix of adventure and infamy, eventually leading to a scandal that burned far brighter in the historical record than his groundbreaking journal.


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