Sparsely populated with traders and soldiers, the first Dutch communities eventually grew into some of the region’s largest cities
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Henry Hudson’s now-famous 1609 voyage allowed the Dutch to lay claim to a territory they called New Netherland — a wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard stretching from Cape Cod to Virginia. It wasn’t long after Hudson’s return to port that the first Dutch traders made a beeline for the land surrounding the Hudson River. Around 1614, merchants set up a fur-trading post on an island near present-day Albany, but it flooded each spring, and they abandoned it after a few years.
Enter the newly formed Dutch West India Company, which established Fort Orange in 1624 in a nearby location, this time on the mainland. The site was a fur-trading hot spot — five miles away from the nexus of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers. The West India Company, a private firm that operated under the Dutch government, staffed the fort with soldiers and farmers as well as traders. They were all working for the company store, so to speak — but there weren’t very many of them.
“Getting enough people to go to New Netherland was not so easy,” says Janny Venema, author of Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier. “There was no lack of work in the Dutch Republic at that time, so there was not really any reason to leave.”
Company director Johannes de Laet, a publicist, tried talking the place up. “The natives are well disposed,” he promised. “A pleasant and fruitful country” awaited colonists, teeming with plants that grow “spontaneously... so that nothing is wanting but human industry.”
Visions of a land of milk and honey failed to entice colonists. So the West India Company came up with a new scheme: Open up New Netherland to entrepreneurs — subcontractors to help bear the cost of building a colony.
Dutch diamond merchant Kiliaen van Rensselaer, a company shareholder, was willing to take the chance. Around 1630 he set up a patroonship called Rensselaerwijck (which eventually grew to encompass all of present-day Albany and Rensselaer counties combined). Patroonships are a type of tenant farming. Investors like van Rensselaer could own land in New Netherland as long as they brought in a given number of colonists. From the comfort of home (he never visited the Hudson Valley), van Rensselaer recruited from his large network of family and friends. “He needed a good mix: farmers, farm hands, some carpenters and masons, and of course, a surgeon,” says Venema.
At first, the only takers were single men. But when the West India Company lifted its monopoly on the fur trade in 1639, even more people came on board, women and families included. Meanwhile, the patroonship grew to encircle Fort Orange, setting off a territorial dispute. The director of the patroon reckoned he could build as close to the fort as he liked. The fort wanted a safe zone from which to fire its cannons. The debate dragged on until 1652, when New Netherland director-general Peter Stuyvesant hopped on a boat from New Amsterdam (today’s Manhattan) and headed north. He claimed the land within a 3,000-foot radius of Fort Orange, released its occupants from any further indebtedness to the patroon, and renamed the collection of houses Beverwijck — which roughly translates as “beaver district.” Within a few years, the settlement would grow into an established village of brick houses with gables and neatly fenced yards. It had a population of roughly 1,000 souls by the end of the decade.
“A Dutchman coming to Beverwijck in the 1650s would feel perfectly at home,” says Charles Gehring, director of the New Netherland Institute. “It looked like any other Dutch village, except for the mountain views and the Indians.”
It must have been quite the scene from May through September — fur-trading season — as natives by the hundreds swarmed Beverwijck with beaver pelts. The furs were shipped to Europe to be turned into fashionable hats. The Indians traded for wampum beads, liquor, cloth, firearms, and baked goods. (They adored breads and cakes so much, says Gehring, that the baking trade had to be regulated so the wheat supply was not exhausted.)
The natives also came to complete land transactions with the colonists. It could take days — and quite a bit of booze — for the deal to be sealed. “There are some examples when the Dutch thought that they had done everything according to the rules. But when they would go to the land they had bought, they would find the Indians there, expecting to be given presents again,” says Venema. Theirs was an unusual view of land ownership: It could be used by themselves, by others, and then given back. It wasn’t a forever-binding deal.