Dutch government bestows knighthood honor on PEF member
Story and photos by DEBORAH A. MILES
Dr. Janny Venema, the assistant director of the New Netherland Research Center at the State Library, has been appointed Knight in the Order of Orange Nassau by the Netherlands government.
This prestigious honor came as a complete surprise to Venema, who was presented the medal in September by Dolph Hogewoning, consul-general of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
“The consul-general was speaking and thanking people at a dinner held at Yono’s in Albany, but he did not mention my name,” said Venema, a 33-year PEF member.
“Then suddenly, he said, ‘And then there is Janny, and he told my whole story and what I have accomplished. I was totally flabbergasted as everyone kept it so secret. This is something initiated by the consulate itself, so someone was working on this for a couple of years. It dawned on me the day or so afterward what this really means.”
The medal, itself, which must be returned to the Netherlands after a recipient passes, contains much symbolism such as a Dutch lion in its center with seven arrows that represent the seven provinces of the Northern Netherlands, a sign of Dutch independence.
Venema can describe in delightful detail its symbolism and said, “It’s a really beautiful thing.”
The work Venema has accomplished is also a beautiful thing. She has transcribed and is now translating thousands of Dutch documents that take you back to the way people lived in the 1600s. Her expertise is derived from her roots, as she was born in Nijeveen, a small village in the northeastern part of the Netherlands, and worked in Haarlem where she taught Dutch and history, before moving to the U.S. and making Albany, NY her home.
Her background, education and intense love of the Dutch language make her acutely aware of subtle nuances in dialects, and even in handwriting styles.
“It is fascinating and really fun,” Venema said, referring to the deacons’ accounts, which were kept by various deacons of the church in Beverwijck/Albany.
“If I read the documents out loud, I can almost hear from what area of the country they are coming. They each have different handwritings or different styles of writing and spelling. These documents are not boring. Once you start researching them, they become living things,” she said.
One of Venema’s favorite undertakings was transcribing part of the deacons’ accounts from 1652 to 1795 that were written in Dutch. The collection is located at the First Church of Albany.
“These documents show how the Dutch took care of the poor, and that is why these documents are most interesting to me. They show that Albany may have had the first poor house, at least in the northeastern part of the United States. In 1655, there was a house where they had things for distribution to supply to the poor. The documents also reveal things such as women working as caregivers and being paid by the deacons in shell beads, called sewant or wampum.
“The deacons’ accounts said the church also functioned as a bank. It may have been the first bank in America. People could borrow money at a 10 percent interest rate. Deacons were high standing in society and wealthy. Poor people show up in these documents, and not in others.”
Venema also was fascinated with one single piece of paper, a tiny sheet now located in the state archives. It was a folded note written by a commander of a small Dutch settlement in Kingston who was captured and held hostage by the Munsee Esopus tribe of the Lenape Indian nation, who resented the Dutch for trying to get a foothold in what is now Ulster County.
“That piece of paper was written with a quill pen and ink. The commander must have befriended an Indian to write the note, and then have the Indian travel with it for nine days to give it to Stuyvesant, the director general of New Netherland, who was in New Amsterdam. The note said he needed help. But can you imagine how that piece of paper was carried through thick woods, or in a canoe on the river. It must have carried the sweat of the Indian,” Venema laughed. “I have a rich imagination.”
All her years of transcribing documents gave Venema the material she needed to write three books about Albany’s early years and a biography of Kiliaen van Rensselaer.
Venema said she once vowed never to have a career working in an archive, because the archive where she researched her final thesis was very “dark, stuffy and boring.”
She concluded, “It’s possible you will end up doing something that you really dislike and consider impossible. Then unexpectedly, you realize you love what you are doing. And then you get honored for it.”