Rescuing the Albany Records from the Fire: Redeeming Francis Adrian van der Kemp’s Notorious Attempt to Translate the Records of New Netherland
- New York History
- Cornell University Press
- Volume 96, Numbers 3-4, Summer/Fall 2015
- pp. 354-373
- View Citation
- Additional Information
New York History Summer / Fall 2015© 2015 by The New York State Historical Association 354 Rescuing the Albany Records from the Fire: Redeeming Francis Adrian van der Kemp’s Notorious Attempt to Translate the Records of New Netherland Peter D. Van Cleave Francis Adrian van der Kemp assumed he would eventually go blind. In January of 1817, Governor De Witt Clinton asked Van der Kemp, a sixty-five-year-old Dutch expatriate, to translate the records of the New Netherland colony. Van der Kemp took immense pride in the project, which came to be known as the Albany Records, feeling “duty bound” to bring the history of the Dutch in America to a wider audience. He worked tirelessly on the Records for the next four years. When he turned in the last volume in 1822, Van der Kemp had produced twenty-four folio volumes and 10,206 pages of text.1 Having spent the better part of the last four years hunched over a moldering pile of documents “without the aid of a magnifying glass,” a process he described as “often literally a decyphering of Hieroglyphicks,” Van der Kemp knew his sight had not kept up with his spirit.2 The treatment he sought to relieve his eye pain, essentially allowing a doctor to pour poison in his eyes, did not help much either.3 Yet he took solace in the fact that his 1. Quote from Francis Adrian van der Kemp to J. V. N. Yates, 22 July 1822, Simon Gratz Autograph Collection, Case 8 Box 19, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. For an account of the records, see J. V. N. Yates to De Witt Clinton, 21 July 1825, De Witt Clinton Papers, Volume XIII, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. The most detailed overview of the translation project is Arnold Johan Ferdinand van Laer, “The Translation and Publication of the Manuscript Dutch Records of New Netherland: With an Account of Previous Attempts at Translation,” Education Department Bulletin, New York State Library Bibliography 46, No. 462 (1 January 1910), New York State Library: 5–28. 2. Francis Adrian van der Kemp to John Lincklaen, 27 April 1818, Van der Kemp Collection, NewYork Historical Society. I have elected to retain the original spelling in quoted material, and will only indicate discrepancies where absolutely necessary to provide clarification. 3. The treatment of poison Van der Kemp used was belladonna. For the treatment, see Van der Kemp to John Adams, 24 June 1819, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp Collection, 1781–1829: Letters of John Adams and John Quincy Adams, 1781–1829, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Another description of the treatment can be found in Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America (New York: Vintage, 2004). Van Cleave Rescuing the Albany Records from the Fire 355 fellow New Yorkers would now know the role the Dutch had played in their state’s founding. For Van der Kemp, sight was a small price to pay. Although he complained of poor vision until his death in 1829, he never lost his eyesight and in the years afterward, scholars frequently used Van der Kemp’s translations. Unfortunately, his effort far outpaced his quality. Scholars who consulted the Albany Records agreed that they were problematic at best. E. B. O’Callaghan, writing in 1865, recommended that the documents “ought to be translated anew” since they were “not only incorrect and unreliable but incomplete,” with “several parts and pages of the original having been left untranslated.”4 In 1910, A. J. F. van Laer declared the Records “absolutely worthless for critical historical work” and summed up the effort as “so poor that it need not be considered at all.”5 In 1911, a fire broke out in the New York State Capitol. Amongst the documents that succumbed to the flames were the Records, an act that some, certainly Van Laer, considered a divine public service. The lack of documents led to a brief period of praise for Van der Kemp’s efforts. Harry Jackson commented that the actual quality of the translations “will probably never be...