The Politics of Unearthing New Amsterdam in 19th-Century New York

by Madeline McMahon

John Romeyn Brodhead was fascinated by a city beneath his feet that he felt could only be dug up and discovered in the archives of the Old World. New Amsterdam, and its fraught transformation into New York, captivated Brodhead, so that even when he undertook diplomatic work at The Hague, he “divid[ed] his time between study and society.” He returned to New York in 1839 and was appointed by the state’s governor to transcribe documents relevant to New York’s colonial history in the archives of the Netherlands, England, and France.

After a slow start (he at first missed his boat, which turned out to be a good thing since that particular steamship never arrived at its destination), Brodhead seems to have worked furiously for the next few years. He was officially an Agent of the State of New York—an act of the state’s legislature had created his post. He leveraged this position and his former diplomatic ties in order to gain access to the archives. As he later wrote, reflecting back on his journey: “The inspection of the state papers of foreign governments, it is well known, is not a mere matter of course, but is considered a privilege of a high order; and is granted in most cases, only upon applications backed by high personal or official influence.” Brodhead’s quest for support in high places was riddled with failures—even after an interview, the US Secretary of State declined to give him letters of introduction, and he had to appeal instead to American ambassadors in Europe. He also sought audiences with and wrote letters to a vivid cast of European characters, from the king of the Netherlands to the archbishop of Canterbury, all to gain further access to documents. To anyone who has worked with manuscripts and rare books in the 21st century, Brodhead’s archival adventures sound strange indeed.

Nonetheless, when he returned, in 1844, one contemporary wrote that “[t]he ship in which he came back was more richly freighted with new material for American history than any that ever crossed the Atlantic.” Armed with eighty volumes of transcripts, he did what any researcher would do next: he tried to procure further funding. His Final Report (1845) was an overview of the documents he had found. Strictly speaking, it was the culmination of what he had set out to do, but it was also part of his case that he should be the one to translate and publish his findings. But politics were not in Brodhead’s favor as a Democrat, and in 1849, a Whig-controlled legislature assigned the task to two other men.

Although Brodhead wrote that an “antiquarian spirit” motivated his work, he identified with the past. He proudly claimed descent from “a colonial Hollander who stood up manfully for his Republican Fatherland” as well as “an English officer who helped his king to conquer Dutch New Netherland” as indicative of his lack of “partiality.”

Yet the battleground of the past extended beyond English and Dutch tensions in seventeenth-century New York. Brodhead’s expedition to European archives was driven in part by a national debate on American colonial origins. As the New Englander Puritan became ascendant in early nineteenth-century American mythology, New Yorkers fought back, creating the New York Historical Society (of which Brodhead was an active member) to counter that story (Joyce Goodfriend, “Present at the Creation: Making the Case for the Dutch Founders of America,” 261). The volumes of documents that Brodhead hoped to publish had New England counterparts (Goodfriend, 262). Ultimately, it was Brodhead’s identity as a New Yorker, excavating the sources for a local history—a genealogy of sorts—that compromised his impartiality. Yet it also led him to present early America as more than a monolithic English colony, and to search seriously for its sources in international archives.

8 comments

    1. Tony, many thanks for your comment, and for the Archival Science issue–how cool!

      For anyone who’s interested, Brodhead’s story is much richer than as presented here. He essentially created his own archives by leaving his annotated books (including his own copy of the ‘Final Report’) and notes to the New York Society Library.

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  1. Thanks for your great post, Madeline. To expand on the question of partiality and credibility you conclude with: it’s interesting that American authors and historians without Brodhead’s claim to Dutch ancestry seem to have exercised so much control over 19th-century impressions of New and Old Amsterdam in the US (less flatteringly in Irving’s stories and popular history, but far more so later on John Lothrop Motley, Douglas Campbell and William Elliot Griffis). Annette Stott makes this case in “Images of Dutchness in the United States,” an entry in Four Centuries of Dutch-American Relations.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Derek, and for the reference to Stott’s article, which is very helpful. The relationship between heritage (or lack thereof) and historical interest is fascinating. Stott mentions that the City History Club taught colonial history to immigrant children in an effort to Americanize them (246), as if history could substitute for heritage. I wonder if a similar equivalence inspired non-Dutch Americans like Motley to study New Netherland?

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  2. Of course Canada provided “un canadien errant”, Edmund O’Callaghan, late of the Patriote uprising of 1837 in Quebec. In the end it was political patronage that skewered him as well. What was the relationship between Brodhead and O’Callaghan on the Colonial History project?

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