Between 1626 and 1664, the main town of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was New Amsterdam, now called Manhattan. Peter Minuit, Director of the Dutch West India Company, met with Indigenous peoples and purchased Manhattan for trinkets equivalent to several thousand dollars today. The land was quickly settled.
The colony of New Netherland extended from Albany, New York, in the north to Delaware in the south and encompassed parts of what are now the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware. The Dutch claim to this territory derived from their sponsorship of Henry Hudson’s voyages of exploration. In 1609, Hudson and his crew sailed the ship de Halve Maen (the Half Moon) from the Delaware Bay up to the river now named for Hudson. Upon his return to the Netherlands, Hudson described what he had found: a magnificent harbor, wide navigable rivers, and a land rich in natural resources.
Colonists arrived in New Netherland from all over Europe. Many fled religious persecution, war, or natural disaster. Others were lured by the promise of fertile farmland, vast forests, and a lucrative trade in fur. Initially, beaver pelts purchased from local Indians were the colony’s primary source of wealth. In Europe, these pelts were used to produce fashionable men’s hats. Over time, the Dutch colony’s economy broadened and diversified. It became an entrepôt for Chesapeake tobacco and a hub of trade between New England and the Caribbean.
New Netherland developed into a culturally diverse and politically robust settlement. This diversity was fostered by Dutch respect for freedom of conscience. Furthermore, under Dutch rule, women enjoyed legal, civil, and economic rights denied their British counterparts in New England and Virginia. Towns within New Netherland were granted the protections and privileges of self-government. New Amsterdam, thus, became the first European-style chartered city in the thirteen original colonies that would comprise the United States.
Even though New Amsterdam was the “capital” of New Netherland, it never grew as large or as commercially active as Boston or Philadelphia. The Dutch economy was good and therefore very few people chose to immigrate. Thus, the number of inhabitants grew quite slowly. In 1628, the Dutch government tried to spurn settlement by giving patroons (wealthy settlers) large areas of land if they brought immigrants to the area within three years. While the Dutch did not immigrate in large numbers to New Amsterdam, those who did immigrate were typically members of displaced groups like French Protestants, Jews, and Germans which resulted in quite a heterogeneous population.
At its peak, only about 9,000 people lived in New Netherland, leaving it vulnerable to attack from the English, who fought three wars against the Dutch, their main commercial rivals, between 1652 and 1674. In March 1664, when English King Charles II awarded the colony’s land (which technically he had no claim to) to his brother, the Duke of York. A few months later, four warships with several hundred soldiers onboard arrived in New Amsterdam’s harbor and demanded that the Dutch surrender. Because many of the inhabitants had no real loyalty to the Netherlands, when the English promised to allow them to keep their commercial rights, they surrendered without a fight. The English renamed the town New York.