New York colonial history

WHILE the English were laying the foundations of flourishing commonwealth in Virginia on the broad basis of republicanism, the Dutch were busy fashioning a state upon the still broader foundations of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, with its capital on the site of the city of New York.

Refugees from persecution in France, and native Hollanders; first made settlements on Manhattan Island and elsewhere, and so established the colony of New Netherland, and founded a city which they called New Amsterdam, with Peter Minuit as director-general or governor. Minuit was an energetic man from Wesel, in Rhenish Prussia, where he had been a deacon in the Walloon or French Refugee Church, and had good family connections. He was assisted by a council appointed by the Dutch West India Company. Also by a secretary who was the bookkeeper of the Company, and a sheriff who was also the manager of the revenues of the province. These several officers composed the executive government of New Netherland; its laws derived their life from Holland, and were subservient to the supposed interests of the Company. The first commissary or chief secretary was Isaac de Rasieres, already mentioned as a correspondent with the Pilgrim and Puritan authorities in New England.

The intercourse between the Dutch and Indians was friendly for some time. The Hollanders had extended their traffic as far north as the upper waters of the Hudson, and built a military work on the site of Albany which they called Fort Orange. Eight families had settled there and begun to cultivate the land, when the Mohawk Indians on one side of the river and the Mohegans on the other, both friendly with the Dutch, quarreled and went to war. The commander of the fort foolishly joined the Mohegans in and expedition against the Mohawks in violation of the treaty made at Tawasentha. They were met by the fierce Iroquois, and in a battle with them, the Dutch commander and three of his men were slain, with many of the Mohegans. The settlers at Fort Orange were terrified, and were about to fleet to Manhattan in their boats, when Barentsten, a very popular trader, arrived, and received a deputation of Mohawks, who came to justify their deed. "We have done nothing against the white people," they said' "why did they meddle with us? Had it been otherwise, this would not have happened from us." The position was considered unsafe, and the eight families, with every woman in the garrison, were removed to New Amsterdam. That was in the year 1626.

Now followed the correspondence and personal intercourse between the Dutch on Manhattan and the Puritans in New England. During that time, and until 1628, wars between the Indians on the upper Hudson caused Fort Orange to remain only a military and trading post, for settlers would not venture much beyond the bounds of Manhattan Island. But while the extension of settlements in New Netherland was thus checked by the hostilities of two Indian nations, and the general prosperity of the colony was somewhat depressed, the Dutch West India Company were reaping a rich harvest of wealth and honors from the circumstances of war between Christian nations--Holland, Spain and Portugal. Its battle-ships depredated fiercely and successfully upon the floating commerce of those kingdoms of the Peninsula. The fleets of the two India companies were then the right arm of Dutch power and controlled the state.

Peter Petersen Heyn, who had risen from the position of a peasant boy to that of distinguished naval commander, captured for the Company, in 1629, the Spanish "Silver Fleet" while on its way from Yucatan with the spoils of the mines of Mexico and Peru. He put about five million dollars of treasure into their coffers. The joy of the people of Holland was unbounded when the news reached Amsterdam. The reception of the victor there was princely in its display. He was conducted into the Assembly Chamber of the States-General at the Hague, and there received the thanks of the nation publicly. He asked for no share of the booty he had won; and when the commission of Admiral was offered him, he refused, it, saying: "It is too great a dignity for one of so mean birth and unpolished manners to possess." It was forced upon him, and he went forth to win other victories. The next year, while fighting two Dunkirk pirates, with his ship between them, he was killed on the deck of his vessel. His body was conveyed in regal pomp to the old church at Delft, wherein the Pilgrim fathers had worshipped on the shores of Holland, and he was buried by he side of Prince William of Orange. his grateful government erected over his remains under the great aisle a superb marble monument. When the States-General sent a letter of condolence to his peasant mother by the hand of a high officer, she said: "Aye, I thought that would be the end of him. He was always a vagabond; but I did my best to correct him. he has got no more than he deserved."

Compared with other sources of wealth, the profits derived from New Netherland now seemed insignificant to the Company, and they devised new schemes for increasing the value of the province. Nothing seemed wiser than an increase in the population; so they adopted the plan of making separate and independent colonies on the Hudson and Delaware rivers, in the form of manorial estates not more than sixteen miles in length if lying on one side of a river, or eight miles if on both sides, as we have observed on page 267. They were to be fashioned after then existing manors in Holland and England. In order to enlist private capital in this undertaking, the College of XIX proposed to give a charter which should confer those "patroon" privileges and exemptions mentioned on the page above referred to. This proposition was approved by the States-General in 1630; and so the feudal system displayed by the manorial estates in Holland and England was transferred to America.

Governor Minuit returned to Amsterdam in 1632, leaving the province in a state of increasing prosperity. The fur trade was enlarging. Comfortable homes and commodious warehouses were seen clustered around Fort Amsterdam, and gardens were blooming around many dwellings. He was succeeded the following year by Walter Van Twiller, a narrow-minded and inexperienced clerk in the Company's warehouse at Amsterdam, who had married the niece of the rich pearl-merchant Killian Van Rensselaer, one of the directors. Van Twiller seems to have had very little fitness for the position of governor of the colony, excepting the alacrity with which he would be likely to serve the interests of his wife's rich kinsman, who has become a "patroon" and whose estate lay on each side of the upper Hudson, at the site of Albany and its surroundings. He had been employed by the "patroon" in shipping cattle to his colony, and was pretty well versed in the mysteries of traffic. But he was entirely ignorant of public affairs, and had not a single quality of a statesman. He was one of those sleek, rotund, bullet-headed Dutchmen who had ease of mind and body; dull of intellect, yet shrewd and cunning; courageous when there was no danger; always undecided and wavering, and was a capital butt for the jokes of the wiser men of New Amsterdam. Irving has left us a spirited caricature of his person, as a "model of majesty and lordly grandeur." The chronicler says"

"He was exactly five feet six inches in height, and six feet five inches in circumference. His head was a perfect sphere, and of such stupendous dimensions that dame Nature, with al her sex's ingenuity, would have been puzzled to construct a neck capable of supporting it; wherefore she wisely declined the attempt, and settled it firmly on the top of his backbone just between his shoulders. his legs were very short, but sturdy in proportion to the weight they had to sustain; so that, when erect, he had not a little the appearance of a beer-barrel on skids. his face, that infallible index of the mind, presented a vast expanse unfurrowed by any of those lines and angles which disfigure the human countenance with what is termed expression. Two small grey eyes twinkled feebly in the midst, like two stars of lesser magnitude in a hazy firmament; and his full-fed cheeks, which seemed to have taken toll of everything that went into his mouth, were variously mottled and streaked with dusky red, like a Spitzenberg apple. His habits were as regular as his person. He daily took his four stated meals, appropriating exactly an hour to each; he smoked and doubted eight hours, and he slept the remaining twelve of the four-and-twenty."

Van Twiller's administration lasted about four years, and the colony flourished in spite of him. Just before his advent, a pleasant intercourse was opened with Virginia by Captain de Vries, one of the "patroons," who had an estate on the South or Delaware River, where he had others attempted to establish a whale fishery. It did not succeed; but De Vries made valuable explorations up the river and formed salutary relations with the natives. He finally sailed for Virginia for supplies, rightfully supposing that he would find corn more abundant there than at New Amsterdam. He was anxious, too, to be the first Hollander from New Netherland to enter the James River. As his vessel neared the shore at Jamestown, and displayed the flag of Holland, Sir John Harvey, then Governor of Virginia, came down to the beach with some halberdiers, and in a friendly tone demanded where he was from. "From the South Bay in New Netherlands," said Captain De Vries. The governor invited him to his house, presented him with a glass of "Venice sack," and then taking an English chart, pointed out South Bay as named Delaware in honor of Lord De La Ware (a former governor of Virginia), who, some years before, had been driven into that bay. Finding it full of shoals and supposing it to be unnavigable, the English, Harvey said, had" not looked after it since. Yet it is our king's land," he continued, "and not New Netherland."

De Vries then gave the governor a glowing account of the beauty of the Delaware Bay and river, only a hundred miles north from Jamestown, and a history of what the Dutch had been doing there. Harvey was astonished. He had heard that the Dutch had built a fort upon "Hudson's River, as the English call it;" but, being uncertain whether there was a Delaware Bay or river, had sent a small vessel, with several seamen, the previous autumn to search for them. These men had not returned, and the supposed they and gone to the bottom of the sea in a storm. De Vries told him that he had seen Indians with English jackets on, and had no doubt his seaman had been murdered by them.

No dispute arose about the territory. "There are lands enough,: said the knight; "we shall be fiends and good neighbors with each other. You will have no trouble from us Englishmen, if only those of New England do not approach too near you, and dwell at a distance from you." So began a pleasant intercourse between New Netherland an Virginia. Sir John's half-formed warning was prophetic, for from New England came encroachments and annoyances to the Dutch.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I