Deadwood on the Hudson

A Mohawk Village in Central New York, about 1780

An Arm and a Leg to Be Divided

Four hundred years ago, Henry Hudson took a pleasure cruise up to Albany—and so began a bloody, murderous chapter of American history.

The initial Dutch colonies barely survived their birthing. As difficult as it is to imagine now, the early 17th-century Dutch settlements along the Hudson Valley were the Wild West of North American exploration. A round-trip journey from Holland to America required five to six months on the ocean—months of seasickness, miserable living arrangements below decks, and rotten victuals. After the Dutch arrived, the dense, trackless forests made land travel extremely difficult for the colonists, who often needed Indian runners to transport messages between Ft. Orange and New Amsterdam, a trip that took anywhere from a five days to two weeks (depending on how motivated the runner was.) During winter, when the frozen Hudson prohibited the use of sloops or yachts, the two settlements could barely communicate with each other, never mind provide mutual support in case of war or famine.

Not surprisingly, the Dutch West India Company (WIC) had difficulty finding people willing to go. Who in their right mind or financial state would want to leave booming, cultivated cities like Amsterdam for the brutish hardships of America? Goods from across the globe flowed through the ports of Holland, and at home, the Dutch with their “sumptuous and solemn” feasts enjoyed, as the Venetian ambassador put it, “everything that is elsewhere available.” In fact, the first Dutch settlers weren’t Dutch at all, but French-speaking Walloons (exiles from what’s now Belgium) who’d already fled to the Dutch university city of Leiden to escape Spanish rule. Although the Dutch were more lenient than other great powers during a time of religious conflagration across Europe, their policies in the New World weren’t so much tolerant of other cultures or religions as desperate to get warm bodies to man their forts, ships, and settlements. Considering everything, the survival of New Netherland was a marvel of stiff-necked persistence.

Explaining the complex political structure—if “structure” is even the appropriate word—of the Dutch Republic would take hundreds of pages. The Dutch were irascible subjects for any would-be master, including other Dutchmen, with an anti-authoritarian streak born out of the struggles of the medieval cloth guilds to free themselves from aristocratic meddling and nurtured further during their 80-year war for independence from Spain.

Dutch settlers raised their voices almost immediately against the first whiff of tyranny at Manhattan. The provisional director of New Netherland, Willem Verhulst, was detested by the community for his arbitrary justice, heavy-handed rulings, and suspicious accounting. Perhaps hoping to use the river as a moat around the colony, Verhulst also made the poor decision to camp on Noten (Nut) Island in the Hudson River, now Governor’s Island, instead of Manhattan itself, which was filled with forests, game, and grazing areas. Trapped on a small isle at Verhulst’s mercy, the settlers formed a committee in 1626 and demanded the director’s ouster, who they also said had defrauded the Wilden (as the Dutch frequently called the Indians) despite strict WIC orders that “no one do the Wilden any harm or violence, deceive, mock, or contemn them in any way, but that in addition to good treatment they be shown honesty, faithfulness, and sincerity in all contracts.”

Torture is torture, whether condoned by Torquemada, woodland sachems, or officials at Abu Ghraib.Up the river, 1626 was a year of turmoil at Ft. Orange as well. Barely mentioned in the publicity surrounding the celebration of Henry Hudson's cruise to Albany, the fort was abandoned for a period after a nightmarish encounter between the Dutch and the surrounding natives. The fort’s overeager captain, Daniel van Crieckenbeeck, had disobeyed direct orders to remain neutral regarding any native conflicts and went to war alongside the Mahicans against their ancestral enemies, the Mohawks. Crieckenbeeck may have hoped that squashing at least one of the surrounding tribes would provide stability to his little outpost; if so, he chose the wrong time, wrong place, and most especially the wrong tribe. The Dutch-Mahican war party was ambushed in the woodlands along the Mohawk River, and reports soon made their way back to the fort that the captain and four other Dutchmen had been slaughtered, with one soldier “devoured” by the victorious Mohawks “after well-having roasted him.” Afterwards, Nicolaes van Wassenaer chronicled in his 1622 Historical Account of all the most Remarkable Events, the Mohawks “carried an arm and a leg home to be divided among their families, as a sign that they had conquered their enemies.”

Reports of cannibalism by the Mohawks were not unheard of. In Reverend Johannes Megapolensis’s 1644 “Short Account of the Mohawk Indians,” the dominie described a Mohawk victory celebration, an account that very likely will not be featured as part of any Hudson 400 celebrations:

They are very cruel towards their enemies in time of war; for they first bite off the nails of the fingers of their captives, and cut off some joints, and even whole fingers; after that, the captives are forced to sing and dance before them stark naked; and finally, they roast their prisoners dead before a slow fire for some days, and then eat them up. The common people eat the arms, buttocks and trunk, but the chiefs eat the head and the heart.

Another example dates to 1651, when French trader Pierre Esprit Radisson was captured by Mohawks during a hunting expedition outside the Trois Rivieres fort in Canada. Eventually escaping to Fort Orange, Radisson recounted the torments afterwards:

A woman came there with her boy, inticed him to cutt off one of my fingers with a flint stoan. The boy was not 4 yeares old. This [boy] takes my finger and begins to worke, but in vaine, because he had not the strength to breake my fingers. So my poore finger escaped, having no other hurt don to it but the flesh cutt round it. His mother made him suck the very blood that runn from my finger. I had no other torment all that day.

Some excuse cannibalistic incidents among the Mohawks as being religious, but such rationales can also be used to excuse the dungeons and immolations of the Holy Inquisition. Torture is torture, whether condoned by Torquemada, woodland sachems, or officials at Abu Ghraib.


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Back at Manhattan, the settlers banished the intemperate Verhulst and made the excellent spot decision to vote Peter Minuit as director of the settlement. Minuit, a gem cutter who’d come to the New World to make his fortune, was one of the few truly inspired leaders of New Netherland. With Noten Island riled and the settlers of Ft. Orange reduced to fearful immobility, Minuit made a number of decisions that eventually formed New Netherland’s structure and boundaries. Aside from his purchase of Manhattan—the news of which was received by the WIC along with a cargo of pelts including “34 Rat skins”—Minuit also resettled the Dutch on Manhattan Island itself, began construction of the fort at the Battery, and purchased Staten Island, named Staten in honor of the States General.

A whirlwind of activity, Minuit also traveled to Ft Orange and ordered the shaken settlers down to Manhattan, leaving a skeleton force there to keep a Dutch light burning in the crucial fur region. He sailed up and down the eastern seaboard, checking on the Dutch settlements on the Delaware River, and he also had the good fortune to be director of New Netherland during the WIC’s greatest success: the successful privateering of an entire Spanish silver fleet off the coast of Cuba in 1628 by Dutch Admiral Piet Heyn.

Led by imbeciles and violent crooks, the Dutch colonists knew they deserved better from the WIC, and their outraged voices, pamphlets, and broadsides eventually caused shock and scandal.Financially moribund before Heyn’s score, which amounted to almost 12 million guilders, the WIC referred to the prize as, “so great a treasure, that never did any fleet bring such a prize to this, or any other country.” The Dutch public was just as exuberant, and a best-selling pamphlet mocked, “…the great monarchy of Spain; in which is discovered that she cannot do so much as she supposes herself able to do.” Reinvigorated by Heyn’s capture, which remains an underrated aspect of the Dutch settlements’ success in America, the WIC began to expand its operations. Fort Orange was redressed—although not to the degree it should have been, as Heyn’s silver lined the pockets of WIC directors and middlemen where “the booty has vanished like smoke”—and terms were offered wherein wealthy individuals could purchase lands along the Hudson with the agreement they would then have settlers sent to these estates. These patroonships would prove to be a hit-or-miss concept in the long run, with only the Rensselaerswicjk patroonship founded by a WIC director and wealthy gem merchant named Kiliaen van Rensselaer ever sustaining itself.

At the time, with its coffers bulging and Minuit at the helm, WIC stability and success seemed assured in New Netherland. Except for one thing: “bad government” raised its head, and in exchange it sought Minuit’s.

Minuit’s downfall was typical of WIC malpractice. For one, Minuit was a supporter of the patroonships and he allowed the patroons and their agents to purchase generous portions of land. The WIC wanted a closed shop, and feared and loathed the idea of large, competing landowners. Unable or unwilling to grasp that sizable settlements could only buttress and support their trade posts, especially against the encroaching English, the WIC continued to retard settlement policies with stiff tariffs and ungenerous terms for would-be colonial tenants, and the patroon van Rensselaer proved to be prescient when he wrote in 1635, “It seems to me the Company is taking a strange course in New Netherland affairs and that ere long they will be obliged to lease the fur trade to others who will manage it better; or else, the whole will go wrong. They want to economize by having few people and they can not keep the land in that way.”

Already leaning against Minuit, the WIC then took counsel from a series of letters lambasting the director as a devilish presence in the colony. The letters were written by Dominie Jonas Michaelius, the first Dutch reverend sent to New Netherland and in historian Russell Shorto’s memorable phrase, a man “who might well have won a contest for the moodiest, bitchiest resident of New Amsterdam.”

Michaelius, whose pregnant wife died on the voyage over, disliked nearly everything about his new surroundings: the natives, the Dutch settlers, the climate, the food, and the hard work. Focusing his bitterness on Minuit’s support of the patroonships, the reverend wrote one blazing letter after another to the WIC, accusing Minuit of working against its interests. The reverend didn’t mince words, saying Minuit was, “…most unworthy of his office; a slippery man who under a treacherous mask of honesty is compound of all iniquity and wickedness.” This was just the first time the director and dominie of New Amsterdam would come to serious loggerheads, with the rivalries escalating in both intensity and absurdity until they cost Minuit and Michaelius their positions. The WIC recalled them in 1631 to explain themselves, and relations between Minuit and Michaelius didn’t improve while trapped below decks of the inaptly named Eendracht (Unity or Union). An adolescent aboard the Eendracht described the recall of Minuit and Michaelius in a letter: “The officers [of New Netherland] not able to get along together, they all came back and other arrangements will be made in order that the colony may be better managed…as otherwise through their disorder it will not be entirely ruined.”

Disorder continued to reign, however, and Minuit and Michaelius were both imprisoned in England after their ship was seized by Charles I, who despised the Dutch. Minuit may have agreed with Charles, and he finally became so disgusted at the Dutch authorities that when he eventually came back to the New World in 1638, he was sailing under the Swedish flag in order to establish competing forts at strategic locations on the Delaware River.

With Minuit gone, New Netherland was on the brink of its most serious time of troubles. The colonies may have stood on firmer ground, but with that stance came renewed conflicts with the Indians, who began to push back against Dutch insults and encroachments. These conflicts, which threatened to rub out the colonies, were mostly due to the inflexibly belligerent notes struck by the leaders who followed Minuit. Led by imbeciles and violent crooks, the Dutch colonists knew they deserved better from the WIC, and their outraged voices, pamphlets, and broadsides eventually caused shock and scandal. In New Netherland, the question was who would come to more despair under the jaundiced policies of the WIC: the Dutch families hunkered along the edges of the mapped world or their Indian neighbors. Either way, war and slaughter were fast approaching.


Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon