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Thursday, August 2, 2018

August 2, 2018: 17th Century Histories: New Amsterdam


[On July 30th, 1676 Nathaniel Bacon issued his “Declaration in the Name of the People,” kicking off Bacon’s Rebellion. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that rebellion and other 17th century histories, leading up to a special weekend post on some of Virginia’s historic sites!]
On two ways the Dutch colonial city helps us rethink early American histories.
For forty years, New Amsterdam was the capital of the Dutch New Netherland colony in the Americas. After English explorer Henry Hudson (sailing at the time for the Dutch, who knew him as Hendrick Hudson) explored the area in 1609, a series of subsequent voyages and endeavors culminated in the May 1624 arrival of the ship New Netherland, carrying Dutch West India Company operative Cornelius Jacobsen Mey and thirty Dutch families who disembarked on Manhattan Island and established the first European settlement there (one subsequently legitimized by Peter Minuit’s famous or infamous 1626 purchase of the island from the Lenape Native American tribe for 60 Dutch guilders). The city would grow exponentially over the next few decades, and would remain the political capital of New Netherland until it was abruptly and illegally taken by the English in August 1664, an event that precipated the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) which culminated with the Treaty of Breda and the official handover of the city to the English and its renaming as New York (after the Duke of York, brother of the English King Charles II).
Those histories are crucial to better remembering the specifics of New York’s origins and evolution, a fact that one of the region’s first “historians,” Washington Irving’s alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker, knew well. But there are also broader effects to adding New Amsterdam to our national collective memories. For one thing, as I have argued in many different arenas including my second and third books, America’s origin points—however and wherever we locate them—are far more multicultural, multinational, and multilingual than many of our longstanding national narratives have posited. Even if there were no particularly tangible post-transition remnants of the Dutch in New York (which is not the case, on which more in a moment), there are of course precious few such remnants of any 17th century community or culture, and that has never stopped us (and should never stop us) from remembering communities like the Plimoth Plantation Puritans or Jamestown English colony as foundational parts of that early American landscape. While the stakes of shifting such collective memories of foundational American communities are particularly high when it comes to originating and longstanding Hispanic American ones like St. Augustine or San Diego, we should likewise consider the Dutch in New Amsterdam (along with the French in the Midwest, the Russians in Alaska, and many others) as part of that originating post-contact landscape.
Yet it’s also far from the case that the Dutch disappeared from the city as or after it became New York (no more than Mexicans did from San Diego’s Old Town after the 1850 US annexation of California, to cite one parallel example). I think there’s some collective knowledge of details like Wall Street’s Dutch origins, and thus of linguistic and memorial legacies of the city’s first European settlers into its post-transition identity. The same was true of many of the city’s physical spaces, such as Jan Van Bonnel’s East River saw mill that remained in operation after the transition before being purchased and turned into a leather mill a decade later by English settlers George Elphinstone and Abraham Shotwell. But I would argue that the most significant enduring presence—if also a far more difficult one to pin down—was of the people themselves; I find it very hard to believe that all of those by-then multigenerational Dutch settlers and families simply vacated the city after the transition (Van Bonnel certainly did not), and believe it much more likely that at least some (if not most) remained and became part of the evolving city of New York. Which is to say, a city like New Orleans is famous for how many different languages have always been spoken on its streets, but to my mind that’s a central part of the origin story of nearly all American cities, with New Amsterdam/New York prominent among them.
Last 17th century history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other early American histories you’d highlight?

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