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New Amsterdam

Thus began the great metropolis of the New World, now New York City. The government of the new colony was carried on by Governor, or "Director General," Minuit and a council of five appointed by the company in Holland. It was very similar to the government of Virginia before the first House of Burgesses was elected. The people had no voice whatever in their own government. Because of this and of the fact that in Holland the people enjoyed peace and religious liberty the migration was slow, and at the end of five years but three hundred people lived on Manhattan Island. The company thereupon offered great inducements to attract colonists. It issued its charter of "privileges and exemptions" (1629), by which the patroon system was established. Under this system any member of the West India Company who would bring or send at least fifty settlers fifteen years of age or over, was granted an estate of sixteen miles frontage on one side of a river or bay, or eight miles on each side of a river, and as far inland "as the situation of the occupiers will admit." The Hudson Valley was soon dotted with these estates, and thus was planted in America a feudal system very similar to those of the Old World.1 The patroon was bound to provide a farm ready stocked for each of his tenants, and to provide a schoolmaster and minister of the gospel for each settlement. He had full control of the government and courts. The tenants were temporarily serfs, as they were obliged to remain on the land for ten years. They were also obliged to see their produce to the patroon, to grind their corn at his mill, and, after a certain time, to pay him a small annual rent. The most noted of the patroons became the founders of the great families, afterward so prominent in New York -- the Van Rensselaers, the Schuylers, the Livingstons, and others.2 The company and patroons were soon quarreling, and the dispute was carried to the States-General. One result was the recall of Minuit, who was accused of favoring the patroons. He was succeeded by Wouter van Twiller, who, after five years of misrule, in which he enriched himself and wasted the company's money, was recalled. William Kieft then became governor.

Up to this time New Netherland had not attracted the home seeker. The best land had been occupied by the patroons, and the settlers were scarcely more than servants. The company had held, or attempted to hold, the monopoly of the fur trade. But now the trade, as also the cultivation of the soil, was thrown open to all, while the patroon privileges were greatly restricted. The effect was magical. People came from New England; Redemptioners3 from Maryland and Virginia; peasant farmers from continental Europe; the rich and the educated, as well as the poor, from various parts of the world came, though not in large numbers, to the valley of the Hudson, and made it their permanent home. It is said that in 1643 no less than eighteen languages were spoken in New Amsterdam -- and the great city into which it has grown has never since lost its cosmopolitan character.

Kieft was a bustling, energetic man, but he was an autocrat and a tyrant. He was governor for about ten years and they were years of storm and disorder. He quarreled with the Swedes on the Delaware, with the English on the Connecticut, and with the Indians on all sides. Before his time the Dutch had lived at peace with the Indians and had profited greatly by the fur trade; but Kieft was wanting in discretion and capacity, and disastrous Indian wars marked his governorship.

When about to engage in an Indian war this autocratic ruler found it necessary to consult the people. He thereupon called an assembly of the heads of families, and these chose a board of Twelve Men, with De Vries, one of the best men in the colony, as its chairman, to advise the governor. This improvised Parliament authorized the raising of money for the war and demanded that the people be permitted to elect the governor's council. Kieft agreed reluctantly, but soon forgot his promise and resumed his despotic rule. His treacherous policy with the Indians caused a general uprising of the Algonquin tribes and many were the bloody massacres in the country around. Among the victims was Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, who had been driven from Massachusetts, with all her large family, except a little granddaughter who was made captive. The very existence of the Dutch colony now hung in the balance, and it might have been annihilated but for the coming of an Englishman from Massachusetts -- John Underhill, hero of the Pequot War. Underhill, with an army of one hundred and fifty brave Dutchmen, fell at midnight on the Indian stronghold in the mountains north of Stamford, and put seven hundred warriors to the sword before daybreak. This broke the Indian power, brought peace, and saved the colony of New Netherland.

But peace did not come to the hot-headed governor. Again he was obliged to call an assembly -- Eight Men this time. But no more could he agree with them than formerly with the Twelve Men. When they protested against his methods of taxation, he lost his temper. "In this country I am my own master and may do as I please," said the irate Kieft. But the people were exasperated and in their behalf the Eight Men appealed to the States-General. They blamed Kieft for the pitiful condition of the colony, begged that a new governor be sent them and that the people be given some voice in the government, or that they be permitted to return with their wives and children to their dear fatherland. This petition had some effect. Governor Kieft was dismissed by the company, and Peter Stuyvesant, the last and most famous of the Dutch governors, became his successor. Kieft sailed for Holland, but the vessel was wrecked at sea, and the fallen governor was among the lost.

Stuyvesant4 was a sturdy, self-willed, obstinate old fellow, with little culture and much strength of character. He was a man of great energy and no doubt his intentions were honorable; but he was born autocrat, had no sympathy with democracy and no power to read public opinion. He was an experienced soldier and had lost a leg in battle. With all his faults he was a vast improvement over Van Twiller and Kieft. But he was never popular, and on one occasion the people demanded his recall, but the company refused to grant their request.

The government of New Netherland had been thus far almost a despotism, and its chief object in existing was to enrich a company of traders. But the settlers now determined to demand their rights -- a share in their own government. The more were they urged to this step when the compared their own condition to that of the self-governing English colonies about them. The haughty governor was forced to yield, and he chose Nine Men (1647-1651) as his counselors, from a larger number selected by the people. These men protested against the high taxes and the heavy export duties, and they petitioned the home government to cancel the company's charter and grant the colony a representative government similar to that enjoyed by the people in Holland. The petition for popular government was reluctantly granted by the company; but so skillfully did the imperious old governor manage the election that he succeeded in retaining almost the entire governing power in his own hands. When the iron-willed governor at length permitted an assembly of delegates from a number of the towns to convene, he sat with them in the legislative hall, where the loud stamping of his wood leg on the floor warned them when matters were not going as he desired. After a session of but four days he dissolved the assembly, and for ten years (1653-1663) there was no meeting of the representatives of the people.

The population of New Netherland increased slowly till 1653, when there were two thousand residents, eight hundred of whom belonged to New Amsterdam, which had been incorporated that year. About this time a stream of emigration poured into the Hudson Valley, and by 1664 the population reached ten thousand, having increased fivefold in eleven years.

Governor Stuyvesant, however, is remembered more on account of his relations to the English and the Swedes than for his domestic affairs. After two or three years' dispute with the people of New England, he agreed with them to fix the western boundary of Connecticut about where it now is, and the Dutch from this time ceased to disturb the peace of the Connecticut Valley. But of greater importance was Stuyvesant's dealings with the Swedes who had settled on the Delaware about the time that Kieft became governor of New Netherland. Both banks of the Delaware were claimed by the Dutch, and Stuyvesant received authority from Holland to take possession of the Swedish settlement. In 1655 he entered the Delaware with six hundred men in seven ships. The Swedes had no power to resist such a force; they yielded readily, and New Sweden passed into the hands of the Dutch.

The governor, returning home, found his people engaged in an Indian war, brought about by a Manhattan Dutchman, who shot a squaw for stealing peaches from his orchard. He soon brought it to an end, but the Indians were restless, and in 1658 the war again broke out and continued at intervals for five years.

Meantime Stuyvesant turned his attention to religious matters; he determined to enforce uniformity of worship according to the Dutch Reformed Church. He persecuted Lutherans, Baptists, and Quakers without mercy, until public opinion, supported by the company, called a half and forced him to desist. Seventeen years had passed since the self-willed governor had begun his reign; but the time of reckoning was at hand, and Dutch rule in America was drawing to a close.


Footnotes

1The patroons also made settlements on the Delaware, but these did not flourish and were short-lived.[return]

2These great estates, transmitted from generation to generation, were held in the same families for more than two centuries. On the death, in 1839, of Stephen van Rensselaer, one of the greatest landholders, his tenants refused to pay rent to his successor, and hence arose the anti-rent riots in New York. The courts decided in favor of the tenants in 1852.[return]

3Redemptioners were persons who were sold into service for a certain number of years as payment for their passage across the sea. Many of these, on gaining their freedom, preferred to remove to another colony, away from the scenes of their servitude.[return]

4Peter Stuyvesant, 1647-1664.[return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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