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Unraveling the Mystery of the Brodhead Papers

April 14, 2017
Scorched Dutch letter

Letter from the Dutch ambassador to England to the Admiralty of Zeeland, October 19, 1662.

Ministry of Naval Affairs

The fire at the Ministry of Naval Affairs, January 8, 1844, credit: Rijksmuseum.

As public services and outreach archivist, Helene van Rossum’s responsibilities range from working the reference desk to writing for What Exit?, the Special Collections and University Archives New Jerseyana blog. But now she can add an additional line to her resume: rediscovering long-forgotten historical documents and helping to bring them home.

Van Rossum’s latest discovery in the archives came while sifting through the papers of John Romeyn Brodhead, who graduated from Rutgers College in 1831 and served as a trustee from 1853 until his death in 1873. Though trained as a lawyer, Brodhead is best remembered as the author of History of the State of New York (1853-1871), a seminal work in early American history for which he compiled a vast library of resources related to the colony of New Netherland.

In an inconspicuous folder among the Brodhead papers labeled simply “early Dutch documents,” van Rossum, who is a native speaker of Dutch, uncovered a curious collection of letters, badly charred at the edges and enclosed in an antiquated type of fibrous laminate. Because they were scrawled in an early 17th-century hand that she had not practiced reading since she was a student in Amsterdam, it was difficult for van Rossum to decipher exactly what the letters said. However, an element of one jumped immediately to her attention: the signature of famed Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter, who was recently memorialized on the silver screen in 2015’s Admiral.

But what exactly did the letters say? Whose were the other signatures? How did Brodhead acquire the papers, and—perhaps most intriguingly—how did they become so badly burned?

In her search for more information, van Rossum turned to the Dutch historian Jaap Jacobs, a specialist in 17th-century Dutch history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. While attending a conference of the New Netherland Institute at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Jacobs visited the archives at Rutgers to take a closer look.

“Jaap looked at the papers and was amazed,” said van Rossum. “He went through them and recognized the signatures immediately. Johan van Oldenbarnedveld, Johan and Cornelis de Witt, Maarten Tromp—this is major history. These are people that you learn about in elementary school in the Netherlands.”

In the subsequent weeks, Jacobs and van Rossum worked together to transcribe the contents of the letters. What emerged in the transcription was what Jacobs described as “a revealing glimpse into the day-to-day aspects of the navy and its operations during the Dutch Golden Age—a time when ships departed from the small, newly independent Dutch Republic and sailed all over the world.”

“Several of the letters in the Brodhead collection were communications between the Dutch Republic and its naval officers concerning such matters as blockades, supplies, rendezvous points, and officer appointments,” he explained. “And the names featured within are a veritable who’s who of Dutch naval officers, politicians, and noblemen.”

As for the burn marks, Jacobs determined that the documents were damaged in a fire at the Dutch Ministry of Naval Affairs during the winter of 1844, which erupted after a maid accidentally set the curtains aflame while lighting a candle. In a desperate effort to save them, papers were flung from the ministry’s windows into the snow on the street below—and many eventually found their way into the hands of collectors such as Brodhead, who at the time was visiting archives in Europe for his research on New York.

With the letters’ contents and provenance finally determined, van Rossum contacted Frans van Dijk, advisor for the Shared Cultural Heritage Program at the Dutch National Archives. Together, they devised a plan to add the letters from the Brodhead collection to the National Archives’ e-depot, where this fall they will be reunited virtually with the other documents that survived the fire at the ministry (though not without their own singe marks) nearly 175 years ago.

 “This fits in well with our goal to digitize archival materials relating to Dutch history in other countries and make them available online,” said van Dijk. “Rutgers University is our third partner in the United States and, over the next few years, archival materials in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Surinam will also be digitized.”

It is certainly remarkable that these documents, housed in two different institutions half a world apart, will soon be available on demand to students and scholars anywhere at any time. But what is ultimately most extraordinary to van Rossum is the sheer power they have to bring history to life.

“I see archivists as professional time travelers,” she said. “All these documents are like vehicles to the past—and I hope that historians will be able to find them and integrate them into their research.”