John M Cahill Interviews Sean from The Boschloper Saga
Furs and Foes by John M. Cahill
Life on the frontier of 17th-Century New York was fraught with peril and rife with opportunities for adventure and self-improvement. As a writer of historical fiction, my job is to bring those times alive for the reader. What follows is an imagined interview with my fictional hero of Primitive Passions and Savage Wilderness, Books 1 and 2 of The Boschloper Saga. Please join me to learn a little about his life and times.
JMC: Could you introduce yourself and tell us where you were born?
SO: My name is Sean O’Cathail and I was born in County Galway, Ireland, in 1666.
JMC: Why did you leave Ireland?
SO: My father was a tenant farmer and I was the oldest of eight children. My parents could barely feed us all and, since there was nothing for me to inherit other than my father’s tenancy, I decided it would be better for everyone if I left. So, at the age of12, I left home and went to Galway City seeking a berth on a ship. That is how I ended up on HMS Frigate Expeditious as a common seaman for four years.
JMC: Why did you leave the sea?
SO: When I was 16, we made port at Manhattan in New York. I was mesmerized by the wide expanse of wilderness that stretched beyond the town and the unlimited possibilities it seemed to represent. That’s when I decided that I would leave the sea and seek my fortune in the Americas.
JMC: Why and how did you become a fur trader? After all, I wouldn’t think that it was a profession with which you were familiar.
SO: When I first arrived in Manhattan, I met an Irish woman who told me that her employer’s father was a successful fur trader in Albany and that he seemed to be quite well off. So, I went to Albany and met Aernout Viele who took me on as an apprentice and later as a partner before I struck out on my own.
JMC: You often refer to yourself as a boschloper. What is a boschloper? What does it mean?
SO: Boschloper is a Dutch word that means “runner in the woods.” It is similar to the French term, coureur-de-bois. Over time, it came to mean a fur trader. But, in the beginning, it meant something completely different. When the Dutch first began trading in Albany, it was illegal to trade outside of the town itself. So, in order to get the best furs, traders would send young men to wait in the forest outside the town. They would intercept Indians coming with furs and, with bribes or liquor, get the Indians to bring their furs to the traders they represented. Those young men were the first boschlopers.
JMC: So you waited in the woods and plied unsuspecting Indians with liquor?
SO: No. Aernout did not believe in using liquor. His reputation as a fair trader made it unnecessary. Rather, as part of my apprenticeship, I would wait in the woods and remind the Indians I met that they could get the best prices for their furs from Aernout.
JMC: Have you ever been in love?
SO: I have been both lucky and unlucky in love. My first love was Kai, a beautiful Mohawk woman. She was a strong, independent and free-spirited woman and those were the qualities that drew me to her. She saved my life not just once, but twice. Unfortunately, the second time she saved my life, she lost her own.
JMC: And your other love?
SO: That would be the woman I married, Laurentje van Reuyter. When we met, she was an indentured servant in Albany and, when I was able, I paid her indenture and we were married. I lost her, as well. She died in childbirth.
JMC: Do you have any children?
SO: I have two sons. One by Kai and one by Laurentje. Kai’s son, Keme, lives with his uncle among the Mohawk. My other son, Frederik, lives with me in Albany.
JMC: May I ask, why don’t they both live with you?
SO: I believe that children should be exposed to their heritage. Among the Mohawk, Keme will learn the ways of his mother’s people. Meanwhile, in Albany, Frederik will learn the ways of the Dutch. I plan to bring them together at some point, when they are old enough, to learn about their shared Irish heritage, and to get to know each other.
JMC: Do you believe that women are the stronger or weaker sex?
SO: Stronger, without a doubt! Both Kai and Laurentje were strong women. As I said, Kai twice saved my life. For her part, Laurentje was a typical Dutch woman of the time. A Dutch woman, in Holland or New York, was a full partner with her husband and as responsible as the husband for the success or failure of their business. Laurentje worked side by side with me in our fur trading business. If something had happened to me, she would take over the business and become a koopvrouw or “business woman.” When the English took New York, however, they tried to impose Common Law. Under English Common Law, a woman, once married, was inferior to her husband. She had no rights and could, herself, own nothing. As you can imagine, the Dutch resisted and it was one of the things that set the Dutch apart for many years.
JMC: It sounds like you have had both happiness and sadness in your life. Would you do anything differently?
SO: Never! I certainly wouldn’t want to be a farmer or a craftsman. I enjoy the freedom to come and go at will that comes with fur trading.
JMC: You were a Catholic living in a Protestant colony at a time when there was great animosity between the religions. Was that ever a problem for you?
SO: There were some problems when I first arrived in Albany but, over time, as people came to know me as a person, the problems became less and less. You have to understand that, as a people, the Dutch are quite broad-minded and accepting of people who are different. After all, they allowed Jews and Quakers, as well as Catholics, to live in New Netherland. The fact that the English colonial governor when I arrived, Thomas Dongan, was an Irish Catholic helped as well. However, when Dongan was recalled and, then, William of Orange took the English throne, things changed immensely. First, without a governor, New York was leaderless. That void was filled by a man named Jacob Leisler. He proclaimed himself acting lieutenant governor and then played to the fears of the Dutch residents that a Catholic coup, an attempt to wrest the colony away from the Protestants, was underway. Luckily, King William quickly appointed a new governor and, within a year, Leisler had been tried and hung as a traitor and things returned to normal.
JMC: I imagine that the life of a fur trader involves a great deal of travel. What is the most impressive thing you’ve seen in your travels?
SO: Without a doubt, that would be the falls at Niagara. Never have I seen anything like it! It was simply overwhelming.
JMC: So, you traveled as far as Niagara?
SO: Actually, I have been further. Aernout and I were part of a trading expedition to Michilimackinac, at the juncture of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and the Upper Lake. It was deep in French territory. I thought I would be the first Irishman to see all of the Great Lakes.
JMC: “You thought?” What happened?
SO: We were captured by the French and their Indian allies while we were still in Lake Erie.
JMC: What happened then?
SO: We were taken to Montreal and held prisoner as pawns in the French plan to take over all of the fur trade. Luckily, I was able to escape and return home. I was back in Albany for almost a year before the New York government was able to negotiate the return of my companions.
JMC: What are your plans for the future?
SO: I want to go beyond the frontier. I have heard tell of a great river in the west and, beyond it, a vast land filled with fur-bearing animals. That is where I would like to go before I die.
JMC: Thank you for talking with me. I wish you every success with your further adventures.
John M. Cahill was born and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the history-rich Berkshire Hills. He earned a B.A. degree in journalism and political science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After graduation he moved to New York’s Capital District where, for 34 years, he enjoyed a successful and rewarding career in public relations and social marketing with New York State government. While living in New York’s Mohawk Valley, he took an interest in the Dutch and English fur traders and their relations with their Iroquois neighbors and their French adversaries. He now lives, with his wife, in Vienna, Austria.