A Tale of Two Governors
The Dutch established a profitable trade with the Indians of New Netherland during the 1620s and 1630s—a period (as we shall see in the next chapter) during which New England settlers were locked in bloody war with their Native American neighbors. It wasn’t that the Dutch were kinder and gentler than the English, but that, at first, they were interested in trading rather than settling down on farms. Once the local supply of beavers (whose pelts were the principal trade commodity) became depleted due to overhunting, the Dutch also started to stake out farms, thereby displacing the Indians.
By 1638, when Willem Kieft (1597-1647) arrived in New Netherland as the colony’s fifth governor, two intimately related truths were operative: Violence between the Dutch and Indians was frequent, and aggressive territorial expansion had become a prime Dutch objective. Kieft was appalled by the condition of New Amsterdam. Its defenses were practically nonexistent, and its capacious harbor boasted only one seaworthy vessel. Assuming dictatorial powers, he made sweeping reforms in civil and military administration. Among these was a heavy tax imposed on the local Indians in return for defending them against “hostiles”—mainly the Mohawks. In truth, the Mohawks had become important trading partners with the Dutch and were now allies—henchmen, really—whom Kieft deliberately used to terrorize other tribes. The “defense” tax was actually protection money, and Kieft was behaving no better than a gangster.
When the Raritan Indians, living near New Amsterdam, refused to pay the protection money in 1641 and attacked an outlying Dutch colony, Kieft declared brutal war on them. Two years later, he put the squeeze on the Wappinger Indians, who lived along the Hudson River above Manhattan. To convince them of the wisdom of paying tribute, he unleashed the Mohawks on them. The Wappingers fled down to Pavonia (present-day Jersey City, New Jersey), just across the Hudson from Manhattan. Failing to understand the situation, they appealed to Kieft for aid. In response, he dispatched the Mohawks to Pavonia, then sent Dutch troops in to finish off the refugees. During the night of February 25-26, 1643, Dutch soldiers killed men, women, and children in what was later called the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” The heads of 80 Indians were brought back to New Amsterdam, where soldiers and citizens used them as footballs. Thirty prisoners were publicly tortured to death.
Following the atrocity, 11 local tribes united in waging war against the settlers of New Netherland. Kieft frantically parleyed with the Indians, fruitlessly seeking peace. His own colony, panic-stricken, threatened rebellion. At last, in 1645, the Dutch West India Company recalled Kieft to Holland and replaced him with a crotchety one-legged son of a Calvinist minister, Peter Stuyvesant.
The autocratic Stuyvesant immediately set about whipping the colony into shape, restricting the sale of alcohol and persecuting Quakers and Lutherans, whom he feared would lead the impending revolt. On the positive side, he tried earnestly to provide an honest and efficient administration, including a limited public works campaign of improving roads, repairing fences, constructing a wharf on the East River, and building a defensive wall on the northern edge of New Amsterdam along a “crosstown” pathway that would be named for it: Wall Street.
As to the Indians, Stuyvesant strove to reestablish trading relationships, but he continued Kieft’s policy of ruthlessness, especially against the Esopus, whose children he took and held as hostages in 1.659 to insure the tribe’s “good behavior.” And when the Esopus refused to yield all of their children as directed, Stuyvesant sold those he held into the West Indian slave trade. Their parents never saw them again.
It was, however, Stuyvesant’s despotism in governing the colony itself that led to the decay of his power, as the burghers of New Amsterdam clamored for increased self-government, which the West India Company finally granted them. Beyond the confines of New Netherland, Stuyvesant had mixed success in dealing with the colonies of other European powers, beginning with New Sweden.