Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Tale of Harmen Meyndertz van den Bogaert - historical sources of the novel

Update November, 2017

My 2008 novel inspired by the life of Harmen van den Bogaert, The River That Flows Both Ways, has been re-issued in a new and revised edition which draws on recent research and addresses some of the inconsistencies noted by readers in the earlier edition.

Amazon Kindle at $1.99

Lulu paperback at $14.95

 The Tale of Harmen Meyndertz van den Bogaert

New Netherlands, during the six decades of its existence, was generally more tolerant than neighboring  English Puritan settlements, and had a commercial focus that has persisted through the centuries in New York.  Here in the Hudson Valley our Calvinists were of a gentler strain than in neighboring New England and we experienced no frenzied pursuit of witches or dissenters.  Despite some reluctance from Peter Stuyvesant, a band of Portuguese Jews were the first of their faith to find acceptance in the American colonies. Quakers, although not warmly welcomed, were not whipped from town to town as in Massachusetts.

 Pieter Stuyvesant, who condemned Harmen to death

And although the Dutch settlers had inherited laws from the old country making  sodomy a capital offense,  the severest  penalty appears to have been applied only twice, and then only when a child was abused.  In 1646 “Jan Creoli, a Negro, was…choked to death, and then burnt to ashes," while his ten year old victim, Manuel Congo, was merely flogged. In 1660, a soldier named Jan Quisthout was “tied in a sack and cast into the river and drowned until dead." Once again, his victim, a boy named Harmen Harmensen was whipped, but this time “privately.” (Source)

Thus, it appears that the Dutch colonists only enforced the ancient anti-sodomy code when a dependent minor was involved, (Not they showed much sympathy for the victimized youth) and that whatever same sex relationships may have existed among consenting adults was ignored by officals. A cynic might speculate that even pederasty might not have always been prosecuted, if the offender were more highly placed than either of these two men. After all, Creoli was an African and Quisthout a common soldier.

But Harmen Meyndertz van den Bogaert, a nearly forgotten figure now, was a very prosperous and influential member of the New Netherlands colony who did come into conflict with the ancient law. He was an explorer, a leading physician, a prosperous business man, and holder of high government office.  And yet he was accused of the same crime as Creoli and Qusithout, and although he cheated the executioner, he also paid with his life.

Educated in his native Netherlands, Bogaert was already a surgeon/barber when he arrived in New Amsterdam about 1630.  At some point thereafter, he moved up the Hudson to the busy trading post of Rensselaerwyck, now Albany.  This village grew up around Fort Orange and was the center of the colony’s fur trade with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy.  Equipped with muskets in exchange for furs, the Mohawks and their brother tribes ranged far north and west in pursuit of the precious beaver pelts.

 Painting of of Fort Orange by L. Tantillo (courtesy NYS Museum)

 Ruins of Fort orange were found during excavation of I-90/I-787 interchange in Albany

Then in January, 1634 the native people suddenly stopped appearing at Rensselaerwyck with their furs, and the colonists panicked. Without the fur trade, the colony would lose its entire economic foundation. French interference was suspected, and someone needed to find out what had exactly had happened to the trade.

However, the inhabitants of Rensselaerwyck did not venture into Indian country, preferring to stay put in their little version of Holland, particularly in the dead of winter. In fact, they had not ventured west of Schenectady ever since 1626 when foolish Captain Van Krieckenbeeck sided with the Mohicans and ended up getting himself and his men killed and eaten by the Mohawks. (The Mohicans usually got the worst of it in their long running wars with the Mohawks and were declining in numbers and power throughout the century)

At this point Harmen, then about 22, volunteered to lead an expedition composed of himself and two other men. He soon ventured forth into the snow-covered forests and in doing so, became the first white to reach the Mohawk Valley and to be welcomed as a guest in a series of palisaded villages stretching along the river from near present-day Amsterdam to Utica.

Harmen kept a journal, which was lost for centuries before it was found among ancient records in the Netherlands.  A new translation of the journal by Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Institute at the state museum, conveys a strong impression of  Harmen’s  lively curiosity and powers of observation.

George O’Connor has produced a wonderful graphic novel of the journal which I highly recommend.  (George, with the exception of myself, is the only writer to devote a book to Harmen.)

The journal offers some interesting grounds for speculation into the young explorer’s personality and interests. The glossary of the Mohawk language which he appended contains, interestingly, a number of explicitly sexual terms.  Most importantly for his community, however, was that the journey was a great success. Harmen had restored the friendship with the dangerous Mohawks and the fur trade resumed.

Harmen departing from Fort Orange 
( from George O'Connor's graphic novel, Journey into Mohawk Country)

 Harmen encountering a Mohawk warrior.
( from George O'Connor's graphic novel, Journey into Mohawk Country)

After this auspicious beginning as a negotiator, Harmen rose rapidly in the colony’s small hierarchy.  He invested in a piracy expedition, a popular business venture at the time, and owned a house on what is now Stone Street in Manhattan.  He married a woman named Jilisje and had four children. He treated Isaac Jogues, the French missionary who was canonized as a Catholic saint, when he arrived at Rensselaerwyck after being tortured by the Mohawks, and Jogues describes Harmen’s kindness in his letters to his Jesuit superiors. After much success as a prosperous physician and trader, Harmen was named to the post of commissary, or business agent, at the military base of Fort Orange.

Statue of Saint Isaac Jogues

This was a lucrative position and it is possible that his wealth stirred envy among the less favored and that this provoked accusations of immorality against him. Or perhaps his behavior was simply too flagrant to be ignored, even by his tolerant countrymen. Whatever the cause, Harmen was arrested in 1647 and accused of committing sodomy with his African slave Tobias. Imprisoned in Fort Orange, he and Tobias managed to escape and fled to his old friends the Mohawks. It is interesting to speculate as to why Harmen knew he could find refuge among the Mohawks. Of course, he had a history and probably many friendships among them. He knew something of their language. And they were not hostile to the Dutch, whose sole interest was in trade, not in Indian lands.

But most significantly in my view, the native people at that point did not share the homophobia of the Europeans. Their traditions, until influenced negatively by missionaries or simply by European example, fostered not just tolerance (or looking the other way, which seems to have been the practice in the Dutch colony) but allowed a special place within their culture for gay people, who were known as “Two Spirits;”  two-spirit males were extolled for their skill in women’s work and two-spirit females for their prowess in hunting and other typically masculine pursuits.

However, Harmen and Tobias did not have time to become part of this lifestyle, even if that had been their inclination. A Dutch posse set out in pursuit and found their quarry at Andagoron, a Mohawk village on the slopes of the Big Nose Mountain, a few miles west of Ossernenon, now the location of the Jesuit shrine dedicated to Isaac Jogues and his companions. A battle ensued and some Mohawk storehouses were burned before Harmen and Tobias were taken into custody. The extent of the resistance to the posse must have been considerable, suggesting that some of the Mohawks aided their old friend in the battle. (A few months later, the Mohawks, growing wise in the ways of the whites, sued the colonial government for damages, and collected.)

 Shrine of the  North American Martyrs, site of the Mohawk village of Ossernenon

 NYS Thruway and "the Noses" 
Mohawk village of Andagoron was near base of mountain on left

Taken back to Rensselaerwyck, Harmen was again imprisoned in the fort and once again he managed to escape. (That jailhouse must have been pretty flimsy. Or perhaps Harmen had sympathizers at the fort.) This time, however, he was not so lucky. While fleeing across the icy surface of the Hudson near the present I-90 bridge, he fell through the ice and was drowned.

I have been fascinated by Harmen van den Bogaert ever since discovering a brief mention of him in Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World and thought for a long time about how I could tell his story as part of my fictional series on misunderstood figures from our early upstate history. The evidence as to the nature of his relationship with Tobias is contradictory. On the one hand, the young man was a slave and the power relationship suggests that he may have been coerced into sex by Harmen. This would also fit the pattern of the very limited number of prosecutions for sodomy in the colony. On the other hand, Tobias fled prison with Harmen and was with him at Andagoron when they were captured.  (His later fate is unknown.)

Van den Bogaert’s vibrant personality, as reflected in his journal and by his wide-ranging enterprises and adventures, made me want to find a way to view his life with the degree of sympathy that would be possible only in someone who did not automatically condemn his behavior. And this led me to the invention of a narrator for my novel in the person of Matouac, a young Mohican boy living in the van den Bogaert household.  I imagine this narrator as the survivor of a massacre of his clan and of captivity among the Mohawks. Alone in the world, he is not unhappy when Harmen purchases him from a Mohawk warrior and makes him, along with Tobias, an assistant in the businesses of surgery, barbering, and gun-running.

From this vantage point, Matouac is also able to observe and compare the equally incomprehensible personalities of the exuberant Harmen and the faith-driven ascetic, Isaac Jogues. The story which the young Mohican tells of the tragic fates of both these men is transcribed by another remarkable historical figure who appears in the novel: Johannes Megapolensis. This Calvinist clergyman was close to the Iroquois and later stood up against the fierce Pieter Stuyvesant on behalf of Quakers and other dissenters.

Interstate 90 bridge over the Hudson at Albany.
This is the approximate site of Harmen's final disappearance in 1647.

And so, the next time you speed across the I-90 bridge into Albany, think about Harmen van den Bogaert, who drowned in the waters below. And if you turn north onto I-787, recall the ruins of the ancient Dutch fort where he spent his last hours. Or if you continue through Albany west on the Thruway past Schenectady, try to imagine in what is now rolling farmland the walled Mohawk villages where a violent, yet loving and often tolerant, people once flourished.


  1. Hello:

    Given some of the things mentioned in your blog, I wanted to let you know about my upcoming book, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE: THE EPIC HISTORY OF THE FUR TRADE IN AMERICA (W. W. Norton, July 2010). I have a short section on Harmen Meyndertz van den Bogaert in the book. A video that gives an overview of the book can be found on YouTube at,


    You can also find out more about the book at my website: www.ericjaydolin.com.

    Please share the links to my video and website with others who might be interested in the book.

    Thanks for your time.

    Eric Jay Dolin