The Englishman Henry Hudson set sail for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, hoping to find a Northwest Passage to the Orient. Instead, Hudson reached what is today New York, sailing up the river which today bears his name. By 1621, a group of Dutch merchants had formed a national joint-stock company, the Dutch West India Company, whose early economic ventures in New Netherland brought little economic success. Throughout New Netherland’s existence, the threat of English expansion always loomed as the English tried to establish trading posts along the Hudson and Connecticut River Valleys and protested that the entire North American seaboard belonged to them.
In order to make their claim to the Hudson River Valley and its trading opportunities more secure, the Dutch West India Company sent a group of thirty Walloon families, French-speaking exiles from the Southern Netherlands, to settle in New Netherland in 1624. Between 1624 and 1625, a total of 300 colonists from throughout Northern and Western Europe settled in New Netherland, 270 in New Amsterdam, and 30 at Fort Orange (near Albany). The Dutch had trouble attracting immigrants from the Netherlands, since there was no extensive religious persecution or high unemployment there. Many Dutch people also believed that the political rights offered in the colonies were not as favorable as those in the Netherlands.
Around 1626, a labor shortage led to the Dutch West India Company’s decision to buy African slaves in order to guard its livestock, perform farm labor, help load and unload ships, and work on military projects. The company granted slaves half freedom after many years. This status enabled slaves to marry, own property, and travel freely throughout the colony. They also could testify in court cases against free whites. In exchange for this status, slaves had to pay the company a yearly sum. By 1664, about 700 of the colony’s nearly 9,000 people were of African descent.
As a result of the limited economic success of the company’s fur-trading ventures, the Dutch government encouraged the establishment of subcolonies patroonships along the Hudson in 1629. Patroons were also granted special fur-trading rights. The patroonships were largely unsuccessful, with the exception of Kiliaen van Rensselaer’s Rensselaerswyck.
After 1639, the West India Company officials extended trading privileges to all settlers. A year later, the company offered 200 acres to each colonist who brought five people with him. As a result of these administrative changes, New Netherland’s population went from 1,000 to almost 2,000 between 1638 and 1643. Yet the New Netherland settlement was never as attractive to the Dutch as other Dutch settlements in Asia, Brazil, and the West Indies. Beginning in 1639, relations with native peoples in the area grew tenser. Unfortunately for the Algonquin, the Dutch saw them as obstacles to settlement. The Algonquin also looked upon the Dutch unfavorably because of Dutch zeal to occupy Algonquin lands and the Dutch practice of letting their livestock roam free, often leading to the trampling of the Algonquins’ unfenced cornfields. The Dutch were more careful not to antagonize the Iroquois, since they were essential to the fur trade. Rather than negotiate with the Algonquin, Governor-General Kieft decided to go to war with them. By 1645, their superior weapons and alliances with other native peoples helped the Dutch to defeat the Algonquin.
The English Navigation Act of 1651 forbade foreign ships to engage in English trade at sea, an action that the Dutch saw as a direct reference to them. The following year, the first of three English-Dutch wars began. New Netherland did not participate in this first war, which was fought abroad. In 1663, English competition with the Dutch in Africa and their perception that Dutch trading activities in New Netherland violated the 1660 English Navigation Act led to another war between the two countries.
In March 1664, King Charles II gave his brother James, the Duke of York, a land grant in North America that included Long Island and the lands along the Hudson River, on the western side of the Connecticut River, and on the eastern side of Delaware Bay. The residents of New Netherland surrendered to the English, because they did not have the weapons or the food supplies to sustain another war effort. James never visited the colony, and the lack of English defense contributed to the Dutch recapturing it in 1673. After the English mounted an attack in 1674, however, English rule in the colony was permanently established.