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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Adriaen Van der Donck (1620-1655)

[2642] John Heaten, Van Bergen Overmantel (c. 1730-45), courtesy of the New York State Historical Association.

Adriaen Van der Donck began his professional life studying law at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands. Then, in 1641, he changed the course of his career by accepting a commission to travel to the Dutch commercial colony in America (present-day New York) to administer the estate of the wealthy patron Kiliaen Van Rennselaer. Van der Donck’s assignment–to stifle the fur trade and instead promote agricultural settlement in Van Rennselaer’s land in the Hudson Valley–soon brought him into conflict with the Dutch colonists, who were more interested in lucrative fur trapping and hunting than in farming. Uncomfortable with the climate of “great strife, uproar, quarreling . . . [and] mutual discord,” as he put it, Van der Donck decided to leave Van Rennselaer’s employment in 1646 and strike out on his own. After negotiating with the governor of New Netherland, William Kieft, he received a grant from the Dutch West India Company to purchase an estate just north of Manhattan. There, at the junction of the Hudson and Nepperhan Rivers, Van der Donck built one of the first saw mills in North America. His success and his status as an educated gentleman prompted settlers in the region to refer to him as “Jonk Herr” (“young gentleman,” or “young nobleman”). Eventually, the name evolved into “Yonkers,” now the name of a city north of Manhattan.

Van der Donck once again found himself at the center of political controversy when he clashed with the new governor of the colony, Pietr Stuyvesant, who arrived in New Netherland in 1647. Van der Donck wrote a lengthy formal complaint against the governor, entitled Remonstrance of New Netherland, and sailed back to the Netherlands to personally deliver it to government authorities in 1649. While residing in Europe, Van der Donck completed another work, the Description of New Netherland. This detailed account of the native inhabitants, plants, animals, and other natural resources of the colony was a promotional tract, meant to encourage immigration from the Netherlands and to defend Dutch imperial claims against rival European powers such as the French, Swedish, and English. Van der Donck returned to his adopted land in 1653 and died on his estate two years later.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students to pay attention to the way Van der Donck uses the discourse of the “sublime” (see Unit 4) to describe the landscape and natural productions of the Dutch colony. His descriptions of the beached whales, the power of the Great Falls on the Mohawk River, and the “grand and sublime” spectacle of bush burning all work to convey a sense of awesome natural power to the reader. Strikingly, Van der Donck’s invocations of the sublime often end on a warning note: the beached whales die and infect the river; the waterfall leads to the destruction of an Indian family traveling by canoe; and the bush fires destroy gardens and homes. Ask students to think about what kind of relationship Van der Donck’s narrative constructs between humans and the natural world. Why does he consistently offer ominous hints of danger? How might his narrative of the sublime complicate his book’s efforts to serve as a promotional tract encouraging settlement?
  • Have your students compile a list of the anecdotes Van der Donck uses in the course of his description of New Netherland. (You might need to explain that an anecdote is a short account of a specific, often unusual or humorous, occurrence. It offers more personal, subjective insights than general descriptions of nature, geography, or communities.) After your students have charted Van der Donck’s anecdotes, ask them to think about when and why he decides to rely on a specific story to supplement his narrative description. What kind of authority do anecdotes bring to his narrative? What issues and topics seem to demand the relation of specific stories? Do the anecdotes support or challenge Van der Donck’s general claims about life in New Netherland?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Why This Country is Called New Netherland,” Van der Donck is concerned with proving that the region was “first found or discovered by the Netherlanders.” What evidence does he provide to refute other nations’ potential claims to the Dutch colony?
  2. Context: How does Van der Donck describe his own and other Dutch colonists’ relationships with Native Americans in the region? When does he draw on Indian oral traditions to bolster his own historical account of New Netherland? When do the Dutch colonists rely on (and adopt) Indian knowledge and skills? How does Van der Donck’s account of the relationship between colonists and natives compare to accounts by representatives of other European groups in North America, such as Samuel de Champlain or John Smith?
  3. Context: How does Van der Donck’s frequent discussion of “sublime” natural occurrences (such as waterfalls and bush fires) compare to the discourse of the “marvelous” as it appears in early contact narratives (such as those by Columbus, Smith, or Bernal Díaz del Castillo)?
  4. Exploration: Compare Van der Donck’s description of the falls to Thomas Cole’s nineteenth-century masterpiece The Falls of the Kaaterskill. How does each create a sense of grandeur and awe? How do their visions of the sublime differ?
  5. Exploration: How does Van der Donck’s description of life in the New Netherland colony compare to the accounts of English colonists living in New England (such as William Bradford or John Winthrop) around the same time? How does Van der Donck’s portrait of the Dutch relationship with Native Americans compare to Puritans’ accounts of their interactions with native tribes?
  6. Exploration: What is the role of timber in a European colonial or frontier settlement? How does Van der Donck’s description of the abundance of lumber and of the settlers’ and Indians’ manner of dealing with the woods that are “always in our way” compare to James Fenimore Cooper’s descriptions of the role of the woods in The Pioneers? How do these two writers characterize settlers’ and natives’ efforts to clear the land of woods and brush? How does each writer describe the effects of forest fires?
  7. Exploration: Nineteenth-century writer Washington Irving (Unit 6) claimed in his fiction that the Dutch origins of New York could still be felt in the regional culture and geography. What, according to Van der Donck, are the essential attributes of New Netherland and of its Dutch colonizers? How does his portrait of New Netherland compare to Irving’s nostalgic and mythic presentation of the area’s Dutch ancestry in stories such as “Rip Van Winkle”?

Selected Archive Items

[2630] Anonymous, Nieu Amsterdam (c. 1643), 
courtesy of the Historic Hudson Valley, Tarrytown, New York. 
This engraving shows two traders, possibly a married couple, standing with their wares in the foreground, while one of the earliest views of what was to become Manhattan can be seen in the background.

[2637] Joost Hartgers, T’ Fort Nieuw Amsterdam op de Manhatans [Hartgers’ View] (c. 1626), 
courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley, Tarrytown, New York. 
This engraving shows Native American and European boats navigating the waters around present-day New York City. The Dutch fort, complete with a windmill, is at the center of the image.

[2642] John Heaten, Van Bergen Overmantel (c. 1730-45), 
courtesy of the New York State Historical Association. 
This vibrant depiction of colonial life in New York emphasizes the area’s Dutch roots. The Dutch-style structures include a New World Dutch barn, hay barracks, and a farmhouse with parapet gables and a pantiled roof.

[3694] Thomas Cole, The Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826), 
courtesy of the Warner Collection of the Gulf States Paper Corporation. 
Cole was one of the first American landscape artists and a founder of the Hudson River School of painting. Romantic depictions of wilderness became popular as the United States continued its westward expansion.

[9042] Laura Arnold, The Great Chain of Being (2003), 
courtesy of Laura Arnold. 
From the beginning of the Middle Ages through the early nineteenth century, “educated Europeans” conceived of the universe in terms of a hierarchical Great Chain of Being with God at its apex. In many ways, this hierarchy, still pervasive in Western theology and thought, stands in opposition to Native American and other belief systems that view the human and spirit worlds as co-existing on a horizontal plane.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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