Dutch-era documents to be restored

12,000 fragile pages made available to public

March 05, 2000|By Alan Wecgsler | Alan Wecgsler,Albany Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y. --For four hundred years, the pages of this city's history have survived multiple fires, years in a damp ship's hold, age, theft, neglect and hungry rats.

Now, 12,000 fragile pages minutely describing life in Dutch America will be cleaned and made sturdy enough to be handled by the public.

"I think it's just wonderful," V. Chapman-Smith, in charge of the New York state archives, said. "This is a rare opportunity for us to make sure those records will be available."

The state Archives and Records Administration has received $160,000 in grants for the work. The archives recently received an $80,000 grant from a White House project called Save America's Treasures. That grant was matched by the Archives Partnership Trust, a fund-raising group for the archives.

The documents include government council minutes, land titles, laws and estate contents. For a historian, the faded and burned papers provide a window to a 400-year-old past.

For the past 25 years, the nonprofit New Netherlands Project has been busy translating these documents into English. More than a dozen historians and students make their way to Albany each year to research them, officials said.

Dutch history in the New World dates back to 1609, when Henry Hudson, an English captain working for the Dutch, reached what is now New York.

Five years later, a trading post named Fort Nassau was built where the port of Albany now stands. By the mid-1650s, this area --then known as Beverwyck --was a thriving town of as many as 1,800 people, according to some historians.

In 1664, the British took over, but many of the Dutch stayed behind.

The papers in question, originally manufactured from boiled rags, contain historical documents dealing with all areas under Dutch rule. They survived wagon trips between Boston and New York.

During the Revolutionary War they were loaded on ships to protect them from fire, but were then damaged by dampness and rats. In the next century, papers were stolen and sold to collectors. Then there were several fires, including one blaze in 1911 that heavily damaged the state Capitol and destroyed priceless Revolutionary War documents.

Today, the public is rarely allowed to handle the documents because they are so fragile. This will change. When preservationists get their hands on the paper, they will wash it in special chemicals and affix the pages to a medium that can be handled.

Understanding the 17th-century handwritten documents is another matter.

"It is a particular skill you have to acquire," said Charlie Gehring of the New Netherlands Project.

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