Four hundred years after Henry Hudson explored the region that would later become New York, few traces remain of the colonial legacy of the Dutch. But one aspect of the Dutch culture survived for centuries, against all odds: the Dutch language.
Every day, tour guides show visitors the house that once belonged to the eighth president of the United States: Martin Van Buren. Van Buren, elected in 1837, was the first US president of non-English descent. As his name reveals, he was a Dutch American. He grew up in Kinderhook, a tightly-knit Dutch community in the Hudson Valley.
In Van Buren's day, the Dutch had already been present in America for two hundred years. The United States was uncontestably an English-speaking nation. But Van Buren spoke Dutch at home, as did his wife and children. And even long after his death in 1862, Dutch lived on as a spoken language in the former colony of New Netherlands.
"One group who spoke the language were the Ramapo Indians of New Jersey, and they're still there. They call themselves the Ramapo but they descended from a mixture of indians, black slaves who were liberated and Dutch settlers," says Martin Langeveld, an American journalist of Dutch descent.
"The Ramapo continued to speak Dutch, or at least a dialect form of Dutch, throughout the 19th century. They had settled there in the late 1600s, but it was an isolated mountain area. And the last speakers of that dialect, which was pretty well documented, died out in the first half of the 20th century. In 1910, there were still 200 speakers of Dutch there, of the original colonial Dutch.
According to Langeveld, there are still a few traces of the language that the Ramapo would recognize today. One of these is a Dutch nursery rhyme: 'Trippe trappe troontjes…'
Trippe trappe troontjes,
De varkens in de boontjes,
De koetjes in de klaver,
De paarden in de haver,
De eendjes in de water-plas,
De kalf in de lang gras -
So groot myn kleine poppetje was!
Trip a trop a troontjes,
the pigs are in the beans,
the cows are in the clover,
the horses in the oats,
the ducks are in the water,
the calf in the long grass,
this is how big my baby was!
Langeveld: "Interestingly, this was also the one piece of Dutch that was remembered by Theodore Roosevelt, who was the first 20th century president of the United States, but who grew up in the 1860s in New York. He would go to dinner at his grandparents house. And at Sunday dinner his grandparents spoke Dutch at the dinner table. And this same nursery rhyme is one that he learned there, and he mentions in his autobiography that when he went to visit South Africa, he found Boers there and recited this nursery rhyme to them and they knew it too!"
Why did some Americans continue to speak Dutch into the 20th century? English was, after all, the only accepted American language. According to Langeveld, that had to do with the small, close communities where Dutch descendants lived until the beginning of the 19th century. These communities were organized around Dutch-speaking churches and schools. Amongst themselves, the villagers only spoke Dutch. But it was also the official language of municipal government.
"In the city of Albany, not far from here, a lot of the city business was done in Dutch at least until the American Revolution in 1776. At this point they became part of the United States. They had a federal government that spoke English so then they too made the transition to English. But for at least those first 200 years after the English took over in the Dutch colony, these Dutch communities just stayed together."
Everything changed because of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800. This was the time when large numbers of people went west. Everywhere on the East coast, small farming communities broke up. Many people moved to the city to begin life anew. America's railways expanded, bringing many Dutch people who used to be isolated into contact with the rest of American society. The Dutch they spoke was watered down and before long it was only spoken in the few small communities that still existed, like the one where Martin Van Buren lived.
English gradually became the dominant language in all of New York state. This happened during Van Buren's lifetime... And by the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected - he was the third US President with Dutch roots - the Dutch language of the Hudson Valley had disappeared, like a long-forgotten nursery rhyme.
See Martin C. Langeveld's weblog entry about Dutch in the USA: http://mondayeveningclub.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-we-dont-all-speak-dutc...
The interview with Martin Langeveld was taped in the Martin Van Buren house, see virtual tour: http://www.nps.gov/features/mava/feat01/