Len Tantillo. ‘The Mesier Mill, Manhattan, c. 1695’, depicts a Dutch settlement on property owned by the colonial Hendricks family on land now known as ‘Ground Zero’.
The Dutch arrived in what is now New York State when a Dutch ship, the Halve Maen, or Half Moon, sailed up the Hudson River on a voyage of exploration, in search of the Northwest Passage. Commanded by an Englishman named Henry Hudson, and with a combined Dutch and English crew, it had been chartered by the Dutch East Indies Company. Fifteen years later, the Dutch established their colony of New Netherland, based on the island of Manhattan, and soon had established a large number of smaller settlements and military outposts north along the shores of the Hudson River. They quickly laid claim to what are today the states of New York and New Jersey and extensive territories in what later became the states of Connecticut, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The Dutch colony was never a completely monolithic culture, however, and from the beginning included not only Englishmen but representatives of various other European countries. There were significant numbers of Jews and a sizable population of mostly enslaved blacks. Throughout its short history, the Dutch colony tended to be tolerant of views other than those advocated by the Dutch Reformed Church, and New Netherland remained unmarked by the kind of religious rivalry and violence which often characterized the more conflict-prone New England settlements.
Only forty years after its founding, the Dutch colony was taken over by the English without the firing of a single shot–the result of a bargain reached in Europe in the course of one of the frequent Anglo-Dutch wars which periodically jarred the precarious peace of the old continent. But the Dutch did not abandon their colony, nor did the culture they had established vanish, and Dutch continued to be widely spoken in the New York region for over 200 years. Not until 1764, in fact, a century after the English annexation, was English used for preaching in Dutch Reformed churches. Venerable Dutch landowners and aristocrats like the Van Cortlandts and Van Rensselaers held on to their inherited lands and continued to hold sway over local populations and politics well into the English and American periods. President Martin van Buren, born along the Hudson and elected in 1836, spoke Dutch at home with his wife. Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, remembered hearing his grandparents speak Dutch at the family dinner table in the 1860’s. Dutch was widely spoken in Brooklyn into the middle of the 19th century and is thought by some to have heavily influenced the development of the so-called Brooklyn accent. A form of New Jersey Dutch, as spoken by a group of people of mixed African, Dutch and Native American ancestry who still live in the Ramapough Hills, did not die out until the 1920’s, and even today some Dutch expressions are common among them. Dutch is also rumored to have been spoken daily well into the 1940’s, and perhaps even later, among isolated families of Dutch descent in the Catskills. There is some evidence that Dutch continued to be used to some extent, at least by elderly persons who had grown up with it, here and there in the Hudson River Valley and even in Manhattan itself, throughout the first half of the 20th century at least.
I suppose we are not really so far removed in time from long vanished generations as we’d like to think. Even as late as about 1970, for example, it is certain that a handful of very ancient Americans were still alive who had been born in the pre-Civil War South and heard their first lullabies sung to them in the plantation houses or slave cabins in which they had been born. The last known American, both of whose parents were known to have been born into slavery, died just a couple of years ago, and even today there are more than a few very elderly Americans alive whose fathers, at least, were born before the Emancipation Proclamation, as slaves. Who is to say that 17th century Dutch is not still spoken somewhere in what was once the colony of New Netherland, if only a few words or phrases or nursery rhymes remembered by a very elderly descendant of Dutch forbears, who learned them a century ago as a child? I like to think that’s the way it is.