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Historical Documents
Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts


Introduction1

The present work contains translation of a collection of manuscripts which on examination will prove one of the most valuable sources of information for the history of early Dutch settlement in the state of New York.

The papers have been handed down in the Holland branch of the van Rensselaer family and are at present owned by Jonkheer H. J. J. van Rensselaer Bowier and Jonkheer M. W. M. M. van Rensselaer Bowier, who inherited the papers from his mother, Sara van Rensselaer, the last of the name in Holland.

The papers consist for the greater part of the writings of the man who for the first 16 years of the life of the colony managed its affairs from his home at Amsterdam and contain therefore first hand information as to the plan and motive of the successive steps taken in building up the settlement which has played such a conspicuous part in the development of the province.

With respect to all these matters the present papers furnish information which is completely at variance with the statements about the establishment of the colony made by O'Callaghan and numerous other writers whose accounts may be traced back to his. In reading these accounts one receives the impression that with the exception of the district of Papascanee, practically all the land included in the later manor of Rensselaerswyck, situated on both sides of the river and covering a tract 24 miles long by 48 miles wide, was bought as early as 1630; that the same year no less than 20 settlers came over; that immediately a fully organized court with Jacob Albertsz Planck as schout was established and that, also in 1630, Arent van Curler took up his duties of commissary-general or superintendent of the colony.

The papers printed in this volume
show that nothing of the sort took place.

Nearly all the land of the colony, till the purchase of Papascanee in 1637, was on the west side of the river; and instead of all being bought in 1630, a part was not bought till May 1631. Instead of 20 settlers, but ten sailed for the colony in 1630, and no schout or magistrates were appointed till 1632, it being moreover doubtful whether the first schout, Rutger Hendricksz van Soest, ever took the oath and held court. As to Jacob Albertsz Planck, he did not become schout of the colony till 1634, and Arent van Curler, then 18 years of age, was sent out as his assistant in 1637. The truth of the matter is that the contentions between Kiliaen van Rensselaer and the West India Company regarding the right to the fur trade and the various difficulties laid in the way of transportation of cattle and implements by members of the board of directors who were opposed to the policy of agricultural colonization so impeded the progress of settlement that, in 1634, the patroon was quite ready to abandon the entire enterprise if the Company would pay him the price asked. The uncertainty which existed regarding the prospects of the colony is strikingly illustrated by the entire absence of letters for the year 1633; at the end of 1634 matters seem to have been adjusted and from that time the affairs of the colony moved steadily forward. By 1636 three farms had been established and the patroon made arrangements to send a large number of colonists by a ship equipped at the joint expense of himself and Gerard de Forest. This increase in the population soon made it necessary to make more ample provision for the administration of the colony. Planck held the office of schout as well as that of commis, thus combining the chief judicial and executive office with the business management of the colony. In neither capacity was he particularly successful and in 1639 the patroon decided to make a change. Not finding it easy to induce "people of capacity," as he calls them, to accept his propositions, he for the time being entrusted judicial and business matters to the joint care of three gecommitteerden, or commissioners, namely, Arent van Curler, Pieter Cornelisz van Munnickendam and Cornelis Teunisz van Breuckelen, who exercised their functions till the arrival of Adriaen van der Donck in 1641. Van der Donck acted in the capacity of schout till 1646, when he was succeeded by Nicolaes Coorn, who in turn was replaced in 1648 by Brant van Slicktenhorst, first director of the colony. Among the Rensselaerswyck manuscripts has been preserved a complete record of the court presided over by Slichtenhorst till April 10, 1652, when Director General Stuyvesant established in Fort Orange a court of justice for the village of Beverwyck, independent of that in Rensselaerswyck; for the study of the powers and duties of the officers that preceded van Slichtenhorst, we must fall back on the instructions contained in the present papers, which on that account have especial value.

It may here be said in passing that the court of the colony, while it existed till 1665, when Gov. Nicolls consolidated the courts of Albany and Rensselaerswyck, had apparently rarely if ever occasion to try cases after 1652, when the principal settlement of the colony was erected into a village with separate jurisdiction, and that at a later date, when the Dutch patroonship had been changed to an English manor, the practice of referring cases to the court at Albany had become so firmly established that the lords of the manor never seem to have cared to exercise their right to hold court leet and court baron, granted them by the Dongan patent of 1685. The question whether this right was actually exercised or not is of peculiar interests because it was one of the most distinct survivals of the feudal privileges for which the first patroon at all times fought so tenaciously.

The letters of Kiliaen van Rensselaer break off abruptly in 1643. As already intimated above, the patroon lived till 1646, and it is likely therefore that another letter book, containing accounts of transactions between these two dates was at one time in existence. That no such book is available is especially regrettable because the year 1643 marks an interesting period in the history of the colony when owing to the fur trading privileges granted by the second charter of Freedoms and Exemptions many people flocked to the colony and the patroon was obliged to issue the most vigorous instructions to maintain his rights. Such a book would therefore not only have given us more definite information than we now possess about the closing years of the administration of Adriaen van der Donck and have thrown light on the relative importance of the settlement on the east side of the river where the patroon intended that all mechanics should dwell and the first church should be erected.

Among matters found in the papers that are of interest outside of the local affairs of the colony may be mentioned the fact that Pavonia was bought by the Company as early as 1634, and not as is generally believed in 1637; the new light thrown on Peter Minuit whose contract for the sale of cattle, entirely in his own handwriting and in good Dutch though with distinctly German spelling, is found in the Letter Book; side lights on the administration of Wouter van Twiller and Willem Kieft, to whom the patroon addresses a number of letters; the fact that Hendrick de Forest, the supposed founder of the town of Harlem, did not, as stated by Riker, arrive in the fall of 1636, but in the spring of 1637; the confirmation of the tradition concerning the origin of the name of Storm van der Zee, the eldest son of Albert Andriesz Bradt; and the fact that Bastiaen Jansz Krol was director general of New Netherland from March 1632 to April 1633, between the administration of Peter Minuit and Wouter van Twiller.

In closing, the editor wishes to state that while in the present work it has frequently been necessary to call attention to errors in the work of Dr. E. B. O'Callaghan, it has by no means been his intention to detract from the great merits of the pioneer work which this gentleman accomplished. In spite of many inaccuracies, O'Callaghan's History contains to this day the only full account of the colony of Rensselaerswyck based on original sources and all who use it must needs be under obligation for the very material help afforded. The time has come however for a revision of many of the statements made and it is hoped that the present volume will aid in inducing some competent investigator to study the whole subject afresh and produce a work that will more nearly answer the requirements of the present time.
A. J. F. Van Laer







1The Introduction presented by A.J. Van Laer, is presented here in part from the original 18 pages to offer information pertinent to general genealogical research. It is recommended to refer to the original publication if one requires a more detailed introduction and contents of the collections.

Van Rensselaer Bowier Mss, Translated and edited by A. J. Van Laer, Archivist, (c) 1908.







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