Historical Curiosities

Piqued by (but not explained in) Great Mischief



With regard to money, we can only reiterate the peculiarities noted with as a curiosity in Die Fasting. Every commercial transaction required much tedious computation. At the best, exchanges required translating one physical currency into a more familiar one; more often, bartering one product or service for another. One could never be certain that even an apparently well-heeled customer would be able to produce anything one wanted in order to purchase cheap, mundane products. In addition, even the value of “pound” varied, because the various colonies had their own currencies in circulation, based upon—but varying from—the British “pound sterling.” Try to imagine a candy store where everybody’s handful of change comprised half a dozen currencies (including U.S., Canadian, and Australian “dollars”), plus Indian wampum and Joe Blow’s IOUs! 


I mistakenly accepted the notion that an artisan’s annual wage would approximate £12 from a footnote to Anderson’s excellent The Crucible of War. This statement referred to Massachusetts pounds, and I’ve since learned that over-taxed, repeatedly war-clobbered Massachusetts had the most depreciated currency in America. New York not having suffered as profoundly (until the French and Indian War, which in 1759 would still be in its inflationary stage), its nominal wages and prices would have been higher.



Chapter 1 - The only local historical structure described in the novel is the town’s original octagonal kerk, built in 1700 and demolished early in the 19th century. The "old" Dutch Reformed Church of New Utrecht, a quarter-mile to the east on 18th Avenue and 84th Street today, is its replacement, consecrated in 1828 and currently closed for major renovations.  The original site is today occupied by a Baptist Church constructed in 1898. The ancient graveyard to its west—one of the most pathetic I’ve ever seen—is perhaps the only original relic of 18th Century New Utrecht. It is unrelated to the Baptist congregation, fenced off and sadly overgrown.


A colonial New Utrecht monument which was not mentioned in the story is “the milestone.” The original stone—oldest in New York City—dates to 1741, the time when the Kings Highway was laid out, but it has been removed to a museum for preservation. The modern replica sits unobtrusively in its original location, now the vest pocket-sized Milestone Park, at 18th Avenue and 82nd Street. The stone stood in front of the (long gone) 1672 Van Pelt Manor; the property was given to the City by a Van Pelt descendant in 1910 and, with typical municipal alacrity, was fashioned into a usable park in 1988.


When describing the demographics of New Utrecht, our narrator habitually refers to "Dutchmen" and "Africans," rather than "whites" and "blacks." Partly euphemistic, the terms were also increasingly inaccurate in 1759.  We’d estimate that, in this remote farming hamlet, only 75% of whites were fully Dutch-descended; the remainder were half-Dutch (e.g., our hero and his siblings), or other Protestants (represented by the Edwards, Stanley, and Traube families). Only Dominie Van Voort is imagined ever to have been to the Netherlands itself. Of the blacks, even given that this decade was the height of importation to North America, we estimate that 75% were born in Kings County and only 5% had suffered the Middle Passage. As the New York economy grew in sophistication, the labor system proved increasingly unable to support it. New York slavery came under moral attack after the Revolutionary War, was legislated to a slow extinction in 1799, and was finally abolished in 1827.


Chapter 2 – Our hero makes two startling assertions during his interview with Aaron Colegrove:  that “Dutch property law” has obtained in Kings County since the time of the English conquest (1664); and that the said law presumed that widows of intestate husbands automatically inherited 100% of the title to the couple’s lands, goods, and chattels. Both his assertions are more-or-less correct—although the devil, as always, resides in the details. A stipulation of non-interference had smoothed the uncontested takeover of the New Netherlands, but English legal tradition had entrenched itself in the ninety-five years that followed; nonetheless, the original assumptions were seldom challenged in practice, possibly out of hesitation to upset a county where the Dutch heritage remained so strong. The English property rules were arguably more feudal, insisting that lands should presumably devolve to eldest sons (with accommodation in cash for the widow and other siblings). Both traditions were overruled by New York’s independence, and property inheritance law has developed independently ever since.


Chapter 6 – Reference is made to Harmanus Dordrecht’s wearing a “paternity cap” fashioned for him by Katryne Nijenhuis (who is characterized as the local folklorist).  There’s no description of it … because despite much searching of the internet, I couldn’t find one. The idea, however, mentioned in Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches as a Dutch folk tradition of the time, is rather charming. I imagine it as no more than a silly, ephemeral bit of cheap cloth publicly proclaiming a new father’s pride and happiness.


The New York Society Library was founded by private subscription in 1754 … and still exists.


Chapter 7 – The indentured servitude of Europeans in America was always problematic, given the ease with which the disgruntled could flee to the hinterlands or other provinces and blend into the general population. It was increasingly unpopular, but still a last voluntary refuge for the destitute. Many were not volunteers, however, but orphans, vagrants, or petty criminals forcibly exported by the British authorities. When they had the option, those who indentured themselves generally preferred Pennsylvania to either New York or Virginia, because Pennsylvania had less rigid, less feudal land laws, and thus afforded greater long-term hope of true freedom and independence.


Chapter 8 – Chasing down the details of the “Arms of Orange” provided an amusing voyage through the baffling idiocies of dynastic politics. Going way back, Count Henry III of Nassau-Dillenburg-Dietz (1483–1538) scored a dandy marriage in 1515 with Claudia of Châlon (1498-1521), a princess of Orange. Thanks to a few uncles getting bumped off childless, his grandson, Willem I (1533-1584) “of Orange” (a/k/a “Willem the Silent”) inherited the major-upgrade title of prince.  This word—the inheritance of property, money, and political power were apparently negligible—allowed Willem to set himself up as the chief contender for royal perks in the prosperous republic of the Netherlands. That improbable contention was only actualized a century later by his great-grandson, Willem III (1650-1702), who became king-in-all-but-name of the Netherlands in 1672, and King William III of England in 1689. (So Henry’s marriage in 1515 paid off for his g-g-g-grandson in 1672—there’s foresight for you!) Over three hundred years later, however, Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands today, still heads the Dutch royal House of Orange-Nassau.


Wm3 Gold Guinea.gifSo where in the Netherlands are the fairy-tale places Nassau and Orange?  Ha!  Neither of them is in the Netherlands!  Nassau is today a Rhine River town of five thousand in west central Germany. It has given its name to the capital of the Bahamas, and to a county in New York State that’s home to 1.3 million Americans.


Orange is an ancient town in southern France, just north of Avignon. (It’s a huge place, five times the size of Nassau!) In 1163, probably after some of its nobles committed worthwhile atrocities in the crusades, it was decreed to be a principality by the Holy Roman Empire—notwithstanding that it was never very big or important.  According to Wikipedia, “It continued to exist as an autonomous and independent state within the Kingdom of France until 1703.” The town’s name, incidentally, has nothing at all to do with either the fruit or the color. It was originally the town of Arausio, named for a Celtic water god, and its founders gave the Romans a trouncing there in 105 BCE.  Thanks to William III, that little town has given its name to many cities and counties across the United States, Aruba, South Africa, and Australia, not to mention the militantly Protestant Orange Order in Northern Ireland.


The heraldry on William’s gold guinea coin (pictured) is the same used for the tavern sign of The Arms of Orange in our story. The “Lion of Nassau” is in the center, surrounded by (clockwise from top) the arms of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland.  France?  Yeah, well, you’ll recall that the English monarchs had maintained that they were the rightful claimants to that throne since medieval times. Despite losing their last control over continental territory in 1558, they kept up the pretense right until 1801—eight years after the French Revolution had decided there was no king of France at all!


What about “King Billy?”  Historically, he was no sweetheart. He was implicated in the murders of the De Witt brothers, which symbolically brought the Dutch golden age to an end, and he did order massacres in Ireland and Scotland. He also involved Britain in preposterous dynastic squabbles on the continent throughout his thirteen-year reign. By the time he pegged, he had long worn out his welcome. 


So why are all these places named for him?  Those in Britain and the Netherlands who wanted to justify the cause of Protestantism and magnify the dire threat of Catholic Europe—probably a tad more realistic than the threat of Iraqi WMD, but that’s not saying much—magnified William into a great hero, a savior of Protestant liberty, for decades after his death. Once the Jacobite pretenders to the British throne were finally squelched (1746), however, saviors became less necessary, and William’s overblown reputation slowly began to slide.


Chapter 11 – The legal infrastructure of colonial Kings County seems incredibly slipshod as described (and possibly is overemphasized). The reader is asked to consider, however, that the identical 71 square miles of Kings County that today house some 2,500,000 people … was then home to fewer than five thousand, total. Around 1760, “New York City,” then covering just the southernmost tenth of Manhattan Island, had some 18,000 residents; today “Brooklynites” outnumber “Manhattanites” by nearly a million.


The predicament of the sailors is reasonably plausible. A large percentage of Britain’s navymen were originally pressed—brutally grabbed off the street and forced into extremely dangerous military service—and opportunities for experienced seamen in the private colonial merchant fleets were at their greatest height during the latter years of the French and Indian War, given the inflation that war always brings (temporarily) to an economy. Notwithstanding the involuntary circumstances of Nicholls’ original recruitment, his “desertion” probably would have been treated as a capital offense. Thomas Dordrecht’s impetuous decision to abet their flight could have gotten him into deep trouble.


Chapter 15 – Why do the Selectmen hesitate to “lay down the law” to their recalcitrant slaves? How is it that the slaves are bold enough to resist their disarmament and demand time to bury their dead? Because there really is no such thing as absolute power of one human being over another; there is always a practical compromise between the whims of the empowered and the needs of the powerless. The latter employ economic reality—the fact that excessive mistreatment unquestionably causes recalcitrance, malnourishment, illness, and premature death—to force concessions from their tormentors. The level of the compromise waxes and wanes with the complex social and economic environment, particularly the replacement cost of labor.


Chapter 16 – Smuggling, tax-evasion, and outright piracy were long-established traditions up and down the American coast long before independence. If ships’ captains such as Zechariah Jameson could evade the mercantilist Navigation Acts, they could bring proscribed continental goods or tax-free British goods to colonial consumers at great profit. For this purpose they needed small, fast ships, lively and trained mariners, and small, out-of-the way ports of call. Thomas Dordrecht is confronted with all three in this midnight scene by Sheepshead Bay.


Chapter 19 – The status of freed slaves also repeatedly rose and fell over time in New York (and everywhere else). Before the English conquest, the New Netherlanders had conceived an unusual “half-free” status that accrued to individual slaves (African, Native American, or European) after around two decades, that restricted their political rights but protected their marriage and property rights. As the indentured servitude of Europeans became more obviously impractical, race-based outright slavery grew in relative acceptance; the time of the French and Indian War was, in fact, the high point of its relative popularity among the wealthy. Nonetheless, it was still possible, in New York, for some talented and dedicated slaves to accumulate money over time and to purchase their own freedom.


Chapter 20 – Five years after the war had begun, British forces finally captured Fort Ticonderoga, the choke point of the Hudson-Champlain corridor, in June 1759, a major objective that had prevented their northward progress. The plodding but thorough General Amherst never managed to press on to the St. Lawrence, however, so the “glory” of the number one military accomplishment of that year—the taking of Québec city—resounded to General Wolfe in September (after our story ends).






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