This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator & Head of the Manuscript Department
Nearly four hundred years ago, in the winter of 1648, a man named Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert drowned in the frigid Hudson River. Bogaert had fallen through the ice while pursued by soldiers from Albany’s Fort Orange. He had arrived in the New World as a teenager in 1630 and made a name for himself fifteen years earlier before his death through a perilous excursion on behalf of the Dutch into Indian territory. Bogaert’s mission was to re-establish fur trading with disaffected Mohawks. His journal (which survives in the Netherlands), offers unique insight onto Mohawk practices and established him as an importance chronicler of his era.
Further details of Bogaert’s remarkable life are recounted elsewhere, but a record of his demise survives in the collections of the New-York Historical Society. Among a small collection of letters by successful New Netherlands merchant Govert Loockermans are two from late 1647 and early 1648, in which Loockermans gives his uncle and business partner news of Bogaert’s fate.
According to the histories, that autumn Bogaert, married with four children and commissary at Fort Orange, had been discovered in a relationship with his slave Tobias. (In contrast to most accounts though, Loockermans actually names a second paramour whose fate is never revealed.) A recent translation of the letter by the New Netherlands Institute reads thus:
Master Herman, who was at Fort Orange as merchant for the Companie, has had to do with his black boy and with another boy, Swist Jan (Smits Jan?), and they have run off to the savages, but the boy has been captured.
Since Dutch law regarded homosexuality as a crime punishable by death, Bogaert fled with Tobias to the safety of the Mohawks. As Loockermans notes, Tobias was captured before long, and eventually Bogaert. Still aware of the punishment he faced in Dutch custody, Bogaert made a second escape attempt during which met his tragic fate. In a subsequent letter Loockermans adds a brief update:
Mr. [Harmen] has gotten himself stuck under the ice and drowned himself near Fort Oranje, as people were chasing him to take him prisoner. In the end he did meet a bad fate.
Bogaert’s was a dramatic end to a promising career and surely there is far more to his story than any of the surviving sources can ever hope to establish. Nonetheless, while Pride Month is largely a celebration of achievements since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Bogaert’s story reminds us that LGBT history is very much a part of American history from its earliest period.