Friday, July 17, 2015

The Hilly Island

     Last weekend B and I drove over to see the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production of The Winter's Tale.

     Before the show began, I took in the view of the Hudson River. I could see West Point across the water. Gazing upriver, through the wooded hills, I noticed the view was unspoiled, almost primeval. And it made me wonder: Is this what Henry Hudson saw when he first sailed up the river all those years ago, in 1609?

     Hudson was English, but sailed under the Dutch flag. He was looking for the Northwest Passage to the Far East, but soon decided this particular waterway was not the answer. The next year he tried again, sailing farther north until his ship got stuck in the ice. His crew mutinied, leaving Captain Hudson and a few of his followers behind in a small boat with scant provisions. Hudson froze to death, not knowing people would name a great river after him, and a great bay, as well as a city, and many streets, schools, restaurants, neighborhoods.

     Hudson had claimed the area around the river for the Dutch. So in 1624 a group of Dutchmen -- following on the heels of some Pilgrims who had gone to Massachusetts four years earlier -- embarked for the lands marked out by Hudson.

     The Dutch settlers sailed under Captain Cornelius May -- for whom Cape May, NJ, is named. They nosed into what they called the North River and landed at Mannahata, or the "hilly island." One contingent of colonists then set out again for what they called the South River (today the Delaware River), and another went northeast to settle on the Fresh River (today the Connecticut River). And thus the Dutch established their colony of New Netherland, situated between one English colony to the north, and another to the south in Virginia.

     The settlements on the Fresh River and the South River were always secondary, as the Dutch focused on developing New Amsterdam as a main shipping point for overseas trade. The leader of the colony, Peter Minuit, negotiated a deal with various local tribes regarding Mannahata. Minuit paid out 60 guilders worth of goods (calculated by one historian, at one point, to be the equivalent of $24). But there was a slight misunderstanding. Minuit thought he was purchasing the island. The tribal leaders thought they were simply giving the Dutch the right to live on the island, and hunt and farm along with all the other people.

     The Dutch settled in peacefully and developed a thriving fur trade. They established another settlement about 150 miles upriver, called Fort Orange, as a trading post. They were more tolerant than the Puritans who had established a rigid theocracy in Massachusetts. Mannahata became a commercial hub where people of many nationalities and religious persuasions came to live and trade. A number of people who didn't fit into the Puritan way of life drifted down from Massachusetts to the more liberal New Amsterdam.

     One was Deborah Moody, who was run out of Massachusetts because she espoused the heretical view that people should not be baptized until they were old enough to understand its meaning. Along with a few of her followers, she settled on a plot of land in what was then called Breuckelen, on the southwestern tip of Lange Eylandt. Moody thus became the first woman to establish a settlement in the New World.

     Yet the Dutch were no saints. They were avid participants in the Atlantic slave trade, and they either wiped out or forced out many of the indigenous peoples of the region.

     But the Dutch did bring the first inklings of democracy to the New World. In Europe, the Dutch had rebelled against the Spanish crown. The provinces had joined together to form a kind of republic. Encouraged by rationalists like Rene Descartes, the French philosopher living in the Netherlands, the jurist Hugo Grotius, and a swirl of intellectuals around the University of Leiden, the Dutch were beginning to believe that people could govern themselves, rather than be subjects of a divine monarch. They believed in hard work, and earning an honest guilder. They rejected the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church and thought the English preoccupation with witches was somewhere between paranoia and hysteria.

     New Amsterdam, on the island of Mannahata, was a freewheeling city, even after the dictatorial Peter Stuyvesant, who'd lost a leg fighting in the Caribbean, came to crack down on the colonists and bring more order to the colony. The settlement around the South River was lost to the Swedes (led, ironically, by the deposed Peter Minuit), who came to stake their claim in the New World. The area around the Fresh River was overrun by English fleeing persecution in Massachusetts.

     Eventually, peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant was forced to cede control of New Netherland to the English, when their well-armed ships sailed into the harbor in 1664. England and the Netherlands, two great European powers, were at odds for most of the century. And with this show of force, King Charles handed over these lands to the Duke of York, who of course renamed New Amsterdam after himself.

     So the 40-year colonial empire of the Dutch came to an end, and the Dutch were all but forgotten as the history of the colony was written by the English. Yet the Dutch are remembered, if not for their nascent democratic values, by many place names, from the cities of Rensselaer, Batavia and Amsterdam in upstate New York, to the Catskill Mountains, to Yonkers, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and Staten Island . . . as well as Hoboken, NJ, and the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.

     Not to mention the Dutch forays into the Far East. But that's another story, which I will report on if and when I ever go to New Zealand (named after the Dutch province of Zeeland) or Tasmania (named after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman).

     Now . . . just a note to my children:  No, I do not know this history simply because I remember it. Despite what you might think, I was not around in the early 1600s. After I got home from the Shakespeare Festival I found I was more moved by the river than the play, so I got a book from the library, The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto -- and so I learned a little more about the river that flows by every day.

7 comments:

DJan said...

Fascinating to learn how New York and all those other places got their names. I think I'll have to read that book, it sounds very interesting, Tom. Thanks for another great history lesson. :-)

rosaria williams said...

And that's how we keep learning, one thing leading to another, and having the time to engage in new pursuits.

gigihawaii said...

Fascinating post. Thank you for this.

Olga Hebert said...

I used to live in Hyde Park, NY. Nice to hear about the history. This is the kind of book Mike liked to read and tell me all about it, saving me the bother of reading it myself, so thanks for the history lesson.

Stephen Hayes said...

Thanks for this history lesson. After we became independent from England we reverted back to our Dutch roots by drinking coffee instead of tea and adopting St. Nick instead of Father Christmas.

Linda Myers said...

I was pretty impressed with your knowledge about the history of this region. Very relieved to know you used a reference!

Jono said...

Growing up in Delaware I learned a bit about the Dutch influence there. Many places and natural features still have Dutch names.