Dutch villagers shaped what now is New York

In early 17th century, New Netherland stretched to Albany

April 28, 2002|By Paul Grondahl | Paul Grondahl,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - On April 10, 1652, a few hundred optimistic souls who harbored a dream of a better life in the New World - a motley assemblage of European nomads, social outcasts, gritty entrepreneurs and adventure-seekers - were granted a grubstake. It grew into a down payment on destiny.

With the stroke of a pen, the ancestors of Albany - today the New York state capital - were transformed from indentured servants into free agents.

A proclamation was read. The flag of the Rensselaerswijck patroonship, or large estate, was lowered and replaced with the Dutch West India Company's standard.

It was a perfunctory ceremony for a hard-won reprieve. A centuries-old feudal system was being eclipsed by a modern capitalist society.

The colonists-turned-villagers were released from the oath they had sworn to the patroon - the person who had manorial control over the land - and joined the Dutch West India Company's side with an opportunity to own property for the first time.

It was a long journey that began with a treacherous ocean-crossing many didn't survive. Initial euphoria of reaching the soil of New Netherland, what is now Manhattan and along the Hudson River, was soon tempered.

Through brutal winters and raging spring floods, the colonists endured years toiling as the Dutch patroon's feudal farmers and itinerant craftsmen. They confronted chronic disease, seasonal food shortages, the devastating consequences of frequent fires and an ever-present specter of attack by the French, English and Indians.

Not to mention cutthroat competition and an undercurrent of graft marked by smuggling, payoffs, tax evasion and loan defaults.

Through these tribulations, the common folk took refuge in religion, rum and the boozy camaraderie of the tavern.

Laboring for themselves

With the dawn of Beverwijck, modern-day Albany, long-suffering colonists became landowners and citizens of a bona fide village. For the first time, they labored for themselves instead of for the enrichment of the patroon.

Suddenly empowered, these Beverwijckians put down firm roots that defined Albany across the centuries as a river settlement, trading crossroads, training ground for merchants and bankers and seat of state government.

Of the advance European settlements in the New World, the Dutch community of Beverwijck was one of the earliest and most culturally and socially complex.

The creation of Beverwijck was the endgame in a four-year feud for control between Dutch West India Company Director-General Peter Stuyvesant and Brant van Slichtenhorst, director of the patroonship of Rensselaerswijck.

The dueling claims did not begin with those two strong and uncompromising personalities, though. The dispute reached back to the early 1600s, when intrepid Dutch trader Hendrik Christiansen arrived a few years after Henry Hudson turned his ship Half Moon around at Albany in 1609, thwarted in his search for a Northwest passage.

Despite the mission's failure, Hudson's dispatch to his Dutch patrons raved about opportunities to exploit the region's abundant wildlife and natural resources. Christiansen heeded Hudson's enthusiasm and became the first European to build here - a crude, bark-covered trading house with the grandiose title of Fort Nassau.

Christiansen headed a long line of savvy (and occasionally unsavory) middlemen in the Dutch West India Company. These managers melded the sailing expertise of their countrymen and the trapping skills of Native Americans. They cornered the lucrative beaver trade in an era when the coveted fur of high fashion had been hunted out across Europe.

The first patroon

On a parallel commercial track, Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the first patroon, envisioned cultivating grain across a wide swath of the fertile mid-Hudson River Valley and creating a kind of breadbasket for the world. A former farmer who made it rich as a diamond merchant in Amsterdam, Van Rensselaer was a director of the Dutch West India Company. He was also an enthusiastic promoter of the patroonship plan, a form of early privatization.

Patroons acted as proprietors of large estates with manorial rights in the New World under a grant from the Dutch government.

While other patroonships in the New World hemorrhaged money and eventually shut down, Van Rensselaer's Rensselaerswijck would be the last patroonship standing. In fact, it flourished because of the first patroon's agricultural expertise and his penchant for micromanaging the smallest detail of the 1-million-acre expanse he ran from across the Atlantic - never setting foot himself in New Netherland.

Yet with prosperity in the Netherlands at that time, Rensselaerswijck was a hard sell. The patroon tried many enticements, including a finder's fee, as he struggled to recruit a critical mass of workers to make the colony profitable.

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