Winter 2010 | Volume 59, Issue 4
The British seize Manhattan from the Dutch—and alter the trajectory of North American history
On September 5, 1664, two men faced one another across a small stretch of water. Onshore, just outside the fort at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, stood Peter Stuyvesant, director-general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, his 52-year-old frame balanced on the wooden stump where he had lost a leg in battle a quarter century earlier. Approaching him aboard a small rowboat flying a flag of truce was John Winthrop, governor of the Connecticut colony, until very recently a man Stuyvesant had called his friend.
For 17 years Stuyvesant had managed the Dutch settlement in North America. The colony’s origins dated to 1609, when Englishman Henry Hudson had charted the area on behalf of the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch had laid claim to a wide swath of the East Coast. At its height, New Netherland covered an area encompassing all or parts of five future states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. From its second city, Beverwijck—the future Albany—residents traded for beaver pelts and other furs with Indians. Goods traveled down the Hudson River to the capital of New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island for transshipment to Europe. The colonists also grew tobacco for the European market, and New Amsterdam functioned as a port for English ships from Virginia and New England.
The colony existed in a state of constant struggle. Indians threatened it, and so did the English. Thanks largely to the English Civil Wars, people had fled England in large numbers for the colonies in New England and Virginia, and as their numbers swelled they encroached on the boundaries of New Netherland.
Stuyvesant, meanwhile, had to work with an unusually mixed society. In the 1640s the 500 colonists in New Amsterdam communicated in 18 languages. To deal with this diversity, the city’s elders formulated an official policy of tolerance, a genuine anomaly in Europe at the time. Along with tolerance, the Dutch also introduced 17th-century capitalism. The inhabitants were vigorous traders: carpenters, wheelwrights, and even prostitutes bought shares in shipments of goods being transported to the home country.
In addition to mediating between inhabitants and the company officials, Stuyvesant found himself begging Amsterdam for soldiers and ships to protect the colony from encroachment. Failing to get these, he negotiated treaties with the New England governors; his most trusted ally became Winthrop.
He had believed Winthrop’s claim in 1661 that the English had no designs on the colony. But in London other plans were afoot. In the wake of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, Charles II had set about reorganizing the American colonies. He intended to restrict the power of the Puritans and also to make a play for the Dutch colony. The Puritan Winthrop found the first part of this strategy hard to swallow. But he understood the new political reality, fell in line behind the king, and agreed to be an emissary for the crown. Charles granted his brother James, the Duke of York, title over the land that encompassed the Dutch colony. He sent a flotilla of four ships and 2,000 men.
Stuyvesant was clearly outmatched: he could muster only 150 soldiers and had no gunpowder for his cannons. A letter arrived from Richard Nicolls, commander of the flotilla, demanding surrender. Despite the odds, Stuyvesant wanted to fight.
At that moment, Winthrop rowed ashore and handed his former friend a letter granting generous terms. When the townsfolk learned of the offer, they wanted to surrender. Stuyvesant argued against it, but he was forced to capitulate in the end.
As it happened, it was fortunate for the city—whose name was changed forthwith to New York after the duke’s title—that it had gotten its start under the Dutch. The Dutch imprinted their tolerance and free trading into its DNA, ensuring that New York would grow along a different trajectory from the rest of British North America. In time these dynamics would lead to New York’s distinctively multiethnic, upwardly mobile culture. And because New York would have a vast impact on the growing United States, the seeds of that Dutch influence would take root in places thousands of miles from where they had originally been sown, and grow in ways that Stuyvesant and Winthrop, as they came together on that late summer day in 1664, could not possibly have foreseen.