New Netherland was a melting pot

An 1835 painting by Robert Walter Weir of the landing of Henry Hudson at Verplanck Point in Westchester County in 1609 is a typical romanticization of Hudson’s first encounters with Native Americans. His ship the Halve Maen (“Half Moon”) can be seen in the background. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602 to engage in trade with  the Far East, where highly sought-after spices and textiles could be acquired. The first business to sell public stock, it is widely considered a predecessor of today’s multinational corporations. 

The company imported massive quantities of pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, saving many a European palate from bland food. Ships brought silk, porcelain, coffee, and tea. The company shareholders made fortunes, and Holland became a commercial, industrial, and shipping powerhouse in the 17th and 18th centuries.  


Portrait of Henry Hudson. (Wikimedia Commons)

Englishman Henry Hudson, sometimes referred to by his Dutch name Hendrick. was hired by the Dutch East India Company to seek  a shorter route from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the elusive Northwest Passage. Hudson had twice attempted the trip under the British flag before his voyage for the Dutch in 1609. His 85-foot wooden vessel Halve Maen (“Half Moon”) reached what is now New York and sailed north on the river that would later bear his name, reaching a point near present-day Albany. 

Although not the first exploration to visit the region, Hudson’s voyage spurred the Netherlands to establish trading posts in the area, launching decades of Dutch colonization. After returning to Europe with his findings, in 1611 Hudson ventured out once again to find the sea route west. After a difficult winter stuck in ice in the Hudson Bay in Canada, he endeavored to continue onward. His crew rebelled. The mutineers cast Hudson, his teenage son, and seven loyalists into a lifeboat and left them adrift at sea. They were never found. 

A replica of the Half Moon completed in 1989 sailed the Hudson River as a traveling museum, retracing its original route and docking along the way, including at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. In 2015 the ship was loaned to the Netherlands. 

After two centuries of successful commercial enterprise, the Dutch East India Company was dissolved in 1799.

The Dutch West India Company was chartered in 1621 to secure the right to colonize and trade in North America, the West Indies (part of the Caribbean), and West Africa. In 1623, the company began sending people to populate the area between New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) and Fort Orange (now Albany). The first arrivals were 30 families of Huguenots — French citizens who had fled to Belgium, Germany, and Holland seeking religious freedom — and Walloons — Dutch Protestant refugees from Flanders in Belgium. 

A Dutch-appointed governor general ruled the territory once colonists settled in New Netherland. The first was Peter Minuet, who served from 1626 to 1631 and was best known for his purchase of Manhattan for $24 from the Lenape. 

Titled Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova (“New Belgium and New England”), the Dutch map was oriented with west at the top. If you rotate it 90 degrees counterclockwise, the map will look more familiar.

Indigenous people were drastically impacted by contact with the Europeans. Abundant local resources could be traded for tools, clothes, blankets, weapons, utensils, beads, liquor, and other goods. Beaver skins for fur hats were in high demand in Europe. 

This hand-drawn map was created in the 1630s by cartographer Willem Blaeu — the premier Dutch mapmaker of the era — based on a 1614 survey of the Northeastern coastline by explorer Adriaen Block, namesake of Block Island. (Library of Congress)

As more colonists arrived, the vast territories on which Native Americans had farmed, hunted, fished, and lived without private ownership for generations were given borders and land titles. Settlers brought unfamiliar diseases such as smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and scarlet fever, killing thousands. Missionaries preached conversion from traditional practices to Christianity.  

Peter Stuyvesant, also known as Pieter or Pietrus, became governor general in 1646 after a series of mediocre leaders. He had a wooden leg after losing his right one to a cannonball while fighting in the Caribbean 20 years earlier. Unlike his predecessors, he was relatively well-respected. He was willing to negotiate peace with the indigenous population. To protect the colonists from attacks, Stuyvesant ordered the settlers to protect themselves behind 14-foot-tall walls similar to those used by Native Americans. Uptown Kingston is still referred to as the Stockade District. 

Although New Netherland was a Dutch colony, about half the settlers came from Germany, England, Scotland, France, Belgium, Scandinavia, Poland, and other European countries. A Jesuit missionary found 18 languages spoken in 1646. 

Stuyvesant was an anti-Semite and slave owner. Under his leadership, the only tolerated religion was the Dutch Reformed Church. Jews, Catholics, and Quakers had to practice in private.

The slave trade by the Spanish and Portuguese was well under way when the Dutch West India Company began transporting captured Africans across the Atlantic in the early 17th century. Settlers in New Netherland needed more agricultural labor to expand their growing territory. By 1712, about 15 percent of New Yorkers are believed to have owned enslaved Africans, the highest percentage in the north. Ultimately a half million enslaved people were brought to the new colony.

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