Meuwese on Burke Jr, 'Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710' and Jacobs, 'The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America' and Panetta, 'Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture'

Thomas E. Burke Jr. Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710. Second Edition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. Maps, figures, tables. xxiv + 252 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4384-2706-5.Jaap Jacobs. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Maps, illustrations. xi + 332 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-7516-0.Roger G. Panetta, ed. Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture. New York: Hudson River Museum/Fordham University Press, 2009. Maps, illustrations. 450 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-3039-6; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-3040-2.

Reviewed by Mark Meuwese
Published on H-Low-Countries (September, 2010)
Commissioned by Douglas Palmer

Making Sense of Dutch New York

For most Americans the seventeenth-century Dutch colony of New Netherland remains a largely unfamiliar episode in the colonial history of what later would become the United States. While many Americans identify Puritan New England and Virginia with their colonial past, New Netherland never became part of American public memory. One reason for this historical amnesia is New Netherland’s short existence. In 1664, after a period of some forty years, the Dutch colony was conquered by the English and renamed New York. Although most Dutch colonists continued to live in New York and neighboring New Jersey, the English quickly erased Dutch legal and administrative customs. Descendants of the Dutch colonists continued to speak Dutch and worship at Dutch Reformed churches for more than a century after 1664. However, by the early nineteenth century the Dutch in New York and New Jersey were fully integrated in American society. The extent of Dutch assimilation was best demonstrated by the election of Martin Van Buren, a descendant of seventeenth-century Dutch settlers, as America’s eighth president (1837-41). Ironically, just as the Dutch blended into the American melting pot, Washington Irving, one of America’s first literary figures, drew public attention to the Dutch colonial period in American history by publishing in 1809 a humorous account of New Netherland. Irving’s fanciful depiction of the Dutch colonists as lazy and addicted to pipe smoking had a pervasive influence on American views of New Netherland into the twentieth century. Irving’s stereotyping contributed to the American perception that New Netherland was a colorful but insignificant episode in American colonial history.

It is only since the last few decades that historians on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to reinterpret the history of New Netherland. Driven by new questions about the past and by an appreciation for the ethnic diversity of colonial America, historians discovered New Netherland and the subsequent history of the Dutch in New York and New Jersey as evidence of the cultural mosaic that made up American society from its inception. Additionally, a more critical use of the seventeenth-century Dutch records located in New York and in the Netherlands, enabled historians to correct many misconceptions about New Netherland. It is in this context of a modest scholarly revival of New Netherland studies that public and scholarly commemorations were held in New York and the Netherlands in 2009 to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the voyage of Henry Hudson to the New York river that was named after him. Hudson was an English sea captain who sailed in service of the Dutch East India Company. After Hudson’s return to Europe Dutch fur traders quickly began to operate in coastal New York and the Hudson River. In 1624 the Dutch West India Company dispatched the first group of permanent European settlers to New Netherland. Since 1909 Hudson’s voyage has been celebrated by New Yorkers as the starting point of their state’s history. As is discussed by Roger G. Panetta in Dutch New York, Hudson’s voyage of 1609 supplied New York with important historical credentials similar to New England and Virginia. Although the celebration of Hudson’s voyage relegated the history of the indigenous peoples of New York to the sidelines, the year of Hudson’s arrival in New York Bay remains a convenient way for the public and for scholars to mark the beginning of New York’s colonial history. As part of the quadricentennial of Hudson’s expedition in 2009 a number of scholarly publications about New Netherland and Dutch New York appeared, three of which are under review here.

The first book, by Thomas Burke Jr., was originally published in 1991. A second edition was published in 2009, presumably to coincide with the Hudson quadricentennial although no mention of this is made by William A. Starna in the introduction to Burke’s book. The topic of Burke’s study is a detailed examination of the community of Schenectady, a small Dutch town located along the Mohawk River in Upstate New York, from its founding in 1661 until the early eighteenth century. Schenectady, a term derived from the indigenous Mohawk Iroquois language meaning “it is beyond the pines,” was founded by Dutch colonists from the nearby communities of Beverwijck (now Albany) and Rensselaerswijck who sought better access to the fur trade with the Mohawks. Dutch trade with the Mohawks had declined in the late 1650s and by locating Schenectady a day’s walk from the closest Mohawk village the Dutch hoped to secure access to a steady supply of beaver furs. Other considerations for the founding of the town included a need for more agricultural land as New Netherland’s growing population desired a good food supply. Schenectady suffered a major disaster when a French-Canadian force, augmented by indigenous allies of the French, sacked the town in 1690, killing sixty and capturing twenty-seven residents. The French targeted Schenectady because they rightly suspected that the Dutch colonists supplied material aid to the Iroquois Five Nations who were major enemies of New France during the late seventeenth century. Burke ends his study in the early eighteenth century when Schenectady lost its frontier character. During this period the fur trade of colonial New York moved westward and English and German settlers arrived in the region.

Burke is mostly interested in the social and economic development of the Dutch town. According to Burke, Schenectady from its inception was a community in which individual pursuits of economic gain played a dominant role. The town became increasingly divided in two halves with one controlling access to the most fertile agricultural lands and the other half trying to gain access to them. Burke ignores the Dutch identity and culture of the town’s residents. In its emphasis on social-economic issues, Burke’s study reflects historical scholarship on colonial North America from the 1980s. The book’s research and writing was clearly done before the rise of cultural history and before the emergence of Atlantic history in the 1990s. Also notably missing is a strong focus on indigenous-Dutch interactions. Although Schenectady’s residents were close neighbors of the Mohawks, Dutch relations with the Mohawks remain peripheral to Burke’s analysis. Burke’s study of Schenectady is firmly rooted in community studies, which were influential in scholarship on colonial American history during the 1970s and 1980s.

The second book, The Colony of New Netherland by Jaap Jacobs, differs significantly from Burke’s work. Whereas Burke limited himself to a detailed study of one Dutch community, Jacobs focuses on a comprehensive study of New Netherland. Jacobs’s book has an interesting publishing history. It was originally published in Dutch as the author’s dissertation at Leiden University in 1999. In 2005, the book was published in English with Brill publishers. It has now been published with Cornell University Press as an affordable paperback. The most recent edition remains similar in organization and execution to the earlier English and Dutch editions. Following a brief chapter on the region’s indigenous peoples, the natural environment, and the early fur trade before 1624, Jacobs examines in six thematic chapters the population, government, economy, religion, social stratification, and cultural life of the Dutch colony from 1624 until the era of the English conquest. Jacobs’s findings heavily rely on painstaking research in Dutch and New York archives.   

The book by Jacobs has two main objectives. First, Jacobs wants to trace the development of New Netherland from a trading post to a settlement colony. Until the growth of the Dutch colony on the South African Cape in the late seventeenth century, New Netherland remained the only settlement colony in the Dutch overseas world throughout the preindustrial era. Because of its unique character, New Netherland was frequently plagued by governmental problems pitting the European colonists against the administration controlled by the West India Company. Second, Jacobs examines the differences and similarities of New Netherland from the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. In many ways New Netherland was remarkably similar to the republic. Although a large percentage of the European population of New Netherland consisted of German, Scandinavian, and English settlers, political institutions, social conditions, and cultural practices in the colony were all closely modeled on their counterparts in the republic. Because Jacobs’s study is firmly rooted in scholarship on the seventeenth-century Dutch world, it corrects many misconceptions about the colony that are held by Americans. One weak aspect about the book is that it treats New Netherland as an autonomous region that developed without much interaction with its indigenous American and European colonial neighbors. Because of the author’s focus on the colonists the indigenous peoples unfortunately appear as passive characters. This is especially evident when Jacobs discusses Dutch attempts to introduce Calvinism among the indigenous peoples. No attempt is made to explain why the Mohawks or other indigenous peoples largely rejected the Dutch efforts. Despite this criticism, this book is an authoritative study of New Netherland that is indispensable for anyone interested in the colony.

The third and final book, Dutch New York, is a collection of thirteen essays directly connected to the Hudson quadricentennial. This beautifully illustrated book was published in conjunction with an exhibit on the history and culture of Dutch New York held at the Hudson River Museum in the city of Yonkers in New York in 2009. The contributors to the collection are historians, anthropologists, museum curators, and art historians. As the book covers four centuries of the Dutch presence in New York, the strength of the essays depends on the reader’s particular chronological interests. The essays are divided in five chronological parts. The first part, “The Planting,” discusses aspects of seventeenth-century New Netherland, including indigenous-Dutch land transfers and the experiences of African slaves who lived with a prominent Dutch family in colonial New York. The second part contains three essays that examine Dutch architecture, Protestantism, and material culture in the eighteenth-century Hudson Valley. In the third part, the focus is on the various ways in which nineteenth-century Americans, such as author Irving and painter John Quidor, portrayed New Netherland. The fourth part, “Searching for Heritage,” describes how twentieth-century Americans used the legacy of New Netherland for their own purposes. Prominent New Yorkers held up the seventeenth-century Dutch Protestant colonists as ideal Americans to emulate by the Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who entered the United States in large numbers at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Dutch colonists of New Netherland were portrayed as people who cherished democracy, education, and toleration. In the fifth and final part, historian David Voorhees discusses the enduring political and cultural legacy of Dutch New York. According to Voorhees, the political factionalism of the seventeenth-century Dutch colonists not only shaped New York politics but also contributed to the emergence of the two-party system in American national politics.

Although the three books reviewed here have different objectives, it is interesting to note that Jacobs disagrees with the arguments of Voorhees as well as other contributors to Dutch New York who claim that the Dutch colonists introduced such concepts as tolerance and democracy to North America. Jacobs demonstrates that the secular and religious authorities of New Netherland were far from tolerant toward Lutherans, Quakers, and Jews. Jacobs correctly warns about reading contemporary values in the seventeenth-century Dutch colony. For Jacobs New Netherland should be studied on its own historical terms. The ongoing discussion between those favoring the argument of Jacobs and those supportive of the view of Voorhees ensures that New Netherland and Dutch New York continue to be fascinating topics for further historical study.

Printable Version:

Citation: Mark Meuwese. Review of Burke Jr, Thomas E., Mohawk Frontier: The Dutch Community of Schenectady, New York, 1661-1710 and Jacobs, Jaap, The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America and Panetta, Roger G., ed., Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture. H-Low-Countries, H-Net Reviews. September, 2010.

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