The first indication of Van der Kemp’s interest in Dutch records of early New York was his attempt to obtain some of the colonial documents from Amsterdam with the intent of giving them to the New-York Historical Society. He first requested copies in 1814 or 1815 when the Dutch nation was restored and his friends were in high places. He wrote again in 1817, telling De Witt Clinton of the correspondence. Van der Kemp said the best Dutch historians, Jan Wagenaer and Petrus C. van Hooft, contained very little about New Nether-land.1
Clinton was impressed with the possibilities of filling in the blank spots of New York history. When he became aware of how little had been done with the great mass of Dutch records in the office of the secretary of state at Albany, he thought of Van der Kemp as a translator. A small beginning had been made by a previous translator and then was stopped. With the approval of the legislature for a renewal of the project, Clinton offered the position to Van der Kemp on January 21, 1818, saying that he should come to Albany for the arrangements and that he might do a part of the work at home.2 Van der Kemp was doubtful about the status of the position. He wrote to Clinton that by strict economy and aid from his son he had preserved his independence so far and could not now part with it “as with the last breath of life.” He suspected that a translator might be very insignificant, something of a menial servant in the secretary’s office. Nor would he come to Albany as “an humble suppliant” to beg the members of the legislature for a job. However, he thanked Clinton cordially and indicated that if most of the work could be done at home there was a possibility of his doing it. He said that Jonas Platt, Henry Seymour, Nathan Williams, Abraham Van Vechten and Congressman Joseph Kirkland would all vouch for him so that there need be no doubt of his faithful execution of the trust.3
Clinton immediately assured Van der Kemp that the office of translator was confidential and honorable and he had been appointed because a man of undoubted capacity and leisure was needed. Probably he could do most of it at home in hours when he had nothing else to do. Friends urged Van der Kemp to go to Albany and look into the situation. There he was treated with the greatest respect, was told to name his own conditions of work, and was offered a reasonable salary and expenses. After looking over the forty volumes of bound documents, he agreed to undertake the work of translation. His friends and relatives were pleased to see Van der Kemp, now sixty-six years old, embark upon the work with his normally great enthusiasm and vigor. He agreed to do as much as he could by fall and take it to Albany for a decision on a continuation of the project. Adams congratulated him for the “honourable Usefull and profitable Employment and Amusement for Life” and added facetiously that it was a rescue from his writing “metaphysical and delirious” cosmogonies.4
Thinking of the project on a grand scale, Van der Kemp wrote to a friend in Philadelphia for the records of the Swedes and their relations with New Netherland. He also wrote again to Holland to get the Dutch government documents from 1614 to 1648.5 By May he completed one volume, equal to about two of the originals, amounting to 460 pages. He was pleased but admitted to John Lincklaen that his uncouth English and the scrawl of the Dutch made the work difficult.6 He suffered from eyestrain, but expected that working in his garden in the growing season would rest his eyes and restore their strength. While he gardened during the summer, he thought about the translations and wrote about them in his correspondence. Rather proudly he informed Adams that as early as 1660 the Dutch sent seeds, plants and equipment for the beginning of a botanical garden, that they established potash and salt works and set up a Latin school in New Amsterdam.7 Adams was impressed but asked if the Dutch had banished or hanged Quakers and if they had executed witches as had the Yankees. He believed errors should be investigated as well as progress.8
Some of the documents in the next group were partially effaced or blotted and very difficult to read. They contained the minutes of the governor and council and appeared to be very dull. In regard to Adams’ question on Quakers, he found one Quaker had been exiled, and suspected persecution because of the documented persecution of Lutherans. However, the director of the West India Company had commanded free exercise of religion in the private homes. He had found no records of witches as yet.9 In October Van der Kemp renewed his translating and in one document found mention of a Thomas Adams. He asked John if Thomas were one of his ancestors; if so he wished to include the fact in his annotations. In the same letter, Van der Kemp reported that word had come from Europe that Napoleon had carried away to destruction the original documents of the West India Company. However, he had been notified he could have copies made of the documents in the archives of the king of the Netherlands if he paid for the expense.10
Clinton now requested Van der Kemp to come to Albany so that the arrangement for the translating could be officially approved. He went, perhaps in January, 1819, having sent his translations on ahead for official perusal. At this stage Van der Kemp admitted he would be mortified if Clinton was not pleased with his work. He was eager to complete the task and said he ought to have all the documents in his home so that they could be taken chronologically, rearranged where necessary, and be readily available in annotating the work. He also requested that the state procure the documents from Holland.11 His trip to Albany was largely successful. He received one hundred dollars for expenses and five hundred for salary. It was agreed to send all the documents to Oldenbarneveld and the plan of procedure was entrusted to Van der Kemp. He started translating again at the end of January and told Adams he would relay bits of interesting information such as the fact that Negroes were used for farming by the Dutch on Manhattan as early as the 1630’s.12
When Van der Kemp picked up his work again, he found the papers most difficult. Some were muddy and some were moldered away. Much seemed to be perfectly worthless in content. Yet here and there he found “a pearl,” particularly information about the economy of New Netherland. He was impressed that the colony was something of an emporium of all North America, supplying goods to New England and Virginia and taking their products to Europe. Especially notable in volume and value of products exchanged, was the trade with New Haven where the Dutch took in pay peas, wheat, beef, pork and sewan (wampum). He found that New Netherland was chiefly a tobacco colony up to the time of its conquest by England. “Could it be that it was curbed and extinguished to favour Virginia?” By the first of March he completed almost six hundred pages and the farther he went the more surprised he was that these potentially valuable records had lain so long unused.13 In another month he completed two hundred pages more, admitting that although the work was arduous and hurt his eyes he had found it highly interesting. The prudent and energetic business practices of the Dutch comprised a complete instruction book of how to operate a successful mercantile colony. Commerce was the soul of the operation but agriculture was not neglected. They handled almost exclusively the trade in furs, tobacco and salt with the Netherlands and other Dutch colonies. However, the government was aristocratic to an excess and “bigotry tainted their religious establishment.”14
By the end of April his eyes were so weak that he had to give up the work by order of his physician. In June the treatment by “blistering” was considered unsuccessful and sublimate of mercury was used. His eyes allowed some work and when he got through the dirtiest documents, the “Augis stabulum,” he was rewarded by finding the next documents clean and clear.15 When John Adams asked for his eye remedy, Van der Kemp reported that he had consulted three physicians, Guiteau, Willoughby and Coventry, and all were apprehensive of cataract. They suggested the blistering, then changed to the mercury—a solution of four or five grains in an ounce of brandy with several drops to be taken internally morning and evening. The Eliots had consulted their doctor and his opinion was similar. However, because of Van der Kemp’s vitality, Guiteau prescribed a stronger solution and up to ten drops as a dose. The same was weakened with water and dropped into the eyes as often as he could think of it. If this did not work, “electricity” must be tried. If a cataract developed, an operation would be necessary. Van der Kemp recommended that Adams consult his physician for a proper solution for his weak eyes.16
Van der Kemp’s eyes improved to some extent, and he worked on the records more, before breakfast, in the evening, on rainy days. This, plus vigorous gardening, was more than his sixty-seven years could stand. As he worked in his garden in late July, muscular spasms seized both his knees, giving excruciating pain for an hour and a half. Another spell followed the first after a brief interval and when it was over he was too worn out to move at all. Great weakness and loss of appetite kept him incapacitated for two weeks. He recovered and was in the garden again by the end of August and working on the Records even sooner.17 He was only one month behind his schedule when he completed the eighth volume in September.
By this time the De Witt Clinton political fortunes were less promising and Van der Kemp wondered if Clinton’s enemies would be successful in the elections and then proceed to stop the translations. The scholar declared he had not sought the position and if politicians wanted to save a few dollars by discontinuing his project he would be “pretty indifferent about it.”18
Perhaps the political situation made him more observant of the politics reflected in the Albany Records, as they came to be called. He commented on the despotic power entrusted to the governor and his council, yet found no case where the power was abused. In critical situations the governor had called a goodly number of the respectable inhabitants together for advice and then executed their resolves. Van der Kemp noted with interest that at one time twenty-five families had come from their “delightful abode” in New England to settle in the Dutch colony for the sake of liberty of worship. The Records contained the negotiations.19 In December he sent four more volumes, containing about five hundred pages each, to Albany. He was given fresh inspiration when he was told that the first seven volumes were neatly bound, lettered, and available for scholarly use. In spite of his declared indifference, in December he said he hoped his work might be approved in the new year when Clinton would start another term, even though he was without much support in the legislature.20
In January Clinton wrote for Van der Kemp to come to Albany and a few days later Jonas Platt urged that he come immediately. He went. Clinton made the correct approaches to the right people in the legislature, impressed them with the scholarship of Van der Kemp, and all was well. He was received as a distinguished person, the secretary of state had recorded a notice of his work in the journals of both houses of the legislature, and the pay was liberal. The money was enough to meet his expenses of the past year, to purchase some things needed by his family, to pay three hundred dollars to his son as part payment on the property which John had finished paying for in 1819. There was even enough money left for Mrs. Van der Kemp to go to Philadelphia to visit John and his family. He enthusiastically declared his intention to work another year at the translations if his eyes held out.21
The money from the translations was followed by a legacy of a thousand dollars from Van der Kemp’s wealthy friend, Sam Eliot. The scholar repaired his cottage, paid the last four hundred dollars to his son, and had enough left over to plan another visit to Boston and Quincy.22 John Adams was pleased at the prospect of seeing Francis again and said he would be welcomed by all.
The translating continued although hindered by Van der Kemp’s weakened eyes. His daughter, Betsy, helped with some of the writing. By July he had three more volumes finished. In addition, the copies of the documents in the Hague were promised. When the state of New York hesitated to pay for the copying, David Parish, a wealthy merchant of New York City and friend to Van der Kemp, offered to pay all the costs. This gift to the state made Francis exclaim, “May I not indulge a little pride in possessing such friends!”23
With some of the legacy Van der Kemp had two new rooms built to his cottage, a small guest room and a room for his library and study. These filled out his needs for scholarship and for friendship, parts of Van der Kemp’s life that were very nearly on an equal basis. He was appreciative of the legacy, as he had always felt kindly toward all the Eliots. While the house was being remodeled, young Sam Eliot stopped at Oldenbarneveld to see Van der Kemp and to discuss the scholar’s projected trip to Boston. He was cordially invited to make his headquarters at the Eliot home. In July one of the Eliot girls in a small party stopped and planned all of Van der Kemp’s travel arrangements. Near the middle of August he set out by stage, probably stopping briefly at Albany and Pittsfield.
The visit was as pleasant and stimulating as his first trip to Boston. He conversed and dined with officials, clergymen and scholars. He was treated as a member of the Adams family again and was once more welcomed into the home of Josiah Quincy, soon to be mayor of Boston and after that president of Harvard. William Ellery Channing, unofficial leader of American Unitarianism at the time, received Van der Kemp graciously, while President John Kirkland of Harvard sought him out. Nearly all of his Boston friends were connected with Harvard in some way. The high point of the trip now came, the official adoption of Van der Kemp by these Harvardites through the ceremony of conferring on him an honorary degree of doctor of laws.
Though Van der Kemp was appreciative, perhaps it took some coaxing by the Eliot clan, by Kirkland and by Quincy to persuade him to accept the honor. Only two years before, Van der Kemp had written disparagingly of the granting of such degrees to any but “men of supereminent deserves,” and his feeling was, “Throw not the pearls to the swine.” Yet how could he refuse this mark of esteem from friends he respected highly—especially when he learned that Channing was to receive the same honor at the same time? They were sincere and all felt as did John Adams, “We all rejoice that Harvard University has done itself honour by enroling your name among its adopted Sons, most eminent for science and learning.”24
Van der Kemp accepted the title of “Doctor” thereafter but seldom mentioned the conferral of the degree. He apparently found the more common acts of friendship to be more to his liking, especially his reception by Adams. When he returned home he wrote back:
I cannot express my feelings for the affectionate reception which I met with at Montezillo—You honour me not only with your distinguished and partial regards to which I am indebted for all the attentions which I received—but you treated me as a Brother—as a Friend—with cordiality—which was followed by each member of your family….
What delightful time I spend under your roof—in your presence and that of your Family! I shall a long while feast upon it. When I walk in my garden—and see your plumb trees growing and your lilies in full flower—my imagination will transport me to Montezillo—and then I shall listen, if I do not hear the voice of John Adams—25
Dudley Tyng took Van der Kemp to Worcester, where they visited the Antiquarian Society, and then continued to Lenox. Van der Kemp started the homeward journey from there, making a stopover at Pittsfield. The perfect trip was marred by only one small incident. In descending from the stage at Utica, Van der Kemp fell and injured his legs, though not seriously. As soon as he was settled at home again and had given full reports to family and friends, he gathered some garden seeds to send back to Adams in return for the plum trees and flowers. He sent some “Salada” seeds of the “excellent Frankforter” variety and a few Brussels sprout seeds. The field salada was recommended for spring and fall served with oil and vinegar, and, in season, with chopped beets, butter and vinegar. He recommended boiling and stewing of the Brussels sprouts with a little butter and nutmeg.26
Van der Kemp went back to his translating with renewed vigor, perhaps too much so. He completed his twentieth volume but with more eye trouble. He considered the next batch of documents to be in the worst condition of all but knew if he could do them he could say, “Rubiconem transii.” In November he made a trip to Albany to arrange some details and went on to New York City for medical treatment.27
The re-election of Clinton had been fine but his plans were often upset by having the majority in the legislature against him. The national election was satisfactory but European affairs were more threatening than usual. Adams wrote that he feared more European troubles, “the leagues, holy and Unholy,” and regretted that progress was so often interrupted by “frenzikal Monarchs, deleterious Nobles, and ferocious blind Ignorant Sans Culottes, and Radicals.”
“Then Adams added a comment that could be made only by one old friend to another. “All the above is fustian—now for something of real use to mankind—You once mentioned to me a remedy for corns, will you have the goodness to send me a receipt … ?”28
Ven der Kemp shared Adams’ fears about the troubles of Europe. He thought the United States should surpass Europe in civilization within a hundred years even if there were troubles in America over race, political power and education.29
Van der Kemp continued to work on the Records and had three large volumes ready to send away by October. He admired most of the acts of the Dutch but deplored their encouragement of the slave trade. He particularly noted that the Dutch had encouraged education of Indians in the colony schools.30 Van der Kemp had hoped to finish the translations during Clinton’s administration, but the Constitutional Convention had shortened the governor’s term by a year and a half. He feared the work might not be finished by January 1, 1823.
Late in 1821 Van der Kemp sent a summary of his work to Clinton with the suggestion that it be included in his message to the legislature. Clinton received it too late for his regular message but promised to use it and also to pass to the legislature Van der Kemp’s suggestion of an index for the translations.31 Van der Kemp had also suggested the index to Secretary John van Ness Yates, who sent his approval of it to Clinton, saying, “The act of 1804 is silent in this respect—and Mr Vander Kemp probably did not feel authorized to proceed further than to make translations literally and faithfully from the originals.”32
As part of a special message of January 22, 1822, Clinton reported to the legislature Van der Kemp’s progress and recommended the index. His praise of the work was enthusiastic. He said the translations contained “much valuable information … illustrating an interesting period of our colonial history, hitherto, in a great degree closed against us.” Van der Kemp had performed a great service “among all the difficulties involved in deciphering, explaining, and translating ancient and mouldering manuscripts,” and he had “successfully performed a work, which perhaps no other man, in this country, was capable of accomplishing.”33 Clinton sent a copy of the message to Van der Kemp with the notation that he had endeavored “to render justice to a very worthy gentleman.”34
The index was approved by the legislature, but when Van der Kemp pushed for appropriations to get more documents from Holland, Clinton advised caution. Van der Kemp wrote again to a cousin in Holland who passed his request on to the Advocate General of the High Court. In December he wrote yet again to get records copied but it was in vain.35 In the meantime he continued the work on the last few volumes, and in May told Adams he thought he could finish and be able to say “without boasting, that I procured to this State, what she could not have obtained without me.”36
As the work approached completion Van der Kemp began to consider ways of promoting its use. An initial suggestion was that, as soon as the index was completed, the historical society should offer a prize for the best essay on Peter Stuyvesant. Van der Kemp said he would give twenty-five dollars to it.37 The Albany Gazette & Daily Advertiser accepted for publication several columns entitled, “Scraps for History, from our Dutch Records.”38 Van der Kemp wrote to the editors that he was very pleased and hoped they would continue publishing extracts.39
In July Van der Kemp wrote to remind Secretary Yates of the proposed general index to assist “Scientific inquirers.” He asked if the completed volumes had been lettered and numbered. He also requested that the few remaining documents be sent immediately to Oldenbarneveld, so that he could include them in the last volumes.
Then came the first recognition of trouble. Van der Kemp offered to have conveyance of the papers and some paper and quills charged to him if the secretary hesitated to pay it. The expenses of the project were heavier than he had expected. He had been allowed one hundred dollars for trips to Albany and contingent expenses the first year. Now he had had to hire some of his gardening done, as he had been working on the Records from half after four until late in the evening. He also felt obligated to reward his son and daughter for copy reading. He reminded Yates that the first year’s payment, six hundred dollars, was described as for labor and expense and that the administration of the project to completion should call for something further.40 On September 16, he reported the completion of the twenty-fifth volume, his last, and noted he had translated over 3,000 pages since the November before. The entire project comprised a total of well over 12,000 pages. Now State Comptroller John Savage rejected Van der Kemp’s claim for contingent expenses. The scholar, mindful of his hours of labor and the value of his work, could not contain his wrath. He wrote to Clinton:
That man does not know me, if he assumes, that it is in his power to humble me—He is digging a grave for himself—while he rashly endeavours—to undervalue one of your Exc. most glorious undertakings during your administration—I now nearly regret, although prudence and your interest in my behalf directed your Exc. step—that my answer was not plunged in his throat—I expect that by all means your Exc. can not stoop to a compromise. As I would now not consent to receive 99$ and 99 cents per year … Platt … approves my answer….
In a postscript he said another volume of documents had belatedly arrived at Oldenbarneveld. “I shall not touch—not even try to decypher a single line” lest the legislature refuse to pay the postage.41
Clinton tried to arrange a fair financial settlement for his friend, but without success. Shortly after his term of office expired on January 1, 1823, he wrote that he would be in New York for a few weeks. He added that the usual uproar about offices when a new administration came in would make it unwise to raise the Van der Kemp claim yet.42 In March Van der Kemp told William Bayard that except for the hundred dollars the first year as allowance, he had received nothing but clerical wages for his work and that the state owed him at least three hundred dollars. He declared that when Justice was deaf he would not humbly beg for what was justly due even if he was “craving a crust of bread.”43
Van der Kemp sent the untranslated volume back to Secretary Yates and asked plainly if the secretary had forgotten him. Van der Kemp asked for all correspondence relative to the matter, including the Yates letter of approval for contingent expenses. He said they could let someone else finish the last set of documents as long as the great state of New York was the debtor “of a Recluse in the western woods.” The absence of malice in the character of the amiable “Recluse” was indicated by the closing sentence, when he invited Yates to come with his wife for a visit to the Van der Kemp home and Trenton Falls.44
Appropriate action in Albany may have made it unnecessary for Yates to send copies of the papers to Van der Kemp, as the claims were adjusted and paid by April. The total cost of the project amounted to $7,754 for translating (including trips to Albany and other incidentals) and $140.37 for stationery and binding. Much of this had already been paid to Van der Kemp. The total may have been fair payment for three years of scholarly effort, inasmuch as the secretary of state was getting $1,500 per year and the comptroller $2,381.81,45 but the state’s reluctance to settle the final claim was a bitter blow.
In February, 1824, Van der Kemp noted that Governor Joseph Yates (not the secretary) was having trouble. He tried to reappoint the same judges, including Jonas Platt, but was obliged to name new ones when the legislature rejected the experienced judges. He had voiced approval of the canal, even recommended a branch to the St. Lawrence River, but had given Clinton little credit for the canal and for having the Dutch records translated. He stood on the unpopular side of the presidential elector question and seemed to have fallen from public favor. Van der Kemp had mixed emotions about his fall. He said that he himself would now pay for any documents which came from Holland and would give them to the New-York Historical Society.46 Fighting for his payments from the state for his long months of arduous work was a humiliation not easily forgotten.
The break between the party factions which had supported Yates, and the canal politics, returned Clinton to the governor’s chair on January 1, 1825. Early in April Clinton told Van der Kemp that he had called on Secretary Yates for a full report on the translations and hoped Van der Kemp would do that last volume.47 Van der Kemp was disgusted. “Better Yates should finish the translation. My eyes are bad; I’m old & tired.”48 Van der Kemp was now seventy-three.
The translations were used by scholars of his day, but not by historians in time for Van der Kemp to appreciate it. John Romeyn Brodhead in his History of the State of New York had hundreds of references to the Albany Records. Other writers used the Records, although with fewer citations. In 1865, Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan used some of Van der Kemp’s translations, even as he criticized the translating as unidiomatic, incorrect, unreliable and incomplete. Some forty-five years later, A. J. F. Van Laer, archivist of the New York State Library, classed the translations as “worthless for critical historical work” because of inaccuracies and free translation.49 Whether Van Laer, with his European training in the “scientific” pursuit of history, was too harsh a critic, or whether Van der Kemp was carried away by his enthusiasm for making his translations immediately available and interpretive in nature, will probably never be known. A fire destroyed his translations of the Albany Records in 1911, and only fragments quoted in Brodhead and elsewhere remain.
Nevertheless, the work represented a significant achievement for Van der Kemp in his declining years. Clinton, in his message to the legislature of 1827, commented on the work of the New-York Historical Society and followed these remarks with praise for Van der Kemp’s accomplishment. “The translation of our Dutch Records, at the public expense, by the learned Doctor Vanderkemp, have opened sources of historical information, which were before locked up in a language little known and in manuscripts scarcely legible.”50