Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wilderness on the Hudson: war, peace and farming in Dutch New Jersey

You might remember that a couple of years ago, we discovered the East Coast Greenway and wondered what it would be like to take the full 93 mile New Jersey portion. Well, we recently checked out the northernmost portion from the George Washington Bridge down a few miles along Bergen County's busy River Road.

Photo by Michael Herrick, Dec 11 2010,
courtesy HMDB.org
Due to Fort Lee's notoriously bad parking situation, we started the walk in Edgewater, with monk parakeets coasting and squawking overhead. As we threaded our way along sidewalks and narrow dirt paths, we noticed a blue historic marker just off the road alongside the driveway for the American Legion. The title alone - Vriessendael - transported us from the frenetic traffic of 21st century North Jersey to the peaceful woods of the 17th century wilderness of New Netherland.

We'd stumbled on the first known European-settled colony of what's now Bergen County.

Before we get into the Vriessendael connection, a little background is in order. Contrary to what most folks commonly believe, it wasn't the English who originally settled in what's now New Jersey. It was traders from the Netherlands, who arrived in 1624 as representatives of the Dutch West India Company. And unlike the English who'd originally come to the New World for religious reasons, the Dutch were primarily here to establish commerce and enlarge their sphere of trade.

You could probably say that at its roots, New York was America's first company town. Rather than having elected government or a religious leader, New Amsterdam, as it was called, was managed by the company, with a director essentially serving as the branch manager. After discovering the vast riches of beaver pelts, lumber and other natural resources to be had, the Dutch established trade with the local Lenape tribes, who were largely willing to do business. Thus was begun a complex, sometimes wary yet mutually-beneficial relationship between the newcomers and the natives.

A few years after setting up shop on Manhattan, the company started to present patroonships, or land grants, to its invested members as a way of encouraging settlement and building the colony's population. Like lords in the old English system, patroons had the right to hold their land in perpetuity in return for establishing the settlement (in the Dutch case, a minimum of 50 families within four years of the start of the colony). To ensure a civilized and orderly community, the patroon could appoint government officials and establish civil and criminal courts. Settlers were considered tenants of the patroon, working for him and paying tribute in the form of money, goods or services.

Sea captain and trader David deVries was among the patroons. As early as 1632, he established an initial but ultimately unsuccessful patroonship in present-day Delaware. Next, he tried a location in Staten Island, but became the unwitting victim of what might be termed a poor corporate takeover, attempted by a bad manager.

Willem Kieft, the new director of the New Netherland colony, was getting heat from company leadership in Amsterdam. Like today's corporate leaders, they were looking to cut costs for the colony, mostly in the form of security (the army in place to protect the colony), and in the payments the West Indies Company made to the native tribes for rights to use the land.

And true to what we see in modern corporate America, Kieft came up with a less-than optimal plan to appease the home office. Only problem was, it wasn't going to fly locally. First, against advice from folks who'd been in Manhattan much longer than he had, the striving director attempted to collect financial tribute from tribal chiefs. When they turned him down outright, Kieft attempted to get his way by accusing the Indians of theft and then sending soldiers to Staten Island to retaliate. The supposed theft? Pigs from David de Vries' patroonship. Angry natives then retaliated by raiding the property, burning down de Vries' house and killing four of his employees.

Kieft had set a pretty nasty precedent, antagonizing the Indians who vastly outnumbered the Europeans. As he became increasingly more bellicose, de Vries and others attempted to dissuade him from continuing hostilities, all to no avail. The Indians had been their friends for many years before Kieft had arrived in the colony, and many of the longtime settlers, including de Vries, started calling for the director's removal.

Through this time, de Vries forged ahead with his plans to create yet another patroonship, this time on the shores of the Hudson at present-day Edgewater. Vriessendael was established in 1640, as a plantation of corn and tobacco fields with the requisite accommodations for additional settlers. It lasted for three years, finally succumbing to one of the repeated warring disputes between Kieft's forces and the Lenape.

Finally thoroughly disgusted with the colony's leadership and Kieft's treatment of the Indians, de Vries left for Holland in 1643, never to return to New Netherlands. As for Kieft, he somehow lasted another four years before being fired by the Dutch West Indies Company. His bosses didn't even get a chance to call him out on the carpet: he died in a shipwreck on the way back to Holland to defend himself.

I think we can be pretty well assured that our future jaunts on the East Coast Greenway will uncover several more stories of New Jersey's past. Hopefully they'll be a bit happier for the folks involved.

For a more comprehensive history of the New Netherlands colony, I strongly recommend Russell Shorto's The Island at the Center of the World. Though it only mentions New Jersey's Dutch settlements in passing, it's a fascinating, thought-provoking work.



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