Sunday, December 16, 2012

A global network of regions: What Dutch colonial farms show us

Regions colonized by the Dutch over time*
Just as Native American farming practices give contemporary food activists a way to envision agriculture before the modern term got applied to it, the Dutch colonial farmers who moved onto Indian lands in the mid-Hudson Valley as part of the New Netherland colony provide a window into the surprisingly global network of regional production that existed in the early period of European colonization--a blend that seems in many ways to be quite close to what a lot of food and farm activists are envisioning today.  I'm certainly not suggesting that colonialism per se provides a useful model for reinventing our food systems, but the specific configurations that existed within colonial empires do shed some light on the possibilities for how we might knit together local, regional, and global resources in a way that doesn't depend on oil and industrial ways of growing food.

Map from Edward Collier's 1914 History of Old Kinderhook 

In the Martin Van Buren Ethnographic Landscape Study that I'm commenting on in this series of posts, the colonial Dutch are the subject of Chapter Three, "Colonial Dutch Settlement, Farming, and Foodways (1609-1787)."  This was one of the most confusing chapters to write, in large part because of the incredibly complex details of land exchanges between the Dutch and Native Americans and among the Dutch settlers themselves.  Even Kinderhook historian extraordinaire Ruth Piwonka, who has spent many decades combing through old deeds, maps, and other sources, still can't be entirely sure about the original transactions around the piece of land that later became Martin Van Buren's Lindenwald estate (marked by a red dot on this 1774 copy of a 1767 map showing the division of land in the 1687 Kinderhook Patent).

Although historical and ethnohistorical research depend on exactly this kind of careful gathering of often tiny bits of data, there are also times when jumping to a broader level of context may be more useful in understanding what was going on, and that's what I found in the case of this chapter.  Once I gave up on the idea of definitively tracking the ownership of this piece of land, it became more interesting to follow the origins of the families in the immediate neighborhood. 

When I started doing that, I quickly realized that the single term "Dutch" is actually very misleading.  This wasn't a case of a consolidated nation-state administering a distant colony from a powerful metropolis, as later happened, but a surprisingly loose amalgamation of different regional centers, all drawing on highly diverse populations, farming and marketing techniques, and economic networks.  The "Dutch" settlers came from across northern Europe, including French- and German-speaking areas as well as Scandinavia.  The largest single group did hail from North Holland, which includes Amsterdam, but the Low Countries’ location had long made them a crossroads and an important shipping and trading region, fostering a certain cosmopolitanism within the Netherlands itself. And the colonists were occupationally diverse as well: although most or all took up farming out of necessity once they arrived in the New World, only about a third had started out as farmers, with the rest coming from backgrounds as soldiers, artisans, servants, and fishermen.

The specific origin of the Van Alstyne family who took up residence on what had undoubtedly been Mahican farm fields along Kinderhook Creek in the early 17th century was the Dutch province of Drenthe, a region where an inter-regional market economy had begun to flourish in the late medieval period of the 14th through 16th centuries and where many farm families also pursued artisanal skills to add to their subsistence. Jan Martense Van Alstyne, the patriarch of the family that built the first European farm on the Lindenwald lands, is described in some documents as "De Weever," suggesting that he may well have been one of those artisan/farmers. Regionally-specific patterns of land use--particularly settlement in tiny villages and relatively isolated farmsteads along rivers and creeks combined with unenclosed "commons" for grazing livestock--came to the New World with these settlers, along with long-running debates about how to find a workable balance between the needs of individual farmers and the carrying capacity of their shared environment. 

This is a view of a world not yet coalesced into the nation-states that we take for granted today, in which regional patterns of settlement and cultivation from one part of the world met up with and were influenced by those of another. This more nuanced view of past farming and eating also turns up in James McWilliams' study of colonial and revolutionary era America (A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, Columbia University Press, 2007), which argues that at least up to the late 18th century, colonial farmers were part of vigorous and far-flung inter-regional networks that always managed to circumvent the desired flow of raw materials simply from hinterland to metropolis.

None of this is breaking news in the historical profession, but it's a past that isn't widely recognized yet within the food movement, and it adds a very useful layer of awareness of just how much was historically done without fossil fuels and industrial machines.

Next: Road bumps along the way to a market society.

* In this asynchronous map of the Dutch colonial empire, the dark green areas show regions administered by the Dutch West India Company, light green the Dutch East India Company, and orange dots represent other places where the Dutch had a colonial presence. Detailed sources for other information in this post can be found in the Ethnographic Landscape Study report itself, available as a PDF from the Martin Van Buren NHS website.

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