50 Years JFK Assassination


Barbara Kellerman
22 November 2013

The nation is awash right now in tributes marking the 50th anniversary of the death of John Kennedy. Some are focused on the man himself, others on his presidency, and still others on his assassination. The half century mark marks a moment to dream of the man who would be king, to reassess his short time in the White House, and to revisit yet again the murder of our leader.

In my mind’s eye two things stand out. The first is his sense of style – John Kennedy’s style. He was that handsome, that charming, that rich, that witty, that clever, that famously framed by so fabulous a family.

John F. Kennedy At Hyannis, 1959. © 2000 Mark ShawThe second is a sense of closure – John Kennedy’s ending forever an imagined ideal. The ideal of a great leader taking the United States of America to heights greater than those scaled by any other nation in the history of the world. Even Ronald Reagan, in these two ways Kennedy’s only conceivable successor, does not qualify. His presidency came too late. By then, by the 1980s, the American people already were jaded.

What’s astonishing is Kennedy’s hold even now. Even 50 years later we remain mesmerized by the man, so much so that the year 1963 is remembered for nothing so much as his death.

But if we step back, shed our fixation on this single individual, there is this: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.  Both came out in, yes, 1963. Two of the greatest American documents ever were born in the year that Kennedy died. King’s Letter is one of the seminal pieces of the leadership literature, and Friedan’s book is acknowledged the “bible” of the 20th century women’s movement.


So in commemorating 1963 we might commemorate not only the death of a president, but this in addition:

Martin Luther King, from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed….For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “’Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied…

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban woman struggled with it alone. As she…lay besides her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’”

– Betty Friedan, from The Feminine Mystique



Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

This blog is also posted on Barbara Kellerman´s own site: www.barbarakellerman.com.


The Kennedy Brand 

Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal
20 November, 2013

Thirteen years after, I was born, in 1976. The myth was then already debunked, and thus the Kennedy saga unfolded to me in a different order than to the generation of my parents: not the dream first and then the wake-up call, but vice versa. The Kennedy I got to know was a wandering opportunist who once, long ago, had enchanted America. It is likely that JFK would have been remembered as a disastrous president if those terrible events at Dealey Plaza had not happened.

Or not?

I saw the first real outline of JFK, the person, the character, after readingThe Dark Side of Camelot, the controversial book by Seymour Hersh that was published in 1997. Hersh filled in the blanks in the already known dark side of Camelot: how father Kennedy bought election victory in 1960 for his son, how Kennedy himself prolonged the war in Vietnam out of pure political opportunism. Writing about a concealed marriage and a host of venereal diseases: Hersh burned the Kennedy court down to the fundamentals.

SHSeymour Hersh was – in a slightly different scale – a legend himself. I wanted to become such a good journalist as well, and I wanted to believe him. In my mind, JFK behaved almost the same as Nixon. JFK’s youngest brother Edward Kennedy criticized the book as malicious slander. Hersh had no evidence for all his claims indeed, but the core of the book was solid.

Ten years later I went to live in Washington. Obama was about to be elected. The Kennedy brand proved to be like Teflon: the Kennedy brand had survived all the scandals. During a joint election rally at the American University in Washington, Edward Kennedy passed the torch to Obama. The eloquence, the youth, ideals: Obama deserved an official stamp of approval from America’s only royal family. Also on stage was Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter. Recently she was named ambassador to Tokyo by Obama. She doesn’t have any special rhetorical gifts and this received frowned eyebrows here and there. But Caroline’s a Kennedy – the brand reaches deep into Asia.

TKKennedy’s youngest brother died in the summer of 2009. My sister was visiting me at that time. Together we stopped at his office in the Russell Building, right behind the Capitol. A mini pilgrimage through the stately halls of Congress. We stopped at room SR -317: Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts. Inside we signed a condolence register. Weeks later there we received a beautiful envelope in the mail, including a full-color photograph of Edward Kennedy at his very best. “Thanks for your compassion – The Kennedy Family.”

That same summer I sailed on a boat along the coast of Rhode Island. ‘That’s where John and Jackie were married,’ said the skipper, pointing to a villa by the water, and we took pictures. Later that year I went to visit Dealey Plaza for the first time.


The images from Dallas still make a deep impression. Meanwhile – as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy – the man who took over the torch is losing prestige every day. Even though Obama is – again, like Kennedy – sometimes obsessively concerned with his appearance: his place in history must be secured. It’s, now in the fifth year of his presidency, a burden on his shoulders.

Kennedy’s death was terrible, but the brand was saved by it.


The Fall

James Kennedy
20 November 2013

I was born on the last summer day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, at least as Americans might count it.  I was born on Labor Day Monday 1963, a holiday that marks the end of summer with family get-togethers.  That’s how the other Kennedys – no relations of mine – spent their own Labor Day weekend, at their traditional home away in Hyannis Port.  The photos taken of that weekend all add to the poignancy of the family tragedy; a scant twelve weeks later JFK would be shot and killed.

kennedy hyannis

I obviously have no personal recollection of Kennedy myself.  But I’ve often imagined myself having been born in another, better time than the one I actually came to experience.  Those last summer days of 1963 were days before the Fall – in which a political assassination led to all kinds of ugliness: a brutal war in Vietnam, increased racial tensions across the United States and new levels of political recrimination and public cynicism.  For Europeans just as for many Americans, a hope for a new and better era had been dashed suddenly at Dallas.  His death brought, as it has been said countless times, a Loss of Innocence.


That vision of history has never lost its on grip on me, because it’s a powerful one: it fits the narratives of both romance and tragedy that we’d like to believe in.  And for Americans, it’s tempting to think that a “what if JFK had lived” counterfactual history would have been a lot better than the 1960s which we actually got which, in comparison to situation here, was pretty painful.  But I doubt very much that it would have been much different if JFK had been around to preside over it all.  To be sure, JFK might have prevented a massive expansion of American intervention in Vietnam, but Kennedy’s record is ambiguous enough to suggest he may well have taken up a policy similar to Johnson. In any event, in a decade of rising expectations – expectations which Kennedy himself did much to elevate – disillusion and discontent was bound to hit the Kennedy administration at some point soon.  Race riots and burnt black churches in Mississippi were less than a year away, not to mention signs of a culture war over prayer in public school and protected free speech.  Kennedy could not have stopped the Fall from coming, and we should not continue to suppose that he could have stopped it.

A Legacy through Television

Ruth Oldenziel
19 November 2013

The image of JFK’s shooting is like a hall of mirrors. You can’t trust anything you see through the layers of mythmaking about the man, his presidency, his assassination. True, much of his legacy has been revised by historians (on Cuba, Vietnam, civil rights), but one piece of it remains largely undisputed. From the election debates with Nixon to his violent death, moving images came to define what his legacy means.

jfk debat I confess the more you read about him, the less you understand: the man is so mediated frame-by-frame-by-frame. We now know that Kennedy’s youthful charm and Jackie’s dazzling beauty as televised did not show us the constant pain he was in physically or the predatory behavior the president exercised on a string of young women (to satisfy his sexual appetite or numb the pain?). To grasp the zeitgeist – or JFK’s psychology for that matter – we might turn to other moving images. The character of Don Draper in the TV drama series Mad Men, for example, brilliantly feels the pulse of the era: the over-the-top sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism mixed in with the excessive drinking and smoking.

draperIn an episode vacillating appropriately between history and fiction, I have had my own personal TV moment with JFK. Etched in my mind is one afternoon when in 1967 a man came to install the family’s first black-and-white TV in our Amsterdam apartment. We were latecomers to the world of consumption. When the man turned on the TV to align and fine-tune the antenna on top of the set with the aerial mast on the roof, the moving images that sprang to life – in black-and-white, flickering, and grainy – were the Abraham Zapruder shots of when Jackie pulled in special agent Clint Hill and the motorcade sped away. I know every detail of the half-lit bedroom I walked into that afternoon to see the new gadget: the light, the angle, the static noise. As an historian, I also know people create false memories about the past. Come to think of it: he was not even my president. Yet, that’s what I remember. And so it goes: my first TV moment belongs to the haze of mythmaking that is the JFK assassination.

Ruth Oldenziel is professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. She has been a research fellow at Hagley Museum and Library, DE; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the Lemelson Center in Washington, D.C. and Georgetown University. Since July 2012 she is also the chair of the board of the John Adams Institute.


JFK’s Pool

Twan Huys
18 November 2013

Each correspondent in WashingtonDC is surprised by the weird little space that passes for the Briefing Room, the press room at the White House. Here, the President or his spokesman is questioned about wars, revolutions, legislative issues or sexual escapes with trainees. Few people know that this claustrophobic space served an entirely different purpose forty years ago. White House correspondents fromABC, CBS, the Washington Post and the New York Times are now standing on what was once the pool of the White House. Here, according to his adviser and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., President Jack Kennedy swam many laps to take a break from his busy schedule.

pool (1) But that image of Kennedy is not correct. According to investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, the pool at the White House was primarily used by Jack Kennedy for meetings with his mistresses. In his bookThe Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh describes the many sexual adventures Kennedy arranged in his pool. Source for all these stories are the personal experiences of four agents of the Secret Service who had to oversee the safety of Kennedy. They felt powerless when it came to the endless pursuit of women by the president. The women could not be screened, and so the president took the risk that he would be a victim of espionage, extortion or even a murder. ‘Reckless,’ the agents of the Secret Service called Kennedy’s behavior in his insatiable desire for sex. Curiously, all his escapades during his presidency were kept a secret. Kennedy had surrounded himself with extremely loyal friends and advisers. Even journalists such as Ben Bradlee, the later editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate affair, knew of these affairs but never published about it. Everyone was under the spell of this charming and charismatic man. They didn’t realize that Kennedy put himself, his presidency and his country in an extremely vulnerable position. At the height of the cold war, during the Cuban crisis, there is even talk of an affair with an East German spy, Ellen Rometsch. Never confirmed, but according to journalist Hersh this was a dangerous liaison that could have destroyed his presidency even before November 22, 1963.

Kennedy’s successor Johnson would still swim a few laps in the pool, but his successor Richard Nixon made an end to this. This place of Sodomand Gomorrahwas immediately given a new purpose and was now only suitable for that one profession that Nixon hated: the press.

During my first visit as a correspondent in the Briefing Room at the White House, I searched for traces. There’s nothing to see anymore, but a few inches below the floor there is still that legendary pool, Kennedy’s favorite hang out in the White House.

The Day the Sixties Started

Frans Verhagen
17 November 2013

I used to think of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as a major turning point. The speech, this young man with no overcoat, his clear voice and his inspiring rhetoric, the glamor of Jackie: it had all the appearance of a new era. That is how it probably felt in 1961. I was too young to fully realize it, but where I grew up, in the Catholic south of the Netherlands, Kennedy made us proud. One of us, a Catholic, had become the most powerful man in the world. Paradise could no be far away.

Ever since things have not gone particularly well for Catholicism and neither did they for the historical memory of John F. Kennedy. And now, fifty years later, I know that the tipping point was the assassination, not the inauguration. Kennedy as a rich kid, the son of an ambitious and rather unscrupulous father: that is a story of the postwar period. Sure, Kennedy represented the ideal image of model of a young, dynamic America. He was the symbol of the American Century, tanned, intelligent and above all very young, but he also was very much “of that time”. I now see him as very fifties, as much if not more as his equally young, but much older looking opponent Richard Nixon.

B._Johnson jackieWhat I know now is that the sixties took off that November 22, 1963. With those pieces of skull scattering in the shocking Zapruder film, the American myth exploded. In one blast America lost its innocence, or what was left of it, at least in the public mind. Of course, presidents had been assassinated before but they were never the most powerful men in the world. At best they were the most powerful Americans. The United States was not all that important back then. This time the assassination was an attack on the Western world, barely one year after the most frightening cold war crisis so far. That is how it felt for Vice President Lyndon Johnson as well, which explains his to some unseemly hurry to be sworn in as President.

That famous photograph of Johnson with a blood spattered Jackie next to him, in that claustrophobic airplane: it is a razor sharp image framing that particular moment. We now know that Jackie was wearing a light salmon-colored suit, but then and there we were still living in a black and white world. All pictures, all movies, all our opinions were still in black and white. So was my world as that Catholic nine year old. In many ways it was the picture of an ending, or, as I like to think now, of a beginning.

Because that day, around one o’clock, as the doctors in the Dallas hospital pronounced John F. Kennedy dead, the sixties started. The world turned upside down. Revolt, chaos, violence, Vietnam and more killings became the standard. And liberation became all the rage. We are still enjoying the gains and suffering the losses of that truncated decade. JFK did not belong to it.

That’s what I will be thinking of, on 22 November, the day blood was spilled and the the modern world was born.

Frans Verhagen ‘s publicist and editor of meiguo.nl. His most recent book was “Lincoln – A brilliant politician” (Historisch Nieuwsblad).

Is Obama the JFK of our time?

Bertine Moenaff
16 November 2013

I was born twenty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so I can’t really tell what impact the death of this iconic American President had on me personally. But an icon he was. Listening to Dutch people remembering JFK in Coen Verbraak’s documentary ‘De Dag dat Kennedy werd vermoord’ (The Day Kennedy was killed) I was reminded once again that also in the Netherlands people looked at this man as nothing less than a saint. ‘Savior of the world’, is how former TV host Koos Postema (81) recalls thinking of JFK. Even though he was living in a country at the other side of the Atlantic, as a young man he actually wished Kennedy could have been the president of the Netherlands. Former Dutch politicians across the spectrum from left wing to right wing all had very fond memories of this American president who became a historical figure and a symbol of the hopes they had in their own youth.


The closest I ever came to Kennedy, except for visiting his grave in Arlington, was his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston when I was there for a holiday this past September. There was a special exhibit titled ‘To the Brink’ telling the story of how the world was on the eve of destruction during the Cuban missile crisis. Centrepiece of the exhibit was a series of secret White House recordings of President Kennedy discussing the standoff with Khrushchev, talking to his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Against their advice, Kennedy refused to bomb Cuba. Also on display: the speech he would have given in case he would bomb Cuba. Impressive items, and I couldn’t help but think of Barack Obama who was contemplating military action in Syria and dominating the headlines when I was vacationing in Boston.

Different times, different men, but the comparison between JFK and Obama is easy to make. Both were once viewed as saviors. Young, charismatic men with lofty ideals that promised hope and change for America, and the rest of the world. Was JFK the Obama of the sixties, or Obama the JFK of our time now? Evaluations of both presidents now are no where near what they used to be. Of course we don’t believe in political saints, and they all have to fail at some point. But if there ever was a ‘savior of the world’ maybe John F. Kennedy could be called one, at least in those near fatal days in 1962.

Bertine Moenaff is a journalist for Radio 1, covered US politics for various media during the 2012 elections and was a Lantos/HIA Fellow in the US Congress in 2010.

The Memory of a Little Boy

Russell Shorto
15 November 2013
I “remember” very well where I was when JFK was assassinated. The quotation marks, of course, mean that I have no idea whether it is in fact a memory or an image that my mind created after the fact. I was with my mother shopping in the local department store in Pennsylvania. cronkite
We had just walked into the store (or were we on the way out?), and were standing in the vestibule when an announcement came over the store’s speakers. I was four years old; the announcement was meaningless jabber to me. But my mother and all the other shoppers stopped, gasped, were looking around as if for explanation or something to hold onto. Alarmingly, some of them burst out crying. And the little touch that provides an almost too-perfect metaphor: I was holding a helium balloon, which, in my confusion, I let go of. It floated up toward the distant ceiling. And then I too gasped in sadness, having lost something precious.
Russell Shorto writes books of narrative history. His book “Amsterdam: a History of the World’s Most Liberal City”  has just been published. He is also a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and was director of the John Adams Institute from 2008 to 2013.
A Comparison with Leaders in the 21st Century
Marc Chavannes
14 November 2013

It was in the days before the cellphone. Somehow the news percolated into our science class at high school. President Kennedy had been fatally shot. We were pretty well versed in the ballistics of William Tell’s experiment with the apple, but this morning doom descended – with no other than a vertical path.Foreign leaders don’t mean much to school kids, but on that morning I realized JFK was different. With Jackie, Caroline and John-John the American near-royal family was alive in my perception of the world. The JFK mystique, lovingly dubbed Camelot, was a source of inspiration I turned out to share with millions around the globe.Profiles in courage, the 1955 clarion call to Americans of all denominations and backgrounds, was one of the first non-fiction pocketbooks I possessed. The cover with that Mount Rushmore like portrait of the young Massachusetts senator appealed to my interest in noble leadership – often to be flattened by realities unforeseen.The comparison with Barack Obama is hard to resist. Kennedy did not live to truly disappoint his voters. Had he met the days of Fox and the Tea Party his dalliances with ladies of diverse reputation would have made JFK a permanent and lasting punching bag, relegating Bill Clinton to the junior league. Obama so far remains pretty rumor free in this field.On the war front the current president would certainly best John Kennedy, had he escaped his attacker(s) on November 22, 1963. The Vietnam quagmire is on a disaster par with the Iraq War initiated by George W. Bush. The Kennedy administration sucked the US into the Vietnam War, whereas Obama painfully disentangled his country from the unwise adventure his predecessor left.Yet, JFK died sufficiently early to be spared the massive disappointment Obama has to live through in his second term. Both initially offered hope and the notion of rational governance, with a tinge of national and bipartisan generosity. How unbearable we will never know whether Kennedy would have had a defter hand in navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Congressional politics. Maybe not, given Johnson’s contrasting knack at it.One of JFK’s most loyal servants definitely beats his mental successors. Robert McNamara, the steely intellectual and technocrat who led America into the Vietnam War died at 93 only four years ago, having comtemplated and admitted his mistakes in The Fog of War and other documentary evidence. If anything that was a profile in courage, a sign of analytical wisdom Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney still have to begin developing.McNamara did Camelot’s after sales service. A tribute to JFK’s possible greatness.

Marc Chavannes is journalist, columnist and former correspondent in Washington D.C. for NRC Handelsblad.


jfk (1)As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination nears, the John Adams Institute published a daily blog on its website commemorating this historical event. Several authors, who all have a U.S. connection, will contribute a story about the impact this event had on their lives. The blog ran from 14 November until 22 November, 2013, the day of the assassination 50 years ago.
 Contributors to the blog were Russell Shorto, Barbara Kellerman, Twan Huys, Frans Verhagen, Bertine Moenaff, Ruth Oldenziel, James Kennedy and Marc Chavannes.

New Amsterdam Stories: Part Three



New Amsterdam Stories’ is a project and weblog. Guided by scholars from the New Netherlands Institute (Albany, NY),  it makes original documents found in both the New York Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam (the Amsterdam City Archives) available to the general public for the first time. It highlights the individual stories of the people of New Amsterdam, by combining information that has been found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

For this final installment of a three part blog series, The John Adams Institute talked with Ellen Fleurbaay, head of Presentation and Participation at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, to hear about the Amsterdam side of this project. You can read the first part here, and the second part here.

By Veronica Baas

New Amsterdam Stories is a project carried out by three different partners: the New York City Municipal Archives, the New Netherland Institute and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.  It came about when Jan Kennis, cultural attaché at the Dutch consulate in New York, realised that both the New York Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief were unlocking their archives, and recording what is inside the documents they have filed away. Nowadays, this also means that the contents of these documents are digitized. The Stadsarchief has a variety of archives, from personal ones bestowed to the Stadsarchief to civil registration. One of these archives is particularly interesting to the New Amsterdam Stories: the Notarial Archives, which the Stadsarchief is currently unlocking.  People would go to a notary to sell their house or to make a will: anything that needs official approval. Because these documents have always been legally binding, almost all of them have been saved. This means that the amount of documents we are talking about is huge. The exact number is not yet known as they have yet to be unlocked, but our estimation is that the Notarial Archives contain at least 20 million notarial deeds.

This project is challenging not just because of its sheer size, but also because of the difficulty of researching these archives. The problem is that all the deeds have been stored away in chronological order. There is no system based on the content of the documents, so a sales contract can be stored away next to a will. For centuries, notaries were filing away their records on a day-to-day basis, unfortunately without keeping in mind future archivists.

In the 1950s and 1960s, archivists were put to the task and made an effort to structure the documents. Groups of up to thirty archivists have worked on this for almost three decades. Even after all those years, they still had done only seven percent of the archives. This means that as of now, 93% of the contents of the Notarial Records is still unknown. The good news for the New Amsterdam Stories is, however, that there has always been a strong focus on New Amsterdam. As the archivists were trying to order the documents they were going through, they had to make choices in their categorization. New Netherland has always been labelled, and now 6,000 documents are known to be related to the settlement. That is a lot for only seven percent, and it shows how keen the archivists have always been on the topic.

In the process of making a Story, the archivists of the New York Municipal Archives pick which individual they want to focus on, in consultation with Dennis Maika, the guiding historian from the New Netherland Institute. They will then send all the details they have to the Stadsarchief, such as the name – or names – of people closely associated with them, dates of birth, dates of arrival in America, dates of death. At the Stadsarchief, the old card system will be used to go through those seven percent of known documents, hoping to find a match.

Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Stadsarchief Amsterdam

In the meantime, the Stadsarchief continues to unlock the rest of those 97% of Notarial Archives. Luckily, the process goes much faster now due to digitization, which has so many advantages: it becomes much easier to research the documents, and in turn people can access these documents online. But before the records are presented to the general public, we ask those very same people to support the project: the majority of the funding is expected to come from crowdsourcing.

For the first step, professionals are definitely needed. The Stadsarchief hires a scanning company that can scan up to 3,000 documents a day. Together with experts from the Stadsarchief, they know how to handle these very old documents. After the documents are scanned, they are uploaded on a platform. This platform, attached to the website velehanden.nl, is an independent platform developed by the Stadsarchief a couple of years ago. The Stadsarchief does not have the capacity to host such a platform, and furthermore, many other archives in the Netherlands can now make use of it. So, after the documents have been uploaded on this platform, they are handled by a group consisting mainly of volunteers, who are the main engine of the project. As of now, 15.000 records have been indexed.

The volunteers often wonder if they deliver sufficient quality work, and the answer is that they actually do. Some of these volunteers are unbelievably dedicated. Once, on a different project, the Stadsarchief was identifying photographs from the 19th century. A volunteer cycled around the Amsterdam canals for weeks until he could locate a detail on a staircase. Even the most dedicated professional would seldom go to such lengths to acquire information.

nasssOnce the documents have been uploaded, the volunteers sort them by topic and type them out. With birth and death registrars, there are two volunteers who type out the same names, as 16th and 17th century handwriting can be tricky. Then, a computer compares the results and, if any differences are found, a professional will take a look at it. Since this project encompasses some 20 million documents, the project is happy with all the manpower it can get.  Not all the volunteers who sign up actually are up to the task: of the few hundred people who participate in a project, about twenty percent gets the job done. This is a dedicated core group who make sure that the quality of the end result is at least as high as it would be if professionals had done the job. All the documents that are typed out and sorted become accessible online. On the website of the Stadsarchief, popular topics have their own heading. New Amsterdam is definitely one of these topics, so all newly-digitized documents can be viewed there (in Dutch). Of course, these documents can also provide content for the New Amsterdam Stories.

These Stories will paint a more complete picture of New Amsterdam. The aim is to make the archives accessible for people who would otherwise not so easily delve into it. The Stories will be successful if they help people, for example by getting them to enjoy history. This is the case for archives in general: there are many people for whom archives can play a vital role in their lives, ranging from those who are able to identify their parents, or who can trace their lineage much further into history, as is evident for those with ancestors from New Amsterdam. Archives tend to have a stuffy image, but actually they are simply about information and people’s life stories: about making information available to the public. The entire Internet is about information, and the Stadsarchief has millions of documents full of information. Think of all the stories it contains! I truly believe that archives are one of the most interesting branches of the cultural sector.

Read the first part here, and the second part here


New Amsterdam Stories: Part Two




New Amsterdam Stories’ is a project and weblog. Guided by scholars from the New Netherlands Institute (Albany, NY),  it makes original documents found in both the New York Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam (the Amsterdam City Archives) available to the general public for the first time. It highlights the individual stories of the people of New Amsterdam, by combining information that has been found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

For this second installment of a three part blog series, The John Adams Institute talked with Dennis J. Maika, Senior Historian with the New Netherland Institute, who is one of the scholars who guides the project.

By Veronica Baas

New Amsterdam Stories’ is a collaboration between the New Netherland Institute, the New York City Municipal Archives and the City Archives of Amsterdam. Records from these archives are disclosed on the website, telling stories about individuals that dwelled in New Amsterdam. In those early days the ties with the colonists’ homeland, the Dutch Republic, were still very strong. This means that documents about single individuals are often found in both archives. The project tries to tell a (more) complete story by combining information from both archives in one place.

The project tries to reconstruct the lives of individuals in New Amsterdam by showing snapshots of their lives. While the story of someone’s life can never be completely traced through an archive, putting the pieces of the puzzle together might give us a glimpse into that life. For the first phase of the project, all three institutions decided to focus on residents whose records were definitely available in both archives. After selecting the individuals, the archives dug up the relevant records about these early city dwellers. This process was guided by dr. Maika, who works as a historian for the New Netherland Institute, a non-governmental organization that ‘aims to cast light on America’s Dutch roots’. This project is one of the efforts to reach that goal, and also attempts to answer the question that preoccupies all archives: how can we offer this information to the general public?

Public participation and engagement has changed over the last few years, as the wind of digitization is blowing even through stuffy archives all over the world:  the New York City Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are both digitizing. Thanks to this process, documents that had been put away somewhere in the endless rows of filing cabinets are now just one click away.

Surragate' Court, where NYCMA's records are held

The New York records are held in Surrogate’s Court

The archives want to share this information with the world, and the New Amsterdam Stories are an answer to this huge task. Archive visitors need to be guided in order to wade through the wealth of information available. At the start of this project, it was clear that putting individuals in the spotlight would be the key to achieve this. Individuals are an easy entrance for the public, but they are also an easy entrance for the archivists. Individuals can be traced. They show up in court records; they leave records with their notary.

The Amsterdam notaries, held at the Stadsarchief, are the core of this project. Before there were lawyers, people needed notaries to draw up any record that they would want to hold up in court, such as wills, marriages, sales contracts, business contracts, indentured servitude contracts, debt obligations. All these records have been kept by these notaries, and ended up in the archives. The collection is incredibly rich and representative of that time, because almost everybody used a notary (you did not have to have a lot of money to still want to take good care of your business and life affairs). In combination with the New Amsterdam court records, which are held at the New York City Municipal Archives, so much can be discovered about the early residents. These records are truly a treasure trove, filled with known and unknown stories.

One of the most well-known individuals of New Amsterdam was Petrus Stuyvesant. Of course, a Story had to be written about him, but it should not be the obvious story of him as the last director-general of New Netherland, or about how he lost his leg: this project should tell the story that is in the records. The records contained his will – not his final will, but one that he had drawn up when he was only 29 years old. He was about to leave for the Caribbean, where he would serve the Dutch West India Company. He bequeathed all his belongings to his sisters Anna and Margriete, and in case they would die, to their children. While this might not appear as the most exiting story, it does tell something about him as one reads between the lines. It tells us that he might have been afraid to die; he was most definitely aware of the dangers involved in a voyage across the ocean. In those days, many did not return from these long missions, but not everybody was ready to face that. Petrus Stuyvesant was. The will is not especially interesting because of its contents, but because he made it when he did: at such a young age, and about to travel across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, not everybody in the Stories is as famous as Stuyvesant. For this first phase, the project tried to select a limited cross-section of the population. This is why the Story of Anna and Wolfert Webber is included. Although they are not famous historical figures, they are still of historical significance. They represent typical settlers, whose lives are little known, yet nonetheless important to the city. They seemed to be average people living an average life. However, records with information about the couple can, and were found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The earlier records are located in Amsterdam, like their Prenuptial Agreement, and their Notice of Marriage, in 1630. There is also their Authorization to leave for New Netherland, which they received in 1649, so quite a few years after their wedding. Then, in the New York City Municipal Archives, there is a record of a court case on August 9, 1655. Anna is testifying in court against Jan Willmsen Iselsteyn van Leyden, claiming that he called her a whore and beat her with his gun and a crowbar. A year later, Anna had to appear in court again, because there was a dispute over two bibles. She states they are hers, because they were given to her daughter by Indians who captured her in the 1655 ‘Peach War’. The daughter had carried them throughout her captivity, which lasted for several months. The original owner stated that the Indians had no right to give them away, because they had stolen the bibles from her when she had just arrived in Manhattan; now she wanted them back from Anna. The court’s decision is revealed in these records. Together these two archives bring Anna and Wolfert Webber alive: living a life on two continents.

Genealogy is very important to many people, and this is one of the reasons individuals are such a good entrance point into archives. So many people are interested in their heritage, but the threshold is high. By digitizing the records, it becomes possible to search them, but it is still difficult. As of now, the project does not allow individuals to search for family records yet- but it is definitely a long-term goal.

One of the reasons it is so difficult to access the records is that you have to read Seventeenth Century calligraphy, written in Seventeenth Century Dutch. After the digitization, the document is typed out, but even then it requires skill to fully comprehend it. In a later phase, full transcriptions of the original documents will be provided, as well as complete translations into English. But for now, the format of the Stories should make these documents more accessible. A summary of a document’s content is provided, so visitors can look at the document and understand it, even if they cannot literally read it.


A map of New Amsterdam, where its wall can be seen.

The Stories can open up history for a bigger audience, and their potential should be maximized. Potentially, this project will also expand beyond focusing on individuals. For example, telling the stories of major events that happened in New Amsterdam, such as the wall that was built to shield the settlement. This wall was built on what would be called Wall Street – which is obviously still there.

Hopefully, these Stories are only the beginning of a larger and long-term project. However, there is always the question of funding.  During the first phase, three organizations have funded the project: Amsterdam-based Dutch Culture, which gets its funding from the Dutch government, the National Archives in The Hague, and Dutch Culture USA, which is basically the Dutch Consulate in New York. The Dutch Consulate, and in particular cultural attaché Jan Kennis, was instrumental in this project. Mr. Kennis was familiar with the New Netherland Institute, and when he heard that both the Stadsarchief Amsterdam and the New York City Municipal Archives were digitizing their archives, he immediately saw the potential. It took about two years, but now the Stories are actually published on the website. Partial funding for the second phase has just been received from Dutch Culture USA, but funding for the long-term future needs to be secured.

It would be great if this collaboration continued. This compelling project demonstrates the importance and significance of a shared cultural history between the Netherlands and New York. Or New Amsterdam, as it was called then. And if there is one thing that this project teaches us, it is that it is full of stories.

The next installment of this blog series will be published on December 19. You can read the first part, written by Russell Shorto here

New Amsterdam Stories: Russell Shorto




New Amsterdam Stories’ is a project and weblog. Guided by scholars from the New Netherlands Institute (Albany, NY),  it makes original documents found in both the New York Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam (the Amsterdam City Archives) available to the general public for the first time. It highlights the individual stories of the people of New Amsterdam, by combining information that has been found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

In this first installment of a three part blog series, Russell Shorto writes about his experience with the New Netherland archives.

Since the Dutch founded one of the original European colonies in America, and since its capital was none other than a little island called Manhattan, it might be reasonable to suppose that Americans would be brought up with the idea that “Dutch” is as much a part of their heritage as “Pilgrim.” But of course that isn’t true. People may have some inkling that the Dutch once fiddled around in New York. They might even know that it was originally called New Amsterdam. But they tend not to put the Netherlands alongside Britain as one of America’s cultural forebears.

One reason for that is contained in the truism that history is written by the winners. An English invasion force took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1664. The English and the Dutch were at the time bitter rivals. The English, not to put too fine a point on it, hated everything Dutch. All the derogatory sayings in the English language involving the word Dutch-Dutch treat, Dutch courage, double Dutch–date to this period. One of my favorites of the many anti-Dutch pamphlets published in England in the seventeenth century has this for a title: The Dutch-mens Pedigree, Or, A Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box.

islandSo the English, once they took over Manhattan Island, weren’t about to give the Dutch credit for anything they had done there before. Nevertheless, they did take possession of the thousands of pages of official records of New Netherland, and they kept them. All conquerors do this, because it allows for continuity. Still, those records had a fitful existence. In 1685, after King James ordered a reorganization of the American colonies, the volumes were tossed onto a stagecoach bound for Boston; three years later they made the same rough trip back to New York when the new monarchs, William and Mary, reversed the ruling. Some volumes were lost on these journeys. In 1741, the fort where the records were housed was torched in what was held to be a slave conspiracy. The gatehouse burned, but the records were saved by a diligent secretary tossing them out the window. It was a blustery day, and many pages blew away, but the bulk of the records remained intact.

During the American Revolution the records spent a good deal of time on a ship in New York Harbor. Mold set in. Then they were shipped to England and spent the last portion of the war in the Tower of London. When they were returned, the secretary of New York State reported that they were “much mill-dewed and greatly injured.” But he tried to stop the damage, using state-of-the-art methods: he directed, he said, “my best endeavors to preserve them, having frequently exposed them to the sun and air, and several times had them brushed through every leaf.”

Then in 1818 the state decided that it ought to have a full English translation.  The man selected for this work—Francis Adrian van der Kemp, an elderly Dutch minister and former soldier who had emigrated to New York—translated all 12,000 pages, within four years, and despite the fact that he was going blind, and that his English was not very good. The result was a translation that was in a sense worse than worthless, for it was riddled with errors and yet it became the standard way for historians to learn about the colony. Eventually, mercifully, this translation itself burned up in a fire.

Then in 1974 a true and proper translation and publication effort got underway. The archives were now housed in the New York State Archives and Library, in Albany. Charles Gehring, a young American with a doctorate in Germanic linguistics with a specialization in 17th century Dutch, was hired for one year. Then another. Then another. In late 2016, he is still at it. He and Janny Venema, a Dutch historian who has been his transcriber for the past 30 years, have worked their way through more than half of the material. A community of historians and researchers have built up around the translation and publication effort of the New Netherland Institute. In 1999, the 12,000 pages of manuscript records of the Dutch colony were declared a national treasure by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Besides giving the moldy pages a belated dignity, the designation also came with funds to help preserve them.

dockI began my interaction with these materials in the year 2000. I had thought to write a magazine piece about the Dutch founding of New York; someone put me in touch with Charles Gehring. He suggested I come up to Albany the following month, when he would host his annual seminar on the Dutch colony. I did. After meeting with several of the people working on the material, I decided to write a book on the colony. Charles Gehring and Janny Venema cleared a corner of their office for me. They gave me access to the records, and help in deciphering them. I needed a lot of help, since the documents were written in 17th century Dutch (which is quite different from modern Dutch) and in handwriting that to the untutored eye looks something like a cross between Arabic and chicken scratch. I spent hours and hours in that corner of the office, occasionally looking out on downtown Albany but otherwise staring at the antique pages.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to rely on my own abilities to decipher them. Gehring and Venema had published at that time 18 volumes of translations. Plus, the two people who knew more about this material than anyone else on earth were right there, ready to answer questions. This was before Google, but it was better than Google. I was able to interact with these actual pieces of 300 year old rag paper, to get to know the various writers through their handwriting, and at the same time I had guides to it all.

What came through–what comes through for anyone who sits with this material and has the patience to work with it–is the human reality of this corner of the past. Up from the pages rise Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen Van der Donck, Pieter Minuit, Catalina Trico, Joris Rapalje, and hundreds of other people who settled New York before it was New York. You come to know them. You know their secrets, their longings, their schemes. It dawns on you, over time, that the seething atmosphere they created–in which everyone is doing business, everyone is buying or selling beavers, everyone has a piece of the next voyage, everyone wants a piece of the action–has never left the island. The Manhattan they created is still there on paper. And it’s still there in the world’s most magnetic city.


Russell Shorto is an American historian, journalist and author. In 2004, he published The Island at the Center of the World: the Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, for which he spent many hours in the New Netherland archives. Between 2008 and 2013, he lived in Amsterdam, where he was the director of the John Adams Institute.

The next two installments of this series will be published on December 12 and December 19.