For stereotypes to work, they must have at least some basis in reality. Washington Irving,
writing as Diedrich Knickerbocker, knew how to flirt with truth in his History of New-York.(1)
The book is a devastatingly funny satire of Dutch New York. A young and as yet undiscovered
writer, Washington Irving was looking for a way to get attention. What he came up with was a
publicist's dream. With a series of missing person ads, he created an elderly man named
Knickerbocker, who had left behind a book manuscript when he disappeared from his New York
City hotel room. When the manuscript was eventually published to "recover hotel charges," New
Yorkers were eager to read it.
Knickerbocker's Dutchman is a slow and plodding sort, long on
planning, short on risk taking, and infinitely frustrating to the faster-paced Englishman.
The ablest ship-carpenters of Amsterdam, who, it is well
known, always model their ships after the fair forms of their
countrywomen. Accordingly, it had one hundred feet in the beam,
one hundred feet in the keel, and one hundred feet from the bottom
of the stern-post to the tafferel. Like the beauteous model, who
was declared to be the greatest bell in Amsterdam, it was full in the
bows, with a pair of enormous cat-heads, a copper bottom, and
withal a most prodigious poop!(2)
The male Dutchman was not let off any easier.
He was exactly five feet six inches in height, and six feet
five inches in circumference. ... His legs were short, but sturdy in
proportion to the weight they had to sustain; so that when erect he
had not a little the appearance of a beer barrel on skids.
St. Nicholas' importance in the culture of New Amsterdam stems, according to Irving,
from the dream of Olaffe Van Kortlandt. When Olaffe had finished a hearty meal, he settled
down to enjoy the Hudson view, fell asleep and dreamed.
And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream -- and lo, the good St.
Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that selfsame
wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children, and he
descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made
their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself
down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe
ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe
bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of
the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent
of country -- and as he considered it more attentively, he fancied
that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous
forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and
domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but for a moment, and
then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the
green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his
pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his
nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look,
then mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and
And Van Kortlandt awoke from his sleep greatly instructed,
and he aroused his companions, and related to them his dream, and
interpreted it, that it was the will of St. Nicholas that they should
settle down and build the city here. ... And the people lifted up
their voices and blessed the good St. Nicholas, and from that time
forth the sage Van Kortlandt was held in more honor than ever, for
his great talent at dreaming, and was pronounced a most useful
citizen and a right good man -- when he was asleep.(3)
The city of New Amsterdam, built upon the site of Olaffe's dream, had its own particular
style. Since the town fathers had been unable to agree upon a plan for the growth of the town,
the cows stepped into the void (or whatever else was there) and established their own paths
leading from pasture to pasture. The settlers immediately placed their homes along these routes,
leading to the wonderfully quaint streets of present day New York.
The houses of the higher class were generally constructed of wood, excepting the narrow
end, which was of small black and yellow Dutch bricks, and always faced on the street. The
interiors of the houses were filled with furniture brought over from Holland. These were kept
clean by the Dutch housewives with energy and enthusiasm.
The grand parlor was the sanctum sanctorum, where the
passion for cleaning was indulged without control. In this sacred
apartment no one was permitted to enter, excepting the mistress
and her confidential maid, who visited it once a week, for the
purpose of giving it a thorough cleaning, and putting things to
rights - always taking the precaution of leaving their shoes at the
door, and entering devoutly on their stocking feet. After scrubbing
the floor, sprinkling it with fine white sand, which was curiously
stroked into angles, and curves, and rhomboids with a broom -
after washing the windows, rubbing and polishing the furniture,
and putting a new bunch of evergreens in the fireplace - the
window shutters were again closed to keep out the flies, and the
room carefully locked up until the revolution of time brought round
the weekly cleaning day.
When the English sailed a naval fleet into New York City harbor, Governor Peter
Stuyvesant was all for fighting to the last man or woman in New Amsterdam. The town
residents, however, were not as enthused to die for the Dutch West India Trading Company as
Stuyvesant was. They were even less interested in fighting when they heard Knickerbocker's
version of the British terms of surrender.
Every man who voluntarily submitted to the authority of his
British Majesty should retain peaceful possession of his house, his
vrouw, and his cabbage-garden. That he should be suffered to
smoke his pipe, speak Dutch, wear as many breeches as he pleased,
and import bricks, tiles, and stone jugs from Holland, instead of
manufacturing them on the spot. That he should on no account be
compelled to learn the English language, nor eat codfish on
Saturdays, nor keep accounts in any other way than by casting them
up on his fingers, and chalking them down upon the crown of his
hat; as is observed among the Dutch yeomanry at the present day.
That every man should be allowed quietly to inherit his
father's hat, coat, shoe-buckles, pipe, and every other personal
appendange; and that no man should be obliged to conform to any
improvements, inventions, or any other modern innovations; but,
on the contrary, should be permitted to build his house, follow his
trade, manage his farm, rear his hogs, and educate his children,
precisely as his ancestors had done before him from time
Finally that he should have all the benefits of free trade, and
should not be required to acknowledge any other saint in the
calendar than St. Nicholas, who should thenceforward, as before,
be considered the tutelar saint of the city.(4)
And so New York City was captured without a drop of blood being shed.
The New York Dutchman: Reality
The Dutch who settled New Amsterdam in the early 17th century didn't come for
religious freedom, like the Puritans in New England. Holland was renowned for its open-minded
views on other peoples' faith. They came to be part of an expanding, international business.
They came on the company ship, to live in the company town, and work for the company store.
They came for the magic of Opportunity.
They loved the water and had lived on canals at home, and so they built on the islands
and along the rivers in their new home. They had been cosmopolitan in Amsterdam, dealing
with a variety of immigrants with a variety of languages, and so they were comfortable in a New
Amsterdam filled with a hodgepodge of Dutch and German, Swedish and French, English, a little
Spanish, and a multitude of Indian dialects.
They were a hard people to rile. They were careful and thoughtful, and extremely
practical. By 1624, the first thirty families had arrived at New Amsterdam, and the next year
three ships brought more supplies. The ships weren't named the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa
Maria. These were Dutch ships. They were named Horse, and Cow, and Sheep.
Dutch men did what needed to be done, but they did it at their own pace. The land was
cleared, the crops were sown, the fish were caught. All it took was getting up early, working
hard, eating well, and going early to bed. It doesn't sound like an exciting life, but it did help fuel
New Amsterdam's population boom.
Dutch women didn't keep the same deliberate pace as did their spouses. They were the
yeast bubbles in the tasty Dutch bread. A man judged his success by balancing off gains against
costs, a calculation that was probably done against the background of an evening cloud of smoke.
A woman saw the reflection of her success in every polished surface of her house.
When the great landowners came, they weren't that different from the ordinary burgher
families. There might be more to clean, there might be different things that one wanted in order
to keep up with the Schuylers or the Beekmans, but the fundamentals of life were the same -
God, home and work.
Cleaning was the passion and the pleasure of a Dutch wife. When Mevrouw De Lange
died, the inventory of her home and shop included: one rake brush, two hearth brooms, one cloth
brush, two Bermudian brooms with sticks, one hay broom without a stick, five whiting brushes, a
"brush to clean ye floor," five rubbers, two small painted brushes, two hair brushes, two dust
brushes, a chamber broom, two dust brushes called hoggs, and some miscellaneous brushes. One
is left to infer that Mevrouw probably died of overwork.
If Dutch households shone, the streets of the town certainly didn't. Cows were allowed to
run free and streets, at first, were filled with filth and dead animals. Fines eventually brought the
problem under control, but they would have done better to have put a Dutch woman in charge
from the beginning.
With essential supplies arriving from Holland, the settlers began to recreate
the homes they had left behind - essentials like glazed Holland bricks for their houses, tulip
bulbs for their gardens, furniture and fabrics, rugs and rubies.
Indulgences were not considered sinful by the Dutch. Unlike the Puritans, the Dutch saw
nothing wrong in the reasonable use of alcohol and tobacco. The fact that both of those items
could be, and often were, used to excess was unfortunate. A good Christian woman's pride in her
home, again in moderation, was not at odds with her hope of eventually reaching an eternal, and
probably very clean, paradise.
The soil of America produced exceptionally good fruits and vegetables, and the New
York colonists ate very well. In 1639, a garden was estimated to have "12 apple trees, 40 peach
trees and 73 cherry trees, 26 sage plants and 15 vines." Visitors in 1680 describe peach trees so
full of fruit that there seemed to be more fruit than leaves on the trees.
The Dutch influence didn't fade away when the English turned New Amsterdam into
New York. Just after the Revolutionary War, and in some parts of Dutchess County up to 1850,
Dutch was still a living language. It was known to have been spoken by Governor George
Clinton's wife, Cornelia Tappen, and by Alexander Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth Schuyler.(5)
Brought to America as a child, Anne McVickar Grant was left by her father, a British
soldier, to grow up around the Schuyler family, to whom she was related. Only a few years
younger than Henry, her book, Memoirs of an American Lady,(6) documents the Dutch New York
culture in the Albany area. The lady was Margaretta Schuyler, the aunt of General Schuyler and
the wife of Colonel Philip Schuyler, the son of the Native Americans' friend, Quidor.
Many of Anne's observations of the Schuyler circle fit Henry Livingston's personality to
perfection. Children, in this Dutch community, were raised with loving affection, taught that
they owed their happiness to the Source of all happiness and that they were accountable for their
actions to their God. Other than that, Anne describes the children as being left to nature, dressed
for convenience rather than show, treated as children rather than as young adults, and allowed to
grow up in a secure and supportive environment.
The children returned the fondness of their
parents with such tender affection, that [the parents] feared giving them pain as much as ours do
punishment, and very rarely wounded their feelings by neglect or rude answers.
which children, in particular, had for their parents, and the young in general for the old, was the
chief bond that held society together."(7)
In Henry's prose piece on the lives of the
camp fire horror of the story centers on the willingness of the children to take the lives of parents
who were unable to care for themselves.
From the age of five or six, the children in the small community where Anne lived were
divided into companies, equally balanced with girls and boys, though ranging widely in age and
allowing only a single child from a family to be in a particular company. Companies were
encouraged to compete in activities such as berry picking, basket decorating, etc., and twice a
year each child was allowed to entertain his or her company. On these occasions, everyone
would be dressed in their best clothes and a tea would be served with chocolate, preserved and
dried fruits, nuts, cakes, cider, or a syllabub. The description of these treats has a poignancy
since Anne, as an outsider, was never a member of a company.
The result of long intimacy
within such a small society was that it was the norm, when grown, for a young person to marry
within their company. The children, especially the boys, were students of nature and
friends with the Indians of the immediate area, who taught them the forest lore. They knew that
the soil in a wood of red oak would be composed of loam and sand, making it particularly good
for the cultivation of Indian corn, and that forests of chestnut trees contained strawberries, and
were good for growing wheat. Poplar forests, on the other hand, weren't worth the clearing, as
their soil was cold and wet.(9)
These type of observations parallel Henry's military journal entries.
October 9. The land between Crownpoint & Ticonderoga
is, by the looks of it & common report, very excellent fit for wheat
as well as grass, & something hilly. ... The timber chiefly hickory,
a few oaks, & white birch's & Curl'd maple.(10)
October 19. For the first 7 miles after leaving the Lake,
there is not one house. The land sunken, low & wet, the timber
chiefly white Birch, poplars, & such other wood as indicate a cold,
Anne remembered her uncle Schuyler taking responsibility for the tutelage of his niece,
Catalina, after the early death of her father.
Living close to the Native Americans, Catalina
was, even in childhood, well acquainted with their
language, opinions, and customs; and, like every other person
possessed of a liberality or benevolence of mind, whom chance had
brought acquainted with them, was exceedingly partial to those
high-souled and generous natives. The Mohawk language was
early familiar to her; she spoke Dutch and English with equal ease
and purity, was no stranger to the French tongue, and could, (I
think,) read German: I have heard her speak it.
conversations which her active curiosity led her to hold with native
Africans, brought into her father's family, she was more intimately
acquainted with the customs, manners, and government of their
native country, than she could have been, by reading all that was
ever written on the subject.
The Schuyler home, The Flatts, was situated on an important trail, so that everyone
eventually passed by the house. A few Indian families spent the summer living nearby, allowing
the women to earn money for the families with their handicrafts, while the men put in a stock of
meat and fish for winter.
The summer residence of these ingenious artisans promoted
a great intimacy between the females of the vicinity and the Indian
women, whose sagacity and comprehension of mind were beyond
belief. ... In the infancy of the settlement, the Indian language was
familiar to the more intelligent inhabitants, who found it very
useful, and were, no doubt, pleased with its nervous and emphatic
idiom, and its lofty and sonorous cadence. It was, indeed, a noble
and copious language, when one considers that it served as the
vehicle of thought to a people, whose ideas and sphere of action we
should consider as so very confined.(12)
This respect for the Indian culture and intelligence finds its reflection in Henry's journal
entry on dining with the chiefs of the Caghnawaga nation,(13) as well as in his prose pieces on the
ruins of an Indian fort.
These remains of Indian ingenuity, are unequalled by any other
discovered vestiges of that people, from the lake of Mexico to the arctic circle. The best judges of
modern defense declare, that, artillery out of the question, no situation in that country could be
happier chosen to repel an enemy.(14)
A feminist before the word was popular, Anne had strong objections to the lives led by
the Native American women.
The girls, in childhood, had a very pleasing appearance; but
excepting their fine hair, eyes, and teeth, every external grace was
soon banished by perpetual drudgery, carrying burdens too heavy
to be borne, and other slavish employments, considered beneath
the dignity of the men. These walked before, erect and graceful,
decked with ornaments, which set off to advantage the symmetry
of their well-formed persons, while the poor women followed,
meanly attired, bending under the weight of the children and
utensils, which they carried every where with them; and disfigured
and degraded by ceaseless toils. They were very early married -
for a Mohawk had no other servant but his wife; and whenever he
commenced hunter, it was requisite that he should have some one
to carry his load, cook his kettle, make his moccasins, and above
all, produce the young warriors, who were to succeed him in the
honors of the chase, and of the tomahawk. Whenever man is a
mere hunter, woman is a mere slave. It is domestic intercourse
that softens man, and elevates woman; and of that there can be
little, where the employments and amusements are not in
This passage strongly echoes Henry Livingston's description of the female-dominated
culture of Venus."(16)
Charming Venus! thine is the realm where masculinity
dares not rear its audacious front, but lovely femalism is all in all!"
Thus exclaimed the Russian sage when the beauteous orb of Venus
met his enraptured eye. In an elegant dome, where every lattice
and portal were thrown wide open, that all might see and hear (for
ladies love to be heard & seen) were seated an assembly of matrons
to legislate for the community. The speaker, in conformity to the
order of the house, was dressed in a rich purple gown with a train
of three yards in length; a petticoat most tastefully flounced, a
camels hair shawl glistening with undulated rows of diamonds,
earrings of the purest pearls, and a tete and bishop protuberant and
enchanting beyond description.
The secretary was observed to make her minutes with a
quill from the wing of a sparrow, and dipped her ink out of a
reservoir of real horn. They appeared to be in warm debate: and
the professor by looking at a paper over the shoulder of a lady
dressed in cross-barred muslin, found the subject to be whether the
men in future might be entertained as obsequious humble
companions, or be driven absolutely out of doors, and employed in
unremitted drudgery. A major appeared for the latter measure: but
the satirical Sheralov could not help remarking that several very
engaging damsels offered their services as overseers of the poor
Love, and all its delectable concomitants was utterly
unknown there; as that passion exists but where equality is
found or understood.
Remember, these words describe a New York Dutch society in the last half of the 1700's!