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While He Flatters He Bites

The New World was filled with many threats, dangers, and unseen evil—all of which sailed over in the form of one man: Cornelis Van Tienhoven, the bad sheriff of New Amsterdam.

Though the Spanish conquistadors in South America and the bewitched Puritans of Salem receive greater attention (and censure) than the Dutch West India Company’s trade settlements in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley, the Dutch too can claim their fair share of colonial nightmares. But unlike those more notorious events, and reflecting the tiny size of its fatherland, the dark side of Dutch experiment in America can be exemplified in the career of a single, historically neglected monster named Cornelis Van Tienhoven. Even Russell Shorto’s excellent overview of 17th-century Manhattan, The Island at the Center of the World, doesn’t pay enough attention to Van Tienhoven, who was a force in New Amsterdam for close to 20 years.

It’s through period correspondences as well as official West India Company depositions and inquiries—where Van Tienhoven’s name comes up repeatedly for all the wrong reasons—that one gets a true sense of the man’s wicked influence. Representing nearly every criminal shortcoming of the Dutch’s aborted New Netherland settlements, the fiendish Van Tienhoven deserves a more thorough indictment, if only to ensure his blackened soul is never paroled from the lower depths.

Cornelis Van Tienhoven first came to the New Amsterdam settlement at lower Manhattan in 1633. He arrived along with the West India Company-appointed director of New Netherland, Wouter Van Twiller. Considering the impoverished morals of both the director and Van Tienhoven, it wouldn’t be surprising if their ship arrived dead in the harbor like Dracula’s vessel The Demeter. Wouter Van Twiller, the most incompetent director in the oft-incompetent history of New Netherland directorships, was an obscure company clerk who received his position via the patronage of his powerful uncle Kilian Van Rensselaer, founder of the Rensselaerswyck settlement at what would become Albany, N.Y. Blood didn’t tell, though, and Van Twiller’s brief reign was conspicuous for alcoholism, cowardice, and disgrace. At one point, Uncle Kilian scolded his nephew after receiving a report that the inebriated director had chased the settlement’s lone dominie, or reverend, through the grimy streets with “a naked sword” in hand. The pastor, also a chronic tippler, responded by calling Van Twiller, “a child of the devil; an incarnate villain,” but the accusations fell on deaf ears. In another drunken farce, the director decided it’d be amusing to fire the fort’s cannon into the night. A house below the ramparts caught fire, but Van Twiller was in such a stupor that he merely watched the flames spread. If others hadn’t raised the hue and cry, the whole settlement could have burned to the ground.

A bellicose loudmouth named Willem Kieft replaced Van Twiller as director in 1638, and that was when Van Tienhoven’s dubious talents began to emerge. Kieft named Van Tienhoven schout-fiscaal, which meant he would be both sheriff and in essence the ranking official behind the director. Suddenly a power in the colony, Van Tienhoven became a rancorous combination of Deadwood’s Al Swearingen; Hitler’s right-hand man, Martin Bormann; and Gen. George Custer. Described by contemporaries as grossly overweight with a “red and bloated visage,” Van Tienhoven was a slovenly drunk who ran around town half-naked, grabbing at whatever woman was available or unable to fend him off. Later in his wide-ranging duties as schout, Van Tienhoven would catalog every bawd in New Amsterdam, and one can be sure that his research was well informed.

It was also widely suspected that he was cooking the books, and, excepting the two directors he served under (the corrupt and autocratic Kieft, then the honest and autocratic Pieter Stuyvesant), Van Tienhoven was loathed by nearly everyone else in the New World. Besides mentioning that Van Tienhoven’s wife was “reputed to be a whore,” a popular broadsheet of the period depicted him as a serpent: “Those whom he stings he laughs at, and while he flatters he bites.” The broadsheet was correct regarding the schout’s venomous methods, but even the pamphleteers would have been shocked by one of the earliest and worst incidents of Van Tienhoven’s disastrous career.

When one of the heads tumbled to the ground, Van Tienhoven’s mother-in-law gave it a gleeful kick. It can only be assumed Van Tienhoven was flush with familial pride. In the summer of 1642, while New Amsterdam was still under the dim leadership of Kieft, an intoxicated Indian of the Hackensack tribe shot and killed a settler on Staten Island. Hackensack chiefs attempted to assuage the furious Kieft, though they also commented that the incident was created in no small measure by Dutch colonists continuing to illegally sell liquor to the Indians. Even though most of the settlers favored any action that would avoid all-out war with the people they called Wilden, Kieft refused to even meet with the chiefs, and the matter festered. By the following February Kieft made his feelings clear when he stated that he “had a mind to wipe the mouths of the savages.” As usual, Van Tienhoven was happy to do the dirty work.

In a scheme prefiguring Stalinist chicanery, the schout fabricated a petition from the colonists asking that war be made against the Indians, then got several notables piss-drunk so that they’d sign the worthless article. With the trumped-up justification ready for whomever asked afterward—namely the company bosses back in the Netherlands—Van Tienhoven led a party of 80 armed men across the river near present-day Hoboken and commenced the worst massacre in the history of the New Netherlands. Flashes of musket fire were seen all night, and the next morning a witness described the atrocity:

Infants were snatched from their mother’s breasts, and cut to pieces in sight of their parents, and the pieces thrown into the fire and into the water; other sucklings were bound to boards, and cut and struck or bored through, and miserably massacred, so that a heart of stone would have been softened. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to rescue them, the soldiers would not let them come ashore again, but caused both old and young to be drowned…Some came to our people on the farms with their hands cut off; others had their legs hacked off and some were holding their entrails in their arms.

With the death toll accounting for about 120 victims, Van Tienhoven’s slaughter had grim repercussions. The colonists’ fears were justified when the tribes in the area went on the warpath en masse, razing and destroying everything beyond the protective fort. If Van Tienhoven and Kieft were dismayed by the peril into which they’d put the colony, though, they showed no sign of it. In fact, after a successful (and again brutal) Dutch raid against the Canarsie tribes on Long Island, the severed heads of several victims were carried on sticks back to the fort. When one of the heads tumbled to the ground, Van Tienhoven’s mother-in-law gave it a gleeful kick. Though many were aghast at the woman’s action, Kieft laughed heartily and it can only be assumed Van Tienhoven was flush with familial pride.


* * *

Despite his indulgences, Van Tienhoven was a cunning debater and skilled linguist able to treat with the natives in their own tongues, and he kept himself in fine fettle throughout Kieft’s directorship and Stuyvesant’s ascension in 1647. In fact, in a frontier colony rapidly inundated with English settlers—at best the Dutch considered them rude squatters, at worst a fifth column with strong British sympathies—and always at the mercy of unreliable Wilden alliances, it was exactly such black arts as deception and bloodletting that made Van Tienhoven so useful to the directors. At one point the governor of the English colony at New Haven even accused Van Tienhoven of attempting by a “slanderous report” to incite war between the English and the Long Island tribes.

Most of the Dutch would have seconded the governor’s outrage, as they considered Van Tienhoven an odious troublemaker whose machinations led to little except strife and ruination. By 1653, the good burghers of Manhattan could no longer stomach the detestable schout and begged the West India Company to remove Van Tienhoven despite Stuyvesant’s protestations. Van Tienhoven was ordered back to the Netherlands to account for the clamor.

Undeterred by being called to the carpet, Van Tienhoven took the opportunity abroad to seduce a young girl named Liesbeth Croon. His talent for flattery must have been formidable, for a prominent cyst had developed to complement his already sordid appearance. A public figure under the company’s eye, Van Tienhoven went to great lengths to bed his secret mistress, even bribing the wife of an undertaker to procure a suitably obscure room “at the sign of the Universal Friend” for them to frolic in.

Nevertheless, the affair came known and grew into a full-fledged sex scandal, though apparently Miss Croon continued to remain in the dark about Van Tienhoven’s colonial family. His shamelessness knew no limits, and absconding from the Hague in the midst of the uproar, Van Tienhoven smuggled the unsuspecting Liesbeth on board a ship (fittingly named The Waterhound) and returned to New Amsterdam.

One can only imagine the girl’s shock when she discovered her lover already had three children, a wife reputed in print to be a whore, and a mother-in-law who kicked around corpses. Croon filed a charge against Van Tienhoven for debauching her but the charge was ignored. Like the West India Company, which soon had Van Tienhoven back on the payroll, Director Stuyvesant had far too much use for the underhanded henchman to let the complaints of a hussy interfere with the business of government.

Van Tienhoven continued on his merry way, acting either as schout or secretary as he assisted Stuyvesant with whatever dirty work had to be done. Not in keeping with his earthy flock, Stuyvesant was a fanatical advocate of Dutch Reformed strictures and he kept Van Tienhoven busy drafting proclamations forbidding Quakers, Lutherans, and Jews to enter the hallowed precincts of Manhattan. It’s to the West India Company’s credit (or at least indicative of a certain amount of prudence) that it thwarted Stuyvesant’s shrill intolerance, especially regarding Jewry, some of whom were powerful figures back in the company’s board rooms.

While the West India Company berated Van Tienhoven’s “impure private life and his questionable public conduct,” he remained, with Stuyvesant’s backing, an authority in the colony. Van Tienhoven’s impurities finally got the better of him, though. Appropriately it was the Wilden that caused his downfall, along with a healthy crop of peaches.

Stuyvesant tried to protect his henchman, saying in his company report only that a few “hot-headed individuals” were responsible for the disaster, but the company was hearing differently from just about everyone else. What came to be known as the “Peach War” began in September 1655, when a combined war party of Esopus, Hackensack, and Mahican Indians formed a flotilla of canoes to attack their traditional enemies, the Canarsie tribes. Stopping overnight at Manhattan, the hungry armada spied an abundant peach orchard and began picking their fill. The owner of the orchard—yet another alcoholic who briefly served as schout before Van Tienhoven maneuvered him out of the position—didn’t appreciate the poaching and shot an Indian woman dead on the spot. News of the murder spread fast, and the Wilden began searching the houses of New Amsterdam for the trigger-happy gunman. Soon enough they discovered the orchard keeper and shot an arrow into the man’s side, though the wound wasn’t mortal.

At that point, any form of rational diplomacy could have defused the situation, but Cornelis Van Tienhoven wasn’t a man to defuse anything. With Stuyvesant away from Manhattan on business, Van Tienhoven took it upon himself to confront the unruly tribes. Crying, “Murder the savages!” he led an attack against the Indians, who fled across the river in their canoes. Their own blood very much up, the tribes then turned their flotilla upon the fertile lands of Staten Island and rampaged there for three days straight. By the time the Wilden had cooled off, 50 colonists had been murdered and 100 women and children taken captive. The carnage also included 28 torched farmsteads, thousands of bushels of grain destroyed, and over 600 cattle killed or driven off. In a colony always deficient in funds, foodstuffs, livestock, and most especially settlers, the damage was close to irredeemable. New Amsterdam was on the verge of obliteration.

Yet again Van Tienhoven had brought calamity to the settlement, but this time not even Stuyvesant could save him. The director tried to protect his henchman, saying in his company report only that a few “hot-headed individuals” were responsible for the disaster, but the company was hearing differently from just about everyone else.

Van Tienhoven wasn’t helping his own cause, either. Unrepentant as ever, he was eager to see the Indians “reduced and brought to submission” just as soon as expensive military reinforcements arrived from the Netherlands. When someone discovered a series of the schout’s correspondences badmouthing the West India Company’s leadership, the company could no longer countenance its wayward servant. “On account of the manyfold complaints,” the West India Company ordered Stuyvesant to dismiss Van Tienhoven with prejudice, declaring, “Whoever considers his last transactions with the savages will find that with clouded brains filled with liquor, he was the prime cause of this dreadful massacre.”

In addition to being sacked, Van Tienhoven was ordered to face a court of inquiry, but the schout scented which way the wind was blowing and chose not to offer a defense. Instead, in November of 1656 (and with his wife expecting their fourth child), Van Tienhoven disappeared, his bloated visage never recognized in the New or Old World again. Though Van Tienhoven wasn’t the type to commit suicide, his trail ended where it began, with his hat and cane floating in the chilled waters of the river. Van Tienhoven had a younger brother (also a devious character) who fled the colony around this time. The brother later resurfaced in Barbados, and while it’s possible Cornelis also escaped to the Caribbean, neither proof nor rumor ever reported his unmistakable presence in those sugary climes. With plenty of enemies among the Dutch and Wilden, it’s also easy to imagine the vile schout murdered where he stood along the banks of the river, just beyond the lights of the little fort at the edge of the charted world.

Whatever befell him, Cornelis Van Tienhoven’s fate remains a mystery to this day. Not so mysterious is the fact this little-known blackguard embodied the lowest aspects of the Dutch colonial experience. Estimating how New Amsterdam would have fared without the mistrust engendered by his pernicious schemes or the bloody ruin his violence inspired is difficult to predict; all that can be said accurately is that the colony would only have benefited if the man had never been born at all.

Though his scale may have been limited and his current reputation insignificant, one gets the impression that, given the opportunity, Cornelis Van Tienhoven could have held his own with British steamer captains forcing opium at gunpoint on the Cantonese, the Soviet KGB in their basement torture chambers, Halliburton war contractors, or any other convocation of imperial brutes bent on profiting from the fear and disgust they themselves import in preponderance.


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