A Complex Multiculturalism born in the Valley

The European impact on multiculturalism in the Hudson Valley very much begins with this interaction between the Captain Minuit and the Indians. Captain Minuit was Dutch, but a number of his shipmates and passengers on board were not. In this way, these first ships to land on Manahata were also the first to introduce a variety of European traditions (and disease risks) to this about to be newly established colony.

The various religious groups and cultural lifestyles previously absent from this region would set the stage for the next several decades of cultural migration in this part of the New World setting. Whereas both the English and the Dutch were very much devoted to practicing their own forms of religion, no matter how small the sect, to many in the Old World the types of practices displaced to the New World were quite different from traditional European practice.  Once these religious and cultural groups were reestablished in the Old World, many would be quickly tested in their personal take on multiculturalism once again.  Trying to convince local social and cultural leaders in the New World that you were not an “outcast” became the new societal problem.

In spite of these differences in faith demonstrated from the start, most settlers went to the New World to practice their own lifestyles and faiths. For this reason, Dutch plans to settle the New World had an additional advantage over the British in terms of how many sects were interested in this migration and whether or not this New World was designed specifically for thier use, whether or not it was their Garden of Eden, and whether or no the new communities of such settings could more appropriately manage and tolerate cultural diversity unlike to Old World setting.

By the middle of the 17th century, there were more different cultural groups, large and small, migrating from the Old World to the New World, originating more from the United Netherlands than from Great Britain. In Maud Wilder Goodwin’s book Dutch and English on the Hudson (Yale University Press, 1919), the multicultural attitudes of New York were due mostly to an already well-established multicultural tradition typical of Dutch societies in the Old World well before the English regained possession of this region during the late 17th century.  Goodwin in turn notes this Dutch history  to be the chief reason for the sucess of New York both politically and economically, a trait that has persisted well into modern times.

Dutch Diversity and More

Aside from Dutch immigrants, the European settlers of the New Netherlands included Germanic peoples from the Luxemburg section of this United Netherlands, the French and German Speaking Huguenots of the Rhone valley area of French and Swiss descent, the Moravians of Eastern Europe of Slavic and Germanic descent, and members of a variety of Jewish cultures well dispersed throughout Europe such as the Asheknazi, the Sephardic, and the newly-borne Natural Philosophy-raised Jews of Eastern Europe devoted to their wildernessman and founder Baal Shem Tov.

Countries we know of and think about today were less well-defined at the time, or they simply did not exist. Government settings at time were less important than religious and cultural settings. In this way certain geographic regions became well known for their traditions, not their government or political powers and beliefs. The French of one area could the next year become the Rhinelanders of the another country. The Russian Sephardic Jew of one era in Soviet history might rapidly become the Spanish Sephardic of the next, and the Mediterranean Sephardic of still later. This transformation of cultures took place with the Dutch and their neighbors as well, and after they migrated to the New World, to many it seemed this cycle of lifestyle was initiated all over again in the New Netherlands.

Somewhere amongst these different cultural settings in United Netherlands and New Netherlands were the traditional Dutch families themselves. Like members of the Jewish cultures, they too had their upper or highlanders and low-landers, the communities of which the British journalists often referred to as the rich artisans, scholars, and politicians and the poor countrymen or farmers. When these people came to the New World, this way of life really did not change. Due to governmental authority over land use methods and procedures, the Dutch style of land ownership remained the main defining way in which families, cultural areas, and religious groups formed their communities in the Hudson Valley.

Religion played the most important role in keeping the multiculturalism alive in both the Old and New World. Forming the paths that connected these various groups and cultures together were the socially-accepted community leaders and mystics who played important roles as religious leaders. Ultimately, a number of these mystics would play some of the most important roles in enabling the settlements to the New World to finally take place during the early 1600s. Whereas just thirty years prior, as this region came under Spanish rule and its northwest edges became the Spanish Netherlands, three were few of these mystics demonstrating their sociopolitical power, with the defeat of the Spanish rule by the 1590s, came opportunities for both upper class and lower class members alike. Some sects or faiths of Christianity were led by the noble families of the United Netherlands, who would ultimately use their connections to purchase or pay the captain for taking his ships and their followers to the new world. Still other sects or faiths of this regions had vey unusual origins, borne by the poorest of the poor, and in direct conflict with many of the Christian Church’s teachings, even the teachings of Christian religions twice removed from the Pope and Catholicism such as Protestant Reformed Calvinists and Lutherans.

The Boehmites

The most influential mystic of this time was Jakob Boehme [Bohme], a shoemaker of the Germanic part of Europe closest to the United Netherlands. Boehme became a mystic by recomposing some of the writings, meaning and interpretations of the books composed by the most famous alchemist of all times–Paracelsus. Boehme took Paracelsus’s most famous triune theory of alchemy, claiming that everything was composed of earth/metal, sulphur, and mercury, and converted Paracelsus’s physical-spiritual interpretation of these chemicals into an even more metaphysical form by philosophically linking the essence God to the human body’s soul and spirit.  He taught his follwers that the microcosm (within us) and the macrocosm (everything throughout the universe) were essentially one. 

Boehme received this information on how to interpret his “discoveries” by using some simple methods of seeing then popular in this part of Europe. Boehme gazed into the pewter stein-bearing tea leaves, and read the tea leaves as they were dispersed by the hot water and the steam. How the steam and leaves were spread about in the pewter vessel led Boehme to “see” (imagine or visualize) the answere to his most important philosphical questions. This in turn enabled to share with his followers his own interpretation of these higher powers and their relation to the cosmos.  From this transcendental experience, Boehme was about to produce his many popular, and to some most famous, sayings and visions.

Now of course, not everyone believe in Boehme’s visions and revelations. But enough members of the local were no doubt fascinated by his teachings and claims. For a short time, this anti-establishment visionary claim led Boehme to be jailed for his religious practices and beliefs. And so, for a short while, his writings and teachings were barely retold, much less composed on paper again in the form of a book from that point on. It wasn’t until around 1605/1610, when he was released, that these teachings would begin to prosper.

Following Boehme’s release from gaol [the old spelling of jail], Boehme began to again become popular due to his discoveries. This time, they were translated into English and became popular to both Dutch and English cultures and their neighboring groups and followers alike. It took just several years for Boehme to develop numerous followings, mostly supported by the mystics who would later make their way, with their followers to the Hudson valley just north of New Amsterdam.

Now, several or more of the first owners of large land grants in the New Nethlerand/New York were followers of Boehme or Boehmites. The most important descendent of New York Colonial families is the wife of the captain and shipmaster in charge of a large brigade of ships about to be launched for the New World around 1650.

From Boerrhaavianism to Starkeyism

Jakob Boehme was not the only individual to rewrite the philosophy of alchemical thinking. The most popular scientist and chemist of this time,  Hermann Boerrhaave, also redefined many of the Paracelsian teachings in order to relate these philosophical concepts to the human psyche, spirit and body.   This interpretation of the alchemy of the human body is what we often refer to in more modern alternative medical traditions as the life force or life energy concept, which during early Colonial American times was referred to then as the entia or “being” of the body. 

The entia of the body pretty much defined its physical, mental, and spiritual make up. Whereas believers in the entia typically related this concept to the human psyche and human behaviors, using it to explain our fate in live and the impacts of will and destiny on our life’s achievements, some physicians who liked to be more agnostic about this part of the human philosophy liked to related entia to emotional and physiological (which they often interpreted as mostly mechanical in nature) concepts, and in turn the physiognomy (form and symbolism) of the body, and our reaction to the various environmental features that impact our health such as heat, too much water, the cold climate, dry desert air, etc.

Boerhaave managed to have his readers, in particular the Dutch, become more attached to the concept of the entia by relating it to both the physical and psychic components of health and well-being. Like Boehme, the Dutch rapidly assimilated the writings and teachings of Boerhaavian philosophy and medicine into their medical philosophy.  Not only did this enable them to incorporate otherwise unsupported medical practices related to soul and spirit such as the use of electric energy (i.e. the static electricity globe and the power of the Leyden Jar and its life-force entity), this also allowed some of the traditional alchemy of Paracelsus to be recomposed in order to fit the needs for the time of the people and their doctors.  

The notion that some sort of natural philosophy premise could be related to God by scientists and philosophers like Boerhaave and Boyle was somewhat enticing to some Christian groups, and in particular those of the New World.  The best example of this unique take on the 17th century science philosophy is provided by George Starkey, a Christian Alchemist who often felt he was led along his path of chemistry under the guidance of the Almighty.   In December 1651, just a few decades into New Netherlands history and during the peak of the blossoming practice of Christian Astrology in North America, Starkey had developed the philosophy that he could through alchemical means produce the essence of life’s energy, in particular the ens primum veneris of the primary essence of venus , women’s energy and force.  In a notebook fragment contained in the Sloane Collection of the British Library, he wrote about how he had extracted this essence (translated from the Latin of course):

“Namely, with water I extracted this residue that remained in a sand heat from the primum ens veneris after I had sublimed it thrice, and I boiled this extraction until the humor was consumed.” [Ref: Sloane 2682, Fol. 88R, in George Starkey.  Alchemical Laboratory Notebooks and Correspondence. (eds. William R. Newman and Lawrence R. Principe.  Chicago: University of Chiago Press, 2004.  p. 43].

One month later, he shared his experiences with the ens primum veneris with Boyle in a letter.  This was perhaps the primary development of the philosophy of ens veneris, which in short time Boyle had transformed into a similar formula based on Iron rather than copper, thereby improving its efficacy as a medical agent.  This transformed belief in science is just one many that happened between the first Dutch settlement and the end of the 17th Century.  The transition of alchemical medical science from Paracelsus to Boehme and Boerrhaave and finally to Boyle-based philosophy was completed in erms of the metaphysics of American colonial throughts and practices.

Transitioning New World Beliefs.

When the Dutch and their fellow Europeans from other cultures came to the New World during the early 17th century, they brought with them a form of medicine rich in numerous cultural beliefs. In the eyes of the British, this migration of new thinkers to the New World seemed the proper way to begin to make it inhabitable for other more upper class, traditional European families.  But in very short time, this belief of the British changed when the Dutch laid claim to the Island of Manahata and the valleys of Hudson (then Mauritius River or River of Montagnards (mountains), and the Mohawk.

Between 1625 and 1640, as the Dutch travels in this region continued, and their explorations and shipping of products back to Europe began to prosper, the English finally were able to settle the ownership of this part of the New World–then called the New Netherlands on the older maps. They traded parts of South America (around Surinam) with the Dutch in exchange for obtaining sole ownership of Manahata and the New Netherlands region. The subsequent cultural transitions that took place in the valley were only political and symbolic at best for much of the time. With the exceptions of largely settled urban regions like New Amsterdam, now New York, most towns and hamlets retained their cultural bringing. In the simplest sense, it would take a generation or two of passing elders for the traditions to be eliminated from the local lifestyles. In a more realistic sense, however, cultural changes due to the passing of elders were not so much the determining factior of local cultural change as were the other indfluences that persisted in these regions. Settlers were still travelling to the New World, and for the most part these settlers were not the Higher British families settling the New Britain colonies and provinces. There were still a variety of cultural groups making their way into this part of the New World, ranging from French-Loyalists placed there to keep the Canades (Canadians) back from New France (with its southern border close to Albania or Albany at the time), and various Religious and Sectarian leaders with an underlying understanding of loyalism and the loyalist governing traditions and philosophy for the time.

For the remaining 17th century and the first two decades of the 18th Century, much of the travel along the Hudson from Europe had the intentions of the British in mind. In spite of increasing British control, the cultural control remained Dutch-like in nature, with multiculturalism remaining the dominant feature of this part of the New World population. Even by the mid-1700s, as travellers made their way along the river by boat, they complained about the lack of English as the predominant language. It was not unusual to be on board a northbound vessel on the Hudson sitting alongside families that spoke all of the traditional and “crude” (lower income class slang) languages of their mother countries, and little to nothing of the English language used by the ruling country. By the time the British language finally became a fairly common language in the Hudson valley, British tea imports were beginning to set the stage for the political separation of New England and New Britain from Old England and Old Britain. By the end of the Colonial period in Hudson Valley history, this region remained multicultural, never completely eliminating even the traditional Native American teachings from its philosophy and some of its traditions.