Company Town

According to Nicolaes van Wassenaer, the Dutch physician-journalist who published a semiannual compilation of intelligence from America, New Amsterdam’s first year had gone remarkably well. “Men work there as in Holland,” he rejoiced. “One trades, upwards, southwards and northwards; another builds houses, the third farms. Each farmer has his farmstead on the land purchased by the Company, which also owns the cows; but the milk remains to the profit of the farmer; he sells it to those of the people who received their wages for work every week. The houses of the Hollanders now stand outside the fort, but when that is completed, they will all repair within, so as to garrison it and be secure from sudden attack.”

People with firsthand knowledge of conditions on Manhattan were less sanguine. Isaack de Rasieres worried that few colonists had come prepared to establish anything more than a grubby little trading post. Some, not having contracted to perform manual labor, expected the company to provide them with food and shelter while they got rich in the fur trade. The rest, de Rasieres wrote in a letter home, were a “rough lot who have to be kept at work by force.” “I cannot sufficiently wonder at the lazy unconcern of many persons, both farmers and others, who are willing enough to draw their rations and pay in return for doing almost nothing,” he added.

De Rasieres’s criticism paled alongside the fulminations of Dominie Johannes Michaelius, New Amsterdam’s first regular minister of the gospel. Fresh provisions were scarce and overpriced, Michaelius wrote angrily to friends back in the Netherlands; it was impossible to get a horse or a cow, rations distributed by the company were disgusting—“hard stale food, such as men are used to on board ship”—and there were no decent houses, only “hovels and holes” where the colonists “huddled rather than dwelt.” Nobody seemed really interested in improving things, either. Some of the Walloons had already given up and gone home. A few years later, the dominie himself followed.

Criticism of New Amsterdam flared at company headquarters as well. Expenses were running well ahead of initial projections, and income from the fur trade hadn’t lived up to expectations. After two or three profitless years, investors as well as directors were clamoring for the company to cut its losses, abandon Manhattan, and concentrate on operations in the West Indies and Brazil.


New Amsterdam’s future brightened temporarily when Admiral Piet Heyn, commanding a flotilla of thirty-one company vessels and three thousand men, captured the Spanish treasure fleet outside Havana in 1628. Heyn returned to Amsterdam with two hundred thousand pounds of silver, 135 pounds of gold, and a mountain of sugar, pearls, spices, hides, and other merchandise—worth, all told, a whopping fifteen million guilders. This triumph of organized banditry enabled the company to pay a fat 50 percent dividend and made Heyn a national hero. Over the next half-dozen years, largely financed by Heyn’s coup, company forces would drive the Portuguese from their lucrative sugar plantations in Brazil and seize Curasao, which commanded the vast salt pans on nearby Aruba and Bonaire.

In the general euphoria that followed Heyn’s coup, the prosettlement faction led by Kiliaen van Rensselaer persuaded the West India Company to give New Netherland a second chance. In the Freedoms and Exemptions of 1629 (also known as the Charter of Liberties) the company agreed to give large chunks of New Netherland to “patroons” who would promise to buy the land from the Indians and import fifty or more settlers at their own expense. It also agreed to supply the colonists with slaves and to build a better fort on Manhattan. The reward for these concessions would be continued control of New Netherland’s trade: all goods coming into and out of the colony, furs included, would have to travel in company vessels at company rates and pay specified duties to company agents at New Amsterdam.

Van Rensselaer promptly applied to the company for a “patroonship” called Rensselaerswyck, a seven-hundred-thousand-acre domain surrounding Fort Orange. A half-dozen other directors associated with Van Rensselaer followed with applications for their own patroonships. Michael Pauw set his sights on Pavonia, which included Staten Island and the west bank of the Hudson across from Manhattan. Most of the projects existed only on paper, however, quietly forgotten when the would-be patroons came to their senses or failed to overcome the skepticism of potential investors. Pauw did build a house on the site of present-day Jersey City but lost too much money, quarreled with the local Indians, and ultimately sold his rights to Pavonia to the company in 1637. Rensselaerswyck alone survived, a thorn in the company’s side for years.

The patroonship fiasco was compounded by the vigorous expansion of settlement in neighboring New England. In 1630 Puritan immigrants founded the town of Boston in a colony they called Massachusetts Bay; thousands more followed over the next decade. They were a doctrinaire and disputatious people, and dissidents soon began streaming out of Boston to plant a crop of new settlements elsewhere in Massachusetts as well as in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and eastern Long Island.

From the West India Company’s point of view, the Puritans couldn’t have showed up at a less opportune moment. As trappers and traders from Massachusetts joined those from Plymouth and fanned out across the dwindling peltries of northern New England, the company’s chances of turning a profit in the fur trade grew steadily slimmer. What was more, the arrival of actual settlers—besides undermining Dutch claims to the Connecticut River Valley and Long Island—threatened the wampummanufacturing Lenapes who lived along Long Island Sound. Their displacement or conquest by the English would strike directly at the company’s ability to obtain furs from the Mohawks at Fort Orange.

An all-out buildup of Dutch settlement along the New England frontier might still save the situation. The question was whether the West India Company, distracted by big-budget campaigns in the West Indies and Brazil, cared enough to work out an acceptable alternative to patroonships.


Back in New Amsterdam, it seemed that everyone had fixed the blame for the colony’s lack of progress on Peter Minuit (“a slippery man,” fumed Dominie Michaelius, “who under the treacherous mask of honesty is a compound of all iniquity and wickedness.”) The company decided to replace Minuit with Wouter van Twiller, a twenty-seven-year-old former clerk in its Amsterdam headquarters and, not unimportantly, the nephew of Kiliaen van Rensselaer.

Van Twiller arrived in 1633 with a hundred-odd soldiers, the first regular troops to be stationed in the colony. He made a show of sealing the border between New Netherland and New England by erecting a fortified trading post called the House of Good Hope (now Hartford) on the Connecticut River, but to no avail. The English coolly ignored the House of Good Hope, and the callow Van Twiller, unwilling to make a fight of it, abandoned the company’s jurisdiction over the Connecticut River Valley.

Van Twiller’s administration of New Amsterdam was no more successful. He attempted to rehabilitate the fort and did manage to build a new bakehouse, a “small house” for the midwife, a goathouse, and a proper church. He drank too much, on the other hand—once, in an alcoholic rage, he even chased Dominie Everardus Bogardus, Michaelius’s replacement, around town “with a drawn knife”—and spent too much time scheming to acquire land for himself and his cronies under the company’s patroonship plan. At one time or another Van Twiller owned what are now Governors, Wards, and Roosevelt islands, as well as tobacco plantations in what are now Greenwich Village and the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. (Easily grown on fields already cleared by the Lenapes, tobacco was a profitable and popular crop.)

Ironically, although the West India Company hadn’t yet decided to try again to promote settlements outside New Amsterdam, Van Twiller’s landgrabbing helped establish the first Dutch colonists across the East River on Long Island. Between 1636 and 1638 he registered the “purchase” from various Lenape sachems of better than fifteen thousand acres of land at three locations in what is now Brooklyn. One site, in Gowanus, belonged to William Adriaense Bennett and Jacques Bentyn. Another, on Wallabout Bay, belonged to Joris Jansen de Rapalje, a Walloon. The third site, by far the best and largest, lay on the broad, treeless plains just to the north and west of Jamaica Bay where the Canarsees had maintained planting fields. Part of it was reserved by Van Twiller for his own use, part belonged to Jacob van Corlear, and part was held by two partners, Andries Hudde and Wolphert Gerritsen (for whom Gerritsen Beach is named).

Only Hudde and Gerritsen attempted to occupy their portion—known variously as Achtervelt (i.e., after or beyond the plains or flats of south-central Brooklyn), New Amersfort (Gerritsen’s hometown in Holland), or simply Flatlands. The two partners broke ground in 1636 near where the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church now stands at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Kings Highway. An inventory made two years later reveals that they had put up a house, barn, and hayrick. The house was twenty-six feet long, twenty-two feet wide, and forty feet high, “covered above and all around with boards” and “surrounded by long, round palisades”—evidently a precaution against Indian attack. The partners had thirty-two acres of land sown with summer and winter grain as well as a garden planted with fruit trees. Their livestock included a half-dozen cows, several oxen, and five horses. This brave little beginning didn’t inspire others to follow in their footsteps, however: a full decade would pass before the West India Company could point to more than a sprinkling of settlers anywhere on Long Island.

While New Amsterdam struggled along, Holland was seized by the Tulip Mania, a bizarre speculative frenzy that boosted the price of tulip bulbs to unheard-of levels before it collapsed in February 1637, wiping out innumerable unwary investors and generating widespread unemployment. The States-General began to talk of exporting the indigent to New Netherland—at which point it became more obvious than ever that the West India Company had done little over the previous decade to populate the colony or protect it from being overrun by the English. Under pressure to remedy the situation or surrender New Netherland to the nation, the company’s directors decided to act.

Their first move was to fire Van Twiller and annul his various land purchases. The second, which took two years to complete, was a revision of the Freedoms and Exemptions that made the first deliberate provision for settlements outside New Amsterdam. Prospective emigrants to New Netherland were now promised cheap transportation, up to two hundred acres of land, and a schoolmaster for the education of their children. Except for minor regulatory taxes on imports and exports, the company also consented to permit free trade in the colony, abandoning the commercial monopoly it had so jealously guarded for twenty years.

The fate of the new policy hinged on the company’s third move, its appointment of Willem Kieft as director of New Netherland. Kieft was a merchant with excellent family connections and a reputation for learning. He was also rumored to be something of a crook. According to one story, he had recently left France “in a hurry.” According to another, he had once absconded with money raised to ransom Christians imprisoned by the Turks. Considering the havoc Kieft would wreak on New Netherland over the coming eight or nine years, the company’s directors would have done well to inquire into such talk a bit more closely.


When Kieft stepped ashore in 1638, New Amsterdam was a collection of eighty or ninety structures occupied by four hundred or so people—not much bigger, in other words, than it had been a dozen years earlier in the days of Peter Minuit. (Boston, four years younger, already boasted a thousand inhabitants.) Most of the town lay along crooked footpaths to the east and south of the ramparts of Fort Amsterdam. A string of buildings followed the East River shore along what is now Pearl Street as far as a sluggish creek known as Blommaert’s Vly (Broad Street). No more than a handful stood on the far side of Smit’s Vly (the foot of Maiden Lane).

Everything in sight belonged to the West India Company, and the company had never been diligent about maintenance, let alone appearances. Everywhere Kieft looked he saw chaos, squalor, and dilapidation. Fort Amsterdam, he informed the West India Company, was “totally and wholly in a ruinous condition, so that people could go in and out of said fort on all sides.” The director’s house needed “considerable repairs,” as did the company’s five stone workshops, the wooden church built by Van Twiller, and the smith’s house. The thirty cabins built a decade earlier were still standing, though many were now occupied by sheep and pigs. Of the four windmills belonging to the company, only one gristmill and one sawmill remained in operation. Owing to a recent fire, “the place where the Public store stood can with difficulty be discovered.” North of town, along the axis still called the Bowery, the company’s five farms lay “vacant and fallen into decay; there was not a living animal on hand belonging to the Company on said Bouweries.” (In New Netherland, a “bouwerie” was a fully developed farm with livestock, in contrast to a “plantation,” which produced tobacco and other crops.)

As for the inhabitants of New Amsterdam, they had a good claim to being the motliest assortment of souls in Christendom. Probably only a narrow majority of the heavily male European population was Dutch, for Manhattan ran a distant fourth to Asia, Brazil, and the West Indies as a magnet for fortune seekers from the Netherlands. The rest were Walloons, English, French, Irish, Swedish, Danish, and German, among others—not to mention various Frisians sometimes confused with the Dutch, one Cicero Alberto (known around town as “the Italian”), and Anthony Jansen van Salee (a Muslim mulatto of mixed Dutch and Moroccan ancestry whom everyone called “the Turk”). Between them, Kieft told Father Isaac Jogues, a visiting Jesuit missionary, they spoke no fewer than “eighteen different languages.”

About the only thing they had in common was that nearly everyone was an employee of the West India Company. First among them—making up what might be called New Amsterdam’s official establishment—were the director, the provincial secretary, and the schout-fiscall (a combination sheriff and prosecutor). The director made rules and regulations for the colony by outright fiat; the director and his appointed council sat as a court to hear both civil and criminal cases brought by the schout. Others were a marshal or constable who acted as court messenger, a few commissaries and their assistants who ran the “public store” and kept track of company property, and a labor foreman. Dominie Everardus Bogardus was on the company payroll too, as were Catarina or “Tryn” Jonas, the official midwife, and New Amsterdam’s first schoolmaster, Adam Roelantsen.

Also in the company’s employ were fifty or sixty soldiers and officers stationed in the fort, various sailors who manned harbor lighters and North River sloops, and at least one mason, blacksmith, armorer, cooper, house carpenter, ship carpenter, shoemaker, hatter, brewer, baker, surgeon, wheelwright, tailor, locksmith, sailmaker, and miller. Often these artisans pursued more than one line of work to supplement their meager wages. Schoolmaster Roelantsen took in washing. Other employees worked company land as tenants, producing small crops of maize, beans, barley, and tobacco. They occupied the lowest level of New Amsterdam’s corporate hierarchy—except, that is, for the company’s slaves.

Slavery had most likely existed in New Amsterdam from the outset, although the details are sparse and ambiguous. In 1625 or 1626 the company imported eleven bondsmen, among them Paulo d’Angola, Simon Congo, Anthony Portuguese, and John Francisco. It acquired three female slaves from Angola in 1628. Handfuls of others fol­lowed, women as well as men, and in 1635 Jacob Stoffelsen was hired as “overseer over the negroes belonging to the Company.” Stoffelsen used the men on a variety of official projects, from repairing the fort and cutting wood to “splitting palisades, clearing land, burning lime, and helping to bring in the grain in harvest time.” In 1641 he had them remove dead hogs from the streets of New Amsterdam, “to prevent the stench, which proceeds therefrom.” The women appear to have been employed as domestic labor, although an irate Dominie Michaelius said that as maidservants “the Angola slaves are thievish, lazy and useless trash.” By 1639 slave quarters were reportedly established on the East River shore across from Hog (now Roosevelt) Island, well outside of town.

None of this meant that the West India Company was ready to invest heavily in slave labor for New Netherland. Dutch opinion remained divided about the morality of owning and selling human beings, and the company (which consulted theologians on the matter) had shied away from the slave trade before 1637, when it captured the Portuguese station at Elmina on the west coast of Africa and began to take over the key sources of supply. Not indeed until 1640, when Portugal broke away from Spain and lost the asiento, the license to supply slaves to Spanish colonies, did the company become systematically involved in the trade. And despite occasional promises to import slaves for use on the bouweries and plantations of New Netherland, it did so only twice before the mid-1650s. As a result, there were never more than a few dozen or so slaves at a time throughout the colony, most of them contraband seized from the Spanish or Portuguese or purchased from the occasional visiting privateer (Virginia settlers bought their first slaves in 1619 from a West India Company warship). Not all were Africans, either: some may have been Indians or even captured Spanish or Portuguese sailors. Few if any were privately owned.

Nor was slavery in New Netherland the system of absolute racial subjugation it would later become. The West India Company never tried to formalize the status of slaves in the colony, and local custom accorded them a measure of respect and autonomy. Slaves were subject to the same laws and judicial procedures as whites. They could own property and testify in court. They could bear arms in time of emergency. They were encouraged to attend services and to observe religious holidays. They could marry and have their matrimonial bonds registered in the Dutch Reformed Church, the first such surviving record being a double wedding in 1641 that united Anthony van Angola with Catalina van Angola, and Lucie d’Angola with Laurens van Angola.

Blacks were hardly considered equals, to be sure. Adulterous intercourse with “heathens, blacks, or other persons” was banned by a 1638 ordinance. Whites convicted of serious crimes were made to work in chains next to the blacks, while company policy excluded slaves from employment in skilled trades, avoiding possible conflict with white labor. Similarly, punishments meted out to blacks were calculated less to maintain racial supremacy than to ensure a tractable labor force. In 1641 eight slaves confessed “without torture or shackles” to murdering a ninth. Plainly reluctant to hang all eight, the court decided to hang one, chosen by lot. The choice fell on Manuel of Gerrit de Reus, but when the executioner pushed him off the ladder with “two good ropes” around his neck, both ropes broke and the bystanders “very earnestly” called for mercy. The court thereupon pardoned him and the other slaves “on promise of good behavior and willing service”—which was doubtless what they were most concerned about anyway.

All nine of the slaves involved in the 1641 incident—including Big Manuel, Little Manuel, Simon Congo, Paulo d’Angola, and Anthony Portuguese—were among those who received something called “half-freedom” in 1644. They had petitioned the company for emancipation, and Kieft thought it was a good idea, observing that they “are burthened with many children so that it is impossible for them to support their wives and children, as they have been accustomed to do, if they must continue in the Company’s service.” He therefore granted the men “and their wives” their liberty and gave or leased them land on which to support themselves. They weren’t completely free, however. Kieft required them to pay an annual tribute of “thirty skepels of Maize or Wheat, Pease or Beans, and one Fat hog” or forfeit their freedom; they had to work for the company, for wages, whenever it called on them; and their children remained in bondage.1

Half-freedom for slaves offered the company manifold practical advantages. It lifted the burden of providing for those who were older and less productive—some of the 1644 petitioners had already served for eighteen or nineteen years—while allowing the company to employ their labor as needed. Allowing manumitted slaves to take up land was also expedient, for “the Negroes’ Farms,” as they became known, were situated on the outskirts of town where their presence would help alert New Amsterdam to the danger of an Indian attack. Some lay just north of the present site of City Hall, near a former Lenape encampment on the pond that the Dutch called Kalch-hook (meaning “lime-shell point,” from the shell-covered promontory above it). Others lay above what is now Houston Street, between Lafayette Street and the Bowery. A third group was concentrated in what is now Greenwich Village. Domingo Anthony’s plot occupied the southwest corner of today’s Washington Square Park; most ran along the marshy banks of Minetta Creek, with Paulo d’Angola’s lying between Minetta Lane and Thompson Street.

Not on this roster of New Amsterdam’s personnel and chattel were the “free inhabitants” who lived outside the company’s authority. Some Walloons still raised cattle and wheat on the outskirts of New Amsterdam, staying to themselves except when they came in to trade at the company store. There were also various independent merchants and their families, a few widows, and a handful of former (or part-time) company servants who, like Hudde and Gerritsen, had begun to set up as farmers on Long Island.


The diversity of New Amsterdam’s inhabitants when Kieft arrived was matched only by their turbulence. Fully one-quarter of the town’s buildings were “grog-shops or houses where nothing is to be got but tobacco and beer,” he reported, and immoderate drinking caused daily “mischief and perversity.” This probably came as no surprise to company officials back in the Netherlands, as their profits from liquor sales ran second to those from the fur trade. For years the company had operated a brewhouse, which gave Brouwer Straet its name. It also sold imported wines and brandies at the company store and wholesaled liquor to the inhabitants, who were urged to retail it from their homes. Kieft himself proceeded to establish, on Staten Island, the first distillery in New Netherland.

During his first year in office alone, the new director heard over forty criminal cases involving slander, theft, assault, adultery, rape, and murder, with much of the trouble stemming from a skewed sex ratio as well as excessive drinking. Because the company had shown so little interest in promoting permanent settlement, there were many more men in town than women—and too many of those men were footloose bachelors, down-and-out adventurers, fugitive husbands, runaway servants, and waterfront riffraff who had decided to spend a few years toiling for the company while on their way from wherever to God-only-knows.

Particularly troublesome were the men of the Fort Amsterdam garrison, one or another of whom was always up on charges for drunkenness, fighting, destruction of civilian property, larceny, sleeping on duty, refusing to work, desertion, or insubordination. In June 1638 Kieft and the council hired Nicolaes Coorn as the company sergeant, explaining that “it is necessary to have some one to drill the soldiers in the proper use of arms” (a striking admission in its own right). Within months, however, doom’s unmilitary conduct had the barracks in an uproar. He stole from the troops and looked the other way when the troops in turn stole “turnips, chickens and tobacco pipes” from the company. He traded company property to the Indians for furs, then hid the contraband in his bunk. “Likewise,” according to the schout, he “has at divers times had Indian women and Negresses sleep entire nights with him in his bed, in the presence of all the soldiers.” The council eventually broke Coorn to the rank of private and condemned two fellow soldiers “to ride two hours on the wooden horse”—a military version of the pillory in which the culprit was made to straddle a high sawhorse, with weights up to fifty pounds attached to each leg. But nothing changed. The very next year a soldier named Gregoris Pietersen was executed by firing squad for urging the troops to mutiny.

Not only were there too few women in New Amsterdam, but too few women disposed to Calvinist order and decorum. In Europe, unmarried Dutch women struck foreigners, especially the French, as shockingly improper, given to public kissing, lewd talk, and a general lack of regard for chastity, though married housewives were as a rule accounted pillars of sobriety and virtue. On the colonial frontier, mores grew even more relaxed. Over and over again the magistrates came up against bawds and doxies like Nanne Beeche, who went to a party at the house of wheelwright Claes Cornelissen and, “notwithstanding her husband’s presence, fumbled at the front of the breeches of most all of those who were present,” setting off a near riot. Grietjen Reyniers, wife of Anthony “the Turk” Jansen, was said to have “pulled the shirts of some sailors out of their breeches and in her house measured the male members of three sailors on a broomstick”—which perhaps explained why when the crew of a departing ship caught sight of her on the shore they began chanting, “Whore, Whore, Two pound butter’s whore!” When she and her husband were finally expelled in 1639, they took up farming on Long Island in the vicinity of what is now New Utrecht. Their place was known for years as Turk’s Plantation.

A further complication here was the proximity of native women who seemed entirely lacking in sexual restraint—“utterly unchaste and shamefully promiscuous,” in the words of Adriaen van der Donck. They “are exceedingly addicted to whoring,” agreed Dominie Johannes Megapolensis, who arrived in 1642 to serve as the minister to Rensselaerswyck. “They will lie with a man for the value of one, two or three schillings, and our Dutchmen run after them very much.” The dominie’s point was clear: not until this sexual carnival had been brought under control (by way of law as well as the immi­gration of respectable women from Europe) could New Amsterdam be considered a properly settled colony, much less a stable community.


It seemed for a while that Kieft might succeed in taming New Amsterdam. He forbade the sale of liquor except at the company store. He promulgated ordinances to prevent “adulterous intercourse with heathens, blacks, or other persons; mutiny, theft, false testimony, slanderous language and other irregularities.” He prohibited householders from harboring “fugitive servants” from other colonies (a frequent source of trouble) and forbade sailors from vessels in the harbor from staying ashore overnight. He told company craftsmen and laborers to go to work punctually “when the bell rings” and to keep working “until the bell rings again to break off.” He ordered the construction of a two-story stone inn on the East River called the Stadts Herbergh, or City Tavern, later designated as the site for public auctions and the posting of official notices. Inside Fort Amsterdam, Kieft saw to the erection of “a pretty large stone church” as well as a new residence for himself “quite neatly built of brick” (and decreed “that no one shall make water within the Fort”). Although the church was built by contractors from the English colony of New Haven, and the Stadts Herbergh provided food and lodging for many visiting New England traders, Kieft served notice on the English that the West India Company would defend New Netherland’s borders. He also vigorously protested when former director Minuit planted a colony of Swedes on the lower Delaware in 1638 and began diverting the local fur trade away from the Dutch.

That same year, moving to implement the company’s decision to promote largescale settlement, Kieft began to buy extensive tracts of land from the Lenapes in what are now Kings, Queens, and Bronx counties, as well as Jersey City on the western side of the Hudson. He obtained the area between Wallabout and Newtown Creek, as far inland as “the Swamps of Mespaetches”—later known as Bushwick—for “eight fathoms of duffels [cloth], eight fathoms of wampum, twelve kettels, eight chip-axes [adzes] and eight hatchets and some knives, beads, and awls.” At the same time, in a major step toward the institution of private property in New Netherland, Kieft also authorized the first “ground-briefs” or deeds for “free people” who took up land in the colony.

Thus the same Andries Hudde who began farming Achtervelt in 1636 received, in 1638, a patent giving him the right “peaceably to possess, inhabit, cultivate, occupy and use, and also therewith and there of to do, bargain and dispose” of a tract of land lying north of New Amsterdam in what is now Harlem. In return, Hudde agreed that after ten years he would pay the company “the just tenth of the products with which God may bless the soil, and from this time forth annually for the House and Lot, deliver a pair of capons to the Director for the Holidays.” That stipulation resembles what would have been called a quitrent in English law, not rent in the ordinary sense. Hudde now “owned” the land and could do with it as he pleased, but he (as well as his heirs or anyone who bought the land from him) would be required to acknowledge the sovereignty of the West India Company with a yearly payment that “quit” or absolved him of any other obligations to the company.

Soon enough the inhabitants of New Amsterdam were buying, selling, and leasing land among themselves, just like the inhabitants of settled European communities—land that only a few years earlier, when occupied by the Lenapes, had supported a fundamentally different network of social and productive relations. Not all land in the colony was turned over to private owners, to be sure, and the company continued to rent its remaining property to tenants as well as to hire farmers and laborers (and buy slaves) to work its bouweries.


Manhattan Lying on the North River, c. 1639, also known as the Manatus Map. Possibly drawn by Andries Hudde, a surveyor as well as farmer, it depicts the recent settlement of twenty-two bouweries and plantations in upper Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and New Jersey. The presence of Lenape longhouses in Brooklyn was a pointed reminder that Europeans were still heavily outnumbered throughout the region. The house said to have been provided for company slaves can be seen on the Manhattan shore across from what is now Roosevelt Island. {© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Over the succeeding four or five years, free settlers did trickle into New Netherland, and the colony began to flesh out a bit. On western Long Island men named Ryker, Wyckoff, Stoothoff, Teunessen, and Francisco the Negro settled at places they called, informally, Amersfoort, Boswijk, Breuckelen, and Midwout (Vlachte Bos)—not the compact, open-field villages of New England, but isolated, fortified cabins and farmsteads. An initial motive for this dispersion was to trade with the Indians without paying required duties to nosy agents of the West India Company. But when a ferry began operating across the East River in the early 1640s, settlers began to furnish New Amsterdam with tobacco, corn, wheat, and cattle (Kieft opened New Amsterdam’s first annual cattle fair in 1641 on the Marktveldt, just outside the walls of the fort). Similar settlements sprang up on Staten Island under the leadership of David de Vries, a ship captain who had been involved in the ill-fated Swanendael patroonship, and Cornells Melyn, an Antwerp merchant and sometime director of the West India Company.

Outside the half-dozen Dutch settlements of Long Island, however, many of these colonists, perhaps as many as half of them, represented the same broad mixture of nationalities as New Amsterdam itself. Among them were Swedes, Germans, French, Belgians, Africans, and Danes (such as a certain Jonas Bronck who owned a five-hundred-acre farm on the mainland near what is now Morrisania, and who left his name on the Broncks or Bronx River—whence the modern borough of that same name). Their presence didn’t, in the long run, augur well for the company’s ability to preserve New Netherland as a Dutch colony.

Most serious were the mounting numbers of English dissidents seeking refuge in New Netherland from the Puritan regime of Massachusetts. In 1639 Kieft ordered all Englishmen in the colony to swear an oath of allegiance to the States-General. The next year a small group from Lynn, Massachusetts—eight men, one woman, and one child—tried to take up land at Schout’s Bay (now Manhasset) on the north shore of Long Island, but Kieft drove them away with troops.

For reasons that aren’t clear, and over the objections of powerful men like Kiliaen van Rensselaer, Kieft dealt more leniently with subsequent arrivals. In 1642 he allowed the Rev. Francis Doughty and his followers, fugitives from Plymouth, to settle a thirteen-thousand-acre tract at Mespat (Newtown). That same year he also permitted the Rev. John Throgmorton and thirty-five families, mostly Quakers, to take up land on Throg’s Neck, only twenty-five miles from New Amsterdam on the shore of Long Island Sound; shortly thereafter, Anne Hutchinson, perhaps Puritan New England’s most famous nonconformist, settled nearby on what is now Pelham Neck.


Despite the colony’s development, Kieft failed to win the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Prominent colonists complained of his arrogance and his contempt for the council, which he reduced to a single member on the grounds that no one else was qualified to advise him (he did, after all, write his letters in Latin and was a talented watercolorist). His law-and-order campaign lost momentum, and Dominie Bogardus, for one, was furious that Kieft “permitted the officers and soldiers to perform all kinds of noisy plays during the sermon, near and around the church, rolling ninepins, bowling, dancing, singing, leaping, and other profane exercises.” (Kieft, in turn, accused Bogardus of frequently delivering his Sunday sermon in a drunken stupor.) Everybody quickly found out, too, that Kieft was a grafter whose cunning and greed made Van Twiller look like a saint. His morals were compared to those of ravens, “who rob whatever falls in their way.” In the end, though, it was Kieft’s Indian policy that brought the opposition to a head and nearly finished off the colony.

New Amsterdam’s first dozen years hadn’t been happy ones for its Lenape neighbors. With the influx of colonists came the unfamiliar diseases—smallpox, typhus, measles, diphtheria—that would in time cut the Lenape population to a mere 10 percent of what it had been at the beginning of the century. Their conflicts with settlers, magnified by the increasing availability of guns and alcohol, grew more frequent as well as more violent. European cows and swine trampled their planting fields, while heavy cutting for firewood and building materials wiped out the forests where they hunted game. The Lenapes retaliated by killing the livestock (and occasionally their owners), but this shrinking resource base left them increasingly dependent on the production of maize and wampum to obtain trade goods.

As suppliers of wampum, the Lenapes became increasingly tempting prey for rival fur-trading interests. After the fighting between them ended in 1628, both the Mohawks and Mahicans sent raiding parties to collect tribute from Lenape groups in the lower Hudson region. In the bloody Pequot War of 1637, the New England colonies won control of wampum production on the shores of Long Island Sound. The Dutch were slower to act, and cancellation of the West India Company’s monopoly touched off a furious competition for pelts by independent traders called bosch loopers (runners of woods), many of whom were former company functionaries, tradesmen, and farmers. By the time Kieft arrived on the scene, protecting their sources of wampum—now legal tender in New Amsterdam—had become a matter of real urgency.

In 1639, on the preposterous theory that the West India Company was protecting them from their enemies, Kieft demanded “contributions” in wampum, maize, and pelts from Lenape bands living near New Amsterdam. They were perplexed and irritated by the idea: Kieft “must be a very mean fellow,” the Tappans grumbled, “to come to live in this country without being invited by them, and now wish to compel them to give him their corn for nothing.” The following spring angry Raritans drove a Dutch trading party off Staten Island in a shower of arrows.

In the summer of 1641, when the Raritans again refused to pay and allegedly killed some swine from David de Vries’s new plantation on Staten Island, Kieft dispatched Provincial Secretary Cornelius van Tienhoven with eighty-odd soldiers to teach them a lesson. After the soldiers slew three or four Indians and tortured the sachem’s brother “in his private parts with a piece of split wood,” the infuriated Raritans fell upon De Vries’s plantation, killed four of his people, and burned all the buildings. To the nervous inhabitants of New Amsterdam this Pig War, as it came to be known, was entirely Kieft’s fault (De Vries himself charged that company soldiers, not Indians, had killed his pigs). In a bid to placate the critics, Kieft invited the heads of families in New Amsterdam to choose twelve men to help him decide what to do next.

And what, Kieft asked the Twelve, should be done about the recent killing of an elderly Dutch wheelwright, Claes Smits, by Wiechquaesgecks? If they refused to hand over the culprit—and the sachem allegedly said “he was sorry that twenty Christians had not been murdered”—“shouldn’t his whole village be ruined?” Of course, replied the Twelve, Smits must be avenged. But that wasn’t the only issue, they added, and handed Kieft a list of demands for the creation of a responsible municipal government. Furious, Kieft threw out the list and in January 1642 ordered the Twelve to disband.

He didn’t, however, abandon the idea of punishing and extracting tribute from the Lenapes. Over the summer of 1642 another Dutch colonist was killed by a Hackensack near Pavonia, just across the Hudson River. Kieft told the Hackensacks to give him the murderer, but they refused. Some months later, at the very beginning of 1643, a large and well-armed raiding party of Mahicans attacked Tappan and Wiechquaesgeck settlements above Manhattan, killing seventy and driving over a thousand survivors to seek protection of the Dutch at New Amsterdam. The Wiechquaesgecks still hadn’t turned over the murderer of Claus Smits, and when they chose to make camp at Pavonia with the Hackensacks, who also continued to harbor the murderer of a Dutchman, Kieft saw the opportunity to strike.

On the night of February 25, vowing to “wipe the mouths of the savages,” he launched a surprise attack on the Pavonia encampment. Company troops massacred scores of men, women, and children, Wiechquaesgecks as well as Hackensacks. At daybreak, wrote David De Vries, the exulting soldiers returned to Manhattan with stories of how infants were “torn from their mother’s breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of the parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone.” Some of the victims, De Vries added, “came to our people in the country with their hands, some with their legs cut off, and some holding their entrails in their arms.” Volunteers attacked a smaller Wiechquaesgeck camp at Corlear’s Hook, the bulge on the East River side of Manhattan, with similar results. The heads of more than eighty victims were brought back to New Amsterdam for display, and Kieft made a little speech congratulating his forces on their valor.

The carnage at Pavonia and Corlear’s Hook touched off full-scale war. Within weeks eleven major Lenape groups representing virtually the entire native population of the lower Hudson Valley had banded together to fight the Dutch. According to one contemporary account, the enraged Indians “killed all the men on the farm lands whom they could surprise” and “burned all the houses, farms, barns, stacks of grain, and destroyed every thing that they could come at.” Among the casualties that year were the New England exile Anne Hutchinson and fourteen of her followers, slain on the banks of the river that now bears her name.

As the panic-stricken survivors streamed into New Amsterdam for safety, Kieft’s authority crumbled. Two attempts were made on his life in March. In September, with an angry crowd gathered outside his house, he agreed to the formation of a Council of Eight to advise him in the crisis. The Eight at once dispatched a memorial to the company directors, detailing the colony’s desperate circumstances. Virtually every other settlement had been abandoned, and their former inhabitants now “skulk, with wives and little ones that still survive, in poverty together, in and around the Fort at the Manahatas where we are not safe for an hour.” There were only a few score poorly equipped company soldiers in the fort and two hundred men able to bear arms—hardly enough to hold off an estimated fifteen hundred Lenape warriors. The fort itself looked more like “a molehill than a fort against an enemy.”

Salvation arrived in the person of John Underbill, a hard-drinking, short-tempered Indian fighter renowned for his brutality in the Pequot War of 1637 as well as for a pamphlet extolling the charms of New Netherland. Underhill and a small contingent of New England troops rallied the Dutch over the winter of 1643-44, attacking Indian villages in Connecticut, on Staten Island, and on Long Island, killing hundreds and taking many prisoners. Some of the captives were brought back to the fort, and an eyewitness reported that Kieft “laughed right heartily, rubbing his right arm and laughing out loud” as they were tortured and butchered by his soldiers. The soldiers seized one, “threw him down, and stuck his private parts, which they had cut off, into his mouth while he was still alive, and after that placed him on a mill-stone and beat his head off.” Secretary Van Tienhoven’s mother-in-law allegedly amused herself all the while by kicking the heads of other victims about like footballs. In a later raid on an Indian camp near Pound Ridge in Westcheser, Underhill and the Anglo-Dutch force were said to have slaughtered somewhere between five hundred and seven hundred more with a loss of only fifteen wounded.

Before the war finally ended in the summer of 1645, some sixteen hundred Indians and scores of colonists had died. Dozens of settlements throughout Long Island, Staten Island, present-day Westchester County, and southern Connecticut had been abandoned or destroyed. As one observer summed up the situation, Kieft’s misguided attempts to wring tribute from the Indians had “in a short time nearly brought this country to nought.” With the States-General again fretting that New Netherland would be lost to the English, the directors of the West India Company decided that Kieft would have to go. Orders for his recall were on their way to New Amsterdam before the year was out.


During a lull in the fighting in the summer of 1643, it occurred to Kieft that New Amsterdam would be safer if more people lived in its immediate vicinity. Stepping up the pace of private land grants, he distributed nearly two dozen patents to prospective settlers whose farmsteads, mostly on Long Island, would create a buffer around Manhattan and serve as tripwires in the event of further attacks. (The following summer, to the same end, he would begin to settled manumitted slaves north of New Amsterdam.)

First to accept Kieft’s terms were Lady Deborah Moody and a phalanx of Anabaptists—ardent opponents of infant baptism and forerunners of Quakerism. Expelled from Massachusetts in the summer of 1643, they came down to New Netherland looking for a place to settle. They found it at a place they called Gravesend, on the sandy south shore of Long Island, just north of Coney Island. Kieft gave them a patent, but Canarsee raiders—possibly the same band that had just killed Anne Hutchinson—drove them away. The return of peace in 1645 brought them back, armed with a second patent from Kieft, and they soon had their town laid out for a second time.

Testifying to the links between Anabaptism and social egalitarianism, the Gravesend town plan was an unusual variation on the compact, open-field communities typical of New England. The village center—its ghost still visible 350 years later in the street pattern of modern Brooklyn—consisted of four squares or commons, each about four acres in extent and surrounded by ten house lots. Every male householder was assigned one of these house lots—twenty-three of the forty were distributed within the first year or two—as well as a hundred-acre farm or planter’s lot in the fields outside the village.

Other English settlers established Hempstead in 1644, and the following year eighteen English families founded Flushing. The irony of an English town named Flushing in New Netherland would have been lost on no one. Its namesake, Vlissingen, was one of the first towns in Holland to revolt against Spain. When the States-General appealed to Queen Elizabeth for military and financial assistance, Flushing-Vlissingen was one of two “cautionary” towns they allowed the English to occupy as a pledge of good faith. English forces held both for years, much as English settlers were now occupying towns in New Netherland.

Everywhere the West India Company’s directors looked, they seemed to be losing ground. A new round of fighting with Spain had gone badly, and the Portuguese were on the way to retrieving Brazil, despite the company’s tremendous and expensive efforts to fend them off. By mid-decade the directors confronted a million-guilder debt, half of it traceable to losses in New Netherland alone. The Board of Accounts, summarizing “the confusion and ruin” into which that unfortunate colony had fallen, wondered again if they shouldn’t give up and bring everyone home.

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