WMU doctoral candidate receives Fulbright grant
The Fulbright program's “New York 400 Grant” was awarded in spring 2010 to Stephen Staggs, a doctoral candidate in Western Michigan University’s history department, which will fund one year of dissertation research in the Netherlands for his project titled, “Indian-Dutch Relations in New Netherland and New York during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.”
The award is a commemorative grant that celebrates 400 years of Dutch-American friendship and the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Program in the Netherlands.
During his time in the Netherlands, Stagg’s will delve into the relationships that developed between Native Americans and the Dutch in New Netherland and New York during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He will study sermons and pamphlet literature from that era written by Dutch Protestant theologians and pastors to determine how Native Americans were characterized. He will be affiliated with the Vrije Universiteit and Dr. Fred van Lieburg, an expert in seventeenth-century Protestantism in the Dutch Republic. Staggs said his project was inspired by his fascination with the theme of cross-cultural interactions and encounters.
“Prior to ‘1492’, the Dutch had never conceived of another world filled with people,” said Staggs, who grew up in Lansing, Ill. “Similarly, Native Americans were unaware of this other world. I'm interested in how both the Dutch and the Native Americans integrated each other in their worldviews and how this affected their view of the world.”
On the advice of his WMU advisors, history professors Dr. James Palmitessa and Dr. José António Brandão, Staggs travelled to the Netherlands in August 2009 to determine if there were enough relevant sources available in archives to warrant spending a year there conducting research. During the three weeks Staggs spent in the Netherlands that summer, he visited numerous archives looking for related materials and consulting with curators.
His first stop was Amsterdam's city archives—the well-organized Stadsarchief Amsterdam—where he spent most of his time looking for correspondence letters pastors had written from New Netherlands to the Classis of Amsterdam. From there he traveled to the city of Middelburg, in Zeeland province in the southwestern region of the Netherlands, which was known as a center of religious thought in the seventeenth century. In the city’s library, Staggs found piles of sermons, which he believed full of promise because they contained multiple references to Native Americans. In The Hague, he located an entire collection of pamphlet literature from the period, some of which referenced relationships with Native Americans. He also travelled to London, England to visit the Lambeth Palace Library, which houses letters received from Dutch pastors living in New Netherland.
“It's not an overwhelming amount of evidence, but enough to legitimate a trip and to suggest that there was more to be found,” he said. “I will seek Dr. van Lieburg’s advice and direction in locating other source material I might not have run across. I have a general outline in mind about the shape of my dissertation, but I'm going to need to focus on the most relevant sources. The majority of my time will be spent studying those sources that are most relevant to my topic.”
Staggs said many historians have written about what Spanish, French and English theologians wrote about Native Americans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but not much research has been done on similar materials published by the Dutch. “The Dutch were curious about the Native Americans and aware of them through the writings of other peoples who lived in or visited the new world,” he said.
Learning as a child that it was likely he had Cherokee ancestors piqued his interest in Native American history and culture at a young age. While an undergraduate majoring in history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Staggs made a point to select Native American topics for his essay assignments.
When he arrived at WMU in 1998 to begin work on a master’s degree in history, he expected to work with WMU history professor Dr. José Brandão, whose field is Native American history. Unfortunately, their schedules conflicted and he enrolled instead in an early modern European history with Dr. James Palmitessa. “An assignment in that history class sparked an interest in the early modern period of the Netherlands,” he said.
Eventually, he was able to enroll in both professors’ classes and enlisted each as co-advisors to help him to bring his two research interests—Native Americans and European history—together for his Ph.D. work. The three determined that a project focused on New Netherland, where Dutch immigrants regularly interacted with Native Americans, would make a unique and interesting dissertation project. However, that choice would also require Staggs to learn to read Dutch—a challenge he undertook in four semesters of courses at Calvin College. “I was very anxious because I was older, had often heard that the older you are the harder it is to learn a new language, and I had always found learning languages to be difficult,” he said.
During his final Dutch language course, Staggs befriended Professor Martinus Bakker, a native of the Netherlands, who was serving in his capacity as professor emeritus at Calvin College. Bakker became his tutor and helped Staggs focus on grammar rules which aid the reading process. Prior to his departure for the Netherlands in August 2010, Staggs had been visiting Martinus' house once a week for the last three years for an hour-long Dutch lesson.
“Professor Martinus is a lot of fun to talk to,” he said. “When I visited him, we conversed in Dutch, and if I call him I'm forced to speak Dutch. Even my e-mails are written in Dutch: I was not allowed to communicate with him in English.”
Staggs said the anxiety he felt about living and working for a year in Amsterdam away from family and friends was curbed by the three weeks he spent there in summer 2009 and a two-month research residency he recently completed at the New York State Archives in Albany, New York.
“Archival work is mentally exhausting, though I am confident that I have been prepared to focus on my research in the Netherlands,” he said. “The idea of cross-cultural contact is very relevant in a day and age of increasing contact between various peoples. Obviously the past is different, but it's interesting how it was different, and I want to find out if there is anything universal in human nature in the way relationships were pursued cross-culturally in the past. More specifically, in the Netherlands, one of the debates in Dutch history is the idea of tolerance. The Dutch have prided themselves on having a very tolerant culture, so I'm also curious to find out in regards to Native Americans if the Dutch were in fact tolerant.”
Story by Nate Coe