Dutch Barn Preservation Society

Dedicated to the Study and Preservation
of New World Dutch Barns

NEWSLETTER, Spring 1992, Vol. 5., Issue 1

By Roderic H. Blackburn with contributions by Willis Barshied, Jaap Schipper and Anthony Sassi.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Objects associated with Dutch farming practices in New York and New jersey have not yet received much attention in easily obtainable publications. The present article is a preliminary effort to document objects which are distinctively Dutch.

Dutch Farming

"The wheat flour of Albany is reckoned the best in all North America, except that from Sopus (Esopus) or King's Town (Kingston)".(1) From this observation Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist traveling through New York in 1750, derived the nature of Dutch agriculture. Dutch farming was commercial, producing primarily wheat but also corn and rye for sale. Oats were raised for horses, and flax and hemp were sown for home consumption. Large orchards produced primarily apples - peaches and pears being unsuccessful. Potatoes were planted by almost everyone and peas, like wheat, were produced in great quantities and shipped to New York. Cows, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens and geese were kept in numbers only sufficient for domestic use. A prosperous farm, however, was by modern standards well populated with the owner's children, other relatives, hired hands and slaves who, in all, could number as high as two dozen persons.

Farm Structures

The farm of Martin Van Bergen in Greene County, depicted in John Heaton's overmantel painting of ca. 1733 (DBPS Newsletter, Fall 1989), proudly declares these many farm residents (plus two Indians) and the principal structures of a farm - the house, a three-aisled Dutch barn, two six-post hay barracks, a blacksmith shop, and a gate with fencing.

What it doesn't show are other common structures, the great number of farm implements and tools, and the crops. Indeed the only indication of crops in the painting comes from the well-filled hay barracks (used for unthreshed grain as well as hay for the stock) and the bags of flour in the Dutch-style wagon.

Other farms had additional structures. Some had a small one-aisled barn of Dutch construction, in one inventory referred to as a carriage barn, now rarely seen.(2) A corn crib, also rare today, must have been a fixture on those farms which grew the quantities of corn observed by Peter Kalm in the mid-eighteenth century.(3) Sheep appear in the Van Bergen painting and presumably may have either lived in the large barn or had their own sheep fold, though inventories appear mute on this fixture. Presumably a pigsty had been built. I have been told of one which once survived,(4) but on this structure inventories are almost mute, excepting one in 1643 of a farm called Vredendael which included a hog pen. That inventory also included a cook house, a few examples of which still exist, sometimes confused with smaller structures which were more commonly called and used as smoke houses. In the Van Bergen painting is a single slant roof shed identified in documents as the forge. The simplicity of its construction suggests it is a type which could be used for other purposes. One such early structure exists just south of Amsterdam in the Mohawk Valley.(5) Another 1643 inventory, of the farm called Emmaus (widow of Jonas Bronk between the Harlem and the Bronx Rivers in what is now Morrisania), lists a tobacco house. None of these survive in New York or New Jersey but in the Netherlands they were long single aisle structures.(6) Sheepcotes were mentioned by Kiliaen Van Rensselaer in 1634.(7) No doubt there were other specialized structures on some farms, though inventories focus almost exclusively on hay barracks, barn and house.



Hay Wagon of the Province of Friesland,
the Netherlands (end view).
From H. G. Fokkers,
Het Wagegenmakerbedrijf
in Friesland (1979)




Hay Wagon of the Province of Friesland, the Netherlands (side view). From H. G. Fokkers, Het Wagegenmakerbedrijf in Friesland (1979).

Farm Objects

The complexity of a Dutch farm, however:-, is more. strikingly revealed in the wide variety of vehicles, containers, tools, and implements which appear in inventories. A sampling was taken of ten inventories of farms associated with Dutch names,dating from 1643 to 1773.(8) Two points are most striking about these inventories: farms; had far greater variety of objects in the latter period, yet the objects which occurred early on persisted without apparent change to the end. Dutch farms, and presumably farm practices, did not change in type; just in complexity.

The following is an example of an inventory:
"September 27, 1643 Inventory of the farm Vredendael, [near Manhattan] owned by a Mr. La Montagne, leased to Bout Frances. The farmhouse, barn, a barrack of four posts, cook house and hog pen. 1 wagon, near new; a foot plow with appurtenances, in working order; 1 ditto iron harrow; 1 three-pronged fork; 1 two-pronged fork; rope harness for two horses in good condition; 1 fan; 1 peck measure bound with iron; 1 iron bound churn; 2 milk tubs; 1 butter tub; 1 new tub holding one half hogshead; 1 water pail; 1 oak chest; 3 good scythes with snaths; 3 Flemish scythes, good and bad; 2 handles; 3 pickaxes, one of English make; 1 hand cross-cut saw; 1 iron wedge; 1 buttermilk tub; 1 half barrel with a brass faucet; 1 herring barrel; 4 ferrules for scythe blades; 4 ditto for Flemish scythes; 4 mattocks; 2 bill hooks; 2 new axes; 1 currycomb; 1 iron ladle to melt lead; 1 pewter tankard; 1 pewter mug; 1 large pewter basin; 1 ditto platter; copper kettle; 1 grindstone; 1 wheelbarrow; 1 25-rung ladder; 2 millstones, dressed and grooved; 1 jackscrew for the hay barrack; 1 auger; 1 carpenter's adze; 1 pruning knife; 1 hand saw; 1 trowel, 2 bits; 2 ferrules for a wooden maul; 1 gun; 1 iron bolt, 1 1/2 feet long." (9)

Distinctive Dutch Objects
Judging by contemporary accounts, usually written by English speakers unfamiliar with Dutch life, certain objects on Dutch farms were distinctive to this ethnic group. Those accounts describe the Dutch style of wagon, the Dutch hog plow, and the Dutch use of the sith and mathook. Other less visible objects, or design or decorative features of objects, are also distinctly Dutch but did not catch the eye of these observers from the outside. Additional objects may be thought of as representative of Dutch farms even though they are not distinctly Dutch in form or function. Here is a brief discussion of some of these.

The Dutch Wagon
No Dutch wagon, complete with body, undercarriage, and wheels, has yet been found although several bodies which appear to be from Dutch wagons have been located. No more complete discussion of the appearance and utility of this vehicle matches that given by Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, describing life on his farm in Orange County, New York, in the 1760s.

"You have often admired our two horse wagons. They are extremely well-contrived and executed with a great deal of skill; and they answer with ease and dispatch all the purposes of the farm. A well-built wagon, when loaded, will turn in a very few feet more than its length, which is 16 feet, including the length of the tongue. We have room in what is called their bodies to carry five barrels of flour. We commonly put in them a ton of hay, and often more.... We can carry 25 green oak rails, two-thirds of a cord of wood, 3,000 pounds of dung. In short, there is no operation that ought to be performed on a farm but what is easily accomplished with one of these. We can lengthen them as we please, and bring home the body of a tree 20 or 30 feet long. We commonly carry with them thirty bushels of wheat and at 60 pounds to the bushel this makes a weight of 1800 pounds, with which we can go 40 miles a day with two horses..." (10)

"On a Sunday it becomes the family coach. We then take off the common, plain sides and fix on it others which are handsomely painted. The after-part, on which either our name or ciphers are delineated, hangs back suspended by seat chains. If it rains, flat hoops made on purpose are placed in mortises, and painted cloth is spread and tied over the whole. Thus equipped, the master of the family can carry six persons either to church or to meetings. When the roads are good we can easily travel seven miles an hour. In order to prevent too great shaking, our seats are suspended on wooden springs - a simple but very useful mechanism.

These inventions and neatness we owe to the original Dutch settlers.... The Dutch build them with timber which has been previously three years under water and then gradually seasoned."(11)

Young Alexander Coventry, hauling materials to build his house, was equally impressed with what a Dutch wagon could carry. He wrote in his Columbia County diary on October 13, 1786, "Set out with 2 wagons... [and a] cart, for Kinderhook after the boards, bought there when coming from Albany. The 2 wagons took 1000 feet, contained in 70 boards, and Howe's cart took 185 feet contained in 57 boards." (12)

A thousand board feet of pine, at about 30 pounds per cubic feet, would equal 1250 pounds in each wagon, far less than what, de Crevecoeur ascribed to these wagons, yet still more than what modern automobiles carry. Assuming they were about a foot wide, 70 boards would have had an average length of 14 feet. The two-wheeled cart, on the other hand, carried boards of an average length of just 3 1/4 feet, pointing out the great versatility of the wagon for carrying long loads. Carts are mentioned less frequently than wagons in inventories and no early image or surviving cart is known. Functionally they were useful for hauling heavy materials more easily unloaded by dumping, while a wagon was better suited to hauling lighter but bulkier materials like loose hay, bagged grain and produce, lumber, and people.

More the measure of the writer than the observed were Strickland's comments on Dutch wagons, and their loads as he saw them in 1794-5.

"No man is to be seen here on horseback, all people travelling in waggons drawn by two horses abreast. . . The people sit on benches going across the wagon, which has in general no awning or covering. A fat Dutchman and his wife, and two or three clumsy sons and daughters may frequently be seen thus driven and jolted by a not less fat negroe Slave."(13)

The Dutch wagon was appreciated by the English who adopted the form when Dutchmen came to East Anglia in the sixteenth century to drain the Fens. Many of the regional varieties of English wagons show a debt to this borrowing. In New Netherland, wagons are mentioned in records from at least the 1630s. They continued in use into the early nineteenth century. As with other examples of surviving Dutch material culture, this early style wagon may have been used until the Civil War in the conservative Mohawk Valley.

The Dutch Plow
The antecedents of the Dutch plow can be found in illuminated manuscripts at least 500 years old where, for example, the use of the wheel at the front of the plow is evident. Surviving wheel plows in the Netherlands show that they were used in all provinces until the present century.(14) While the wheel plow is thought of as being characteristically Dutch, it occurred elsewhere in northern Europe, and in the Netherlands plows without wheels were also commonly used.

Dutch wagon with four bags, probably of grain. Detail of the painting of the Marten Van Bergen Farm, ca. 1733, at what is now Leeds, Greene County, New York. Collection of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York.

The Netherlands origin of the plow favored by the Dutch of New York and New Jersey is, to be found in the province of Zealand in the Netherlands and in neighboring provinces of Belgium.(15) The American Dutch plow is defined by a number of characteristics: a single handle, a pyramidal shaped iron share which cut the soil, a wood moldboard which turned the soil over, and, in some cases, the use of either a "foot" or wheels which gave stability to the fore-end of the plow and regulated the angle and depth at which the plow share cut the soil. Only a few such early Dutch plows have survived displaying these features.(16)

The simplest of these is the swing plow variant which needed no wheels or foot to support the end of the beam. At various times during the period of its use it was called the Dutch or hog plough. It was widely adopted by the Germans, Canadians and even Yankees in Connecticut, the latter calling it the Dagon plow and exporting it to the South.

Elsewhere especially in New England, a different kind of plow was used (though in origin it too came from the Dutch). De Crevecoeur deftly contrasts the Dutch plow with the English bull plow: . .

"Our next most useful implement is the plough. Of these we have various sorts, according to the soil we have to till. First, is the large two handled plough with an English lock and coulter locked in its point. This is drawn by either four or six oxen and serves for rooty, stony land. This is drawn sometimes by two oxen and three horses. (Second) the one-handled plough is the most common on all level soils. It is drawn either by two or by three horses abreast, and when the ground is both level and swarded we commonly put upon these a Dutch lock, by far the best for turning up, and the easiest draft for, the horse."(17)

While the basic Dutch pyramidal share plow was adopted in some other areas, its other distinctive features - the single handle and the wheel or foot - were not favored outside of eastern New York and north New Jersey. Here it persisted to the Civil War in some more remote places, only giving way reluctantly to a wide range of new-style manufactured plows - including some with wheels.

A partial explanation has to do with its construction. The Dutch plow was lighter in construction than the New England bull plow, reflecting its use in the softer soils of New York. New Englanders had to contend with rocks, so the bull plow was pulled by a team of stronger but slower oxen and was built heavier. The Dutch plow was better at turning sod and soil at a fast clip when harnessed to two horses (the swing plow) or three (the wheel plow).

"They use wheeled Plows mostly with 3 horses abreast & plow and harrow sometimes on a full Trot, a Boy sitting on one Horse." (Richard Smith, 1769) (18)

Smith's comment seems improbable, but others, like de Crevecoeur, confirm that in the right soil the pyramidal plow cut the ground with greater ease than the bull plow. Despite this J. Doucher, brought up in the Hudson Valley, observed, "As early as the year 1806, when I was but a lad, I began to observe the difference in the construction of the plow. At that time there were two kinds in use: one was the Hog plow, which was said to be of Dutch origin, and another called the Bull plow, a Yankee invention...The Bull was the most esteemed, the other went out of use about the year 1809 or 10".(19)

Author and researcher Roderic Blackburn has previously written an informative article about the characteristic Dutch hay barrack, also part of the unique early Dutch-American farm scene, for this newsletter.

This article will be continued in the Fall, 1992 Newsletter. The Dutch sith and mathook, schepel, and puzzling pieces of harness will be featured.


1. (1749-50) Kalm, Peter, Travels in North America. New York: 1964, p. 335-6.

2. Two at the Johannes Van Alen Farm on School House Road in Stuyvesant, Columbia County; one at the Ten Broeck Mansion in Albany.

3. One at the Johannes Van Alen Farm, Stuyvesant, N.Y.

4. Personal communication, Donald Carpentier.

5. Ditto.

6. Drawings courtesy of Jaap Schipper, Amsterdam.

7. Van Laer, A. J. F., Van Rensselaer-Bowier Manuscripts. Albany: University of the State of New York, 1908, p. 204. Ibid, p. 308.

8. These inventories are contained in the New York State Library's Manuscripts and Special Collections: New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch.

9. New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch V.l1 p.134-5).

10. de Crevecoeur, Hector St. John. Sketches of Eighteenth Century America. Edited by Henri L. Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925. p.138-139.

11. cited in: Blackburn, Roderic H., "The Persistence of Dutch Culture: A First Person Account of Building a Farm in 1787" in A Beautiful and Fruitful Place, Selected Rensselaerwijck Seminar Papers. The New Netherland Project, Albany. 1991 p.40.

12. William Strickland, Journal of a Tour in the United States of America 1794-1795, New York: New-York Historical Society, 1971. p.74.

13. Vince, John. Discovering Carts and Wagons. Ayelsbury: Shire Publications Ltd., 1978. p.17.

14. van der Poel, J. M. G. Oude Netherlandse Ploegen, Arnhem: Rijksmuseum voor Volkskunde, 1967. p.19-65.

15. Cousins, Peter H. Hog Plow and Sith, Cultural Aspects of Early Agricultural Technology, Dearborn: Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, 1973. p.4.

16. Examples can be seen at the Farmers Museum, Cooperstown, NY; Daniel Parrish Witter Agricultural Museum, Syracuse, NY; Hadley Farm Museum, Hadley, MA; Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI; New York State Museum, Albany, NY; Ontario Science Center, Ontario, Canada; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Upper Canada Village, Ont.; and the Monmouth Country Historical Society, Freehold, NJ.

17. de Crevecoeur, Hector St. john. Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, 139-40.

18. Smith, Richard, A Tour of Four Great Rivers / the Hudson, Mohawk, Susquehanna and Delaware in 1769 / Being the journal of Richard Smith of Burlington, New Jersey, Edited by Francis W. Halsey, Port Washington, New York: Ira J. Friedman, 1964. p.21.

19. J. Dutcher to T. B. Wakeman, quoted in Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society 27, pt. 1 (1867), p.474-5.

Apparently a Dutch swing plow, since an attachment point for either wheels or a foot does not appear. Collection, Margaret Reaney Library and Museum, St. Johnsville. Photo by Clarke Blair.

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