Friday, April 29, 2016

We Spoke Dutch

Welkom bij ons dorp!  Some elements of our village history need to be placed in sharp relief in order that we of modern generations can grasp the actual nature of our civic ancestors and the nature of our colorful old village.  One realization that would seem to be obvious, but may escape our understanding, is that in the Village of Second River, we spoke Dutch not English !  Even those with only a rudimentary knowledge of our town’s history know that we were a Dutch colony settled by pioneers moving in from Dutch New Amsterdam, but somehow we fail to connect the dots. We somehow fail to comprehend that in order to move about in our village, we had better be speaking Dutch.  Whether at church, at town meetings, at the market, in school or on the streets of the village while waving a friendly greeting to passing neighbors, Dutch, not English, was the language of the people. Since the two most prosperous colonies of the mid-Atlantic region, New York and New Jersey, were both Dutch in origin, the village elders saw no reason to change their speech as neither business, nor religion, nor friendly exchanges required the use of any other language.

The younger generation, many of whom had learned English as well, were pressing the elders to change the common language to English.  Since the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War when the colony was ceded to England, English was the language of the Proprietor's government and of the courts, but the elders would not hear of it.  The Rev. Geraudus Haughhort, the most powerful man of village colonial history, failed in every attempt to persuade the proud, stubborn Dutch to “get modern” and learn English. Haughhort, himself, prominent in both politics and religion, not only in the village, but throughout the mid-Atlantic region, was fluent in both languages.  His attempts to render Sunday sermons in English were soundly rejected by the elders. His argument that the colony was now English and was never likely to be Dutch again, fell on deaf ears.  In spite of Haughhort's best efforts, it would fall upon one of his successors to make English the "official" language of the village.

During the Revolutionary War, in which our village played an exalted role, although English could now be frequently heard, Dutch was still the predominent language throughout the community.  It would fall upon the strong-willed Rev. Peter Stryker to bring about the necessary change so that “Goedemorgen” would be replaced by “Good morning” on our village streets.

Rev. Peter Stryker was the spiritual leader of the community from October of 1794 until October of 1809. Among his many accomplishments during fifteen years in the community, Rev. Stryker was the first to conduct all activities only in the English language.  Gerardus Haughhort had tried in vain to change the common language of the village; Peter Stryker would succeed.  It was time for the village to speak English. Most of the younger generation already did.  The community was leading the way in the American Industrial Revolution; the old Dutch language needed to be phased-out.

Rev. Stryker accommodated the elders by offering private sermons and other rites of the church in Dutch  in their homes, however, English was now the only language you would hear in the old Dutch Church.  In 1797, at a meeting of the town council at which the Village of Second River became Belleville, all of the proceedings were in English.  This would have been a natural occurrence in any event since all official dealings with the Colonial Government, and later the State Government, had to be in English, but it must be said that our civic ancestors did not give up their beloved Dutch language without a stubborn fight, such that is was not until the first days of the 19th Century that the Dutch language disappeard from our village streets, only to be heard among the very oldest village citizens.

Perhaps we moderns, just for fun and old-times-sake, might greet a neighbor in passing on Washington Avenue with a cheery, “Goedemorgen” to which he might reply, “En hetzelfde voor jou”.