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The Middle Colonies: New York Previous Next
Digital History ID 3586


In 1648, after an eighty-year struggle, the Dutch Republic won its independence from Spanish rule. The seventeenth century was the Netherlands's golden age, during which the Dutch produced some of the world's greatest painters, like Rembrandt, great philosophers, like Spinoza, and great mathematicians and astronomers, like Christian Huygens. During the golden age, the Netherlands also developed a colonial empire with bases stretching from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Brazil to Aruba, the Antilles, and the southern tip of Africa. It was also the only western country permitted to trade with Japan. A major sea power, the Dutch in 1650 owned 16,000 of the 20,000 ships engaged in European commerce.

In an effort to find a sea route around the Americas to Asia, the Dutch East India Company sent Henry Hudson and a crew of 20 to search for a westward passage. On his third voyage, in 1611, Hudson sailed into the harbor of present-day New York City and journeyed up the river named after him as far as Albany, thereby establishing Dutch claims to the region. In 1621, the Dutch West India Company (which had been founded to trade in West Africa and the Americas) began to colonize New Netherlands, which encompassed parts of present-day New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

From the outset, New Netherlands was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Only about half the population was Dutch; the remainder included French, Germans, and Scandinavians, as well as a small number of Jews from Brazil. The Dutch considered New Netherlands a minor part of their colonial empire, valuable primarily as a source of furs. But many merchants were attracted by the colony's promise of freedom of worship, local self-government, and free land that would remain tax exempt for ten years. But even before an English fleet captured New Amsterdam in 1664, many of the colony's residents had been alienated by corruption, trade monopolies, and arbitrary taxation and on-going conflict with neighbor Indian nations.

Between 1652 and 1674, the Dutch fought three naval wars with England. The English had hoped to wrest control of shipping and trading from the Dutch but failed. As a result of these conflicts, the Dutch won what is now Surinam from England, while the English received New Netherlands from the Dutch. In 1664, the English sent a fleet to seize New Netherlands, which surrendered without a fight. The English renamed the colony New York, after James, the Duke of York, who had received a charter to the territory from his brother King Charles II. The Dutch briefly recaptured New Netherlands in 1673, but the colony was returned to the English the next year.

Under Dutch rule, New Netherlands had suffered from ethnic tension, political instability, and protracted Indian warfare, which retarded immigration. Similar problems persisted under English administration. One source of tension was the Duke of York's refusal to permit a representative assembly, which was not established until 1683.

Another source of tension was the "patroon" system, which the Dutch West India Company set up in 1629 to promote settlement. Patroons were given huge estates, which they rented to tenant farmers. Patroons had the power to control such aspects of settlers' lives as their right to move, establish businesses, and marry. The Duke of York allowed Dutch landowners to retain these estates, and gave equally large tracts of land to his supporters. By 1703, five families held approximately 1.75 million acres of New York. By 1750, these families had become among colonial America's wealthiest landed elite. Although these landowners lost their feudal privileges as a result of the Revolution, they still owned about 1.8 million acres of land in the early nineteenth century. Between 1839 and 1846, tenant farmers on these properties staged "Anti-Rent Wars," demanding title to lands that they felt rightfully belonged to them. In 1846, New York granted the tenants their farms.

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