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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


The Dutch Town under the First Three Directors. 1626–1647

WITH the arrival of Director Minuit, the settlement at the mouth of the Hudson first took on permanent form and became an organized community. He bought Manhattan Island from its Indian owners for the sum of sixty guilders, or about twenty-four dollars, and during the summer founded thereon a little town, christened New Amsterdam. It soon grew to contain some two hundred souls. Even at the beginning, the population was composed of peoples diverse in race and speech; not only were there Dutchmen and Walloons, but also even thus early a few Huguenots, Germans, and Englishmen.

The island was then a mass of tangled, frowning forest, fringed with melancholy marshes, which near the present site of Canal Street approached so close together from either side that they almost made another small island of the southern end. The settlers staked out a fort on the southernmost point, and huddled near it in their squalid huts; while they closely watched their cattle, which were in imminent danger from wolves, bears, and panthers whenever they strayed into the woodland.

Minuit was a kindly man, of firm temper, much energy, and considerable executive capacity; on the whole he was by far the best of the four directors who successively ruled the city and colony during the forty years of the Dutch supremacy. But the scheme of colonization was defective in more than one vital particular. The settlement was undertaken primarily in the interest of a great commercial corporation, and only secondarily in the interests of the settlers themselves. The world had not yet grasped the fact that those who went abroad to build mighty States in far-off lands ought by rights to be themselves the main beneficiaries of their toil and peril. A colony was considered as being established chiefly for the good of the colonists.

The West India Company wished well to its settlers, who were granted complete religious freedom, and in practice a very considerable amount of civil liberty likewise; but after all, the company held that the first duty of the New Netherlands colony was to return large dividends to the company’s stockholders, and especially to advance the worldly welfare of the company’s most influential directors. It sought to establish a chain of trading-posts which should bring great wealth to the mother country, rather than to lay the foundations of a transatlantic nation of Dutch freemen. Hence, the settlers never felt a very fervent loyalty for the government under which they lived, and in its moment of mortal peril betrayed small inclination to risk their lives and property in a quarrel which was hardly their own.

This attitude of the old West India Company was that naturally adopted by all such corporations. It was curiously paralleled, even in our own day, by the way in which the great Hudson Bay Company shut the fertile valleys of the Red River and the Saskatchawan to all settlement. It was a thoroughly unhealthy attitude.

Minuit was active in establishing friendly relations with the savages. His boats explored the neighboring creeks and inlets, and the Indians were well treated whenever they came to the little hamlet on Manhattan Island. In consequence they freely brought their stores of valuable furs for barter and sale. For two or three years the trade proved profitable, while, from other causes, the stock of the company rose to a high premium on the exchanges of Holland.

In 1628, for the purpose of promoting immigration, an act was passed granting to any man who should bring over a colony of fifty souls a large tract of land and various privileges, with the title of “Patroon.” These patroons were really great feudal lords, who farmed out their vast estates to tenants who held the ground on various conditions. Their domains were often as large as old-world principalities; as an instance, Rensselaerswyck, the property of the Patroon Van Rensselaer, was a tract containing a thousand square miles. The introduction of this very aristocratic system was another evidence of the unwisdom of the governing powers. Moreover, the patroons, whose extensive privileges were curtailed in certain directions,—notably in that they were forbidden to enter into the lucrative fur-trade, the chief source of profit to the company,—soon began to rebel against these restrictions. They quarreled fiercely with the companys representatives, and traded on their own account with the Indians; and the various private traders not only cut into the company’s profits, but also, being amenable to no law, soon greatly demoralized the savages.

The settlers on Manhattan Island were not treated as freemen, but as the vassals of the company. For many years they were not even given any title to the land on which they built their houses, being considered simply as tenants at will. Minuit, it is true, chose from among them an advisory council, but it could literally only advise, and in the last resort the company had absolute power. The citizens had certain officers of their own, but they were powerless in the event of any struggle with the director. When the latter was, like Minuit, a sensible, well-disposed man, affairs went well enough, and the people were allowed to govern themselves, and were happy; but a director of tyrannous temper always had it in his power to rule the colony almost as if he were an absolute despot.

For six years Minuit remained in New Amsterdam, ruling the people mildly, preserving by a mixture of tact and firmness friendly relations with the Indians and with his English neighbors to the eastward,—to whom he sent a special embassy, which was most courteously received,—and keeping on good terms with the powerful and haughty patroons. During these years the trade of the colony increased and flourished, rich cargoes of valuable furs being sent to Holland in the homeward-bound ships, and the population of Manhattan Island gradually grew in numbers and wealth. Farms or “boueries” were established; and the settlers raised wheat, rye, buckwheat, flax, and beans, while their herds and flocks throve apace. The company soon built a mill, a brewery, a bakery, and great warehouses, and society began to gain some of the more essential comforts of civilization. Nevertheless, the company quarreled with Minuit. He was accused of unduly favoring the patroons, whose private ventures in the fur-trade were encroaching upon the company’s profits, and moreover he had been drawn into a scheme of ship-building, which though successful,—a very large and fine ship being built and launched in the bay,—nevertheless proved much too expensive for the taste of his employers. Accordingly, he was recalled; and later on, deeming himself to have been ill-treated, he took service under the Swedish queen.

His successor was Wouter Van Twiller, who reached New Amsterdam early in 1633. Van Twiller was a good-natured, corpulent, wine-bibbing Dutchman, loose of life, and not overstrict in principle, and with a slow, irresolute mind. However, as he was an easy-going man his rule did not bear hardly on the colonists, while he won for himself an honorable reputation by devoting much of his time to the construction of public buildings. Thus, he made a new fort of earthen banks with stone bastions, enclosing within its walls not only the soldier’s barracks, but also at first the governmental residence and public offices; he also built several windmills and the first church which was used solely as such, as well as houses for the dominie and for the schout-fiscal. The latter was the most important of the local officers; he possessed curious and extensive powers, being the chief executive of the local government, and answering roughly to both the English sheriff and town constable, though with a far wider and more complicated range of duties. The colony had at this time received two important additions in the shape of the first schoolmaster—who failed ingloriously in his vocation, and then tried to eke out his scanty salary by taking in washing,—and the first regular clergyman. The clergyman. Dominie Bogardus, was a man of mark and of high character, though his hot temper made him unpopular.

Van Twiller kept on fairly friendly terms with the Indians, though causes of quarrel between the settlers and the savages were constantly arising. Plenty of wrong was done on each side, and it would be hard to say where the original ground of offense lay. Probably the whites could not have avoided a war in the end; but they certainly by their recklessness and brutality did all in their power to provoke the already suspicious and treacherous red men. The history of the dealings of the Dutch with the Indians is not pleasant reading.

Under Van Twiller there were endless troubles with the English. Both England and Holland claimed the country from the Connecticut to the Delaware, each wishing it really more for purposes of trade than of colonization; and the quarrels generally arose over efforts of rival vessels of the two nationalities to control the trade with some special band of savages. In Van Twiller’s time an English vessel entered the Hudson and sailed to the head of navigation, where she anchored and began to barter with the savages for their furs; whereupon the Dutch soldiers from the neighboring fort fell upon her and drove her off, confiscating the furs. At the same time Van Twiller built a fort and established a garrison on the Connecticut, threatening to hold it by force against the English; but when the pinch came the Hollanders failed to make their threats good, and the Puritans from Plymouth sailed up the river and took possession of the banks in defiance of their foes.

Better luck attended Van Twiller’s efforts on the Delaware, the Cavaliers proving easier to deal with than the Roundheads. The Dutch had already built a colony on this river; but the colonists became embroiled with the Indians, who fell on them and massacred them to a man. Then a party of Virginians established themselves in one of the deserted Dutch forts, and set about founding a settlement and trading-post; but when the news was brought to the director at New Amsterdam, he promptly despatched a party of troops against the invaders, who were all taken captive and brought in triumph to Manhattan Island. Van Twiller hardly knew what to do with them; so he scolded them soundly for the enormity of their offense in trespassing on Dutch territory, and then shipped them back to Virginia again. The internal affairs of the colony went more smoothly. There were occasional quarrels with the powerful patroons, but the director was much too fond of his ease, and of wine and high living to oppress or rule harshly the commonalty; and the value of the trade with the home country on the whole increased, though it never became sufficient to make the company take very much thought for its new possession. But Van Twiller though easy-going to the people was not an honest or faithful servant to the company in matters financial; and in 1637 he was removed from his office on the charge of having diverted the moneys of the corporation to his own private use.

His successor, Wilhelm Kieft, was much the worst of the four Dutch governors. Unlike his predecessor, he was industrious and temperate; but he possessed no talent whatever for managing men, and had the mean, cruel temper of a petty despot. His mercantile reputation was also none of the best; though during his administration he himself kept reasonably clear of financial scandals. In fact, the West India Company was tired of a colony which proved a drain on its revenue rather than a source of profit; and any second-rate man, who bade fair not to trouble the people at home, was deemed good enough to be governor of such an unpromising spot.

Kieft found the New Netherlands in a far from flourishing condition. The Dutch colonists, though stubborn and resolute, were somewhat sluggish and heavy tempered, without the restless energy of their far more numerous and ever-encroaching neighbors on the east (the New Englanders), and lacking the intense desire for what was almost mere adventure, which drove the French hither and thither through the far-off wilderness. Population had increased but slowly, and the town which huddled round the fort on the south point of Manhattan Island was still little more than a collection of poor hovels. The Hollanders were traders and seafarers, and they found it hard to settle down into farmers, who alone can make permanent colonists. Moreover, at the outset they were naturally unable to adapt themselves to the special and peculiar needs of their condition. The frontier and frontier life date back to the days when the first little struggling settlements were dotted down on the Atlantic seaboard, as islets in a waste of savagery; but it always took at least a generation effectively to transform a European colonist into an American frontiersman. Thus the early Dutch settlers took slowly and with reluctance to that all-important tool and weapon of the American pioneer, the axe, and chopped down very little timber indeed. As a consequence, they lived in dugouts or cabins of bark and poles, lacking the knowledge to build the log huts, which always formed the first and characteristic dwellings of the true backwoodsmen. It was a good many years before the backwoods type, so characteristically American, had opportunity to develop.

Kieft was not well pleased with the colony, and the colony was still less pleased with Kieft. From the beginning he took the tone of a tyrant, treating the colonists as his subjects. He appointed as council but one man, a Huguenot of good repute, named La Montagne, and then, to prevent all danger of a tie, decreed that La Montagne should have but one vote and he himself two. He then filled the different local offices with his own flatterers and sycophants, and proceeded to govern by a series of edicts, which were posted on the trees, barns, and fences; some of them, such as those forbidding the sale of firearms and gunpowder to the Indians, were good; while great discontent was excited by others, such as the sumptuary laws (for he made a bold attempt to stop the drinking and carousing of the mirth-loving settlers), the establishing of a passport system, and the interference with private affairs by settling when people should go to bed, laborers go to work, and the like. The Dutch were essentially free and liberty loving, and accustomed to considerable self-government; and the Manhattan colonists felt that they were unjustly discriminated against, and chafed under the petty tyranny to which they were exposed.

However, under Kieft the appearance of the town was much improved. Streets began to be laid out, and a better class of private houses sprang up, while a new church and the first tavern—a great clumsy inn, the property of the company—were built, and the farms made good progress, fruit-trees being planted and fine cattle imported. New settlements were made on the banks of the Hudson and the Sound, on Staten Island, and on what is now the Jersey shore. The company made great efforts further to encourage immigration, allowing many privileges to the poorer class of immigrants, and continuing, in diminishing form, some of the exceptional advantages granted to the rich men who should form small colonies. The colonists received the right to manufacture, hitherto denied them; but, unfortunately, the hereditary privileges of the patroons were continued, including their right of feudal jurisdiction, and the exclusive right to hunt, fish, fowl, and grind corn on their vast estates. The leader in pushing these new settlements, and one of the most attractive figures in our early colonial history, was the Patroon de Vries, a handsome, gallant, adventurous man, of brave and generous nature. He was greatly beloved by the Indians, to whom he was always both firm and kind; and the settlers likewise loved and respected him, for he never trespassed on their rights, and was their leader in every work of danger, whether in exploring strange coasts or in fronting human foes.

Besides the Dutch immigrants, many others of different nationalities came in, particularly English from the New England colonies; and all, upon taking the oath of allegiance, were treated exactly alike. There was almost complete religious toleration, and hence many Baptists and Quakers took refuge among the Hollanders, fleeing from the persecutions of the Puritans.

All this time there was continual squabbling with the neighboring and rival settlements of European powers. A large body of Swedes, under Minuit, arrived at and claimed the ownership of the mouth of the Delaware, bidding defiance to the threats the Dutch made that they would oust them; while the English, in spite of many protests, took final possession of the Connecticut valley and the eastern half of Long Island. But the distinguishing feature of Kieft’s administration was the succession of bloody Indian struggles waged between 1640 and 1645.

For these wars Kieft himself was mainly responsible, though the settlers and savages were already irritated with each other. Occasional murders and outrages were committed by each side. The Indians became alarmed at the increase in numbers of the whites, and the whites became tired of having a horde of lazy, filthy, cruel beggars always crowding into their houses, killing their cattle, and by their very presence threatening their families. A strong and discreet man might have preserved peace; but Kieft was rash, cruel, and irresolute, and precipitated the contest by ordering a brutal vengeance to be taken on the Raritan tribe for a wrong which they probably had not committed. They of course retaliated in kind, and there followed a series of struggles, separated by short periods of patched-up truce. Kieft took care to keep shut up in the fort, away from all possible harm, whereat the settlers murmured greatly. All their wisest and best men, including the Patroon de Vries, the councilman La Montagne, and Dominie Bogardus, protested against his course in bringing on the war.

Early in 1643, he caused by his orders, one of the most horrible massacres by which our annals have ever been disgraced. The dreaded Mohawks had made a sudden foray on the River Indians, who, like the other neighboring tribes, were Algonquins; and the latter, fleeing in terror from their adversaries, took refuge close to the wooden walls of New Amsterdam, where they were at first kindly received. On Shrovetide night, Kieft, with a hideous and almost inconceivable barbarity and treachery, as short-sighted as it was cowardly, caused bodies of troops to fall on two parties of these helpless and unsuspecting fugitives, and butchered over a hundred.

This inhuman outrage at once roused every Indian to take a terrible vengeance, and to wipe out his wrongs in fire and blood. All the tribes fell on the Dutch at once, and in a short time destroyed every outlying farm and all the smaller settlements, bringing ruin and desolation upon the entire province, while the surviving settlers gathered in New Amsterdam and in a few of the best fortified smaller villages. The Indians put their prisoners to death with dreadful tortures, and in at least one instance the Dutch retaliated in kind. Neither side spared the women and children. The hemmed-in Dutch sent bands of their soldiers, assisted by parties of New England mercenaries, under a famous woodland fighter, Capt. John Underhill, against the Indian towns. They were enabled to strike crippling blows at their enemies, because the latter foolishly clung to their stockaded villages, where the whites could surround them, keep them from breaking out by means of their superiority in firearms, and then set the wooden huts aflame and mercilessly destroy, with torch or bullet, all the inmates, sometimes to the number of several hundred souls. These Indian stockades offered the best means of defense against rival savages; but they were no protection against the whites, who, on the other hand, were much inferior to the red men in battle in the open forest. At first the Indians did not understand this; and in their ignorance they persisted in fighting their new foes in the very way that gave the latter most advantage. It was in consequence of this that the seventeenth-century Algonquins suffered not a few slaughtering defeats at the hands of the New Englanders and New Netherlanders.

Finally, crippled and exhausted, both sides were glad to make peace; and the whites again spread out to their ruined farms. In his dire need Kieft had summoned a popular meeting and chosen from among the heads of families a council of twelve men to advise him in the war. This popular meeting was the first of its kind ever held on Manhattan, and may be considered as the first foreshadowing of our whole present system of popular government. The Council of Twelve at once proceeded to protest against the director’s arbitrary powers, and to demand increased rights for the people, and a larger measure of self-government. Instantly Kieft dissolved them; but later on, when the settlement seemed at the last gasp, a council of eight was chosen, this time by popular vote, and took advantage of the dread of the public enemy to demand the needed internal reforms. They protested in every way against Kieft’s tyranny. The latter would not yield. The mutinous spirit became very strong; disorder, and even murder took place, and affairs began to drift toward anarchy. Numerous petitions were sent to Holland asking Kieft’s removal, and finally this was granted. The harassed colony was given a new director in the shape of a gallant soldier named Peter Stuyvesant, who arrived and took possession of his office in May, 1647.