17 January 2005

New Amsterdam Ascendant

On June 3, 1621, a twenty-four-year charter was awarded to the Dutch West India Company, a corporation modeled on its great East India predecessor. These two Dutch companies were the world's largest corporations, possessing at least ten times the capital of Britain's Virginia Company. The primary purpose of the new enterprise was to expand trade for the Netherlands throughout the vast area between West Africa and Newfoundland. The company decided that a permanent settlement in the area visited by Hudson would help achieve that goal. Rules for the new colony, an Artikelbrief, were drawn up in March 1623, and a group of Walloon families led by Cornelius May was sent out in 1624 on the Nieu Nederlandt. The settlers were given strict instructions not to trade with foreigners and were scattered from Fort Orange (Albany), to Fort Nassau (Gloucester, New Jersey), to Nut Island in New York Bay. More settlers arrived in August 1624, and soon huts were located at Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn shore and on the fringes of Manhattan. From these varied sites, furs valued at 27,000 guilders were exported to Holland in that year. By April 22, 1625, a settlement known as New Amsterdam had been established on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Dutch New York was being created.

Although it was not the first settlement created by the Dutch, New Amsterdam rapidly became the focus of Holland's presence in the New World. Cattle, farm equipment, and additional settlers came from across the ocean, and the company also dispatched a rather inept leader named William Verhulst, who, initiating a grand tradition, diverted fur revenues to his private account. Kryn Fredericks, an engineer dispatched from Amsterdam in 1625, designed a fort with star-shaped bastions and also selected the site for the State Street windmill, the town's most distinctive early structure. Land for farms and roadways was surveyed, and both the governor's house and the company office were placed inside the fort. Bouweries, or farms, soon appeared as the employees of the Dutch West India Company settled in for what all hoped would be a self-sustaining and prosperous colonial venture. Although the English Crown also claimed the area, the Dutch had the advantage of occupancy. For the next forty years, a rhetorical game of imperial and commercial bluff between New Amsterdam and New England continued, but in practice, the Dutch settlement on Manhattan had established its primacy.

The West India Company sought profits for Amsterdam by imposing commercial order on New Amsterdam and the New Netherlands. Its directors quickly realized that Verhulst was a bungler, and on May 4, 1626, Peter Minuit (1580-1638) arrived as the new steward of corporate interests. Minuit brought with him two hundred more settlers as well as instructions to strengthen the company's corporate position by purchasing Manna-hatin from the Indians. Within three weeks, Minuit had made a deal with the Canarsie Indians, giving the Dutch title to Manhattan's twenty-two square miles. The price, sixty guilders, or $23.70, certainly marks Minuit as one of the shrewdest real estate operators of all time, for the land is today valued in excess of $60 billion. In fact, however, Manna-hatin was not really "owned" by any tribe, and on top of that, the Indian negotiators gave Minuit a worthless deed. The Canarsie lived primarily on Long Island and used the island between the rivers only as a hunting and trading site. Later, the settlers had to negotiate additional purchases with Indian tribes living near the Washington Heights area, Indians whose claim to the land was at least equally questionable. In any case, Native Americans played little role in the development of New York.
SOURCE: New York City: A Short History, by George J. Lankevich (NYU Press, 2002), pp. 4-5

What about all those Mohawk ironworkers and skywalkers?

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