The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 26

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The Story of New Netherland by William Elliot Griffis
Chapter XXVI: The Dutch Domines in the Revolution

THE period from 1764 to 1804 gave the Dutch Domines a fivefold trial of intellect, character, tact, tongue, and temper, such as mortal beings are rarely called upon to undergo. The manner in which they conducted themselves and the triumphs which they completed show the sterling quality of their manhood, which was worthy of the best traditions of their race. They were compelled to change their speech for both conversation and formal discourse. They faced dissensions and difficulties within their own congregations. Problems, social, political, and linguistic, confronted them daily, compelling continual nice and repeated adjustment.

Hardly were they settled in their new loyalty to Great Britain than they were compelled to renounce it. Being of the most intensely “Continental” spirit, they, with their fellow Americans, must needs face the storm of the Revolution, which divided households into Tories and Patriots. Lest they should not have enough discipline of tongue, temper, body, and spirit, it pleased Providence to transfer quickly the seat of war from the Eastern colonies into the very garden of the Dutch churches in New York and New Jersey. Nevertheless, the threefold battle of loyalties, languages, and new conditions was bravely and successfully fought out.

After the British left Boston, the territory of the Dutch Church became the seat of war. Her church buildings were desecrated, used us hospitals, stables, barracks, or set on fire. Most of heir ministers, driven from their homes, fled only to rouse the patriotic ardor and inspire the martial courage of the people. Some of them were strikingly prominent, and the British tried hard to capture them.

We will look at some of these men famous in local tradition.

Rev. Johannes Schureman, American-born, but licensed in Holland, is the hero in Murdoch’s book, “The Dutch Dominie of the Catskills.” He had the traditional build of one of Hendrik Hudson’s sailors of the Half Moon, being short and plump, with a powerful voice. Like almost every one of the friends of the Reformed Church’s independence of Holland, he was a true Continental. Set over two large congregations in Ulster County, his life was very laborious, for he had all the noble disadvantages of a good character, in being willing to serve all, and he was also a doctor of medicine. In his mind, the interests of religion and freedom were one. As strong as he was courageous, he went through the wilderness alone, but in faith and with his musket primed and powder dry. He would probably not have been taken alive, and the British knew it. They were never able to capture him.

Domine Eilardis Westerloo, born at Groningen, 1738, reached the New World and settled at Albany in 1760. Wise, conciliating, and peaceful, in the hottest period of the church strife — that is, when friction between the Old World and the New World notions was at flaming heat — he gained the respect and confidence of both parties. When the flag of the thirteen red and white stripes, so very much like his ancestral banner of liberty, was unfurled in 1775, he at once ranged himself and his people under its folds. When mighty Burgoyne and his terrible host were moving down from Canada toward Albany, fear was in all hearts; for General Philip Schuyler — a Dutch Church deacon — had not yet brought to completion the work which was to issue in the escort of Burgoyne as prisoner, within the palisades and down Pearl Street, into Albany, but Domine Westerloo kept his church open and cheered his people, even till Yorktown closed the campaigns. When the work of fighting Hessians and redcoats was over, he grappled with the English language and preached in the vernacular of the new nation. Domine Westerloo welcomed Washington, when, as President, he visited Albany and Schenectady. Westerloo wrote Latin with greater purity than President Stiles of Yale College had ever known.

How very different from the Dutchmen on the stage, in comic opera, and in Irving’s caricatures, were the real people! During the French and Indian War, the chaplain of a Massachusetts regiment dined with Domine Vrooman at Schenectady, July 4, 1758. He drew a pen picture of his host, then thirty years old, “in height six foot four and a half inches, and every way large in proportion. … [He] explains a text in the morning and preaches divinity in the afternoon. The people here attend their public religious service with great devotion.” There was no handsomer man or more striking clerical figure in the Revolution than that of Domine Barent Vrooman, who served his people from 1753 to 1784. He was the great-grandson of the emigrant Hendrik, who, with his two sons, Adam and Bartholomew, and the wife and infant of Adam, were slain in the massacre of 1690.

Schenectady, during the Revolution, was a palisaded town, enlarged to hold the refugees of the Mohawk Valley, and many of the five hundred widows and two thousand orphans of Tryon County, which Brant and Butler and their Indians and Tories had made, dwelt here for safety. The Domine’s charity was proverbial. Between his Bible and the basket of supplies on his arm, his memory is still green in “Old Dorp.” The right wing of Sullivan’s expedition of 1779, Clinton’s brigade of three New York regiments, composed largely of Dutchmen, to crush savagery and open the Empire State to civilization, assembled here and marched thence through the Susquehanna, Chemung, and Genesee valleys.

Washington did not lean upon a reed when he depended upon the sturdy patriotism and loyalty of “the Dutch Belt,” extending from Albany to Manhattan, and up the Raritan valley towards the Delaware. In the darkest hours, the Father of his Country found his safest asylum among the New Jersey Dutchmen. The river margins of the Hudson, Hackensack, Passaic, and Raritan are rich in authentic traditions of heroism and romance, for the whole weight of the Dutch Church and people was found on the side of true republicanism. Several of their Domines, whose thrilling adventures must be passed by for lack of space, were personally known to Washington, for whom by hereditary training they were prepared. None understood more clearly the meaning of the American Revolution and the meaning of independence; for, as John Adams said in 1771, “the originals of the two republics [Dutch and American] are so much alike that the history of one seems like a transcript from that of the other.” The Dutch Jerseymen braced up the backbone of the Continental cause at its most trying time, when in the valleys of the Raritan and Delaware the fires of war burned most fiercely.

New Jersey, destined to be the campground of armies and the scene of one hundred battles or skirmishes, was well prepared for the coming war storm. Two m u the before the battle of Bunker Hill the Dutch Church appointed a day of humiliation and prayer. Her pulpits rung with stirring appeals, for all the Domines and people were in hearty sympathy with the cause of freedom. Two days before the Declaration of Independence New Jersey asserted her statehood.

Queen’s College at New Brunswick, hardly on its feet before the storm of war broke, adjourned at once to the battlefield, for professors and students enlisted, as a body, in the Continental army. The first regular graduate was Simeon De Witt. Being a man of science and the ablest surveyor in the colonies, he was made geographer of the army, and rose to be a staff officer with General Washington. He was present at Saratoga and Yorktown, two of the greatest events of the Revolutionary War, when whole armies were surrendered. For the event, third in importance, the expedition of General John Sullivan in 1779, which by destroying the Iroquois Confederacy and preventing any further rear attacks on the frontier made Yorktown possible, De Witt made the maps. Later, as Surveyor-General of the State of New York, he opened its forests to civilization, founded the city of Ithaca, prepared the way for the United States Weather Bureau, and laid the foundation of our national land-system of measures and registration, — a pretty fair record for Rutgers’s first graduate. He is immortalized, both by Cooper in his novel, “The Chainbearer,” and by a blundering poet who dubbed him “Godfather of the newly christened West,” in allusion to the classical names in New York, with which De Witt had nothing to do.

Of the two New Jersey colleges, one, Princeton, was destined to have a battle fought at its doors, and the other, Rutgers, to have its campus trodden by the patriot army in retreat.

One of the Dutch parsons whom King George’s redcoats would have hanged, if they could have drawn a rope around his neck, was Domine Jacob Rutsen Hardenberg, brother of Washington’s staff officer. His church was at Raritan, New Jersey. He usually slept with a musket at his side. His public zeal so angered the Tories, that Colonel Simcoe once organized an expedition of the Queen’s Rangers to capture him. When they arrived at his church, and found their bird flown, they burnt the building to the ground. In the Raritan valley the perfume of his name and his wife’s is as an unfading flower.

Other famous Domines, whose patriotic voices, as trumpets of freedom, led young men to enlist in the Continental armies, were Du Bois, Leydt, Goetschius, Foering, Romeyn, van Bunschoten, etc., whose biographies are given in Corwin’s “Manual of the Reformed Church.” Van Bunschoten left what is perhaps the oldest educational endowment in money given by a native American. Several of those ministers were well known to Washington.

These Americans of Dutch descent were, in word and act, in full harmony with their ancestral record and that of the men of the contemporaneous Republic of the United Netherlands. At St. Eustatius, in the West Indies, on the 16th of November, 1776, the Dutch governor, Johannes de Graeff, after reading the American Declaration of Independence saluted our flag of thirteen stripes. Between 1775 and 1783, half of our war supplies imported from Europe came from this island. The Dutch of Patria sent us soldiers and officers of merit, struck medals in our honor, received John Adams, acknowledged our independence, became our allies, and made us a loan of money, which, when paid up, principal and interest, amounted to fourteen millions of dollars; and then, under the auspices of the Holland Land Company, this same money was invested to develop four million acres of the wild hinds of western New York and Pennsylvania. “In love of liberty and bravery in the defense of it, she,” said Benjamin Franklin, in speaking of Holland, “has been our great example.”