Most people think that the United States is a daughter of Great Britain. That’s largely true, because the thirteen colonies that revolted against British rule were all English-speaking colonies on the Atlantic coast. It’s true that what became the United States derives its language, legal structure, and much of its culture from Britain. In addition, a sizable fraction of the American population has roots in England, Scotland, Wales and both parts of Ireland.
However, significant regions of what eventually became the U.S. have some other roots. Among the other colonial powers involved were the French, Spanish, Russians. And the Dutch.
The Dutch colonial effort in North America stems from the explorations of Henry Hudson, as he is known in English. He explored the mid-Atlantic coast, the Hudson Valley. The big navigable river that flows from New York City into the interior of New York is called the Hudson, named after him. The Dutch followed up Hudson’s explorations by setting up a colony in 1609. The colony was called New Netherland, and its capital was New Amsterdam.
New Netherland extended up the Hudson River as far as what is now New York State’s capitol, Albany, which the Dutch called Fort Orange. It also extended to parts of Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut. One of the main economic activities was the very valuable trade in beaver pelts. The Dutch in Ft. Orange siphoned off beaver skins that otherwise would have gone to New France, allowing the tribal peoples to play the Dutch off against the French, and to obtain firearms from the Dutch. The Dutch fought wars with the Indians, conquered the small colonial effort called New Sweden, and settled farmers in the Hudson Valley all the way up to Albany.
Then in 1664 the English came calling, and took over New Netherland in a bloodless conquest. New Amsterdam, then a town at the southern end of what is now Manhattan, became New York City, named after the Duke of York, brother of King Charles II, who became king as James II. James II was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. In a touch of irony, James II was replaced by Queen Mary, and William, her Dutch husband.
When New Amsterdam surrendered, the English guaranteed that the Dutch colonists could keep practicing their culture, religion and language. Newly named New York City, it prospered because of its superb harbor, because of the deep navigable river connection with the interior, and because of its strategic location. It grew to be one of the three most important cities in the colonies, along with Boston and Philadelphia. The Dutch had a difficult time attracting Dutch settlers, so they let in a wide diversity of people settle the city. New York City has been America’s most diverse urban area for almost 400 years.
By itself, that’s not so exceptional. However, the Dutch influence remained remarkably strong for centuries after the English took over the colony. Dutch continued to be spoken well into the 1800s. President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) spoke Dutch as a child and did not learn English until his teens. The famous Black woman feminist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) began as a slave on a Hudson Valley farm and grew up speaking Dutch. The original Dutch colony had a complicated system of peasant farmers owing rent payments to gentry called “patroons,” a system that lasted into the 1800s and caused class and land issues to make New York politics different from the other states.
The Dutch influence shows up in some remarkable ways. The term “Yankee” originated as the Dutch name of a part of New Amsterdam, and came to describe the North in the American Civil War, as well as used all over the world to describe Americans. A second way is the Dutch figure of Christmas, who became known as Santa Claus, and is now the principal figure in the American Christmas. Santa Claus was given his iconic form by a German immigrant named Thomas Nast, who became a notable graphic artist. Nast did Christmas covers for 25 years for the influential New York Harper’s Magazine, through which his drawings of Santa Claus became iconic.
The Dutch influence is also indirectly known through the famous stories by the American author Washington Irving (1783-1859) who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle,” both of which are set in the Dutch colonial time. Both stories appear in the collection of Irving’s stories called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gentleman. They were allegedly written by one of Irving’s creations named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Fans of the New York Knicks, a National Basketball Association, will know the team names comes from Irving’s character.
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