Going Dutch

Resources for Dutch-American law

So you’ve listened to The Legal Genealogist‘s reasons for thinking colonial American women would all have been better off if they’d worn Dutch wooden shoes.1

And maybe your interest in all things early-Dutch-American was piqued by the transition of power this week from Queen Beatrix to her son, then-Crown Prince and now-King Willem-Alexander. (Her abdication after 33 years of rule made him the first king the Netherlands has had in 123 years.)2

Now, you’ve decided, you want to know more about those colonial Dutch laws.

Boy, are you in luck.

The resources for research into the Dutch colonial period are excellent. And that may be a bit surprising since that really was a very short time frame in American history. The Dutch first arrived in North America early in the 17th century, landed the first serious colonization effort in what is now New York City in 1624 and ended up surrendering New Amsterdam to an English naval force in 1664.3 And even more surprising considering that the records were housed in the New York State Capitol — which suffered a fire in 1911.

The fact is, New York has done a terrific job of preserving and archiving them, and making them accessible to modern researchers. Despite the devastating fire at the New York State Capitol in 1911, some 12,000 or so pages of Dutch Colonial records survived and — even though many have charred edges — they were saved, stabilized and preserved.4

Casual genealogists won’t generally access those original records, though — not only are they exceedingly fragile, but — well — they’re in Dutch. Fortunately, the New York archivists over the years have ensured that there are English translations of many if not most of those early Dutch records. And nobody has done it better than Charles T. Gehring.

Director of New York State’s New Netherland Project, Gehring has overseen the translation of some of the most valuable surviving records from the Dutch colonial period, and the establishment of the New Netherland Research Center at the New York State Library to share those resources with the public.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the New Netherland Institute, a non-profit organization that supports the New Netherland Project and the New Netherland Research Center, with a wonderful website to lead researchers into the Dutch colonial records. Check it out — http://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a wide array of published materials, including (but not at all limited to):

     • Arnold J.F. Van Laer’s translations of New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch5

     • Charles T. Gehring’s translations of New York Historical Manuscripts, Dutch : Volumes GG, HH & II : Land Papers6

     • Gehring’s Laws & Writs of Appeal, 1647-1663 7

     • Gehring’s two-part translations of the records of early Fort Orange8

     • E. B. O’Callaghan’s Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland, 1638-1674.9

And specifically on the subject of women under early Dutch law, Linda Briggs Biemer wrote her doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University on the changeover of women’s rights from the Dutch to the English system; it’s been published and is a great research tool as well.10

Sigh… almost makes me wish my ancestors were Dutch instead of Deutsch!


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Colonial women and the law,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 May 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 3 May 2013).
  2. Andrew Higgins and Alan Cowell, “A King Takes the Throne, and a Nation Celebrates,” The New York Times, online edition, posted 30 Apr 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 3 May 2013).
  3. The Netherlands and Scandinavia in North America,” Historical Timelines, New Netherland Institute (http://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/ : accessed 3 May 2013).
  4. See “New York State Archives,” Heritage Preservation, National Institute for Conservation (http://www.heritagepreservation.org/ : accessed 3 May 2013).
  5. Arnold J.F. Van Laer, trans., New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, 3 vols. (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1974).
  6. Charles T. Gehring, New York Historical Manuscripts, Dutch : Volumes GG, HH & II : Land Papers (Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1980).
  7. Charles T. Gehring, Laws & Writs of Appeal, 1647-1663 (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991).
  8. Charles T. Gehring, Fort Orange Court Minutes, 1652-1660 (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990), and Fort Orange Records, 1656-1678 (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000).
  9. E. B. O’Callaghan, Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland, 1638-1674 (Albany, New York : Weed, Parsons and Co., printers, 1868), also available on microfilm and microfiche in many libraries.
  10. Linda Briggs Biemer, Women and Property in Colonial New York : the Transition from Dutch to English Law 1643-1727 (Ann Arbor, Mich. : UMI Research Press, 1983), available in many libraries or for sale from ProQuest’s UMI Dissertation Express.
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9 Responses to Going Dutch

  1. And if that wasn’t enough…
    The Dutch website WieWasWie has a free index of early New York (New Amsterdam) baptisms and marriages. Currently, the website is only available in Dutch but an English version is scheduled for later this year. Click “Uitgebreid zoeken” in the blue box on the home screen to go to the search screen. Achternaam = last name (without prefixes like “de” and “van der”), voornaam = first name, Voeg een persoon toe = add a person, Zoeken = search.

    My preferred strategy is to add a person and then just type in the last name of the husband in the first Achternaam field and the last name of the wife in the second Achternaam field. With any luck, that will get you their marriage, baptisms of children and any other records where both of them are mentioned. You can filter results by Collectiegebied [area] Nieuw-Nederland [New Netherland]. Click the last name of a result to go to the detail page.

    And if that was not enough… The National Archives of the Netherlands has scanned the archives of the Old West India Company. Scans are available at Old West India Company archives at gahetNA and cover the 1621-1711 period. Unfortunately, large parts of the WIC archives were sold for scrap paper in the 19th century, but what remains has now been digitized. It’s in Dutch (of course) and most of it hasn’t been transcribed yet, but the website includes a wiki-like transcription service where visitors of the site can collaborate to create transcriptions. I hope that will make the documents more accessible in the future.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I was hoping you’d weigh in here, Yvette! Nice to have someone on-the-ground in The Netherlands with first-hand information. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us!

      • You’re welcome!

        My mother and I took autosomal DNA tests and matched several people with New Netherland roots. This has led me to investigate whether any of the early settlers came from villages where my mom’s ancestors are from. And sure enough, a niece of one of her ancestors emigrated to New York in 1683. No paper trail to any of my genetic cousins yet but they have so many mystery lines it’s unlikely ever going to happen.
        I was already fascinated with its history since reading “The Island at the Center of the World”, but now more than ever!
        I’ve also got some clients with early New Netherland roots for whom I’m doing research here in the Netherlands.

  2. Roberta Woodard says:

    Thanks for sharing these resources. I’ve been researching several Dutch (and Scotch) lines and have been stuck at a road block for one reason or another. Hopefully these resources will get me some leads that I need. It keeps life interesting having so many cultures in my family tree. From French Acadians in Nova Scotia, King’s Daughters in Canada, German Palatines in the Mohawk Valley of New York, to English Puritans in New England, my ancestors have continued to amaze me. It also makes my life seem rather boring compared to theirs, although I’ll settle for the freedom & security we have today.

  3. Thank you for all this rich information, Judy!

    Let me add to your recommendations the book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” a narrative history of the Dutch in New Amsterdam, written in cooperation with the New Netherland Project by Russell Shorto.

    It’s exciting and readable. Our faculty book colloquium loved talking about it. Yes, it’s a historical novel but thoroughly researched and extremely appealing.

    Isn’t it an amazing story, how those Dutch Colonial record were rediscovered and preserved? Never give up on finding more original records.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Mariann! I’m adding that to my “round tuit” reading list.

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