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Oral Tradition in Historical Scholarship:The Dutch, The Iroquois, and The Two Row Wampum

The challenge of contact in the 17th century between the Dutch and the Iroquois was brought to life in the 21st century with a symbolic summer journey from western New York to the United Nations to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Two Row Wampum and its message.

That event was the subject of several posts on The New York History Blog. I wrote about the scholarly challenges posed by the Two Row Wampum; Naj Wikoff, an artist active in the Lake Placid region, also wrote about the the Two Row Wampum, acknowledging that there is not a written record of the treaty, nor does the physical object exist, but the oral tradition of the event is valid and its message remains relevant.

In response to Naj Wikoff’s post, New Netherland historian Jaap Jacobs wrote:

“It may be worth pointing out that a recent special issue of the Journal of Early American History contains two articles that address some of the issues referred to here. Of particular importance is the conclusion that ‘whatever agreements or negotiations traders […] may have made with native peoples, these could not be construed as diplomatic treaties between sovereign people.’”

[Editor’s Note: The New York History Blog also reported this.

I decided to read the articles, actually five related articles. Jacobs is one of the authors. In his introduction, co-authored with Paul Otto, he noted ad hominem attacks, especially against William Starna and Charles Gehring, who questioned the legitimacy of the claims made about the Two Row Wampum treaty back in 1987. In addition, the legitimate question of the role of oral tradition in historical scholarship was raised. Otto and Jacobs co-edited this special issue of the Journal of Early American History and the results are summarized below.

The first article “The Tawagonshi Tale: Can Linguistic Analysis Prove the Tawagonshi Treaty to be a Forgery?” by Harrie Hermkens, Jan Noordegraff, and Nicoline van der Sijs answers the question of the title with a simple “Yes.” Yes it can and yes it does. It is a forgery. The article does not go as far as to suggest that Lawrence G. Van Loon who published the text of the Tawagonshi Treaty in 1968 was the forger, but at this point there is no other credible candidate. The article shows Van Loon had method, motive, and opportunity and already has been shown to be a forger with other documents. The Iroquois/Haunensaunee seem perfectly prepared to accept these conclusions and assert the validity of the oral tradition and not the purported written version.

The second article, “The States General and the Stadholder Dutch Diplomatic Practices in the Atlantic World before the West India Company” by Mark Meuwese examines the fluid situation at the onset of Dutch colonial activity in North America before the formal apparatus was installed. Meuwese focuses on the Dutch experiences on the Gold Coast and West-Central Africa and the Wild Coast in South America (Brazil). He points out that the Netherlands was a comparatively new country only recently having liberated itself from the Spanish Habsburg crown. Since the new republican entity was a collection of “United Provinces,” the ruling States General decided that Dutch diplomats should claim to be representatives of the King of Holland since no one would understand the actual Dutch system of government. Prior to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, private Dutch traders passed themselves as representatives of this king. A review of the documentation shows that private Dutch traders did not act on their own and that there were no written treaties in the Atlantic region until after the founding of the Dutch West Indies company in 1621. Thus the type of treaty Van Loon proposed he had discovered is not consistent with actual Dutch practices at the time of its alleged origin.

The third article, “Early Dutch Explorations in North America” by Jaap Jacobs concurs with the previous article. Prior to 1621, there was no need for private Dutch traders to sign an official treaty with local peoples on behalf of the Dutch Republic and they had no authority to do so. The early Dutch traders are likely to have been secretive about the location or source of profitable trade goods so as to keep the profits for themselves. Of course, it should not be a surprise that fairly quickly the private Dutch trading companies were in competition with each other. But while a treaty in 1613 was unlikely and the purported Dutch signers were not in a position to offer one, it was equally unlikely that the Dutch could have established Fort Nassau in 1614 without the agreement of the local people. For this trading system with outposts in their land to work there had to have been a peaceful arrangement agreed to between those providing the goods to be traded and those receiving them.

The fourth article, “The Meaning of Kaswentha and the Two Row Wampum Belt in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) History: Can Indigenous Oral Tradition be Reconciled with the Documentary Record?” by Jon Parmenter, Cornell University, answers in the affirmative on the existence of a longstanding treaty between the Dutch and the Iroquois. He interprets “kaswentha” as the Haudenosaunee term embodying the ongoing negotiation of a relationship between them and their descendants with the Dutch, a coexistence of two peoples without interference represented by the belt. He shows that the documented usage of the term dates to 1656 including usages that could refer to a pre-written oral tradition pre-1620. Parmenter also states the technology to make a Two Row Belt existed at the time as well. The documented attestations in the 17th and early 18th century of a longstanding friendship between the Dutch and the Iroquois suggests a date consistent with the proposed date for the Two Row Wampum treaty. These documents form the appendix of the article. Parmenter concludes by imploring scholars to accept the possibility that oral traditions by the Haudenosaunee may be valid.

The fifth and final article, “Wampum, Tawagonshi, and the Two Row Belt” by Paul Otto examines the use of wampum within the Haudenosaunee society. He notes the evolving use of the material particularly following contact with the Europeans. Wampum is an Algonquian term whereas the Mohawks used onekoera. Jacob Eelkens learned of the importance of wampum in 1620 and used that knowledge in a 1622 treaty, making it unlikely that he did so in 1613 and then forgot what it meant. Otto’s research shows that 1630 not 1613 with the adoption of dark or purple bead shells as part of the wampum makes more sense for a formal treaty. The change was the result of the introduction of iron tools from Europe and an awareness of colored glass beads the Europeans possessed and traded.

So what can one conclude from the analysis presented in these articles?

1. The Tawagonshi document is a manufactured 20th century fraud.

2. Any agreement entered into by Jacob Eelkens and Hendrick Christiansen legally was not a diplomatic treaty between two peoples, although such an agreement may have occurred and been so perceived by the Mohawk.

3. No formal diplomatic agreement would have been entered into until after the formation of the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and the conclusion of the Mohawk-Mahican war in 1625.

4. At the time when a formal diplomatic agreement was entered into in the 1630s, the earlier informal agreement might have been remembered and considered as part of the older peaceful relationships established orally, regardless of the lack of diplomatic standing of the Dutch representatives.

This means the people may have formally acknowledged in the 1630s what had been true for a generation anyway: the people lived together peacefully and beneficially without interference.

Photo: The Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign reaches New York City on August 9, 2013 after leaving Onondaga Lake on July 2. Photo by Alex Hyland.

One thought on “Oral Tradition in Historical Scholarship:The Dutch, The Iroquois, and The Two Row Wampum

  1. In all of these arguments there has been something I think overlooked that leads credence to some form of arrangement, call it a treaty, understanding, or whatever.  We know that Adriaen Block had been in the Hudson Valley and East coast three times before the 1613 Two Row claim.

    Block’s Four Voyages
    As  Supercargo for Cornelis Rijser (aboard St. Pieter), Block made his first trading voyage.

    1612 February
    Block purchased the 110 ton Fortuyn for the Van Tweenhuysen Company and made his second voyage to the Hudson River region and a successful trade with the Native population.

    1612    Fall
    As Captain of the Fortuyn, Block made his third voyage to the Hudson River area again carrying on successful trade with the local Native population.

    1613 Fall
    Block as Captain of The Tyger made his fourth and last voyage to the Hudson along with Hendrick Christiaensen who captained the Fortuyn.  The Tyger burned in New York Bay during winter.

    1613/1614 Winter
    Block  and his crew built The Onrust.

    Christiaensen served as supercargo for Block and during the earlier 1613 voyage in which it is said the Two Row took place, we know that Block and Christiaensen are in the area.

    When Block and Cornelis Hendrickson (second cCpt of the Onrust) produced their maps of 1614 and 1616 there were about two dozen Native villages depicted.  They either got this first hand or from other Natives.

    The point being that Block had to have obtained permission and cooperation to gather this information, had to have had permission to build the Onrust someone in New York Bay and had to have permission to build Fort Nassau on Castle Island.

    It would appear that Block and company had developed a four year relationship with a great deal of Natives in the Northeast.  Whether there was a signed document in my opinion is irrelevant. They obviously had some form of mutual arrangement and understanding.  If it came down from oral tradition from the Mohawks that it was a treaty, so be it.  If there was a belt made, that is fine too.  If it wasn’t it does not obliterate the fact that Block and his crew had a four year relationship. Who knows what they all thought it was.

    My only question is was it the Mohawks?  The Albany area, where the treaty supposedly took place, was Mohican territory at the time?


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