Log Cabins, Peter Minuit, Gustavus Adolphus… and American Liberty?
The “Forest Finns” built them better than anyone. The Finns had perfected the art in the Old Country and brought them to New Sweden in America on the Delaware River, south of the Dutch settlement at New Amsterdam.
From there they—the log cabins, that is—spread throughout America and were found from Maine to Oregon to Alaska. Silver-haired daddies “fought the battle of time in them” and they were the “little homes” in Tennessee that some people dreamed about every day but never went back to.
For several generations after Abraham Lincoln famously learned to read and write in one by the light of the fireplace, it became almost a necessity for anyone, especially a candidate for president, to be born in one, have a relative living in one, know someone who did, or pretend that he did. It was difficult to be credentialed as a “man of the people” without one of them somewhere in your pedigree.
When this writer was a boy, maple syrup was even sold in tin containers shaped to look like log cabins and pancakes always tasted best if the syrup had come out of one of those cans.
Many people may not know the connection of the Reformed in Germany to log cabins in America. But there is a connection and it also has something to do with religious persecution and liberty. People who built and lived in log cabin had something special about them.
The first Reformed elders in America were Peter Minuit and Peter’s brother-in-law Jan Huygen. In fact, according to Rev. James Good, Peter Minuit held the first Reformed worship in America in the upper story of the fort that the Dutch had erected to defend their settlement on the Hudson River at New Amsterdam [now New York].
Peter Minuit is a shadowy figure in history. We have no painting or representation of him. The painting of William Ranney at Rutgers University that shows Peter purchasing Manhattan Island from the Indians is pure imagination, made up out of whole cloth some two hundred years after the event. But it has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and even school textbooks as a depiction of the real thing. The picture did depict a real event, but the picture isn’t true.
We don’t even really know how to pronounce his name. This writer learned it as MIN-u-it as did thousands and thousands of school children in America. It was pronounced that way by the Dutch settlers and stuck. It might even have been right. But some, maybe because some have a tendency to think that they know better than the rest of us—have lately come to think it should have a French pronunciation “MIN wee.” Nobody knows for sure about some things, but it seems certain that Peter Minuit was a Walloon, born in the Rhineland city of Wesel about the year 1589. His father was Jan Minuit who came to Wesel from what is now Belgium to escape Spanish persecution during the Thirty Years’ War and purchased citizenship in Wesel in 1584 and married Sarah Breil of Kleve [the German for Cleves, the home of one of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives].
Peter’s marriage to Gerdruudt Raet on August 20, 1613, was recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church [now Lutheran] in Wesel. His name is spelled “Myniewit.” We also know that Peter became an elder in the French Reformed Church of Wesel.
The Dutch had claims on land in the New World because of their sponsorship of the exploration of the Hudson River by Henry Hudson. In order to exploit these claims a trading company was formed to take advantage of the immigration of Walloons from the Netherlands to the New World. Peter Minuit is most famous to American school children because of his purchase of Manhattan Island from the Indians for a few trinkets. In modern times they are taught that this began the exploitation of native peoples by evil white men. It was nothing of the sort, if course, for the Indians had no European idea of land ownership, no concept of the transfer of property rights, nor did the Dutch think of such things. Neither side thought of a transfer of property. It was a treaty of friendship where both could continue to use the land. If liberals were smarter they could use the term “share” and turn the event into a positive learning experience for their post-modern off-spring. But the myth continues to be taught to serve a broader agenda. Betrayal of the Indians would come later, but not by Peter Minuit and not at that time, and it was a betrayal based mostly on ignorance of Indian ways, rather than greed or malice.
This story, though, is about log cabins, not the Dutch at New Amsterdam. Relations between Peter Minuit and the East Indian Trading Company soured over the Company’s insistence on developing the patroon system, which reserved the land for a few wealthy landowners and brought oppression to the common farmer. Peter returned to Germany looking for new opportunities. The Thirty Years War was raging in Europe at that time and Gustavus Adolphus, the great Protestant King of Sweden, was victorious everywhere and all of Germany was coming under his authority.
The king was ambitious to plant a Swedish colony in America, but he met an untimely death in battle, much to the dismay of Protestants everywhere. His successes in Europe were soon reversed. The invasion of the Rhineland by the Spanish was followed by Roman Catholic slaughter of the Reformed people and the suppression of their churches.
The death of Gustavus ended the Swedish occupation of Germany but did not cure the Swedish government’s desire to found a colony in the New World. It was a delicate operation, for both the Dutch and the English had claims to most of North America and maintained peace on the most delicate of terms. Later on, one of the first graduates of the new college at Harvard would betray his college and his faith and deliver New Amsterdam to the British crown, but that is yet another story. The English would write the history of New York, Washington Irving would lampoon the “Knickerbockers,” invent the myth of the “flat earth,” and tarnish the reputation of Dutch in the new world.
Peter Minuit was not only looking for new opportunities but he was greatly moved over the accounts coming out of the Rhineland about of the plight of the Reformed German farmers. Spanish and Austrian Catholics had taken turns wasting their farms, confiscating their wealth, destroying their churches, killing and looting. Peter wondered if he could find a way to plant a colony that would satisfy the Swedish desire for expansion with his compassionate desire to deliver his German countrymen from oppression and persecution. Could he plant them in the New World and get the Swedes to pay? Indeed, he could and he did.
In 1637, after delicate negotiations designed to allay Dutch suspicions and English jealousies, the New Sweden Company was formed of Swedish, German, and Dutch stockholders. Peter set sail the same year with two ships, the Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, bound for the Delaware River. The result was the founding of the first European Settlement in the Delaware Valley, named Christina [now Wilmington] after Sweden’s twelve-year old queen. During the next seventeen years more ships came from Europe, bringing Finns and Swedes. These Germans, Swedes, and Finns spread along the Delaware River into what is now Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
As we saw before, no one could build log cabins like the “Forest Finns” and cabins were built after the Finnish art throughout the frontier and into the West. The log cabin was the center of the Lincoln legend and provided enough sentimental journeys to satisfy many generations.
Peter Minuit died in a hurricane in the Caribbean the next year and fades from history, but is remembered in the lore of New York. In 2006 school children from the Peter Minuit School learn to “share” and play in the Harlem Park named after him. Many people still think he cheated the Indians.
The fresh breath of liberty in the New World was exhilarating to the settlers of New Sweden. Sweden did not long maintain their foothold there. Like New Amsterdam, the government of New Sweden would pass to the English Crown. Before either of those happened, the spirit of liberty in New Sweden was nourished in those log cabins that spread through Appalachia, meeting up with other German Reformed in Pennsylvania and New York, mixing into the stew of religious and economic liberty that was blossoming in New Amsterdam, and especially making common cause with the Scotch-Irish immigrants who had made their way from the Border to America by way of Ireland, spreading into Appalachia, into the South, and throughout the Midwest. They adopted the log cabins and built them in the mountains and were proud that they had never been defeated by the Romans or had their spirit quenched by Edward Longshanks of England, the Hammer of the Scots. After the English destroyed their homes in the Border, they fled to Ireland and formed the bulk of William III’s army that defeated James II at the Battle of Boyne, which secured the British crown for William and Mary. Not all the Irish were Roman Catholic and not all the Scots were dependable Presbyterians, especially if those Presbyterians were English Presbyterians who could persecute like the Church of England.
These Scots were Calvinists who carried their Bibles with them and were equally adept at shooting the eyes out of squirrels and the hearts out of Episcopalians. Thousands of them immigrated to America after what they thought was a betrayal by William and Mary. The Episcopalian aristocrats of Eastern Virginia welcomed them. The Virginians even relaxed their laws against non-conforming churches to allow the Scots-Irish to build their log cabins in the western mountains. They were useful to the Virginians because they were even better at shooting Indians than they were at shooting Episcopalians. Their rugged souls were the stuff warriors are made of. They were always a bit too unruly to suit the taste of the German and Dutch Reformed, but their love of liberty and hatred of persecution gave them a common bond.
Virginian aristocrats like the Byrds thought them a bit disorderly and smelly, but they showed their worth against Cornwallis. The English insulted them, called them “mongrels” and promised to burn their cabins. By the thousands they poured out of their cabins in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and parts west to break the back of the English at the battles of King’s Mountain and Cowpens to drive Cornwallis back to Yorktown, encirclement, and surrender. James Webb, perhaps, did not exaggerate when he said that Colonial America, with its European forms of propriety died with the British soldiers on King’s Mountain, replaced by something that the Atlantic coast aristocrats could not understand or even define.
After doing their job at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, these sturdy folk simply went home to take care of their crops, their families, and their cabins. There were Indians to fight and more cabins to build. Their descendants drive pick-up trucks adorned with gun-racks to NASCAR races and volunteer by the thousands to the military services to defend America’s freedom. Some have bumper stickers, “God, guns, and guts…”
Germans from the Palatinate, the settlers from New Sweden, the Dutch in New Amsterdam and Englishmen who had fled from James I all knew what religious oppression was, for they had all suffered immensely from it. In America they all found precious liberty, economic, political, and religious. In the precious breath of freedom they learned what it was to be real men, slaves to no one. These were a new band of warriors. It was not for them to march without question into a valley of death to die on the whim of an aristocrat. They would rather create their own valleys of death for the aristocrat who threatened their homes, their families, and their faith. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of the believer that wrought havoc with the pious tyranny of Rome had become secularized in America. They were willing to die for their country, but would much rather make the other guy die for his.
So it was inevitable. Once the genie of liberty is loosed from the bottle it cannot be put back. According to James Webb, these Border Scots had been telling bishops and other political and religious bosses to “go to hell” for over fifteen hundred years and they were not about to submit to the English variety in America. The history was too long, too bitter, and too bloody. Neither would the Dutch, English dissenters and the Germans have any use for tyranny, for they had their own long and bitter experiences.
One of the main reasons that the German settlements in Pennsylvania resisted Anglicization was their hatred of bishops. There was too much Reformed and dissenter blood on the hands of English bishops and these sturdy Germans from the Palatinate figured a bishop was a bishop, whether appointed by the kings in Spain or France or by a king in England. James Good reports that in spite of the extreme poverty of the Germans in Pennsylvania, English charity schools failed, not only because of the patronizing attitude of the English, but because of the suspicion that the schools were a plot to impose an English bishop and turn them into Episcopalians.
When it was rumored that the English were about to “land a bishop” in America the revolution erupted uniting in common cause the sons and daughters of those who had borne the persecution of the old country and had found the sweetness of liberty in the new.
The Germans were never as unruly as the Scots/Irish, but they were not second place in their love of liberty. The first soldiers to arrive in New England to fight the British were 550 Pennsylvania Germans from Frederick. Good reports that with few exceptions the ministers and their congregations were in the forefront of those who supported the War for Independence. What the Scots/Irish ended at King’s Mountain and Cowpens, the Pennsylvania Germans had begun at Boston.
Around their fireplaces in their cabins, these children of the persecuted in Holland, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England had told their stories to their children, read their Bibles and tamed the wilderness. They sang their songs and preserved their legends and the recounted the history of persecution and religious conformity. The stories are very different. One is about a Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike; others are about the Beggars of the Sea; another is about the siege of Leyden, some are about Robin Hood and his merry men; some are about idolatry and rich bishops; others are about Robert Bruce and Braveheart; still others are about plowing the steppes of Russia and the bitter winters of North Dakota and ecclesiastical betrayal. There are stories of blood and church burnings and wasting of fields in the Palatinate. But the songs and stories tell of oppression, liberty, of faith, and heroism as well as of sorrow and pain almost unbearable.
It is a proud and glorious history. Modern bishops still hate and ridicule them, but the songs and stories show a character forged in fire and blood, the stuff of which heroes are made. Religious bosses continue to “misunderestimate” them, as George W. Bush would put it. Their descendants still will not blindly obey blind authority, but when they understand the proposition they are formidable foes and powerful friends. Europe still doesn’t understand them. Very often they do not understand each other, these log cabin children of the oppressed of Europe.
The rest, as they say, is history. Non-conformity, for better or for worse, won the day. That day at Yorktown when the British filed out to lay down their arms, the bands played “The World Turned Upside Down.” Little did they know. It was not a good day for bishops and kings. But it was a good day for log cabins. Sic Semper Tyrannis.
Fabend, Firth Haring. Zion on the Hudson. Dutch New York and New Jersey in the Age of Revivals. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2000
Fischer, David Hackett. Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004
Good, James I; Reading, PA.; Daniel Miller. 1899. History of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1725–1792. Electronic Version published by the Permanent Publication Committee of the Reformed Church in the U. S. Olive Tree Publications, 2004
Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World. The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Webb, James. Born Fighting. How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. New York: Broadway Books, 2005
Weslager, C. A. A Man and His Ship: Peter Minuit and the Kalmar Nyckel. Wilmington, Delaware: Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, 1989