The Story of New Netherland/Chapter 16

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IN coming under English rule the Dutch lost much and gained more. One of the first things done by the conquerors of New Netherland was to sweep away the public schools, which, along with their language and religion, the home-makers from Patria had brought with them. The idea of general popular education, the very foundation of the Dutch Republic, was openly scoffed at by the aristocratic governors and systematically hindered by them. Thus it came to pass that the girls and boys in the new province of New York were the first to be seriously affected by the change of flags, while a heavier responsibility for the education of the young was thrown upon the Dutch Church and her ministers, who were henceforth to maintain schools conducted in the Dutch vernacular. No doubt at first the youngsters enjoyed the freedom from school life.

It is indeed surprising to note how little change passed over the daily life of the people because of the “English conquest.” Outwardly, names and forms were altered somewhat, but habits remained very much as of yore. Happily for the future of the United States, Dutch republican ideas remained. In politics everything was nominally English, but social and church life and democratic ideas were Dutch. So far as any immediate benefit in representative government was concerned, the Dutchmen found themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire. A royal master across the water tried to rule law-loving freemen by “secret instructions” through his creatures, only to find the people unflinchingly opposed to revolution, even when attempted by kings. The Dutchmen insisted on representative government, according to law.

If ever young folks lived happy lives and had especially good times on extra occasions, the Dutch boys and girls in both Old and New Netherland certainly did. Holland is the land of Santa Claus and dyed Easter eggs. Besides the patron saint’s day of December 6, there were Christmas, New Year’s Day, Twelfth Night, Easter, Pinxter, Thanksgiving Day, Kermis, and school holidays and feast days coming pretty steadily along throughout the year. As for toys and games and all kinds of sport, the Dutch books and pictures of the seventeenth century and the museums and heirlooms in Patria show that these were numbered by the score. Games with ball, bat, stilts, hoop, top, sling, swing, sucker, bow and arrow, sleds and skates, drums and trumpets; tennis, golf, cricket, and forty other ways of having a good time, besides the easy things for girls and the more or less athletic sports for boys, are pictured as part of the young people’s life in the old country, and popular proverbs and sayings mirror them in speech. Dutch idioms, traditions, and the real life of the old country to-day show how parents made life enjoyable for the young folks; and what; the Dutch did in Holland they continued to do in America, Even the extant manuscripts of the Domines’ sermons show this, for the fun was oftener fast and furious than slow and harmless, so that from the pulpit occasionally dropped the seasoning of rebuke. Still further, one familiar with Dutch survivals in American speech, particularly on the playground, and with terms not found in the dictionary, recognizes scores of words of Netherlands origin.

Winter sports, especially in favor in the Netherlands, continue in America. On the network of canals in Patria — thousands of shallow trenches, ponds, and overflowed meadows — ice formed easily and lasted through many weeks. Holland is the land of skates and sleighs. Children and young people hardly learn to skate; they begin it naturally, and keep it up all their lives. Whether for fun and in parties, or to go to the market, to church, to weddings or funerals, they move by rapid transit on steel. A pair of skates is a passport to comradeship. No need of music or a band! With rhythm in every motion, parties of young folks in everyday clothes glide over the ice, motored from within. With the ease of winged creatures, they move singly, or holding, a dozen of them, to a pole, and keeping time and the poetry of motion as they speed on shining metal over the gleaming surface. Every habit and each trick known on Holland canals or ponds was reproduced on the Mohawk and Hudson.

Town arms of some ancestral seats
Then there was the ice-yacht, or sailboat on runners, sometimes reduced for swiftness to a long plank with cross-pieces for seats and with skate irons. Equipped with mast, canvas, and some cordage, it seemed to race with the wind itself. As for coasting, wherever flat Holland could show a hill or slope, or Friesland furnished a terp or artificial mound, there were the boys and girls at fun. On the ice, lady or lass sat in a hand sleigh, while husband or swain pushed as he skated. All this shows the reason why Newburg-on-the-Hudson and Albany and the hills of Dorp are so famous for coasting, and the North River for ice-yachts, and why, from the first generation of settlers, the Dutch-American towns were noted for sledding, sleighing, and skating.

When we look at our vocabulary and read of “sleigh,” “sled,” “skate,” “ice-yacht,” “stove,” we realize how much we owe the Dutch in the way of winter fun and comforts. They brought these things with them from their old homes, and put them to use at once. At the loan exhibition in Schenectady, in 1880, when we celebrated a real Kermis, that is, literally, the festival in honor of the founding of the church and village two centuries before, nothing was more astonishing than the tremendous array of toys and implements to amuse and tickle the little folks. Papooses and Kinder, as was fit in a frontier settlement, played together. Here were dolls, hoops, knickers, or marbles, skates, masks, toys, and ornaments, homemade, or brought from Holland, cake moulds for shaping the dough of cookies before baking, and things gay for decoration on St. Nicholas’ Day and at Christmas time.

Very early in the history, and long after the fall of New Netherland, the ice-yacht was as winter feature up and down the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, just as soon as Jack Frost had furnished a floor more level than the humpy and sculptured stone pavements of the big churches in Patria. Not all of the boys and girls might afford iron-runnered skates, or could wait to buy or get them from Europe. What odds? They were bound to “ride” on skates, as the Dutch say. Ox bones, being plentiful, were quickly chopped or filed flat and then strapped or tied on. It was common to see bands of red-cheeked boys and girls skating together or in “wings,” circling round. If ice had formed by Santa Claus’ Day, then December 6 was a carnival on skates, and the Binne Kill at Schenectady, the Collect (bad English for the vulgar Dutch Kalk, pronounced Kallek) on Manhattan, and the Hudson at Albany, made scenes of color, life, fun; and sport that could not be beaten in all the colonies. They were fond of skates with tremendously protruding irons, which at the front ends curled up into big circles. On these, long and strong, scores of miles were easily covered. Sometimes men skated all the way from Fort Orange to Manhattan.

Thanksgiving Day, usually in October, which was ancient and common in Patria long before it was heard of in America, continued in New Netherland, and gave a sort of closure on summer sports. Then the programme of stalwart, outdoor activities and winter joys opened in earnest. After Santa Claus’ Day, December 6, preparations for Christmas and its feastings began. If gilded and frosted gingerbread made into figures of the good saints, warriors, horses, wagons, and other odd shapes, and Deventer cookies, rich in every sort of spice and fruit, abounded for the children on the saint’s day, the oven turned out even a more wonderful store of goodies for both old and young at Christmas time. Poems, recitations, and songs were part of the programme, and the social joys were apt to last several days.

Town arms of some ancestral seats
Greatest of all days in the Dutch calendar was New Year’s. Greetings, gifts, visits, were the order of daylight, while fun, frolic, the dance, refreshments, and sleigh rides made the rule of the night. Before big hearths and roaring wood-fires, the hero tales and wonder stories of the Fatherland made long and joyous evenings after the short winter days. The Dutch retired early. For the little folks, trundle beds wore rolled in and out from under the higher bedsteads of the elders. All slept under wool and feathers in houses which, whether log, board, stone, or brick, kept no fires burning at night, unless it were a live coal or two smothered in ashes. For those whose evening courtship was to be done, bundling, or covering with quilts or blankets, was the rule along the whole Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Georgia, and New Netherland made no exception.

The winter was the busy school time, and Sunday had also a long double hour of sitting, which tried the patience and good manners of the young folks.

Many are the local traditions of misunderstandings between the small boy and his mentors, — the Domine, sexton, schoolmaster, pasture-keeper, and magistrate. We must not take too seriously sone of these legends, nor imagine that young folks did not have as good a time in those days, or that; they inherited a larger measure of total depravity than do we in these later days. If we have any sense of humor and the least imagination, we can see how different were the points of view of sedate adults and lively youngsters then as well as now. For example, in filling up an old well long disused and not far from the wall-line of the fourth church edifice in Schenectady, torn down to make room for a new, larger fifth building, the skeletons of two boys were found at the bottom. Now it does not follow, despite local legend, that they had suffered a fate similar to that of the Princes in the Tower at the hands of an irate sexton, because of juvenile bad behavior in church. Nevertheless, tradition avers that boys on the backless seats of pine were not always as quiet as the mice of the proverb. It is alleged that the cherub-faced girls whispered and even flirted, while the Domine preached, and that ever and anon pebbles and marbles, instead of coins, were found in the velvet collection bags of the deacons.

All evidences go to show that the girls had a good time. They were kept so busy with household duties and accomplishments — then so much more numerous than in our day of patents, machinery, and factories — that they entered into merrymaking with a vim equal to that shown by the boys. In winter, the morning might be given to putting the house in order and furnishing the larder from dairy and kitchen, for the unfathomable appetites of the men and lads. But Penelope’s afternoons were spent at the distaff or spinning-wheel, or with sewing-basket or darning needles. In the evenings there were social joys, guessing games, and trials of chance. The ever present refreshments came at the proper moment of vacuity and full appreciation. Kissing games were much more common than now. In spring, when “good sap-weather,” of alternate sunshine by day and freezing by night, turned the maple trees into saccharine fountains, “sugaring, off” was the evening joy of the Mohawk Valley, the hot sap being boiled down and run on snow, of which each of the young folks had a pan easily refilled.

When the season of flowers opened, no people more than the Dutch kept tally of the floral calendar of leaf, color, and perfume of “the angels of the grass.” For each of the great Church and Christian festivals there was a special flower with its sentiment and meaning. Gladly did they welcome the hepatica as the Paschal bloom. When the passion flower came from the tropics, the wistaria from Japan, and the white daisy from England, the old friends and new acquaintances dwelt together in the same gardens. From Haarlem, the floral capital of the world, and Leyden, the house city of learning in Patria, novelties were imported frequently to give variety either to the stiff, formal gardens borrowed from and so fashionable in Europe, or to the dooryards in which individual taste ruled.

Back of the tremendous commercial activities of the fur-trade, as seen in bales, heaps, and counters, in warehouses and on ships, was the wonder world of live animals. The forest, with its mystery, was ever a lure. Most boys and girls had their live pets from the woods, caught in traps or captured after the parents of the young animals had become meat and fur. Hill, glen, meadow, and brooksides meant enterprise and activity for the lad. Even the little boy had his blunt arrows, and playing with Indians of like age, he was able to rival them, and bring down real birds, to trap the smaller animals, and to bring home many a string of fish for dinner. When old enough to be trusted with guns, the boys went out into the forest for venison. As for rabbits, wild pigeons, and smaller game, they were innumerable. Young Jacobus van Curler, out shooting with van Twiller, boasted that he had killed over a hundred blackbirds at one shot. In April wild pigeons flew in such masses that the sun’s light was lessened, and so low that they could be knocked down with clubs.

In Schenectady, when only a few canoes drawn up on the riverbank and a parallelogram of stakes in the pine forests scarcely made the creatures in fur and feather suspicious of danger, wild turkeys and deer, coming from the hills to drink, were sometimes killed within the palisades. Ducks were shot along Cow Horn Creek, and in the marshes near the town, down to the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, I can remember when, as late as 1881, notwithstanding railways and civilization, a wild stag from the Adirondacks, having lost its way, fled across the frozen Mohawk River, and rushed into the streets of Schenectady.

Chased by dogs, it got its antlers tangled up in the iron fence of St. George’s Churchyard. Yet not easily was its freedom lost. It demolished utterly with its hoof’s the clothes of it strong man who thought to capture it alive and quickly.

One pleasant feature of frontier life, despite its roughness, was the close mutual acquaintance of all domestic animals, four-footed and human. As even to-day, one in a city can tell, by their feelings of fear or trust in a horse, for example, the children born and bred in the country and those who have lived between brick walls, so even in New Netherland the sports of town and country differed, and human beings lived nearer nature in village and country than in the towns. Kiō ni mō inaka (even in the metropolis there are boors) and Kiō sumeru (where you live, that is the capital) might be Dutch as well as Japanese proverbs, for there was culture on the frontier and rudeness on Manhattan.