Monday, December 27, 2010

12,000 Rag Paper Pages

          Everyone knows about the Pilgrims coming to the New World on the Mayflower and settling on the Atlantic Coast.  However, there was another group of colonist that came to the New World in 1624, a few years before the Pilgrims, they came from Holland and settled the Dutch colony of New Netherland (now New York).  For various reasons, the details of this remarkable group are not common knowledge to many people.  One of these reasons deals with the fact that those who conquer write the history books.  This early Dutch Colony was eventually taken over by the English and as a result, history books usually do not begin a detailed history of this area until it became New York under England’s rule.
            A remarkable detail about the New Netherland colony relates to the records they consistently kept. The history of New Netherland was recorded on 12,000 rag paper pages and these brittle sheets have been under careful translation since 1974 by Dr. Charles Gehring.
            The account of how these 12,000 pages have been preserved is incredible as they and have “suffered many brushes with destruction over the centuries” leaving them physically difficult to read because of their poor condition.[1]  Their unbelievable journey began after the English took over the Dutch colony, and seized their records. After the merger of some of the New England colonies in 1686, some of the pages were lost and two years later when New Jersey and New York were joined the Dutch records were moved to Boston, the new administrative center.  In 1690, they were sent back to New York and most likely some pages were left behind and lost on the way as they were carried in the back of a wagon along a bumpy road on their way to Boston.  In 1741, during the slave insurrection in New York City, a fire started in the fort where the Dutch records were kept.  The Governor, hoping to save them, ordered the windows to be broken and the Dutch records to be thrown out into the street, however, reports of that night say that papers were “seen blowing down the street in a strong wind.”[2] 
            During the Revolutionary War the Dutch documents spent months in the holds of two British warships moored in the New York Harbor.  Here they were submitted to “many nautical perils, including dampness and the gnawing of rats.”[3]  After their time in the damp ship’s hold, they were sent to the Secretary of State’s office in New York, and then relocated to Albany when it became the capital in 1797.
            Finally, in 1881, the shuffled Dutch records went to the Manuscripts Division of the New York State Library for what was thought to be a safe location.  But in March 1911, disaster struck as the west end of the State Capitol burned; this was where the State Library was located. The aged Dutch pages that were not destroyed were singed and piled in charred, baked and water-damaged stacks that were frozen along their black edges from the water used to put out the fire. Ironically, the English records that were seen as being more important than the Dutch records, had been stored on the top shelves where they were more easily assessable while the Dutch records were stored on the lowest bookshelves. As a result, when the shelves collapsed in the fire, the English records fell on top of the Dutch records and actually protected them from further damage.[4]
            As I have read and reread the account of the arduous path of these long forgotten rag pages, I am interested in what stories are hidden within them and what parents, landowners, merchants and children are waiting to be discovered as these 12,000 rag pages continue to be translated a little bit every day.

[1] Peter A. Douglas, Dutch Renaissance: The Story of the New Netherland Project  (New York: New York State Library, 2009), 5.
[2] Douglas, 6.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 7.