Friday, April 27, 2012

Excursion: Schermerhorn, the Netherlands


After having spent the semester writing about the landscape of and around Columbia University's main Campus, perhaps a little excursion to another landscape is allowed.

The Columbia Center for Archaeology is located on the 9th floor of the building Schermerhorn, which -- as we have read below -- is named after one Mr. Schermerhorn, shipping tycoon, NY society member, and descendant of Dutch settlers. But what does his -- for most English-speakers nearly unpronounceable name refer to?


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Mr. Schermerhorn, like many Dutch people, took his family name from a village -- in his case: the village Schermerhorn -- that his ancestors lef  at some point (presumably in the mid- to late 17th Century) to seek their good luck in the Big City. And the closest Big City near Schermerhorn is Amsterdam, about 20 miles to the south. From Amsterdam, then, the step to New Amsterdam was only a small one, certainly at this time, the founding of this colony. But why presume that Mr. Schermerhorn's ancestors left Schermerhorn in the 17th Century? First of all, most Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York) settled here in that time period, but secondly: a major change took place in the landscape around Schermerhorn at this time. A change that, one can presume, had a major impact on the livelihood of inhabitants of this place.

The name Schermerhorn refers to the "horn", that is the "Corner", or "Cape" in the Schermer, which is the Holland-ified version of Frisian 'Skir Mare' or Bright Lake. In this name is sedimented a vicious series of medieval wars between the Counts of Holland and the Frisians (1272-1524), a free, self-governing people in the northern Netherlands (or a bunch of anarchic robbers, depending on your POV). Schermerhorn itself is part of West Friesland and has been firmly under Hollandic control since the late 13th Century.

Any "Bright Lake" of that name is  nowhere to be found near Schermerhorn nowadays but this showing West Friesland (or northern Holland) around 1200AD shows us where this Schermer used to be:


On the map of contemporary Schermerhorn one can see the wild and wide draining ditches of the old land, where Schermerhorn is located. These wide ditches are indices of the tragedy that was taking place in this area of Holland at this time. The old land had consisted of peaty swamp and in the Netherlands of the late middle ages peat became an increasingly popular fuel. Moreover, around this time, people discovered that one could drain the swamps that covered most of Holland, and so one could grow grain. Both processes resulted in the disappearance or lowering of land with catastrophic results. The reason that the count of Holland was finally able to subdue the Frisians here in West Friesland area was the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1288 which resulted in a tremendous loss of land and life as the sea took the land that the inhabitants had destroyed. And the lakes that had been created by the 'mining' of peat from the swamp had already started growing on their own. When storms came, the lake's waves literally started eating on the edges of the land and so the once small lakes of Beemster, Schermer, Purmer, Wormer, and Haarlemmer became bigger and bigger and bigger, destroying lands and homes and villages. This process was referred to as the Water Wolf. As you can see above, Schermerhorn was very close to the edge of the water: the Water Wolf almost got to it. Maybe the Schermerhorners had adjusted and became fishermen: for instance, eel was a common fish in these parts and remains popular.

Attack of the Water Wolf
However, just after having recovered from the assaults of War and Water, rich Amsterdam gentlemen came and drained the lakes. First, in 1612, they drained the Beemster, just east of Schermerhorn, and then the Schermer,  just to the west, in 1635. This new land is clearly visible in the landscape: the small, narrow draining ditches of the new land (mostly clay and therefore needing less drainage) contrast strongly with wild and wides ditches of the old land, which was a water-soaked, swampy peat. These Amsterdam gentlemen, investors in a private company, then divided up among themselves the newly created land and they built their rational, grid pattern, renaissance era farms on it. These patterns have been so well preserved that the Dutch government has made these "droogmakerijen" UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But what about the inhabitants of Schermerhorn? Maybe, as former fishermen, they sought their luck at sea and they sailed to faraway places in East and West. Or maybe they went looking for a plot of land, or a craft, any craft, elsewhere. Clearly, at some point, some came to New Amsterdam and eventually they became gentlemen themselves.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I visited the village of Schermerhorn, I saw at least one centuries-old tavern with a very old sign above it that showed a whale. This was an advertisement to attract whalers, I was told by my friend, a Dutch sea-captain's wife who was a history buff. According to her, this meant that the village of Schermerhorn, which is now many miles inland, was before the land was reclaimed from the sea a deep-water port. According to my family's oral tradition, my family (the Schermerhorn family), built ships on what then was the island of Schermerhorn. It was in the no-longer extant Zeider Zee. Their last name was Schermerhorn even in the old country, long before they came to America. They disliked William of Orange, who drained the Zeider Zee with windmills, dikes, and polders. This took away their shipbuilding livelihood; thus many Schermerhorns came to America and became became the land tycoons,politicians, preachers, and pirates we have in America today. Of course, many took the name Schermerhorn after they arrived in America,some coming through Ellis Island. Porter Schermerhorn, Virginia.

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