New Netherland In a Nutshell: A Concise History of the Dutch
Colony in North America
Firth Haring Fabend
It’s always easy for me, in the months when the year seems to be collapsing in on itself, to recede into a cocoon of learning. I may not much fancy human company, but I never avoid a book.
Not even one as oxymoronically subtitled as this one.
Concise history indeed. The very notion is suspect and the reality is something different altogether. Even though the formal Dutch presence in North America was of limited duration, you can’t do it any sort of justice in a mere 125 pages.
Intellectually, I know that. As I recall, the 7th grade social studies curriculum in New York used to focus on the state’s history. I’d bet my textbook spent more space on the Dutch period than this slim volume, which I can’t in good conscience even call a monograph. Maybe I should just accept the truth in labeling and call it a nutshell.
For what it’s worth, the author knows this, too. Almost at the outset she notes that her space is limited. Actually, she notes a lot of things that make this volume just a wee bit peculiar. First, it’s what I’d call a sponsored-volume (It hardly qualifies as a study), produced under the auspices of the New Netherland Institute, an entity I had not previously heard of.
That sponsorship really amounts to contracting for the services of the author. Firth Haring Fabend genuinely holds a PhD in American studies, she’s just unaffiliated in a formal way with any faculty. In a way she’s a scholar for hire which I didn’t think was possible. Then again, history majors risk becoming an endangered species, so maybe this is the wave of the future rolling in.
All of this to say, there are limitations at play here. And they show up in odd, mostly editorial, ways. Here’s the beginning of a sentence from page 34 : “That death was the punishment for this crime and also that informers were to be rewarded so (sic) handsomely…” The sic is mine because there’s no previous mention–in the book let alone the paragraph–of any reward.
It’s a little thing, but the type a strong copy editor should catch. There’s a reason publishers put editorial teams in place and I’m guessing that’s an expense the Institute may have trimmed to a single person. Because a strong editor, not a copy editor (although a good one would have), should have killed this inelegant pair of sentences from the same page:
“In a crime story, it is a given that, if a gun is mentioned in the first chapter, it must go off before the last. This mention of guns and gunpowder alerts to the warfare ahead in New Netherland.” p. 34
It would be fair, right about now, to start thinking about what a snob I am. Such things, though, get in the way of the pleasure a book brings and so I think it’s fair to mention them.
Especially since the story itself is so brief. If you’re new to these parts this book will provide a quick explanation as to why you find yourself surrounded by odd words such as Bergen, Haverstraw, Brooklyn, Bronx, Van Cortlandt, Rensselaer, Varick and Gansevoort.
Grow up here and such names are as common as the (very) local architecture shown nearby. Come from any place else in the country, where the initial settlement patterns were set by English, Scots-Irish or German immigrants and they may strike you as a bit alien.
The names, in fact, are the least of it. Dr. Fabend’s most valuable service is conveying that almost from the outset the behaviors that are quintessentially (and also stereotypically) associated with New York were part and parcel of the place.
Despite the best efforts of the Dutch West India Company at imposing uniformity, the population grew to be a mixed bag of Dutch and other Europeans along with slaves, some Native Americans and even a few Sephardic Jews, come by way of the Caribbean. Facing encroachment by the English from the north and south, New Amsterdam became famously fixated on making a buck, having an attitude and avoiding a fight they couldn’t win. I chalk our native attitude up to cultural persistence, an idea I have a deep-seated belief in that interests academicians not one whit.
The usual suspects are here. Henry Hudson exploring the harbor and river. Peter Minuit buying Manhattan island and, later, causing trouble for his former employers by planting Swedish colonies on the banks of the lower Delaware River. Willem Kleift starting an Indian war.
Mostly there’s Petrus Stuyvesant, imposing by force of will as much order as was possible upon the colony. In some ways the most surprising fact was that when three armed British frigates arrived, Stuyvesant negotiated the turnover of the colony to the British with the ruthless efficiency of a McKinsey consultant.
The book mostly focuses on New Amsterdam, though Albany and New Jersey figure in the tale. (New Netherland, the Dutch claimed, ran from the Connecticut to the Delaware Rivers.) The in-between towns go missing. There’s passing mention of the towns that became Kingston and Hurley but nary a word of Poughkeepsie, now the largest town between Yonkers (Dutch again) and Albany.
There are also some things I’d like to learn more about but will have to turn elsewhere to do so. For one, I’m fascinated at the idea of the Third, let alone the first two, Esopus War(s), if only because I’ve spent so much time in that part of the Catskills. (Another of those Dutch words.) So I have my work cut out for me.
I did stumble across one previously obscured fact. When my family first moved to Long Island my parents bought a second-hand car from a seller in a town near Manhasset known as Munsey Park. I’d always assumed Munsey was one of those English types that dominated the Island’s North Shore communities.
Who knew it was an Anglicized hat tip to the Munsee Indians?
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