Monday, March 25, 2019

Collection Spotlight: Mohawk Prayer Book

Last week we were visited by a film crew from the First Nations Technical Institute. This institute is based in Ontario and was founded to provide greater access to post-secondary education for aboriginal peoples in Canada. Their film crew is shooting a documentary focusing on Mohawk people, both in Canada and in New York. They came here in search of primary source documents and items related to the Mohawk and were made aware of SCHS through former Niskayuna town historian Linda Champagne.

One item in particular that they wanted to shoot for the documentary was a prayer book that had been translated into the Mohawk language by Dominie (meaning minister or pastor) Bernardus Freeman and Laurens Claesse van der Volgen. This prayer book is an interesting document that shows the interactions between the Christian settlers and indigenous people in the area and the attempts of these settlers to convert the local Native population to Christianity.

Portrait of Domnie Bernardus
Freeman. Courtesy of  A
History of St. George's
Church in the City of
Schenectady, Vol. 1
Bernardus Freeman was a tailor by trade who lived in the Netherlands. He applied to be the minister at Albany in 1699 and it was approved after a some consideration by the Classis of Amsterdam. His duties changed soon after he set sail for America and was instead appointed as the second minister at the Schenectady Dutch Reformed Church. As the minister of the church, Freeman was expected to preach and convert the Mohawk in the area. He turned out to be more successful than his predecessor due to his familiarity with the Mohawk language as well as having an assistant who was familiar with the Mohawk.

Freeman's focus on baptizing and marrying the Mohawk is evident in the church records. Thomas Burke, the author of Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York 1661-1710 used Dutch Reformed Church records to find out how many Native Americans were baptized from 1698-1760. During Freeman's tenure as minister from 1700-1705 baptisms and marriages of Schenectady's native population reached its peak. Freeman baptized 113 Native Americans were baptized and married 15.

Freeman did not conduct his missionary work alone though. His pay to join and relocate to Schenectady's Dutch Reformed Church  was 60 pounds with an additional 15 pounds for expenses. He was also provided with funds to hire an assistant. The person he chose to do the work was Laurens Claesse Van Der Volgen. Van Der Volgen's name may be familiar to those well-versed in Schenectady's history as he was one of the 27 people captured during the Schenectady Massacre.

Van Der Volgen survived the grueling trip back to Canada and was assimilated into the indigenous Canadian community. It is unknown which community he was adopted by, but it is likely that he had interactions with the Catholic Mohawks in Canada (Kanyen'kehĂ :ka) which would explain his fluency in the Mohawk language. Van Der Volgen would eventually make his way back to Schenectady and would work with Dominie Freeman to help translate The Book of Common Prayer into the Mohawk language. For more information on Laurens Van Der Volgen, check out our July 2010 newsletter.

Portrait of Laurens Van Der Volgen. This portrait is currently exhibited in our Beyond the Pines: Early Schenectady exhibit at the Schenectady History Museum located at our 32 Washington Ave. location.
The translations that Freeman and Van Der Volgen produced remained in manuscript form until a missionary named William Andrews was appointed to teach the Mohawk community how to write as well as convert them to Christianity. Andrews did not have as much linguistic skill as Freeman and was unable to become fluent in the Mohawk language. He relied on Van Der Volgen's fluency in the Mohawk language and was so terrified of losing him that he attempted and failed to teach English to two Mohawk youth. Andrews had little to no success with teaching the English to the Mohawk community and conducted much of his missionary work with Van Der Volgen's assistance.

One of Andrews' goals was to provide the Mohawk community with printed works in their own language. He received permission to do so and decided to get Freeman and Van Der Volgen's translation of the Common Prayer printed in New York City. Andrews chose William Bradford as his printer who was known as "the pioneer printer of the Middle colonies." By 1715, 200 copies of the book were published along with 150 catechisms and a small spelling book for children. Andrews would have limited success in his missionary work. He became disheartened and resigned in 1718.

The Mohawk Prayer Book is the earliest known printed work in a Native American dialect in New York. It's almost completely in Mohawk besides a title page/table of contents and the name of the prayers. The prayer book, along with a portrait of Laurens Van Der Volgen was kept within the Van Der Volgen family. Helen Van Der Volgen of Delphi, Indiana conducted quite a bit of research on the prayer book. She wrote to several different places for more information on it including The New York Public Library and the Museum of the American Indian. This correspondence was included with the donation of the book. The prayer book and the portrait was then passed down to their daughter, Mary Van Der Volgen Chatfield. Mary Chatfield visited the Schenectady County Historical Society in 2008 and donated both the portrait and the prayer book at that time. The prayer book is not in the best shape. The spine, front and back covers have become detached over time and there are a few pages missing or heavily damaged. That said, most of the text remains.

Images of the prayer book can be seen below:

Sources Used:

A History of St. George's Church in the City of Schenectady, Volume 1 by Willis T. Hanson

Early Prayer Books of America: being a descriptive account of prayer books published in the United States, Mexico and Canada by John Wright.

Faces of Schenectady: 1715-1750 by Kate Weller.

Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America by E. Jennifer Monaghan

Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York 1661-1710 by Thomas E,Burke

The Book of Common Prayer Among the Nations of the World: A History of Translations of the Prayer Book of the Church of England and of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America by William Muss-Arnolt.