By 1642, the number of inhabitants of the van Rensselaer Manor Rensselaerswyck had grown and Patroon Kiliaen van Rensselaer willingly complied with a requirement of the Dutch West India Company to secure a clergyman for a Dutch Church to conduct services for the settlers.
The Reverend Doctor Johannis Megapolensis, Jr., the dominie (pastor) of the congregation of Schorel and Berg, belonging to the classis of Alkmaar in Holland, was selected and accepted the call. He was to serve for six years at a salary of one thousand guilders (about $400) per year. He was also to receive a yearly donation of thirty schepels (22 ½ bushels) of wheat and two firkins of butter.
The ship De Hoattuyn arrived in New Netherland on August 13, 1642, carrying Dominie Megapolensis and his family; Abraham Staes (Staats) – a surgeon; Evert Pels – a brewer; and 16 other immigrants. Hoping to form a compact settlement, the patroon drew a small map showing how he wanted the settlement laid out. The proposed church, parsonage and manor house were to be surrounded by dwellings of the traders and mechanics. He wanted the widely spread homes of the earlier settlers brought together for protection.
Hendrick Albertson, who also arrived on the De Hoattuyn, was instructed to construct a ferry running between the eastern and western portions of the patroonship on opposite sides of the Hudson River. These instructions were sent in writing to Rensselaerswyck’s director, Arent Van Curler. Van Rensselaer directed that “with the exception of the farmers and tobacco planters” all other residents were to restrict their houses to the church neighborhood as per the drawing he had sent.
A new house was purchased for Megapolensis and his family and they moved in before Christmas.
The small village in Rensselaerswyck, originally called called Oranje, that had sprung up adjacent to Fort Orange, usually contained a number of Indigenous People from the two closest native nations, the Mohawk (Maquaes) and Mahican (Maykans). They walked the streets and visited the shops freely. People from both nations had traded successfully with the Dutch at Fort Orange, or previously Fort Nassau, for almost 30 years. This trade substantially benefited both and a friendly relationship had developed. From his arrival, Megapolensis sought to include the local Indian tribes in his religious instructions.
In his diary, Megapolensis said that the Mohawk were divided into three clans, which he called Ochkari, Anaware and Oknaho, or bear, tortoise and wolf. He believed the tortoise was the largest and oldest, and considered them the most important. He described their homes made of woven branches inside a palisade which Europeans called “castles.”
A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians, their Country, Language, Figure, Costume, Religion, and Government, drawn from Megapolensis’ letters by his friends, was first published in 1644 Holland. It was translated into English in 1792. In it Megapolensis described the Indigenous People he encountered in this way:
“These two nations (the Mohawks and Mahicans) have different languages that have no affinity for each other, as the Dutch and the Latin. These people formerly carried on a great war against each other, but since the [Mahican] were subdued by the [Mohawk] a peace has existed between them and the conquered are obliged to bring an annual contribution to the other.
The principal nation of all the savages and Indians in this neighborhood with which we are acquainted are the [Mohawk] who have laid all the other Indians near us under contribution.”
Megapolensis noted that he had a very difficult time learning their language and began attempting to make a list of their words. He said he could find no one who could speak Mohawk fluently, despite some the fact that some Europeans had been trading with them for over 20 years.
When he asked the commissary of the local Dutch West India Company what certain Native words meant, the commissary claimed they changed their whole language every two or three years. Megapolensis believed this was impossible.
“We go with them into the woods; we meet with each other, sometimes at an hour or two’s walk from any houses and think no more about it than if we met with a Christian. They sleep with us too in our chambers before our beds. I have had eight at once, who lay and slept upon the floor near my bed, for it is their custom to sleep only on the bare ground and to have only a stone or a piece of wood under their heads.”
Megapolensis said that the Native People put their ripe corn in deep pits to survive the whole winter. They fished with nets with ten or twelve people working together who then split their catch.
“They generally live without marriage, but if any of them have wives, the marriage continues no longer than they think proper and then they separate and each takes another partner,” Megapolensis wrote. “On the birth of a child the women go about immediately afterward and be it ever so cold it makes no difference, they wash themselves and the infant in the river or in the snow. They will not lie down for they say that if they did they should soon die but keep going about.
“The men have great authority over their wives so that if they do anything which affronts them and makes them angry, they take an axe and knock them in the head and there is an end of it. The women are obliged to prepare the land, to mow, to plant and do everything. The men do nothing except hunt and fish and go to war against their enemies.
“They are very cruel to their enemies in time of war. They first bite off the nails of the fingers of their captives [which they consider to be weapons] and cut off some joints and sometimes all the fingers. The captives are afterwards forced to sing and dance before them stark naked and finally they roast their prisoners dead before a slow fire for some days and then eat them. The common people eat the arms, the rump and the trunk but the chiefs eat the head and heart.
“They have also naturally a great opinion of themselves. They say, ‘I hy Othkon’ (I am the devil), by which they mean that they are unequaled. In order to praise themselves and their people, whenever we tell them they are very expert at catching deer or doing this and that, they say, ‘Tkoschs ko, aguweechon kajingahaga kouaane Jountuckcha Othkon” that is: ‘Really all the Mohawks are very cunning devils.’
“The arms used by them in war were formerly a bow and arrow with a stone axe and clap – hammer or mallet, but now they get from our people guns, swords, iron axes and mallets.
“They place their dead upright in holes and do not lay them down and then they throw some trees and wood on the grave or close it with palisades.
“They are entire strangers to all religion but they have a Tharonhijouaagon (whom they otherwise call Athzoockkuatoriaho) that is a Genius whom they honor in the place of God but they do not serve or present offerings to him. They worship and present offerings to the devil whom they call Othkon or Aireskuoni. If they have any bad luck in war, they catch a bear, which they cut in pieces and roast and these they offer up to their Aireskuoni saying the following words: ‘O great and mighty Aireskuoni, we know that we have offended against thee, inasmuch as we have not killed and eaten our captive enemies, forgive us this. We promise that we will kill and eat all the captives we shall hereafter take as certainly as we have killed and now eat this bear.’
“If they are sick or have a pain or soreness anywhere in their limbs and I ask them what ails them, they say that the devil sits in their body or in the sore places and bites them there and they always attribute to the devil the accidents that befall them; they have no other religion than this. When we pray, they laugh at us. Some of them really despise praying and some when we tell them what we do when we pray, stand astonished.
“They call us Assyreoni, that is cloth makers, or Charistooni that is iron workers, because our people first brought cloth and iron among them.”
Just a few weeks before the arrival of Dominie Megapolensis at Fort Orange, about 70 Mohawk set out on a foray. On the fourth of August 1642, they attacked a party of Canadians (Native People and French missionaries) on the St. Lawrence River. Twenty-two prisoners were taken and subjected to a series of savage cruelties on the march south to the Mohawk River.
One of the prisoners, Isaac Jogues said that he had been beaten senseless because he had tried to protect one of the tortured prisoners:
“Scarcely had I begun to breathe when some others attacking me tore out by biting almost all of my fingernails and crunched my two forefingers with their teeth, giving me intense pain. No trial however came harder upon me than to see them … approach us … with minds no wise excited by passion [and] pluck out our hair and beard and drive their nails, which are always very sharp, deep into parts most tender and sensitive to the slightest impression.”
Upon arrival at the Mohawk village, the naked captives were forced to run between two rows of Mohawks with clubs who beat them around the head and shoulders. They burned one of Jogues’ fingers and crushed another with their teeth. Two more nails were torn out with the flesh below cut through to the bone. Jogues said that an older man compelled an unwilling woman to cut off his left thumb.
This news seems to have shocked Fort Orange. They had not known the Mohawk to be so brutal and they began to fear their much larger and more powerful neighbors.
Arendt Van Curler, the patroon’s manager, decided to present the Mohawk with some significant token of their friendship and offer a large ransom for their prisoners. Van Curler, Jacob Jansen and Jan Labatie, a French settler who could speak to the captives, traveled three hours west on the Mohawk River to the three Mohawk villages near today’s Auriesville.
On their arrival they were received very hospitably. The Mohawk conducted a ceremony of firing their muskets to greet them. Their leaders sent hunters out to catch turkeys for a dinner. They agreed to remain at peace with the Dutch at Fort Orange but would not accept the offer to ransom their prisoners. They told the representatives from Fort Orange that on this issue of dealing with Mohawk enemies the Dutch “must remain silent.” Van Curler asked them not to kill their French prisoners.
Van Curler reported in a letter back to the patroon that as his party began to leave, the three Frenchmen “besought us to do all in our power for their delivery from the savages, but there was no chance for it. On my return they (the Mohawks) gave me an escort of ten or twelve armed men who conducted us home.”
The Mohawk did not free their prisoners, but neither did they kill them.
Months later Jogues accompanied a party of Mohawk on a fishing trip down the Mohawk River and past Fort Orange. They fished just south of Fort Orange. On the return trip, they were hosted at a dinner, most likely given by Van Curler at Schuyler Flatts on the Hudson River just north of Albany. They slept in his barn and locked the doors from the inside.
Toward daybreak, Jogues escaped and proceeded to the river where a canoe had been hidden for him. He paddled downstream about five miles to Fort Orange where he obtained clothing and boarded a ship bound for Amsterdam, Holland. From Holland he found his way back to France.
Dominie Megapolensis conducted church services for the Dutch settlers in his house until the church was constructed in 1646, a short distance northwest of Fort Orange, near the line of Church Street, between Pruyn and Lydius streets in what is today Albany. (Today it would be located in the intersection of State Street and Broadway).
In 1648, Megapolensis’ term was up and he requested permission to return to Amsterdam, Holland. However, he was earnestly solicited by Director General Peter Stuyvesant to become dominie of the congregation at New Amsterdam (now Lower Manhattan) to replace Dominie Everhardus Bogardus who had been lost at sea. He accepted the call and remained at the pastorate in New Amsterdam until his death 20 years later.
In the 1683 list of members of the Dutch Church in Albany, 28 members were Native People. They are differentiated by the fact that they have a single name (i.e. Abraham) followed by the notation: “proselytes from among the heathen, having been instructed by us in the mysteries of faith and of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, and after making a public confession received baptism and were admitted to the Lord’s Supper.”
The Dutch Church records another 10 “heathen” admitted over the next several years. Most of the converts had taken a Dutch name, causing their nationality to become invisible in later documents and census surveys.
Illustrations, from above: First Dutch Church at Albany at State and Market Streets as it appears in several of the works of James Eights (Albany Institute of History & Art); the same church from an engraving of unknown origin, but possibly made from the work of Eights; the Roemer Map of Albany 1698 showing Fort Orange and what had by then become Beverwyck (formerly Oranje); an image which probably represents a Munsee man (Mahican) likely derived from a 1645 original by Wencelaus Hollar (NYS Museum); a map of the New York Native Nations before European arrival; Letter from Arent van Curler to Kiliaen van Rensselaer, June 16, 1643, partially burned in the 1911 NYS Library fire its the only van Curler letter to survive the blaze (New York State Museum); A sketch depicting the Flatts Farm, ca 1644, by Len Tantillo.