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New Holland: Letter of Reverend Jonas Michaelius, 1628

The Dutch presence in North America is now but a footnote. This letter by Reverend Jonas Michaelius, written in 1628, is a wonderful overview of the conditions in New Holland at the time. The Mohicans were very much in a force in the area at that time (since the forcible relocation of Amerindian populations to reservations in the American west during the 1830s, most descendants of the Mohican live in Shawano County, Wisconsin). The description of European native relations, and the conditions of life at the time are a reminder of the tenuous beginnings.
— Orly

The Reverend, Learned and Pious Mr. Adrianus Smoutius, Faithful Minister of the Holy Gospel of Christ in his Church, dwelling upon the Heerengracht, not far from the West India House at Amsterdam. By a friend, whom God Preserve.

The Peace of Christ to You.

Reverend Sir, Well Beloved Brother in Christ, Kind Friend!

THE favorable opportunity which now presents itself of writing to your Reverence I cannot let pass, without embracing it, according to my promise. And, first to unburden myself in this communication of a sorrowful circumstance, it pleased the Lord, seven weeks after we arrived in this country, to take from me my good partner, who had been to me, for more than sixteen years, a virtuous, faithful, and altogether amiable yoke-fellow; and I now find myself alone with three children,(1) very much discommoded, without her society and assistance. But what have I to say? The Lord himself has done this, against whom no one can oppose himself. And why should I even wish to, knowing that all things must work together for good to them that love God? I hope therefore to bear my cross patiently, and by the grace and help of the Lord, not to let the courage fail me which in my duties here I so especially need.

(1) Two daughters and a son, Jan, whom he had placed in the house and custody of skipper Jan Jansen Brouwer.

The voyage was long, namely, from the 24th of January till the 7th of April, when we first set foot upon land here. Of storm and tempest which fell hard upon the good wife and children, though they bore it better as regards sea-sickness and fear than I had expected, we had no lack, particularly in the vicinity of the Bermudas and the rough coasts of this country. Our fare in the ship was very poor and scanty, so that my blessed wife and children, not eating with us in the cabin, on account of the little room in it, had a worse lot than the sailors themselves; and that by reason of a wicked cook who annoyed them in every way; but especially by reason of the captain himself,(1) who, although I frequently complained of it in the most courteous manner, did not concern himself in the least about correcting the rascal; nor did he, even when they were all sick, given them anything which could do them any good, although there was enough in the ship: as he himself knew very well where to find it in order, out of meal times, to fill his own stomach. All the relief which he gave us, consisted merely in liberal promises, with a drunken head; upon which nothing followed when he was sober but a sour face; and he raged at the officers and kept himself constantly to the wine, both at sea and especially here while lying in the river; so that he daily walked the deck drunk and with an empty head, seldom coming ashore to the Council and never to Divine service. We bore all with silence on board the ship; but it grieves me, when I think of it, on account of my wife; the more, because she was so situated as she was—believing that she was with child—and the time so short which she had yet to live. On my first voyage I roamed about with him a great deal, even lodged in the same hut, but never knew that he was such a brute and drunkard. But he was then under the direction of Mr. Lam,(2) and now he had the chief command himself. I have also written to Mr. Godyn(3) about it, considering it necessary that it should be known.

(1) "Evert Croeger, with whom, prior to this, I had made long voyages, but never before did I know him well."—Letter of August 8 to Jan Foreest. (2) Admiral Jan Dirckszoon Lam, who in 1625 and 1626 was in command of a Dutch squadron on the west coast of Africa. (3) Probably Samuel Godyn, a prominent director of the company.

Our coming here was agreeable to all, and I hope, by the grace of the Lord, that my service will not be unfruitful. The people, for the most part, are rather rough and unrestrained, but I find in almost all of them both love and respect towards me; two things with which hitherto the Lord has everywhere graciously blessed my labors, and which in our calling, as your Reverence well knows and finds, are especially desirable, in order to make our ministry fruitful.

From the beginning we established the form of a church; and as Brother Bastiaen Crol(1) very seldom comes down from Fort Orange, because the directorship of that fort and the trade there is committed to him, it has been thought best to choose two elders for my assistance and for the proper consideration of all such ecclesiastical matters as might occur, intending the coming year, if the Lord permit, to let one of them retire, and to choose another in his place from a double number first lawfully proposed to the congregation. One of those whom we have now chosen is the Honorable Director(2) himself, and the other is the storekeeper of the Company, Jan Huygen,(3) his brother-in-law, persons of very good character, as far as I have been able to learn, having both been formerly in office in the Church, the one as deacon, and the other as elder in the Dutch and French churches, respectively, at Wesel.(4)

(1) Sebastian Janszoon Krol came out to New Netherland in 1626 as a "comforter of the sick" at Manhattan, but before long went up to Fort Orange, where he was chief agent for the company most of the time to March, 1632. Then, on Minuit's recall, he was director-general till Wouter van Twiller's arrival in April, 1633. (2) Peter Minuit, born of Huguenot parentage in 1550 in Wesel, west Germany, was made director general of New Netherland in December, 1625, arrived in May, 1626, bought Manhattan Island of the Indians that summer, and remained in office till recalled early in 1632. In 1636-1637 he made arrangements with Blommaert and the Swedish government, in consequence of which he conducted the first Swedish colony to Delaware Bay, landing there in the spring of 1638, and establishing New Sweden on territory claimed by the Dutch. During the ensuing summer he perished in a hurricane at St. Christopher, in the West Indies. (3) Probably the ame as Jan Huych, comforter of the sick. (4) Jan Huyghens was deacon of the Dutch Reformed church at Wesel in 1612; and probably Minuit was elder in the French church there.

At the first administration of the Lord's Supper which was observed, not without great joy and comfort to many, we had fully fifty communicants—Walloons and Dutch; of whom, a portion made their first confession of faith before us, and others exhibited their church certificates. Others had forgotten to bring their certificates with them, not thinking that a church would be formed and established here; and some who brought them, had lost them unfortunately in a general conflagration, but they were admitted upon the satisfactory testimony of others to whom they were known, and also upon their daily good deportment, since one cannot observe strictly all the usual formalities in making a beginning under such circumstance.

We administer the Holy Supper of the Lord once in four months, provisionally, until a larger number of people shall otherwise require. The Walloons and French have no service on Sundays, otherwise than in the Dutch language, for those who understand no Dutch are very few. A portion of the Walloons are going back to the Fatherland, either because their years here are expired, or else because some are not very serviceable to the Company. Some of them live far away and could not well come in time of heavy rain and storm, so that they themselves cannot think it advisable to appoint any special service in French for so small a number, and that upon an uncertainty. Nevertheless, the Lord's Supper is administered to them in the French language, and according to the French mode, with a sermon preceding, which I have before me in writing, so long as I can not trust myself extemporaneously.(1) If in this and in other matters your Reverence and the Reverend Brethren of the Consistory, who have special superintendence over us here, deem it necessary to administer to us any correction, instruction or good advice, it will be agreeable to us and we shall thank your Reverence therefor; since we must all have no other object than the glory of God in the building up of his kingdom and the salvation of many souls. I keep myself as far as practicable within the pale of my calling, wherein I find myself sufficiently occupied. And although our small consistory embraces at the most—when Brother Crol is down here—not more than four persons, all of whom, myself alone excepted, have also public business to attend to, I still hope to separate carefully the ecclesiastical from the civil matters which occur, so that each one will be occupied with his own subject.

(1) That is, to preach extempore in French.

And though many things are mixti generis, and political and ecclesiastical persons can greatly assist each other, nevertheless the matters and officers proceeding together must not be mixed but kept separate, in order to prevent all confusion and disorder. As the Council of this place consists of good people, who are, however, for the most part simple and have little experience in public affairs, I should have little objection to serve them in any difficult or dubious affair with good advice, provided I considered myself capable and my advice should be asked; in which case I suppose that I should not do amiss nor be suspected by any one of being a polupragmov or allotrioepiskopos.(1)

(1) I Peter iv. 15; a meddler or "busy-body in other men's matters."

In my opinion it would be well that the Honorable Directors should furnish this place with plainer and more precise instructions to the rulers, that they may distinctly know how to conduct themselves in all possible public difficulties and events; and also that I should some time have here all such Acta Synolalia, as have been adopted in the synods of Holland; both the special ones of our quarter,(1) and those which are provincial and national, in relation to ecclesiastical difficulties; or at least such of them as in the judgment of the Honorable Brethren at Amsterdam would be most likely to be of service to us here. In the meantime, I hope matters will go well here, if only on our part we do our best in all sincerity and honest zeal; whereunto I have from the first entirely devoted myself, and wherein I have also hitherto, by the grace of God, had no just cause to complain of any one. And if any dubious matters of importance come before me, and especially if they will admit of any delay, I shall refer myself to the good and prudent advice of the Honorable Brethren, to whom I have already wholly commended myself.

(1) I.e., acts of the synod of North Holland. North Holland was not at this time a province, but merely a part of the province of Holland, the chief of the seven United Provinces. The national Acta would probably be those of the six fundamental synodical conventions of 1568-1586 and the Synod of Dort.

As to the natives of this country, I find them entirely savage and wild, strangers to all decency, yea, uncivil and stupid as garden poles, proficient in all wickedness and godlessness; devilish men, who serve nobody but the Devil, that is, the spirit which in their language they call Menetto; under which title they comprehend everything that is subtle and crafty and beyond human skill and power. They have so much witchcraft, divination, sorcery and wicked arts, that they can hardly be held in by any bands or locks. They are as thievish and treacherous as they are tall; and in cruelty they are altogether inhuman, more than barbarous, far exceeding the Africans.(1)

(1) He had served on the west coast of Africa; see the introduction.

I have written concerning this matter to several persons elsewhere, not doubting that Brother Crol will have written sufficient to your Reverence, or to the Honorable Directors; as also of the base treachery and the murders which the Mohicans, at the upper part of this river, had planned against Fort Orange, but which failed through the gracious interposition of our Lord, for our good—who, when it pleases Him, knows how to pour, unexpectedly, natural impulses into these unnatural men, in order to prevent them. How these people can best be led to the true knowledge of God and of the Mediator Christ, is hard to say. I cannot myself wonder enough who it is that has imposed so much upon your Reverence and many others in the Fatherland, concerning the docility of these people and their good nature, the proper principia religionis and vestigia legis naturae which are said to be among them; in whom I have as yet been able to discover hardly a single good point, except that they do not speak so jeeringly and so scoffingly of the godlike and glorious majesty of their Creator as the Africans dare to do. But it may be because they have no certain knowledge of Him, or scarcely any. If we speak to them of God, it appears to them like a dream; and we are compelled to speak of him, not under the name of Menetto, whom they know and serve—for that would be blasphemy—but of one great, yea, most high, Sackiema, by which name they—living without a king—call him who has the command over several hundred among them, and who by our people are called Sackemakers; and as the people listen, some will begin to mutter and shake their heads as if it were a silly fable; and others, in order to express regard and friendship for such a proposition, will say Orith (That is good). Now, by what means are we to lead this people to salvation, or to make a salutary breach among them? I take the liberty on this point of enlarging somewhat to your Reverence.

Their language, which is the first thing to be employed with them, methinks is entirely peculiar. Many of our common people call it an easy language, which is soon learned, but I am of a contrary opinion. For those who can understand their words to some extent and repeat them, fail greatly in the pronunciation, and speak a broken language, like the language of Ashdod.(1) For these people have difficult aspirates and many guttural letters, which are formed more in the throat than by the mouth, teeth and lips, to which our people not being accustomed, make a bold stroke at the thing and imagine that they have accomplished something wonderful. It is true one can easily learn as much as is sufficient for the purposes of trading, but this is done almost as much by signs with the thumb and fingers as by speaking; and this cannot be done in religious matters. It also seems to us that they rather design to conceal their language from us than to properly communicate it, except in things which happen in daily trade; saying that it is sufficient for us to understand them in that; and then they speak only half sentences, shortened words, and frequently call out a dozen things and even more; and all things which have only a rude resemblance to each other, they frequently call by the same name. In truth it is a made-up, childish language; so that even those who can best of all speak with the savages, and get along well in trade, are nevertheless wholly in the dark and bewildered when they hear the savages talking among themselves.

(1) An allusion to Nehemiah xiii. 24.

It would be well then to leave the parents as they are, and begin with the children who are still young. So be it. But they ought in youth to be separated from their parents; yea, from their whole nation. For, without this, they would forthwith be as much accustomed as their parents to the heathenish tricks and deviltries, which are kneaded naturally in their hearts by themselves through a just judgment of God; so that having once, by habit, obtained deep root, they would with great difficulty be emancipated therefrom. But this separation is hard to effect. For the parents have a strong affection for their children, and are very loth to part with them; and when they are separated from them, as we have already had proof, the parents are never contented, but take them away stealthily, or induce them to run away. Nevertheless, although it would be attended with some expense, we ought, by means of presents and promises, to obtain the children, with the gratitude and consent of the parents, in order to place them under the instruction of some experienced and godly schoolmaster, where they may be instructed not only to speak, read, and write in our language, but also especially in the fundamentals of our Christian religion; and where, besides, they will see nothing but good examples of virtuous living; but they must sometimes speak their native tongue among themselves in order not to forget it, as being evidently a principal means of spreading the knowledge of religion through the whole nation. In the meantime we should not forget to beseech the Lord, with ardent and continual prayers, for His blessing; who can make things which are unseen suddenly and opportunely to appear; who gives life to the dead; calls that which is not as though it were; and being rich in mercy has pity on whom He will; as He has compassionated us to be His people; and has washed us clean, sanctified us and justified us, when we were covered with all manner of corruption, calling us to the blessed knowledge of His Son, and out of the power of darkness to His marvellous light. And this I regard so much the more necessary, as the wrath and curse of God, resting upon this miserable people, is found to be the heavier. Perchance God may at last have mercy upon them, that the fulness of the heathen may be gradually brought in and the salvation of our God may be here also seen among these wild savage men. I hope to keep a watchful eye over these people, and to learn as much as possible of their language, and to seek better opportunities for their instruction than hitherto it has been possible to find.

As to what concerns myself and my household affairs: I find myself by the loss of my good and helpful partner very much hindered and distressed—for my two little daughters are yet small; maid servants are not here to be had, at least none whom they can advise me to take; and the Angola slave women(1) are thievish, lazy, and useless trash. The young man whom I took with me, I discharged after Whitsuntide, for the reason that I could not employ him out-of-doors at any working of the land, and in-doors he was a burden to me instead of an assistance. He is now elsewhere at service among the farmers.

(1) Slavery was introduced into New Netherland two or three years before this, a number of negroes, some of them from Angola, having been imported in 1625 or 1626.

The promise which the Honorable Directors of the Company had made me of some morgens or acres of land for me to sustain myself, instead of a free table which otherwise belonged to me, is void and useless. For their Honors well knew that there are no horses, cows, or laborers to be obtained here for money. Every one is short in these particulars and wants more. I should not mind the expense if the opportunity only offered, for the sake of our own comfort, although there were no profit in it (the Honorable Directors nevertheless remaining indebted to me for as much as the value of a free table), for refreshment of butter, milk, etc., cannot be here obtained; though some is indeed sold at a very high price, for those who bring it in or bespeak it are jealous of each other. So I shall be compelled to pass through the winter without butter and other necessities, which the ships do not bring with them to be sold here. The rations, which are given out here, and charged for high enough, are all hard stale food, such as men are used to on board ship, and frequently not very good, and even so one cannot obtain as much as he desires. I began to get considerable strength, by the grace of the Lord, but in consequence of this hard fare of beans and gray peas, which are hard enough, barley, stockfish, etc., without much change, I cannot fully recuperate as I otherwise would. The summer yields something, but what is that for any one who does not feel well? The savages also bring some things, but one who has no wares, such as knives, beads, and the like, or seewan, cannot come to any terms with them. Though the people trade such things for proper wares, I know not whether it is permitted by the laws of the Company. I have now ordered from Holland almost all necessaries; and I hope to pass through the winter, with hard and scanty food.

The country yields many good things for the support of life, but they are all too unfit and wild to be gathered. Better regulations should be established, and people brought here who have the knowledge and implements for seeking out all kinds of things in their season and for securing and gathering them. No doubt this will gradually be done. In the meanwhile, I wish the Honorable Directors to be courteously enquired of, how I can best have the opportunity to possess a portion of land, and (even at my own expense) to support myself upon it. For as long as there is no more accommodation to be obtained here from the country people, and I shall be compelled to order everything from the Fatherland at great expense and with much risk and trouble, or else live here upon these poor and hard rations alone, it will badly suit me and my children. We want ten or twelve more farmers with horses, cows and laborers in proportion, to furnish us with bread, milk products, and suitable fruits. For there are convenient places which can be easily protected and are very suitable, which can be bought from the savages for trifling toys, or could be occupied without risk, because we have more than enough shares which have never been abandoned but have been always reserved for that purpose.

The business of furs is dull on account of the new war of the Maechibaeys(1) against the Mohicans at the upper end of this river. There have occurred cruel murders on both sides. The Mohicans have fled and their lands are unoccupied and are very fertile and pleasant. It grieves us that there are no people, and that there is no order from the Honorable Directors to occupy the same. Much timber is cut here to carry to the Fatherland, but the vessels are too few to take much of it. They are making a windmill to saw lumber and we also have a gristmill. They bake brick here, but it is very poor. There is good material for burning lime, namely, oyster shells, in large quantities. The burning of potash has not succeeded; the master and his laborers are all greatly disappointed.

(1) Mohawks.

We are busy now in building a fort of good quarry stone, which is to be found not far from here in abundance. May the Lord only build and watch over our walls. There is good opportunity for making salt, for there are convenient places, the water is salt enough, and there is no want of heat in summer. Besides, what the waters yield, both of the sea and rivers, in all kinds of fish; and what the land possesses in all kinds of birds, game, and woods, with vegetables, fruits, roots, herbs and plants, both for eating and medicinal purposes, and with which wonderful cures can be effected, it would take too long to tell, nor could I yet tell accurately. Your Reverence has already obtained some knowledge thereof and will be able to obtain from others further information. The country is good and pleasant, the climate is healthy, notwithstanding the sudden changes of cold and heat. The sun is very warm, the winter is fierce and severe and continues fully as long as in our country. The best remedy is not to spare the wood, of which there is enough, and to cover one's self with rough skins, which can also easily be obtained.

The harvest, God be praised, is in the barns, and is larger than ever before. There ha been more work put on it than before. The ground is fertile enough to reward labor, but they must clear it well, and till it, just as our lands require. Until now there has been distress because many people were not very industrious, and also did not obtain proper sustenance for want of bread and other necessaries. But affairs are beginning to go better and to put on a different appearance, if only the Directors will send out good laborers and exercise all care that they be maintained as well as possible with what this country produces.

I had intended and promised [to write] to the Honorable Brethren, Rudolphus Petri, Joannes Sylvius and Domine Cloppenburg, who, with your Reverence, were charged with the superintendence of these regions;(1) but as this would take long and the time is short, and my occupations at the present time many, your Reverence will please to give my friendly and kind regards to their Reverences, and to excuse me, on condition that I remain their debtor to fulfill my promise—God willing—the next time. Be pleased also to give my sincere respects to the Reverend Domine Triglandius, and to all the Brethren of the Consistory(2) besides, to all of whom I have not thought it necessary to write particularly at this time, as they are made by me participants in these tidings, and are content to be fed from the hand of your Reverence. If it shall be convenient for your Reverence or any of the Reverence Brethren to write to me a letter concerning matters which might be important in any degree to me, it would be very interesting to me, living here in a wild country without any society of our order, and would be a spur to write more assiduously to the Reverend Brethren concerning what may happen here. And especially do not forget my hearty salutations to the beloved wife and brother-in-law of your Reverence, who have shown me nothing but friendship and kindness above my deserts. If there were anything in which I could in return serve or gratify your Reverence, I should be glad to do so, and should not be delinquent in anything.

(1) This duty had been committed to them by the synod of North Holland. The preachers named in the text were all at this time active in Amsterdam; Sylvius and Triglandius since 1610, and Johannes Cloppenburg since 1621. (2) Of Amsterdam.

Concluding then herewith, and commending myself to your Reverence's favor and to your holy prayers to the Lord,

Reverence and Learned Sir, Beloved Brother in Christ, and Kind Friend:

Heartily commending your Reverence and all of you to Almighty God, to continued health and prosperity, and to eternal Salvation, by His Grace.

From the island of Manhatas in New Netherland, this 11th of August, Anno 1628, by me, your Reverence's very obedient servant in Christ,

JONAS MICHAELIUS.

FINIS

Source:  Narrative New Netherland, edited by J. F. Jameson

 

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