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date: 24 March 2017

Race, Gender, and the Making of New Netherland

Summary and Keywords

On the mid-Atlantic coast between 1624 and 1664, the Dutch developed a successful and expansive colony, one that depended on particular interactions among women and men from American, European, and African backgrounds. Unlike some other colonial efforts, such as Jamestown, New Netherland had white women colonists from its inception. In contrast to Plymouth and other English settler colonies, a population of African men and women did the crucial work of establishing the colony’s initial infrastructure in its first years. What is more, a thriving cross-cultural trade between Netherlanders and Munsee, Mahican, and Mohawk residents of the region nurtured the development of the infant colony. Looking at the colony’s establishment and growth reveals that complex interactions among ethnically distinct families gave New Netherland its particular form and character. As European and African populations took root, many households engaged in the frontier trading economy, creating a web of connections reaching into multiple indigenous villages. Women and men cooperated to sustain this trade over long distances by relying on marriage and the economic unit of the household to organize production and exchange. In addition, the colonial government used these households to stake claims to the ground and to define Dutch jurisdiction, just as they recognized that residence by Indian or English households determined where Dutch power ended. Thus ethnic and gender relations shaped not only the colony’s internal hierarchies, but also its economy and its very boundaries.

Keywords: New Netherland, Dutch colonies, women, gender, Munsees, Mohawks, slaves, settlement, colonization

New Netherland’s Origins

Cross-racial contact and trade formed the basis for Dutch interest in the mid-Atlantic coast long before the first European settlers and African slaves arrived in the region.1 Prefaced by profits that Amsterdam merchants made from northern Eurasian fur trading in the later 1500s, by the turn of the 17th century North America, too, increasingly attracted Dutch interest. Dutch merchants and traders began relying on connections in Rouen, the seat of the French fur trade after the 1602 formation of a merchant company there, to tap into the fur and fish trade of New France.2 Such voyages were both profitable and risky, however, given the French government’s attempts to monopolize the St. Lawrence trade. Thus Amsterdam merchants would be eager to develop the American fur trade elsewhere. A number of Dutch captains sailing to the northern reaches of the Atlantic coast sought passages to the Pacific Ocean, but when those efforts failed, fur trading with indigenous Americans offered a way to recoup expenses.

Race, Gender, and the Making of New NetherlandClick to view larger

Figure 1. Detail, Nicolaes Visscher, Kaart van Amerika; Novissima et accuratissima totius Americae descriptio, 1645–1669. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This Dutch-produced map of America illustrates the interest in inland beaver country. The Hudson River, labeled here R. Mauritio, is shown guarded by the Manhattan settlement of “Nieu Amsterdam.”

Henry Hudson’s Dutch-sponsored voyage in 1609, while failing to find a route to Asia, revealed that it was possible to navigate far inland, to the heart of beaver country, by sailing past Manhattan Island up the river that today bears Hudson’s name. His men, like subsequent visitors, noted the area’s climate, agricultural productivity, and suitability for settlement. Robert Juet, one of Hudson’s seamen, found the land along the Hudson River “good ground for Corne, and other Garden herbs, with great store of goodly Oakes … and great store of Slate for houses.”3 Nonetheless, Dutch ships returned repeatedly in the 1610s because of the profits that could be made from the beaver skin trade. This trade depended on cross-cultural cooperation; the beavers sold in Europe had to be hunted, prepared, and brought to the shore by Native Americans. Specific patterns of interracial contact developed as Dutch ships made annual trading voyages to North America in the 1610s onward.

Along the shorelines of the mid-Atlantic region, these Dutch sojourners interacted with many Native American groups. On Long Island, they met and traded with Algonquian-speaking villagers from Montauk, Shinnecock, Matinecock, and elsewhere. At Manhattan, Staten Island, and beside the shores of the Hudson River, the Dutch established relations with various Munsee-speaking peoples, including the Hackensack, Wappingers, and Esopus. Farther north, where the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers join together at present-day Albany, they sought trade with Mohawk and Mahican peoples. Meanwhile, Dutch traders also visited the Connecticut and Delaware River valleys and traded with local residents there and at many other points on the coast of North America. Relatively early, the visiting traders learned that getting people to reliably deliver significant furs would require not only importing manufactured goods such as axes and cloth, but also tapping into existing trade routes and economies. In particular, Dutch traders by the 1620s understood that wampum beads, produced by coastal Algonquian women from whelk and quahog shells and used for sacred purposes throughout the Northeast, rose dramatically in value farther inland. As traders took advantage of this differential, wampum became a medium of exchange and a valued trade good, one that would serve as a trans-frontier currency throughout the whole of the Dutch period.

Interactions certainly did not always go smoothly in these early years. One sign of the Dutch attitude toward their trading partners is the word they used to describe them; most often, Dutch traders called them wilden, or savages, rather than Indianen, or Indians, as they tended to call the indigenous people in much of South America. Although the term was certainly not as pejorative as the word savage is in English today, it did indicate that in 17th-century Dutch minds, Mohawk, Mahican, Munsee, and other Native American people were not burgerlijk, or civilized. They made this judgment of North Americans for multiple reasons, including prior experiences elsewhere, intentions toward the land, and an inability to understand indigenous political structures as well as evaluations of their cultures.4 The feelings that the term points to, however, had clear effects, keeping good relations precarious. The vulnerability of small parties traveling deep inland encouraged traders to keep their attitudes in check, but nevertheless, Dutch cultural chauvinism sometimes broke through in violent ways. The brothers Hans and Willem Jorisz Hontom both resorted to kidnapping (and in one instance mutilation) to force payments of wampum when trade did not flourish, for example. The Hontoms were far from alone in their brutal treatment of indigenous traders. Yet while cross-cultural relations between the Dutch and indigenous Northeasterners should never be romanticized, they worked well enough most of the time to keep people coming back to trade.

Although indigenous women visited the ships and trading posts, most of the people in the 1610s and early 1620s who haggled over goods, wampum, and furs were probably male. Still, gender relationships and women’s activities in their home communities sustained the economic production and connections that enabled these exchanges. On Long Island, women’s authority over land determined which villagers had access to the increasingly important shell beds, and women’s hands turned those shells into beads. Women farmers represented the primary customers for many of the tools, such as hoes and mattocks, that the Dutch offered in return for wampum. Munsee, Mohawk, and Mahican women’s labor also transformed hunted beavers into the processed pelts that traders sought. Thus gendered labor patterns and cooperation among women and men within multiple indigenous kin groups supported the advent of the fur trade in the greater Hudson Valley region.

Among the Dutch, gendered family patterns similarly lay behind the fur trade. Investment in ships bound for the mid-Atlantic coast very frequently represented a financial commitment by an entire kin group, in which marriage cemented commercial alliances. The Pelgrom family epitomizes the importance of kinship. At the turn of the 1600s, the four Lutheran Pelgrom brothers had kin and in-laws spread throughout the Netherlands, the Spanish Netherlands (present-day Belgium), the Germanies, and beyond. Franchoys Pelgrom’s brother-in-law, Marten Spranger, took care of the Norwegian component of the Pelgroms’ far-flung trading ventures, and Franchoys urged him to send samples of any beaver pelts he came across to Amsterdam to investigate their market potential.5 Thus the family was poised to enter the American fur trade from its inception; in 1613, only four years after Hudson’s initial visit to the New Netherland region, Franchoys Pelgrom wrote his wife Barbara Sprangers in Prague a letter hailing the “successful arrival of our ship, under master Aderiaen Block and our nephew Jan Kint” from a fur-trading voyage to New Netherland, in which he rejoiced that the venture looked to be “a better voyage even than last year.”6 Brothers Paulus and Steven Pelgrom joined with other traders to expand the trade and reduce their risk through the formation of a chartered company for the American fur trade, the New Netherland Company, in 1614–1615.7 Thereafter, the brothers continued to rely on one another; Paulus and Steven oversaw the finances of the ship the Swaerte Beer prior to its departure from Vlissingen to New Netherland in 1619.8 The New Netherland Company proved short-lived, but a stronger monopoly, the West India Company, formed in the 1620s, and the Spranger/Pelgrom network took part in this new larger entity, too, with Gomer Spranger, cousin of Barbara and Marten Spranger, becoming a West India Company director.9 The intimate ties between husbands and wives and brothers and sisters held these kinds of networks together, making kinship and gender roles critical to the development of transatlantic economic connections.

Cross-racial cooperation, then, sustained by distinct American and European gender and kinship patterns, enabled the creation of trade along the mid-Atlantic coast in the early decades of the 17th century. The extensive intercultural contact that characterized this trade, however, did not signal a blending or melding of cultures. Rather, each society remained separate, relying on unique constellations of relationships among women and men in multiple kin groups to support these new exchanges. Despite the success of early trade, few bridges spanned cultural divides when white settlers and African slaves first arrived in the 1620s.

Early Years of Settlement

With the founding of the West India Company in 1621, a new phase in the transatlantic connections between Amsterdam and North America began. A joint stock company with a broad geographic license, the West India Company had far more resources behind it than earlier ventures. After some debate, company directors opted to secure Dutch fur-trading interests on the mid-Atlantic coast by establishing permanent settlements there by European families and enslaved African women and men. By 1624, the first of these newcomers had arrived, and with them came new patterns of interracial contact, again supported by gender roles and kinship.

The West India Company envisioned settlement as a family enterprise, ensuring women and men alike came to the Hudson River valley in the early years. In the Provisional Orders, designed to establish the structure of the colony, West India Company directors instructed the commander and council to grant colonists land in proportion to their families’ abilities to cultivate it. West India Company instructions bound original settlers “to stay for the term of six consecutive years … with their family” on their designated plots.10 Through the inclusion of this provision, West India Company officials sent a clear message to the emigrants that Hudson River valley colonization should be a long-term choice for whole families. Men’s and women’s complementary duties in management of the household, agriculture, and trade promised to nurture the infant colony and allow it to grow.

Once they arrived, these families eagerly took part in the exchange of furs and wampum that earlier traders had already established. Although the West India Company tried to maintain a monopoly on the exportation of beavers until 1638, insisting that settlers sell any beaver skins they acquired to the company at set prices, it is difficult to know how effectively local officials enforced this provision, and exports of other pelts remained open to all. Family settlement guaranteed that white women came to play a direct role in cross-cultural trade, purchasing furs and wampum from their Native American neighbors. Furthermore, some white men began venturing farther afield to buy peltries at their source, in Native American communities. A few of these boslopers, as they were known, appear to have established intimate relationships with Munsee, Mohawk, and other women as a way to give themselves a place in indigenous communities and to facilitate their cross-racial trading operations. However, no distinct biracial community appeared in New Netherland, in contrast to colonies like New France.

Settlement allowed trade between whites and Native Americans to diversify, with many more goods changing hands than just furs, wampum, and imported manufactured goods. As settler and indigenous households found themselves close to one another, they began to exchange daily necessities and consumables. Food, drink, and firewood became mainstays of a frontier exchange economy reaching across the mid-Atlantic region. Women had a direct hand in these trades. Dutch wives, most often known as huysvrouwen, or housewives, to emphasize their management of the household, usually oversaw the purchasing and processing of food. What is more, they frequently played a crucial part in the production and distribution of perhaps the two most profitable consumables sought by their Mohawk, Munsee, and Mahican neighbors: baked goods and alcohol. Similarly, when colonial wives purchased corn, they bought the product primarily of women’s labor. Fish, meat, and firewood, in turn, represented the cooperative production of men and women within kinship groups in Native American villages. Therefore, as settlement enabled the development of a more complex cross-cultural economic system in the mid-Atlantic region, once again women’s work and gendered family cooperation sustained interracial trade.

Newly formed white communities in the region enticed a wide variety of people to set sail from Holland for America, from a range of backgrounds. People far below the economic and social level of merchants like the Pelgroms and Sprangers, in other words, suddenly had intercontinental financial lives. Without any large financial firms interested in serving small-scale individual clients, travelers turned instead to people they knew personally and to their family and kin connections to help them survive in the new economy. For instance, Margriet Adams and her husband Henrick Pietersz van Hasselt, who lived in New Amsterdam in the 1650s, sought to collect on an inheritance with an empowerment “sent over” to Holland to the widow Marritien Henricxdochter, and the money was placed at interest with an Amsterdam apothecary.11 Thus both men and women had a hand in building these needed financial links. Indeed, women were among those ensuring that the West India Company had access to a reliable pool of skilled workers ready to take the dangerous and low-paid jobs as sailors and soldiers in America. By acting as creditors and lodgers for the maritime workforce when they were ashore in Amsterdam, innkeepers and landladies drew young men into debt. As bondholders, these female and male zielverkopers, a pun in Dutch for “soul-sellers,” then hired the debtors on as West India Company employees. Frequently, the women who did this work had marital and kin ties of their own to seafaring men. Through personal and sometimes intimate interactions, they served as the interface between company and worker. Thus as the colony took root and the transoceanic economy grew, intimate networks continued to hold the nascent Atlantic system together.

An Expanding Economy and an Expanding Colony

Race, Gender, and the Making of New NetherlandClick to view larger

Figure 2. Anonymous, Nieuw Amsterdam ofte nue Nieuw Iorx opt’t Eylant Man, c. 1660. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. New Amsterdam and other colonial settlements expanded rapidly, in terms of both population and economy, after 1638. Note the proliferation of Dutch-style houses outside the fort and the crane by the dock for moving goods on and off shore.

In 1638, the West India Company opened the exportation of beaver skins to all, insisting only on the payment of a per-beaver tax. Thereafter, immigration to the colony increased, and an ever-more diverse population of white settlers, including many from the British Isles, the Germanies, and today’s Belgium, gradually took root on Manhattan, Long Island, and up the shores of the Hudson River. Jaap Jacobs has estimated that New Netherland numbered more than 8,000 people by the time of the English takeover in 1664.12 As all these new residents gradually established themselves, a wider range of goods began to cross the ocean in private hands.

The ways in which women participated in or sustained the growing transatlantic economy varied based on their status and financial resources. Some women acted as creditors or labor brokers from their homes within the maritime community of Amsterdam. Amsterdam women also received furs shipped from America by their absent relatives or sent goods abroad with traveling merchants and sailors who may have lacked the capital to trade on their own account. In the 1650s, “the Honorable Anneken van Acker,” a resident of Hinderdam in the Netherlands, sent over 1,000 guilders worth of goods to a New Amsterdam merchant, and she counted on helmsman Jan Jochemsz to collect it for her.13 Yet other women crossed the ocean themselves, sometimes several times, to convey goods, pay off debts, acquire credit, settle with agents, and hire workers. They did these things, most often, based on their status as wives. For instance, Lysbet Jansz, in 1663, borrowed just over 100 guilders to purchase “goods and wares” to sell in “the Manhattans or the South [Delaware] River.” Though she signed the document in her own hand and undertook the debt and the steep interest demanded through the complex bottomry contract in her own name, the business was a cooperative one, made possible by her husband’s position as “chief boatswain” aboard “the ship called St. Jacob, skipper Pieter Lucas.”14 Together, husbands and wives formed intercontinental businesses. Thus marriage, the primary form of gender order in 17th-century Europe, was fundamental to the creation of this early transatlantic economic system.

Race, Gender, and the Making of New NetherlandClick to view larger

Figure 3. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1663. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Vermeer’s idealization of domestic life placed women safely within four walls, even as men traveled ever-greater distances from their families to trade, as the letter here may suggest.

That women undertook such important roles in this new economic sector can seem startling. Gender ideals remained quite restrictive. Just as in the rest of early modern Europe, married women in the Netherlands faced serious legal restrictions. When a woman married, her husband became her legal guardian; thereafter, she lost her ability to act at law, including making binding agreements and contracts. Only publicly recognized business women escaped such limitations. Furthermore, guilds continued to prohibit women from many forms of economic activity. Art, such as Vermeer’s “Woman Reading a Letter,” idealized the woman who stayed at home, not the woman who repeatedly set sail to foreign lands. Yet a close look at the women active in trade to and from New Netherland reveals that women made very important contributions to international exchange despite these limitations.

Families from all economic strata learned how to negotiate within and around legal restrictions. Often, husbands and wives drafted powers-of-attorney to reverse the disempowering effects of marriage and make women into legal agents of family affairs. Lysbeth Arents crossed the Atlantic several times beginning in 1654, with and without her husband; based on empowerments from him, she oversaw finances and settled family inheritances, empowering her two Amsterdam brothers-in-law in her turn before heading back to the colony once more.15 Informally, officials in the colony very often tolerated women within the courtroom seeking to have contracts fulfilled to their families’ advantage without appearing to question whether or not a wife had a written power-of-attorney.

Yet this pragmatic tolerance, in keeping with Dutch traditions, did not mean that the formal rules had become dead letter; instead, they were simply overlooked, or “seen over the head” as the saying went. Those rules could suddenly be reanimated, and instances abound when the colony’s courts refused to deal with wives or uphold agreements made without empowerments. When Teunis Tomasen Quick sued Frederick Aarsen over payment for a lot, according to contract, his wife appeared in court in New Amsterdam in his stead in August 1658. The court made no comment on her legal status or of a need for an empowerment. When the case came back before them again in September, however, “the matter in question [was] not heard” because “the wives of the parties appeared” without empowerments in hand.16

Evidently, families not only widely recognized courts’ ambivalence about women’s status, but also they actually counted on this fluidity. When a business agreement made by a wife worked out to a family’s disadvantage, they might try to wiggle out of it by reminding the court that married women’s legal incapacity made the agreement nonbinding. Jacob van Couwenhoven sued Teunis Kraey for more than 701 guilders in 1656, a whopping sum that could have sunk many colonial families. However, Kraey rejected the claim, appealing to presumptions of the inability of wives to make binding contracts. Kraey “denied the debt because the plaintiff never wanted to account with him, but always with his wife. Requests that the plaintiff show his hand.” When van Couwenhoven admitted he did not have Kraey’s own handwriting or signature in his account book, the court refused to rule and remanded the case to arbiters.17 In other words, formal rules about gender were applied selectively and pragmatically, a fact that husbands and wives cleverly exploited. Yet hierarchies of gender never disappeared, leaving women who went beyond their supposedly circumscribed place, and the men who did business with them, in a potentially precarious position. The combination of hierarchy and flexibility was what allowed gender to play such an important part in structuring the relationship of the Netherlands with its American colony.

An African Population

A growing African population also contributed in essential ways to New Netherland’s development. These forced migrants and their children used relationships between men and women to foster the development of community and to survive the colony’s oppressive racial order.

Africans participated in every stage of Dutch colonization of the mid-Atlantic region. Black sailors had visited the area on Dutch ships even in the years before settlement. One Juan Rodrigues, described variously as a mulatto from San Domingo, a Spaniard, and a “black rascal,” stayed behind when Thijs Mossel’s ship left the Hudson River in 1613, spending a year there on his own before getting caught in trading rivalries and finally entering service aboard Hendrick Christiaensz’s ship.18 Black sailors continued to work ships sailing between the mid-Atlantic coast and Amsterdam throughout the Dutch period. In 1635, five of these men presented a request for payment of their wages at West India Company headquarters, at the same rates as white workers, suggesting that they considered themselves to be free. Perhaps sailors like these New Netherlanders acted as models, while ashore in Holland, for Rembrandt’s evocative faces of “Two Moors,” painted in 1661. Some of these black sailors entered the Dutch maritime workforce after serving aboard captured Portuguese ships. Bastiaen d’Angola began his life as a freed maritime worker in New Amsterdam in 1654, after having been taken with a prize vessel.19 These mobile maritime workers show that people could sometimes operate with considerable autonomy within the Dutch Atlantic system, despite race or past enslavement.

Africans forced to migrate to Manhattan against their will beginning in the 1620s would similarly show considerable capacity to negotiate the perils posed by race and enslavement in a colonial society. The first permanent African residents in the colony had arrived by 1626. Their early experiences remain difficult to trace. Judging by their names, quite a few were from the Kingdom of Kongo, in present-day Angola, but many among this early enslaved population mentioned other parts of Africa as their homelands as well as Brazil or the Caribbean. They clearly lived together in a common house in Manhattan and they worked as slaves under a white overseer for the West India Company, engaged in the heavy labor of building the port, docks, and warehouses; constructing buildings and fortifications; growing grain; and hauling firewood and ballast. Women numbered among the West India Company slaves, and families soon developed. By the time the surviving baptismal and marriage records begin at the close of the 1630s, it is clear that extensive kinship connections had already started to form, and they increased over time, as widows and widowers remarried, parents witnessed the baptisms of one another’s offspring, and children went on to have families of their own.

A self-sustaining, racially distinct enslaved population fit with many Dutch theories about how to build profitable colonies in overseas locales. Dutch planners and colonial officials thought that imported, unfree populations offered an obvious way to build colonial infrastructure affordably. As the elected governing council of New Amsterdam would later put it, without slave labor, the for-profit company that ran the Dutch colony would have to “pay and give out a remarkable sum of money annually to the working man.”20 By the time of New Netherland’s founding, enslaved populations imported from India and other parts of Asia sustained the Dutch East Indies settlements on the island of Java and elsewhere. Racial hierarchies thus represented intentional and essential steps in Dutch ideas of overseas colonial development.

The ability of the men and women enslaved by the West India Company, however, to operate within and around the restrictions inherent to their status is striking. African men sometimes went to court. Bondsmen and bondswomen seem to have worked for wages when not laboring for the West India Company. Women, apparently, grew garden crops, perhaps for sale in the town marketplace, and enslaved men cut and hauled firewood for extra money. They also readily used their colonizer’s court system to enforce their own ideas of correct behavior among themselves. For instance, in 1646 Jan Creoly, “slave of the honorable Company” was “accused by some Negroes of having committed sodomy by force with a boy of about ten years, named Manuel Congo.” 21 The case went through New Netherland’s criminal procedures, and Jan Creoly was convicted and burned at the stake, with his young victim narrowly escaping the same fate in favor of a beating with rods. Perhaps the accusers, who had witnessed the violent attack, did not know the peril in which Dutch law placed even unwilling victims of sodomy. Nonetheless, their choice to bring the incident to the notice of white officials shows their legal literacy and their willingness to use colonial courts for their own purposes.

These kinds of forthright activities have sometimes led scholars to think that New Netherland slaves experienced a fundamentally different kind of enslavement from people in English colonies such as Virginia. At times, scholars have even claimed that slaves had the “right” to go to court or own property. Yet the records themselves do not refer to slaves having rights. Could all enslaved people act in legal and economic forums or only a few? We will never know if the enslaved consistently had access to court proceedings or just occasionally. Dutch political and legal practice thrived on unofficial tolerance as a practical matter, even when behavior violated formal written precepts. Seeing things through the fingers, as the expression went, made it easy for white officials to allow “illegal” actions when they were convenient but to restrict such formerly tolerated behaviors whenever they preferred. This kind of unofficial, pragmatic toleration of slaves’ legal and economic actions seems the likeliest explanation of the occasional appearance of the names of the enslaved in written records. During the forty years that Dutch administrators oversaw this North American colony, Dutch merchants in Holland, the Caribbean, and South America vastly expanded their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation system. Indeed, some of New Netherland’s top administrators had interests in Curaçao and engaged in slave owning and slave trading there. Thus it is not credible that New Netherlanders’ ideas about the meaning of slavery were any looser or more forgiving than those of English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish colonizers. What flexibility in racial hierarchies Africans in New Netherland achieved resulted from their own success at carving out space within the confines of Dutch attitudes.

By far the biggest success gained by this collection of economically, legally, and politically savvy enslaved women and men was group manumission for some and the creation of an in-between status often called “half-freedom” that was later extended to others. Their ability to craft this new legal space for themselves rested on their creation of family and community ties. In February 1644, eleven men held by the West India Company petitioned for their freedom, citing their growing families and their need to support their children. The council granted their petition and also freed their wives. The council did not provide a justification for this action. It is important to keep in mind that the council made this offer to slaves owned by the West India Company, not private families. Thus no New Netherland whites faced personal financial losses as a result of the manumissions. Council members likely realized that having a pool of paid laborers available to serve the settler population, rather than doing the bidding of the West India Company, served the interests of themselves and other residents more than continued enslavement to the company.

The local governing council urged that colonists pay the newly freed women and men fair wages and recognize them as having the same rights as other free people. The grant also allotted them plots of land, a certain benefit to their ability to earn a livelihood. However, several serious limitations meant that they would not actually stand on level ground with their white neighbors. First, the governing council ordered them to pay an annual tax in grain and hogs, on pain of returning to slavery. Second, the written order insisted that their children, both living and as yet unborn, remained company property. This manumission would be followed, in future years, by others, and by the 1660s, the term half-freedom had developed to describe the peculiar legal space of such men and women.

Together, the free, half-free, and West India Company slave population formed a community, united by the gendered bonds of family and kinship. From their homes near the farm of Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s director general, they participated in the all-important food trade, worked as maids and domestic workers in the homes of elite burghers, and found a variety of paid labor. Yet they occupied a very perilous position, liable at any moment to find the place they had created for themselves undermined or denied to their children.

Nor should their successes be understood as indicating that New Netherland lacked the severe racial hierarchies characteristic of other American colonies. Far from it. Over time, the colony’s engagement with the Atlantic slave trade increased and a growing number of slave ships arrived in the colony. More and more burgher families acquired slaves of their own. And in the 1650s, barriers began to be raised to baptism and church marriage for black people, enslaved and free. If family networks helped people bound to the West India Company make the climb into even provisional forms of freedom, then white settlers did not want to enable their own slaves to repeat the first steps. In New Netherland, a strict hierarchy divided free whites from their enslaved and even their marginally free black neighbors.

Race, Gender, and Cross-Cultural Boundaries

By design from the start, Dutch colonial efforts along the mid-Atlantic coast depended on a multiracial population drawn together, willingly and unwillingly, to create a common economic system. The colony functioned because of the varied contributions of diverse white households, Native American villagers, and African families both enslaved and free. Yet ethnic divisions were also a frequent cause of conflict. Ultimately, competing desires to assert claims over land created an unstable political balance in the region. These tensions had a gendered dimension, as Dutch leaders focused on residence by families and households as a key sign of territorial possession.

Not long after settlement began in the 1620s, tensions started to flare. Relations between the Dutch administration at New Amsterdam and lower-river Munsee groups, such as the Raritan, proved especially difficult. One of the colony’s early directors, Willem Kieft, perhaps thought that the best way for the Dutch to secure their territorial claims would be to follow the model established in some other Dutch outposts around the world: asserting sovereignty over indigenous residents and levying tribute. When the Raritans objected to his soldiers’ demands for payments in corn and wampum, warfare erupted. Kieft’s War, as the scattered battles and massacres between 1640 and 1644 has become known, demonstrated early the kind of brutality colonists felt willing to use against indigenous Americans. According to several Dutch criticisms of the conflict, the violence itself had a gendered aspect, with women and children singled out for particular cruelty. In February 1643, “at night in Pavonia over 80 wilden [savages] were massacred,” reads one widely repeated account, and “young children were torn from their mothers’ breasts” and brutally mutilated; soldiers reportedly threw some children “in the River, and when the parents and Mothers tried to save them, the soldiers did not let them come on land again, but instead drowned the old and the young” together.22 Yet as vicious as the combat was, when Kieft’s War ended, the frontier exchange system rebounded, with Munsees and colonists meeting regularly to trade once more.

As immigration rose and new colonial towns developed by the 1650s, however, settler households and Native American villages lay in ever-closer proximity to one another. Trade correspondingly increased, but so too did conflict. Because these neighboring societies met frequently but never blended, sharing space proved difficult. Between 1655 and 1657, a series of military engagements known as the Peach War focused these tensions on Staten Island, a site where competing land claims by multiple groups of settlers and investors clashed with those of the Hackensack and other Munsee groups. In the Esopus Wars from 1659 to 1664, the main theaters of violence moved northward to the mid-river area where the Esopus people held desirable farmland that Dutch colonists wanted for themselves. Each one of these conflicts had specific Munsee groups as its target, never all Munsee or all Native American peoples. Sometimes, fighters from neighboring Native American communities demonstrated their alliance with the Dutch by serving alongside West India Company soldiers. Throughout all these conflicts, the intercultural trade system continued. In some ways, rather than listing a discrete set of named conflicts, it might be more helpful to picture violence as endemic to New Netherland’s system of close cultural contact, erupting in occasional acute outbreaks and specific sites, but never wholly absent.

Often, household residence brought the violence to an acute phase. When whites came to trade, conflict could often be defused. But when European men, women, and children came to build towns and farms, conflicts had a tendency to spread. Farm animals wandered in to Munsee women’s cornfields. White villagers failed to treat visitors with hospitality and respect. The opportunities for insults multiplied. Most clearly in the Esopus conflicts, the Dutch authorities revealed their belief that women made claims to the soil real, whether those were Esopus women sowing corn for their village or Dutch women creating farming households. Hostilities at Esopus, Peter Stuyvesant pointed out in his declaration of war, offered the opportunity to take lands that were “able, and fit” to be “settled by 2 or 3 towns each of 20 to 24 households.”23 Getting these households on the ground to secure Dutch claims required eliminating indigenous families, in this view; Dutch campaigns accordingly focused on uprooting villages and, especially, women’s cornfields. Doing so enabled the Dutch campaign to reduce the Esopus to hunger and force the single largest land cessation of the Dutch era.

The conflict that ultimately did the most harm to Dutch efforts was not with the Munsee at all, however, but rather with the English. While Stuyvesant focused his energy on uprooting Munsee villages and planting Dutch ones at Esopus, the English relied on households under Dutch governance on Long Island to help pull down New Netherland altogether. Indeed, authorities in Holland had long worried that this would be the case, fretting that English families were like “snakes at our own bosom” that could one day strike the colony “through the heart itself.”24 In the spring and summer of 1664, these ethnically English towns moved from recalcitrance to outright rebellion, declaring their allegiance to England. By the time warships sailed into sight of those holed up in the fort at New Amsterdam in late August, the takeover was already well underway. The familial dimensions of cross-cultural contact proved both the building and the undoing of the Dutch colony.

Patterns for the Future

In the end, the Dutch proved unable to keep hold of their colony in North America. Yet by the time that New Amsterdam became New York City, certain patterns of racial and gender order had become deeply established. The extensive economic and political engagement across racial lines that had begun with the first fur-trading voyages persisted long after the West India Company signed away the last of its claims. Picking up the established alliance with the Mohawk, New York became a lynchpin in the geopolitics of the Northeast. With the transition from Dutch to English administration, the engagement of Manhattanites with the slave trade only increased. Even as the white and the black populations of the colony grew, the complex patterns of interaction established in the Dutch era exercised a continuing influence. Under the English, there would be no equivalent of the company slaves who had done so much of the initial work of building the colony. Yet a precarious free black community persisted; together, this population provided a crucial bridge between the white and black populations of Manhattan. And settlement by households of white women and men still acted as the primary means of claiming land as New York and other English colonies expanded out from the former Dutch strongholds. New Netherland’s patterns of race and gender lingered years after the last West India Company ship sailed out of sight.

Discussion of the Literature

Acknowledging the centrality of family interactions among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans in the creation of New Netherland brings into clearer focus the process of colonization throughout early America. Despite calls in the 1990s to study the “gender frontier” in North America, interracial interactions have rarely been interpreted as family affairs.25 In some instances, where extensive intermarriage took place, for example, historians have put family ties at the center of studies of indigenous-settler engagement, and the diplomatic importance of indigenous kinship networks has become an increasingly important area of research.26 Much less attention has been given, however, to interactions among African, European, and Native American households. Yet New Netherland shows that family ties within all groups influenced both the boundaries drawn and the bonds formed with others. New Netherland suggests that family gave shape and meaning to the emerging racial and gender hierarchies in early colonies. As such, the colony offers a model to consider for all early modern empires.

Historians of New Netherland have long taken an interest in the cross-cultural fur trade, but more work is needed on the role of gender and family in those exchanges. Several studies have focused on fur-trading patterns in the upriver communities of Schenectady, Beverwijck, and Fort Orange.27 A number of works on Iroquois history devote attention to intercultural relations during the Dutch period.28 Settler-Munsee relations downriver, which were considerably more volatile than relations between the colony and the Mohawks, have been traced mostly through diplomacy and conflict.29 The importance of gendered labor patterns and kinship networks in both diplomatic and economic aspects of Native American–colonial interactions is gradually coming into focus.30 Despite the work that has been done, however, many questions remain open. New Netherland’s ties to some groups, such as the Susquehannock and Mahican, have garnered less attention. Long Island’s Munsee and Algonquian peoples also deserve much more study. Complex intertribal politics throughout the region as a whole are becoming clearer, but they still need additional scrutiny.31 And for all groups, the actions of women in intercultural economic and political relations demand further investigation, although the nature of the Dutch records, which usually fail to identify indigenous women by name, makes this challenging.

Many excellent studies of slavery in New York begin with discussions of the Dutch period.32 A tendency to compare Dutch and English attitudes toward slavery shapes much of this writing. Such an approach often emphasizes Dutch actions and abstract attitudes rather than day-to-day relationships or actions by Africans themselves, leaving many research avenues open.33 Attention is beginning to be paid to women in particular and to relationships between female slave owners and the women they held in bondage.34 In the future, more investigations of the connections between Dutch Brazil, Curaçao, and Africa itself may help set experiences in the North American colony in wider context. Further attention needs to be given to privately owned slaves in addition to those held by the West India Company. In particular, people enslaved to families with connections in both New Netherland and the Chesapeake cry out for in-depth study, using both Dutch and English records.

It is increasingly possible to put white women’s experiences in better focus because of an improving historiographical context. Far better studies of settler life in general will make gendered analyses of colonial life more meaningful.35 Similarly, a better understanding of women’s experiences in the 17th-century Netherlands promises to help scholars of North America interpret the patterns that appear in New Netherland’s records.36 This background helps elucidate the importance of white women within intimate networks, which held the colony together economically and politically. Much more could be said about women’s day-to-day experiences and the work they did for their own homes and farms. Although possibly quite difficult to reconstruct, women’s religious lives have received scant mention. Sexuality, childbirth, and childrearing remain too little understood. Many individual white women appear by name in the records repeatedly, so biographical approaches offer great opportunities for the dedicated researcher to address these and other questions.

Primary Sources

The records available on New Netherland are rich and relatively underused, although access and language can still pose challenges. By far the best place for English-language researchers of New Netherland to start is with the governmental records of the colony’s council and director general. These records have been the subject of professional translation projects for some time by linguists such as A. J. F. van Laer and Charles Gehring. These reliable, scholarly, and thorough English versions provide access to diplomatic negotiations with Native Americans, court decisions regarding Africans, and political conflicts among whites. They are available in published series such as New York Historical Manuscripts and the New Netherland Documents. More remain in manuscript form only, on deposit at the New York State Archives in Albany, New York. As of this writing, only a few of these Dutch originals have been made available digitally.

Municipal court records, dating from the 1650s, provide an even more close-up view of the lives of people living near the capital of New Amsterdam on Manhattan and upriver at Beverwijk/Fort Orange, the site of present-day Albany. The recent published translations of the latter by Charles Gehring and Janny Venema are excellent and relatively widely available. The New Amsterdam court records, published and translated by Berthold Fernow and E. B. O’Callaghan in the 19th century, are fascinating but less-accurately rendered. While they will certainly give students an excellent introduction to the legal world of New Amsterdam and to the economic activities of Netherlanders and Africans on Manhattan, the translations should be treated with some caution, and professional historians would be well advised to compare against the original Dutch versions on deposit at the New York City Municipal Archives and available on microfilm.

Church records are spottier. New Amsterdam baptismal and marriage books make it possible to trace black and white families over several generations, and published versions by Purple and Evans have long been available.37 An excellent translation of the Brooklyn church records by A. P. G. Jos van der Linde will provide a glimpse of one congregation in the last years of Dutch rule.

No printing press existed in the colony in the Dutch era, so many of the kinds of published religious, political, or scientific sources available in 17th-century New England were simply never produced in the Dutch colony. Nonetheless, a number of promotional tracts, political pamphlets, ethnographic descriptions, and travel narratives about the Dutch North American colony were printed in Europe by writers such as Johannes Megapolensis, Cornelis Melyn, Adriaen van der Donck, and David Pietersz de Vries. Many of these have been wholly or partially translated, by either 19th-century scholars or more recently through the auspices of the New Netherland Institute. They are particularly essential for those interested in the colony’s interactions with Native American communities as they represent some of the most in-depth analyses of 17th-century indigenous cultures and critiques of the colony’s treatment of local peoples.

For those willing and able to make the leap into handwritten 17th-century Dutch sources, many Dutch originals remain in several U.S. repositories.38 An increasing number of scans are accessible from the National Archives of the Netherlands in The Hague, which provide a partial look into the activities of the West India Company, although most company records were destroyed in the 19th century. Slowly, digitized notary documents at Amsterdam’s Stadsarchief are becoming available for purchase that can give a view into the European end of transatlantic trading operations, including those in furs and slaves.

Further Reading

Christoph, Peter R. “The Freedmen of New Amsterdam.” In A Beautiful and Fruitful Place: Selected Rensselaerswijck Seminar Papers. Edited by Charles T. Gehring and Nancy Anne McClure Zeller, 157–170. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Dennis, Matthew. Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Goodfriend, Joyce D. “Burghers and Blacks: The Evolution of a Slave Society at New Amsterdam.” New York History 59 (1978): 125–144.Find this resource:

Grumet, Robert S. The Munsees: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Jaap. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Merwick, Donna. The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Meuwese, Mark. Brothers in Arms, Partners in Trade: Dutch-Indigenous Alliances in the Atlantic World, 1595–1674. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.Find this resource:

Moore, Christopher. “A World of Possibilities: Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam.” In Slavery in New York. Edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, 29–56. New York: New Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Rink, Oliver. Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Romney, Susanah Shaw. New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) Referring to “race” in order to discuss interactions among the ethnically diverse population of New Netherland draws heavily on today’s uses, as does employing the term gender to analyze social distinctions based on sex. There is no question that the peoples who shared the mid-Atlantic region in the 1600s believed that vast differences existed between themselves and others, and they placed those others in distinct categories based on their origins, backgrounds, appearance, practices, and behavior. It is doubtful whether anyone in this region before 1664 thought in strictly “racial” terms, however, in the narrow sense of immutable and inheritable characteristics. Elements of what we would today identify as “cultural” differences likely equally shaped people’s characterizations of one another. Yet the patterns, interactions, and hierarchies established in this period persisted and influenced the clearly “racial” regimes that endured throughout the colonial period and beyond.

(2.) Thomas J. Condon, New York Beginnings: The Commercial Origins of New Netherland (New York: New York University Press, 1968), 7–9.

(3.) Robert Juet, Juet’s Journal: The Voyage of the “Half Moon” from 4 April to 7 November 1609, edited by Robert M. Lunny (Newark, NJ: New Jersey Historical Society, 1959), 33.

(4.) Susanah Shaw Romney, “Savage Comparisons: Dutch Cultural Distinctions in Seventeenth-Century Southern Africa and North America,” Genre 48.2 (Summer 2015), forthcoming.

(5.) Simon Hart, The Prehistory of the New Netherland Company: Amsterdam Notarial Records of the First Dutch Voyages to the Hudson (Amsterdam: City of Amsterdam Press, 1959), 44–45.

(6.) July 30, 1613, Letterbook of Francoys Pelgroms Geerartsen, in Hart, Prehistory, 74. See also Condon, New York Beginnings, 13.

(7.) See Condon, New York Beginnings, 14. On the formation of the New Netherland Company, see Oliver Rink, Holland on the Hudson: An Economic and Social History of Dutch New York (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 47–49.

(8.) Empowerment, August 27, 1619, Notarial Archive 159, 127–128, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

(9.) Hart, Prehistory, 45; Rink, Holland on the Hudson, 83.

(10.) Articles six and sixteen, Provisionale Order, March 30, 1624, van Rappard Documents, Huntington Library; A. J. F van Laer, trans. and ed., Documents relating to New Netherland, 1624–1626, in the Henry E. Huntington Library (San Marino, CA: Henry E. Huntingdon Library and Art Gallery, 1924), 6–9, 14–17.

(11.) Contract, Sept. 26, 1658, Notarial Archive 1358, 90–90v., Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

(12.) Jaap Jacobs, New Netherland: A Dutch Colony in Seventeenth-Century America (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 93.

(13.) Empowerment, May 1, 1663, Notarial Archive 3174, 175, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

(14.) Bottomry contract, May 7, 1663, Notarial Archive 2884, 346, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

(15.) Will, July 13, 1654, Notarial Archive 2439, 132–132v.; Settlement, January 25, 1662, Notarial Archive 2444, 5; Empowerment, October 4, 1663, Notarial Archive 1843A, 222, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

(16.) Minutes, August 27 and September 3, 1658, Court Minutes of New Amsterdam, vol. 2, 298, 303, New York City Municipal Archives, microfilm; Susanah Shaw, “New Light on Old Sources: Finding Women in New Netherland’s Courtrooms,” De Halve Maen 74 (Spring 2001): 9–14. For similar incidents, see Virginie Adane, “Trading Places: Men, Women, and the Negotiation of Gendered Roles in the Port of New Amsterdam, 1630–1664,” De Halve Maen 86 (Fall 2013): 51–58.

(17.) Minutes, March 6, 1656, Court minutes of New Amsterdam, vol. 1, 529, New York City Municipal Archives, microfilm.

(18.) Hart, Prehistory, 74–75, 80–82.

(19.) Peter Christoph, “The Freedmen of New Amsterdam,” in Nancy Anne McClure Zeller, ed., A Beautiful and Fruitful Place: Selected Rensselaerswijck Seminar Papers, 159 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

(20.) Order [Dec. 8, 1661], New York Colonial Manuscripts, vol. 9, 917–918, New York State Archives.

(21.) A. J. F. van Laer, trans., Council Minutes, 1638–1649, New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, vol. 4, edited by Kenneth Scott and Kenn Stryker-Rodda, 326 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1974).

(22.) [Cornelis Melyn], Breeden-Raedt aende Vereenichde nederlandsche provintien (Antwerp: Francoys van Duynen, 1649).

(23.) Proposals, February 9, 1660, New York Colonial Manuscripts, vol. 9, 55–63, New York State Archives.

(24.) Letter, November 4, 1654, New York Colonial Manuscripts vol. 12, doc. 10, f. 3, New York State Archives.

(25.) Kathleen Brown, “Brave New Worlds: Women’s and Gender History,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 50. 2 (April 1993): 311–328; and Kathleen Brown, “The Anglo-Algonquian Gender Frontier,” in Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women, edited by Nancy Shoemaker, 26–48 (New York: Routledge, 1995).

(26.) Sylvia van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670–1870 (Winnipeg, MB: Watson & Dwyer, 1980); Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001). On gender, kinship, and diplomacy, see Heidi Bohaker, “Nindoodemag: The Significance of Algonquian Kinship Networks in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, 1600–1701,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 63.1 (January 2006): 23–52.

(27.) Thomas E. Burke Jr., Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661–1710 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Janny Venema, Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652–1664 (Hilversum, The Netherlands: Verloren, 2003); Donna Merwick, Possessing Albany, 1630–1710: The Dutch and English Experiences (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

(28.) Matthew Dennis, Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); Jon Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534–1701 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010).

(29.) Paul Otto, The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley (New York: Berghahn, 2006); Robert S. Grumet, The Munsee Indians: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009); Donna Merwick, The Shame and the Sorrow: Dutch-Amerindian Encounters in New Netherland (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

(30.) Susanah Shaw Romney, New Netherland Connections: Intimate Networks and Atlantic Ties in Seventeenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

(31.) See Tom Arne Midtrød, The Memory of All Ancient Customs: Native American Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

(32.) Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris, eds., Slavery in New York (New York: New Press, 2005); Edgar J. McManus, A History of Negro Slavery in New York (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1966); Vivienne L. Kruger, “Born to Run: The Slave Family in Early New York, 1626 to 1827,” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1985; Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Graham Russell Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

(33.) Andrea Mosterman, “Slavery in New Netherland: A Review of Recent Scholarship,” Round Table contribution to New York History, forthcoming.

(34.) Nicole Maskiell, “Elite Slave Networks in the Dutch Atlantic,” in Shifting the Compass: Pluricontinental Connections in Dutch Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, edited by Jeroen Dewulf, Olf Praamstra, and Michiel van Kempen, 186–205 (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013).

(35.) Venema, Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652–1664 ; Jaap Jacobs, The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

(36.) Danielle van den Heuvel, Women and Entrepreneurship: Female Traders in the Northern Netherlands, c. 1580–1815 (Amsterdam: Aksant, 2007).

(37.) Samuel S. Purple, ed., Records of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam and New York: Marriages from 11 December, 1639, to 26 August 1801, Collections of the New-York Genealogical and Biographical Society, vol. 1 (New York: New-York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 1890); Thomas Grier Evans, ed., Records of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam and New York: Baptisms from 25 December, 1639, to 27 December, 1730, Collections of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, vol. 2 (New York: New-York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 1901).

(38.) Charles T. Gehring, A Guide to Dutch Manuscripts Relating to New Netherland in United States Repositories (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1978).