Conflict and Commerce: The Rise and Fall of New Netherland

by Simon Middleton

In September 1609, when Henry Hudson guided his ship, De Halve Maen, through the narrows dividing present-day Staten and Long Islands, he was not the first European navigator to sail into what we know today as New York Bay. The Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano came in 1524; the Frenchmen Jean Alfonse de Saintonge and Jean Cossin made separate voyages over the next half century. But it was Hudson’s arrival that established a Dutch claim to the region and changed its history for all time.

Hudson, an English mariner in Dutch employ, had left Amsterdam in April intending to explore the Arctic seas north of Norway for a possible eastern route to the rich trade of the Indies. When ice floes barred the way, his eighty-five-foot vessel and its crew of sixteen mariners turned to the west and journeyed five thousand miles to North America. For weeks they navigated southwards within sight of the shore, looking for an estuary or bay that might indicate the beginnings of a western route to Asia. By August they had reached Long Island and, after a few days exploring the coast around Sandy Hook, Hudson set off up the broad, deep, and promising river that now bears his name. Although the intrepid captain failed to locate a route to Asia—his navigation of the Hudson ended at the site of modern-day Albany—he had discovered a territory rich in timber and furs that would please his Dutch financiers back in Amsterdam.

Hudson’s voyage took place at a critical moment in Atlantic history, and, in particular, for the challenge of northern European states to the power of Spain. Weakened by the loss of the Armada to England in 1588 and by relentless attacks on its New World gold fleets, Spain was plagued by financial crises that pushed it to the edge of collapse. The Spanish had also been unable to put down a revolt by their northern Dutch provinces, eight of which had declared their independence and established a new Dutch Republic. In April 1609, after decades of intermittent and inconclusive hostilities, the two sides agreed to a truce, allowing Dutch merchants to back voyages such as Hudson’s without fear of Spanish attack and financial ruin.

Once news of Hudson’s discovery reached Holland, new expeditions arrived to trade beads, knives, and hatchets for furs with the Munsee and Lenape Indians. These private traders established a fortified trading post, Fort Nassau, at the site of present-day Albany and charted the coastline and river inlets between Cape Cod and the Delaware Bay. In 1614, one of them, Adrian Block, produced the first map of the territory that he named New Netherland. The following year, Block and others formed the New Netherland Company and secured a three-year monopoly of the region’s trade from the States General, the governing body of the Dutch Republic. New Netherland, like other early American colonies, was a state-sponsored venture, the aim of which was to realize a profit and serve the emerging Dutch state by eliminating competition from other trading ports and capturing more of the Indies from Portugal and Spain. In 1621, the States General drew up a charter for a new West India Company, granting it a monopoly of all the Dutch Atlantic trade with West Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America. The Company was a joint-stock venture, financed by government investment and private capital to the tune of more than seven million guilders. Like its East Indian counterpart, it was managed by the shareholders who met in five regional chambers.

The company enjoyed some success in its early years, establishing trading posts on both sides of the Atlantic, dealing in slaves on the coast of Africa, as well as gold, ivory, and sugar in the Caribbean, Suriname, and the northeast coast of Brazil. New Netherland was only part of the Company’s concern, and a relatively minor one at that. In the summer of 1624, the Company established a small settlement under the command of Cornelis Jacobsz May, the first provincial director, transporting some thirty families to what is now Governor’s Island. More colonists arrived the following year, and the settlement was relocated a short distance across the bay to the equally secure and more commodious lower tip of Manhattan, establishing New Amsterdam, later New York City. To secure the settlement, Peter Minuit, then the provincial director, offered sixty guilders worth of blankets, kettles, and knives to neighboring Indians, who accepted the trade goods as gifts, sealing a defensive alliance with the newcomers and not, as was once supposed, as payment for the island of Manhattan. Fifteen years after Hudson’s arrival, New Netherland, the newest commercial outpost of the Dutch empire, consisted of a small group of traders living at the edge of a vast and rich wilderness.

The settlers’ peace with the numerous local Native American tribes was tenuous at best. The large linguistic and cultural native groupings of Algonquian and Iroquoian Indians who inhabited the region were subdivided into smaller communities that were frequently at war or in some form of alliance with each other. The arrival of the Dutch had piqued the interest of local Indians, who regarded the newcomers as potential allies and sources of new and interesting gifts that could in turn be traded with other tribes. Thus, the Dutch found themselves drawn into a web of Indian diplomacy that they only partially understood.

As early as 1626, the settlers at Fort Orange (formerly Fort Nassau) suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of Mohawks, the enemies of the Mahicans, the tribe with which the Dutch had been trading. Beginning in 1629, European-Amerindian commercial and diplomatic relations became even more complicated following the migration of thousands of English Puritans from New England, the territory north of New Netherland. These New Englanders provided Native Americans with yet another source of gifts and friendship, and their rapidly growing and spreading settlement soon threatened to overwhelm the thinly populated New Netherland. The arrival of the English prompted a reassessment of the colony’s future. In June 1629, in an attempt to bolster New Netherland’s population, the Company announced its intention to offer large tracts of land to patroons (a Dutch word for landowners, from the Spanish “patrón”) who agreed to “buy” the land from the Indians, settle fifty families within four years, and thereafter administer their settlements’ civil and criminal courts. Unfortunately, the relatively prosperous conditions prevailing in the United Provinces and the limited benefits for settlers—who were expected to endure a dangerous sea voyage to live in the North American wilderness—hardly recommended the patroonships as desirable destinations. All the prospective communities except for Rensselaerswijck, established by Kiliaen van Rensselaer on both banks of the Hudson River near Fort Orange, failed to attract large numbers of investors and settlers. Those who did make the trans-Atlantic journey often deserted their designated employment, hoping to get rich quickly by defying the Company’s regulations and joining the lucrative fur trade. Meanwhile, English colonists continued to settle in the Dutch territory.

The failure of the patroonship scheme established important precedents for the future. The easing of the patroon policy in 1640, along with the arrival of independent fur traders, signaled the beginning of the end for the Company’s trading monopoly and also drew its shareholders and officers into civil rather than commercial administration. By the mid-seventeenth century, New Netherland’s future as a colony of traders and farmers was increasingly apparent; land, not furs, would prove to be its greatest resource.

In the second half of the 1630s, groups of Puritans spread southwards into the Connecticut River Valley—territory previously claimed by the West India Company. The shareholders took steps to secure their territorial position, purchasing from the Canarsee Indians all land west of Oyster Bay on Long Island and offering revised terms and conditions in an attempt to attract new settlers. Under the new “Freedoms and Exemptions” policy, adopted in 1640, the Company gave up its trading monopoly and offered two hundred acres of land to Dutch or English immigrants who undertook to settle five colonists. The change of policy succeeded in bringing new settlers to the colony. Individual traders traveled independently to the colony to trade for furs, and some remained on a semi-permanent basis to represent the interests of major trading houses in Amsterdam. Men and women were drawn across the Atlantic by networks of family and friends. However, the policy also encouraged the Puritans to spill across Long Island Sound, where they established the towns of Gravesend, Hempstead, Flushing, and Middleburgh (later Newtown) on Long Island—a sign of the English settlers’ ever-encroaching presence in the region.

By 1645, when the French Jesuit priest Father Isaac Jogues visited lower Manhattan, the island was populated by some four or five hundred men of different sects and nationalities speaking eighteen different languages. The population of the entire province remained no more than a couple of thousand, but as the number of free traders increased, so did the competition for Indian furs, prompting subtle changes in European-Amerindian relations. As the caution of early years diminished, familiarity bred exploitation and, in time, mutual contempt.

In 1639 the provincial director, Willem Kieft, made the fateful decision to try to exact a tribute from the neighboring Raritan Indians. In Kieft’s view, since the Indians, as defensive allies, benefited from the presence of the Company and the colonists, it was only reasonable that they bear some of its costs. The Indians, for their part, could see little benefit in having allies who stuck to the coast and concentrated on trade, and they rejected Kieft’s authority to levy a tribute. The two sides clashed inconclusively until 1643, when the slaughter of some eighty Wecquaesgeek Indians across the river from New Amsterdam at Pavonia (Jersey City) succeeded in uniting almost the entire Indian population of the Lower Hudson Valley against New Netherland.

When Keift’s War ended two years later, dozens of colonists and some 1600 Indians had been killed, and New Netherland was almost wiped out. Appealing for intervention to the States General in Holland, the settlers declared that “almost every place is abandoned . . . we, wretched people, must skulk, with wives and little ones that still survive in poverty together . . . whilst the Indians daily threaten to overwhelm us.”[1]

In 1647 the Company shareholders dispatched Peter Stuyvesant to restore the colony. A stern and sober man, Stuyvesant was also a fiercely loyal employee who had lost a leg in the Company’s service while fighting the Portuguese on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. No sooner had he arrived than Stuyvesant and his hand-picked council issued a flurry of orders on matters ranging from compulsory church attendance to fire prevention and the keeping of hogs and goats. This set the tone for his seventeen-year administration, during which time he negotiated boundary agreements with the English to the north, led a force of seven hundred men to expel the Swedes from the Delaware River to the south, and, through a combination of diplomacy and armed force, rebuilt Dutch influence and strength in the region. Stuyvesant managed to navigate a middle course between the competing demands of settler lobbies seeking greater autonomy and distant Company shareholders trying to preserve their authority and chartered prerogatives. Although he acquired a reputation as a domineering and autocratic administrator, most historians agree that under Stuyvesant’s care, New Netherland’s population of independent traders and farmers collaborated, establishing orderly villages and small towns.

New Amsterdam quickly became known as the major port and capital of this increasingly prosperous provincial society. The origins of the city’s government can be traced to a campaign for municipal reform begun by local merchants in the 1640s and culminating with the first meeting of the municipal government on February 2, 1653. The city’s first burgomasters and schepens (roughly equivalent to the English mayors and aldermen) were given charge of the school, the docks, and a newly established public weigh-house, but they added to their administrative powers in subsequent years. In the course of the decade, the lives of ordinary settlers in New Amsterdam came to resemble those of the urban Dutch brede middenstand, roughly equivalent to the English middling sort, who balanced their private pursuits with public obligations and adherence to a regulatory order, and served as a powerful integrating force upon an otherwise diverse settler group.

During this period of growth, neither the burgomasters nor the ordinary colonists realized that their success was about to become the source of their undoing. In the late 1650s the colony’s new-found prosperity attracted the attention of powerful English interests who were jealous of the Dutch imperial success. Within months of Charles II’s restoration in 1660, Parliament adopted another Navigation Act, designed to drive the Dutch from the English-controlled American trade. The keenest advocates of England’s commercial empire gathered around the king’s younger brother, James, Duke of York. By March 1664 James and his counsellors had succeeded in persuading the king to grant his brother part of present-day Maine and a handful of islands near its shores. In an act of superlative aggrandizement, the most substantial part of James’s grant awarded him control of all the territory lying between the Delaware and Connecticut rivers—the territory comprising New Netherland.

In May of 1664 James, Duke of York, dispatched Colonel Richard Nicolls with four ships and three hundred soldiers to secure the “entyre submission and obedience” of England’s newest colonial American subjects. In mid-August the invaders disembarked from vessels anchored off Long Island in Gravesend Bay and moved west to Brooklyn. Nicolls enlisted residential militias from the English towns on Long Island and distributed handbills ahead of the advancing troops offering fair treatment for those who surrendered.

The English commander repeated his terms in a letter written to Stuyvesant, promising that in return for capitulation the settlers would “peaceably enjoy whatsoever God’s blessing and their own honest industry have furnished them with and all other privileges with his majesty’s English subjects.” Stuyvesant wanted to make a fight of it. But when he tried to convince New Amsterdam’s leaders to keep news of the lenient surrender terms—and reports of the fort’s limited supply of good gun powder—from the inhabitants, the burgomasters left the meeting “greatly disgusted and dissatisfied.” Furious at their defiance, Stuyvesant tore up Nicolls’s letter offering terms. Within hours work on the city’s fortifications ceased, and a delegation of the “inhabitants of the place assisted by their wives and children crying and praying” confronted the director and demanded that he re-assemble the letter and negotiate surrender. The following day ninety-three prominent burghers—including Stuyvesant’s own seventeen-year-old son—presented a remonstrance denouncing resistance as a folly that would not save “the smallest portion of our entire city, our property and (what is dearer to us), our wives and children, from total ruin.” Stuyvesant relented, and merchant leaders met with Nicolls and his officers to draft the Articles of Capitulation under which New Netherland and New Amsterdam became New York, New York.

The conquest of New Netherland expelled the Dutch from the continent and consolidated the English colonization of North America. Thereafter the English turned their attention to the French as their major European competitor in the North Atlantic, culminating with the French and Indian War (1756–1763), which ushered in the era of the American Revolution. But Dutch New York lived on in the marriage choices, inheritance practices, and naming patterns of a population that, in New York City, remained “Dutch” until at least the end of the seventeenth century and up the Hudson River Valley for a decade or more into the eighteenth. For those who care to look, Dutch New York lives on still in the names of streets and noteworthy families, and in the “cookies” and “coleslaw” that the rest of the world has come to consider so quintessentially American.


[1] E. B. O’Callaghan and Berthold Fernow, eds. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York. (Albany: Weed, Parsons, 1856–1887), 1:139.


Simon Middleton is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield in England and the author of From Privileges to Rights: Work and Labor in Colonial New York (2006).

 

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Already have an account?

Please click here to login and access this page.

How to subscribe

Click here to get a free subscription if you are a K-12 educator or student, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program, which provides even more benefits.

Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.

Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.

Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Why Gilder Lehrman?

Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.

Individual subscription: $25

Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History


Upgrade your Account

We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.

All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!

How to Subscribe

K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.

Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.

Add comment

Login or register to post comments