Deadwood on the Hudson

Photograph by Patricia Kalil

Treacherie and the Chiefe Men of the Countrey

To celebrate the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s cruise to Albany, a new series about the Dutch colonies’ origins in America—no publicity cover-ups allowed.

This summer will be the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s landmark voyage up his namesake river, and New York State’s celebration plans are already in full swing for the quadricentennial. Along with these festivities, which include everything from visiting royalty to dance theater re-enactments, comes an equal dose of hyperbole regarding the Dutch settlements on Manhattan, the Delaware River, and at Albany, where the Fort Orange fur trading post and surrounding Rensselaerswicjk colony were located. Reading the publicity attached to the quadricentennial leaves readers deluged with cheery keynotes like tolerance, diversity, religious freedom, and melting pot. It’d be unfair to categorize the publicity blitz as a whitewashing of the colonial Dutch record, but still, the realities of these settlements were often much more violent than portrayed. Fort Orange and Manhattan’s New Amsterdam, which was capital of New Netherland, were hardly gems of the Dutch mercantile empire. Rather, they were frontier settlements whose chief governors were a series of drunkards, swindlers, war-mongering incompetents, and myopic tyrants. With shabby leadership such as this, including the few Calvinistic dominies, or reverends, it wasn’t a surprise that relations between the settlements and the Wilden, as the Dutch often called the Native Americans, regularly degenerated into sadistic conflict.

Perish the thought of berserk sailors portrayed via the sinuous movements of a modern dance troupe.Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609 aboard the Halve Maen (Half Moon) was certainly portentous, but often in the darker sense. Unlike Giovanni da Verrazano, who discovered the mouth of the river in 1524 and enjoyed a happy welcome from natives “dressed in birds’ feathers of various color,” Hudson’s voyage was bloodily contentious. As part of the Hudson 400 celebrations, a dance theater has put together a teaching packet and residency workshop which will re-enact parts of Hudson’s voyage, but one can only wonder how much of the Halve Maen’s trip is included in the re-enactment and what has been edited out (perhaps thankfully so.) For one, the crew loathed Hudson and threatened mutiny when Hudson’s navigation got them lost amidst the ice floes of the Barents Sea. Sailing southwards, they later lost their main mast in a storm and had to anchor for repairs just off the coast of Maine, where some of the seamen went crazy and killed twelve natives, pillaging what they could afterwards. Whatever the theater chooses to include in its performance, one can only perish the thought of berserk sailors portrayed via the sinuous movements of a modern dance troupe.

By the time the Halve Maen reached the river, the crew was spoiling for trophies, hoping they’d duplicate the gold-filled conquests of Cortés and Pizzaro. An English sailor from Limehouse named Robert Juet kept a journal, and his descriptions of the voyage provides a curdling overview of the journey upriver. Greeted like Verrazano by natives “in Mantles of Feathers, and some in Skinnes of divers sorts of good Furres,” the crew began killing and abducting Indians. Repeatedly stating that the crew “durst not trust” the natives, Juet and company also initiated the insidious practice of getting Indians drunk in the Hudson Valley. With the Halve Maen anchored south of Albany, Hudson decided to hold a meet-and-greet with the natives, and Juet described the rumbustious scene:

And our Master and his Mate determined to trie some of the chiefe men of the Countrey, whether they had any treacherie in them. So they took them downe into the Cabin, and gave them so much Wine and Aqua vitae [brandy], that they were all merrie… and that was strange to them; for they could not tell how to take it.

Albany has long been known as a hard-drinking area of Irishmen and politicians, but it was Hudson sailing under a Dutch flag who popped the first cork. Stopped at Albany by the unnavigable depths of the river, the Halve Maen turned around and sailed downriver, culminating their murderous passage in the Highlands where muskets, cannons, and a “Cooke [with] a swaord” killed at least eight other Indians. Despite the carnage, the voyage was a landmark one, with the Dutch more than a little intrigued by the possibilities of furs and timbers, and Hudson was commissioned for another exploration. This next voyage to the New World was the last for Hudson. Lost in the lower reaches of Hudson Bay, the crew, including Juet, mutinied in 1611 and abandoned Hudson, his son, and seven others to die in the wilderness “without food, drink, fire, clothing or other necessities.” The mutiny didn’t save Juet’s skin, however, and the Limehouse sailor died on the return voyage from wounds sustained in a battle with Eskimos (or so the surviving shipmates claimed, and it’s not out of bounds to suspect the mutineers of Juet’s death.)

Undeterred by Hudson’s ugly fate, the Dutch continued to send expeditions to the New World. Captain Adriaen Block explored the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, while “the worthy Hendrick Christiaensz of Cleves” sailed the Delaware River (known to the Dutch as the “South River”) in his vessel the Fortuyn. Together they provided the Dutch with key charts of the coastline, quality peltries, plus a trading post called Fort Nassau that was established in 1614 on a boggy isle immediately south of Albany. Fort Nassau was a ramshackle affair, with only two cannons and 11 lesser guns, but it was the first Dutch foothold in America and especially interesting for its location upriver; accessing the fur-laden forests must have been viewed as more essential than safeguarding the harbors of Manhattan Island.


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Despite the accomplishments, Dutch efforts in the New World were somewhat half-hearted. The leaders of the Netherlands—an expansionist-minded alliance of Amsterdam oligarchs, the truculent House of Orange, and ultra-orthodox Calvinist church leaders who combined in 1618 to outmaneuver liberal opponents for control of the Dutch Republic—had bigger plans for America. These militarist plans combined Dutch hopes of striking hard at their traditional Spanish enemies, conglomerating the varied merchant marine companies, and generally becoming a major player in nearly every aspect of the Atlantic commerce and colonization. Thus the formation of the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) was delayed until 1621, when the Twelve Years’ Truce between the Netherlands and Spain expired and Dutch seamen were allowed to roam and raid without fear of political fallout. Unfortunately for Capt. Christiaensz, like Hudson he would not live to see his explorations sealed by the WIC’s charter. The worthy Hendrick was murdered on the Hudson River in 1619 by a man called Orson, an Indian he’d brought to Holland and back again who obviously felt abused by the experience.

The lawyer van der Donck summed up the primary reason behind the “ruinous condition” of the colony: “To describe it in one word, it is bad government.Despite the constant demise of Dutch captains in the New World, the WIC didn’t intend to back down. Modeled along nearly duplicate lines as the already profitable East India Company, the WIC established isolated trade forts on the Hudson, with the “wretched little” Fort Orange replacing Fort Nassau in 1624 and Ft. Amsterdam raised in 1625, a year before Peter Minuit’s famed purchase of Manhattan Island. Plans were also in progress on the Connecticut and Delaware Rivers, but despite these widespread and sparsely populated outposts, the WIC actually began as a privateering consortium intended to destroy or weaken Spanish and/or Catholic interests in North America, South America, and West Africa.

The enmity between the fledgling Dutch Republic and Spain cannot be overstated. Ruled by the Spanish and their Habsburg monarchs late into the 1580s, the Calvinist Dutch had been at war with Catholic Spain for decades and the embittered Eighty Years’ War sparked atrocities on both sides. Revolutionary Dutch seamen, who called themselves “Sea-Beggars” in raggedy aplomb, tortured captured priests with hideous glee, while the Duke of Alva and his notorious Conseil des Troubles killed and imprisoned thousands of Netherlanders during a brutal repression in the 1560s. With the expiration of the Twelve Years’ Truce, the Dutch were determined to wound Habsburg interests anywhere they could, and Spain’s South American ports, plantations, and treasure fleets were obvious targets. Portuguese interests in West Africa and Brazil were also choice prizes, and at its onset the WIC—described variously as a “structural monstrosity” that was managed by “a number of the most selfish, greedy and profit-seeking businessmen in Holland”—could barely concern itself with Manhattan or the fur trade.

Furs weren’t the WIC goal, it was plunder from Dutch pirates of the Caribbean. An excellent example of the WIC’s belligerent priorities can be seen by jumping to a 1633 petition to the States General (the governing body of the Netherlands), wherein the WIC directors plead furiously that no new truces be made with Spain.

The WIC’s petition was literally a cry to arms, with the States General categorizing the document as a claim that the “aforesaid Company could not exist, except by war.” Aside from lists of the ships built the economic windfalls associated with those ventures, the WIC gives an account of martial profits from wares such as spices, indigo, salt, timber, tobacco, and one mention of “Elephants’ teeth.” The petition also details enemy ports and islands “Laid waste…captured, plundered and destroyed,” the tons of gold seized and delivered to Dutch coffers, Spanish vessels and their freights “burnt and destroyed,” plus additional costs to the King of Spain, who’d been forced to raise a “great expense of fleets” to protect valuable sugar cargoes which used to be shipped to Spain “without any trouble, and whilst [the King] lay asleep.”

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the petition, however, is the lack of importance given to the New Netherland settlements at Manhattan, Fort Orange, and along the Delaware River. These North American settlements aren’t mentioned until the latter portions and only in context in that “New Netherland, which is the first country occupied by our people” is hemmed in by the English at Plymouth and Jamestown and the French in Quebec. The WIC directors go on to explain that while peltries are indeed profitable, “fifty thousand guilders, at most, can be brought home” from all of New Netherland, a drop in the bucket compared to tonnages of gold and goods previously listed.

New Netherland would continue to be perceived as little more than an unprofitable appendix of the WIC, and the company’s piratical focus elsewhere would create a downward spiral along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers where the isolated colonies were abandoned to maladministration, carelessness, and corruption. After the brief interlude of common sense under Peter Minuit, one lackluster Director of New Netherland after another was installed by the company until the colonies begged for political changes in the form of Adriaen van der Donck’s 1649 tract-slash-open letter to the WIC, titled The Representation of New Netherland. In the section headed, “Of the Reasons and Causes why and how New Netherland is So Decayed,” the lawyer van der Donck plus 10 other respected signatories summed up the primary reason behind the “ruinous condition” of the colony: “To describe it in one word, (and none better presents itself,) it is bad government.”


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