How the Dutch Made America

The 1619 Project’s examination of slavery’s origins in colonial Virginia reminds us that the Pilgrims were just one group of colonists in 17th America, not America’s founders.

In fact, four successful European settlements on future US soil preceded the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620. Those settlements were the Spanish in Florida (1565), the Spanish in New Mexico (1598), the English at Jamestown, Virginia (1607), and the French in Canada (1599-1608).

However, what I consider a more important group of colonists than the Pilgrims arrived in 1624 – the Dutch. To explain, 1624 was the year that Dutch Traders founded Fort Nassau at present-day Albany, New York. A year later, the Dutch established Fort Amsterdam on Manhattan Island.

Ultimately, Fort Amsterdam grew into New Amsterdam. In 1664 New Amsterdam became New York City. New York City grew into America’s largest and most important city.

Dutch America

The Dutch made three important contributions to American culture that still shape the modern United States.

Those contributions were capitalism, religious tolerance, and republican government. Unlike the Puritans, the Dutch were not seeking religious or political freedom (they came from a “free country”).

Instead, the Dutch came to trade, to buy valuable beaver furs from Native Americans. Thus, New Amsterdam was a trading emporium and not a refuge for religious dissenters. The goal at New Amsterdam was to do business and make money.

Hence, the Dutch established the belief that the “business of America is business.” The Dutch brought capitalism to America. In fact, they built Fort Amsterdam to protect the fur-buying operations of the Dutch West India Company.

Next, the Dutch brought republican government to America. Their colony, New Netherland was a provincial extension of the Dutch Republic. Thus, the Dutch established the precedent of a republican government in America. The Dutch created the first European polity in America that lacked a monarch or a hereditary aristocracy, a precedent that influenced the American revolution.

Freedom in Dutch America

Dramatically, New Netherland was a bastion of religious tolerance.

“The English were still hanging Quakers in Boston in the 1650s,” Charles Gehring notes. “The Dutch never hanged anyone for their religious beliefs. You could believe what you want.” Gehring is an expert on Dutch America and head of the New Netherlands Research Center.

By 1655 Dutch pastor Johannes Megapolensis wrote of seeing Papists (Roman Catholics), Mennonites, and Lutherans” walking the streets of New Amsterdam less than a decade after the Thirty Years War. Importantly, the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in summer 1654 less than a year before Megapolensis’s account.

In 1654, the first non-Christian religious refugees; 23 Jews from Recife, Brazil, arrived in New York. The Jews fled Recife, which had just fallen to Portuguese forces. The refuges feared the Inquisition would follow the Portuguese into Recife and start burning Jews at the stake.

Notably, the Dutch governor or director Peter Stuyvesant, tried to keep the Jews out of New York. However, Stuyvesant’s bosses in the Dutch West India Company overruled the Director. The Company’s executives thought the Jews’ business skills and money were more important than religious purity.

Hence, New Netherland was a commercial, republican, and secular state that became a template for the United States. New Netherland had Freedom of Religion almost 150 years before the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In contrast, the Spanish, French, and most of the English colonies in North America had established churches. In fact, it was illegal for non-Catholics, expect for Native Americans, to set foot in the Spanish or French New World colonies.

In English North America, just three of the 13 colonies; New York (the former New Netherland), Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania offered religious freedom before the Revolution. The rest of the colonies had government churches and laws restricting the rights of Catholics and religious dissenters.

The End of Dutch America

On 27 August 1664 Stuyvesant surrendered New Netherland to four British frigates, an event that sparked the Second Anglo-Dutch War. In June 1664, the British reincorporated New Amsterdam as New York City, named after the Duke of York.

The Duke of York was the younger brother of King Charles II and the future King James II of England. In the treaty of Breda in 1667, the Dutch officially traded New York for Suriname in South America.

During the Third Anglo-Dutch War in 1683, Dutch forces briefly occupied New York and renamed it New Orange after their commander and leader, Prince William of Orange. In the Treaty of Westminster in 1674, the Dutch once again traded New York to the British for Suriname in South America. In the 1670s, the Dutch considered Suriname, which was full of rich sugar plantations more valuable than New York City.

Thus, Dutch America ended with a business deal. However, to modern eyes the Dutch got the worst of the deal. The Dutch traded New York City for a malarial jungle in South America. Notably, Suriname is close to the place where the French later built Devil’s Island.

The Dutch presence in America remained and still shapes the United States. New York is still America’s largest, richest, and most important city. Tellingly, New York; not Boston remains America’s cultural, financial, and commercial center.

Moreover, the Dutch became one of America’s most important ethnic groups. Notably, there were three U.S. Presidents; Martin van Buren (D-New York), Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (D-New York) of direct Dutch descent. In fact, Van Buren was the only US president to grow up in a non-English speaking home, his parents spoke Dutch.

Sorry Pilgrims, the Dutch Started America

Hence, the Dutch helped make America. However, many Americans forget about the Dutch because their presence challenges the mythology of America as an Anglo-Saxon (British) nation.

In particular, the Dutch presence in America destroys the mythology that the Pilgrims founded America as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant “City on a Hill.” Instead, the Dutch launched America as a commercial venture.

Importantly America was a tolerant, secular, capitalist, and republican society from the beginning of northern European settlement. We need to rewrite our history to examine Dutch New Netherland and stop paying so much attention to the Pilgrim Fathers.

The truth is that the Dutch were building America while the Pilgrims were praying and hanging Quakers.