The Rise and Fall of New Netherland

“All I know of my ancestors commences with the first emigrant from Holland who came over in 1633, and settled in what is now called Rensselaer County in the state of New York.”

- President Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the sixth generation of a pioneer family who were part of a migration of Dutch emigrants who came seeking a home outside of Europe. These Dutch families brought their lives and traditions with them to a new colony, where they started the beginnings of a solid Dutch presence in North America. The experiment of a Dutch colony was short, but had lasting implications.

The New Netherland Ship
The ship used to transport people to their new life.

European Background

The United Provinces of the Netherlands was a federal republic established by seven Dutch provinces which had seceded from Spanish rule in 1579. The new nation was the first fully independent Dutch state, and by 1609 was a nation of about 3.5 million people. The inhabitants distinguished themselves by shipbuilding and world trade through the Dutch East India Company and later the Dutch West India Company. While the conflict with Spain was continuing, the country was experiencing explosive growth. From 1600 to 1690, the Dutch Republic experienced its “Golden Age.”


The “Age of Exploration,” during the 15th to the 17th centuries, brought Europeans to numerous and unknown parts of the world, including the Western Hemisphere. European countries were exploring the coasts of Africa, India and the Orient and finding wealth in the natural resources found there. In their search for a shorter route to the East, explorers found massive amounts of resources in North America. By 1612, explorers Adrian Block, Cornelis May, and Hendrik Christiansen had been exploring the east coast of North America and brought news of its rivers and resources to the Dutch East India Company. Christiansen brought expeditions of people to collect lumber, furs and other plentiful goods back to Europe.

Henry Hudson found his way up the mouth of the “North” River and made several trips going over 150 miles upriver. With the Spanish, French, and British making claims on land in the newly found “Americas,” the Dutch began to build forts along the North (Hudson,) South (Delaware,) and Fresh (Connecticut) Rivers. The forts gave them a place to anchor while collecting the produce of North American resources.

Created by William Usselinx, The Dutch West India Company encouraged people to seek land that they considered widely available for Dutch citizens to purchase from the indigenous people. New Netherland had been conceived as a private business venture to exploit the North American fur trade. By the 1650s, the colony had experienced dramatic growth and become a major port for trade in the North Atlantic. At its height, about 9,000 people lived in the colony of New Netherland.

The Colony of New Netherland
This map shows the boundaries of the colony of "Nieuw Nederland" against modern state borders.

Copyright © 2022 Vivid Maps.

The Colony Forms

Wealth in the United Provinces lie in the hands of the landowners. Land and jobs were plentiful there, and people lived without fear of persecution. There had been, however, a large number of foreigners or “Walloons” who decided to try life in a new part of the world. This included Belgians who had moved first to the Netherlands, then to the Americas. The first 31 families arrived in the harbor of the North River in 1623 aboard the “New Netherland,” and by 1624, the colony of “New Amsterdam” began to be formed. Soon Dutch colonists were claiming land as far north as present day Albany, New York; as far south as to include all of present day New Jersey; to Cape Henlopen, Delaware; and as far east as the Connecticut River. Cornelis May, one of the ship captains, directed the colonizing process until being succeeded by Willem Verhulst. As conflicts with native tribes soon began, the West India Company needed a stronger leader, which they found in a multi-lingual businessman, Peter Minuit. Minuit arranged for the colonists to acquire use of the island of Mana-Hatta, and was appointed to be the first civilian Director-General of the New Netherland Colony.

Inexpensive and plentiful land was the lure that brought many Dutch to North America. The colonists found wealth in animal furs, mining, farming, and trade. Through the West India Company, a colonist who organized fifty people to come to New Netherland, would be given a special grant of land and, within four years, be given special privileges as the owner and “patroon” of the land or ”manor.” The patroon provided land, buildings, and tools and prepared the land for farming and, in some cases, even provided enslaved Africans. He would also provide a school, with a schoolmaster, and perhaps even a church with clergy. Tenant farmers paid no taxes for ten years, but were required to pay the patroon rent and a percentage of that which they harvested. No farmer could sell any product without first offering it to the patroon. Once the manor became a profitable enterprise, the patroon was expected to share the profits with the tenants. The patroon was required to give a five percent duty on exports to the West India Company. Some tenants were actually “bonded” to their patroons and could not move to a different estate or town. This effectively gave the patroon “feudal” rights over the colonists. The patroon system was successful in bringing people to New Netherland, but the feudal system soon became unpopular.

Tenant farmers began selling their harvests independently and were refusing to pay the patroon what he was due. Director-General Peter Minuit was expected to enforce the West India Company’s rules but was failing to do so. In 1631, he was recalled to the United Provinces. The only manor that came reasonably close to being a success was “Rensselaerswijck,” established by Amsterdam diamond merchant, Kilian Van Rensselaer in what are now Albany and Rensselaer Counties in New York. Farmers such as Cornelis Maessen came to Rensselaerswijck and took out a contract with Van Rensselaer. Maessen worked his contract for three years and acquired land of his own. Now, with his own farm on which to live, Maessen, with his wife and son, made New Netherland their permanent home. Cornelis Maessen was third great grandfather to President Martin Van Buren.

Commander Peter Heyes brought a colony of 30 settlers to Delaware Bay in April of 1631. Heyes landed his people a few miles above Cape Henlopen, built a brick house and called the area Swaanendael. It included a tract of land twelve miles square that he had purchased from the local tribes. Farming began on the land until misunderstandings with the tribes over land ownership resulted in violent conflicts until every one of the Dutch settlers had been massacred. The area that became Southern Delaware was left largely abandoned for nearly twenty years.
The short lived colony of New Sweden
A map of the short lived colony of New Sweden


The Swedish Invasion
William Usselinx had witnessed the Swedish West India Company chartered in 1626. Swedish Empire King Gustavus Adolphus had his own ambitions in North America but needed an intermediary to direct him to colonization. With the king dying in combat in the thirty years’ war, his six-year-old daughter Christina became the reigning monarch. She continued her father’s ambitions. Samuel Blommaert was a director of the Dutch West India Company, who had ideas on forming his own colony within the New Netherland colony. He contacted none other than Peter Minuit. Minuit, still resentful from losing his position with the West India Company, made a plan with Blommaert. In March of 1638, Minuit led a flotilla of Swedish immigrants into the South River and proclaimed the colony of New Sweden on the abandoned land that would become Northern Delaware, Southwestern New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania. As colonizing continued north and west, Minuit received notice from Director-General William Kieft that they would have to leave. Minuit, knowing that Kieft had no force to back up his order, largely ignored him. Kieft contacted the West India Company, which in dealing with its’ own unhappy colonists, was not able to send a force and instructed Kieft to settle things with the Swedes as amicably as he could. Immigration by the Dutch and Swedes continued with conflicts breaking out between the two. Fortifications were built to protect property but changed hands more than once. Ultimately, control of this Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania area remained under Dutch authority with Dutch and Swedish settlers continuing to populate the southern area. Swedes were living there, but the colony of New Sweden lasted only 17 years. The Swedish presence and influence in North America remain to this day.

Providing leadership for the colony proved to be a formidable challenge for the West India Company. Peter Minuit (1626 – 1631) had not been able to enforce the economic system and was recalled to the United Provinces. The man who had purchased the island of Mana-Hatta from the native Lenni-Lenape was replaced in 1632 by Sebastiaen Krol. Wouter Van Twiller (1633 – 1638) came into authority simply by being Killian Van Rensselaer’s nephew. Willem Kieft (1638 – 1647) had not been able to maintain a peaceful relationship with the indigenous people and was recalled. In 1647, the company turned to Peter Stuyvesant, the Director-General of the island colonies of Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire. His position had given him military, governing, and management experience, and now he had authority over operations in New Netherland and the Caribbean. Stuyvesant organized the militia that regained the colony of New Sweden. He remained as Director-General from 1647 to 1664. It was now Stuyvesant who was responsible for the West India Company’s rules to be obeyed. Stuyvesant took control of the colony and soon discovered the tenant farmers were not only refusing the “feudal” system, but were actually looking to change the government into a “representative” government with the colonists governing themselves. Stuyvesant refused and the dysfunctional economic system continued.

Van Der Donck
From the beginning of his manor, Killian Van Rensselaer discovered the difficulties in keeping his tenant farmers paying their dues. He knew he needed someone to enforce the rules of the economic system. In 1641, he turned to a young lawyer in the Netherlands who was looking to come to America. Van Rensselaer hired Adriaen van der Donck to be a “schout” which constitutes a sheriff and a legal prosecutor. Van der Donck became so effective at his job, he was noticed by the West India Company, who would hire him to do the same job for the colony from New Amsterdam. Without ever holding a military position or a political office, he would have perhaps more influence over the operation of the colony than any of the Directors-General. Known and respected as a young “Yongkheer” or nobleman, he would acquire a tract of land north of the Harlem River, today known as the city of Yonkers, New York.

Native Conflicts
The relationships between the Dutch and indigenous people were tense from the beginning, as they were where most contacts were made. Europeans needed the native tribes to develop the trade they wanted to bring to Europe. In the early years of Dutch expeditions, contact was largely peaceful. As in most of the colonies, the tribes within New Netherland contracted the diseases Europeans carried and lost large numbers of their population. Local tribes, however were periodically at war with other tribes and looked to Europeans for help. This created new enemies for the Dutch. Hendrik Christiansen had started the building of Fort Amsterdam and Fort Nassau, and Peter Minuit had arranged for the use of the island of Mana-Hatta. Acquisition of land and distrust grew from there. By 1638 conflicts ensued that became more and more violent. “Kieft’s War,” from 1643 to 1645 became such a deadly affair, it drove many farmers off their farms and into the nearest fort for protection. Willem Kieft was the Director-General and was attacking tribes despite West India Company orders not to. Kieft was recalled, but in 1655 the Peach Tree War started that unified many tribes and led to more damage. In 1660 the Esopus Wars broke out which were demoralizing enough to begin the failure of the colony.
While economics in New Netherland would rise and fall, as colonists would agree and refuse to abide by West India Company rules, as life continued in the colony, England and The United Provinces were preparing for war. During 1652 to 1654, the first of three 17th century Anglo-Dutch wars began at sea over commercial shipping rights. The first war caused a great deal of damage to both countries with neither gaining much from the conflict. The war had prompted a drive by both countries to grow their possessions in the western hemisphere. England was now challenging The Netherlands for their colonies.

End of an Era
Violent conflicts with Susquehannock, Esopus, and other Algonquian and Haudenosaunee tribes over land encroachment and theft became a threat to the stability of the colony. Many of the people found it necessary to abandon their new homes and return to The United Provinces. At the same time, English colonization was moving closer from the east. Corruption, the constant threat of war, ineptitude in governing, and a dysfunctional economic system were cause for the colony to fail. The West India Company was approaching bankruptcy, and colonists began to seek protection within colonial fortifications. English war ships began to surround the colonial center at New Amsterdam. With no other options available, Director-General Peter Stuyvesant surrendered the colony to English forces in 1664 without anyone firing a shot in anger. The forty-year attempt at a Dutch Republic in North America had come to an end. Dutch culture, language, and influence, however, would remain in the colony of “New York” for many years to come.

The Second Chance
This appeared to be the end of the story for the Dutch presence in North America, except for the second Anglo-Dutch war that began after the British took over New Netherland. Nine years after giving up the colony, the navy of the United Provinces surrounded New York City and took possession of New York renaming it New Orange. The colony was Dutch once again to the joy of its Dutch residents. Great Britain and The Netherlands, however, desperately needed an end to the war and in the process of negotiating for peace, New Orange was given to Great Britain in exchange for other colonies in the Western Hemisphere. New Orange had been a Dutch colony for only a year.

The economy of the British colony of New York continued as wealthy landowners took the place of Dutch patroons, and tenant farmers rejected the demands made upon them. Over two hundred years, the colony of New Netherland became the British colony of New York, which then became the independent state of New York. With independence, Dutch patroonships became English manors and the “feudal” system was abolished. Throughout all of these changes, the relationship between landlords and tenant farmers never changed. During the early nineteenth century, tenant farmers were looking for legal help to defend their interests against wealthy landlords. Some found that help in the law offices of a young attorney named Martin Van Buren, who was known for defending the interests of tenant farmers. Van Buren’s influence eventually prompted the State of New York to abolish the land patents that for two hundred years had caused so much conflict among landlords and farmers. The very issue that brought down the colony of New Netherland was the issue that launched the law career of the nation’s eighth President of the United States.

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Last updated: July 10, 2022

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