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Archive for the tag “Colonial America”

In pursuit of the Early American Dream

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Crossing the seas to new shores…

I have something of a fascination with those intrepid ancestors of ours who decided to uproot themselves from everything they knew and start over, in lands they had never seen. Okay, so I must admit to these not being my ancestors – my ancestors remained very rooted to their few acres of land, complementing that income with long shifts in the nearby mines.

People left for various reasons: some needed to re-invent themselves, some had to escape from baying creditors, others had no choice, many went because of religious persecution, and quite a few set off to become rich. These were often young men, with their heads filled with dreams of finding gold, or silver, or at least some copper. They hoped for rivers filled with sturgeon, for welcoming lands in which crops grew more or less by themselves. Boy, were they disappointed.

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“And bring us back gold. Lot’s of gold!” Isabel & Fernando w Columbus

One of the reasons behind this belief in a land of riches was due to propaganda. People were needed to populate the colonies, and selling a permanent trip to the other side of the Atlantic as being “harsh and difficult, with years of toil before you, and possibly you’ll die” would not exactly have volunteers lining up. The Spanish explorers, needing to justify the costs of sending repeated expeditions over the seas, promised their financial backers (ergo Their Most Catholic Majesties, Fernando and Isabel) gold and silver. Ultimately, as we know, the Spanish Conquistadores found gold aplenty in Peru, silver in Potosí, and a very much impenetrable jungle elsewhere.

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Welcome to the New World, a veritable cornucopia. Not!

Anyway; young men (it’s always the young men who bounce about on their toes, eager for adventure and pots of gold) who wanted to rise above their original standing in life listened to these rather imprecise descriptions and salivated. Go out, make a fortune, return home and marry well – seemed like an excellent plan, like an early version of the American Dream, although at the time it would have been labelled the Colonial Dream.

Most of them failed dismally. But some made good – good enough to be toted as examples of just how true the dream of riches was. One such man was William Claiborne, a man born in Kent to Thomas and Sarah Clayborne, who would carve himself quite the excellent life in Virginia. Along the way he would also instigate the first naval battle in North America and cause quite some tension between the colonies of Virginia and Maryland. One of the movers and shakers of this world was William Claiborne – and definitely not afraid of taking on new challenges and unknown coasts.

William C 001Claiborne was born in Kent, England, in 1600. As his family did not have the means to offer him a promising career back home, William set off for Virginia in 1621, where he was appointed land surveyor. He was granted 200 acres, and through a combination of astute business sense and perfect timing, his original grant quickly expanded to well over 1 000 acres. Already here, William had more than realised his dreams of future wealth, but this was an ambitious young man, with his eyes set not only on gold but also on achieving a standing in society.

Life in Virginia was not exactly a walk in the park. In William’s second year there, the Powhatan rose in anger against the white settlers, and over one very bloody night more than a third of the settlers were killed. William was (obviously) not among the dead – and I suppose all those deaths increased the opportunities for an intrepid young man to further his own position. Our young hero capitalised on the situation, and at the age of 26 was appointed Secretary of State for the Colony of Virginia.

Being a landowner was not sufficient for our restless protagonist, and after some pondering, William decided to try his hand at trade. Off he went to develop the fur trade, sailing up and down the coasts of the Chesapeake to trade with the local Indians. I guess it was very much glass beads for furs, although now and then William probably offered a musket or two as well.

William C 202_w_fullDuring his travels round the bay, William came upon the perfect place for a trading post, a small island just off the eastern shore of the bay. In a burst of nostalgia, he named it Kent Island and appropriated it in his own name. His Virginian financial backers cheered William on. Others did not, foremost among them Lord Calvert, who was looking for land in which to establish his very own colony, one of his options being future Maryland, to which territory Kent Island belonged. Calvert’s first attempt at founding a colony, in Newfoundland, had failed dismally. (And let us not here spend time wondering why on earth Calvert chose Newfoundland in the first place)

Lord Calvert came to Virginia in 1629. At the time, he was more interested in colonising south of Virginia (the Carolinas) than north of it (Maryland). As far as the Virginians were concerned, Lord Calvert had no business being in their neck of the woods at all. Not only did Lord Calvert’s desire for his own colony pose a threat to Virginia’s territorial expansion, but to add insult to injury, Lord Calvert was a Catholic, and to make matters worse, the demented man actually argued for religious toleration, making the staunch Virginia Protestants squirm in their boots.

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Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore

Lord Calvert was not a man to give up. He returned to England to urge the king to give him a charter for his own colony. The Virginians had no intention of giving Lord Calvert as much as a square inch on their precious shore, so they sent their Secretary of State to London to argue against any grant to Calvert. William was more than willing to go.

The Privy Council listened to Calvert. It listened to William. In between, the Privy Council yawned and thought of other things – after all, what happened in Virginia stayed in Virginia, and few Englishmen other than the merchants cared all that much about the colonies. The merchants, however, saw huge opportunities – this was the age when sugar and tobacco were becoming popular crops – and one such rich merchant took a liking to William Claiborne and his plans for Kent Island. Suddenly, William had the means to recruit indentured servants for his future trading post, and in May of 1631 William left London and sailed back home, quite convinced Calvert would never get the grant of land he so wanted.

It must have been somewhat of a shock to William – and his fellow Virginians – when the Privy Council awarded Lord Calvert a charter for the colony of Maryland. The charter included Kent Island, but William made it very clear to Calvert that he answered only to Virginia and the king, not to some upstart Catholic. The upstart Catholic in question had received Maryland as a personal grant, so the colony was in effect Lord Calvert’s property, and Lord Calvert intended to enjoy all his lands – including Kent Island.

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William looking elegant

Kent Island became a symbol. William refused to hand it over to Calvert, calling for Virginia to come to his aid. The Virginia Governor, one John Harvey, was loath to do so: Lord Calvert came with an impressive Royal Charter, and Harvey was not about to pick a fight with the king. William was livid and probably expressed this. The Governor retaliated by having him dismissed as Secretary of State. The Virginia Assembly did not like that one bit, most of them being firm friends of Claiborne, and so Harvey was ousted from office.

Not that it helped William all that much. A Maryland commissioner captured one of William’s ships, and in 1635 the first two naval battles on North American waters took place, both of them in Chesapeake, both of them involving William and his (unfairly according to William) impounded ship. Three Virginian died, things simmered down a bit, and still William hung on to Kent Island, but all this turmoil was not good for business. William’s intended profitable trading post was doing less than well, and in 1637 a London attorney popped up on Kent Island, representing William’s disgruntled London financiers. William was sent back to London to attend court proceedings against him, and while he was gone the attorney invited Maryland to take over Kent Island. Rather back-stabbing, and we must suppose William fumed and protested, but to no avail.

For some years, William was occupied elsewhere – in Honduras, to be precise – but with the advent of the English Civil War, William saw an opportunity to reclaim Kent Island once and for all. One wonders just what it was about this little island that had William so determined to control it. Was it simply a matter of pique? Was there a place on the island that reminded him of home? Hmm. William doesn’t strike me as the nostalgic type.

Whatever his reasons, William joined forced with Richard Ingle, a Parliamentarian Puritan merchant whose ships had been seized by the Maryland authorities in response to a royal order to do so. With England being torn asunder by civil war and religious tensions riding sky high, William and Ingle used Calvert’s Catholic faith as a pretext and attacked in 1644. William reclaimed Kent Island, Ingle took over St Mary’s City. I imagine William did a little happy dance, complete with hand-clapping and stamping, but already by 1646 Kent Island was back under Calvert control.

One cannot fault William with lack of perseverance. In 1648, as the newly appointed Parliamentary Commissioner and Secretary of Virginia – William declared for Parliament and the Puritan faith – he was also made responsible for bringing Maryland to heel. Yet again, up popped the question of Calvert’s Catholicism and how far a papist could be trusted. (I know; this becomes very repetitive, but blame it on the times, not on me). Calvert’s Governor was outnumbered by the vocal anti-papists and submitted to Claiborne’s authority – for a while.

In 1653, to William’s outraged surprise, Cromwell confirmed Lord Calvert as owner of Maryland. In 1654, Calvert’s man in Maryland, Governor Stone, declared that William Claiborne’s property – and life – could be taken at the Governor’s pleasure. The purpose was to scare William into leaving Maryland alone, but instead William and his co-commissioner, Bennet, overthrew the hapless Stone and ousted all Catholics from Maryland’s Assembly. This did not please Lord Calvert. Stone was told to get his act together and regain authority ASAP. Stone tried and failed. By 1655, the colony of Maryland was in the hands of Puritan colonists who went on quite the burning spree, destroying any Catholic institution they could find.

At last it seemed to William he was in a position to permanently claim Kent Island back. Together with Bennet, he sailed for England with the intention of convincing Cromwell to once and for all tear up that irritating Royal Charter which granted Maryland to Lord Calvert. Didn’t work. Instead, Lord Calvert was granted total control over Maryland for the rest of the Protectorate, and William Claiborne had to kiss Kent Island away for ever.

William C The-Great-Southern-PlantationOnce Charles II was restored, William Claiborne’s political career was dead. A former Parliamentarian and Puritan had no future in the royalist and Anglican Virginia, and so William retired from public life, living out the rest of his years on his huge estate, Romancoke. He may not have acquired everything he desired, but when William Claiborne was laid to rest in 1677 he left behind a substantial fortune. The young penniless man who set sail from England in 1621 had indeed realised the American dream. He wasn’t the first to do so, nor was he the last – but he was definitely one of the few.

How a Swedish spread became a part of New York

We have recently had cause to celebrate here in Sweden. Or in Denmark. Or on the Faroe Islands. You see, some days past it was 375 years since Jonas Bronck bought himself quite a spread just on the outskirts of New Amsterdam, and to this day the area in question still carries his name. The Bronx.


The Faroe Islands…

Some say Jonas was from the Faroe Islands. Just to properly validate their claim to him, the islanders have a road named after him. (And for those of you who have NO idea where these islands might be found, let’s just say they are specks of rock stuck in the North Sea, from where come hardy sheep and very hardy people – that’s what you get when you grow up in such barren and harsh surroundings.) As per the Faroe contingent, Jonas was the son of a priest who was born and raised in Torshavn before being struck by the travelling itch and setting off for the American continent.

Huh, say the Danes. Everyone knows Jonas was born on Bornholm, a small Danish island in the Baltic Sea. He was the son of a Danish priest called Morten and even studied at the university in Copenhagen before being struck by the travelling itch and etc. etc. etc. Thing is, this Morten character seems to have died like fifteen years before Jonas was born. We’re talking a very, very long gestation period should Jonas be his son.

No, no, no say the Swedes. I mean, who has ever heard of a Dane being called Jonas Bronck? That’s a solid Swedish name – or rather Brunke is – and Jonas was a farmer’s lad from the interiour of southern Sweden, where he grew up until he was struck by the travelling itch and – well, you got it by now.

The only thing these three versions agree on is that Jonas went to America – and that he did so via Amsterdam. They also seem to agree on the fact that he arrived in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in 1639 and that he bought a substantial amount of land – at a most auspicius price, one would guess. I mean, this was before the New York property market had begun to boom…

1988.150_CAMPrior to setting off to make himself a fortune in the New World, Jonas had spent time in the Netherlands, where he also met and married his wife, Teuntje. By the late 1630’s, things were a bit shaky in Amsterdam. The tulip boom had come and gone, leaving a number of people in financial ruin (and one must love a people that goes wild and crazy over tulip bulbs, mustn’t one? Seriously: ONE bulb could be priced at the equivalent of a house…).

The powers that were in the Netherlands were less than happy with how things were progressing in their American colony. In difference to the English colonies, things weren’t happening, so to say, starting with a depressingly low influx of settlers (What can I say? Those spectacular tulips kept all of them at home…). To encourage more settlers, land was offered at discounted prices, and our Jonas quickly saw the oppotunities this might offer. Together with his Danish friend Jochem Kuyter (and yes, this is an indication that Jonas could potentially have stronger Danish connections than us Swedes want to recognise), Jonas leased a boat with the rather epic name “The Fire of Troy”, loaded it with cattle, other wannabee colonists and set off for this beckoning brave new world.

It was a new world. Magnificent and wild, it offered the intrepid man endless opportunities to improve his lot in life. Jonas was most definitely intrepid – as way Jochem. One of them settled in present day Harlem, the other – Jonas –  chose land on the other side of the Harlem River, with Jonas ending up the proud owner of close to 700 acres, some of this land bought directly from the Lenape tribe. Unfortunately, Jonas would not be given the chance to truly explore this new land of his. For unknown reasons, Jonas died early in 1643.

Jonas Bronck signing-the-treaty-with-the-indiansAt the time, a certain Wilhelm Kleft was the Dutch Governor. This gentleman is infamous for his treatment of the Native Americans. In early 1643 he had Dutch soldiers slaughter 120 Native American refugees – in flagrant breach of the treaty signed in 1642 at Jonas Bronck’s homestead. This event sparked a two year period of hostilities between Colonists and Native Americans. Those most at risk were those living on the fringes of things – Like the Bronck family – so maybe Jonas fell victim to a retaliating attack by the angered Native American tribes. We don’t know.


See? She’s riding a moose

What we do know, however, is that Jonas was a literate, multi-lingual man, possessed of a library numbering well over 30 books and a number of pamphlets when he died. From his reading matter one can deduce he was also very devout – further substantiated by the name he gave his homestead, Emmaus. Several of the books in Jonas’ possession were in Danish. Quite a few were in Dutch, one or two in German or Latin. None seem to have been in Swedish – but this may say more about the sad state of the Swedish publishing industry at the time than Jonas’ nationality. After all, Sweden was at war! We had no time to print books when we needed to produce weapons and tame moose for the cavalry. (And yes, moose were domesticated, were broken in and ridden, but the poor beasts died quickly, having no liking for hay and oats. Plus they leapt like March hares at the sound of muskets…)

A Peter Bronck was named as Jonas’ heir. Whether this was a son, a brother or a cousin we don’t know. We do know Jonas’ widow remarried in the summer of 1643, so either she wasn’t all that grief-stricken, or women were such a valuable commodity in the colonies that she drowned in potential suitors, all of them vying for her hand. We also know that a Peter Bronck was to build a house in 1662 – the oldest existing building in the New York vicinity.

For some years after Bronck’s death, his farm seems to have been left untended, indicating there were concerns with living so far away from the centre of things (well, the collection of houses and the wind-mill right at the southern tip of Manhattan that went for the centre of things back then). But people still referred to the area as “Bronckland”, and the nearby waterway was called Bronck’s River. The name of the land changed with new owners, but the river retained its connection to the very first white settler, even if Bronck’s became Bronx. And so the name was still around when the five boroughs of New York were named, which was how present day The Bronx came about. A small, tenuous connection to Sweden, right there in the Big Apple.


JB’s homestead was where the smudge, middle right, is (over Harlem River)

So, was Jonas Swedish? Well, Brian Andersson seems to think so, and given that Mr Andersson is a historian and genealogist who has been researching the topic for several decades – and he’s also the former Comissioner of NYC’s Department of Records – he should know, right? After all, Mr Andersson has chosen to celebrate the 375th anniversary of Jonas’ arrival in the New World here, in Sweden, at the Jonas Bronck Centre.

What further proof do you want, people? Jonas Bronck was as Swedish as moose and lingonberries, as Swedish as meatballs and cinnamon buns. And as to why he left Sweden to begin with, I’m thinking it all had to do with that dratted Thirty Years’ War: any young man in Sweden risked being conscripted into the royal armies. Maybe Jonas was a pacifist. Maybe he didn’t relish the idea of having selected parts of his body shot off by muskets or cannon-balls. Or maybe he was one of those boys who was always looking at the horizon, wondering what might lie beyond it. Whatever the case, his life took him on a very long trip given the times, and he must have made a very lasting impression on the people he met along the way – why else keep on calling the spread he lived on for four short years by his name?


An Amazon in the colonies

nswdmpFor a brief period in history, Sweden was a colonial power. Well, if we’re going to be quite correct, that should be for TWO brief  periods, one in the 17th century (very brief), one longer in the 18th-19th century (almost one hundred years). Let’s leave the latter period to the side for now and concentrate on 17th  century New Sweden – and even more specifically on one specific Swedish (or New Swedish) woman.

New Sweden existed for 17 proud years, to be more precise, between 1638 and 1655. Oh, halcyon days, when Sweden had a colony of its own! (Well…) While I was reading up on this short-lived colony, I came upon the story of a woman. I must admit that at first it was mostly her odd name that caught me eye. Seriously, what were the poor child’s father and mother thinking of, when they baptised her Armegott?


Thirty Years’ War

I’ve never heard of any other Swedish person named Armegottt. I’d hazard it’s German in origin, meaning roughly “Poor God”. At the time, Sweden was more or less on top of Germany, what with the Swedish army scything their way down through small German states towards the promising treasure houses in Prag and elsewhere which they enthusiastically looted. And before we go all morally superior regarding this (most) despicable Swedish behaviour, let me point out that a lot of that army was commanded by mercenary officers, many of them Scots, such as David Leslie, who would go on to captain the Scottish Covenanter Army in the English Civil War. Ah well; not of much interest to little Armegott Prinz.

Armegott’s father, Johan Björnsson Printz, was a Swedish officer. Not that he wanted to be – he aspired to be a priest, but while in Germany studying for priesthood, the poor young man was pressed into military service, first for the Austrian Archduke, then for the Swedish king. By then he was well reconciled with his new occupation, but after having surrendered a crucial city in 1625, the king sent him home in disgrace. Johan licked his wounded pride and did amends as well as he could, and by the 1640’s he was back in royal favour. By then, Gustavus Adolphus was dead and the country was run by Axel Oxenstierna on behalf of the underage Queen Christina.


Johan Printz

Johan was appointed Governor of the fledgling New Sweden, and by all accounts he did a good job, insisting on cordial and respectful relations with the natives  and the neighbouring colonies. He also brought his family with him to New Sweden, a bevy of daughters and a wife. Must have been a welcome female addition, I suppose. Johan was an obese man, nick-named “Big Belly” by the local natives. Armegott seems to have inherited her father’s build, being tall and big all over. She was also, one gathers, a rather forceful young lady – this being a characteristic that would stay with her throughout her life.

In 1645, twenty-year-old Armegott was wed to Johan Papegoja (John Parrot), who arrived in the colony with the permission of his overlord to marry the young lady in question. Papegoja’s lord was also Johan Prinz’s lord, so I guess there was no room for refusing this match. Two people less suited is difficult to find. Armegott was independent, loud and tall. Johan was somewhat spineless and very much in awe of his wife. It was an unhappy marriage, despite several children. Johan complained loudly that his wife was wilfull and refused to submit to his authority. Armegott merely shrugged, and the Governor chose to turn two deaf ears to the constant discord between his daughter and son-in-law.

As per the laws and customs of the time, Johan Papegoja could demand his wife’s total obedience. Women were weak-willed creatures that needed a firm ruling hand to keep them on the straight and narrow – everyone knew that! Well, apparently not Armegott, and while Johan moaned and complained, she went on with her business, thriving like a wayward stand of kudzu in the fertile and somewhat lawless soil of New Sweden.

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A Swedish Settler’s cabin, est 1640’s

In 1654, Governor Printz returned home to Sweden, and for a short while Johan Papegoja was Governor of New Sweden. He was replaced by one Johan Risingh and returned to Sweden – but Armegott wasn’t going anywhere, she stayed where she was, ostensibly to manage her father’s estates. I think it was more a matter of her wanting to be free of her husband… Johan Risingh had problems of his own with this formidable lady, viewed by everyone (including herself) as the first lady in the colony. So subversive was her presence to Johan Risingh’s rule, that he sent to Sweden for a wife, begging the government to send out a lady capable of taking Armegott on.

In the event, there was no clash of Swedish Amazons. Long before a suitable lady could be shipped out to Johan Rising, the Dutch annexed New Sweden by force. After an initial bout of severe unrest, leaving Armegott’s residence Printzhof a looted shell, the Dutch take-over was a relatively civilised procedure, with most of the landowners allowed to hold on to what they had. Johan Papegoja wrote at the time that there had been severe unrest, and that Mrs Papegoja had lost a lot of valuables as a consequence, Fortunately, Johan Papegoja went on, two junior Papegojas had made it safely across the seas to him. I suppose this means Armagott was sending her older sons back to Sweden, just in case.

After some initial wrangling as to who owned what, Armegott was allowed to remain in control of her father’s extensive holdings and chose to stay on until 1662 when she sold Printzhof for an impressive sum of money to a Joost de la Grange – some of which had to be collected in Amsterdam.

Off our Armegott went, only to arrive in Amsterdam to find there was no money. She fumed, we suppose, and after a brief visit to Sweden,  where she managed to seriously upset the entire Swedish Church by her refusal to submit to her husband’s wishes and stay with him, she returned to America in 1663, intent on extracting the payment due to her. Things went a bit messy, one could say. There was no money to pay Armegott, and Joost set off to Holland to find it but died en route. His wife, Margaret,  remained in residence in Printzhof, and when the English took over New Netherlands in 1664, she quickly married Andrew Carr, hoping that his English status would protect her claim to Printzhof. Huh. Margaret seriously underestimated Armegott, who just wouldn’t give up, like a huge overweight terrier worrying at a bone.

Years passed, Armegott hung on, over and over petitioning for her money – or for Printzhof, in lieu of unreceived monies. She also established an inn, a distillery, and in general made a good life for herself. In the meantime,things were not always peaceful sailing for the new colonial overlords. Some of the Swedish and Finnish settlers resented the imposed Anglification, and even more so when a certain Captain Carr, Andrew’s brother,  tried to enrich himself through various manipulative schemes, most of them directed against the natives, who until now had lived on friendly terms with the white settlers. Carr also had hopes of getting his hands on the prime land along the Delaware River, but to do so he had to oust the Swedes and Finns, and these, like barnacles, refused to be budged.

swedish-colonists--native-americans-grangerIt seems somewhat propitious that in this somewhat tense climate, there should suddenly arise a rebellion. One could almost suspect lurid manipulation behind the scenes, causing a man known to history as the Long Finn to raise his voice in loud protest against the English. This supposed Finn was named Markus Jakobsson (sounds Swedish, if you ask me – but many Finns had Swedish roots) and in 1669 he urged his fellow Swedes to rise in rebellion and throw the English out of New Sweden.

The hero of the hour was Captain Carr (hmm) who nipped the planned insurrection in the bud. Markus Jakobsson was hauled before the court, accused of treason, and was condemned to die. However, his sentence was commuted to public flogging, a branded R on his cheek and lifetime servitude as a slave on Barbados. Not so sure that was a winning ticket for poor Markus, who apparently had had a previous encounter with English justice, at which point he’d been sent out to Maryland as an indentured servant. Markus boarded a ship destined for Barbados in 1670 and sailed out of history. What befell the man afterwards is pure speculation – but I suspect it wasn’t much fun…

Armegott was accused of participating in the rebellion. “Proof!” I imagine her snorting. There was no proof, and Armagott was let off with a slap to her wrist, no more. However, the incident seems to have left Armegott somewhat disenchanted with the whole colonial experience. She increased her efforts to have her claims to Printzhof validated, and in 1672  it was finally returned to her, now a substantially less impressive place than when she sold it back in 1662.

In 1675, Armegott sold Printzhof and sailed back to Sweden. She was to live out the rest of her life ambulating between the various households of her children, dying at the ripe old age of seventy.

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