The first British invasion: Historian discusses New Netherland takeover

A time traveler? (photo by Will Dendis)

A time traveler? (photo by Will Dendis)

The 1664 British takeover of the Dutch colony of New Netherland — which afterward became New York — was one of the most important events in our state history. So says Ulster County Historian Anne Gordon, who feels so strongly about the significance of that event that she petitioned the state government two years ago to officially recognize the 350th anniversary of the occasion. “We certainly celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, but the state decided it didn’t need to commemorate this,” she says. “But the British takeover of New Netherland had just as much impact on the people who lived here at the time as the Civil War [did two centuries later].”

And that official disregard of such an important historical event rankled Gordon, who says she took it upon herself to do the research and go out to speak on the topic to let people know just how momentous were the changes wrought in 1664.

Gordon will give an informal talk on the subject at the Saugerties Public Library on Saturday, Jan. 9 at 2 p.m. as the guest speaker for the Friends of Historic Saugerties organization that meets once a month to discuss local history. (Usually on the first Saturday of each month, except when a holiday falls on or near that date, as in this case.) All are welcome to attend. Admission is free. There will be time after the talk for discussion and questions.

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The Dutch only controlled the Hudson River Valley for some 55 years — from 1609 when English sailor Henry Hudson claimed the region for his Dutch employers until 1664 when the British took over — but in that short time they established New Netherland, with trading posts, towns and forts up and down the Hudson River that laid the groundwork for our times. What the Dutch knew as Fort Orange is now Albany, New York City’s original name was New Amsterdam and the New Netherland’s third major settlement, Wiltwyck, is now Kingston.

The colony of New Netherland did well, with 9,000 residents living up and down the river by 1664. It was a profitable venture for the Dutch, but as is always the case, those who produce wealth attract attention. The Dutch lost New Netherland to the British during the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1664 just a few years after the establishment of Wiltwyck. King Charles of England granted his brother, James, Duke of York, vast American territories that included all of New Netherland. James raised a small fleet and sent it to New Amsterdam, who were without any forces to defend themselves, and by September of 1664, New York was born. That ended the direct involvement of the Dutch in North America, although the influences of their architecture and culture live on.

Attendees at the Friends of Historic Saugerties meeting on Jan. 9 will hear from Anne Gordon about how the British allowed the people of New Netherland to keep their language and religion, but their schools were closed and printing presses shut down. And while slavery was in effect under Dutch rule, it was not quite as oppressive as it later became under the British. “The British king was a major stockholder in the slave importing company, so they just began to fill the labor market with slaves,” Gordon says. “And they began to enforce very stringent laws against the slaves. They weren’t allowed to gather in groups larger than three, and they couldn’t own anything or earn money, which they had previously been allowed to do under the Dutch. Before the British takeover a slave could earn money and buy his freedom, and the Dutch freed slaves that fought on their side during various wars they were having.”

Women didn’t fare very well under the British, either. While Dutch rule had treated them almost as equal to men, with the right to inherit and own property and businesses, all of that ended with English dominion.

In the area of New Netherland that later became Saugerties, Barent Cornelis Volge — the “Little Sawyer” whose nickname gave the town its name — was operating a sawmill on the Sawyer’s Kill at the time of the British takeover. Early documents show that he’d secured a title to the land from the Esopus Sachem by 1663, the year prior. But it’s worth noting, in visualizing what this area was like at the time, how comparatively few people were actually living here then, says Gordon, even in Wiltwyck (Kingston), where the main seat of government was. “There were maybe 100 families living there at the time and not too many more out in the countryside,” she says.

Anne M. Gordon has served as Ulster County Historian for seven years and is a New York State Registered Public Historian. Prior to her appointment to the position by county Executive Michael Hein, Gordon was a town historian for the Town of Esopus. Each town in the county is required by law to have an official town historian, she says, with Saugerties unusual in having both a village and town historian. Gordon says her position as county historian means her main job is to act as “a reference point, to steer people toward the place where they can get the answers to their questions.” If someone contacts her for information about Saugerties, she’ll refer them to either Village of Saugerties Historian Marge Block or Town of Saugerties Historian Audrey Klinkenberg (who, incidentally, is also deputy county historian).

The Friends of Historic Saugerties group is approaching their first anniversary, having organized last year for their inaugural meeting in February of 2015. “I’m very impressed with the work they’ve been doing,” says Gordon. “They’re extremely well organized. I think it’s a model for other towns to look at, rather than leaving it all to one person, to have a committee who is interested in town history and organizes events that help educate people in the town about their history.”

More information about the Friends of Historic Saugerties is available on Facebook at “I Like Saugerties.” Anne Gordon can be reached at (845) 419-5137 or pasaran@msn.com. The county website with contact information for individual town historians is www.ulstercountyny.gov/ulster-county-historian.