Dutchess County’s Ancient Documents Collection: Crime & Society in the Eighteenth-Century Hudson Valley

Dutchess County Ancient Document 1015: Indemnity Bond for Cornelius Jansen, 1763
Dutchess County Ancient Document 1015: Indemnity Bond for Cornelius Jansen, 1763

This article was written by Dutchess County Historian William P. Tatum III, Ph.D. Dr. Tatum received his BA in History from the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and his MA and Ph.D. in History from Brown University. He has served as the Dutchess County Historian since 2012. His duties from the gamut from researching and promoting county history through exhibits, lectures, and other programs, to archival records management. Dr. Tatum has led the Ancient Documents Project since 2013 and regularly speaks about both the records management issues involved therein as well as the human stories that are found within this collection. Samples of his on-going work can be found at the Office of the Dutchess County Historian’s landing page at www.dutchessny.gov/history.

Photo: Dutchess County Ancient Document 1015: Indemnity Bond for Cornelius Jansen, 1763

On May 18, 1763, Colonel Peter Tenbrocek and Johannes Veller traveled to the Dutchess County Courthouse in Poughkeepsie to swear out an indemnity bond for Cornelius Jansen. Together the men pledged £200 New York Currency to the town of Rhinebeck, to be paid by them or their heirs, a sum that dwarfed the annual income of the average farmer during this period. While the extenuating circumstances that brought these leading citizens of Rhinebeck to the county seat remain unclear, their bond straightforwardly sets out the conditions of their obligation. Cornelius Jansen was “a Negro man” who had been manumitted in 1756. An act of the colonial assembly passed in 1730 required “That all Negroes or Mulatto Slaves manumitted or set at Liberty shall bring two sufficient Surities [sic] for Indemnifying all Cities Towns Mannors [sic] precincts parishes or places within this Colony from being a Charge” in order to guarantee their continued liberty. Tenbrocek and Veller insured that Jansen would retain his gift of freedom and live peaceably in Rhinebeck (Anc Doc 1015).

Ancient Document 1015 pg 2
Dutchess County Ancient Document 1015: Indemnity Bold for Cornelius Jansen, 1763

Cornelius Jansen’s story is one of many held within Dutchess County’s Ancient Documents Collection. Long considered the cornerstone of the county’s archival holdings, this body of material consists of records from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century county courts, which convened on the same plot of land in Poughkeepsie since approximately 1721. The courthouse that now stands at the juncture of Market and Main Streets is the fifth to occupy the same site. In addition to hosting the trials and legal proceedings detailed in the Ancient Documents Collection, the predecessor buildings also played host to New York’s convention to ratify the United States Constitution in the summer of 1788, which laid the groundwork for the Bill of Rights. Together, the courthouse and the Ancient Documents Collection stand as testaments to a vital and enduring thread of Dutchess County history.

Despite being referenced in most serious publications written on Dutchess County history during the twentieth century, the Ancient Documents Collection remained markedly difficult to access until relatively recently. The documents themselves, near-miraculous survivors of moves between multiple structures and across the length and breadth of Poughkeepsie, have largely avoided being the focus of significant records management projects throughout much of their existence. Henry Noble MacCracken, Ph.D. and Vassar College’s first secular president, reviewed the collection in 1954-1955, recommending to then-Dutchess County Clerk Frederic A. Smith to create a name-index to the documents. Accordingly, and with support from the County Clerk’s Office, MacCracken generated an index card inventory organized by individual last names, listing the document numbers in which the individuals appeared along with other pertinent information (including document type, date, and location of creation/offense). MacCracken’s index extended up to the year 1800 and is now preserved in two large folio volumes that County Clerk Smith commissioned after the project. The collection itself, however, extends through the nineteenth century until the advent of the Unified Court System. In 1973, the Church of Latter Day Saints conducted a microfilming project covering most of the collection, though unfortunately it did not interface with the MacCracken index. Since that time, researchers wishing to consult the collection have had the options of struggling with the microfilm (which the Dutchess County Genealogical Society has sought to index) or traveling to Poughkeepsie to use the MacCracken index and access the original documents.

Henry Noble McCracken_en
Henry Noble MacCracken, Ph.D., Vassar College President 1915-1946, Ancient Documents Chronicler 1954-1955

In 2012, Dutchess County Clerk Bradford H. Kendall commissioned me to review the status of the Ancient Documents Collection and provide a solution for the access, preservation, and disaster management problems associated with it. The two forms of access had proven to be less than satisfactory over the years: the general problems of using microfilm were compounded by increasing wear to the daily-use rolls, the spotty quality of the original photography, and difficulty moving between the two indices and the rolls. This state of affairs forced researchers to adopt a guess-and-check approach to navigating the microfilm or to dive into the original records with resultant wear-and-tear. In addition, over half of the collection was unprocessed, housed in bankers boxes in the county records center without any convenient way to establish whether or not it had all been microfilmed. The lack of any back-up copies to the unprocessed material created an enormous disaster management issue, since a records catastrophe could easily wipe out these documents, leaving Dutchess County government with no understanding of precisely what had been lost.

In consultation with our New York State Archives Regional Advisory Officer Linda Bull, Dutchess County developed a two-pronged plan to address these records management challenges. First, we established a program to digitally index the collection on the item-level, using volunteers, student interns, and staff from the Dutchess County Clerk’s and County Historian’s Offices to enter keyword search data based on the categories from the MacCracken index into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Second, with generous support from the New York State Archives through the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund, we set about digitally imaging the documents, creating complete surrogates (including blank pages). This project has continued for four years with New York State Archives funding and has generated 87,000 digitized pages of material. We estimate that a further 200,000 pages remain to be processed and imaged.

In January 2016, our long awaited final phase of the project process came to fruition as a result of collaboration with the Dutchess County Office of Central and Information Services. Working closely with colleagues in the world of information technology, the project team generated a process for uploading and integrating the metadata generated through the indexing with the digital images to create a worldwide, freely accessible online search portal. For the first time since these documents were created, researchers have the opportunity to consult them from the comfort of any location with an internet connection and to examine the collection through keyword searches. The images and metadata provide a permanent multiple-redundancy back-up in case of a records management disaster affecting the original material, which can now be kept in inactive status, thus removing the major source of wear and tear. Since our launch early last year, researchers have accessed the search portal over 30,000 times. While currently loaded with the 12,000 pages of material that we indexed and imaged during our first phase of work, we are preparing to upload a further 25,000 pages, which will extend the online search portal’s coverage from 1721-1758 all the way through 1789.

DC Ancient Docs 1015A Manumission
Dutchess County Ancient Document 1015A: Manumission of Cornelius Jansen, 1756

The breadth of time covered within these documents speaks to their larger significance. While records management protocols require Dutchess County to retain this collection permanently, the unique stories contained its pages provide even more compelling reasons for this long-term digital project. The challenge to Cornelius Jansen’s liberty is but one of many amazing anecdotes that may well have otherwise been lost to the ravages of time. And thanks to this project, we have a further wrinkle to add to Jansen’s story: the collection also contains the manumission that documented his transition from slavery to freedom (Anc Doc 1015A). From it, we learned that Cornelius was originally enslaved to his own father Francis Jansen of Mombaccus Township in Ulster County. Francis described himself as “a Mulatoo of Colour but a Freeman, by Reason being born of a white Woman” and stated that he set Cornelius free “for Love and Fatherly Affections.” At that time, Cornelius was “a dweller and Labourer within Rhinbeck Precinct and Dutchess County.” Johannes Veller, one of the men who stood surety for Cornelius’s freedom in accordance with colonial law, was a witness to the manumission, which Francis swore out on August 21, 1756. Why it took another seven years for the bond to be sworn out is just one of the many questions that arise from this incident, which speaks to the fragmentary nature of the collection as a whole: few case files are preserved from start to finish. Nevertheless, the Dutchess County Ancient Documents Collection stands as a premiere research resource, ready for inquisitive minds of all varieties to explore.

The Ancient Documents Search Portal can be accessed through the Dutchess County Clerk’s website at www.dutchessny.gov/countyclerk.

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