Dutch. The Dutch in New Netherland came under the auspices of a private corporation, the Dutch West India Company, not the Estates General of the Netherlands. Political organization reflected these corporate origins. What the company needed was an inexpensive way to maintain order and insure the fur trade. It had no intention of replicating the kind of government enjoyed by the Netherlands. The first director of New Netherland was Cornells Jacobsen May, who commanded the ship which brought the first thirty families to the company’s New World holdings in 1624 and whose job was to coordinate trade. He was replaced in 1626 by Willem Verhulst. This director was supposed to be aided by an advisory council of company officials, but in fact he was the government. In 1629 the company decided to open up their colony to private investors, known as patroons, who were granted lands and allowed to bring in tenants and enter the fur trade. The only successful patroonship, Rensselaerswyck, near Albany, had its own government in the form of an appointed commissioner or commissioners, and in 1648, control by a director. In 1634 it established its own manorial court which functioned as a judiciary. In 1640, under pressure from the States General of the Netherlands, the company promised local autonomy to villages in New Netherland, allowing them to nominate magistrates from whom the director would choose. English settlers from New England petitioned the Dutch for town sites and took advantage of these freedoms. The Dutch were more reluctant and had to be encouraged to come together as villages. They were then able to nominate two kinds of town officers, the schouts, or magistrates, and a schepen, or sheriff.
Lack of Leadership. Meanwhile, central government languished since the company had difficulty finding able directors. Turnover was high and competence low as needy relatives of powerful company investors were given the position. In 1645 the company found its first, and as it turned out, its last, able governor in Peter Stuyvesant, a former military leader who arrived in the colony in 1647. His was a troubled tenure as he tried to keep control over a mixed lot of colonists, fought pressures from the English colonists for more self-government, dealt with Indian problems, tried to turn a profit for the company, and became the point man for all of the various discontents that an economically marginal colony created. He and a small council tried to rule autocratically, with mixed results since they had few ways to enforce their will. Stuyvesant’s tenure closed when the English conquered New Netherland in 1664, thus ending Dutch rule.
French. The French presence in what would become the United States was mainly confined to the villages along the Mississippi River in what became known as the Pays des Illinois and Louisiana. The villages of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Fort de Chartres, Saint Philippe, Prairie de Rocher, and Sainte Genevieve along the Mississippi
never had a large population and until 1718 were under the government in Canada. After that they were nominally under Louisiana, but in reality they were too far away from either for control to be exercised. Initially, what administration there was came from the Jesuit missionaries. In 1718, on orders from Paris, the government of the province of Illinois was to consist of a council made up of the commandant of the new fort being built, military officers, and various officials of the joint-stock company, first called the Company of the West and then the Company of the Indies, which was given a monopoly over Illinois and Louisiana that year. In 1721 it became a military district. Local concerns were in the hands of the villagers. They elected a syndic who represented the village in all lawsuits and took on other local responsibilities such as fencing the commons. Local decisions were discussed in a public open-air meeting of all males over the age of fourteen, and maybe widows. They decided when to plant and harvest, build and mark roads, keep up fences, and build and maintain religious structures.
Cadillac. Louisiana had a rockier start, perhaps because it did not grow organically the way the Illinois country did. First settlements under Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, almost perished. What government there was lay in the hands of a commandant appointed by Iberville in 1699. In 1710 the king appointed a governor, Antoine Laument Cadillac. The new colonial administrator persuaded the entrepreneur Antoine Crozat to take over Louisiana as a proprietary colony so that like the earliest English and Dutch colonies this one had private capitalism trying to create and profit from overseas settlements. Governor Cadillac was in charge of civil government and the military. A second official, a commissaire ordonnateur, was in charge of financial and commercial affairs and the administration of justice. Underneath these two positions was a judicial council called the Superior Council, whose members were appointed by the king. This arrangement of divided responsibility was unstable as the governor and commissaire were often jealous of each other, and both sometimes conflicted with the council. With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, both of the top officers were replaced. Antoine Crozat soon resigned his rights in America, but the idea of a company remained, and by 1719 the Company of the Indies was ready to put resources into Louisiana in yet another failed attempt to make a colony profitable for investors. It kept the system of dual administrators and a council, and these remained the system of government for Louisiana after the company turned the colony back to the Crown in 1731. There were no representative institutions of government at the provincial level.
Spanish. Like the French, the Spanish had only marginal settlements in what would become the United States. The real action for them in the New World lay elsewhere. Spain’s governmental structures were centralized. Her northern holdings—the borderlands in the Southwest and Saint Augustine—were under the Viceroyalty of New Spain, whose headquarters was in Mexico City, too far away to act quickly and too busy to bother with such unproductive areas. New Mexico was under the more direct oversight of a military governor based in Santa Fe. He appointed alcaldes,
or administrators, to the larger towns. Roman Catholic friars also supervised some of those who lived at or around the missions. Texas was also an internal province with a governor and administrators in the very few towns there were.
Florida. Saint Augustine was organized along more traditional Spanish lines. Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés set up his city in the 1560s with a cabildo, or council, which could collect taxes and distribute house lots. He was the first of Saint Augustine’s governors, a post that would be filled continuously under the Spanish. Saint Augustine would also be a fort with resident soldiers as well as a mission with friars. As in other Spanish holdings the church and the state clashed. Other officers included treasury officials, an accountant, and those who helped keep the garrisons organized. In some ways Saint Augustine was subsidiary to Cuba, where the governor had easier communication with Spain and the church enjoyed a resident bishop. Saint Augustine, like all the other Spanish outposts so far north, was a backwater, unimportant in the larger Spanish scheme of things. It was also, like many of the others, in constant difficulty through its exposure to hostile Indians and other Europeans, and its unsettled climate. To make matters worse, its lack of sufficient foodstuffs throughout its history made governing the settlement hard and thankless.
Mathé Allain, Not Worth a Straw: French Colonial Policy and the Early Years of Louisiana (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1988);
Natalia Maree Belting, Kaskaskia under the French Regime, Illinois Studies in the Social Sciences,39 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1948);
Amy Bushneil, “The Noble and Loyal City 1565-1668,” in The Oldest City: St. Augustine Saga of Survival, edited by Jean Parker Waterbury (Saint Augustine, Fla.: Saint Augustine Historical Society, 1983), pp. 27-55;
Luis Navarro Garcia, “The North of New Spain as a Political Problem in the Eighteenth Century,” in New Spain’s Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821, edited by David J. Weber (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), pp. 201-215;