Dutch Bibles and Beaver Hats in 18th century NY Wills

From the takeover of New Netherland in 1664, through to the 1820s, New York collected inventories of the material possessions of the deceased. The records, now available for free on Ancestry.com, (search for “Estate Inventories and Accounts, 16661-822”) are far from complete, but might be useful to historians and genealogists. I’ve been using them, for example, to compile slave prices, particularly the prices of slaves held by the Dutch.  I will be writing about this a lot more down the line.

But for the moment, let me draw your attention to some of the personal goods of the colonial Dutch as listed in wills from New York. Most wills list farming implements, household furniture, wagons, etc., and these don’t easily distinguish the Dutch from their English neighbors. But Dutch books (particularly Dutch bibles) and beaver hats are distinguishing items, a kind of material legacy of the 17th century passed down for generations.


1 old beaver “hatt”


One old Dutch bible. If the bible was already “old” in the 18th century, one wonders how old it must be today.


Here, there is one “ould duch bijble” alongside 12 bags of money. Perhaps there is a sermon here.


In fact, in an era before mass banking, it was common for people to hold large amount of cash at home. Here, one Johannis Staats, recently deceased, has 100 pounds, 7 shillings of cash found in his house.


Some Dutch books are not described in detail.

Some 17th and a few 18th century New York wills are written in Dutch, but more so are written in English by a “Dutch hand.”  This is clear both in the style of writing and in the spelling of certain words. For example, this signature of “Chrisstoeffel Tappen” from 1731 in which he signs as the “justice of the peace’.  Here, the “j” of “Justice” is a Dutch “y” and the word “the” is spelled using the old symbol that we sometimes mistake for “ye.”


Justice of the Peace, 1731



This is written in English, but by a Dutch hand. It gives a good example of what translators are up against. The third line reads “for about twenty one ackers of ry [rye] land…”

 There is plenty of opportunity here for historians, particularly historians of the NY Dutch to dig further. Certain farming implements, called “Dutch plows” or ‘English plows” for example, might lead us to a better understanding of Dutch agricultural practices. Lists, prices, and descriptions of household items, tools in the barn, kinds of animals and building implements might not be immediately useful if we are not trained to understand their purpose or use. But historians with the proper material culture training should be able to extract some meaning about what the Dutch owned, what was dear to them, how they use it, etc.

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