New Amsterdam

views updated May 17 2018

New Amsterdam

New Amsterdam was a seventeenth-century Dutch colonial town that later became New York City.

Early exploration

In the early seventeenth century, the Netherlands, like other nations of northern Europe, sent explorers to search for a sea route around North America to the riches of the Far East. The principal explorer for the Dutch was Henry Hudson (d. 1611), an Englishman who in 1609 explored the river that now bears his name. When Hudson and other navigators failed to find the Northwest Passage, the Dutch decided to occupy the lands they claimed in the New World and exploit their resources.

While hoping to discover gold and silver as the Spanish had done in the south, the Dutch soon found that furs, obtained through trade with the natives, were the most readily exploitable resource of the middle Atlantic coastal region. At the time, beaver pelts were highly prized in Europe because the fur could be “felted” to make waterproof hats. The demand in Europe for furs and pelts was so great that one shipload could make its owners wealthy.

In the interests of further discovery and to stimulate trade, the Dutch parliament, the States-General, granted to its traders and explorers the exclusive right to make four voyages to any new lands that they might explore. Under this grant, in 1614 five ships visited the Hudson River, which the Dutch called the Mauritius. Later that same year, these traders combined as the United New Netherland Company and received from the States-General a monopoly of the trade in the Hudson Valley. Ignoring Manhattan Island, these early traders sailed up the Hudson to the site of present-day Albany, New York , where they erected Fort Nassau on Castle Island as a base of operations and exchanged their goods for the furs of the Mohican Indians. Following the expiration of the charter of the United New Netherland Company in 1618, a succession of different companies exploited the Hudson River fur trade.

Colony beginnings

In 1621, a number of influential merchants obtained from the States-General a charter for the Dutch West India Company , with the sole right to trade on the Atlantic coasts of Africa and of North and South America for twenty-four years. Although the new company was organized primarily to challenge Spain's control of Spanish America, it was also interested in the Hudson River area.

In 1624, the company dispatched Captain Cornelius May with a shipload of thirty families to settle in North America. Opposite Castle Island (where the original Fort Nassau had been abandoned because of repeated floods), they established a trading post named Fort Orange. They also formed a settlement, Fort Nassau, on the Delaware River (near present-day Gloucester City, New Jersey ) and established a trading house on Governor's Island in New York Harbor.

New Amsterdam Colony

The first two governors, Cornelius May and William Verhulst, lived and administered the colony from the Delaware River site, but Peter Minuit (1580–1638), the third governor and first director-general of New Netherland, shifted his base of operations to Manhattan Island. A native of Wesel, then in the Duchy of Cleves on the German Rhine, he was of Huguenot Walloon descent. Minuit was described as a shrewd and somewhat unscrupulous man.

One of Minuit's earliest official acts was to convene Indian leaders from the Canarsee and Manhattan tribes of the region and purchase Manhattan Island from them for trinkets valued at sixty guilders, or about $24. This gave the company a semblance of legality for its occupation of the island, which at the time of the purchase was covered with a great forest and abounding with game and wild fruits.

Minuit made his town of New Amsterdam, at the southern tip of Manhattan, the center of Dutch activity in the area. A large fort, pentagonal in shape, surrounded on three sides by a great moat and fronting on the bay, was one of the first structures to be built. When it was finished, Minuit brought several families from Fort Orange to settle in the town, and ordered Fort Nassau on the Delaware River evacuated and the garrison transferred to New Amsterdam.

Upon completion of the fort, a warehouse, and a mill, the town of New Amsterdam was the concentration point for scattered Dutch settlements in the colony. When regular church services commenced in New Amsterdam in 1628, Minuit and his brother-in-law (the company's storekeeper) served Pastor Jonas Michaëlius as elders. Despite his vigorous administration of the colony, Minuit was recalled to Holland for examination in 1632, and was dismissed from the West India Company's service.

Attempts at colonial expansion

In 1629, the directorate of the company, with the approval of the States-General, issued a Charter of Freedoms and Exemptions, which provided for the grant of large estates, called patroonships, to those members of the company who would settle at least fifty persons above the age of fifteen on their lands within four years. Designed to promote farming in New Netherland, these grants were intended primarily to encourage settlers to go up the Hudson to settle and make further contacts with the Indians and thereby extend the fur trade. The furs, it was expected, would be sent down the river to New Amsterdam, from where the West India Company had the sole right to export them. These patroonships were mostly unsuccessful.

End of the colony

Relations with the Indians remained good, and the fur trade continued to prosper until 1641, when hostilities with the natives broke out in a conflict known as Governor Kieft's War. New Netherland governor Willem Kieft's (1597–1647) attempt to collect taxes from the Algonquin tribes for Dutch “protection” provoked the fighting. The conflict was terminated by a treaty of August 29, 1645.

In 1647, Kieft was succeeded by Peter Stuyvesant (c. 1610–1672), the last Dutch governor or director-general of New Netherland. Stuyvesant surrendered the colony to the British, who conquered it in August 1664 and renamed it New York. Thus the seventeenth-century Dutch colonial settlement of New Amsterdam would later become New York City.

New Amsterdam

views updated May 17 2018


NEW AMSTERDAM. In 1625, officials of the Dutch West India Company, a commercial confederation, founded New Amsterdam, which became New York City, in New Netherland, later New York Colony. In 1626, the director Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan for sixty guilders, or $24, from the Canarsee Indians, although the Weckquaesgeeks of the Wappinger Confederation actually had claim to the island. Dutch pioneers and black slaves owned by the Dutch West India Company settled and cleared the island into bouweries, or farms. The buildings, windmills for grinding grain, and livestock were all owned by the company and were leased to tenants. The company also gave out land grants, sixteen miles wide and extending inward indefinitely, along the waterways to any member of the West India Company who settled fifty persons over the age of fifteen. These owners, or patroons, held manorial rights on these estates and were free from taxes for eight years.

Dutch middle-class values and distinct cosmopolitan traits spread from the beginning. By 1639, eighteen different languages were spoken within the small community. While seventeen taverns served the city, it had only one Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, established in 1628. The Dutch West India Company finally allowed self-rule in 1653 with the "burgher government" led by Peter Stuyvesant. Two burgomasters (mayors), and five schepens (magistrates) met weekly at the Stadt Huys and exercised judicial, administrative, and, after 1654, taxing powers. This weekly court decided matters related to trade, worship, defense, and schooling. After 1657 the municipal corporation retained business and officeholding privileges. England and Holland vied for economic supremacy during forty years of Dutch rule. With the power of four frigates, the English gained control of the city in 1664, although the Dutch government was not completely ousted until 10 November 1674.


Condon, Thomas J. New York Beginnings: The Commercial Origins of New Netherland. New York: New York University Press, 1968.

Innes, J. H. New Amsterdam and Its People: Studies, Social and Topographical, of the Town under Dutch and Early English Rule. New York: Scribners, 1902.

Rink, Oliver A. Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Singleton, Esther. Dutch New York. New York: B. Blom, 1968.

Michelle M.Mormul

See alsoManhattan ; New Netherland ; New York City ; New York Colony .

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