Author:Rosenblatt, Albert

When we talk about Dutch influences on New York we might begin with a threshold question: What brought the Dutch here and how did those beginnings transform a wilderness into the greatest commercial center in the world? It began with spices and beaver skins. This is not about what kind of seasoning goes into a great soup, or about European wearing apparel. But spices and beaver hats are a good starting point when we consider how and why settlers came to New York--or more accurately--New Netherland and New Amsterdam. (1) They came, about four hundred years ago, and it was the Dutch who brought European culture here. (2) I would like to spend some time on these origins and their influence upon us in law and culture.

In the 17th century, several European powers, among them England, Spain, and the Netherlands, were competing for commercial markets, including the far-east. (3) From New York's perspective, the pivotal event was Henry Hudson's voyage, when he sailed from Holland on the Halve Maen, and eventually encountered the river that now bears his name. (4)

Hudson did not plan to come here. (5) He was hired by the Dutch East India Company to outpace the competition and find a shortcut from Europe to the far-east. (6) This would enable the company's investors to tap into the lucrative treasures of the orient, including exotic condiments like pepper, clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. (7)

On September 2, 1609, he sailed into what would be New York harbor and proceeded up what is now called the Hudson River, believing it led to Asia. (8) Instead, he got as far as Albany and turned back. (9) Although he is sometimes referred to, inaptly, as Hendrick Hudson, he was not Dutch: he was English. (10) No one, however can be sure what he looked like. One of his principal biographers, Thomas Janvier, tells us that "[n]o portrait of Hudson is known to be in existence. What has passed with the uncritical for his portrait--a dapper-looking man wearing a ruffed collar--frequently has been, and continues to be, reproduced. Who that man was is unknown. That he was not Hudson is certain." (11)

After what we call the voyage of 1609, Hudson made another voyage--his fourth and final--sailing off on April 17, 1610, again in search of a short route to Asia. (12) Did he ever find it? The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is fascinating.

After a winter of severe privation in a region known today as Hudson Bay/James Bay, Canada, his crew mutinied. (13) According to the testimony of an eye witness, crew members abandoned Hudson on June 22, 1611, setting him adrift in a small shallop with minimal provisions, along with his young son, John, and several others who were either loyal to Hudson or too sick to be of any use to the mutineers. (14) What became of the conspirators? Eight returned to England and were brought before the Trinity House Masters, who promptly concluded that they should be hanged. (15) But they remained at large for several years after six of them were indicted, not for mutiny, but for leaving Hudson and the others to die. (16)

Historians did not know what became of the mutineers until Thomas L. Powys, in the 1927 preface to his biography of Hudson, (17) told of how he had acquired additional records, including the "lost verdict" of 1618, in which the Admiralty Court had fully acquitted all of the mutineers. (18) Why did the government permit the mutineers to remain at large for several years and ultimately spare them? Researchers have suggested that, in the eyes of the English authorities, the survivors, "because of their knowledge of navigation in Hudson Strait," "were apparently worth more alive than dead." (19) "There were trading routes and riches [yet] to be found." (20) As another researcher put it, "[t]he guilt or innocence of the men seemed less important than the claim that they [had] discovered the Northwest Passage" to the far-east. (21)

So, it was still all about spices....

As far as the spice trade was concerned, Hudson's 1609 voyage was a failure, and that would be the end of the story. But the Dutch soon capitalized on an existing trading network along the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, particularly the beaver skin trade with the Native Americans. (22)

"By the second decade of the [17th] century, Europe[an] demand for animal skins and furs was insatiable." (23) In that trade, and in other forms of commerce, the Dutch settled what is now New York. (24)

And so, in our infancy, we were Dutch until 1664, when the English took over, later ratifying their de facto assumption of sovereignty in the Treaty of Westminster in 1674. (25)

About a century later our nation was born, so to speak, on July 4, 1776. (26) As New Yorkers and as Americans, we tend to think of ourselves as cultural and political descendants of the English. (27) After all, we were an English colony for more than a century: we saw England as the "mother country" and speak English as our "mother tongue." (28) More to the point, within a year after the American Revolution, New York produced its first Constitution, in which we declared ourselves generally to be adherents of the English common law (subject to future revision and rejecting English religious establishment). (29)

It takes nothing away from our colony's English roots to remember that while we were subjects of the English crown for over a hundred years, we had an earlier identity, in which for almost half a century the colony was New Netherland, Manhattan was New Amsterdam, Albany was Beverwijk (or beaver district), and just up the road, the Dutch in 1624 built Fort Orange. (30) Brooklyn is a Dutch word, as is Gravesend, Flushing, Red Hook, the Bowery, Staten Island, Coney Island, and Harlem. (31) Not to mention cookies, coleslaw, and waffles, all of which, for many New Yorkers are just hunky-dory--another Dutch-origin term. (32)

Psychologists tell us that infancies are formative, (33) and we might say the same for political development. New Netherland's neighbors to the north, in Massachusetts, and to the south, in Virginia, were English. (34) The three sibling colonies grew up side by side, but New Netherlanders were different from the English colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia. (35) Settlers came to Massachusetts principally for religious freedom, as Puritans set up what might fairly be called a theocracy. (36) In Virginia, settlers arrived and planted tobacco for export. (37)

New Netherland was unique. Most settlers arrived not primarily for religious reasons, or to grow crops, although some did. (38) Most came under the aegis of a Dutch trading company. (39) From our first breaths we were members of a commercial enterprise that shaped our earliest laws and our civilization. (40) Petrus Stuyvesant, New Netherland's best known Governor/Director was essentially an employee of the Dutch West India Company, a for-profit enterprise. (41) It is no coincidence that this small outpost in the middle Atlantic, sandwiched between New England and the South, and designed to do business in the New World, grew to become the greatest commercial center on earth.

Today we see the Netherlands as a quaint country, known to many Americans as a charming place to tour during tulip season; a good spot to snap pictures of windmills and canals and bicycles. In the late 16th century, however, the Netherlands was emerging a military and world power, vying with England for colonial and international commercial power. (42)


    A mere forty years before Henry Hudson arrived here, the Dutch had been ruled by King Philip II of Spain. (43) The provinces of the Netherlands passed into the possession of the Hapsburg monarchy in 1477 as part of the Holy Roman Empire. (44) That is a long way from the founding of New Netherland. (45) Seven Northern provinces of the Netherlands, including Holland, revolted against Spanish rule and formed the Union of Utrecht in 1579 as the founding document of the Dutch Republic. (46) This remarkable document is an ancestor of our own ideas of political governance. (47) As one scholar pointed out, the founding document of the Dutch Republic "divided policymaking authority between a representative assembly and an independent executive." (48) This, more than a century and a half before Montesquieu wrote about separation of power. (49) Under the Treaty of Utrecht (1579), "new taxes and declarations of war and peace would require the unanimous consent of the [Dutch] provinces." (50)

    Consider the words of John Adams, writing from Holland on April 19, 1781, describing America's debt to the Netherlands and the similarity of the American Republic to the earlier Dutch model:

    The first planters of the four northern States found in [the Netherlands] an asylum from persecution... a grateful remembrance of that protection and... religious liberty they found [in the Netherlands], having sought them in vain in England. The first inhabitants of two other States, New York and New Jersey, were immediate emigrants from [the Netherlands], and have transmitted their religion, language, customs, manners, and character... [and] whose history, and the great characters it exhibits... have been particularly studied, admired, and imitated in every State. [T]here are no two nations, whose worship, doctrine, and discipline are more alike, than those of the [United States and the Netherlands]. In... the freedom of inquiry, the right of private judgment, and the liberty of conscience... the two nations resemble each other more than any others. The originals of the two republics are so much alike, that the history of one seems but a transcript from that of the other. (51) Another scholar, James R. Tanis, considers the Union of Utrecht "a symbol to many Americans, first of unity, and then of unity and liberty." (52)


    Article 13 of the Netherlands' Union of Utrecht provides that "each person shall...

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