Meuwese on Venema, 'Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664'

Janny Venema
Mark Meuwese

Janny Venema. Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. 527 pp. $31.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7914-6080-1; $86.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-6079-5.

Reviewed by Mark Meuwese (Department of History, University of Winnipeg) Published on H-Low-Countries (February, 2007)

A Social History of a New Netherland Community

The Dutch colony of New Netherland in seventeenth-century North America has recently received renewed attention from historians. The current proliferation of New Netherland studies is characterized by two developments. One is the influential role of the New Netherland Project. Based in the New York State Library in Albany, New York, this organization has been active since the 1970s in translating, editing, and promoting awareness of the Dutch archival records pertaining to New Netherland. Since the 1990s, every serious study of the Dutch colony in North America has made effective use of the publications and scholarly expertise of the New Netherland Project. The second recent development in the field of New Netherland studies is the increasing role of Dutch historians. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the historiography of New Netherland was dominated by American scholars. However, since the 1990s, Dutch historians and Dutch scholars based in North America have been catching up by producing some of the most interesting works on New Netherland. Using Dutch primary and secondary sources inaccessible to most American scholars, Dutch historians like Jaap Jacobs and Willem Frijhoff have corrected many of the often biased interpretations of New Netherland written by Anglo-American scholars.[1]

Janny Venema's detailed study of the Dutch community of Beverwijck (present-day Albany, New York) fits in well with the two recent developments in New Netherland studies. First, Venema has been formally associated with the New Netherland Project since 1985. She is currently its associate director. It is therefore not surprising that Venema's book on Beverwijck is based upon extensive research of Dutch archival collections in the state of New York. Venema's study of Beverwijck also connects well with recent New Netherland studies since the author, who is of Dutch origin, received her Ph.D. in history at a university in the Netherlands. The book under review is Venema's dissertation which she defended at the Free University in Amsterdam. Her dissertation advisor at the Free University was the earlier mentioned Willem Frijhoff. Clearly, Venema's long and ongoing association with the New Netherland Project and her training as a professional historian in the Netherlands makes her expertly qualified to write a well-researched and appropriately contextualized study of Beverwijck.

Like Jacobs and Frijhoff, Venema is interested in the transfer of Dutch culture from the Old World to the New. However, whereas Jacobs focused mostly on New Amsterdam and Frijhoff took a biographical approach, Venema uses the Beverwijck community as a case study to analyze how Dutch culture persisted and changed on the seventeenth-century North America frontier. Although Venema does not provide a clear definition of the controversial term "frontier," she describes the concept in her introduction as a place where "European and native civilizations met, and where borders were fluid and changed frequently" (p. 20). Additionally, Venema states, "The central question, to which we will try to find an answer, is how a culture brought by the Europeans, in the beginning phase of this settlement [Beverwijck], changed under influence of the physical environment and the native population" (p. 20).

Venema seeks to answer her central question by providing a comprehensive social history of Beverwijck from its founding in 1652 until the English conquest of New Netherland in 1664. Following the introduction, she analyzes the Beverwijck community in six thematic chapters. In the first chapter Venema analyzes the complex origins of Beverwijck as well as the physical construction of the town in the period under Dutch colonial rule. Beverwijck originated out of a conflict between the patroonship, or privately run colony, of Rensselaerswijck and the Dutch West India Company (WIC) over the legal status of the community of some two hundred Rensselaerswijck colonists living in the vicinity of the WIC Fort Orange on the west bank of the Upper Hudson River. In 1652, Petrus Stuyvesant, the director general of New Netherland, extended WIC jurisdiction over the Rensselaerswijck settlers who lived near Fort Orange. Stuyvesant also installed a local court of justice to maintain law and order in the newly incorporated village. The village was presumably named Beverwijck or "Beaver district" because of the significance of the fur trade to the community's economy.

In the second part of the first chapter, Venema demonstrates that Beverwijck closely resembled urban communities in the Dutch Republic. Some important similarities between Beverwijck and seventeenth-century Dutch towns were the prominent location of the Reformed church in the community and the presence of a poorhouse. At the same time, Beverwijck contained several buildings that were unique to its North American location. Several sheds were built in the backyards of houses to shelter Indians who visited Beverwijck during the trading season in the spring and summer. Moreover, when the fur trade declined and Dutch relations with neighboring Indian peoples became tense in the late 1650s, Beverwijck officials ordered the building of a wooden palisade to protect the town. Venema argues that this palisade created a stronger communal identity among the Beverwijck residents.

Venema discusses in chapter 2 the ethnic background of the people inhabiting Beverwijck and the institutions they created. As was typical of the Dutch overseas colonies, a large percentage of the Beverwijck population consisted of Europeans who were born outside of the Dutch Republic. Despite the ethnically mixed European population of Beverwijck, which included Dutch, Scandinavian, German, and English individuals, urban institutions transplanted from the Republic gave the town a decisively Dutch character. Important Dutch institutions in Beverwijck included the burgher guard or civic militia, the local court, and a system to care for orphans. Moreover, as a public institution, the Dutch Reformed church in Beverwijck was not only responsible for administering religious services to everyone in the community regardless of membership in the Reformed church, but was also expected to provide education and charity to the residents. Although Beverwijck strongly resembled a Dutch urban community, the North American frontier context also gave the town a unique identity. Mohawk Iroquois, Algonquian-speaking Mahicans, and other Indians regularly visited and stayed in Beverwijck to exchange goods with European colonists or to discuss diplomatic relations with Dutch colonial officials.

The remaining four chapters analyze in great detail the various social groups of Beverwijck. While chapter 3 discusses the transatlantic mercantile activities and elite lifestyles of two prominent Beverwijck residents, chapter 4 explains why some Beverwijck inhabitants were able to prosper economically and socially. According to Venema, those colonists who had arrived on the Upper Hudson Valley during the early years of Dutch colonization obtained a close acquaintance with local natural resources and the local indigenous peoples which gave them an advantage over colonists who arrived later. Early Beverwijck residents had also often developed close family and business ties with each other in order to survive in the New World. Chapter 5 analyzes the artisans who made up the largest segment of the Beverwijck population. Venema finds that much work in Beverwijck was seasonally bound. For example, during the fur trade season in the summer, the number of tavern keepers and gunsmiths increased as many Beverwijck residents sought to sell liquor and firearms to Indian customers. In the final chapter Venema describes how the people of Beverwijck responded to the plight of impoverished residents. Like the system of poor relief existing in the Republic, the Reformed church and the magistrates of Beverwijck closely worked together to raise public funds to prevent and alleviate poverty in the community. The frontier context of the Beverwijck poor relief system was reflected by the material aid given to several Catholic Frenchmen who had escaped from their Mohawk Iroquois captors.

Venema's book has several important strengths. First, the book persuasively shows in what ways Beverwijck was similar and different from Dutch towns in the Republic. Moreover, because of Venema's familiarity with the history and historiography of the seventeenth-century Republic and its overseas empire, the book succeeds rather well in putting Beverwijck in a Dutch cultural context. Venema's detailed descriptions and analyses of the economic, social, and cultural activities of Beverwijck residents are especially valuable for historians of colonial North America who are often unfamiliar with seventeenth-century Dutch culture and history. Furthermore, Venema's comprehensive discussion of all social groups inhabiting Beverwijck corrects Donna Merwick's earlier study on Beverwijck and Albany, which ignored the urban poor. Finally, Venema's study is based on a wealth of interdisciplinary primary and secondary sources, including maps, archeological reports, and architectural reconstructions of Beverwijck houses and buildings.[2]

Unfortunately, the book's meticulous discussion of the Beverwijck community often exhausts and overwhelms the reader. The author's thesis and argument could have been made much stronger and presented more effectively if editors had more rigorously revised the lengthy dissertation manuscript of almost four hundred pages. Venema's tendency to discuss every topic in great detail makes the reading often dense and slow-going. For example, most of page 58 is taken up by a detailed analysis of the possible location of one of the small creeks nearby Beverwijck. Although perhaps interesting to Albany residents, antiquarian discussions like this make the book less accessible to a larger audience.

Moreover, despite Venema's useful definition of the "frontier" as a physical space where different cultures meet, Venema is much more interested in describing the colonists' perspective than in the indigenous side of the story. Throughout the book, Indians remain anonymous and generic characters without their own motives and goals. For example, when discussing deteriorating Mohawk-Dutch relations in Beverwijck in the late 1650s, Venema does not fully explain why the Mohawks were so upset with the Dutch. Paying more attention to the Mohawk context could have informed readers that the Mohawks and the other Iroquois nations were involved in an increasingly desperate series of wars with French, Algonquian, and Susquehannock enemies. After the Beverwijck residents refused to give substantial military aid to their Iroquois neighbors, the Mohawks and the other Iroquois nations grew increasingly irritated with the Dutch.

Finally, Venema could have more strongly situated Beverwijck in a larger regional and longer chronological context. Although Venema occasionally refers to Beverwijck relations with New England colonists and Frenchmen from Canada, she does not fully address to what extent these intercolonial relations shaped the cultural identity of Beverwijck. Venema also abruptly and artificially ends the history of Beverwijck with the English conquest of 1664. As Donna Merwick has ably demonstrated, the English takeover of New Netherland had sometimes dramatic repercussions on the lives of Beverwijck residents. By exploring the experiences of the Beverwijck residents after 1664 Venema could have given more insight into the ongoing process of persistence and change of Dutch culture in colonial North America.[3]

Notwithstanding this criticism, Venema's study of Beverwijck is a strong addition to New Netherland studies and will remain the most authoritative study of a Dutch community in seventeenth-century North America for considerable time.


[1]. For the New Netherland Project, see its website: For recent New Netherland studies by Dutch scholars, see Jaap Jacobs, Een zegenrijk gewest: Nieuw Nederland in de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam: Prometheus-Bert Bakker, 1999), in English, New Netherland: A Dutch Colony in Seventeenth-Century America (Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers, 2004); Willem Frijhoff, Wegen van Evert Willemsz. Een Hollands weeskind op zoek naar zichzelf, 1607-1647 (Nijmegen: SUN, 1995). An English translation of this book is forthcoming from Brill. See also the various essays in Joyce D. Goodfriend, ed. Revisiting New Netherland: Perspectives on Early Dutch America (Leiden and Boston: Brill Publishers, 2005).

[2]. Donna Merwick, Possessing Albany, 1630-1710: The Dutch and English Experiences (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[3]. Donna Merwick, Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

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