The Strange Case of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, Part Two

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

Part 2: Fetters and Memory

In 1637, only two years after his triumphant return from the wilderness, van den Bogaert found himself in difficulties with the patroon, Kiliaen van Rensselaer. Along with several others, the surgeon had the misfortune after being reported to van Rensselaer for having traded furs on his own account and not through agents of the tight-fisted West India Company. The angry patroon later wrote from his stately home in Amsterdam that he “[did] not propose to have people cheat me in this underhand fashion.” After threatening to exile anyone who didn’t pay up, van Rensselaer concluded his letter by adding that he was sending the wayward settlement eight copies of a book called The Practice of Godliness.

Van den Bogaert may have been practicing his own version of godliness when he turned state’s evidence in Manhattan in 1637. The surgeon swore before the court that he and several “others merry” were drinking together when the wife of Thomas Bescher, “not withstanding her husband’s presence, fumbled at the front of the breeches of most all who were present [and] when her husband requested her to go home with him, refused to do so, but continued to act as before.” The testimony didn’t include whether van den Bogaert’s own breeches had been fumbled with or not.

He was in Manhattan at that time because he was about to embark on a new career path: piracy. After purchasing co-ownership of a frigate named La Garce (meaning “The Wench,” though the literal French translation would be “The Bitchy Girl”), van den Bogaert made his will and sailed for the Caribbean to plunder the Spanish treasure fleets. The surgeon’s scheme had solid foundations; West India Company Admiral Piet Heyn once captured an entire Spanish silver fleet off the coast the Cuba. The prize netted the West India Company more than 11 million guilders, an astounding amount for a period when a house with land around it in the colony cost around 160 guilders. It’s doubtful The Wench brought many spoils, though, and by 1640 van den Bogaert was back at Manhattan, where he hired a lawyer to seek some meager back wages owed to him by the West India Company. It was hardly the act of a man bloated on stolen doubloons, although 1640 proved to be providential for van den Bogaert. Not only was he named commissary of stores at New Amsterdam, where he’d be responsible for the multitude of goods going in and out of the colony, but he married Jelisje Claesen, who would eventually bear him four children. Van den Bogaert kept up his Fort Orange connections, though, visiting often and eventually becoming commissary there in 1645. It was during one of his upstate periods in 1643 that the surgeon treated one of the most inspirational men of the New World, Father Isaac Jogues.

A Jesuit missionary to the Huron tribes, Jogues was captured, along with two younger Frenchmen and a number of Hurons, by Mohawk warriors in 1642. With both thumbs cut off and his fingernails torn out, Jogues was forced to accompany the Mohawks for a full year, at one point watching in horror as one of his colleagues was murdered in front of him. Word of the Jesuit’s desperate plight reached Rensselaerswyck, and with the settlement’s help Jogues made a miraculous escape. It was there that he described his wretched condition:

Besides, to increase my blessings—that is to say, my crosses—the wound which a dog had inflicted upon me, the night that I escaped from the Hiroquois, caused me so great a pain that, if the surgeon of that settlement [van den Bogaert] had not put his hand to it, I should have lost not only the leg but life; for gangrene was already setting in.

Even had the court granted mercy, van den Bogaert still would have faced some form of grievous punishment—flogging, beating, the wooden horse, all of these, or other physical torments. But van den Bogaert only delayed the priest’s death at the hands of the Mohawks. Determined to return to missionary work, Jogues wrote a friend in 1646, “My heart tells me that if I have the good fortune to be employed in this mission…I shall go and I shall not return.” The father was all too prescient. Captured again by Mohawks that September, Jogues was murdered by a single hatchet blow when an impetuous brave ignored his tribe’s decision to spare the priest’s life.

Described by a 19th-century historian as “highly respected, though…of an irascible temper,” van den Bogaert combined business and sin in equal measures during his time in the big city. In 1642, the New Amsterdam council recorded van den Bogaert’s sale of a Manhattan house and “plantation” (around what is now 47th Street and Second Avenue) that he’d inherited from an elderly wheelwright decapitated by a Weckquaesgeek Indian in an incident that touched off a massacre of the Weckquaesgeek tribe. Two years later, van den Bogaert testified about a drunken brawl between a soldier named Hendrick van Dyck and a lout called Black Jan. Along with another man at the scene, van den Bogaert swore that they, “saw and heard Black Jan say to Ensign van Dyke: ‘Brother, I drink to you!’ To which the ensign answered: ‘Brother, I thank you.’ Instead of handing over the can, Black Jan struck the ensign with the can on the forehead, so that blood flowed…and then threw the ensign over on his back.”

This wasn’t the only time that van den Bogaert was involved in sordid matters with van Dyke, a hard-drinking roughneck with one arm crippled from an Indian gunshot wound. Together they once charged that a slimy barkeep named Jan Snediger was selling less-than-full pints. Thanks to his military experiences against the Indians, van Dyke occasionally served as schout (sheriff) of New Amsterdam, and it was in this capacity that he and van den Bogaert had yet another barroom incident. In a scene straight out of a spaghetti Western, in July of 1647, van den Bogaert claimed he’d been drinking at a New Amsterdam tavern when the sheriff entered and said to him, “What the devil are you doing here? Betake yourself immediately up the river; I order you to do so.” Run out of town for no obvious reason (aside from Van Dyke’s intemperate truculence), van den Bogaert returned to Fort Orange, where he would soon scandalize the whole of the Dutch colony.

In an event later documented in letters between Rensselaerswyck and New Amsterdam, toward the end of 1647 van den Bogaert was caught in flagrante sodomizing his black slave, Tobias, and was jailed at Fort Orange. Despite the fact that the coupling was apparently consensual, with rape never mentioned in the records, the commissary was in very serious trouble. So far as the Calvinistic court was concerned, any participant in sodomy, willing or not, deserved capital punishment. In a case of the period, in which a man was found guilty of raping a 10-year-old slave and sentenced to death, the court declared, “…Although according to law a person with whom sodomy has been committed deserves to be put to death, yet, in view of the innocence and youth of the boy, we have ordered that he be brought to the place where [the condemned] shall be executed and that he be tied to a post, with wood piled around him, and be made to view the execution and be beaten with rods.”

With the Dutch Reformed version of leniency in mind, plus the fact that torture and irons were still used to elicit confessions, it’s easy to imagine how a disgraced authority figure like the commissary would have fared. His career already destroyed, van den Bogaert was almost assured a death sentence. Even had the court granted mercy, he still would have faced some form of grievous punishment—flogging, beating, the wooden horse, all of these, or other physical torments—plus a forced return to the Netherlands with a ruined name.

Fortunately for van den Bogaert, Fort Orange was notoriously lax on any number of fronts, and the commissary broke out of confinement and fled towards the Iroquois country with Tobias beside him. Five days later the slave was seized, but van den Bogaert eluded capture and made his way to the Iroquois, who offered him refuge.

A posse out of Rensselaerswyck tracked the surgeon through the winter forest and cornered him in an Iroquois longhouse filled with pelts, wampum, and vital food stores. It appears that, along with gunpowder, advanced metallurgy, brandy, syphilis, and the Bible, aggravated homophobia was a European introduction to the Americas. Evidence of accepted homosexuality and lesbianism has been found among numerous New World tribes, including the Maya, Ojibwa, Sioux, Iroquois, Cheyenne, Omaha, and Aleut. The Iroquois may even have had explicitly homosexual ceremonies; in 1776, a French Jesuit wrote, “There are men unashamed to wear women’s clothing and to practice all the occupations of women, from which follows corruption that I cannot express. They pretend that its usage comes from their religion. These effeminates never marry and abandon themselves to the most infamous passions.”

Whether the priest was accurately describing sacred rites or had simply stumbled upon a good party hardly matters; the Iroquois were in any event more tolerant than the authorities of New Netherland. Proof of the ferocity of Dutch outrage is that, with a determination mirroring that of van den Bogaert’s original expedition, they refused to wait until spring to hunt the fugitive. Led by one Hans Vos (meaning “Fox”), a posse out of Rensselaerswyck tracked the surgeon through the winter forest and cornered him in an Iroquois longhouse filled with pelts, wampum, and vital food stores. Refusing to surrender quietly, the trapped commissary set fire to the barn, but the distraction didn’t save him. Later rewarded with eight guilders for, “having in the name of the patroon, at the peril of his life, pursued the fugitive…outside the limits of the colony,” Vos caught van den Bogaert and delivered him to Fort Orange.

Before any sentence was handed down, though, van den Bogaert escaped his jailers for a second time. Perhaps hoping to escape to the English settlements along the Connecticut River, the surgeon fled east across the frozen Hudson. It was there that his luck, such as it was, finally abandoned him. With guards from the fort chasing behind, van den Bogaert fell through the ice and drowned. He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday.

New Amsterdam received details of van den Bogaert’s demise in February 1648 in a letter “sent from the colony of Rensselaerswyck by an Indian.” After referring to the “sad and miserable death and end of Harmen Meyndersz, late commissary of Fort Orange,” and detailing that, “in defending himself he set said house on fire, whereby not only all the provisions of the Indians for the winter, but also all their peltries and seawan [wampum] were burned,” the council used van den Bogaert’s properties to reimburse the Iroquois for their lost provisions. The land was sold at auction, with the council guaranteeing the sale exempt from, “all claims and challenge which may hereafter be set up to it by the heirs of the aforesaid Harmen Meyndersz.” Adding insult to injury, the court’s very next piece of business was to divvy up the spoils pirated by La Garce, at that point owned by others entirely. Once among the brighter lights of the Dutch colonies, van den Bogaert had lost everything. All that remained was an unsigned chronicle already buried in the patroon’s sea of records.

A teenaged youth when he arrived in Manhattan, van den Bogaert moved easily between the good, the bad, and the ugly of New Netherland, and his brief yet colorful biography touches upon nearly every important aspect of the Dutch colonial effort. That he was capable of surviving, and at times thriving, for as long as he did is emblematic of the endurance and industry of the Dutch colonists as a whole. It would be appropriate to eulogize van den Bogaert’s turbulent life and times with the words of Father Jogues, who wrote in Rensselaerswyck at the end of August 1643:

Pray for these poor nations which burn and devour one another, that at last they may come to knowledge of their Creator, in order to render Him the tribute of their love. Memor sum vesti in vinculis meis [“I am mindful of you in my bonds”]; I do not forget you; my captivity cannot fetter my memory.


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