On 31 March 1817 the New York legislature decided that enslavement within its borders had to come to an end. Final emancipation would occur on 4 July 1827. Coincidentally, the date of choice was almost exactly two centuries after the Dutch West India Company’s yacht Bruynvisch arrived at Manhattan on 29 August 1627. The ship transported the first group of enslaved Africans to New Amsterdam and thus introduced the institution of enslavement into what is now New York State. Among the first arrivals was Mayken van Angola, whose life was the topic of an earlier blog in this series. One of the enslaved women emancipated two hundred years later was Isabella Van Wagenen, better known under the name she chose for herself: Sojourner Truth.
It is little known that Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883), one of the icons of America’s Black liberation movement, was a native speaker of Dutch. In her famous Narrative (1850), she identified herself as “the daughter of James and Betsey, slaves of one Colonel Ardinburgh, Hurley, Ulster County, New York,” who “belonged to that class of people called Low Dutch.” The latter refers to descendants of seventeenth-century inhabitants of New Netherland, who remained in America after the English takeover in 1664. Many of them held on to their Dutch identity for several generations. This was, in particular, the case in the New York Hudson Valley, where Peter Kalm, a Swedish traveler, observed in 1749 that almost all people “speak Dutch, have Dutch preachers, and divine service is performed in that language; their manners are likewise quite Dutch.”
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