The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony of New Netherland, settled the town with artisans, soldiers, sailors, merchants, and traders from throughout Northern Europe, and slaves from West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. Diversity became the defining characteristic of New Amsterdam. Though the inhabitants were diverse, they also were few. Only 1,500 settlers lived in New Amsterdam and its immediate hinterland in 1664, when a largely uncontested English conquest established the new town and colony of New York.
After the Dutch secured independence from Spain in 1609, they quickly established colonies and trading outposts in Asia, Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean. They also extended their burgeoning commercial empire to the Hudson, Connecticut, and Delaware River Valleys of North America. Dutch traders, hoping to tap into the fur trade with the Iroquois and other tribes, established Fort Orange at present-day Albany in the 1610s. In 1625 the Dutch West India Company established New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan Island to protect the valuable trade upriver, to produce food for Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, and to provide naval stores and a provisioning station for the Dutch fleet.
New Amsterdam, the name of New York City during the Dutch colonial period, is viewed at the lower end of Manhattan Island in 1653, the year in which its first municipal government was created. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)
Sometime in the spring of 1626, a company official purchased Manhattan Island. As the Native Americans understood matters, they had sold nothing to the Dutch West India Company, and they probably understood the transaction as a rental or lease agreement. The Dutch overlooked the technicalities lost in the cultural translation; confident that they owned Manhattan, they went about establishing the semblance of a town. By the fall of 1626, the settlers had erected thirty log homes, a fort, a secure countinghouse for trade, and a mill that also doubled as a church. Within two years, perhaps 250 settlers lived at New Amsterdam.
The town’s population grew slowly over the next two decades. Prosperity at home meant that few Dutch men and women had any reason to emigrate to North America, and periodic and often deadly Native American wars deterred settlement. After a few years of trading, those few who did go to New Amsterdam usually returned home with their profits. Dutch imperial officials turned to the displaced groups, who had moved to the Netherlands over the past half-century to escape wars or religious persecution. Families of Flemings, Walloons, Scandinavians, Jews, Germans, and French Protestants all answered the Dutch West India Company’s call for colonists in New Amsterdam, but again, only in limited numbers.
Already well-experienced in the slave trade, the Dutch West India Company and individual settlers turned to slave labor to address the town’s chronic shortage of laborers, especially agricultural workers. Many of the slaves carried to New Amsterdam had been exposed to European languages and cultures in West Africa and the Caribbean. This background enabled them to integrate themselves into New Amsterdam’s Dutch culture, while their concentration in the town and its hinterland allowed them to forge a distinct African-Dutch culture. Many became fluent Dutch speakers, married and baptized their children in Dutch churches, and took Dutch names, all the while retaining African cultural practices. Slaves could gain half-freedom, which allowed them to work for wages and own property, in exchange for annual payments to the Dutch West India Company. By 1664, men and women of African descent accounted for one-fifth of the town’s population, and perhaps a fifth had purchased their own freedom.
During its brief history, New Amsterdam served as the main town and trading post for the Dutch settlements and plantations along the banks of the Hudson River, Dutch traders upriver at present-day Albany, and Puritans and other English settlers on Dutch-controlled Long Island. Despite its prime location and the advantages of slave labor, New Amsterdam never became a bustling commercial center like Boston or Philadelphia. The overstretched Dutch West India Company concentrated its resources on potentially more lucrative adventures raiding Spanish gold ships, competing with Portuguese sugar colonies, and capturing trading forts on the African coast resulting in the neglect of New Netherland. Yet the failure of New Netherland ultimately stemmed from the unwillingness of ordinary Dutch men and women to settle in the colony.
The small population of New Amsterdam and New Netherland left it vulnerable to English imperial ambitions. When four English warships arrived in the harbor in August of 1664, the people of the town surrendered rather than see the town destroyed. In 1667, the Dutch formally ceded New Netherland to the English. Like its predecessor, colonial New York was characterized by diversity, and the Dutch continued to play an important role in colonial affairs. The two countries, however, continued to battle over the city until the English seized it in 1674. John Craig Hammond See also: Cities; Dutch; New Netherland; New York; New York and New Netherland (Chronology); Stuyvesant, Peter. Bibliography Burrows, Edwin G. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Goodfriend, Joyce D. “Burghers and Blacks: The Evolution of Slave Society at New Amsterdam.” New York History 59 (1978): 125 44. Rink, Oliver A. Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Netherland Gallery Photos