Feature: How Nieuw Nederlandt became New YorkArticle by Tiffany Jansen
The Dutch were busy establishing their own colony about the same time Jamestown was getting underway, and a full decade before the Pilgrims happened upon Plymouth. Yet history books don’t give the Dutch settlers anywhere near the attention they do the latter-mentioned colonies.
Most North Americans know at least something about the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth, yet finding someone who’s familiar with the settlement started by the Dutch in the early 1600s is not that easy. Quite unacceptable given that the capital of this former Dutch colony is arguably one of the world’s most famous cities.
You probably know it as New York, but before the English got ahold of it in 1664, the territory was known as Nieuw Nederlandt (New Netherland).
An English sailor doesn’t quite make it to Asia
There once was a sailor named Henry Hudson. Doesn’t sound very Dutch, does he? That’s because he wasn’t. But that didn’t stop the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) from hiring the English explorer to find a Northeast passage to Asia.
Hudson and his crew set off in the Halve Maen (Half Moon) to sail the uncharted waters they hoped would bring them to Asia. However, a blockade of ice floes just north of Norway derailed their plans.
The crew was in a state over this turn of events and threatened mutiny. To calm the crew and ensure that their voyage was not in vain, Hudson decided a change of plans was in order. If a Northeast passage was not a possibility, then they would find a Northwest passage instead. He had heard rumors that John Smith and Samuel de Champlain, of the New World settlements of Jamestown and Quebec, had found such a passage. So he, too, took off in the direction of North America.
Interestingly enough, Hudson and his crew never made it to Asia. Partly because there is no such all-water route through the North American continent. And partly because they were sidetracked by what they found when, in 1609, they sailed into the mouth of a large river just off the coast of Cape Cod.
What they found there was a majestic harbor surrounded by wide, easily navigable rivers and land rich with natural resources. Hudson quickly returned to The Netherlands to share his findings. The river that brought Hudson to this advantageous discovery was dubbed the North River by the Dutch, who flocked to this new land upon hearing Hudson’s glowing report. Today, that same river is known as the Hudson River – named after the man who discovered it.
The ‘buck’ doesn’t stop here
Within four years of Hudson’s discovery, private merchants from Amsterdam began sending agents to the area to act in their financial interests. These agents collected food, tobacco and timber, sending shiploads back to Amsterdam, which was, at the time, Europe’s leading trade city.
By far the biggest money-maker was the fur trade. Folks in Europe were willing to pay a pretty penny for pelts, and this new territory had hides to spare. So much so, that skins were often used as currency.
In order to secure for themselves the abundant trade and commerce the new land afforded, the Dutch decided to colonize the area and name it Nieuw Nederlandt. New Netherland was the first Dutch colony in the New World. The settlement stretched from Delaware to Albany, Upstate New York and included parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey.
Soon, others set out from The Netherlands to seek their fortunes in the New World. Colonists risked piracy, disease, treacherous waters, death and the possibility of never seeing their families or their motherland again. Some came for the prospect of owning their own land or to capitalize on the fur trade. Others came as servants or to escape religious persecution. Not all hopefuls embarking on this journey were Dutch. Because of the exceptional religious tolerance in The Netherlands at the time, many Europeans had fled there to escape religious persecution in their own countries. Some of these refugees also decided to see what opportunities awaited them in the new colony.
Life in the Hudson River Valley
In the beginning, New Netherland was populated mostly by Native Americans, traders and employees of the Dutch East India Company. Eventually, farmers and tradesmen arrived with their wives and children in tow. Slaves were brought in from Africa. Soldiers were shipped over to protect the colony. Officials were appointed to govern and maintain order. There were shipbuilders, teachers, millers, butchers, brewers, blacksmiths, carpenters and bakers. Though they all disembarked from The Netherlands, they hailed from all over Europe, including Germany, France, Belgium, England, Finland and Denmark.
The Dutch colonists intermingled seamlessly with the rest of the Hudson Valley and married settlers from England and other countries occupying the area.
Everyone living in the new land had one thing in common: they all had a hand in the fur trade. That’s how they paid for goods and services: in pelts. Pelts and wampum beads. Money was rarely used.
That’s not to say the Dutch never parted with their coins. In fact, that’s how State General Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans in 1626. It sold for a mere sixty guilders and was then renamed New Amsterdam. By the 1650s, New Amsterdam was a commercial hotspot.
From New Netherland to New York
As New Netherland continued to flourish, the Dutch gained a number of enemies. Chief among them were the English, green with envy at the success of the Dutch colony. The English resolved to take it. However, it wasn’t until Charles II came to the throne that anything was actually done about it. In 1664, he gifted the land on which the settlement stood to his brother, the Duke of York – despite the fact that it was not his land to give.
But, a promise is a promise. And so that same year, the English sailed to the New World and took the Dutch colony by force, renaming it New York, after its new owner. After fifty glorious years, New Netherland was no more.
The good news is the settlement didn’t change much after coming under British rule. The Dutch colonists stayed put, and life went on pretty much as usual. This year marks 350 years since New Netherland was seized by the British and rechristened New York. But the Dutch legacy lives on in the United States even today. In holiday traditions, food, place names, architecture and even politics. It may be called New York, but it still has New Amsterdam written all over it.
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