In 1609 Henry Hudson explored the Hudson River in the Halve Maen, on an expedition financed by The Dutch East India Company. Laying claim to the lands he explored, the Dutch colonized the Hudson Valley, as well as parts of the current states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware, naming their colony New Netherland. After the colony surrendered to England in 1664, its capital city, New Amsterdam, became New York, and within a century most of its residents spoke English. That was not the case in the Hudson Valley, which George Washington referred to as The Dutch Belt, because many communities continued to speak Dutch for 200 years.
“Homogeneous communities developed, where people stuck to the Dutch language and church and to Dutch traditions and customs,” said Nicoline van der Sijs, author of Cookies, Coleslaw and Stoops and professor of historical linguistics at Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
To facilitate the conflict-free takeover of New Netherland, the English agreed to the Articles of Capitulation, which guaranteed Dutch residents would be allowed to follow their customs and worship in their own language. However, by 1764, New York City’s Dutch Reformed Church was already preaching sermons in English.
“Although some of the members walked out, the tide could not be stemmed,” said van der Sijs.
Yet, it took almost 50 years before Kingston’s Dutch Reformed Church stopped importing ministers from the Netherlands. The last Dutch sermon was given in 1833, but settlers in rural enclaves continued to speak the language, read the Bible, and sing hymns in Dutch.
“Dutch continued to be spoken in the Hudson Valley because the area remained more ethnically Dutch and had fewer outside influences than New York City,” said Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World.
When the English took over New Amsterdam, some families moved to Albany to preserve their Dutch culture. In a journal describing his 1748 visit, Peter Kalm, a Finnish-Swedish botanist, noted that Dutch was still Albany’s official language. Only the soldiers spoke English.
“As late as 1776, the sheriff found it difficult to find a sufficient number of English speakers in this area to compose a jury, as William Smith records in his History of the Province of New York from the First Discovery,” said van der Sijs. “In the second half of the 18th century, the Dutch inhabitants of big cities like Albany and Kingston formed a large majority, and they controlled the local administration.”
Because Hudson Valley colonists primarily spoke Dutch, it was the best way to communicate with local tribes, said Shorto. “There’s an instance I record in the book where English settlers in the 1750s have to find a Dutch speaker to negotiate with a local tribe in the Hudson Valley, because Dutch is the only European language the Indians know.”
Washington surely encountered Dutch conversations in his Hudson Valley travels since some of his compatriots married into Dutch families. Dutch radical leader Francis Adrian Van der Kamp moved to the U.S. in 1788, after a lengthy correspondence with Washington, and purchased a farm northwest of Kingston. A popular figure among the founding fathers, Van der Kamp spoke Dutch with Elizabeth Schuyler, wife of Alexander Hamilton, and with Sarah Cornelia Tappen, wife of General George Clinton, an Ulster County resident.
The eighth U.S. president Martin Van Buren was born in Kinderhook (Dutch for children’s corner), in 1782. He spoke only Dutch until he attended school and, even after becoming proficient in English, spoke with his wife in Dutch.
Many slaves spoke Dutch because it was the language of their owners. “This can be seen by the fact that advertisements regularly appeared in papersoffering slaves with the recommendation that they knew Dutch,” said van der Sijs.
The abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth was born a slave in 1797 and grew up on a Dutch-speaking farm in Ulster County. She spoke only Dutch as a child and did not learn English until she was 11 years old. Although she became an eloquent speaker, she never lost her Dutch accent.
By the start of the 19th century, successive waves of English-speakers had settled in the valley and most families were bilingual. “Dutch was spoken in rural areas the longest simply because there was little contact with English speakers in the countryside,” said Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Research Center at the New York State Library. “Men were forced to learn English because of work that brought them into contact with English speakers; however, women who lived on farms or in rural communities held onto ‘de taal’ (Dutch for “the language”) the longest. As a result, their children were brought up bilingual speakers for a period of time.”
English became an essential work skill. An 1807 advertisement for “turnpikers” in the Catskill Recorder said, no Dutchmen need apply, unless they had been “well Yankeyfied.” That’s ironic, since “Yankee” is a word inspired by the name of Jan Kees, a Dutchman.
By the Civil War, local Dutch had evolved into a dialect very different from what was spoken in the Netherlands. In 1866 the wife of the Dutch ambassador to New York wrote that few of the locals professing to speak Dutch understood her. Rather, they spoke a “farmer’s dialect.”
By the 20th century, Dutch was mostly a memory in the Hudson Valley, although English had adopted many Dutch words such as cruller, pancake, boss, dollar, dumb, dock, and dope.
Exploring Our Dutch Treats
“Most of these words date from the 17th century, and they indicated something which was new, such as cookie, stoop, skate, etc.,” said van der Sijs. “The Dutch brought along a lot of nice or handy new things, foodstuffs or customs, which were taken over by their neighbors, the English, but also by indigenous American people.”
The adoption of the word “boss” provided an acceptable alternative to “master,” a word used in England to indicate superiority. “For many English settlers who had started their new life in the U.S. as contract laborers, the word ‘master’ had negative connotations,” said van der Sijs. Americans preferred “boss,” which seemed more egalitarian.
Among the Dutch names that still dot Hudson Valley maps is Claverack, named for a stretch of waterway with ridges that look like a four-leaf clover; Catskill for a creek frequented by cats; and Saugerties, known in 1663 as Zager’s Killetje or the creek by the “zager” or carpenter.
One Dutch word happily adopted by English settlers was Santa Claus, after Saint Nicholas, referred to as Sinterklaas in Dutch. Santa Claus has become a very American figure, but the Dutch custom of celebrating his return in early December is still observed with celebrations in both Kingston and Rhinebeck.