Interesting article in the New York Times on Charles Gehring,the man who has been translating New Yorks’s 17th Century Dutch documents for 35 years or so and making that history accessible to historians like Russell Shorto and, through them, us.
Toiling from a cramped office tucked inside the New York State Library here, Mr. Gehring, as much as anyone, has shed light on New York’s long-neglected Dutch roots, which have been celebrated this year, the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that bears his name.
Mr. Gehring, by the way, only has about 4,800 pages left of the 12,000 pages of Dutch-era letters, deeds, court rulings, journal entries and other items that have been housed at the State Library for decades. They paint a rich picture of daily life in the colony, which the Dutch surrendered for good in the 1670s.
“Most historians don’t think much of the Dutch; they minimalize the Dutch influence and try to get out of that period as quickly as possible to get into English stuff,” Mr. Gehring said, explaining why he has spent half of his 70 years mining Dutch colonial history. “What you find out is how deeply the Dutch cast roots here and how much of their culture they transmitted to this country.”
Mr. Gehring, whose official title is director of the New Netherland Project, looks as if he has not trimmed his sideburns since he started translating the records in 1974, and he seems like the kind of mirthful man who would make a good Sinterklaas — the Dutch forefather of Santa Claus.
Mr. Gehring’s translations served as raw material for Russell Shorto’s critically acclaimed 2005 book about Manhattan, “The Island at the Center of the World.” The Netherlands of the 17th century, Mr. Shorto said in an interview, was “the melting pot of Europe.”
“It was a place that people fled to in the great age of religious warfare; it was a refuge,” he added. “At the same time, they were known for free trade; they developed a stock market — and those things, free trade and tolerance, are key ingredients of New York City.” Mr. Gehring’s translation work, Mr. Shorto writes in his book, “changes the picture of American beginnings.”
Mr. Gehring, who was born in Fort Plain, N.Y., about 55 miles northwest of Albany, did his doctoral work in German linguistics at the Indiana University, where he specialized in Netherlandic studies. He came to Albany in the late 1960s to teach German at the State University of New York at Albany, but his real interest was Dutch history.
Mr. Gehring’s work is the most ambitious translation project in nearly two centuries. In 1974, shortly after Nelson A. Rockefeller became vice president and Malcolm Wilson replaced him as governor, a series of phone calls helped make it possible. It started with an idea at the Holland Society, a group dedicated to preserving the history of New York’s Dutch history.
“This guy in the Holland Society knew Rockefeller, and so he called Rockefeller and said, ‘Could you see if Malcolm Wilson could put money in the budget to start the translations up again?’ ” Mr. Gehring recalled.
The governor, he said, “put $20,000 in his discretionary budget — his slush fund that they had — and in the early ’70s that was a decent amount of money.”
And Mr. Gehring found himself uniquely qualified for the State Library job that came open as a result. As he put it, “I was the only one around who could read 17th-century Dutch.”