Posted by: history591seventeen | March 27, 2010

The Island at the Center of the World

According to author, Russell Shorto of  The Island at the Center of the World the foundation for New York actually started with the founding of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, and New Netherland was to become a trading center for the West India Company.  By using Dutch documents, translated by Charles Gehring, a more complete understanding of the Dutch story has been uncovered.    

            The new settlers for New Netherland came from Amsterdam, which was known as a multiethnic city.  “The Dutch stood out for their relative acceptance of foreignness of religious difference, of odd sorts” (26).  In fact, many of the settlers that came to New Netherland were refugees from Amsterdam that were willing to travel across the ocean and service the Company for six years in exchange for promised land. Upon arriving, the settlers found, “. . . beautiful rivers, bubbling fountains . . . basins of running water . . . agreeable fruits. . .” (43), and they wrote back home about this land of plenty (43).  The harbor and many available water ways made trade with the natives very easy as well.  Clearly, this new colony would be profitable. 

            Peter Minuit was the early director of the province, who purchased land for the Company directors from the natives of the area (52).  Of course after purchasing the land, the Dutch found that the natives had a different belief of land ownership.  The Dutch were free to use the land and coexist with the natives, for they did not leave.  Within a year of settling, there were thirty wooden houses constructed, as well as “two windmills:  one for grinding grain, the other for sawing lumber” and a fort was being built (56).  Minuit made peace with the Mohawks Indians in the north; he brought Manhattan and Staten islands, part of the Hudson River and part of the Delaware River from the natives, while maintaining good relations (65).

            Around 1628, the colony was showing the West India Company a profit; yet the directors were sure more money could be made if more settlers came to New Netherland; however, because of letters Rev. Michaelius had written to the directors about Peter Minuit, in 1631, Minuit was summoned home to report to them.  Then according to the directors, Rev. Krol of the Fort Orange colony was to act as provisional director in Minuit’s absence. 

            Finally, in the 1630s, the English realized how strong a trading place for the West India Company New Netherland could become, and the English challenged the right of discovery of the Dutch, claiming this area as English.  John Cabot, an Italian, made “first discovery” in 1497, which in the English mind gave the English more right to the land, than to the Dutch.  The Dutch did not agree.  At this time in history, the Dutch were a stronger nation and they, therefore temporarily won this land grab (74).

            In 1634, when trade with the natives was drying up, a young man named Harman van den Bogaert went in to find the Mohawks and ended up making a very profitable deal with them for the Mohawk’s beaver pelt trade.   The company also replaced Peter Minuit with Wouter van Twiller who upon arrival proved himself to be “a drunk and a nonleader” (81).  However, other documents have been found that state Van Twiller was building forts and thereby creating protection for his colony against outer invasion (82).  Under Van Twiller, five shops were built and dozens of private homes were constructed.  The settlers were known to be a somewhat rowdy group, made up of “. . . a colorful collection of losers and scalawags. . .” (88), not like their English neighbors in Massachusetts who Van Twitter had contracted in order to set up friendly relations.  They were not really interested in relations, but by 1636 they had began moving into Dutch claimed land.  At the same time, a man who was part of the directors of the West India Company began eyeing land for himself.  His name was Kiliaen van Rensselaer; he was a diamond merchant who began working with the ousted Peter Minuit.  Van Rensselaer wanted Minuit to purchase land within the Dutch claimed land to set up his own fiefdom (87).  As a result of these outside actions and the lack of leadership in the Manhattan colony, the colony was dying.  The colony was only a trading post and had no formal governing body or government.  However, the colony set up by Van Rensselaer prospered.  Van Rensselaer then sent a young man named Adriaen van der Donck to New Netherland to become a sheriff and public prosecutor (103).

            In 1638 the directors replaced Van Twiller with Willem Kieft, who they hoped through his “iron authority” would turn the colony around.  However, in 1640, the company opened up the area to free-trade, which was what really helped the Manhattan colony by bringing more merchants and merchandise into this area. 

            The lawman, Adriaen Van der Donck came to understand that the colonies needed a proper government to continue to prosper (131).   Van der Donck wrote to the directors of the West India Company about his concerns of which they did not share.    At this point, it is important to understand the Dutch view of New Netherland.  “The Dutch preferred to set up military-trading posts at strategic spots and let the locals bring trade good to them.  The trading companies did not see themselves in the business of establishing permanent colonies” (113).  This belief would be what led to the end of New Netherland. 

            Peter Stuyvesant replaced Kieft in 1647 (165).  Stuyvesant served the directors well.  He continued their principle of treating the colony more as a military site, not a community; yet he did ask the directors more than once for more soldiers to be placed in New Netherland to protect it, which fall on deaf ears.  Stuyvesant was considered a fair disciplinarian and befriended Adriaen Van der Donck for a time.  However, Van der Donck continued to press for a form of government to be developed in the colonies, of which the directors did not want.  Yet the “Board of Nine” (193) was produced to help manage and moderate civilians of the colonies and to set up any needed sentences accordingly.  That was as far as the directors of the West India Company were willing to go.  

            Van der Donck kept pushing for more and eventually he and Stuyvesant had a permanent falling out.  By the spring of 1650, Van der Donck through his presentation, as well as personal letters, had won over the directors; Stuyvesant was recalled and Van der Donck was going to be allowed to set up a new government in New Netherland.  Then the winds of war changed everything.  The Prince of Orange was planning on overtaking Holland and in 1652, before Van der Donck could begin his new plan, the West India Company changed its mind; the directors wanted Stuyvesant reinstated and the military type colonies to continue as they were (249). 

            In 1664, Englishman Richard Nicolls set sites on overtaking New Netherland.  He sailed with four gunships and four hundred and fifty men.  Nicolls planned to bomb New Netherland, if needed.  Stuyvesant asked the people to defend their colonies for the company, which they refused, because of the lack of involvement made by the company in the colony.  If the company would have sent soldiers to defend this colony, they could have had a chance, but as it was, they had no chance.  Therefore, Stuyvesant gave up the fort and the English moved in.  At the same time, the influence of the Dutch remained in New Netherland, newly named New York, because, according to the terms of surrender, the people did not have to leave and therefore they stayed and continued to thrive in what became New York City.  These are the people who helped shape the culture of being American, which became “America’s first mixed society” than the select setting that the previous English colonies, the Puritans and Pilgrims, had started.  Its location alone, made New York a key in world trade, and from its beginnings, this place was grounded in Dutch tolerance and diversity (309). Yet the Dutch also left some of their term and/or traditions behind.

            The terms, “the boss,” “St a Claus” and “cookies” all have Dutch connections.  “The Boss” was whom the directors of the West India Company wanted to employ when they hired Peter Stuyvesant;  St a Claus was a slim gentleman who left treats in Dutch Manhattan children’s shoes on Saint Nicholas Eve; cookies were the name the Dutch used for sweet biscuits; therefore Americans eat cookies, not biscuits.


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