Uncovering Early Dutch America

Harry Boonstra

Since many Perspectives readers may be Reformed or Dutch (or both), this story of the early Dutch on the U.S. East Coast will be of interest to them. But it also will (or should) be to others. New Netherland Cover Fabend notes the “neglect by historians of New Netherland—the result of a kind of oblivion that emphasized the English origins of our national history and culture over all others, local, state, or regional.” And a great story it is, written with both the historian and the general reader in mind (even if neither Dutch nor Reformed).

The beginning of New Netherland is rather well-known. The Dutch of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were gaining on their English and Spanish economic competitors, partly by their colonial holdings. Exploring to the east, they had taken control of modern Indonesia, with the double aim of extracting whatever they could from those islands and selling it on the European market, and of sending missionaries to convert the heathen. (They were much more successful with their first aim.) Traveling westward, to find a shortcut to Asia, the English Captain Henry Hudson, in the employ of the Netherlands, bumped into Manhattan Island on the American continent. The Dutch government claimed possession of the island and further areas, especially far to the North. (One early map shows Nova Belgica, that is, “New Netherlands” as far north as the Great Lakes. The Dutch also “ruled” Brazil for a time.)

Manhattan and the rest of the colony were turned over to a commercial charter company, the West India Company, which assumed virtually complete control of the slowly growing colony. The initial source of income was the trade of beaver pelts for European export. The Native Americans (called Indians throughout the book) were the main source for the pelts, and the Dutch were only one of their customers. The French and English had already established fierce trade competition, and the battles with these Europeans, as well as scrimmages with the Indians, were nearly constant.

But the colony also slowly developed other occupations and sources of income: “Bakers, brewers, carpenters, chimney sweeps, doctors, millers, a poet, many tapsters, a trumpeter, and more, as well as many taverns, about one for every twenty households.”

The variety of trades was more than matched by the variety of nationalities and languages. The Netherlands, and especially the city of Amsterdam, had already gained a reputation as a city of both refuge and opportunity. The first shipload of settlers to Manhattan were French-speaking Walloons (from modern Belgium) who had fled to the Netherlands from Roman Catholic persecution. Many other nationalities also hoped to make a living in New Netherlands, and even though Dutch was the official and most common language, some fifteen other nationalities and languages were represented. In 1640 there were a few hundred inhabitants, reaching a high of about three thousand in the 1660s.

The size and fate of various religious groups is even more interesting. For its time the Netherlands was much more tolerant about religious diversity than most other states. It is true that the Protestant/Calvinist church was the only officially recognized faith, and in many ways the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk was a “state-church” or a “public church.” (There was no modern “separation of church and state.” The famous Synod of Dort was organized by the government and the translation of the Bible into Dutch was ordered by the states.) Other religions, faiths, churches, and sects were permitted with various degrees of toleration. As a result, the colonists who moved from the Netherlands to New Netherland expected the same forbearing, and in many instances they were given license to practice their faith, although often they worshiped under the radar.

Chapters 5 and 9 deal especially with the religious pattern. The Reformed Church in America likes to call itself the “oldest continuing denomination in America”—for good reason. In 1628 the West India Company appointed Jonas Michalius as the first minister of the small Reformed congregation, followed in 1633 by the more famous Everardus Bogardus. Chapter 9 makes for fascinating reading about the role of the church, which attempted to preserve Calvinist orthodoxy and an upright life for its members, as well as the good conduct of the community as a whole, including very strict Sabbath observance. The church also had to contend with the governor about the authority and control of the colony. One such clash had an ironic outcome. The Reverend Bogardus and Governor Kieft kept up a running power struggle about their control of the colony. In 1647 the two were summoned to appear before the West India Company authorities in Amsterdam. They happened to travel back to Europe on the same ship; the ship was wrecked near the coast of Wales and both men perished. In later centuries the Reformed Church experienced many, many changes, including its separation from the mother church in the Netherlands in 1754, and its greater involvement in American Protestantism.

Another crucial factor was the Dutch relationship to other races. Although one of the church’s noble intents had been to evangelize the Indians, the reality was appalling. The Dutch (similar to other European immigrants) had no compunction about robbing the Indians of their land. The Indians retaliated with raids on the outlying farms and smaller communities, sometimes wiping out whole villages. The Dutch responded in kind and at times sought to exterminate all the Indians with whom they had contact. The treatment of slaves from Africa was no better. The Dutch had been involved in transporting African slaves to the Caribbean since 1606 and now they also became complicit in buying and selling slaves—in effect opening one of the earliest slave markets in North America in 1711. They also used the Africans as their own slaves, thus setting a pattern for the treatment of Africans in the southern United States.

In Chapter 10 the author seeks to minimize the New Amsterdam reputation as a decadent community of dissipated pirates and brawlers. The city certainly had its share of drunken sailors, but there also was a community of hard-working citizens who were responsible for an orderly life, church attendance, and their children’s education.

New Netherland did not have a long life span. Situated as it was among various English settlements, its neighbors had coveted the location and growing colony for decades. The ending was neither unexpected nor a glorious defeat. In July 1664 four English frigates appeared in the harbor and simply demanded the capitulation of New Netherland. Stuyvesant hesitated brief ly, but then recognized the odds and signed the document. The terms guaranteed the continued use of two structures: “All publick Houses shall continue for the uses which now they are for, and the Dutch here shall enjoy their Liberty of their Consciences in Divine Worship and Christian Discipline.”

Although this is indeed a nutshell history, it is told very well, as it captures the story and the spirit of early “New York.” Fabend’s extensive endnotes encourage further reading, especially of the material preserved and published recently by the New Netherland Research Center. The excellent photographs and paintings further help to capture the spirit of the time and place.

Harry Boonstra is theological librarian emeritus for Calvin College and Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.