In 1626 Daniel Van Crieckenbeeck, a captain at Fort Orange on the Hudson River, disobeyed orders to stay out of the conflict between the Mohicans and their longtime enemies – the Mohawk tribe of the mighty Iroquois Confederation. The Dutch West India Company had ordered him to keep out of the affairs of the natives for the sake of the lucrative fur trade. Instead, Crieckenbeeck and some of his men set out with their new Mohican allies on a raid against the Mohawks. This proved disastrous as the Mohawks, already having gotten wind of the attack, ambushed the raiders in a forest west of modern Albany, New York. Crieckenbeeck and his men were all slaughtered, with some sources claiming that they were roasted and eaten by the victorious Mohawks. With the peace broken, the fur trade between the Dutch and Iroquois suffered greatly.
The next few years saw the Iroquois semi-isolated from European powers as they themselves engaged in what would become known as the “Beaver Wars” against their neighboring tribes. But by the early 1630s reports were coming into Fort Orange that “The French Indians,” as those tribes aligned with French Canada were called, were trading in the Iroquois Confederacy. Wanting to monopolize trade in the region and prevent further French incursion, the Dutch West India Company went to work on a course of action.
This is where the story of Harmen Meyndertsz Van Den Bogaert comes in. He was born somewhere in the Low Countries around 1612. Not much is known about his early life but he came to the New Netherland colony in 1630 where he made a living as a barber-surgeon. He would find himself living around Fort Orange, where in 1634, he would volunteer to embark on an expedition in “Mohawk Country” with two other men – Jeromus le Croex and Willem Tomassen. Their mission was simple; to reopen trade with the Iroquois and confirm the presence of French traders in the region. The journal he kept during this journey would serve as one of the earliest firsthand account of Iroquois society and culture.
The three set off on December 1634, guided by five Mohawks. They carried with them not only provisions for the journey but an array of European wares such as knives and scissors to trade and give as gifts, as was Iroquois custom. They traveled westward by land, as the rivers were flooded and filled with ice this time of the year. This trip would prove to a difficult one. On the first night, Bogaert noted that the Mohawk would have abandoned his group had they not taken notice. To make matters worse, the Mohawk’s dogs had eaten all the meat and cheese provisions, leaving them with only bread to eat. Nonetheless, despite this rude start, the journey continued and they would soon come upon native towns, which the Dutch would call “castles” due to their fortified construction.
The first ‘castle’ the Dutch encountered comprised around 36 houses. Some were as long as 100 steps, arranged in multiple rows. Bogaert would go on to say that many of the houses had ironwork inside them such as chains and hinges for doors. He reasoned that the Mohawks stole these items. Another European import he would report on was the infamous smallpox, which had killed enough of the townsfolk there to prompt one of their chefs to live in a cabin outside the town. Bogaert also reported that some people kept idols of animals, namely snakes, pigeons, cranes, turtles, swans, and a “martens head with protruding teeth.”
Journeying onwards, the three men met a hunter named Sickaris who took them to his town. As they entered Bogaert wrote “I could see nothing else but graves,” a reminder of the extent of devastation caused by European diseases. The town had few men as the chiefs were out hunting. They stayed at Sickaris’ house for a few days before receiving word and supplies from Fort Orange, prompting them to move on with a new guide.
On December 20th while on their way to the next town, they come across a fast running stream riddled with ice chunks. Managing to cross, the party now soaked in cold water from the waist down forced itself to walk another half mile in order to reach the town before nightfall. Here the Dutchmen found a cluster of about 32 houses. Here they exchanged goods and Bogaert himself was given a mountain lion skin to use as a blanket, only to discover “at least 100 lice” on himself the next morning.
On their way to the next town, they encountered two villages. In the first, they found reports of French presence among the Oneida and of an Englishman in the region trying to learn their language. Bogaert was also asked to heal a sick man. Their time in the second village was spent smoking a pipe with an old man and trying, in vain, to buy the village’s tamed bear.
The next ‘castle’ they arrived at was to be the largest yet, comprising of 55 houses although many of them were storage for foodstuffs. It was here that they witnessed a fight between twenty men in wood and reed armor, which was commonly worn in battle before European contact and the introduction of firearms. On Christmas Eve, Bogaert also saw a healing ritual where a home would be sealed off from drafts and two men would put a stick down their throats to throw up on the patient, afterward they would shout and clap their hands.
Bogaert and his companions spent the rest of the month traveling through the snow-covered forest of New York, trying to reach the next settlement. At one point, while crossing over a large hill, Bogaert fell and injured himself so badly he thought he had broken some of his ribs, the last thing one needs when roughing it in a winter forest. Luckily, he quickly discovered that he had instead fallen on, and broken, his sword handle; painful, but preferable to broken ribs.
The next town they encountered had previously traded with the French and Bogart’s party reported that many French-made goods were present in this town. The Dutch and Iroquois also managed to discuss the prospects of an exclusive trade agreement. Bogaert gave his word that he would bring this trade deal to his superiors and return in the spring with their approval. They also managed to get the Chief to construct a map of the towns in the region by arranging corn kernels and rocks on the ground. It was here that they were also told of some nearby highlands where there were not only many beaver, but apparently people with horns. The town, meanwhile, also managed to conclude a peace treaty with the “French Indians” with whom the Iroquois had been sporadically at war throughout their history.
Apparently though, relations were not perfect between the Dutch and their Iroquois hosts. Bogaert reported multiple times in his journal of certain Iroquois who would insult them or call them “scoundrels”. At one point making one of Bogaert’s companions “so angry that tears ran down his eye.” At another point, an older chief put his hand on Bogaert’s heart in order to see if he was afraid of them or not. Because of the lack of details, we will never know the whole story behind these events. The incident with the chief points that maybe some of these were just the Dutchmen being tested by these hosts.
The Dutchmen would stay at this last town for about two weeks before they received word from Fort Orange inquiring about their status. With this revelation, it was time for the expedition to return home. They would revisit many of the towns they encountered on the expedition on their way back. They returned to Fort Orange on January 21, 1635.
Having explored a great deal of what would become New York, negotiating trade deals with the Iroquois, and providing much information on Iroquois culture, Harmen Meyndetz Van Der Bogaert became somewhat of a pillar in early New Netherland society. He would go on to marry and have multiple children, whose descendants litter the United States today. He would start up a homestead in Manhattan and become an investor in a privateer ship, La Garce. But his interesting story does not end here. While many people receive their fifteen minutes of fame, Bogaert would receive another fifteen, although whether it is fame or infamy is debatable.
In January of 1648, over a decade after his journey into Mohawk country, Bogaert was caught in the act of sodomy with a slave owned by the West India Company named Tobias. It is not known if the act was consensual. One letter by a New Netherland resident describes that Bogaert was caught with two slaves but this letter is the only telling of this version of the story and may just be gossip. Either way, it was deemed a serious offense and Bogaert was arrested. Director-General of the colony, Peter Styvesant, gave the order to hold Bogaert until spring when the Director-General could make his way up the river from New Amsterdam to give Bogaert a trial. Having different ideas about how this story should unfold, Bogaert escaped and fled back into Mohawk country. The council in Beverwijck (modern-day Albany) dispatched a man named Hans Vos to bring Bogaert back into custody. Bogaert would find himself hiding in the cabin of some Mohawk allies. Yet, it was here that Hans Vos would find him. After a long standoff, the cabin was lit on fire, probably by Bogaert as a distraction so he could make his escape. He made his escape and it proved to be a fatal one. While fleeing across a frozen river Bogaert slipped and fell into the river, disappearing under the ice. The unorthodox life of Harmen Meyndertsz Van Den Bogaert had come to a tragic and chilling end.
While this was the end of his life, this was not the end of Bogaert’s story. The Mohawks with whom Bogaert had sought refuge with would later go to court, seeking reparations for the loss of their home and property. They would win too, with Bogaert’s property being sold off to the highest bidder as compensation. The fate of the slave Tobias is unknown and Hans Vos, who was supposed to bring Bogaert back to jail, would be paid eight guilders for his efforts. As for the journal Bogaert kept, it would be lost to history years until being found in a private collection in the 19th century. Once found, the journal would become precious primary source of early Iroquois language, culture, and history.
While many stories of early America contain adventure, exploration, and unorthodoxy, Bogaert’s story stands out for he was one of the early pioneers who helped make the path later adventurers would take. It would be his dealings with the Iroquois that helped stop French incursion into New York and setting the stage for the colonial politics of the eighteenth century. To say Harmen Meyndertsz Van Den Bogaert lived an interesting life almost does him an injustice.