By Adriana H. Millenaar Brown
The members of Pownal’s Historical Society on Sunday September 13, gave a 1720 Dutch Dinner prepared by Frans van Schaik, de chef-kok, under a tent at the Held family landgoed (estate). A fabulous event! The idea was to make the forty-plus invitees aware of the fact that Williamstown’s northern neighbor was perhaps first settled by the Dutch, as early as 1720. The invitation read, “We are looking for sponsors who have an interest in Pownal’s history and for those who would like to help them.” The Pownal Historical Society is looking for volunteers to do research on how, when and why the Dutch settled in the Pownal area. They also want to create a Dutch Trail, trail guide and markers showing the Dutch settlers’ path to and through Pownal and connecting to Fort Massachusetts, a lightly defended 18th century outpost of the Massachusetts Bay Colony located on present-day Route 2 between North Adams and Williamstown.
A dozen or so of us were dressed in traditional Netherlandish costumes. I don’t know how many of us swiveled a whole, raw, silvery grey herring in chopped onions, tilted our heads back and pinched the tail of the fish slowly into our mouths to let this delight slither down our throats. I do know these fish had come straight out of the turbulent North Sea and I do know they had to be flown in, special delivery, to Pownal.
Two maps were displayed, one from the Library of Congress dated 1758 and one called the Bleeker Map of 1769, showing three forts and many early settlements located along the Hoosick River. In that tri-state complex (New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire) and later Vermont, lies the sprawling Pownal area. “The story of Pownal from the time of the first settlement until 1800 is one of continuous difficulties and excitement,” writes M. Sinclitico. “Difficulties” because, for instance, people of the time like George Krieger,Van Arnem, Sebastiaen Dael , and Petrus Vosburgh lived in such a “howling wilderness” in the early 1700s that it is hard to trace where they came from. Most likely they and their families trekked miles through the roughest terrain, avoiding raids by Indians, before they descended to the lush valley along the Hoosick River. At the time borders were hardly surveyed and many a dispute arose between the New Netherland government officials in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) and the Rensselaerswijck patrons, and even the New England governors from New Hampshire and Massachusetts (including Governor Thomas Pownall).
“Excitement” because the New World was opening up to Europeans in 1621 (when the Pilgrims and Puritans set foot on the East coast) and in 1623 (when the West India Company was established). These immigrants all soon claimed land or became tenant farmers, built hovels and barns along the Hoosick River and started cultivating crops while speaking a kind of “Dunglish” interspersed with some French and Indian phrases, and who knows what other idioms. Whatever the complexities of Pownal’s past history of boundary disputes and arguments about who settled first where, the present day Pownallians have come to rest peacefully and joyfully and co-existentially in one of North America’s most stunningly beautiful spots.
The Netherlandish dinner, so lovingly and professionally prepared by the most recent Dutch “settler”, de chef-kok, Frans, was a privilege never to be forgotten (hutspot met klapstuk en stroopwafels toe. Carrot mashed potato and onion dish served with braised beef and waffles with a syrup filling). The gracious hosts, co-directors of the Pownal Historical Society, Ken and Joyce Held, were experts in describing Pownal’s early days. A handful of buildings still stands, examples of Dutch architecture.
I think we all left contentedly with a herring or two in our stomachs and with stories, memories and new connections to broadcast to our neighbors with the hope that fundraising in the next five years will help Pownal celebrate its 300th birthday in 2020. [For more information on this project, contact Kenneth Held, Pownal Historical Society, at firstname.lastname@example.org ]