Focus on History: Fort Plain native keeps Dutch heritage alive

PHOTOGRAPHER:

In 1994, Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands conferred a Dutch knighthood in the Order of Orange-Nassau on Fort Plain native Charles Gehring.

Part German and part Italian, Gehring was born in his grandmother’s house in Fort Plain. His family moved to Nelliston after World War II. His doctoral dissertation at Indiana University was a linguistic investigation of the survival of the Dutch language in colonial New York.

His career has been spent translating Old Dutch documents from the New Netherland Colony, which included cities now called Albany and New York City.  Old Dutch is hard to understand even for people fluent in modern Dutch. Many surviving hand written documents are barely legible.

Gehring works in Albany as director of the New Netherland Research Center housed at the New York State Library.

He said, “I’ve been translating Dutch records for 40-some years. These are the original records of the Dutch colony here in the 17th century. I’m also busy promoting people’s knowledge of Dutch heritage in the area. So it’s not just a translation project but a dissemination project as well, and an education project. We try to make people aware of the unique area that they live in in the Hudson Valley and Mohawk Valley.”

For 35 years, Gehring had help with the translations from Janny Venema, a Dutch school teacher who moved to the Capital Region and began working with Gehring in Albany in the mid 1980s. 

In a 2020 interview Venema said she and Gehring, for example, translated New Netherland council minutes, “The council would be Peter Stuyvesant and a few other men. They were the government of the entire colony of New Netherland.”

Venema retired in 2020 and moved back to Holland. Gehring said he will continue translating. “Well I’ll take it as long as I can,” he said. “As long as my eyes hold out.”

Many scholars and popular authors have used Gehring’s translations. The Albany translations, for example, made possible Russell Shorto’s acclaimed 2004 bestseller, “The Island at the Center of the World.”  Shorto’s book is a history of Manhattan’s founding by the Dutch, which Shorto argues led to New York and America’s immigrant culture.

In the 1990s Gehring and William Starna, a longtime friend originally from St. Johnsville, translated their own book, Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert’s journal, “A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635.”

Van den Bogaert was a Dutch barber/surgeon who lived in what we call Albany and what was then called Fort Orange. He was the first European to document a journey through the Mohawk Valley.

His journal also makes the first printed reference to the Iroquois confederacy of nations. 

Van den Bogaert and two other men set out in December 1634 to learn why the Fort Orange fur trade had dropped off with Iroquois tribes to the west. The travelers returned to Fort Orange with gifts. 

Van den Bogaert became commander of Fort Orange. In 1648 he became embroiled in a sexual controversy, accused of having a sexual relationship with a male slave named Tobias. Van den Bogaert was charged with sodomy, a capital offense. 

He fled to Indian country. A bounty hunter caught up with him at an Oneida longhouse and in an exchange of gunfire, the longhouse was set ablaze and destroyed. Van den Bogaert was taken back to Fort Orange.    

He escaped again when a sheet of floating ice badly damaged the fort. However, he then drowned in the Hudson River.  Ironically, the penalty for sodomy was drowning.

Gehring said, “If you were to write all this in a novel, it would seem too absurd.”

Categories: Opinion

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