Public history can take many forms. We, here at The Junto, are committed to engaging with and covering public history regarding early America. The New Netherland Institute is an excellent example of an organization dedicated to bringing early American history to the public. I want to use this space to talk about its most recent publication, Firth Haring Fabend’s New Netherland in A Nutshell: A Concise History of the Dutch Colony in North America.
Fabend is an independent historian (though she holds a PhD in American Studies from NYU) and is the author of numerous books of fiction as well as two award-winning works of history also dealing with New Amsterdam, both of which were published by Rutgers University Press.
New Amsterdam in a Nutshell, however, is not an academic text. It is aimed at a general readership with an interest in the early history of New York without the time to go through something like Jaap Jacobs’ The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America. In less than 150 pages, the book covers the entire Dutch period from the founding of the Dutch West India Company to the English Conquest. At its core is a straightforward narrative of the period from settlement through Kieft and then the Stuyvesant years. It concludes with a chapter each on church and state in the colony and the colony’s overall legacy. The entire book is written in a quick-moving and engaging style, which I found quite enjoyable alongside my usual grad-school reading diet of monographs and journal articles.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this little tome is the way in which Fabend deftly interweaves a surprising amount of social and material history into the more standard political narrative. Unlike when some academic historians attempt something similar, she makes the social and material history relevant to the overall narrative and its inclusion never feels forced, superfluous, or gratuitous. In fact, it quickly becomes the highlight of the book. Lavishly and beautifully illustrated with maps, paintings, and pictures of archaeological objects, Fabend explores the images in the text drawing out conclusions about many aspects of social and cultural life in the colony. In doing so, she provides a general reader with an excellent example of the imagination involved in social, material, and cultural historians’ use of evidence in reconstructing a past society. The book should undoubtedly reach its intended audience as the New Netherland Institute has generously donated a copy of the book to each of the 1,200 public and academic libraries in New York State.
In terms of academics, for anyone needing a quick overview of this period when preparing a course or even preparing to read specialized secondary material, this book is highly recommended. And both Fabend and the New Netherland Institute should be congratulated on such a fine production and their overall goal of bringing a piece of colonial American history to the public.