1. An Englishman gave the colony its start.
Hired by English merchants, explorer Henry Hudson twice entered the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to find a Northeast Passage to Asia, only to be stymied each time by sheets of sea ice. Though unable to gain additional backing in his home country, the state-sponsored Dutch East India Company soon jumped in to green-light a third voyage. In April 1609, Hudson set off on his ship, the Halve Maen (Half Moon), but quickly reached treacherous, ice-filled waters above Norway. Choosing to disobey his instructions rather than admit defeat, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Nova Scotia and then roughly followed the coastline south to North Carolina before reversing course again and heading up what’s now called the Hudson River. In the end, shallow waters forced him to turn around, by which time he realized the river would not be a Northwest Passage to Asia. Based on his voyage, however, the Dutch claimed parts of present-day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Delaware for the colony of New Netherland. Hudson, meanwhile, died in 1611 following a mutiny in which he was set adrift on a small lifeboat in the Canadian Arctic.
2. The Dutch settled tiny Governors Island before Manhattan.
Fur-trading expeditions up the Hudson River got going almost immediately after Hudson’s voyage, but the colony grew at a snail’s pace. The first major group of settlers did not arrive until 1624, when 30 French-speaking Protestant families from present-day Belgium came over, fleeing oppression. Most were sent to Albany, whereas others set up on the Delaware River, on the Connecticut River and on Governors Island, a small landmass at the Hudson River’s mouth that is now largely parkland. On Governors Island, they built a fort, a windmill and likely other structures as well. But they quickly outgrew it, and by 1626 had founded New Amsterdam on the southern tip of nearby Manhattan Island. For safety purposes, the families elsewhere in the colony also moved to New Amsterdam following a war between the Mohawk and Mahican Indians that the Dutch became involved in on the losing side. From that point forward, the city was New Netherland’s largest and most important settlement.
3. Contrary to legend, the Dutch didn’t buy Manhattan for $24.
As part of their settlement of Manhattan, the Dutch purportedly purchased the island from the Native Americans for trade goods worth 60 guilders. More than two centuries later, using then-current exchange rates, a U.S. historian calculated that amount as $24, and the number stuck in the public’s mind. Yet it’s not as if the Dutch handed over a “$20 bill and four ones,” explained Charles T. Gehring, director of the New Netherland Research Center at the New York State Library. “It’s a totally inaccurate figure.” He pointed out that the trade goods, such as iron kettles and axes, were invaluable to the Native Americans since they couldn’t produce those things themselves. Moreover, the Native Americans had a completely different concept of land ownership. As a result, they almost certainly believed they were renting out Manhattan for temporary use, not giving it away forever. Due in part to such cultural misunderstandings, the Dutch repeatedly found themselves at odds with various Native American tribes, most notably in the brutal Kieft’s War of the 1640s. “The Dutch were instructed by their authorities to be fair and honest with the Indians,” said Firth Haring Fabend, author of “New Netherland in a Nutshell.” “But you can’t say they were much better [than the other European nations colonizing the Americas.] They were all terrible.”
4. Manhattan was a melting pot even then.
From the very beginning, New Amsterdam hosted a diverse population, in sharp contrast to the homogeneous English settlements going up in New England. In addition to the Dutch, many Africans (both free and slave), Scots, English, Germans, Scandinavians, French Huguenots, Muslims, Jews and Native Americans, among others, roamed the city’s streets. As early as 1643, a Jesuit missionary reported that New Amsterdam’s few hundred residents spoke 18 different languages between them. The various groups did not always get along. In 1654, for instance, Peter Stuyvesant, the peg-legged director-general of New Netherland, attempted to turn away a boatload of Jewish refugees, calling them “very repugnant” and “deceitful.” He also persecuted Lutherans and Quakers and owned dozens of slaves. Yet compared to other European colonies, relative tolerance prevailed. “It was limited, it was grudging, it wasn’t celebrating diversity or anything like that, but it was a distinct step forward,” explained Russell Shorto, author of “The Island at the Center of the World,” a history of Manhattan’s founding. “It was something that was really a different way of approaching things.”
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5. The Dutch gave up the colony without a fight.
At its peak, only about 9,000 people lived in New Netherland, leaving it vulnerable to attack from the English, who fought three wars against the Dutch, their main commercial rivals, between 1652 and 1674 and who vastly outnumbered them in the New World. The breaking point came in March 1664, when English King Charles II awarded the colony’s land to his brother, the Duke of York, even though the two countries were then technically at peace. A few months later, four warships with several hundred soldiers onboard arrived in New Amsterdam’s harbor and demanded that the Dutch surrender. Though Stuyvesant at least outwardly prepared to fight, prominent city residents persuaded him to stand down, and on September 8 he signed the colony over without any blood being shed. In 1673, during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch re-conquered Manhattan with an invasion force of some 600 men. But they gave it up the following year as part of a peace treaty in which they retained Suriname in South America. “They thought that was going to be worth more,” Fabend said. “They were wrong.”
6. Signs of New Netherland are still visible.
In taking over New Netherland, the English did not expel any of its residents or seize their property, and they even permitted a series of Dutch mayors in New York City. As a result, the Dutch maintained a cultural and linguistic presence, with words like “cookie” and “coleslaw” creeping into the American vernacular. Their distinct architectural style also lived on, as did place names, such as Brooklyn (Breuckelen), Harlem (Haarlem), Coney Island (Conyne Eylandt) and Broadway (Breede Wegh). Furthermore, the street pattern of lower Manhattan below Wall Street, along with that of Kingston, New York, and Albany, stayed largely intact. “If you don’t look up [at the skyscrapers], you can kind of fool yourself into thinking you’re in New Amsterdam,” Shorto said. Despite the massive amount of development that has taken place in New York City, a small amount of physical evidence remains. In Brooklyn, for example, the so-called Wyckoff House, first built around 1652, still stands. As for their political legacy, some historians credit the Dutch with influencing the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.