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Ask a historian: Where in New York did the Dutch settle?

September 3, 2019 John B. Manbeck
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MZLJV asks: Where did the Dutch settle? Who were they?

Good to know. Some of them were our neighbors.

The Dutch, our original New Yorkers, arrived in the New World as merchants. According to Russell Shorto in his must-read history, “The Island at the Center of the World,” the Dutch East India Company — later Dutch West India Company — had sent traders in 1624 to Nut Island, now Governors Island, to establish a commercial beachhead.

They soon discovered that the neighboring larger island, Manhattan, provided more space — not only for the traders, but for the “explorers, entrepreneurs, pirates, prostitutes, and assorted scalawags from different parts of Europe.” They renamed the island New Amsterdam.

The Netherlands, at the time, held an international reputation as an intellectual center of civilized society. While they had been under control of the Spanish empire, and therefore an enemy of England, the Dutch embodied values of liberty, justice and equality. These virtues continued in the New World. The English, under the dictator Oliver Cromwell, did not respect democratic values. Their colony was a theocracy, not a democracy.

The English had settled in New England. From 1624 to 1664, the Dutch controlled parts of New York City, parts of New Jersey, parts of New England and western New York. Quite a bit of real estate.

Basically, New Amsterdam occupied the area south of Canal Street, which quickly became crowded. The colony was ruled by governors or directors appointed from Amsterdam. Some names are familiar: Peter Minuet, Willem Kieft and Peter Stuyvesant, who is buried in Manhattan.

Gov. Kieft declared war on the Native Americans, who supplied traders with fur pelts, and then he invited English to settle in the outlands as a buffer against attacks on New Amsterdam: Anne Hutchinson in Pelham Bay; The Rev. Francis Doughty in Long Island (Queens); and Lady Deborah Moody in Gravesend. Hutchinson and her followers were massacred; Doughty fled to the safety of Manhattan; Moody, the first woman leader, abandoned her palisaded-fortress until the war was over.

While Stuyvesant is the best known and the most powerful, Shorto indicates that Adriaen Van der Donck, has been overlooked by history but was a revolutionary of his time, “The People’s Champion.” Nan Beech, an infamous prostitute, strolled the streets of the city.

Breuckelen (Brooklyn) offered an escape from the turmoil of Manhattan. A ferry operated by Cornelius Dirckland provided transport across the East River. The fervent farmland beckoned as a respite from Manhattan’s business and as an agrarian haven. The towns developed — five of them in what became Kings County after 1664.

Of course, the oldest Dutch farmhouse in New York City and New York State is the Pieter Wyckoff Homestead in Flatbush. It has been preserved. Another is the Ryder-Bennett Homestead on Kings Highway in private hands. The Lott House on East 36 Street, the main house of a farm that stretched to Sheepshead Bay, is run by the Parks Department.

Many of the streets in Brooklyn Heights are named for original Dutch settlers. An original settler, Hezekiah Pierrepont own most of the land and had gridded it for settlement in the 1820s. Middagh, Joralemon and Remsen are all Dutch names.

But Russell Shorto’s book is the ultimate and fascinating source for a study of the machinations of a town called New Amsterdam, “the epic story of Dutch Manhattan and the forgotten colony that shaped America.”

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 


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