WHEN I TELL PEOPLE WHERE I WORK and what I do there, a question usually follows: “What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen in your work at the Archives?” It is a tough question to answer. We have so many unique things in our collections, and every item has its own story to tell. My answer ends up being a list, and near the top of that list are the colonial records.
A few years ago, I digitized many of these documents by photographing each page. At the time I spoke no Dutch, so the earliest colonial records were mostly a mystery to me. Yet I felt a palpable sense of the basic humanness behind them. As I gently turned the pages of those large volumes, I could not help imagining the people who wrote each entry. The script, though flowing and elaborate, was not fanciful but practical—a record of the human needs, daily events, and common agreements of the settlers in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam and later English New York, as well as the surrounding Dutch and English towns in Brooklyn and Queens.
However, as a photographer I think visually, so something other than text stood out to me. The pages of the colonial volumes are peppered with the signatures of the parties concerned, showing different handwriting, some fluid, others rough and spidery. Interspersed with the signatures are odd marks. Some are essentially large letters, while others are common symbols like crosses, stars, and what people today might describe as hashtags. In some instances, the marks are elaborate; in others they look more like scribbles. They appear in the Dutch colonial records, and become even more common in the English volumes, but then largely disappear in the eighteenth century documents. The meaning and history of these marks is an interesting part of the larger history of writing and the growth of literacy.
When the colonial records were created, reading and writing were becoming more important with each passing year. Increasingly, literacy informed religious life. In the Netherlands, the Catholic Delftse Bijbel or Delft Bible was published in 1477—merely forty years after the European advent of movable type—and was the first printed book in the Dutch language. In the following century, two major transitions occurred in Dutch society. First, the Dutch people embraced the Reformation and began forming a national church. Within the next few decades, they also shook off Spanish rule, establishing the Dutch Republic. Now an independent Dutch nation with an independent Dutch church, they eagerly embraced printing in Dutch, especially religious texts, as an important statement of national identity. The Statenvertaling (“State’s Translation”) was published in 1637, the product of a nearly two-decade translation effort. It would remain the standard Dutch Bible for the next three centuries. In the English-speaking world, the Authorized Version—also known as the King James Bible—played a similar role after the formation of the Church of England.
Dutch schoolmasters were lay ministers of the Reformed Dutch church, and were expected to teach children their prayers and catechism. As historian Firth Haring Fabend notes, “This is not only how [the children] learned the precepts of the faith, it was also how they learned to read and thus to function in a world where literacy was essential to trade and commerce…” Indeed, commerce was quickly becoming as central to Dutch life as religion. As they became masters of maritime trade, the Dutch relied heavily on contracts, deeds, and shipping manifests. Due to their prowess as shipbuilders, their network of trade routes became global, and Dutch merchants quickly set about writing guidebooks for trade, including glossaries of commerce-related words in languages from remote parts of the world. Determining who owned what, and who could sell what to whom, for how much and where, was a daily necessity.
As a product of the Dutch trading boom, academia and the arts were on the rise in the Netherlands. Universities were founded in urban centers, which were swelling quickly as people moved in from the countryside. Amsterdam is estimated to have doubled its population in the mid-seventeenth century. The arts also flourished, with the nouveau riche of the Dutch Republic buying the works of Dutch artists, who produced as many as three million paintings in the 1600s. It is quite telling that in the early seventeenth century, around the time New Amsterdam was growing, Dutch artists painted scenes of people reading and included books and writing quills in their still life works. Paul G. Hoftijzer estimates that by 1650 “about half of the young adult population, male and female, in the cities [of the Dutch Republic] was able to read and write.” He points to estate auctions in the Dutch city of Leiden, observing that “the large number of surviving auction catalogues, often containing a thousand or more titles, is in itself sufficient proof of a lively book culture, particularly among the academically educated upper echelon of Dutch society.”
With this increase in writing, another use of the pen rose to prominence: the signature. Prior to the seventeenth century, signatures were used less frequently. Instead, documents were validated in other ways. One of the better known methods was the wax seal, and the use of wax seals is still evident in the colonial records, though clearly not in common use. Besides, seals had always been the domain of the wealthy and powerful. This is reflected in the oldest document held at the Archives, the Gravesend Deed, which is validated by Director-General Petrus Stuyvesant’s official seal as well as his written signature. People lower on the social ladder would endorse a document with symbols that were drawn rather than stamped. In Christian Europe, the cross had been in use for validation since the Middle Ages.
New Amsterdam was a long way from the universities of Leiden and Groningen. It was a town on the other side of an ocean, controlled by the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie—the Chartered West India Company—a publicly traded corporation. The town would have been filled with a variety of workers and traders who relied on written agreements and deeds. These people might seem distant from the middle class literati described by Hoftijzer, but as Peter Frankopan notes, even skilled manual laborers back home in the Netherlands were able to furnish their houses in ways that seemed rich and impressive to visitors from England. This suggests they were more upwardly mobile than their English counterparts. Archaeologists have found that the standard of living in New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s was comparable to that of the Dutch Republic. This was in part because the GWC had surrendered its trading monopoly in 1639, allowing a wider range of merchants to gain a footing in New Amsterdam. Profits from the town increased as a result, which drove a sharp rise in the population and wealth of New Amsterdam in the middle of the century. In 1638 a schoolmaster was appointed, and Director-General Stuyvesant ordered construction of a proper schoolhouse in 1647. By 1660, there was a Latin school in the town. It was the same process that had transformed the Netherlands, but on a smaller, colonial scale.
Life may have been different in the nearby English towns. In 1977, historian David Cressy estimated literacy rates in England in the seventeenth century. For data, he turned to English court documents very similar to the Dutch Burgemeesters and Schepenen volumes held by the Municipal Archives. By comparing the number of written signatures with drawn marks, he concluded that on average about 30% of men and 10% of women could read and write. He also found that literacy was tied to socioeconomic class. Virtually all of the male gentry were literate, while the average laborer was not. Women did not have as much access to education as men, so few women at any level of society could read or write. Drawn marks appear to be more common in English colonial records than in Dutch records. Thus the Dutch, on average, were more literate than their English neighbors. There must have been a reason for this.
England and the Dutch Republic had a great deal in common. The English and Dutch languages are close cousins. In fact, Dutch colonial officials occasionally kept records in English, though written in typically Dutch handwriting. The two cultures also had like models of colonization and sea trade based on chartered monopolies. Both nations became largely Protestant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, freeing them from boundaries and trade rules issued by Rome. However, there were also major differences. The English corporate model kept the pool of investors small. It reflected English society, with its entrenched gentry, and insured that only a few profited much from trade. Dutch trading companies were funded by larger, more diverse groups of investors, leading to wider distribution of wealth. In religious life, the Church of England kept the episcopal hierarchy of Roman Catholicism, with the Archbishop of Canterbury (by appointment of the monarch) presiding. Meanwhile, the Dutch had formed a republic, and this was reflected in the more democratic structure of their church. The Dutch church in turn functioned as a sort of public school system. That this school system educated women as well as men was highly progressive for the time. In light of this, a disparity in literacy rates between Dutch and English colonists is no surprise.
Still, the marks of illiterate colonists are not without meaning. They are highly interesting and give an idea of what life was like at the time. The most common marks are crosses and X’s. The meaning of a cross is obvious—for Christian Europeans, the cross represented their faith, and thus was an affirmation that the document they were signing was “the gospel truth” or “in good faith.” An X was an abbreviation for the Greek word for Christ, Χριστός. Dutch and English peasants were not likely to speak Greek, but would have been familiar with the symbol, which was commonly used in churches throughout Europe. Both the cross and X were simple marks that were easy to draw. Sometimes the two were even combined into one symbol.
Modern viewers might be shocked to see swastikas in the colonial records. In our volume of deeds from Gravesend in Brooklyn, the swastika appears a number of times in the 1650s and 1660s as the mark of John Hectors (or Hectorssonn). It was used by people in other towns as well. Though offensive today, the swastika had virtually no negative connotations until the Nazis adopted it in the 1930s. Prior to that, it would have been seen by Europeans as an alternate form of the cross or a solar symbol.
Some individuals could not sign their names, but could write one of their initials. One resident of seventeenth-century Brooklyn, Nicholas Stillwell, signed his documents with a large N, though it was consistently drawn backwards. The backwards letter may have been intentional but it is more likely that Stillwell did not know the correct orientation.
Other symbols are unique to the signer and do not have an obvious meaning. In these cases it is likely that the person signing was a craftsman of some sort, and was signing the document with a maker’s mark—essentially personal branding.
Some of the marks are from Native Americans, and these marks bring up important issues. Two excellent examples can be found on a deed in a volume called A Booke of Enterys for Queens County on Long Island. The deed records that two native brothers named Munguab and Panum (or Pamun) gave a tract of land in Oyster Bay for free to Thomas Townsend and his heirs, forever. Under the body of the deed are the marks of the two brothers, which show clearly different penmanship from the text above and look like they were drawn by hands not used to holding a pen. This suggests that the men did in fact make the marks. However, the reality of this “gift” has to be questioned. The native tribes in the area did not conceive of land as something that could be owned, at least not in any absolute or permanent sense. It is likely that the English colonists simply wanted a signed deed to create the appearance of fairness, and cared very little whether Munguab and Panum understood the European concept of land ownership.
The records of New Amsterdam and the surrounding Dutch and English towns show an interesting cross-section of society at a time of great change. New concepts of property and ownership were being imposed upon peoples with decidedly different customs. Among the colonists, literacy and the middle class were on the rise. Researchers can see this in the increasing number of written records, as well as the ever more popular written signatures on the books. At the same time, the records show “how the other half lived.” The poorer farmers and laborers were often illiterate in an increasingly literate world. To navigate it, they looked to the past, adopting the crosses, stars, and other symbols familiar to them to authenticate contracts. More and more, the people relied on these documents, whether they could read them or not. These common people might have remained anonymous in the records from previous centuries, when contracts and deeds were more the domain of nobles than commoners. But in this time of transition, they make an obvious and beautiful appearance, their human needs and existence documented in part by their own hands. Did they know that researchers centuries later would be reading their agreements? Probably not. They probably did not anticipate the invention of photography, or that one day a photographer would be taking digital pictures of their marks. They most likely did not know that in making their marks on these everyday court documents, they were making their marks on history.
Fabend, Firth Haring. New Netherland in a Nutshell: A Concise History of the Dutch Colony in North America. Albany, New York: New Netherland Institute, 2012.
Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Knopf, 2016.
Hoftijzer, Paul G. “The Dutch Republic, Centre of the European Book Trade in the 17th Century.” http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/backgrounds/the-book-market/paul-g-hoftijzer-the-dutch-republic-centre-of-the-european-book-trade-in-the-17th-century#ReadersandPrivateandPublicLibraries
Felsenthal, Julia. “Give Me Your John Hancock: When did we start signing our names to authenticate documents?" http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2011/03/give_me_your_john_hancock.html
Hailwood, Mark. “‘The Rabble that Cannot Read’? Ordinary People’s Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England.” https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/the-rabble-that-cannot-read-ordinary-peoples-literacy-in-seventeenth-century-england/