Recovering New York’s Entangled Dutch, Native American, and African Histories: An Interview with Jennifer Tosch
By Andrea Mosterman
Many of New York’s Dutch colonists and their descendants relied on the labor of enslaved people. Some historic sites have struggled to address this part of their history and looked for ways in which they can share it with their visitors. For example, an exhibit at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, built in 1699 by Hendrick Claessen Vechte, includes a brief discussion of the home’s enslaved residents. Yet, much of the Dutch history of slavery in New York City and its surroundings is still little known, especially among the general public. It is because much of this history remains unnoticed that Jennifer Tosch brought Black History Tours to New York with a tour that focuses on the entangled Dutch, Native American, and African American histories.
The tour, which she describes as “a pilgrimage,” addresses the difficult histories of slavery practiced by the region’s Dutch descendants. In 2017, Jennifer and her colleagues of the Mapping Slavery Project, a public history project based in the Netherlands that focuses on the Dutch history of slavery, published Dutch New York Histories: Connecting African, Native America and Slavery Heritage, a collection of New York sites that in some way are linked to the interconnected histories of the area’s Dutch, Indigenous, and African American peoples. The tour and publication highlight many important New York City sites. I talked to Jennifer about the tour, the book, and her motivations to start this project.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, Mapping Slavery, Black Heritage Tours, and how it all got started?
My parents, both born and raised in Suriname, came to the United States as immigrants at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. I was born in Brooklyn, NY, but I grew up in Northern California. I currently reside in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where I am working on a dual Masters in Heritage and Memory Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Initially, I came to Amsterdam for an intensive two-week postcolonial history course, given by the Black Europe Summer School (BESS) in Amsterdam. The course explores the contemporary and history of the African Diaspora and other people of color in Europe. Participants learn about the origins of Black Europe and investigate the impact of colonial legacies on policies, social organizations, and legislation today. That experience was followed by a 6-month exchange program at a Dutch university. I was really interested in continuing the research I started when I did my bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, about my mother who had lived and studied in the Netherlands for several years just after World War II.
The inspiration for the tours first came from both the transformative experience I had as a student of the BESS, and also from the very different experience I encountered while studying at the university in the Netherlands. I was told that “there was no Black history or presence during the colonial times” and that “slavery was not present in the Netherlands.” The focus of the discourse was centered around the glory of the Dutch Golden Age and the Dutch East Indies, which in essence erased or ignored the other side of the history. And any mention of the country’s black history always started with slavery; there were no positive narratives about the presence and contributions of Africans and African descendants in the Netherlands. After sharing my experiences with classmates, family, and colleagues, I firmly believed I could contribute to the process of recovering and retrieving these “hidden histories” in the Netherlands.
The Black Heritage Tours began in Amsterdam in 2013. The timing was significant because this was the year that the Netherlands commemorated the Dutch abolition of slavery in 1863. There was a lot of attention in the media, and museums presented exhibitions. Yet, there were no public tours focused on this narrative. We filled that void with walking and boat tours that explored the city’s “hidden history” of the early black presence and traces of the colonial past still visible on national monuments, canal houses, and in museums. We continue to give these tours to international travelers, students, and other guests from throughout the Netherlands.
Since 2016, you have started Black History Tours in New York. What is the main objective of this tour and what are some of the NYC sites you have included?
The main objective in starting the New York State tour was similarly an effort to develop new narratives and to expand the public knowledge about the interconnections between the Dutch, African, and Native Americans in the region. As far as I know, very few, if any tours in New York, focus on all three narratives. Plus, most tours and historians focus on the connections to the British colonial history, and they give very little attention to the connected history and visible traces of the Dutch colonial past.
The Mapping Slavery Project team decided to focus on New York City and State, because as with Amsterdam so much of New York’s early colonial/slavery history connected to the Dutch is unknown. Even less known are the interconnections between the African, Native American, and Dutch presence. Previous research done by other historians and our focus showed that there are so many sites throughout the state that have had a Dutch connection but that were not necessarily focused on highlighting those connections in their public programming. Again, timing was right as NYS tourism and other institutions, such as NY State Parks, Dutch Culture USA, and the New Netherland Institute to name a few, were also keen on expanding public knowledge. We collaborated with I Love NY (the NYS Tourism Board) and NY State Parks to coordinate specific site visits, and while working on my master’s degree I had the opportunity to do an extended internship in New York to coordinate with the sites on interpreting their Dutch history.
The tour usually begins in midtown on board a private coach bus, and we travel to different sites in the city and the upstate along the Hudson River Valley to Albany. Most people are surprised there are so many locations throughout the state. We can do the tour over 1 to 3 days and still not see everything. In New York City, we visit various sites. For example, we include the former location of Fort Amsterdam at the current site of the National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green). The Dutch West India Company (WIC) built the fort in 1625 with the labor of enslaved Africans who were used to clear the land and cut timber. We also visit Wall Street as it was originally built by both enslaved and “conditionally free” men whose names, such as Paulo D’Angola and Simon Congo, indicate they originally came from West Central Africa. We also include Minetta Lane, which became known as the “Land of the Blacks” because several freed Africans had farm land there. It was located north of New Amsterdam, the original Dutch settlement in Manhattan, and covered about 100 city square blocks. Director-General Willem Kieft issued the land grants to local blacks, not as a benevolent gesture, but to act as a buffer against attacks by the Native Americans. Those who received the land grants had the status of “conditional freedom,” but their rights and status were unclear. Some documents suggest their freedom would be “hereditary” and other documents suggest their children would still be born into slavery. In either case they were a strong community.
Another New York City site we sometimes include in the tour is the Elmendorf (Dutch) Reformed Church in Harlem, which was established in 1660 as the Low Dutch Church of Haarlem. Their records show that more than 60 African men and women worshiped in or around the church, some listed as enslaved others as free. Some of their remains have been found in the church’s first cemetery, located in the former 126th Street bus depot. Another site we sometimes visit is the Dyckman Farmhouse in upper Manhattan. This home was built in 1784 by Willem Dyckman, a descendant of Jan Dyckman who came to New Netherland in 1652. This family relied in part of enslaved labor, and records show that by 1820 a free black woman, boy, and one enslaved male lived in this home.
We also visit sites in Brooklyn (formerly Nieuw Breukelen), which was colonized by the Dutch. From 1639 early settlers lived amidst the Lenape. From the Fulton Landing they could see ships entering the harbor, including “slave ships” and cargo ships loaded with East Indian goods such as, wool, cotton, linen and silk, while other ships would leave the port for Europe carrying goods produced by enslaved labor such as, rice, tobacco, cotton, coffee and sugar.
In Brooklyn, you can also find the Lott House, an old Dutch farm established Engelbart Lott who immigrated from the Netherlands in 1652. Four generations later his descendants built a new house on the farm. Archival records show that enslaved people lived both in the house and on the property. Around 1800, the Lott family “owned” 15 enslaved people, and except for one, they set them all free by 1809 and then hired them as “paid workers.” Archeologists have found corncobs, terracotta, and other objects that are regarded part of African religious practices in the home and on the grounds. Several of these items are currently on display at the Museum of the City of New York. There is also strong evidence that the house’s upstairs bedroom had a hidden closet that was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Together with Dienke Hondius, Nancy Jouwe, and Dineke Stam, you also published Dutch New York Histories: Connecting African, Native American and Slavery Heritage. What can you tell us about the publication?
In 2017, we co-authored Dutch New York Histories because there were so many sites that it warranted its own publication. As a team we went to New York to continue to conduct site visits and do research studying previously written publications. We visited different archives and museums. We continued to explore the connected and intertwined histories and were surprised ourselves by how much is still visible but not widely known. We published the book with tremendous support from our tour partners, scholars, historic sites, Dutch Culture in the USA and the Netherlands, and other educational institutions. Specifically, when people think of New York City, the focus is usually Manhattan, but when we explored the other boroughs it was clear they all had direct or indirect links to at least two of the connected histories (Dutch, African, Native American and/or slavery heritage).
Why is it important to highlight NYC’s Dutch, African American, and Native American shared past?
It is very important to produce new knowledge that broadens “public memory” and understanding of New York’s history. Moreover, it is crucial that we learn about the multilayers of how state formation happened and especially the relationship to the control/production of resources; and, how they intertwined with slavery, war, power and capitalism. These interconnections we believe can and have influenced not only how we remember the past but also how we confront the challenges of today.
You grew up in NYC. How did this your research show you a different or new side of the city’s history, and what surprised you most when researching, preparing this publication and the New York tours?
I actually only spent my early years in NYC, but I do have close ties with extended family and friends here and they have been equally surprised that as ‘native New Yorkers’ most of us knew there was a “Dutch history” but had little or any idea how much of that history is visible. And, they are even more astonished that there are so many traces of slavery in New York and of the intertwined history of the Dutch, Native American, and Africans. It was so surprising how many sites had connections to the Dutch period; yet this history was often not included in the sites’ primary narrative. At the same time, every site was keen on expanding their narrative recognizing its importance. I can honestly say that everyone involved was actively engaged in our process. Our research showed me and proved to all of us involved that there are definitely two sides to every history and exploring the various perspectives and complexities helps us appreciate its many layers. It has also helped me to embrace more of my own heritage and inspired me to continue doing this research. Undoubtedly, there is always more to learn.
How have people responded to the book and tours?
The response has been amazing! In collaboration with I Love NY and NY State Parks and our partner sites, we conducted pilot tours to test the guest experience. We launched the tour in 2016 to an amazing response, not only from our guests but also the media. The launch events in Albany and Manhattan were really well attended, and the media was very supportive. In fact, our 2017 book launch at the Schomburg Center was sold out.
Do you have any tours planned for the spring?
Yes, we are really excited to continue the tours in 2019. We will offer public tours starting in April and continuing throughout the year (May, July, Sept and Oct). We also offer private group tours from February through November. To get more information people can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit our website: www.blackheritagetours.com
Andrea Mosterman is an editor at Gotham.