The Men Who Bought Manhattan

On the second day of September 1609, a three-masted Dutch carrack, the Halve Maen (Half Moon) dropped anchor off Sandy Hook. Her skipper, an English seaman named Henry Hudson, had started out six months earlier to find an Arctic shortcut to the Indies. Blocked by ice in the waters off Novaya Zemlya, and with his half-frozen crew threatening mutiny, Hudson then turned west and ran five thousand miles across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia. Since July, the Halve Maen had been scouting the coast between Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay in search of the same northwest passage that Verrazzano failed to find eighty years before.

For more than a week Hudson and his men explored the Lower Bay, marveling at its wild beauty and fertility. Robert Juet, one of Hudson’s officers, said the surrounding hills were “as pleasant with Grasse and Flowers, and goodly Trees, as ever they had scene, and very sweet smells came from them.” The inhabitants seemed “very glad of our comming, and brought greene Tabacco, and gave us of it for Knives and Beads,” Juet added. “They appear to be a friendly people,” Hudson himself reported, “but are much inclined to steal, and are adroit in carrying away whatever they take a fancy to.” That may explain why the situation suddenly turned ugly. A fight broke out, a crewman named Coleman was killed with an arrow through the neck, and Hudson decided to move on.

On September 12 Hudson guided the Halve Maen through the Narrows between Staten Island and Long Island. Crossing the Upper Bay, he warily purchased “Oysters and Beanes” from some “people of the Country” who paddled out to his ship in canoes, then entered the river that now bears his name—“as fine a river as can be found,” in the words of another contemporary report, “wide and deep, with good anchoring ground on both sides.” One week later and ninety miles upstream, near the present site of Albany, Hudson realized that he wasn’t going to reach the Pacific. He turned back, dis­appointed yet deeply impressed by what he had seen. “The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon,” he asserted, “and it also abounds in trees of every description. The natives are a very good people; for, when they saw that I would not remain, they supposed that I was afraid of their bows, and taking the arrows, they broke them in pieces, and threw them in the fire.”

Nor did he leave empty-handed. The “loving people,” in Juet’s words, “came flocking aboord, and brought us Grapes and Pompions, which wee bought for trifles. And many brought us Bevers skinnes, and Otters skinnes, which wee bought for Beades, Knives, and Hatchets.” That they made better hosts than the inhabitants of the seaboard was confirmed as the Halve Maen sailed down “that side of the River that is called Manna-hata” and dodged a hail of arrows fired by “savages” on the shore. (The meaning of “Manna-hata” has been debated ever since; the preferred translation nowadays is “hilly island.”)1


Though Hudson’s reconnaissance was no more successful than that of Verrazzano or Gomez, it proved the more important because the political climate of Europe had changed markedly by the early 1600s. At issue was the condition of Hapsburg Spain, still the most powerful European state but surrounded now by adversaries. Over the course of the sixteenth century, under Charles V and his son Philip II, the Spanish had absorbed Portugal, taken possession of the Holy Roman Empire, overrun the principal islands of the Caribbean, subdued Mexico and Peru, and invaded the Philippines. At the same time, they became involved in a series of costly military adventures aimed at rolling back the Protestant Reformation. Eventually, despite the riches extracted from its far-flung possessions, the crown ran out of money and embarked on a disastrous program of forced loans and debt repudiations that sent shock waves through European political and financial systems. France and England, would-be entrants on the global imperial stage, preyed mercilessly on Spanish shipping and launched their own colonizing projects in those parts of the western hemisphere where Spanish power seemed weakest.

Nowhere were Spain’s afflictions more apparent than in the Low Countries, or Netherlands. Inherited by Charles V and subsequently granted by him to Philip II, they had flourished under Spanish rule. Their leading cities—Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels—grew rich as the marketplaces where Spain obtained, with gold and silver from the New World, the food, clothing, manufactures, naval stores, and luxuries that it could not produce for itself. But when Protestantism spread across the Netherlands in the 1560s, a revolt broke out against Spain. The seven Dutch-speaking provinces of the northern Netherlands formed the United Provinces or Dutch Republic (foreigners called it Holland after the largest and wealthiest of the seven). Its governing body was the States General, in which each province had a single vote.

The United Provinces occupied a mere corner of Europe, not much bigger than the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island combined, and inhabited by fewer than two million people. Its struggle for independence would nonetheless become a central event of the early modern era. Year after year, Spanish armies ravaged the Netherlands. Year after year, the rebels fought back, fired by Calvinist zeal and led by the brilliant Prince William of Orange. Along the way they assembled the greatest fleet in Christendom, owning, Sir Walter Raleigh once estimated, more ships than eleven other nations combined.

Even before Dutch fireships helped England fend off the Spanish Armada in 1588, the war in the waters had spread far beyond the confines of Europe. Dutch squadrons, flying their orange, white, and blue banners, plundered Spanish ports throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Oranje boven! was their war cry—“Orange above!” They hounded Spanish shipping in the Caribbean and swept Spain’s Portuguese allies from the Indian Ocean. Dutch troops fought in Puerto Rico, Africa, South America, India, China, Japan, and Malaysia. Holland was already one of the world’s great maritime powers when, in 1609, weary, frustrated, and bankrupt, the Spanish at last agreed to a twelve-year truce that gave their former subjects de facto independence.

Although true independence did not come for another forty-odd years, Holland’s Golden Age had begun. Dutch traders, never far behind the fleets and armies, cornered the international markets in African slaves, Brazilian sugar, Russian caviar, Italian marble, Hungarian copper, fish from the North Sea, and furs from the Baltic. “The factors and Brokers of Europe,” Daniel Defoe called them. “They buy to sell again, take in to send out, and the greatest Part of their vast Commerce consists in being supply’d from All parts of the World, that they may supply All the World again.”

The fates of faraway kingdoms were decided in the countinghouses of Dutch bankers. Dutch investors bought Russian grain fields and German vineyards. Dutch engineers taught foreign princes the most advanced methods of building forts and draining swamps. Rich merchants and aristocrats across Europe collected the works of Dutch painters, filled their homes with the fine china and glass produced by Dutch artisans, and shipped their sons off to Dutch universities to study at the feet of scholars and philosophers who were changing the face of Western law and science.

Integral to Holland’s success was the city of Amsterdam. Protected by a forbidding network of estuaries, Amsterdam rose to international prominence as the home base, nerve center, and symbol of the Dutch revolt. It expanded rapidly as the struggle wore on, nourished by the spoils of war and the capital of merchants fleeing the devastated cities of the south. With them came religious outcasts of every denomination—Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium), Huguenots (French Protestants, many of whom joined Walloon churches), Baptists, Quakers, Sephardic Jews, and a party of English Calvinists (known to their day as Separatists and to ours as the Pilgrims)—all drawn by the city’s tolerance for diversity and dissent. Together they made Amsterdam one of Europe’s liveliest and most cosmopolitan urban centers. In 1585, the year that a Spanish army laid waste to Antwerp, Amsterdam’s population numbered a mere thirty thousand. When Spain and Holland called their truce in 1609 it had risen to nearly sixty thousand. By mid-century it would exceed 150,000.

Amsterdam’s burghers, moreover, were open to newer ways of doing business. Profitmaking and capital accumulation, still the objects of medieval scorn in much of Europe, were civic virtues in Amsterdam. Before the seventeenth century was more than a decade old, the city could already boast of the world’s most up-to-date credit and banking facilities. It had Europe’s most important stock exchange, specialized commodity exchanges, and a legal system swept clean of medieval obstructions to the free circulation of money and goods. Out of its well-equipped shipyards came swarms of privateers and fleets of a cheap but efficient new cargo ship—the vlieboot or flyboat—with which Dutch traders prowled the seas in search of gain. When they returned, holds bulging with the merchandise of distant lands, it was to an ingenious new system of canals that linked the waterfront with blocks of new warehouses and municipal markets, sharply reducing the time needed to find buyers, make up an outward-bound cargo, and set off again.

In time, half Europe’s foreign trade would be in Dutch hands, and half its ships would have been built in their yards. Andrew Marvell, the English poet, linked the city’s preoccupation with moneymaking to what he thought was its appalling indifference toward dissenters. “Staple of sects and mint of schism,” he called Amsterdam—a “bank of conscience, where not one so strange/Opinion but finds credit and exchange.”


Amsterdam was also the headquarters for a pair of giant trading companies whose fortunes would determine the course of Dutch exploration and settlement around the world. Their purpose was to reduce destructive competition among smaller firms while simultaneously prosecuting the war with Spain. To that end, each had its own private army and navy, almost unlimited powers of peace and war, and control over vast human and material resources.

Senior of the two was the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie—the United East India Company—created in 1602 by the States-General to manage all Dutch trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Capitalized at over six million guilders, an enormous sum at the time, the giant company quickly established Holland as a global power. East India Company merchants, backed by the company’s own armed forces, set up trading posts, or “factories” (not to be confused with modern industrial enterprises), at Bandar-Abbas (Gombroon) near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, at Batavia on the vital Sunda Strait in the Spice Islands, at Chinsura in Bengal, and at Canton in China. They negotiated exclusive trading privileges in Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to Europeans. Company troops expelled the English from Bantam, close by Batavia, and they seized a whole network of strategic bases from the Portuguese, including Malacca, Colombo, Cochin, Negapatam, and Macassar.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, this aggressive expansion had brought the East India Company undisputed commercial hegemony in the Malay archipelago and a fat share of the carrying trade throughout Asia. Its shareholders made fortunes, often receiving annual returns on their investments in excess of 30 percent—occasionally as much as 200 or 300 percent. The company itself became one of Amsterdam’s largest employers and a bulwark of the city’s prosperity. Manning, outfitting, provisioning, and servicing its lines of great East Indiamen required the labor of thousands—seamen, artisans, stevedores, laborers, and clerks—in addition to the thousands more employed in sugar refining, cloth finishing, tobacco cutting, silk throwing, glassmaking, distilling, brewing, and other industries related, directly or indirectly, to the company’s operations.

In 1609, encouraged by the prospect of a long truce with Spain, the East India Company commissioned Henry Hudson to find a northeast route to the Orient. When he failed, it turned its attention to other matters, not least of all the 329 percent dividend it had just declared for 1610. For merchants outside the company, though, Hudson’s report that he and the crew of the Halve Maen had carried on a brisk trade in furs with obliging natives was tantalizing news. Despite the recent settlement of a French trading post at Montreal, the European market for furs remained so strong that smaller traders could still expect high returns with only a modest initial investment and little risk.

In 1610 a company of Amsterdam particuliere kooplieden (private merchant-traders) sent a single ship to the river “called Manhattes from the savage nation that dwells at its mouth” (soon renamed the Mauritius and, eventually, the North River). Rivals were close behind, and in the vigorous competition that followed, flinty Dutch captains like Hendrick Christiaensen, Cornelis May (after whom Cape May is named), and Adriaen Block won fame if not fortune.

Block’s voyage of 1613—14, his fourth to the Hudson, must have been the talk of the Amsterdam waterfront. When fire destroyed his first ship, the Tyger, he and his men wintered on Manhattan and, with Indian help, built a new ship, the Onrust (Restless), with which they explored the East River and Long Island Sound in the spring of 1614.


New Netherland, 1613/1614 Detail of the chart drawn by Adriaen Block. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

(A mulatto from San Domingo named Jan Rodrigues remained on Manhattan with a stock of goods to organize trade pending Block’s return.) The “Figurative Map” that Block brought back to Amsterdam later that year was the first to apply the name “Manhates” to Manhattan, first to show Long Island as an island, first to show the Connecticut River and Narragansett Bay, and first to use the name “New Netherland” for the lands between English Virginia and French Canada. (Block’s monument is the small island off the eastern end of Long Island that bears his name.)2

In 1614, knowing that competition was better for discovery than for profits, a group of Amsterdam’s principal merchants persuaded the States-General to set up a single firm, the United New Netherland Company, with exclusive rights to traffic in American pelts (much as had been done earlier in the East Indian trade). The company sent out at least four expeditions and established a fortified year-round factory, or trading post, on Castle Island in the North River, just below modern Albany. It was called Fort van Nassouwen (Nassau), a name already applied to two other Dutch factories elsewhere in the world, one on the Amazon River in Brazil and the other at Mouree, in West Africa. A contemporary report described the fort as “a redoubt, surrounded by a moat eighteen feet wide” and garrisoned by ten or twelve men with a dozen-odd cannon. Under its protection, company traders began to tap the river’s “great traffick in the skins of beavers, otters, foxes, bears, minks, wild cats, and the like.” A smaller “redoubt or little fort,” apparently not intended for year-round occupation, was erected the following year “about the Island Manhattans.”

Expiration of the New Netherland Company’s charter at the end of 1617 touched off another competitive free-for-all. The end of the Twelve Year Truce with Spain was approaching, moreover, and a controversy raged about what would come next. One party, known as the Remonstrants because of their opposition to dogmatic Calvinism, advocated peace; the other, whose less tolerant interpretation of Calvinist doctrine gave them the name Counter-Remonstrants, urged the resumption of all-out war. The war party scored its first major victory in 1619 at the Synod of Dordrecht (Dort in English), which gave the Dutch Reformed Church a strictly orthodox foundation and identified it irrevocably with a new, more aggressive Dutch nationalism.

A second Counter-Remonstrant victory came in 1621, when the States-General handed New Netherland and the fur trade over to a new and far larger enterprise, the Geoctroyerde West-Indische Compagnie, or West India Company. Capitalized at 7.5 million guilders, the West India Company received a monopoly over all Dutch trade with west Africa and the Americas. Like the East India Company, it had two purposes: to make money by trade and to make money by making war on Spain.3


Amsterdam’s waterfront The West India Company’s compound can be seen at the foot of the bridge on the right. Detail of a map by Balthasar van Berckenrode, 1626. (Municipal Archives, Amsterdam)

Shares in the West India Company sold briskly, and the company geared up for business. In 1623 it launched a campaign to seize the Portuguese sugar plantations in Brazil. In 1624 it sent out some seventy ships to prey on Spanish commerce. In 1625 it attacked and sacked San Juan, Puerto Rico. Over the next dozen years it would dispatch some seven hundred additional ships manned by sixty-seven thousand men. They took over five hundred prizes worth almost forty million guilders. Counting damages as well as booty, they are said to have cost Spain alone nearly 120 million guilders. Oranje boven!


Nor did the company neglect its interests in North America. As early as 1622, according to a contemporary English account, its agents had appeared along “the river Manahata and made plantation there, fortifying themselves in two several places” where “they did persist to plant and trade.” One of the company’s ships spent the winter of 1623-24 trading in the Hudson and Long Island Sound. She was still anchored in the East River in the early summer of 1624 when Captain Cornelis May brought in the Nieu Neder-landt with thirty families, mostly Walloons from Leyden who had previously tried without success to get permission to settle in Virginia. May immediately sent eighteen families north to establish a base along the west bank of the Hudson, not far from the site of Fort Nassau (now fallen into disrepair), which they called Fort Orange. Some sixty years later a female survivor recalled that “as soon as they had built themselves some hutts of Bark,” the people there were doing a good business in furs with the local Mahicans, who were “all as quiet as Lambs.”

The remaining families of colonists were sent to establish outposts along the Delaware and Connecticut rivers—the western and eastern boundaries, respectively, of New Netherland. (Perhaps because no one could think of a better name, the Delaware site, like its North River counterpart, was also called Fort Nassau.) A small party also occupied Noten (now Governors) Island and were soon at work clearing and planting at least one farm on nearby Manhattan.

By December of that same year, the company’s ships had returned to Amsterdam with pelts worth fifty thousand guilders and the cheerful news that New Netherland had begun “to advance bravely and to live in friendship with the natives.” And such was the region’s astounding abundance and fertility, according to one report, that the colonists lacked almost nothing. “Had we cows, hogs, and other cattle fit for food (which we daily expect in the first ships) we would not wish to return to Holland, for whatever we desire in the paradise of Holland, is here to be found.”

Several more company ships arrived in the spring of 1625. Led by Willem Verhulst, who replaced May as director of New Netherland, this second expedition deposited over a hundred additional colonists (again, mostly Walloons) plus a wide variety of livestock (103 head in all) and a mountain of supplies—wagons, plows, tools, clothing, food, seeds, plant shoots, firearms, and cheap goods for the fur trade. The cattle were put to pasture on Manhattan (“a convenient place abounding with grass”), and Verhulst ordered more land there to be cleared for planting wheat, rye, and buckwheat.

Verhulst and Cryn Fredericks, an engineer, also chose Manhattan’s southern tip as the best location for a massive fortification whose masonry walls, bristling with cannon, would anchor West India Company operations throughout New Netherland (in light of the fact, it was said, that “the Spaniard, who claims all the country, will never allow any one to gain a possession there”). They called it Fort Amsterdam, and Fredericks had the site staked out before the end of the year.

Nobody liked Verhulst. He bullied the colonists, doctored the books, and managed to lose track of vast quantities of trade goods. In the spring of 1626 he was replaced as director by forty-year-old Peter Minuit, a Walloon whose family had lived in Wesel, Germany, until driven out by a Spanish army a couple of years earlier.


Verhulst was really the least of New Netherland’s problems, however. Far graver was a sharp division of opinion within the West India Company itself about its long-range expectations for the colony.

The original idea for the company had come from Willem Usselinx, a wealthy Flemish refugee who believed that its primary objective should be settlement, not the establishment of trading posts. To his way of thinking, Holland in particular and the Protestant cause in general would never throw off Spanish rule until Spain’s grip on the New World and its resources had been broken. The surest way to do that, he reasoned, was to establish extensive colonies where free European farmers and converted Indians could produce agricultural commodities for the markets of Europe. The company’s preoccupation with conventional trade and warfare left Usselinx bitterly disappointed, and he refused its repeated offers of employment. At least a few of its directors nonetheless thought he had been on the right track. Led by Kiliaen van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam diamond merchant, these dissidents fought for years to make something more out of the company’s American holdings than a collection of thinly populated trading posts.

From the very beginning, consequently, New Netherland’s status was anomalous. In 1624, just before the Walloons set out with Captain May on the Nieu Nederlandt, the West India Company promulgated a set of regulations for the colony known as the Provisional Orders. The Orders implied that it would be run as a collection of thoroughly typical factories in which the company’s interests came first, the company made the rules, and the company decided what was best. Prospective colonists were explicitly warned “to obey and to carry out without any contradiction the orders of the Company then or still to be given, as well as all regulations received from the said Company in regard to matters of administration and justice.” The company would tell them where to live. The company would tell them what to plant on their land. They would work on the construction of fortifications and public buildings at the direction of the company. Their able-bodied men would perform military service for the company as needed.

Yet the Provisional Orders also hinted that other intentions besides those of the company were to be served as well. Perhaps because the Walloons had driven a hard bargain, colonists bound for New Netherland were promised things that matter only to people seeking to put down roots: cheap livestock, easy credit for the purchase of supplies, freedom of conscience in private worship, and, after six years’ service to the company, free land on which to settle. The company likewise instructed the director to appoint some of them to a council that would advise him on matters of general concern. It was this council that in 1626 brought in Minuit to replace the unpopular Verhulst.


Complicating the company’s confusion about its purposes in New Netherland were momentous changes in the organization of the fur trade. Intensive trapping had severely depleted the Lenape peltries of the lower Hudson Valley by the mid-1620s, with the result that more and more of the furs exported from New Netherland were now coming from Mahicans who lived on the west bank of the Hudson around Fort Orange. The Dutch were not alone in appreciating the significance of this development. Iroquois-speaking Mohawks, recently repulsed from the St. Lawrence by the French and Hurons, saw a chance to recoup their losses by wresting control of the fur trade away from the Algonkian-speaking Mahicans. War between the Mohawks and Mahicans broke out in 1624 and escalated rapidly.

Concurrently, both Dutch and English discovered the value of “sewan” or “wampum.” True wampum consisted of long strings of tiny purple and white beads sewn together into belts; a large belt, six feet or so in length, would have contained six or seven thousand beads (“loose” or unstrung wampum was never considered the genuine article). The beads themselves were made from certain clam and whelk shells that could be found only along the shores of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound—Sewan-hacky was in fact the Lenape name for Long Island—and the peoples native to those regions had long been accustomed to collecting, drilling, and stringing the shells for trade with groups far into the interior of the continent. With the introduction of European metal awls or drills, perhaps as early as the final quarter of the sixteenth century, it became possible for them to manufacture wampum in significantly greater quantity.

In 1609 Hudson’s men received “stropes of Beades” from some upriver Indians, but it was a crafty Dutch fur trader named Jacob Eelkes (or Eelckens) who became the first European to grasp the significance of wampum. In 1622 Eelkes seized a Pequot sachem on Long Island and threatened to cut off his head unless he received “a heavy ransom.” The sachem gave him over 140 fathoms of wampum, which Eelkes then discovered would fetch more furs than conventional European trade goods. Before long West India Company agents were buying up all the wampum they could get from the coastal Algonkians and trekking it north to Fort Orange to buy furs from the Mahicans—which made the Mahicans all the more inviting a target for the Iroquois, who relied heavily on wampum for ceremonial and diplomatic purposes. Isaack de Rasieres, a Walloon serving as the company’s chief commercial agent and the colony’s official secretary, took the news of wampum up to Governor William Bradford of Plymouth, a settlement of English Separatists founded in 1620. Bradford spread the word, and almost overnight, as he put it, “a great alteration” was wrought in the affairs of the entire region.4

Suddenly the fur trade was no longer a simple matter of direct barter between assorted Europeans and assorted native American peoples. Henceforth it would also involve a pair of transactions in which wampum functioned rather like money. In the first, European traders and coastal Algonkians exchanged manufactured goods for wampum; in the second, European traders used wampum (as well as manufactured goods) to obtain furs at Fort Orange. Not too many years later, wampum would become legal tender throughout both New England and New Netherland.


As the Mohawk-Mahican war intensified, the West India Company weighed the idea of an alliance with the Mahicans. But after Mohawk warriors killed three soldiers from the Fort Orange garrison and “well roasted” a fourth, the company’s managers lost confidence in the Mahicans and cast their lot with the Iroquois. Realizing that New Netherland’s far-flung trading posts couldn’t be defended if they were caught up in the fighting, the company also resolved to abandon those on the Connecticut and Delaware rivers and move the women and children from Fort Orange to an encampment on the southern tip of Manhattan. This was an attractive site because company agents stationed there could still supervise the flow of commerce out of the Hudson Valley and Long Island Sound. It was big enough for the company to maintain its own farms and herds for provisioning the camp. Apparently, too, many of the island’s original inhabitants had recently succumbed to epidemic disease or been driven away by rival groups. (De Rasieres, writing c. 1628, noted that only about two or three hundred of “the old Manhatans” still lived on the island. Along the East River, he added, “is a little good land, where formerly many people have dwelt, but who for the most part have died or have been driven away by the Wappenos [Wappingers].”)

In May or June of 1626, shortly after taking over from Verhulst, Director Minuit began to implement the new policy by “purchasing” Manhattan from the Lenapes for sixty guilders’ worth of trade goods. It’s impossible to say which Lenapes, or what kind of trade goods, because no deed or bill of sale has survived—if indeed there ever was one. However, when he and five other colonists also “bought” Staten Island on August 10, 1626, they paid the local sachems “Some Dimes [duffle cloth], Kittles [kettles], Axes, Hoes, Wampum, Drilling Awls, Jew’s Harps, and diverse other other wares”—probably the same kind of trade goods with which they had obtained Manhattan. (Probably, too, those “drilling awls” were the very kind used by coastal Algonkians to manufacture wampum.)


New Amsterdam, c. 1626. Perhaps drawn by Cryn Fredericks, the company’s engineer, this view greatly exaggerates the size of the fort but accurately depicts the mill and cabins that huddled outside its walls. Engraved and published by Joost Hartgers in 1651. (© Museum of the City of New York)

Engineer Fredericks and his workers meanwhile scaled back their plans for a real fortress and threw up a simple blockhouse surrounded by a palisade of wood and sod. Other workmen hurriedly erected a sawmill on Noten (Governors) Island, then heavily wooded, and used the lumber to build thirty cabins. These were followed by a stone countinghouse “thatched with reed” and “a horse-mill, over which shall be constructed a spacious room sufficient to accommodate a larger congregation.” The mill was to have a tower where bells captured the year before at the sack of San Juan would be hung. The new settlement was dubbed New Amsterdam. It had about 270 inhabitants, including a handful of newborn infants.

Was it a settlement, though? Many of those 270 inhabitants, undoubtedly the Walloons and perhaps Minuit as well, wouldn’t have objected to the term. They saw themselves as settlers and thought—not without reason, considering the terms of the Provisional Orders—that the West India Company did too.

A majority of the company’s shareholders saw things differently. Continuing to favor trade over colonization, they viewed New Amsterdam as a commercial “factory” or trading post indistinguishable from dozens of other such installations scattered along the coasts of Africa, India, Malaysia, and China. It wasn’t a beachhead of imperial conquest or a citadel to overawe a subject population. It wasn’t a seedbed for transplanting Dutch culture in the New World. It wasn’t a workshop or plantation for the production of commodities. It was, purely and simply, a place where cheap European manufactured goods (knives, axes, blankets, iron pots, nails) would be exchanged for those items of local origin (dressed and cured pelts) that would fetch a good price back home.


From this perspective, the company would actually do itself more harm than good by promoting a proper colony in New Amsterdam. Settlers would require constant support and protection—both of which cost money—and the more there were, the trickier it would be for the Company to maintain its authority. Besides, settlers would inevitably squabble with the Indians over land and livestock, jeopardizing the flow of furs into the company’s storehouses.

As a factory, New Amsterdam seemed a far sounder proposition. Because the laborintensive drudgery of preparing furs for market could be done by the native inhabitants, the colony would be able to get along very nicely with a skeleton staff of salaried officials plus a small number of hired artisans, soldiers, and laborers. A few husbandmen and farmers could keep it supplied with fresh food (just as, for example, the company maintained cattle herds on Bonaire to feed Curacao). Employees wouldn’t expect the company to provide much in the way of amenities, either. They would sleep in company barracks, work with company tools and equipment, and eat in the company mess. Nor would the company have to be particular about who they were: they needn’t be Dutch, and they surely didn’t need to be respectable. It wasn’t even essential for the company to have all of them on the payroll: anyone, strictly speaking, could go to New Amsterdam and deal in furs—as long as they sold them to the company, at the company’s price, and bought their trade goods at the company’s stores.

Thus the little community that gathered on Manhattan in 1626 was a hybrid—something more than what a majority of West India Company directors intended yet something less than what many of its inhabitants must have hoped, a confused mix of private and public aspirations, of commerce and colonization, of employees and settlers. It wasn’t the most solid of foundations.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!