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A Dutch Family in the Middle Colonies, 1660-1800
(Rutgers University Press, 1991; reprinted 1999)


Family history, especially of Middle Colonial farming-class families, has been sorely neglected. Few studies exist that identify a particular family of the middling sort in any of the thirteen colonies and examine it in a systematic and scholarly manner over the course of the colonial period. Yet, to locate and reconstruct such a family over four or five generations is to discover a wealth of information about how ordinary seventeenth - and eighteenth - century Americans weathered the immigrant experience, established themselves in a community, took part in the social, political, economic, and religious life of their time, coped with a century and a half of enormous social change, and adjusted to conditions in the new republic.

This aspect of our national experience has been passed over because of the difficulties in getting at obscure middling families. Such families did not leave the rich store of diaries, letters, journals, and account books that offer insight into colonial families of the "better sort" - the Beekmans, Gansevoorts, Livingstons, or Schuylers, to name only a few that have been investigated. To gain a sense of the middling sort requires a different approach, and a difficult one. Their lives must be reconstructed through the public record: church and cemetery records, deeds, wills, inventories, court, town, tax, and military records-a task more easily described than carried out. Yet it is here carried out, for it is important that we deepen our understanding of the lives of those ordinary folk who populated and shaped early America - and whose descendants populate it still in great numbers. Of the Haring family, the subject of this study, for instance, it is conservatively estimated that there are alive today some 770,000 descendants.

The Haring family is ideal for such a study. Its beginnings in Manhattan in the 1660s are documented in the records of the New York Dutch Reformed Church; its decision to leave New York after the British conquest and resettle on land on the west side of the Hudson River is a matter of record; its motives for leaving New York are clear; it stayed in one place - Orange (now Rockland) County, N.Y., and Bergen County, N.J. - for the entire eighteenth century (indeed, it is still there); and its experience and behavior can be traced in surviving church, land, town, tax, court, military, and probate records for the entire period under consideration. As a bonus, a number of the houses the family built and lived in over the course of the eighteenth century still stand - rich primary sources in themselves.

Jan Pietersen Haring emigrated to America from Hoorn, in West Friesland, then part of the Province of Holland and West Friesland (today the Province of North Holland). A scrutiny of the records pertaining to Haring in this country discloses that he had four sons, eleven grandsons, twenty-nine great-grandsons, and seventy-five great-great-grandsons, almost every one of whom can be traced in the public records of New York and New Jersey. (He also had an equal number of female descendants, of course, but as daughters and granddaughters marry, they become identified primarily with their husbands' families - and thus are difficult to trace vertically.)

As we explore the records of these 120 men and their wives and children, their politics, religion, inheritance practices, domestic life and, of course, their hopes and dreams, successes and failures over the course of five generations, a textured and satisfying portrait emerges of a colonial American family.

And yet the picture that emerges out of the great welter of records is in one respect puzzling, for it is one of a Dutch family whose retention of its Dutchness over many generations in America may suggest a deep ambivalence toward America and toward becoming American. On the one hand, the Harings and the Dutch farmer in general were exemplary Americans. In an age when what has been called the yeoman ideal served as a resonant vision of American society, they were indeed ideal yeomen: their farms were models of good husbandry, their families were healthy, their housing stock was excellent for the period, their diet was nutritious, their life expectancy long, and their fertility levels high. They prospered, provided well for their offspring, served as officers in their churches and in their colonial militias, shouldered the main burden of administering their town and county governments, and participated in a significant way in province-level political affairs. To men like them adhered a certain moral luster. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson saw in their example a model for the nation. "Those who labour in the earth," Jefferson wrote in a much-quoted passage from his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), "are the chosen people of God. . . whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Cadwallader Colden declared at midcentury that, in the whole society, farmers were the most useful and the most moral. And St. John de Crevecoeur, an Orange County, N.Y., farmer, described America in 1782 as a "people of cultivators. . . united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws. . . because they are equitable. . . . We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world."

On the other hand, though, after the Revolution, the Harings and other Dutch farmers in the Hackensack and Hudson valleys were demonstrably less prosperous than their forebears had been, and far less visible in the colonial assemblies where they had been prominent in earlier generations. In fact, with the exception of Martin Van Buren, also of a middling farmer family, it is difficult to think of any representatives of the middling Dutch who played any part at all on the state or national scene during the first half of the nineteenth century. Further, these people were perceived by observers as Dutch, not American, although they had been in America for a hundred and fifty years. When Washington Irving, born in 1783, came in 1820 to write of his Hudson Valley neighbors, he saw quaint Dutchmen in calico pantaloons, not the American frontiersmen, politically minded farmers and, as we will see, radical patriots (or loyalists) of the previous two centuries. They had retired after the Revolution into "Dutchness."

What accounts for the withdrawal of the Dutch American farmer from the stage of the new republic? Had his persistent Dutchness made him unassimilable? If so, what, in fact, could Dutchness have been to a "Dutch" family after five generations in America? For the Haring family and other Dutch American farming-class families like them, was Dutchness at the end of the eighteenth century a defense against the painful process of change from an agricultural to a commercial society? Did all that they treasured of security and stability, of freedom and independence, of the familiar ways of their fathers lie in something that had been Dutch before it was American? Did the nineteenth-century descendants of the Dutch families, harking back to a remembered golden age, reinvent their Dutchness? And if so, how accurate was their memory of that bygone era? Or were the Dutch in America ambivalent from the beginning about America and about becoming American?

Answers can be forthcoming only by first looking closely at a Dutch American family of the middling sort, reconstituting it in the only way possible, through the public record, and examining its structure, values, beliefs, aspirations, expectations, and history - the totality of its experience in America - from New Netherland to the new republic.