“We also frequently trade with the Indians, who come more than ten and twenty days’ journey from the interior, and who have been farther off to catch beavers, and they know of no limits to the country.”
A Description of the New Netherlands is one of the earliest detailed descriptions of life in the Dutch settlement located in what is now the state of New York. It had its capital at New Amsterdam, now New York City. This document was written by Adriaen van der Donck, a University of Leiden–trained lawyer who served as the first legal counselor in the New Netherland colony. Although the specific date of original publication is disputed, it was probably completed in 1653, when van der Donck was living in exile in the Netherlands due to a disagreement with the powerful Dutch West India Company, which ran the colony; the tract was printed and distributed in 1655 for an eager Dutch public.
It is clear from this perennially fresh and interesting document that van der Donck dearly loved New Netherland. In it, he paints a vivid portrait of the environment of this part of the American continent, emphasizing the richness of the land. He also presents surprisingly sophisticated ethnographic descriptions of the Native American people living within its borders. Ultimately, van der Donck puts forth a compelling case for ambitious people living in the Netherlands to move to the New Netherland colony, enjoy its natural bounty, and fulfill its potential to be a thriving commercial center.
Adriaen van der Donck finished writing A Description of the New Netherlands in the spring or summer of 1653. He had fallen into an insurmountable dispute with his boss, the powerful director general of New Netherland Peter Stuyvesant, over how the Dutch West India Company ruled the colony. Stuyvesant had appointed van der Donck to the influential legislative committee called the Council of Nine, and van der Donck used his position to petition the population for democratic reforms, much to Stuyvesant’s displeasure.
After being temporarily imprisoned for his political radicalism, van der Donck left for the Netherlands to appeal directly to the Dutch government for an end to control of New Amsterdam by the Dutch West India Company. He argued in influential pamphlets that the New Netherland colony should answer only to the Dutch government’s States General. Part of his strategy was to drum up support for immigration from the Netherlands to the New World.
The Dutch homeland, and especially the city of Amsterdam, had become a haven for people who were religiously, politically, or economically oppressed in other European countries. As such, there was widespread enthusiasm for the idea that New Netherland could become a land of opportunity for these displaced people. Perhaps because of this immigrant situation, and the appeal of combining a newly swollen population with a sparsely populated but resource-rich territory to bolster Dutch trade, the States General supported van der Donck’s ideas.
In 1652, the States General agreed to establish a municipal government for New Amsterdam that the Dutch West India Company would be forced to accept. Moreover, they decided that Stuyvesant should be relieved of his duties as director general. Van der Donck himself was going to deliver the news to his former boss, and was scheduled to set sail to the New World in early 1653 to oversee the development of the new government.
However, hostilities broke out between former allies England and the Netherlands in 1652, sparked by a series of disagreements over international trade arrangements. This led to a two-year conflict known as the First Anglo-Dutch War, which came to involve a series of large naval battles around Europe. Dutch officials worried that the fighting would spill over into the territories, a potentially damaging situation for New Amsterdam, which had the larger and more powerful New England territory on its border.
The Dutch government decided that it needed to appease the Dutch West India Company, which commanded a significant number of ships and troops, in order to hold out against English aggression. It therefore reversed the previous decision by the States General, and upheld the Dutch West India Company’s ban on allowing van der Donck in the New World. Frustrated with the last-minute reversal of his campaign to achieve autonomy for New Netherland, van der Donck expanded on material he had generated in his influential pamphlets to create A Description of the New Netherlands. Published and distributed in 1655, it became an immediate success, appealing to widespread public sentiment in favor of enlarging the colony.
The significance of Adriaen van der Donck’s writing on the early colonial history of New York is just beginning to be recognized. Despite the fact that he undoubtedly left his mark on New York’s history, he has remained relatively unknown until recently. Perhaps because he has not been appreciated as an important historical figure, the specific details of van der Donck’s life are not entirely known.
He was born in Breda, Netherlands, sometime around 1618 but perhaps as late as 1620. His family was held in high regard in the Netherlands. His mother’s father, Adriaen van Bergen, helped to defend the city from Spanish aggression in the 1590s, making Van Bergen one of the most celebrated heroes of the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence from Spain.
Intellectually curious and highly literate, Adriaen van der Donck attended the University of Leiden (then spelled Leyden) from 1638 to 1641. In the early seventeenth century, the University of Leiden was one of the top educational institutions in the world. Van der Donck shared the campus with the European intellectual luminaries of his day, including many who championed emerging democratic philosophies.
When he graduated with a law degree, van der Donck took the unusual step of following his curiosity about the New World. At the time, there were two main employers in the New Netherland territory. One was the Dutch West India Company, which controlled the territory around New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. The other was a wealthy Amsterdam businessman named Kiliaen van Rensselaer, who hired van der Donck to be the schout, or sheriff, of his territory, called Rensselaerswyck, near present-day Albany.
At an unknown date, van der Donck left Rensselaerswyck and went to work for the more powerful Dutch West India Company. At the time, the director of the colony was William Kieft, who was embroiled in a damaging war with the local Native American tribes. One of van der Donck’s first accomplishments was petitioning tribal leaders for peace with the relatively fragile Dutch colony.
In appreciation for his success in creating peace, Adriaen van der Donck was given a tract of land by the Dutch West India Company. This estate was about fifteen miles north of the island of Manhattan and east of the Hudson River (then called the North River). Van der Donck was commonly known as “the gentleman,” or jonker in Dutch. This area is now known by the anglicized name Yonkers, in a nearly forgotten homage to van der Donck.
Van der Donck became a trusted administrator of Kieft’s successor, the better-known Peter Stuyvesant. In 1649, Stuyvesant appointed van der Donck to an important legislative board of the Dutch West India Company government overseeing New Amsterdam, the Council of Nine. Van der Donck came to control the board, and used it to petition for democratic reform of the colonial government. Stuyvesant considered this a threat to his power, and jailed van der Donck as a dangerous radical.
Van der Donck eventually gained passage back to the Netherlands, where he petitioned the Dutch government for a new form of government in New Netherland. He proposed that the colony should answer only to the States General in the Netherlands, and not to the Dutch West India Company, which in turn used its influence to prevent him from returning to his New World home. It was during this period of exile that he wrote A Description of the New Netherlands, intending it to sway both governmental and public opinion in the Netherlands about the colony.
Van der Donck was allowed to return to the New World in the middle of 1653, on the condition that he retire as a political figure and lawyer. He lived with his wife Mary on his estate until 1655 or 1656. Although we do not have specific details, it is thought that he was killed by attacks on Dutch settlers by Native Americans from south of the Delaware River (then called the South River) who did not know him and were engaged in a general reprisal for attacks by other settlers on their families.
Adriaen van der Donck.
The full text of A Description of the New Netherlands is presented in three parts. The first and largest is a description of the location, natural resources, and native peoples of the colony. Its author, Adriaen van der Donck, writes about these in order to inform the Dutch public about opportunities for trade. The second part is an idealized discussion between a Dutch citizen or patriot stating concerns to a New Netherlander, who presents arguments to overcome any doubts about the New Netherland colony. The third and smallest section of the document is a list of agreements between the burgomasters (city councilors) of Amsterdam and the Dutch West India Company regarding the colony. It represents an impressive series of reforms, championed by van der Donck, among others, and is intended to present the message that the colony is now on far stronger legal footing than at any time in its past.
Van der Donck begins this document by thoroughly describing the location of the New Netherland territory. He states that it is thirty-eight degrees and fifty-three minutes north of the equator, and extends northeast along the ocean coast to forty-two degrees north. He then lists locations in the Old World which share the same latitude as the New World territory, including Corsica, Sardinia, France, Spain, and the Barbary Coast of Africa. Although van der Donck does not explicitly mention his reason for beginning his treatise with the sort of geographical precision typical of mariners and explorers, it becomes clear toward the end of that he intends to argue that the New Netherlands territory is not, as some in his day argued, too far away from the Netherlands to be useful for trade.
Van der Donck states that it was first discovered by Europeans in 1609 by an English-born captain named Hendrick (Henry) Hudson, attempting to find a northwestern route to China, while sailing for the Dutch East India Company. The native people Hudson encountered, van der Donck explains, had never seen what he describes as a Christian person before, and looked upon Henry Hudson’s ship, the Half Moon, as though it were either sent down from heaven, up from hell, or was a sea monster. This is an important point, because it allows the Dutch to positively state that they were the first Europeans to discover and therefore lay claim to the land.
He then tackles allegations that other European powers might have some kind of right to the New Netherland territory. He describes that there is, indeed, a settlement on the South River of Swedish people that they call New Sweden. He argues that this New Sweden territory is actually not founded on any legal right, and certainly has no claim over the area north of the South River, belongs fully to New Netherland. He explains that New Netherland is bounded by two fairly powerful English settlements, Virginia to the south and New England to the north. Van der Donck also counters arguments that the Spanish were in the region, based on the discovery of corn in the region. He states that his Native American sources say that they got corn by trading with tribes to their south.
In the early seventeenth century, European explorers thought the northeastern coast of what is now the United States might be close to the Pacific Ocean, as they had no real idea of how far west the continent extended. Van der Donck dismisses this possibility. He says that based on land winds and the seasonal migration of animals and birds, it seems unlikely that there is a western coast nearby, and that there must be several hundred miles of land before the western sea. He also explains that the New Netherland colonists traded with Native Americans who travel west for more than twenty days to catch beavers, and that they have never seen of the end of the country.
The next part of the document describes the rivers of the New Netherland territory. The South River (later known as the Delaware), he declares, is not only good for transport, but is ripe for whaling. The North (or Hudson) River, van der Donck asserts, is an especially rich fishery, and has two navigable courses, one that goes to Lake Ontario in the heart of Iroquois territory, and another that has a dangerous falls that must be portaged. He also speaks of the Fresh (Connecticut) River and its excellent opportunities for fur trading, which he laments is mainly controlled by the English. The East River, van der Donck explains, is good for passing east to west, and brings English traders into New Amsterdam.
Even more important than the rivers, van der Donck says, are the many places available for ships to anchor. The coastline is mostly sandy rather than rocky, meaning that it is easy for ships to land, and there are many different harbors protected from ocean storms. The best of these, he says, is where the East and the North Rivers end, at the site of Staten Island. This harbor is known simply as the Bay (later known as New York Harbor), and provides ample access to the island of Manhattan.
Van der Donck also notes that the territory is heavily forested, with an abundance of several types of oaks, ash, tulip trees, birch, yews, chestnuts, and that large numbers of pine trees are found in the northern area of New Netherland, near Rensselaerswyck. This abundant natural resource, he notes, is extremely valuable for building ships and houses, among other uses.
The rich soil, van der Donck explains, yields abundant crops. The major grain crops are corn, which is easy to cultivate, and barley, which grows over seven feet tall. He states that there has been some success in efforts to grow tobacco, but that the quality is not yet as good as the tobacco from Virginia. Garden crops like carrots, peas, beets, and pumpkins grow with very little attention, and the local tribes have traditionally subsisted off of ample bounties of corn, beans, and squash. There are also exotic fruits that can be grown in the climate, including one which he describes as a water-citron (watermelon), very popular with women and children.
The rivers and coastal areas also offer a wealth of commercial opportunities, according to van der Donck. The rivers teem with salmon, eels, pike, bass, and sturgeon. The coasts are rich in oysters, large lobsters, crabs, halibut, cod, and sharks. Whales, which were harvested for their oil, abound just off the shore of the New Netherland territory.
Van der Donck is even more enthusiastic about the animals found on land. He describes ample populations of black and gray squirrels, rabbits, and muskrats. There are also more valuable furbearing creatures, including otters, foxes, raccoons, and of course beavers, which were used in van der Donck’s time to make valuable fur hats. He also writes of larger game animals, such as an abundance of deer and a species of buffalo that he thinks might be tamable and used for breeding with domestic cattle, and he recounts stories of large horned animals like deer that might be identified today as moose or elk.
The author also lists a number of valuable game birds. He mentions quail, three kinds of geese, and several kinds of edible ducks. The most important fowl of the country, he asserts, is the wild turkey, which is considered an excellent food source by Native Americans and settlers alike. There are also a number of birds of prey, such as falcons and hawks, and several kinds of eagles, including one with a head of white feathers—the bald eagle. Van der Donck is particularly beguiled by an exotic small nectar-seeking bird which some people think is a bee; present-day readers will identify it as a hummingbird.
Van der Donck also considers the earth itself to hold potential wealth. The clay found along the coast is good for making bricks and tiles, and there is good stone to quarry, as well as several known iron deposits in New Netherland. Most important, van der Donck describes a potentially valuable presence of gold. He describes the local tribes painting their face with colors made from plants and minerals, and that some of this paint was confirmed to contain gold. The former director general, William Kieft, died at sea in 1647 en route to Europe with proof of gold deposits in New Netherland.
One section of his document, above all, has led present-day historians to take an interest in van der Donck. Titled “Of the Manner and Peculiar Customs of the Natives of the New Netherlands,” this section, part of which is reproduced above, presents an overview of the local Native American populations that many analysts consider to be among the most sophisticated ethnographies written in the early colonial period. Van der Donck, who helped to broker peace between several of the tribes and the colonists following the war commenced by former Director General Kieft, writes based on firsthand information from his Native American contacts.
He asserts that there are distinct Native American cultures, and that “nations, tribes and languages are as different in America as they are in Europe.” Van der Donck informs his audience that there are several theories of how the people ended up on the American continent, including one involving a land bridge between the Old World and the Americas. He primarily focuses on the cultures of the Mahicans (or Mohicans) and Mohawks, but also refers to other powerful tribes, including the Susquehannocks, the Senecas, and the Shawnees.
He describes the Native Americans as strong, athletic, and having yellowish skins like the Tartars (or Mongols). He describes the straight black hair on their heads and very little hair on their bodies. He writes that they generally go about with little clothing in warmer weather, usually just a breech cloth for men and a simple cloth around the body for women. He further details that they make good use of fur garments in winter, using weasel, deer, bear, and buffalo hides to stay warm.
Their dwellings, he states, are communal long houses for sixteen to eighteen families, made from bent hickory frames and covered in bark. He says that some of the tribes build a kind of stockade for warfare, but that these are useless against Europeans. Van der Donck remarks that the Native Americans eat quite a bit of corn meal, which they boil to make a staple food called sapen. He says that they generally prepare meat to accompany sapen in a simple fashion, such as using hot rocks to boil chunks of meat in hide containers.
The author also discusses some of the personal traits of Native Americans, setting down some of the earliest European impressions of the indigenous people of North America, and these have informed stereotypes that have lasted until the present day. He describes the native people as thoughtful and taciturn, able to endure severe physical hardship, but prone to thievery and excessive consumption of alcohol, the sale of which was banned to Indians in New Netherland. He also describes the native people as highly egalitarian. They make decisions in open councils, where anyone of good standing can speak their mind. When they go to war, with bows and arrows and war clubs, they do not have any military ranks.
Van der Donck details how the native people do not use a metal-based currency like Europeans, but trade in shells called sewant or wampum to purchase goods and pay tribute. Van der Donck’s interest in the economy of the native people is most centered, however, on their trade in pelts. He explains that they are avid hunters and fishers, estimating that the tribes of the region harvest over eighty thousand beavers a year, representing a potential fortune for Dutch traders.
He further provides commentary, also presented in part above, about native religious beliefs. Although some native people have been converted to Christianity by European missionaries, he declares that they are quick to throw off their Christian beliefs when living away from Europeans. They do not manifest a belief in any god, but appear to put great efforts into appeasing the devil, whom they fear and blame for all misfortunes.
In the penultimate section of the document, van der Donck switches from essay format and presents an imagined dialogue between a New Netherlander and a patriot, meaning a Dutch citizen. The two discuss some of the main points of a public debate, current in 1653, about the merits of the New Netherland colony. In the beginning of this section van der Donck presents three questions: First, he ponders whether it is in the interest of the Netherlands to help the colony thrive. Second, he asks if it is possible to defend it against enemies. Third, he inquires if it will present potential for commerce.
The patriot, representing the Dutch citizen in the homeland, asks if rival Spain has not overextended itself in colonial projects, implying that the Netherlands risks doing the same. The New Netherlander counters that this is in fact what has made Spain so strong and wealthy. The New Netherlander then comments that thousands of people come to the Netherlands every year seeking employment. He believes that the New Netherland colony can put this growing labor force to work for the betterment of the Netherlands.
The patriot then raises issues about the security of the colony, asking if it needs to fear Native Americans, raiding Portuguese, pirates, or the English. The New Netherlander replies by first stating that the West India Company has expended huge sums of money defending the colony, and that these efforts should not go to waste. The native people, he explains, are easily defeated by European military forces. He also points out that the rivers and coastlines of the colony are difficult to navigate for newcomers, and that this fact offers significant protection against naval raids and pirates. He does, however, grant that the larger New England colony poses a potential threat to the Dutch in the area, but says that they will avoid armed conflict because New Netherland can do the English colony great damage as well.
The patriot then asks if the colony really has potential for trade, especially considering how far away it is from Europe. The New Netherlander enumerates the valuable natural resources, including beaver skins, fish, whales, iron, and timber. He then states that although the distance is far, shipping between the Netherlands and the New World has advanced, and points out that the Dutch routinely engage in long-distance trade with ports all around the world.
The last section of the document lists the conditions agreed upon by burgomasters of the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch West India Company regarding the New Netherland colony. In this part, van der Donck is asserting that the New Netherland colony has gained a new level of legal standing. It consists of thirty-three points, some of them overlapping, which represent significant government guarantees for the people of the New Netherland colony.
One major theme in these points is the provision of loans to New Netherland settlers as well as transportation to the colony and household goods to get them set up in their new home. The points also state that settlers were to be given tracts of arable land. The agreements also promise timber, mineral, hunting, and fishing rights near their personal estates, and defers taxes on profits from these resources. The settlers were also to be provided with shipping vessels sailing to Amsterdam to transport goods, and warehouses in Amsterdam to store those goods until they are sold.
This section also outlines a new form of government for the colony. Common citizens were allowed to select three burgomasters from the most honest men in the colony. Additionally, the directors of the West India Company were allowed to select a magistrate of five to seven men to make decisions. Laws were enforced by a schout, or sheriff. The Dutch government also agreed to provide a schoolmaster, smith, and wheelwright, ensuring that the colonists have the skilled laborers it needed to provide essential services.
A Description of the New Netherlands is primarily aimed at conveying to a Dutch audience the potential for profitable commerce in the New Netherland territory. Van der Donck, who sincerely loved his New World home, goes to great lengths in this document to detail the opportunities that abounded for business development in the colony. As he describes, these included trading in beaver and other pelts, timber harvesting, fishing, hunting, mining, and agriculture. Van der Donck was keenly aware of the huge numbers of refugees flooding into Dutch cities, especially Amsterdam. He saw the New Netherland colony as a way to harness the expanding labor base this refugee situation created, and enriching the Dutch nation.
The document is also about sovereignty. In the first instance, van der Donck is eager to prove that the New Netherland colony is legitimately Dutch territory. He does this by noting that Henry Hudson’s crew was the first group of Europeans Native Americans in the area had ever seen. No other Europeans had previously explored the area, and so it could legitimately be claimed for the Netherlands, according to the European legal norms of the day. During his tenure in New Amsterdam, van der Donck dismissed the Swedish colony south of the South River as powerless. However, van der Donck expounds on the potential threat posed by the English colonies near New Netherland: New England to the north and Virginia to the south.
Van der Donck was also a vocal champion of political reform within the colony. With an insider’s understanding of the autocratic Dutch West India Company administration, he sought to reform New Netherland according to emerging democratic principles. He returned to the Netherlands after being jailed by the powerful governor general, Peter Stuyvesant, for this political radicalism. In exile in the Netherlands, he petitioned Dutch leaders for a series of reforms that would have ousted Stuyvesant as supreme leader, and established the colonial government on far more egalitarian footing. The Dutch West India Company clearly opposed the reforms championed by van der Donck and others. However, public opinion was on the side of reform by 1652. Van der Donck was successful, and was poised to return to the New World to give Stuyvesant the news that change was coming.
However, van der Donck’s success proved short lived. In the summer of 1652, the First Anglo-Dutch War broke out over disagreements about how much authority England, with its superior navy, should have to over Dutch merchant ships. The Dutch West India Company, with its paramilitary naval resources, was needed by the Dutch in the fight against the English, and the transitioning Dutch government overturned its decisions about New Netherland to appease the company. As a result, democratic reforms did not occur, Stuyvesant was allowed to remain in power, and van der Donck was forced to agree to give up political activism when he returned to his estate at present-day Yonkers.
Ultimately, this decision badly hurt the Netherlands. Like van der Donck, English officials knew the northeastern portion of the New World represented a significant prize for the country able to control its trade. On August 27, 1664, the English navy arrived in the Bay (New York Harbor) outside of Manhattan, and demanded possession of the Dutch territory. Peter Stuyvesant, still the governor general of New Amsterdam, wanted his subjects to fight the English. They refused. England took over with no real resistance, because the citizens of the New Netherland colony did not much care if their affairs were overseen by the English crown or the Dutch West India Company, as long as their religious freedom was respected. It is distinctly possible that this would not have been the prevailing attitude had they been allowed to develop a popular and participatory government, as van der Donck had advocated.
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