Jim Blackburn

author | editor | journalist | book review | historian

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“Turning the Data of Today into the History of Tomorrow”
featured on The New York History Blog
(available as PDF)
by Jim Blackburn

Big Data is a controversial subject featured in the news almost daily, from the NSA spying programs to the rise of corporate data brokers. For better or worse this data exists, and the high value of information to both governments and private interests alike, make it look as though the practice is here to stay in one form or another. But, it is not the entry of data collection into the many aspects of our lives that I am exploring here; rather it is how this data can be mined in the future by historians.

Though the emergence of metadata is no doubt unprecedented, in the study of history it is not completely foreign, just a different and much denser form of an archive. A vast digital archive of the everyday, one which could allow this profusion of data to be viewed through a historical lens, turning numbers into human narratives. In short, I would like to raise the possibility of a new historiography – Data history – which would be the study of the past through the mining of data.

The challenges though may arise not from the size of the researchable data, but with the almost endless possibilities of new historical approaches. Since the times of Herodotus and Thucydides there have been different methods of history. The German School of the nineteenth century ushered in the age of academic research based on documental evidence. Jacob Burckhardt, who wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy published in 1860, studied in Berlin under the influential Leopold von Ranke, and is an example of the turn of history to the written records of the past. Burckhardt was also one of the first modern practitioners of cultural and art history.

The Progressive Era brought with it the rise of statistics, and there use most prominently in sociology and history. The work of W.E.B. Du Bois is a prime example of this period, whose use of graphs and footnotes revolutionized serious social science and history writing. Fernand Braudel would surface from the archives of three continents with his epic The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1949. Leading the Annales School to the foreground of twentieth century historiography, with its focus on the longue durée and on a history based from the bottom of society up. And since the majority of those who were literate in the past were both male and elite, statistics concerning economic and criminal records shone light on those who had been hidden in the darkness of the past.

In contrast, many modern historians can still illuminate past lives and events with limited archival material, the works of Jill Lepore and Natalie Zemon Davis come to mind, just to name a few. This draws an obvious conclusion that the amount of information that could be available in the future through metadata does not alone translate into better practices of history. And in putting forward the idea of a tomorrow where the study of Data history may exist, I recognize that I am raising more questions than answers here. But, one window I’d like to explore into this vast digital landscape may be found through genealogy.

There has always been an interest in ones ancestors, but as I mentioned before, the paper trails into the past were for the most part open to the minority that were privileged. Today, with Ancestry.com and other genealogical sites and societies, the doors to those we descend from have opened wider than ever before. The largest genealogical company, Ancestry.com, offers over 11 billion historical records to its subscribers. In comparison, Alice E. Marwick in her article “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined” for the NY Review of Books writes that: “The industry of collecting, aggregating, and brokering personal data is known as ‘database marketing.’

The second largest company in this field, Acxiom, has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year.” As Acxiom is the second largest collector, that means well over 100 trillion pieces of data are being collected a year, with this number set to rise exponentially. This is not even factoring in whatever the NSA and other government agencies around the world are collecting. That is why it is called Big Data. It is less daunting when you imagine in the future your descendants being able to view your Facebook or other social media profile, and having access to the pictures, posts, and comments of a bygone era. In this sense, to genealogists and the historians of tomorrow this information is priceless.

Outside of history this genealogical data could be valuable as well. Michel Foucault in his essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” states “the body is molded by many distinct regimes; it is broken down by rhythms of work, rest, holidays, and eating habits. Genealogy, is thus situated within the body and history.” Foucault’s argument is of course more epistemological, but it relates perfectly to genetics. Our genes bare the imprints of how others lived in the past. The mining of historical data could then bring a family tree not only to life, but could improve the lives of those who will precede us. The mining of medical records as data could be used to both treat individuals or to gain a better understanding about diseases that affect whole societies.

The field of medicine is just one example outside history, many more questions I believe will be raised by the study of data, especially those concerned the three C’s of culture, class, and consumption.

Ultimately, I think that an archive for this data should be established, one where governments, business, and the individual can donate their data for the higher purpose of studying the human condition in the future. Of course these data donations could come with research restrictions, some records not to be opened till a certain date to protect sensitive information as an example. But, if we are serious about leaving a better world for those who will inhabit it after us, our data from today could create a better tomorrow. Data history will be the study of the past through the mining of data, the depth of which is our legacy to decide.


Copyright © 2013 Blackburn Book Review

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"The Forgotten War"
First Published in Green Door Magazine
Republished on The New York History Blog
by Jim Blackburn

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Second Esopus War, which was fought primarily between the Munsee Esopus and the New Netherland colonists in 1663. The image of an “Indian” war most often conjures up scenes of the American West, yet this conflict took place right in the proverbial backyard of the Hudson Valley. The Esopus Wars were centered around the settlement of Wiltwijck, a place we know today as Kingston. The conflict completely changed the power dynamic of the region, from one dominated by American Indians to European colonists. While from another angle, a look at the war’s participants offers a view of the diverse population that composed Dutch New York.

Little today is left of the Hudson Valley as it was in 1663. But two artifacts offer a window into that distant time and place. One is an account of the war written by Captain Martin Krieger, and the other is the Kingston Stockade District. The Journal of the Second Esopus War written in 1663 by Captain Krieger is a detailed text of some twenty-five thousand words. Many of those words describe a series of military expeditions, while others give insight into the everyday life and unique culture that was the New Netherlands. The journal is more of what today we would call a report or an account, as the personal inner musings that we associate with a journal or diary did not take shape till the nineteenth century. Though the journal is not intimate in an individual sense, it does shed light on the individuals involved in the Second Esopus War and the historical landscape they inhabited.

Settled by New Netherlanders in 1652, Kingston at that time was the only sizable settlement between Albany and New York, and the area surrounding the settlement was controlled by the Esopus nation. The Esopus were a branch of the Delaware Indians known as the Lenape, and spoke the eastern Algonquin language Munsee. They are sometimes referred to as the Esopus Munsee and their territory before the Esopus Wars encompassed much of today’s Ulster County.

The stockade was a result of the growing animosity and violence between the two groups. In 1658, Director-Governor Peter Stuyvesant surveyed a bluff that offered natural protection on three sides, and he and his carpenter Fredrick
Philipse oversaw the erection of a fourteen foot palisade built with tree trunks pounded directly into the ground. The new stockade came with new rules; the villagers would now go out during the day to their varied labors and fields, and return to the stockade to spend the night in their new village homes. During the Second Esopus War Captain Krieger was continuously sending groups of soldiers to protect the settlers going out to work on various tasks, the most prominent being the maintenance and harvesting of crops, and the continual gathering of fire wood. Another challenge for Captain Krieger was the need to escort those using the Strand Road, which ran for three miles over some rough terrain, connecting the stockade of Kingston to the Rondout Harbor that led to the Hudson River. The road provided a vital link to the supplies of the outside world that the young settlement could not survive without.

The First Esopus War started on September 20, 1659 as the villagers of Kingston attacked a group of Esopus, who after working the day as hired hands paid unfortunately with brandy, were most likely highly intoxicated and celebrating around a fire outside the stockade walls. There is no record of provocation on the part of the Esopus that led to two unarmed celebrants being shot dead, only that the settlers were fearful, and that fear acted upon manifested itself into violence. The Esopus, who were outraged by the unprovoked attack, returned the next day in force and virtually destroyed everything of the settlement outside the stockade, which was now locked up tight.

The First Esopus War came to an end the following summer of 1660, with little loss of life, though the sale of twelve young Esopus captives into slavery to the far off island of Curacao was neither forgiven nor forgotten. And the subsequent peace treaty, brokered by the Susquehannok and Mohawk between the Esopus and Dutch seemed more a ceasefire than a lasting agreement. After the uneasy peace of 1660, the Esopus refused to cede or sell any additional land to the settlers. Regardless, the ever growing population of Wiltwijck continued to encroach farther into Esopus territory. Repeated attempts to peacefully mollify the situation failed; the Esopus decided to declare war first this time.

The journal includes a prelude of sorts not written by Krieger himself, but is an account of the massacre at Kingston on June 7, 1663. The document signed by the various members of the Court at Wiltwijck to the Council of New Netherlands offers an introduction to the environment Krieger was about to enter into, and also that this war would be more violent than the one three years ago as each side would pursue a scorched earth strategy against the other.

Around mid-day on June 7, 1663 the Esopus put into action a devastating surprise attack inside the stockade of Kingston. The report states that the Esopus started “Entering in bands through all the gates, they divided and scattered themselves among all the houses and dwelling in a friendly manner, having with them a little maize and some few beans to sell to our Inhabitants.” Unbeknownst to the settlers of Kingston that day, the Second Esopus War had already started earlier that morning.

The document continues, “And after they had been about a short quarter of an hour within this place, some people on horseback rushed through the gate from New Village (this village was located at the present town of Hurley) crying out: ‘The Indians have destroyed the New Village!” It is unknown when the Esopus were planning to strike, but news of the attack on the New Village set their plans immediately into action. The recounting of events written only a few weeks later still bear the shock and trauma inflicted on that day: “And with these words, the Indians here in this Village immediately fired a shot and made a general attack on our village from the rear, murdering our people in their houses with their axes and tomahawks, and firing on them with guns and pistols.” The Esopus, though almost seemed more intent on taking hostages, as “they seized whatever women and children they could catch and carried them prisoners outside the gates, plundering the houses and set the village on fire to windward.” And as fast as it all happened the Esopus were gone, but not before twenty villagers lay dead and forty-five were taken hostage, mostly women and children.

The lists provided of those killed at Kingston bring home the reality of the numbers. Some are completely heartbreaking, entries such as “Jan Albersen’s wife, big with child, killed in front of her house” or “William Hap’s child burnt alive in the house.” Other entries shed light on those who are often overlooked in the historical record, “Thomas Chambers’ slave murdered on the farm.” This highlights the fact that slavery was practiced probably from the founding of Kingston, and would be tolerated in New York for almost two-hundred more years till full emancipation was reached in the 1820’s.

The large number of hostages taken in this initial attack, besides their value in ransom, makes it seem as though maybe the Esopus were waging some sort of mourning war. Mourning wars are thought to have been the primary practice of warfare conducted before the arrival of Europeans in North America. The point of a battle against another community was not to inflict casualties, but to take hostages. Some hostages would be tortured to death as revenge for those lost in previous battle, while others would be adopted into families to help restore population levels. With such close contact between the Esopus and those at Kingston, it is most likely that disease took a toll on the population. As well, the twelve young Esopus sold into slavery after the First Esopus War might have been a consideration for the taking of so many children as captives. As Krieger’s journal relates, most of the hostages were finally recovered unharmed by the end of the war. The war might not have been completely over land boundaries as it is often portrayed.

This was the world of violence and uncertainty that Captain Krieger found himself as he stepped off the ship that brought him as well as a small army from Manhattan to Kingston on July 4, 1663. The first entry from Krieger reads, “We entered the Esopus Kill (a creek named for the Esopus Munsee) in front of the Rondout with two yachts, and sent Sergeant Pieter Ebel with 40 men up to the village Wiltwijck to fetch wagons; he returned to the river side about 2 in the afternoon accompanied by Sergeant Christian Nyssen, 60 men and 9 wagons; they loaded these and departed with them to the village where I arrived towards evening. Saw nothing in the world except three Indians on a high hill.” The first few weeks would continue in this fashion, with Krieger overseeing the transfer of supplies from the harbor to the village, sending out escorts to protect workers in the fields and sending groups of soldiers to lay in ambush.

While preparing for an assault on the Esopus strongholds later that fall, the individuals whom Krieger comes into contact speak to the diversity of the people, both American and European, who inhabited the future state of New York. In the everyday running of the village and in negotiations for the release of hostages, Krieger comes into contact with Mohawks, Mohicans, Catskill Munsee, Wappinger, Hackensack, and Minqua peoples. He is also aided by “Lieutenant Couwenhoven with 41 Indians” from Long Island in his campaign against the Esopus. Krieger also notes the origins of those he meets in his journal: “August 5th Thomas the Irishman arrived here, August 17th Gave three Englishmen leave to go to and return from the Manhatans, September 25th Domine Blom had arrived in the Spaniard’s yacht, October 10th Louis the Walloon went to fetch his oxen, and October 15th Hans the Norman arrived at the Rondout with his yacht from Fort Orange.” In addition to the Dutch, French Huguenot, and others from the German principalities like Krieger himself, there were also “7 of the Honorable Company’s slaves” in Krieger’s force. These slaves of the Dutch West India Company most likely represented people of various Caribbean and African background. All these people of various origins highlight the diversity of Dutch New York, as much of Colonial America was multicultural from the start.

Captain Martin Krieger’s journal goes on to relate in a somewhat cold businesslike manner the scorched earth campaign he would lead against the Esopus nation. In May of 1664, the few surviving sachems of the Esopus signed a peace treaty with Stuyvesant, which ceded all claims of land in what was now formerly Esopus territory. A belt of wampum was given as a token of peace, and is kept today in the Ulster County Hall of Records in Kingston. Martin Krieger would go on to spend his last years upstate, settling near Niskayuna on the Mohawk River. The date of his death is unknown, though some records indicate to as late as 1712. The journal he wrote lives on as an important document of not only the Second Esopus War, but also of the variety of individuals and peoples that history would know less of without his writings.

The Stockade Area in Kingston is now a National Historic District. Much of the history and stone architecture now found there represent a later period than that of the Esopus Wars. Of the original wooden houses, barns, and palisades nothing remains, yet the original street layout of the Stockade Area is as Stuyvesant planned in 1658. Walking on these streets 350 years later, one doesn’t get the feeling that Kingston was at one time a frontier town or that it was the setting for a fiercely fought “Indian” war, but there was a time when the United States did not exist and the American West was located right here in the Hudson Valley.


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Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time by Donna Merwick
University of Pennsylvania Press, 248 pp., $59.95 | £39

"No Country for Peter Stuyvesant"
(available as PDF)
Published on The New York History Blog
Featured on The Way of Improvement Leads Home

by Jim Blackburn

The nation or country, what entity is of more importance to modern society? What about capitalistic economy, secularization, democracy, and progress as normative American values. All hold sway, for better or worse, on our perceptions of the world and our place within it. And it is from this vantage point in modernity that we look towards the actions of those who lived before us, reaching back through time to filter the past through the eyes of the present. This is history, and this is why the practice of history is an art and not a science. It is imperfect, an extension of the historian and the times in which they live.

But how then, asks Donna Merwick, can we better understand Peter Stuyvesant from our vantage point in the modern world, back to one that was premodern and existed between the post-Reformation and pre-Enlightenment periods. A world in which the United States of America cannot be predicted or imagined, though the history written about Colonial America often chooses a narrative that fits into a story of nationalistic genesis. A creation story that makes the founding of America seem both inevitable and secularly divine. The histories of nations are filled with their own deities, prophets, and sacred texts. In America, one has to look no farther than the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. All this, a historian must weed through to find the North America of the seventeenth century in which the colony of New Netherlands existed, and where Peter Stuyvesant acted as Director-Governor for some seventeen years. It is to this place and time outside the confines of the nation state in which Merwick takes us in Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time.

Duty, Belief, and Loss

Merwick asks us as readers to consider Stuyvesant from three perspectives: duty, belief, and loss. The first topic of duty reflects his oath to the Dutch West India Company. An oath, as the one taken by Stuyvesant on July 28, 1646 before the assembly of the States General and “before God,” was a “sacred undertaking” and gave him the authority to act as the personification of the West India Company itself. It bestowed on Stuyvesant the power to take action on the ground in the New Netherlands, while a “government-by-correspondence” was kept with the distant WIC in Holland. But Stuyvesant did not rule with as much authority as one would think, the Netherlanders never liked to give one individual too much power (to the frustration of some in the House of Orange), as the rule of government was usually local and comprised of civic minded citizens. Merwick writes, “The States General’s grant of a municipal charter to New Amsterdam in 1653 created solid grounds for that changeover. Self-government modeled more closely on practices in Holland gradually improved the lives of the city’s tradespeople and merchants. Many scholars have carefully studied this transformation. My concern here is to evaluate the repercussions of the charter on Stuyvesant’s subsequent career in New Netherland and his afterlives in historians’ evaluation of him. The charter meant that Stuyvesant was effectively stripped of his authority as magistrate of the city of New Amsterdam.”

Even as someone who has studied Dutch New York, I found the level of autonomy given to New Amsterdam surprising, and that Stuyvesant’s role in what would become New York City was mostly “consultative.” The government comprised of “Burgomasters and Schepenen” would only last for a little over a decade, until the city was ceded to the English in 1664.

Another obstacle Stuyvesant faced in his duty as director was the sparse population of New Netherlands, especially in his ability to negotiate boundaries with the surrounding English colonies which were more populous. Merwick cites a prominent Virginia Company colonist from 1659 concerning the “political logic” of the time, “saying that Virginia and New England were meant to touch.” If Stuyvesant had his hands full with boundary disputes with other colonies, his most pressing concerns were internal, as Merwick points out “Stuyvesant lived in an American Indian world.”

Multicultural from the Start

Citing statistics, Merwick explains why Stuyvesant governed New Netherlands with a strategy of peaceful deterrence: “In the mid-1660’s, there were about 8,000 men, women, and children, widely scattered in four locations: Manhattan Island and Long Island; Beverwijck (Albany), Wiltwijck (Kingston); and two primitively fortified settlements on the Delaware.” This is in comparison to an estimated 14,000 American Indians who lived within the territory of New Netherlands. The cultural interactions between various American Indian nations and the peoples of New Netherland were “constant if not daily.”

In 1643, reflecting the larger Atlantic world that it was part of, Stuyvesant’s predecessor Willem Kieft noted 18 languages spoken in New Amsterdam. Merwick writes that “like other leading historical figures, Stuyvesant has been chained to the vagaries of American historiography’s own history. As we shall see, he was tied to a paradigmatic conceptualization of American colonial history that severely limited the human diversity that marked the seventeenth century.” Addressing the myth of homogeny, the actual history points to a North America that was multicultural from the start, and has been continuously from our colonial past right through to the present.

Personal Spirituality

Merwick approaches Stuyvesant’s religious beliefs by recognizing the pitfalls of modern faith that operate from the perspective of the post-Enlightenment. Merwick writes, “New Netherlanders made efforts to access God in their everyday life,” as she considers “the construction of a nonsecular cultural formation,” one that focuses “on everyday practice, that is, personal spirituality.” Merwick continues by arguing against the historical stereotypes that depict Calvinists of Stuyvesant’s time as an antithesis to humanism: “I think it is our Enlightenment triumphalism that plays out here. Our analytical orientation to New Netherland’s troubles in the pre-1653 years is expressed in categories constructed in modern times—that is, as secular humanism/reason versus Calvinism/unreason. This is a false dichotomy. In the seventeenth century, a Calvinist was an individual who accepted Calvin’s teachings…that did not mean he or she thereby opposed the new humanistic sciences and arts embedded in the broader culture in Holland.”

What Merwick addresses here goes beyond history, to how we today interpret the art and literature of the past. Both are now analyzed through the lens of the time and place of composition, in combination with a biographical/chronological approach to an author or artists life, in an effort to gain a better understanding of their work. The key though is to try to understand what religion was to those in the past, not as it looks today to us from the vantage point of hindsight. This is of course an unattainable view, but recognizing this paradox gets us closer to a more accurate telling of past events and participants. Merwick is a masterful teacher as well as writer, and these attributes combine to give the reader a better grasp of this concept.

The Ghosts of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper

The history of the Hudson Valley is haunted by many towering figures, but no specters loom larger on this landscape than Irving and Cooper. These two apparitions are for the most part benevolent, but in the context of history, Merwick points out how authors often appropriate historical figures to fit into the larger narratives running through their work. “Irving expected that by elaborating on the dichotomy between the modernizing nineteenth century Americas and the seventeenth century New Netherlanders, each would make the other more real. And from the early Dutch history, the Americans would come to realize the availability of alternative political structures to those in which they were choosing so perilously to live,” writes Merwick. In short, Stuyvesant is cast as a historical actor in a fictional drama, one where “Irving was not writing to do justice to Stuyvesant, but to advance a more just American society.”

Like the idyllic shepherds of a bucolic Greece, created by Virgil in The Eclogues to serve as a contrast to the urban Roman society of the poets time, so too did Dutch New York serve as a metaphor to a more pastoral lifestyle. With Irving portraying in Knickerbockers History a fictional arcadia, in stark contrast to the New Yorkers of his own time. On this topic, Merwick draws one of the most insightful explanations I have come across concerning Irving’s critique of the American society of his era, one which he watched evolve over his lifetime: “Irving’s advice was that they should think carefully about modernization and how they were allowing disciplines to dictate the rhythms of their lives. Those disciplines were now apparent to him in four modes of behavior: acceptance of a frenetic economic, geographic, and psychological mobility; adoption of a work ethic that left little time for leisure and defined it as nonutilitarian in any case; an inclination for aggression in vicious factional politics; a popular distaste for negotiation in favor of warfare; and an uncontrolled thirst for territorial expansion, even to the point of finding it thinkable to exterminate rightful indigenous owners.”

I would only like to add that fiction, in the form of the novel in the early modern period can be at times considered historical. As there is history based on documentary evidence as put forth by Merwick, we can also ask ourselves if for the most part those concerned with documents in the past were not the most privileged in society, meaning those who were literate. As Stuyvesant was a privileged Dutch man, so he has a rich collection of historical documents to draw from, but the history that can be gleamed from older novels can reveal truths to the human condition. Is the work of Jane Austin or Daniel Defoe any less historical than document based research? And as Merwick shows with Irving and Cooper, we can sometimes gain a better historical grasp of certain times, not by how the authors wrote history themselves but how they appropriated history to their own ends. Merwick makes this point without addressing it, as her direction in the text is more concerned with the perception of Stuyvesant through time.

To Suffer Loss

Merwick explores the surrender of New Amsterdam to the English in 1664, and how Stuyvesant’s role in these events has been interpreted differently by various historians through time. But she also goes into detail on one of the most under studied but interesting aspects of Stuyvesant’s biography, the years 1665 to 1667, when he is put under investigation and must defend the loss of New Netherlands to the States General in Holland. As Merwick observes, Stuyvesant had a hand in writing his own history as he submitted seventeen years’ worth of documents, some “70,000 words” towards his own defense.

It was an impolite and at times ugly investigation, the West India Company tried to lay all the blame of the loss onto Stuyvesant, to his former employer he became “a man who had failed to observe his oath.” The WIC’s argument to the investigating committee was that Stuyvesant “acted like a pawn of the burghers, that is like the city’s ‘militia captain and not a servant of the Company.’ Their conclusion: he should have defended the fort even though the city would have been reduced. In their words, ‘it ought to have been defended until the English had reduced it [the fort and the city] by their overwhelming force.” As we have already seen, Stuyvesant had the title of Director-Governor of New Netherlands but little power over New Amsterdam to influence the outcome of the English invasion. The city wanted to surrender, and Stuyvesant bore the burden of being the messenger who has no choice but to accept the weight of another’s decision.

Stuyvesant Bound: An Essay on Loss Across Time by Donna Merwick is academic with a capital A. I do not mean that it is too complicated a read or written over most reader heads. I mean academic in the words root form: that what Merwick writes will bestow not only a better understanding of Peter Stuyvesant the historical figure, but also in how we view the world around us that is created by the history of the past. It is higher learning, what those in a less ironic age would call wisdom. It is by no means an “easy read” because you will find yourself at times stopping to reflect, to wonder about those that once called America home. To think back on how we ourselves have been misled by certain historians and the histories they created, and how that affected our perceptions of the world and our place within it. To have been misled is to be part of a nation, it is mandatory; the choice of whether to accept mistruth is optional, that is citizenship.

Copyright © 2013 Blackburn Book Review

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Key to the Northern Country
edited by James M. Johnson, Christopher Pryslopski, and Andrew Villani
SUNY Press, 328 pp., $24.95

"Unlocking the Revolutionary History of the Hudson Valley"
(available as PDF)
Published in About Town

by Jim Blackburn

Key to the Northern Country is one of the latest releases from the SUNY Press, published through their Excelsior Editions which looks to highlight the many facets of New York culture and history. The title of the essay collection is in homage to a remark made by George Washington on the strategic importance of Fortress West Point, that it was “the key to America.” The Hudson River was known as the North River until the Hudson-Fulton Celebration of 1909. As a result, the Hudson Valley during the time of the Revolution was known as the North River Valley, and so derives the name of the text – Key to the Northern Country. The book itself is a collection of essays mostly drawn from The Hudson River Valley Review, founded and first published by Bard College; the journal has been in the care of Marist College and the Hudson Valley Institute since 2002.

The essays draw on the rich well of Hudson Valley history during the Revolutionary period, and honor the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. A battle that is viewed as the turning point in the War of Independence as it brought the fledgling American cause an alliance with France, and changed forever the dynamics between the European powers and their overseas colonies. The British occupation of New York City in 1776 and the subsequent campaign for the Hudson River Valley in 1777 is part of the larger narrative of the Battle of Saratoga, as the British looked to divide and conquer the rebelling colonists and planned to use the Hudson River as the dividing line.

Historical Geography

Many of the essays deal with the political and social changes that occurred as the colonists of the Hudson Valley had to organize themselves to meet such unprecedented challenges. “A Suspected Loyalist in the Rural Hudson Valley: The Revolutionary War Experience of Roeloff Josiah Eltinge” by Kenneth Shefsiek explores the local conspiracy committees which partially filled the void of government created by the Revolution, and faced the issues of allegiance that the war created dividing neighbors and family as neutrality was no longer an option. The committees themselves are the subject of the contribution by Colin Williams, which in part is a study of the social change ushered into the manor system with the rise of upstate committees that made politics more accessible to the middle class, while Clare Brandt’s essay focuses on Robert R. Livingston, profiling “the reluctant revolutionary” who embodied the changing social, cultural, and political landscape of the Hudson Valley as a result of the war.

The essays also look at the structures that the necessities of war brought to the region, from the “Flawed Works of Fort Constitution” by editor and contributor James M. Johnson, to the “Revolutionary War Fleet Prison at Esopus, NY” by Frank Doherty. One of my favorites from this collection is “Lewis Graham’s House in Pine Plains: A Revolutionary Log Building” by Neil Larson, which shows how the study of a small geographic space or building can lead to a better understanding of the larger currents moving through a historical period.

The Slaves of Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors

Thomas S. Wermuth, who as well as being the editor of this SUNY Series is also director of the Hudson Valley Institute which publishes The Hudson River Valley Review, contributes some of the finest essays in Key to the Northern Country. Wermuth and Johnson work together in the opening essay to give a general overview of the historical landscape of the Hudson Valley during the American Revolution, which sets the stage for the more specific works that follow. Wermuth is probably best known for his work Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors: The Transformation of Rural Society in the Hudson River Valley, 1720-1850, which viewed the economic market as a means to a better understanding of social change. If there is one shortcoming in Wermuth’s Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors is that he fails to deal with the subject of slavery in the Hudson Valley. A reader could come away from that past text with the impression that Rip Van Winkle’s neighbors were not slave owners, but many definitely were. It would be interesting to see what an updated edition of Rip Van Winkle’s Neighbors would look like today if it incorporated the wealth of scholarship Wermuth has been essential in fostering since its publication in 2001.        

In fact, in “The Central Hudson Valley and the American Revolution,” Wermuth confronts the issue of slavery writing that: “Slavery took hold early, and by the Revolution some 15 percent of the population of the Hudson’s west bank consisted of African-American slaves.” The essay goes on to cite Myra B. Young Armstead’s ground breaking essay collection Mighty Change, Tall Within: Black Identity in the Hudson Valley. Armstead just last year published a highly acclaimed book on the post-Revolutionary period of the Hudson Valley titled Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America.

I have only discussed a few highlights in Key to the Northern Country: The Hudson River Valley in the American Revolution, which contains twenty-one essays in all, all of which are worth reading. The quality of the book speaks to the various editors and authors involved in creating a text which is of the highest academic level of history writing, yet is at the same time easily accessible to a general audience. In short, this collection is a work that is a valuable addition to any classroom as well as to any home in the Hudson Valley and beyond.


Copyright © 2013 Blackburn Book Review