New Amsterdam and the Indians

As a part of their exploitation of the natural resources of the Americas, the Dutch West India Company laid out New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island in 1624. The company envisioned New Amsterdam as a transportation hub from which they could ship timber and furs from the area. In addition, it would serve as a hub for ships trading into South America and the Caribbean. To get colonists for this new venture, the company promised them land in exchange for six years of service to the company. However, the Dutch didn’t really own the land.  

In 1626, Peter Minuit negotiated with the Canarsee tribe to sell the company the entire island of Manhattan even though the Reckgawawanc have the northern part of the island.

While today’s popular history tells of Minuit buying the island for $24 worth of trade goods, the actual treaty has never been located. The deed on file in the New York State Library archives in Albany is an obvious fake. From an Indian perspective, what the Dutch purchased was simply a right to use the land in common with the Indians. Both the Dutch and the Indians understood that their agreement did not give the Dutch the exclusive rights to the land.

In 1626, the Susquehannock attempted to establish trade with the Dutch. However, the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Delaware Valley objected and attempted to stop the trade.

The Dutch found that Staten Island was inhabited by the Raritan. The village of 80-90 people in 1628 was supported by agriculture, primarily raising corn.

While the Dutch East India Company’s interest in New Amsterdam was primarily commercial, there were missionaries living in the colony. One of these missionaries, the Reverend Jonas Michaelius who has been described as “the moodiest, bitchiest resident of New Amsterdam” wrote in 1728:

“As to the natives of this country, I find them entirely savage and wild, strangers to all decency, yea, uncivil and stupid as garden stakes, proficient in all wickedness and ungodliness, devilish men who serve nobody but the devil, that is, the spirit which in their language they call Menetto, under which title they comprehend everything that is subtle and crafty and beyond human skill and power.”

The 1626 treaty negotiated with the Canarsee was not the only effort by the Dutch to secure title to the land. These “land deals” were often misinterpreted by both sides. Since the Indians viewed land as something that was used, not owned, there was often land which was used by several different tribes. This created potential conflicts as the Dutch assumed they were buying ownership-meaning exclusive use rights-when they were actually buying only a right to use the land in common with other tribes. Thus, in 1630, Peter Minuit, on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, bought Staten Island from the Tappan. The records do not indicate how the Raritan who lived there felt about the sale, or even if they were involved.

In 1637, the Marechkawieck sachems Seyseys and Neumers sold land at Hell Gate to the Dutch.

In 1639, Mechoswodt, the chief sachem of the Massapequa placed the entire western half of Long Island under Dutch protection.

In 1640, a group of Matinecock tore down the coat of arms of the Dutch Estate General and substituted for it a fool’s head. The Dutch passed a resolution to-

“send a sloop with soldiers thither to bring said Indians under our obedience and contribution.”

In spite of the resolution, the Dutch did not launch an attack. Five years later, however, the Matinecock of Long Island signed a peace treaty with the Dutch. Under this treaty, both groups were to live in peace with each other.

In 1643, the Rockaway and the Merrick sold much of their traditional homeland near Hempstead to the Dutch. Many of the Rockaway were enraged at the sale and were hostile toward the Europeans.

In 1645, the Marechkawieck sachem Seyseys signed a peace treaty and deed which gave his people’s land in southwestern Brooklyn from Gowanus to Jamaica Bay to the Dutch.

In 1649, the Wiechquaesgeck, weakened by war and out-migration, sold their land to the Dutch. They then moved north to establish villages at Dobbs Ferry, New York and at Stamford, Connecticut.

Mattano, the sachem of the Nayack, under threat of Dutch attack, agreed in 1652 to sell tribal lands in Brooklyn, New York to the Dutch. The conditions of the deed required that the Nayack –

“remove immediately from the land now occupied by them, called Naieck, and never to return to live in the district.”

Following the sale most of the Nayack moved to Staten Island.

In 1655, about 600 Indians landed at the southernmost point of Manhattan Island and then attacked the Dutch settlement. At the same time, Indians raided other Dutch settlements and farms, killing several dozen Europeans and taking a number of hostages. In trying to make sense of this war, the Dutch blamed it on an incident in which a Dutch settler had killed a Munsee woman who was picking peaches in his orchard. Hence it was commonly called the Peach War.

In looking for a cause for the Peach War, the Dutch conveniently overlooked the fact that Dutch troops were attacking Swedish settlements on the Delaware River at this time. The Swedes had developed good trading relationships with the Susquehannock. Since the Dutch seemed intent on destroying this relationship, the Susquehannock, together with the Munsee, may have actually carried out the attacks as a way of protecting the Swedes whom they viewed as allies.

In addition to the Peach War, the Dutch also found themselves engaged in the Esopus Wars, so called because of the key role of the Esopus. These wars started when a war party of about 50 Indians attacked New Amsterdam and lasted until the English took over the colony. The Dutch viewed themselves as totally blameless in these wars and felt that the cause was the natural hostility of the natives.

In 1660, the sachem Tapusagh signed a peace treaty with the Dutch as the chief of the Rockaway, Canarsee, and Marsepyn. At the same time, the Massapequa sachem Tackapousha signed a peace treaty with the Dutch and agreed to provide them with warriors for their war against the Indian nations of the mid-Hudson River Valley.

In 1664, New Amsterdam was transferred from the Dutch to the English and became New York.

The Governor Kieft War

In 1639, the Dutch West India Company resolved to exact tribute from local Indians around New Amsterdam, stating that these Indians were under Dutch protection. Dutch governor Willem Kieft put the taxation proposal this way:

“Whereas the Company is put to great expense both in building fortifications and in supporting soldiers and sailors, we have therefore resolved to demand from the Indians who dwell around here and who heretofore we have protected against their enemies, some contributions in the form of skins, maize and seawan [wampum], and if there be any nation which is not in a friendly way disposed to make such contribution it shall be urged to do so in the most suitable manner.”

Dutch residents who had lived in the area long enough to know the Tappan, Hackinsack, Wickquaesgeck, and Raritan, told the governor that this was the wrong thing to do. The governor, oblivious to the Indian world view, had assumed that the Dutch had purchased the Indians’ land and that the Indians were now under Dutch protection. The Indians, however, did not view the goods they had received as the purchase price of the land, but as a gift which represented the agreement. Both the Indians and the long-time Dutch residents understanding that the agreement involved sharing the land and entering into a defensive alliance.

The following year, Dutch governor Willem Kieft launched an unprovoked attack against the Raritan on Staten Island, New York. This marked the beginning of the Governor Kieft War. The purpose of the war was to reduce the Indians to obedience to the Dutch and to levy tribute.  The presumed excuse of the initial punitive expedition was the theft of some hogs on a Dutch farm in Staten Island. In actuality, the thieves were Dutch, not Indian. Governor Kieft, however, sent a posse to a Raritan village and several Indians were killed. The Raritan responded by attacking the farm where the alleged theft had taken place, burning down the house and killing four farm hands.

Governor Kieft, seeing no Dutch culpability in the Raritan response, issued an edict:

“we have therefore considered it most expedient and advisable to induce the Indians, our allies hereabout, to take up arms.”

Ten fathoms of wampum (seawan) were offered to the friendly Indians for each head of a “hostile” Indian which they brought in. Furthermore, if they brought in the head of any Indians who attacked the farm, then this would increase to 20 fathoms. Soon, Pacham, an Indian from a tribal hostile to the Raritan, came to the guardhouse at Fort Amsterdam holding aloft a stick from which dangled a human hand. Pacham then declared to Governor Kieft that the hand belonged to the Raritan chief who had ordered the attack on De Vries’ farm. Kieft felt that his plan to use Indian allies against the Raritan had succeeded.

However, this did not end the war. The following year, the Raritan burned Dutch farmsteads on Staten Island, and captured a number of settlers in retaliation for the Dutch attack against them the previous year. The Dutch asked the Massapequa of Long Island to send war parties against the Raritan. The Dutch once again offered a bounty for the head of any Raritan person.

The war between the Dutch and the Indians soon spread to other tribes. In 1641, a twenty-seven-year-old Wickquasgeck man appeared at the home of Claes Swits. He had a few furs and indicated that he was interested in trading them for some duffel cloth. Since Swits knew the man (whose name is not recorded in the history), he let him in. The Wickquasgeck man then reached for an ax which was near the door and cut off Swits’ head. He then left having revenged the death of his people who had been killed in 1626. In response to this attack, governor Willem Kieft ordered a full-scale retaliation. Kieft felt that once again the Indians had shown that they could never be trusted. Extermination, according to Kieft, was the only solution.

Word of the Dutch war of extermination did not reach all Indians and in 1643, a group of Wecquaesgeek and Tappan sought refuge at Fort Amsterdam as they fled from a war party of Mahican. They did not know that Governor Kieft had argued for the extermination of all Indians who had refused to pay Dutch tribute. In the middle of the night, the Dutch soldiers massacred the sleeping Indians. The soldiers’ cruelty, described by Dutch planter Willem DeVries, included

“infants were torn from their mother’s breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of the parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone.”

About 80 Indians were massacred and the soldiers were rewarded for their services. Willem Kieft thanked them and congratulated them on their victory.

In 1644, the Mahican sachem Aepjen negotiated a peace treaty with the Dutch on behalf of a number of tribes, including the Wappinger and Wiechquaesgeck. Many of the Wiechquaesgeck felt that they could not endure the treaty with the Dutch and subsequently they left their homes and went to live among the Raritan in New Jersey.

In 1645, the Dutch held a council with the Indians in front of their fort at Manhattan. The Dutch wished to negotiate a firm and inviolable peace with the assembled Indian leaders which included Hackinsack leader Oratany, Tappan leader Sesekemu, Rachgawawanck leader Willem, Nyack leader Mayauwetinnemin, and Wickquasgeck leader Aepjen (also known as Eskuyas). At this time, more than 1,000 Indians had been killed in the war against the Dutch.

Both sides agreed to peace and to settle future disputes by discussion rather than violence. Twenty Indian leaders make their marks on the treaty. Aepjen signed the treaty as representing the Wappinger, Wiechquaeskeck, Sinsink, and Kichtawank. The next day, the Dutch ordered a day of general thanksgiving. Thus the Governor Kieft War ended.


The Dutch and the Indians

The Dutch, whose presence in North America was not of long duration (about 40 years), were interested primarily in trade and viewed Indians as something to be tolerated, like cold winters and hot summers. In general the Dutch appeared to have little interest in learning about the Indians and their culture. Like other Europeans, the Dutch never questioned the idea that Dutch culture was richer, stronger, more highly developed, and closer to God than the Indian cultures. From an Indian viewpoint, the Dutch were seen as not being hospitable for they gave few presents and charged for repairing guns.

Map New Netherlands

Regarding the Indians, the Dutch generally followed a policy of live and let live: they did not force assimilation or religious conversion on the Indians. Both in Europe and in North America, the Dutch had little interest in forcing conformity on religious, political, and racial minorities. They were not particularly interested in forcing Christianity upon the Indians.

The Dutch came to North America to make money and were not interested in imperial strategies. The Dutch were in the beaver business; therefore they were concerned with sustaining the Indian nations who were providing them with beaver pelts. They viewed the Indians as trading partners and therefore a source of wealth.

Between 1614 and 1624, it is generally estimated that the Dutch fur traders obtained about 10,000 beaver skins annually from the Connecticut Indians alone. To facilitate this trade, the Dutch traders began using wampum as a type of currency. They acquired wampum from the Pequots and Narragansetts in exchange for European trade goods. The Dutch then carried this wampum to Indians in the interior, exchanging it for furs.

In 1648, the Dutch estimated that 80,000 beaver pelts per year were passing through Manhattan on their way to European markets. In addition, they noted the growing importance of tobacco: Amsterdam was now the tobacco capital of Europe. The Dutch created a variety of tobacco blends to suite a range of prices and tastes. Tobacco grown in the English colony of Virginia was often shipped to Europe through the Dutch colony at Manhattan.

The Dutch fur traders, like those of the other European nations, were not renowned for their elegance and refinery. From a European perspective, their manners and honesty were often lacking. It was not uncommon for them to attempt to cheat the Indians. In spite of conflicts over this, dishonest trading practices did not lead to war as the trade was too profitable to both sides.

Among the items which the Indians, particularly the Iroquois, demanded in exchange for their furs were guns and the ammunition for them. The Dutch supplied their Indian trading partners with guns and with these guns, the Indians expanded their territory, often displacing tribes which did not have access to guns.

Another important trade item was alcohol. Officially, the Dutch enacted a number of laws designed to stop the liquor traffic with Indians, but these tended to be ignored. Since the Indians were willing to pay high prices for Dutch beer and brandy, there were many Dutch colonists who were willing to supply the demand without much regard for the consequences.

While the Dutch made some effort to be fair to the Indians when applying Dutch law to them, the Indians also learned that they could utilize the Dutch laws. One example of this was seen in 1647 when Harmen van der Bogaert, a Dutch barber-surgeon who was married with four children, was discovered  having sex with another man. He fled deep into Mohawk country, seeking refuge in a village where he had been befriended years earlier. The Dutch authorities, however, tracked him down. There was a shootout in a longhouse and, as a distraction, van der Bogaert attempted to burn the building down. He was captured and taken to Fort Orange. The Mohawk, knowing something of European law, sent a delegation to Manhattan to sue the West India Company for damages to their building and supplies. After hearing their case, Peter Stuyvesant concluded that the Indians are right. He ordered the sale of van der Bogaert’s property with the money from the sale going to pay for the company’s debt to the Mohawk.

With regard to religious conversion, only two ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church made any serious effort to convert Indians. They failed to make any converts.

Both the Dutch and the Swedes bought Indian land to legalize their occupancy in the eyes of other Europeans. They recognized the Indians’ ownership of the land and thus the legal necessity of buying land before appropriating it. In general, the Dutch tended to be fair when buying land and cases of fraud and high-pressure tactics were the exception rather than the rule. The Dutch bought the land around New Amsterdam before they needed it and the Indians continued to occupy it undisturbed for years after the purchase.

Part of the conflict with the Indians over land purchases stemmed from different views of the transactions. Indians viewed the land as community property which belonged to the entire tribe or band for their use in perpetuity. They did not view it as a commodity to be bought and sold. The Indians thus viewed land purchases as simply payments for temporary use, while the Dutch looked upon these as final sales. Conflict arose when the Indians demanded from the Dutch further payments or for them to vacate the land.

New Amsterdam

A drawing of New Amsterdam is shown above.