The Dutch, the Indians, and Fort Orange

Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor in 1609. He sailed past the island known to the local Indians as Manna-hata and then up the river which now bears his name to what is the present day city of Albany. Flying the flag of the Dutch East India Company, Hudson’s primary purpose was not to explore, but to make a profit by exchanging merchandise for furs.

As he began his trip upriver, he traded with a group of Indians (probably the Navasink who are related to the Lenni Lenape) in Sandy Hook Bay. The Indians approached the Dutch traders with an air of dignity, offering them corn bread and green tobacco. Then, suddenly, two canoes of Indians attacked the Dutch traders, killing one man and wounding two others. The attacking warriors were not Navasink, but from a tribe attempting to stop the Navasink from trading with the Dutch. As a result of this attack, the Dutch became suspicious of all Indians. They took two Navasink warriors as hostages even though the Navasink had attempted to establish good relations with the Dutch.  

A little farther up the river, Hudson traded with the Mohican, a tribe of about 6,400 people, for otter and beaver pelts. With this, he established the Dutch claim for the area which they called New Netherland. Hudson went ashore and later described the Mohican houses as being circular and made of bark. He wrote:

“The land is the finest for cultivation that I ever in my life set foot upon.”

On the trip back downriver, Indians again attacked and were driven off with the Dutch muskets.

In 1614, the Dutch established a trading post on Castle Island known as Fort Nassau. The trader, Jacob Elkens, learned both the Mahican and Mohawk languages.

Following Hudson’s return to the Netherlands and his descriptions of the wealth of the country that he saw, the Dutch West India Company was formed in 1621 to exploit the resources of the Americas and to establish a colony among the intelligent natives.

In 1624, the Dutch West Indian Company established a trading post and settlement, Fort Orange, on the western shore of the Hudson River. Located at a strategic crossroad linking the Iroquois and New England, Fort Orange would become a major trading post. At Fort Orange, the Dutch traders exchanged metal tools, cloth, glass beads, firearms, ammunition, and other European goods for furs.

With the founding of Fort Orange, the trading post of Fort Nassau on Castle Island was abandoned.

Map New Netherlands

Even by this time, the fur trade had negatively impacted the ecology of North America. One of the reasons for locating Fort Orange inland was that the beaver trade had already decimated the beaver in the coastal regions. The coastal fur trade was diminishing, and the Dutch traders had to move deeper into the back country in order to obtain furs.

The establishment of Fort Orange also had other consequences for the Indians. The new fort was located on lands claimed by the Mahican and the Mahican welcomed the Dutch trading post. To the north and west was Mohawk territory. Prompted by trading concerns, war soon broke out between the Mahican and the Mohawk.

When a group of about two dozen Mahican warriors under the leadership of Monemin approached the Dutch at Fort Orange and asked for their aid against the Mohawk, the Dutch agreed. It seemed to the Dutch that helping the Mahicans now would yield a firm ally in the future. About three miles from the fort, the war party, with six Dutchmen, was ambushed by the Mohawk. Four of the Dutchmen and 24 of the Mahicans, including Monemin, were killed. The Mohawk roasted and ate one of the Dutchmen.

The Mohawk drove the Mahican east and north of Fort Orange, thus gaining direct access to the Dutch traders. While the Mahican maintained their villages, gardens, and all other territorial rights east of the Hudson River, they lost their hunting territory to the west. This resulted in a migration of part of the Mahican population from their Hudson River villages to new hunting grounds. In 1629, the Mahican sold most of their land around Fort Orange to the Dutch West India Company. While some Mahican stayed in the area to work for the Dutch, many moved east to the Connecticut Valley or to western Maine.

In 1626, the Dutch West India Company sent explicit instructions on dealing with the Indians:

“He shall also see that no one do the Indians any harm or violence, deceive, mock, or condemn them in any way, but that in addition to good treatment they be shown honesty, faithfulness, and sincerity in all contracts, dealings, and intercourse, without being deceived by shortage of measure, weight or number, and that throughout friendly relations with them be maintained.”

In 1634, the Oneida, one of the nations of the Iroquois League, invited three Dutch traders from Fort Orange to their main settlement. The Dutch saw French goods and were told how favorable French trading terms were. The Dutch described the settlement as a castle with 66 houses enclosed within a double-palisaded wall which is 767 steps in circumference.  

In that same year, the Dutch trade with the Mohawk dried up due to the trading alliances between French and the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Dutch trader Harmen van den Bogaert traveled into the interior to seek out the Mohawk and to convince them that the Dutch would be better trading partners. The Dutch entered a number of Mohawk villages, finding the bark-covered houses up to 200 feet long with several hearths and set row-on-row in the manner of streets. The Dutch observed that some of the houses bore the signs of European contact: iron hinges, bolts, chains.

When the Dutch entered the most important Mohawk village, the Indian people formed two long lines outside the gate of the village. The Dutch passed ceremonially between the columns, and then through the elaborately carved entryway, to the house at the farthest end.

The Dutch met in council with the Mohawk who showed the Dutch the presents which the French had given them. However, the Mohawk indicated that they would prefer to maintain trade relations with the Dutch as they feared the Huron with whom the French were allied. The Mohawk offered the Dutch trading terms: each beaver belt was to be worth four hands of sewant and four hands of cloth. A hand of sewant (wampum) is a string of beads stretched from the outstretched thumb to the little finger. Van den Bogaert explained that he was not authorized to negotiate but would return in the spring with an answer.

The Dutch agreed to the Mohawk terms and the furs once again flowed into Fort Orange.

In 1635, a delegation of Onondaga, one of the five nations that made up the Iroquois Confederacy, met with Dutch traders at the main Oneida town. The Onondaga told the Dutch that their people were angered by the high prices and the business practices of the Dutch at Fort Orange. They told the Dutch that they were trading with the French because they could get better prices.

English traders from Boston began trading guns to the Mohawk in 1640 as a part of their efforts to lure them away from the Dutch. The Dutch responded by trading large amounts of guns and ammunition to the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (of which the Mohawk were a member) and to the Mahican.

By 1645, the Mohawk were repairing their own guns and casting their own shot from lead bars purchased from the Dutch.

In 1649, the Dutch supplied the Iroquois with 400 guns and unlimited ammunition on credit and consequently the Iroquois attacked and destroyed the Huron. The Iroquois also destroyed the Tionontati and Nipissing. The survivors sought refuge among the Ojibwa and the Ottawa. Many historians feel that the Huron were exterminated as their sites were abandoned and their cultural structures destroyed. However, many of the Huron people survived and became a part of other tribes.

This marks the beginning of the westward expansion of the Iroquois and the displacement of many other tribes in the Great Lakes region. The Iroquois wanted increased hunting lands and the increase in furs for trade that would go with this expansion. They also wanted captives to replace their dead. This expansion displaced, both directly and indirectly, many tribes.

In 1664, the English colonists in New England attempted to incite a general war in the Hudson Valley. They tried to encourage the New England tribes to go to war against the Mohawk and to coordinate a general Indian uprising against the Dutch to coincide with an English invasion from Massachusetts.

The English took New York from the Dutch in 1664 and signed a treaty with the Mohawk. The Mohawk continued to trade with the Dutch traders at Albany who had remained to carry on their business under the English flag. The Indians generally felt that English goods were of better quality and sold at lower prices than French goods. This helped the Mohawk maintain their position in the fur trade and their close ties with Albany.

Fort Orange